We sat underneath a tent made of millet stalks, ready to begin our meeting at Kijigari: a potential site for our next borehole well. Unlike the dark, dank mosque of Tangawarshane, the tent offered a path for the morning breeze on all four sides. Ariane, Denis and I kneeled in front of about a dozen men, men that could have been the same one a saw a week before, in Tangawarshane. They dressed traditionally in robes, different colored robes, with matching white turbans. They were of all ages, of 18 maybe, to 75. A retired teacher, with whom I discussed Barack Obama and America’s role in the world, led the meeting, translating from French to Tamashek and back to French. However, I saw no cloistering, no skirts, no veils blowing in the Nigerien breeze.
That soon changed. This meeting will not start without the women, Ariane directed. I looked down at my sandals, slowly falling apart, their bottoms almost reaching sand. I didn’t believe Ariane’s call, for women, would be heard. I had no faith that this was going to be any different from Tangawarshane, where the men took control of the borehole and the women remained stuck underneath their tents. But I was wrong. Soon after looking up, women, eight of them, came marching toward the covering, most with hidden faces, blue and black veils. One woman wore bright peach. Here they are, I thought, the future of Kijigari.
As they marched forward, I recounted that, of course, it would be different here. Kijigari is about 60 kilometers closer to Abalak, the central city in the Azawak, than Tangawarshane. It is not as isolated, not as dusty or barren. Close to 1,800 people live in Kijigari, as opposed to 20 cloistered families. The women in this village already have a role. They operate a vegetable garden, they act as seamstresses, they work in the small shop now operating in Kijigari. I wonder and need to ask how they have all this, because this is development in the Azawak. Although there are virtually no latrines and barely any water, they have other things. They have a school with real walls, where 120 students, 70 of them girls go to learn.
But they need a borehole. As we toured the village, I visited spot after spot where people dig in what used to be a marsh to find water. They dig 10, 20, 30 feet down to get to this water. They attach themselves to ropes and come back with only a small sack filled with dirty water. Each excursion down to the depths of the Earth brings up a little more than a bowl of water, which they then, in most cases, toss into a small trough for their animals. Hundreds of animals wait for this dirty water, brought to them by sweaty boys, men, women. I wondered when they, themselves, would stop for a drink. As we walked, we also saw circles in the sand, filled with cracked and dry earth, branches. These sites were now off-limits, we were told. These were places where people had tried to dig for water, and failed. Underneath these forbidden zones, men who were at one time trying to dig for water, trying to make another well, are buried. Before they were able to reach water, the sand fell in and suffocated them; each year, at least two or three people die this way – for water.
We then visited a well, one of the many unsuccessful wells here, where women pull up water for drinking, for life, filling their large, yellow canisters. One well in Kijigari is more advanced: it has a cement infrastructure with a pulley system, better referred to as a deep well. As I flung the top half of my body over the edge of this well, however, I saw that, although deep, it was almost bone dry. As the driest, hottest season of all approaches, in April, May, June, where temperatures might reach 120 at midday, I saw that their water supply would dwindle, disappear. Once the throat of the well becomes vapid, more men would have to start digging, digging to hell, in the hot, cavernous Earth. Only a borehole that hits live, running rivers could possible help these people, bring them the water that the people in Tangawarshane now have.
Water is our greatest problem here in Kijigari, those at the meeting, those in the village, those everywhere, told us. But this problem, of water, “is a women’s problem,” said Zainab, a colorful Tuareg woman in a green dress who openly participated in the meeting. Women work for the water, she said. Although we saw many men that day digging for the water, she said, on a daily basis, it is the women, the small girls who spend the most time fetching water. They rely on it, to cook, to clean, to take care of the small children.
On our way back from Kijigari I had never felt so alive, in the face of such adversity. I had witnessed life, real life. These are not people with conveniences, like the people of America. We get in our cars, with heat, or air conditioning, or a nice spring breeze, and drive to work. We flip on computers to communicate, to see who may have communicated with us. We have running water, washing machines, dryers, stoves, even microwaves. This makes our lives quick, fast, convenient, the antithesis of Africa, in particular the Azawak of Niger. Everything here is dire, dependent on how much water you can find to drink each day. Everything here is dependent on family, friends, friends who share their marsh holes until the real hot season begins - when 105, 106, as it was on my visit to Kijigari, is a distant memory, a once cool day.