I’m not his mother. On some days, I feel very close to Fassely. On other days, I don’t. Today, I feel like Fassely is a part of me. As new visitors come to the house, he likes them, smiles at them, but then he reaches for me. I am his support, after a month. He tells me he is tired by resting his head in my lap. He tells me he is hungry by becoming sour. He doesn’t need to tell me he is thirsty. We are always thirsty, Fassely and I. Aman, throughout the day, Water, always.
Fassely has been a little under the weather the past couple of days, a slight bout of diarrhea. It could have been something he ate, we are not sure, in the sand, something he carried on his hands after playing with some Tuareg children who know no concept of hygiene, of hand washing. It could just mean that he is changing, growing up, Jala told us. Jala is the Tuareg man who owns the house we are renting in Abalak, the place we have been occupying for the past week, 10 days, maybe two weeks. I must admit I am losing track of time, losing myself in Niger.
At first it stunned me, all the little children with their dirty hands, their sick bellies, there snotty noses, their ashen faces. Now it is all I see, these little kids of the sand. They are so dirt poor that when I give them cheerios they devour them as if they are life-giving, like water. These cheerios are food for little Fassely, one of the snacks I take with us when we go on our walks to point out the goats, the cows, the camels, to be followed by a herd of these small children. But I no longer feel guilty giving Fassely these snacks in public, in front of children that don’t often eat. I just do. Because this is my job here, part of it, to keep Fassely healthy, happy, nourished; and it sometimes seems like the hardest job I will ever have. Everywhere there is dirt, excrement, sand children. When Yusef almost fed Fassely part of his lunch today, I jumped. When Zainabou wanted to offer Fassely her water tonight, I lurched, grabbing the Aman from her hands. Because the water looked clean, from the Chateau of Abalak, but I knew it couldn’t ever be clean enough for Fassely, for this delicate little child, my responsibility. Sometimes I want to scream, scrub myself, Fassely until we have new skin, without Niger on it.
After our walk through the trash, through Abalak’s market, I put Fassely down for a nap. He slept so soundly, falling fast asleep to my own rendition of Blowin’ In The Wind. He slept for an hour, and I jumped again – up and into his sleeping space to watch his tummy go up and down, a maternal worry that there was some chance his tummy wasn’t going up and down anymore. I touched his stomach, laid my head down next to him, felt his little breaths. Breathe.
We spent the afternoon in his pool. I no longer feel too guilty filling his blow-up pool up an inch with water, as I did before, because without the pool, we are trapped inside all afternoon, due to the heat. The pool, in the shade, provides a place for us to hang out, for the Nigerien kids to congregate and play with Fassely. After the dip, we danced. I popped on some Black Eyed Peas, some other pop music, and Yusef shot music videos of me and four little girls shaking it. It was pretty awesome. Although I would have rather have been in the field today, visiting women with Ariane at Tangawarshane, I had my own little field experience here. Jamila taught me, finally, how to properly wear her scarf; I don’t think I could replicate it. I learned how to say, coming and going, in Tamashek, and I showed the kids how we dance in America. It was a little peace, away from the dirt, poverty, restlessness of the streets of Abalak.
But eventually we needed a break, Fassely and I. Around 5:30 pm, when the sun starts to fall from the sky, we decided to take our second walk. We walked, speed-walked, through the neighborhood behind ours, resisting all the demands for gifts, the child who had the audacity to kiss my feet yesterday. We passed it all, on a mission: to be alone. Mission accomplished. Once surpassing these neighborhoods, we arrived in the bush, the start of which begins about one mile from our residence. We had Niger to ourselves, here in the bush, at sunset. We walked about another mile, until all we could see was a Tuareg shepherd herding his goats to downtown Abalak. We reached the precipice of a small hill, turned around, and headed back, me and Fassely. And we sang some more, Dixie Chicks, Patty Griffin, a little American Pie. There is nothing like singing Cowboy Take Me Away at the top of your lungs in the middle of Africa, nothing like it. The moment brought me back to road trips, to college, to friends I haven’t spoken to in forever, at a time and space so far away from before, from ever.