I feel differently every day here. My moods ride the highest highs and the lowest lows. Yesterday, my guilt about being here, white, eating, drinking filtered water, was less. This morning it grew again, burst. On my morning walk with Debbie and Fassely, the wind was whipping up Niger’s finest: plastic bags, goat poop, diesel, cow manure, human filth, all flying past us, brushing our nostrils, becoming entangled in our hair. I felt angry at this filth, at how Fassely, though protected by my back, might be getting pelted. I was upset.
Debbie and I, for the first time, were going to have breakfast out. This means taking a sweetened coffee and fried egg omelet by the roadside, a little Starbucks in Africa. I began eating my omelet, slugging down the sweetness, trying only to look straight ahead, ignoring the periphery: a skinny young man, maybe 16 or 17 hanging out, covered in dirt, ash, looking desolately at the ground, the road. The omelet was gross by American standards, something many would have turned away in a New York City diner. But here it was gourmet. I picked around the onions that probably weren’t cooked enough to be free from bacteria and ate about half of the eggs before becoming stressed out and handing it to the young man in waiting. He devoured it voraciously. Debbie did the same with hers. The young man participated, again, tried his best to satiate his empty stomach. As we walked on, people that recognized us greeted us, mainly in Tamashek, others asked us for gifts, always for gifts, cadeau madame. Even with our feet covered in dirt, my skirt dirtied by Fassely’s many meals and my battles with the sand, we are rich. I would ask us for gifts too, if I were poor, hungry. Sigh.
I dip down into a state of despair, of being overwhelmed, of not knowing what the hell do with all of this poverty. I sit outside in the small bench outside of our house, in the scorching sun, and I feel my arms burning, every piece of skin not covered by a light cloth, absolutely simmering in the heat. I see myself on the plane out of here, processing, reflecting on the things I see here. I imagine myself with my parents and Heather, trying to tell the stories, trying to remember. And I have no idea how I’ll remember it, where it will fall in my heart, all these highs and lows. Because following the afternoon, everything changed again.
Debbie and I visited the main primary school in Abalak. This is where we will conduct another Friendship Bracelet Exchange on Thursday. We will do the exchange with 12 classrooms, 12 classrooms of beautiful, relatively clean, hardworking children. And these children are getting an education not because they are simultaneously getting food to eat, as in Akoubounou. Rather, they are there just to be there. The most successful students will be able to participate in the exchange, because participation is a privilege. It means they will receive a gift, get their photos taken, two favorites of kids in Abalak, like kids anywhere in the world.
These kids are hope for a place where men will scramble to the ground over two fallen cheerios. I’m not sure, with an education, what sort of hope they will possess, but they will have something greater than those without it, of that I am sure. I know that most of them, probably all of them, will remain, for their whole lives, in Niger. And if they do, I hope they run the projects that are bringing their people water, food, education – all of life’s necessities. I hope they run these projects well, honestly, fruitfully. But if they do end up in the United States, studying at a university, I hope they get the support they need to go all the way, to earn their degree, to send remittances to their families and to help the world better understand Niger, Africa, this other planet. I hope we won’t misunderstand these children, when they are older, stepping on the soil of our country. I hope, like our friend Attaher who was born in a village five kilometers from where I sit and now lives not three hours from my real home, in Washington, D.C., they will have luck, make friends, because as confusing as it is for me to see people so disadvantaged, it must be just as complicated for Nigeriens to see all the indulgences in America. The few Nigeriens in the United States must feel very alone amongst the traffic, the roads, the express ways, the strip malls, the food and water we waste and waste away. They must.