Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mr. American

Last night was my first invitation to dinner solo, without the company of Ariane and her family. It came from the owner of the Tuareg jewelry boutique near to our house. He quickly learned I was American and I just as quickly bought several of his silver earrings for my friends in the States. I expressed my enthusiasm for his jewelry and his shop, which could have been a transplant from any New England boutique at home. He must have sensed my enthusiasm. Before long, I had agreed to bring a package of his goods to the States so it could be sold in Washington,D.C. Humdillila. In return, he agreed to cook for me, and another of his American friends.

When Ariane first learned about this invitation, she expressed caution. Beware of what you eat and drink, she said.

Fear pierced my heart. Might she mean rufees, here in Africa, in Niger?

No, she said, beware of the magic. If a man wants you to fall in love with him, she said, he might put magic powders in your meal. I must have smirked. No it’s true, she said, alluding to stories where she and her family members had been put under Nigerien magic spells before; one causing some temporary pain to her romantic relationship. I was still skeptical, although, deep down, increasingly aware.
Let me at least meet him first, she said.

And she did.

Haphazardly, still, I went off for a meal as a part of his American convoy.
This is where I met Steve.

Steve works for the U.S. Treasury Department here in Niamey. This is his fifth trip to Niger, although he has been all over Africa, with our government. Steve is quintessentially American. As we sat for dinner on the Tuareg mats outside of Elhadji’s place, Steve could recount every meal at every restaurant he had eaten in Niamey, meanwhile renouncing the indulgence of American appetites. Apparently the cheeseburgers at the place by the Petit Marche are to die for. A Lebanese restaurant in Chateau 1 sells hummus. Ziggys, or Iggys or something like that has the best kabobs and the coldest beer and an Olympic size swimming pool. Who knew Niger was such a foodie’s delight!

Screw the poverty, Steve is eating his way through Africa, I thought, although he has yet to try millet and milk, the choice meal of the Azawak and hadn’t yet eaten the traditional Tuareg bread Elhadji’s wife so generously served us. He still didn’t know the term piecemealla.

There could still be a lot of firsts for Steve, in Niger; for instance, Steve’s shoes. If Steve and I do, indeed, end up sharing the coldest beer in Niger, I will tell Steve he needs to try walking, in open-toed shoes, through the streets of Niamey. He needs a Nigerien footprint. And in his Nikes, his black socks he could never retain one. I am sure he has no calluses to match my own, to match Elhadji’s. I am sure black soot doesn’t line the crease marks on the soles of his feet. Elhadji offered to replace Steve’s stone washed blue jeans with some Tuareg ones, the kind that are loose at the waist and tie with a cinched string. There’s a start. Steve might also want to try, for a real cultural experience, visiting the Azawak, or just Abalak, for a start, although not on this trip. He might lose his job if he does. Despite the fact that Jeff, at the embassy, said it was safe for me to go on my journey, American government officials are restricted from traveling on the same route. The rebels in the North can never be too far off, according to Steve’s account of the restriction.

An old German fellow with a young Tuareg wife who also joined us for dinner said the same. You can never be too careful, he said, one balding one white man to another.

I know this. Don’t let your guard down in Africa, to Islam. This I have been told, hit over the head with on my own soil. But, to tell you truth, I feel safer here, felt safer in Abalak, than I ever do in Washington, D.C. Perhaps I am just na├»ve.
Right around the holidays, not long before I left for Niger, there was at least one mugging, sometimes armed and sometimes not, in my D.C. neighborhood. There was one shooting a week, usually within one mile of Mt. Pleasant. I don’t know the crime statistics here, but I can’t imagine there are too many guns. Knives, yes, machetes, ok, but guns, I don’t think so. Who could afford to buy them? Who would want to? I’m not sure. Sunset, here, is for prayer, not for malice.

There are, of course, the areas you probably want to avoid late at night – the areas where the nightclubs are, for instance. Perhaps those are the areas Steve was reminiscing about when he offered me a ride home. I mentioned that if it wasn’t so far, I would have liked to walk, after such a large meal, all the way home.
But it’s night, Steve said. And darkness does give us all the creeps, I suppose, especially darkness in an underdeveloped world.

I hopped into his brand new SUV, where his driver had waited for him while he devoured the meat, the bread and the fruit two hours before. Actually, I am not sure if the SUV was a 2009 model, or not, but it seemed new to me: leather seats, air conditioning. I could have set up shop in that vehicle. On the way home I mentioned to Steve that I might like to write an article about Elhadji, his business, his family who historically famous for being some of the most talented silversmiths in the world.

Well, in your article, said Steve, don’t say “Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.”

I thought about this request for a moment. Steve is right, I thought, Niger isn’t just destitution. It is a place with many rich cultures, beautiful people. Is this what Steve might be talking about? I’m not sure. But Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, and not to know that would be to misunderstand Niger. If given more resources, these beautiful people would retain their own beauty but also have the chance to live longer and more fruitful lives. Why shouldn’t the world know that?

But Steve, although he is liberal in his political views just like me - a huge Obama fan - isn’t in the business of aid – so this fact just disappoints him. Steve, I am sure, has a place in his heart for Niger no greater or less than my own. He will remember the sunsets over the Niger River that he says I must see. He reminds me that Niger has one of the last remaining herds of giraffe in all of West Africa. He is impressed by the wireless Internet available at the burger joint.

Steve has his memories and I have mine.


  1. Wow! Laurel, I am riveted by your posts -- and traveling vicariously to Niger by reading your essays. I see a book in the works. I want to send a link to your blog to my friend's son -- Chris Spangler, who spent two years in Niger with the Peace Corps. I know he will be interested in your writing.

    Keep up the great writing -- thanks for sharing your experiences. Your writing is tremendous.


  2. Thank you, and feel free to share the blog with whoever you'd like. It is all about spreading awareness.