I wish I could paint for you the picture the Newsweek reporter did: of an oasis in hell, of people bowing down and worshipping their idol, their borehole. But I can’t, because it wouldn’t be the truth. It would be dramatized, boiled down with emotions I didn’t really feel when I finally saw it.
Denis and I woke up early the morning we traveled to Tangarwashane, the site of Amman Imman’s borehole well. We hopped inside an old four wheel driver, accompanied a representative from the minister of hydraulics and two technicians who would test and analyze the construction, the up-keep and the strength of the infrastructure.
I was dressed in cargo pants and something that covered my shoulders. I couldn’t worry too much about dressing traditionally. I still felt delirious from our move from the village to Abalak, where we would spend two days with Abdoulli, our friend Attaher’s uncle. (Attaher is the young man from Niger who Heather and I have helped to get an education in the States). We had to get up too early that day, be on top of the water and the food we needed to keep with us to sustain us through our first day in the bush.
To get to Tangarwashane, we turned right off of the main road, the soul paved road in Abalak, and back through what would be considered the slum of all slums in the United States: a residential district. Bump, bump, tossle, toss. We hit the road, two well dug out crevices amidst the sand. We turned sharply around any rock or tree or when the road ceased to be. In the packed car, we rocked from side to side. I rediscovered the sweat of my neighbor, as I did on the ride from Niamey to Tahoua a week before.
Prior to reaching Tangawarshane, we stopped at a small village where a man was trying to dig a well; trying being the key word. Two men had dug 15 meters in over a month, by hand, by shovel. To reach water, these men have about 85 kilometers more to go. The sand, however, is more likely to topple over and cover them, bury them, suffocate them, before they reach the water, if they do. This is life in the Azawak Valley. This is what our project is about - preventing these accidents, this suffering, limiting the time spent every day by the people of the Azawak just to find water.
We hit the road again, for another hour or so and eventually saw, in the distance, a tower over the desolation of this sand. This must be it, I thought: Tangawarshane. This is the place I have worked tirelessly to build - the run for water, the administrative work, the burden I felt in my heart ever since Ariane told me about this place called the Azawak Valley. I was ready for children to come running out and hug me, as a part of this organization called Amman Imman, Water is Life, a saying more true than life itself in the Azawak – a saying that followed me through Niamey,through Tahoua, Akoubounou, Abalak and now into the Azawak itself. People say it everywhere. Their lips transform into a smile when they hear me say it. They repeat after me, they chant, Amman Imman.
Eventually arriving so close to the tower, I could picture myself running underneath it, hanging from its bars, showered in its cool water, but the place wasn’t a celebration. It felt abandoned. Besides about 20 or so settlements, villagers who have made their life here, nomads who have settled because the pasture land of the Azawak has completely dried up, there wasn’t much life. There was water, hardly life.
Before visiting the tower, the faucets, the troughs, we stepped inside the mosque. Because I couldn’t yet identify the school made of millet stalks, this was the only structure apparent to me. I joined, again, many men, inside this mud-walled mosque. They fed us millet and milk, they stared at me, their lips held parallel to the floor. Some chose to shake my hand, others didn’t. Although I couldn’t understand the Tamashek they spoke, I could understand that we were not being looked at as saviors, as water missionaries, but, rather, as intruders.
Once French began to flow through the walls of the mosque, I discerned that they were worried about their friend Mustapha, who had originally introduced Ariane to the Azawak. Why wasn’t Mustapha with us? (Because he was dishonest is the truth). Where was their friend, their fellow Tuareg? Mustapha was family, the whole village was family, and this was their borehole now. They also asked after Ariane, who was home resting with the baby that day. Denis and I were dispensable, intruders, I felt. These were my thoughts as I watched the men break for prayer, the dozen or so, standing, bowing, kneeling, eventually with their noses to the ground, and their fingers grazing the dirt floor. The pray, synchronously, always, like a practiced dance routine, in traditional robes, the contractors in their suits and gold watches.
Denis gave it back. Where are the women, he asked. An original condition of us building the borehole well was that women be included on the committee to manage the borehole, which would provide water to people at a small cost. The profit would then be used to fix the infrastructure, should something go wrong, or to develop Tangarwashane further - this desolate, isolated place. There are no women, they answered. They are cloistered behind their veils, I thought, their mats, religion hiding them away from the world, from this meeting at Tangawarshane. These were my thoughts, as I watched the men.
And where is the money, Denis asked.
Just as there were no women included on the management committee, which now consisted of one man solely, the others having gotten sick or dropped out, there was also no cash. Shit, I thought.
After visiting the borehole, we figured out that water was, indeed, extracted from the structure, but there was no system for making it into a business. Some people paid, some people didn’t. When family members went hungry, the bank went dry, I concluded. Because these aren’t people living in “a castle on a hill.” These aren’t the Nigerian princes, we often read about siphoning the profits of oil riches. These are people living at the end of the earth, where the sun boils your feet and turns them into portable stoves and the wind blows dust through your soul. Between the sun and dust, you are blind. But this is also a place where you must see. You must watch your feet. The only existing trees carry thorns that carve holes in the bottoms of your sandals. These pins slip between your tongs as you walk, never ceasing to cause you great pain. This is life, hardship in the Azawak Valley. This wind, this climate has now brought the people of the rural bush a bout of whooping cough. The wind has carried the disease from child to child inflicting one of the many diseases that has, no doubt, come through this place, this hell.
But the water tastes wonderful. It is crystal clear. It is Evian. There is no after taste. I filled by Camelback to the top with it and drank the water like I was standing at the precipice of the end of the Earth. I looked down and over the precipice and I felt the water trickle down my throat. The dust settled over my eyelids, but I had this water, this life in my bottle. It would all be ok.
In the two hours that I hung out by the faucets, three different groups got water. One woman all in black, a green mat shaping her into a walking cone, came and went. Another group was of Tuareg children on their donkeys. I watched one little girl sling the large yellow water canisters over her mount and disappear with water into the dust. She might have been going back to school this afternoon, I hoped. There was a school, somewhere, I was told, with 20 students, lost in this dust. Another group was a Fulani family, who thought my presence, my camera, was quite funny. They asked me for change, change that might go to their next cup of water. Little boys, who I recognized from Ariane’s pictures, treated the borehole like it was their own. They shooed off the thirsty animals when the humans came by. Many nomads here do not like their cows to drink every day, for a reason I can’t remember now. The treatment of animals is too cruel, too much for me to reflect on here.
These kids were treating the borehole like it was theirs, because it is. Amman Imman built it, but now it is for the common good of Tangawarshane and the nomads that still move through the Azawak. But we can’ t feel good about the mismanagement. We want the borehole to be sustainable, to last and last, to make a future for this village, because with its demise, there will be no life, be no future at the end of the Earth, here in the Azawak. We need solutions.