…reminding herself that she was only an elderly woman
who had got up too early in the morning and journeyed too far,
that the despair creeping over her was merely her despair, her personal weakness,
and that even if she got a sunstroke and went mad the rest of the world would go on.
E.M. Forster; A PASSAGE TO INDIA
I am writing from a dry, hot and sandy place on the earth where children roam the streets of the capital, their painted tin begging bowls tied with string to their wrists. Cadeau! Cadeau! they say when they spot the startled faces of white people framed in the windows of cars. Some speak in whispers like blowing sand. Please give us a gift! The older ones are louder, almost singing.
Gift in French is cadeau. I learned many French words as a Child of the Sacred Heart at a convent school where we lived our days as little French girls, really, lined up in size-places to go to class, to the refectory, to the chapel or the gym. We didn’t have snack, we had goûter. We didn’t have a weekly assembly, we had Prîmes. Our school uniforms included wool bérets and our in-school holidays were congés. We sang French hymns and carols. We read in French primers about Toto et Tristan. We even had a motto that I didn’t understand at the time: Noblesse Oblige.
Arriving in French-speaking Niger, we are spared the long lines at Customs and Immigration and Baggage by the good offices of our Tuareg guide, Moussa. Allez! Allez! Venez avec moi! And we follow him into Africa.
Now the tourist, je me trouve, I find myself alone at the entrance to the National Museum, dropped off by our driver, Labo, who parks under a small shade tree in an adjacent lot. After one night and half a day in the capital, Niamey, I have not learned even the simplest details of the country’s money, though someone did tell me that 15 thousand CFA francs translates to seven dollars. I am trying to purchase a single ticket from the man who sits cross-legged at the gate and who is very annoyed because I have only a 15 thousand CFA bill and the fee is just 2 thousand CFAs and, at this early hour, he cannot possibly make change. He even sends several boys scampering away to find change, but they return empty-handed. So he gives me a ticket anyway and demands that I come back later and pay him with the proper money in the exact amount.
This museum is a collection of whitewashed, blue-trimmed, one-room stucco buildings, connected by red dirt paths. Each houses examples of certain features of Nigerien culture or history or pre-history. For instance, here we are at the costume building. We walk in. The hot light remains outside. In the dim and cooler air there stand robed figures looking almost alive, almost like real Djerma and Hausa and Tuareg and Peul men and women who have come in out of the sun. They wear beautiful robes and turbans and decorated slippers. They wear knives in leather scabbards, colored leather purses of all shapes and sizes, woven hats.
I am not alone anymore. I have a whole band of guides, most of them boys like the little boys outside the walls. But these boys live in the squatters’ camp at the edge of the museum grounds and wait for the tourists to come so they can practice their French by telling us stories about this place, this village that is a sort of replica of their whole country. They show me the building of dinosaur bones. And the building of uranium mine dioramas with maps and charts and life-sized figures dressed in helmets and head-to-toe orange suits like deep sea divers.
And now, as if by some secret signal, the group disperses and I am left with one boy of my own…barefoot, wearing blue shorts and a very white shirt, a bookbag slung across his chest on a long strap…who wants me to see the artisans at work.
In a building, open along its front, sit craftsmen working leather and silver and nickel into sandals, bags of all sizes and colors, boxes, bracelets, colliers to be worn around the neck. There are small fires for brazing; young men squat beside them with bellows and tongs. Men with rings on all their fingers, their heads wrapped in lengths of dark cotton, smile and beckon while my guide beams with pride on my behalf at the beauty of everything spread before us. And encourages me to buy.
Next he takes me to a sort of model village inside a low, mud brick wall encircling traditional huts roofed with woven mats. I lift a door flap and enter. I find a large raised bed piled with intricately designed couvertures. My boy tells me his family lives in a hut just like this. He ducks his head shyly. He tells me his father owns a big horned ox.
Nearby, old, old men sit in shade weaving the strips that will be made into more coverlets. The narrow warp of their work extends for many feet before them, held down at the far end by a rock.
My boy pulls on my sleeve. He wants me to follow him to a sort of zoo compound nearby with small cages in which thin brown animals pace. Knots of people are gathered in front of the lion. They are shouting at him and pushing food through the bars. A solitary monkey shrieks.
And then, just like that, I am overcome, finished with this place. It’s too hot. I am very thirsty. My sandaled feet are dusty and cracked. I owe the man at the entrance the price of my admission. Perhaps now he has change. There are crowds of people at the gate. They push into me. Cadeau! Cadeau! I pay the man. Perhaps it is too much. I don’t care. I am walking faster. Walking away. Hurrying now toward the waiting car. But my boy still follows me, his bookbag thudding against his skinny hip. Madame. Cadeau. He speaks quietly, urgently. Madame, s’il vous plait. His face has passed from gentle and sunny to worried. I fumble in my bag. All I have are more large bills and a few coins that I cannot identify. These I give him all in a handful. I climb into the back seat and close the door. My heart is racing. Noblesse. Oblige. Oblige.
The window is halfway open. My boy’s sweet face is there. There at my window. He shows me the coins in his open hand. He is speaking urgently. But these are just a few pennies, centimes, Madame! You have given me next to nothing!
Where is my husband? Why can’t someone explain this coinage? Oh what shall I do? My boy! And these impossible CFAs! Please drive away! Oblige.
A toll for the whole length of the trip from Niamey to Agadez is exacted at the very beginning, just outside the capital, leaving town. Moussa takes care of this. Proof of payment is issued, a white piece of paper, signed and stamped and affixed with tape to the inside of the windshields of the two Land Cruisers driven by Labo and Mohamed. Then all along the route there are toll stops marked by lengths of rope stretched between two metal drums, sometimes manned by a turbaned man or two, sometimes by languid soldiers who emerge, as the car rolls to a stop, from a small shack just off the road and amble to the checkpoint. Much of the time it is enough that the drivers point to the paper. Sometimes, for reasons I cannot divine, an additional péage is required. Moussa arranges it so we are not compelled to pull off this smear of tar road and unload every item that is stowed, piled and strapped onto our vehicle. We need not fend off the vendors hawking bananas and plastic bags of water, warm pastries and sweets.
We may proceed over the road, slowing for errant donkeys and ambling camels, slowing at each hamlet with its huts and granaries and bright green onion fields, slowing when people–walking walking walking…alone, in twos, in groups, carrying all manner of burdens on their heads and backs–cross in front of us. We carry on past miles of thorn bushes, miles of scrub. We arrive at a town where there are gas pumps and discover there is no gas today. Moussa confers with certain people. Young boys are dispatched on motorbikes. In the time it takes for a round of tea, our unwatered gasoline arrives in cans. We may proceed into the setting sun.
In my mind I name Labo, our handsome, intent driver, Labo le Beau. I haven’t thought up a nickname for Mohamed who smiles a lot and talks a blue streak when out of earshot of his boss. The men speak French and their own Tamashek. We have some French among us, and some of us practice the Tamashek words that Moussa teaches us.
After some hours, we all fall silent. On the road since morning, jostled and shifted all day in our seats like so many bulging backpacks, we are beyond discomfort. Now, in the brightened dark of a waxing moon, we lean out to glimpse the glow of Agadez. Once when the land to our east pulses with light like a city, we are told no, that is a Saudi hunting camp. They fly in with everything they need and stay to shoot bustards and other game birds.
When finally we enter the silent walled city, well after midnight, and before we can collapse into our hotel beds, we must enjoy a three course meal served on the carpeted floor of an empty room…a meal prepared especially for us, honored guests, and served by whispering smiling men–several of Moussa’s many cousins–who have been instructed to wait upon our arrival. There are hard boiled eggs and shredded carrots, couscous studded with small pieces of roasted meat, all arranged on large round platters. We eat with our fingers, scooping the food with pieces of flat bread. And then our smiles and tentative bows, our halting thank yous. There will be no mention of payment.
THE TALIT VALLEY, THE SAHEL
Here for just this morning, we walk the streets of Agadez in a raging sandstorm. Sightseeing. The old city. The camel market. Our heads are wrapped in turbans, tamelmusts, filtering the worst of the blowing sand.
At the hotel, the Land Cruisers wait, loaded with our gear and boxes of bottled water. Houna joins us here, climbs into the front seat. Our cook. We are, I will discover as we travel deeper into this arid wilderness, the same age. We both have families. We are both a long way from our homes.
Somewhere on the road between Agadez and Arlit, Labo turns abruptly to the east, as surely as if there were a painted road sign, into the trackless valley. With Mohamed on his tail like a speedway challenger, he races past clumps of thorn bushes, past knots of camels that heave themselves onto their knobby legs and canter a small distance away. Then a gully that only one vehicle can negotiate at a time. The gears grind and the vehicle lurches. Another open stretch. Then dense scrub. And so it goes until we reach the Tuareg campement. I cannot imagine how.
We set up tents in the dark, eat our first meal en brousse by the light of the fire and the moon. Children begin drifting in, and then the teenage girls, and then the young women. They settle in rings around us. There comes a bit of a song. One of us answers with a tune of our own. Someone joins in. Then a drum and an instrument with one string and a plaintive tone. Now the keening voice of an old man and the joyous ululation of first this woman, then that. The only words I can remember, repeated and repeated, sounded like Lay-Lie-Lay.
TO THE WELL
Rahma comes through the brush to fetch me. She is poised and smiling, as though accustomed to being sent a stranger to shepherd. She motions to me, turns, and walks briskly away toward her campement. I follow.
Now Rahma introduces me to the grandmothers, one by one. Each sits on the edge of shade just inside her woven-sided, woven-roofed hut. Each looks me up and down. Each says something to me and to each I bow slightly and say Good morning and I wish you a fine day and I hope your children and grandchildren are well and thank you for welcoming me to this place. Finally Rahma decides this is enough. She grabs a goatskin bag, hands me two flat pieces of wood tied together on a length of rope, and sets off in a southward direction. I follow.
(These are the words both of us understand:
Attention! this for thorn bushes
Ça va? this for almost any situation that requires OK as an answer )
We walk in silence, our feet scuffing the dry soil. Small birds scatter at our advance. Rahma is comfortably purposeful in her direction though there is no marked path. In the air, bleats of goats and baby goats, the guttural rumbles of camels. Now Rahma begins to hum a scrap of the song that she sang with her friends last night.
And Rahma tries a few words to her tune. She stops. Asks me my name. Tries it. Mad Eee. Tries it twice more. Starts her song in a strong voice as we swing along side by side. Rahma eh Madee, Lay-Lie-Lay... Sings three lines and signals me to repeat. I belt out my song into the dry morning. She sings three new lines. I sing them out. Call and response. Call and response. Suddenly Rahma breaks into a wild noise that comes from her throat and rises to a high vibrating explosion that is song and laughter and challenge. I try to follow her there, but cannot. And it is upon this scene of gasping and giggling that three women come. And this is what they see…a young Tuareg woman wrapped in a skirt of blue and red and yellow cotton with a cropped blouse and shawl to match, and her companion, an older woman, in sandals and a long gray skirt, white shirt and a scarf twisted around her head. Everyone is laughing. Everyone shakes hands, drawing palms across palms in feathery motions while all the time saying words and my words are Good morning and I wish you a fine day and I hope your children and grandchildren are well and thank you for welcoming me to this place and now Rahma is moving on. Ça va?
The bushes become denser and higher. The wind is rising, and the dust. In the distance, trees. In time we approach le puits, the well, around which are scores of goats and sheep, dozens of donkeys. Two women. Two girls. Two little boys. Two donkeys tied to two very long ropes.
Both women drop canvas bags into the well. The boys mount the donkeys and trot them away until the women’s shouts, amplified by the well’s echo, order them to stop. Then the bags get tipped into pans on the ground and Rahma immerses her goatskin, kneading it into softness, and the women gossip and the girls shoo the animals and the animals crowd the pans and the women drop the bags and Rahma sluices brown, sandy water into her goatskin and drains and refills it. And everywhere the flies and the strengthening wind.
Rahma says le vent and then she says adoo. I say flies and Rahma brushes off a shoulderful and says izan! and then spits. I say wind and she says weendah, and we both spit.
Now Rahma motions me to mount one of the donkeys and ride it the length of its rope. We’re all laughing again. Rahma washes her feet, then fills her skin bag with clearer water. She catches a wandering donkey, places my wooden pieces on either side of its spine and, with the rope, slings the water bag under its belly, mounts and commands me to mount behind her. This is accomplished after several attempts. On the way home, instead of singing our walking song, we sing out the various noises that make the donkey proceed. And Rahma, while trying once again to teach me, discovers that ululating makes a donkey trot faster for a moment or two.
The wind increases and we cover our faces with our scarves. And it is thus–mounted together on a little gray and black animal, singing and shouting and laughing–that Madee and Rahma return to the campement with the day’s water from the well.
…koumia has to do with the shame brought on like a
fever by bringing a child into a world one already
knows is gravid with suffering.
Kathleen Hill; STILL WATERS IN NIGER
Rahma unties our heavy, waterlogged goatskin and swings it from under the donkey’s belly. We each heft an end by its rope onto pegs under the mat awning and the donkey ambles off in the direction of the well whence we came. Rahma motions me to follow her across the clearing, then to sit beside her as she settles by a small wood fire in front of one of the conical, woven mat huts in her Tuareg encampment. The flies settle on our backs and drift around our faces. The children drift toward the fire and settle in a ragged half-ring around us. An older woman emerges from the hut, sits down.
A teenage girl, braids coiled around her ears and wearing a green and bright blue pagne around her waist, delivers two cloth bags to Rahma who opens one and pours dried green tea powder into a small silvery pot filled with boiling water. She adds a heaping portion of sugar from the other bag to the teakettle and sets it on a metal trivet in the fire.
Time passes. I take a packet of photos from my pocket and spread them on the ground. One by one I turn them over. The children lean in. First I show pictures of our house in winter. (Oh! How white and cold! Froid! for snow on the trees and and glace! for icicles pendant from the eaves.) Next my two sons. And the grandchildren.
Rahma takes the kettle from the fire, raises it above shoulder height with her left hand and pours a stream of green liquid into the slim glass in her right hand that she lifts to the tea stream. Then she sips. Dumps the tea back into the pot. Swirls sugar into the glass so it coats the sides. Adds more hot water then sluices it back into the pot. Replaces the teakettle on its trivet over the settling, glowing coals. Arranges glasses enough.
The older woman has been studying one of my black and white photos. Abruptly she leans toward me and pulls her blouse off one shoulder, revealing a breast which she cups in her hand as she points to the image of the grown boy with the other. This is yours? she is certainly saying The one you nursed? And by that gesture gives him back to me, my first baby.
I am sitting in the passenger seat of a small white car, my first husband silent beside me. He has been silent for some hundreds of miles. Behind us, on a kind of shelf, the baby bed and the baby who stirs, wakes, begins to fuss. I turn to my right and over my right shoulder scoop the baby onto my left forearm and absentmindedly lift him out of the bed, past the window and onto my lap. At that very moment, and for all the years that have unfurled like highways behind me, I replay an alternative scenario: in one heedless gesture I have scooped up a waking, wriggling baby and swung him toward my breast, passing him before the open window of a car hurtling down a highway somewhere west of Golden, Colorado.
I nod to this woman across a small piece of beaten earth. We lift our glasses of foamy tea.
And the pouring of green liquid from a height into a slim glass brought up to meet the stream, then separated, again and again, like the bowing of a one-stringed instrument.
She has started the machinery; it will work to its end.
E.M. Forster; A PASSAGE TO INDIA
(I have been careful to eat only foods that have been peeled or cooked. I have had only bottled water or boiled tea or wine. I am not, it must be understood, overly scrupulous, but I do not relish the idea of gastric distress in a country with scant sanitation and little medical assistance. So when I discovered that the bottle of water that I’d been quaffing all the long day from Iferouane to this place where we’ve stopped to pick up wood for the cook fire, the bottle Labo and I have been sharing–though he, in the manner of the desert Tuareg, drinks very little–is filled, in fact, with well water. I’ve been so careful! Dammit, I’ve been so fucking careful! I’m talking to myself, but Labo knows why I’m upset, but now I’m behaving like a spoiled brat. As I rummage in the back of the jeep for my backpack and the garlic capsules I’ve brought for just such an emergency, accidentally dislodge a small bag and its contents spill down onto the seat: the millet flour Houna has brought to make tonight’s bread. And immediately he is at my side, scooping the flour into another container all the while whispering to me that I should not derange myself it is nothing please do not think any more of it.)
Perhaps I had not been prepared for the jostling crowds in Niamey’s Grande Marché, nor for the importunate children, sightless old men, donkeys and camels plodding in the dust under impossible constructs of hay or sticks, young men balancing chairsfull of carrots and onions on their heads and young men with their livelihoods strapped to their backs–shoeshine kits and manicure sets and sewing apparatus and tools for repairing anything–and young men with braces of guinea hens slung over their shoulders. I had not been prepared to bargain for a little camel hide box or choose a single silver cross from among dozens of square carpets of crosses. Perhaps not altogether prepared for the dry heat and flies that clung to my back.
But the dunes do not surprise me.
We are driving through black mountains. Klick by klick we leave it all behind. We thread the valley like surfers. And then, at the end of the afternoon, as the setting sun carves shadows into the sand, we arrive at the edge of the Sahara. The dunes tower, magnificent waves cresting, reducing us in our vehicles to insignificance. And suddenly I am as easily here as in our little sailboat, breasting a billowy sea, heading east.
Houna lights his evening fire, prepares the meal. Afterwards, as the orange sky melts into purple, Houna scoops a depression in the sand, rakes the dying coals into the hole, covers them with sand and places his loaves of dough on top. Then another layer of sand. The breads cook for half of an hour. Then Houna uncovers them, turns them, replaces and re-covers them with sand. The second time he pulls back the sand, he lifts the crusted loaves out, washes them with a ladle of water, taps them clean, pulls pieces off and hands them around. We’re talking now. And joking. Now we’re playing a game that involves scooped-out depressions in the sand and pairs of contestants holding hands and trying to outwit each other using a squeeze of the hand or a wink or a lie and a laugh.
Here in the vast silence of light years, we have broken bread, broken barriers. The lingering silence that finally gathers is nothing if not companionable. The fire dies. We wander off to tents or blankets on the ground. We fall asleep in ones and twos and the moon shines down on all of us.
…not wakened to the near-full moon but by it, lying awake in a world-full
of silence so brittle it could be broken by a blown leaf rattling down the frozen hill, I am dreaming back one month to sand dunes at the edge of another moon-whitened silence vaster than any imagining. But I was just a passing stranger there; I belong here where snow dunes fold in on each other and the only shift your body turning in sleep, the only sound, now, beyond dreaming, your breath.