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January 6, 2002
When I discovered where I'd be living as a nutritionist volunteer for the next two years, we had almost completed training with the Peace Corps near Niamey, the capital of Niger. Within three months, the group of almost 30 volunteers had been introduced to the numerous cultures, languages and skills necessary to work in the villages to which we were now assigned. Souloulou (pronounced SOO loo loo), my new home, was on the border of Nigeria, miles from the capital. I squirmed in my seat at the training site, glancing at the other volunteers and the people who'd welcomed us into the country. I was a raging dichotomy: eager to get out and work, and scared, positive that this would be, by far, the world's most fantastic mistake. What exactly had I been thinking when I volunteered to do this? Niger still felt like an uncomfortable new shoe. In fact, I wasn't entirely sure of the fit of Niger for me and me for Niger.
I entered Souloulou a few weeks later accompanied by Lisa, who'd been there for two years. It was 10 at night. The moon was full and cast a blue-gold warmth over the sea of millet stalks around us. We were in the back of a pickup truck along with 20 other men - some in exquisite robes, others in work clothes. The wind brushed our cheeks and cooled our bodies as we rode slowly over a narrow path of deep sand. We'd started out toward the village at noon. The usual two-hour drive had been lengthened by breakdowns, repairs, picking up people along the way, and two stops for evening prayers. Lisa was beside herself with frustration. I, not at all eager to get there, was delighted.
They dropped us off at the edge of town. The millet stalks gave way to rolling paths and stretches of sand, nestled within which were square mud-brick houses and lengths of high mud-brick walls. Except for the sound of a drum beating in the distance, Souloulou welcomed me with an unsettling emptiness.
Ai (pronounced AH-ee), who had slept with friends in the village the night before, arrived soon after we awoke the next day. She was nothing like I expected. Tall, wrapped in colorful patterns and thin sandals, she looked ancient. Her eyes were deep brown orbs against milky white, and her mouth turned down at the corners. When she spoke, I saw she had a few teeth missing. Weather and sun had sculpted her face from youthful to aged, and her body frame seemed slight and wiry. I, in contrast, was slightly plump, younger-looking than my age, 23, blue-eyed, and quite uncomfortable in my West African wraparound cloth. We both attempted mutual acceptance, but as she looked at me I could see she resented my presence as much as I resented hers. In my eyes, she was the unwelcome roommate. And in her eyes, I was the unwelcome replacement for Lisa, whom she loved.
Lisa spent a week with me in Souloulou, introducing me by my chosen name, Samira ("sah-MEE-rah"), to the village chiefs, the Muslim leaders, the health clinic staff with whom I'd be working, and her friends. Any anxiety I had experienced prior to coming to the village quadrupled when I realized just how minimal my grasp of the language Hausa was, and when I witnessed how pained people were to see Lisa go, and how disinterested so many were in my coming. When I was left on my own at last, I was terrified.
And it took time. Time for me to adjust to the newness of everything, time to understand people and express myself, time to develop and nurture friendships and time for Ai and me to welcome each other without reservation.
I heard her voice calling outside my window, so I peered out into our yard. And there she was - this woman old enough to be my grandmother - bent over and giggling at me from between her legs. She pointed a long finger in my direction, smiling playfully.
"I SEE you!" she said in sing-song.
She collapsed into laughter.
I woke to the sweetness of morning, the sun yet soft in its brilliance, and the sound of Ai singing. I lay there, listening. Her voice fell in layers, like shadows in silk - a smooth prettiness that became louder, then softer, depending upon how close her movements. With each sound, I pictured her engrossed in her morning routine: feeding the chickens, pouring water from a clay jar to a bucket to take a shower under the sun, dressing, moving, preparing. As I stepped out of my mosquito net to begin my own morning routine, I savored the sound of her voice. So beautiful. It seemed ageless, this harmonic infusion of elation and sorrow.
I could picture her. The grace with which each finger reached out, or how her legs bent slowly and her back stood firm - poised like a dancer - to pick something up. She moved as though choreographed, with a harmony and respect for the earth she walked upon, the air she moved through. I was often mesmerized by this grace - caught in the cadence of her voice, its lilting intonations, its tender resonance, and the studied gestures of her hands. This is how I learned the language of Hausa. By listening and observing. Sometimes I understood more from the way things were said rather than from the words themselves. And as Ai was all things gentle and kind, I learned of those things first from her as she spoke to me. So it was when she sang in the earliest moments of morning; the world - despite its difficulties - seemed like a lovely place.
I got up to say "hello" before she left for her fields. She would be gone long into the afternoon, long after I'd returned from work at the village health clinic. Her field was perhaps two miles outside of the village - accessible by footpaths of deep sand. I'd accompanied her there a few times. The paths took you out of the everyday sounds of life within the village and into the quiet hush of fields that stretched forever. The contrast was remarkable.
I never thought about how loud a village would be. I was used to the quiet of suburbia, the cacophony of city life, and the crickets in the country. I assumed the village would fall into one of these recognizable categories. But nothing prepared me for the noise that greeted me my first morning. It began with a solitary rooster well before the stars left the sky. One nerve-grating cock-a-doodle-doo that forced my eyes open, causing me to glance in total disbelief at the darkness around us. This rooster was soon joined by other roosters, followed by the melancholy hoarseness of mules and the call to prayer, sung loudly by men in each part of the village. These were, in turn, accompanied by the thump! thump! thump! of women pounding millet grains in large wooden vessels, and the gradual sounds of people beginning their day. Animals and humans formed a discordant symphony from morning to night with a strength I was unaccustomed to, shielded as I'd been by soundproof walls and houses back home. Here, animals and people shared living spaces.
Ai had her bowl of hura (her lunch of millet flour and water) balanced on her head. Without looking, she used her foot to lift her gardening hoe deftly to her fingers. She smiled, and we exchanged Islamic blessings. Though I didn't share her faith, I shared her sincerity and the power behind the words.
Her voice was urgent, so I dropped everything to run outside. She stood, quite solemnly, under the Neem tree in our yard. Her face was pulled downward - her eyes, her mouth, her eyebrows furrowed - as she gazed at me quietly. I waited. Abruptly she pointed toward the ground. And I looked. No one lay bleeding before us, no massacred animal had been brought in by my dog, nothing I could recognize as an absolute emergency crossed my line of vision, so I said,
She lifted her sorrowful eyes to me and said in a voice laden with despair, "Will you look at that lizard?"
By then I did see the lizard. But these lizards skittered everywhere in copious amounts and this one was fine and her voice had been quite panicked.
"See how she has to lay her eggs in the sand? Poor lizard. Praise be to Allah - poor thing. Has to lay her babies in the sand!"
And with that, she blessed the lizard with a brief prayer, shook her head, and left me in complete confusion.
Ai's village is predominantly Muslim. Unlike most women of Niger, those of Souloulou are cloistered within their homes, unable to leave unless they receive permission from their husbands, or they have become of venerable age. When they do leave the house, they are expected to cover their hair and their bodies.
Women would first wrap a length of cloth called a zane around their waists and tie it to the side. Complete with a shirt and another length of cloth upon their heads, they were covered from head to toe in colors that seemed to dance in brightness. Against the pale backdrop of sand and mud-brick homes, people transformed into animated bouquets of brilliance. Not being Muslim, but already too much of an anomaly as an independent woman and foreigner, I chose to compromise. I wore the zane, but only with T-shirts, and no headdress.
This particular afternoon, I had shed my zane in order to don my favorite article of clothing in any country - my jeans - and was preparing my motorbike. I was leaving to spend the weekend in Maradi, a city almost two hours away. I crouched beside Ai as she sat beneath the Neem tree, weaving straw mats in its comfortable shadows. The only paved road leading to the city passed by a town where Ai's son, Ada, resided with his family. Every time I left, I was able to relay messages back and forth between the two.
My knowledge of Hausa allowed me to understand and communicate on a basic level, but often Ai's words to her son were beyond me. So I always brought pen and paper with me as I said "goodbye." Ai cannot read or write, yet as she spoke, she traced the sand with her finger, leaving solitary indentations side-by-side to mark each sentence. Sometimes she would forget I was both writing her words and having difficulty grasping them - let alone spelling them - and would speak as if in conversation with Ada. Which would leave me and my pen in a feverish state of trying to put everything down on paper, listen, and understand all that she was saying. Often, I had to ask her to repeat what she said, at which point she'd start all over. We'd continue this over and over until I had something that Ada might recognize.
Ada owned the property we lived on, and he'd had both of our houses built years ago. From what I understand, the purpose of the construction had been two-fold: it enabled his mother to live on her own, and it provided a home for the Peace Corps volunteer.
By living on her own, Ai became, like me, an anomaly within her own culture. Although older and therefore accorded freedoms others lacked, it is unusual for anyone - man or woman - to live alone. Homes are comprised of at least a single family, sometimes multiple families, all related in some way, behind a labyrinth of walls and houses.
Her immediate family had origins in Nigeria. Most of Souloulou did. The village was only a few generations old, the result of a disastrous flood near the Nigerian border that forced most people north onto the higher ground of Niger. Marriage, however, seems to have brought Ai to Souloulou. She was the younger wife of an El Haji (a man who had completed the trip to Mecca as part of the Islamic faith). She'd given birth to eight children, only two of whom had survived childhood. Both her son and her daughter currently lived in distant towns.
Unlike she and her husband, Ai and her co-wife seemed to have lived together peacefully. Often, during the blissful coolness of night, when everyone's work in the fields or at home was done, people would relax around the glow of kerosene lamps or dying fires. This was the time for visiting, and many times Ai would lead me through the winding roads and houses to her former home. She rarely spoke of or inquired about her former husband. She'd mentioned once that she'd divorced him because she "couldn't stand the yelling." But although Ai dismissed him, I could see in his eyes and his watchful stare the steady gleam of interest - a spark not yet died.
Coming from a society that values individuality, coupled with my own agnosticism, living in Souloulou opened my eyes to a way of living I had never known. It was a true community: a world that was not closed by doors, televisions or personal space. People spent every day with each other; people talked together for hours. Any event - births, weddings, good or bad fortune, death - was celebrated or supported en masse. Faith cast itself into every aspect of life, and its importance both humbled and amazed me. In an area where death appeared much more regularly and, at times, with alarming velocity, life held a sacredness that is difficult to describe to anyone fortunate to live in countries with more resources. Life was - and is - a gift from a benevolent God, and all things, good or bad, were from this God, who knew why such things were necessary. To live in Souloulou was to be blessed daily in prolific amounts, and yet, the respect and sincerity that passed between people along with each blessing forced me never to take them for granted.
The village had two mosques for the two Muslim sects that existed there. These were used on a weekly basis and for religious holidays such as the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Many homes contained their own place of prayer, to be used by the family or to be shared within smaller communities of Souloulou. Being Muslim means praying five times a day every day, but it was not necessary to go to the mosque for these prayers. Often on my way to and from the health clinic, my friends would be bowed in prayer.
Although my village was made up mostly of Hausa people speaking the Hausa language, all prayers were conducted in Arabic. On mats, standing or kneeling before the leader of such prayers, the men would respond to the prayers with melodic convocations. Their wives, sisters, mothers and many of their children would be praying silently behind the walls of their homes at roughly the same time. On holidays, I would find the families together, the men in front of the women, separated by several feet. These were the times I was invited to join them, encouraged by my friends, Amina and Hinda, to follow their lead. A task they administered, I must admit, with some amusement at my complete lack of timing or grace. Try as I might to anticipate when we were about to stand or kneel, I was always off. Their children never hesitated either to help instruct me or giggle at my ineptitude.
On her own and self-sufficient, Ai was not, necessarily, lonely or alone. Children and visitors populated our yard with remarkable frequency. Myself a product of a large family, this company was alternately comforting or annoying, but it always brought Ai happiness. The community of Souloulou, unencumbered by any social need for privacy or space as we know it, lived each day together. Ai had lived her entire life in the presence of people until the past several years - a freedom, I believe, she nonetheless enjoyed. The only thing she could not do was sleep alone.
I glanced at the figure under the mosquito net. Our cots lay close, huddled outside beneath a vast universe of stars. The heat indoors prevented anyone from sleeping anywhere else.
Her voice was alert, yet soft. "Yes?"
Sometimes our nighttime conversations lasted long past the time we'd set up our mosquito nets, arranged our beds and lay against them. At others, like tonight, we simply spoke to lull ourselves into sleep, falling into the comfort of knowing the other was there.
"Are you going back to your fields tomorrow?"
"How is your millet and your sorghum? Your crops are growing well?"
"Thanks be to Allah."
Never would a night pass without Ai initiating a series of blessings before either of us fell asleep.
"May Allah keep us in good health. May Allah let us live together in peace. May Allah bless you, Samira."
"And you, Ai. May Allah help your crops grow. May Allah let us live together in peace. May Allah bless you, Ai."
In these times of heightened fear and suspicion, when anyone deemed to be of Arabic descent, any Muslim, or anyone else is faced with hatred after the tragic events of terrorism, Ai's words ring loudly:
"Allah shi ba mu zumna lahiya!" May Allah let us live together in peace!
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