It’s hard to know where to begin. Niger as a whole has progressed in a lot of ways since I lived here. Most city-dwellers have cell phones now, and towers to receive the signals have cropped up in the middle of bush villages. The towns have grown with new buildings, a tiny bit more infrastructure, and lot more people. But, at any given moment, you can still spot a camel being led down the middle of a busy street in the capital city, and ox carts are as common a mode of transportation as mopeds or buses.
When I visited two years ago, I was amazed to find that a road had been cleared along the footpath from the main road to my village and beyond, and there was even a sign to let you know you’d arrived in Tokoye-Bungou. This time, the road and sign were still there, but the weather and the animal traffic are well on their way to returning the bush to its natural condition — the footpath’s sandy patches and rocky crevices have reappeared, and the rusted sign I can easily imagine as a future decoration inside someone’s hut. The rain, wind, and sun are so powerful here and it’s incredible to see how quickly they can transform things. In a week’s time my once-pristine American clothes and bags are coated with a layer of red dust and ash marks, the heels of my feet are cracked and blackened and I can’t scrub them clean. My tent was sun-bleached, dirt-streaked, and torn by the time I packed it up (and left it with a Peace Corps volunteer!), and despite my best efforts the inside was covered with sand and dirt and layers of cloth that I’d used as cushioning to make up for the air mattress that sprung a leak on my very first night. It’s easy to be shocked at how dirty life is here, but since it’s so hard to fight the elements, I’m not that surprised that the villagers learn to live with it. Well, the strongest of them do, anyway.
A lot of my friends were gone. Dogo and Madou–who I consider as family–were there and among the first to greet me when I arrived. They led me to their new compound on the far outskirts of the village, where it was spacious and quiet, apart from the roosters at 4am. They gave me the village news. Sahabi, the star little boy in most of my PC pictures, had moved with his family to Nigeria. My good friend Haja had moved to Benin with her husband. My friend Abdou had been there for years too, and many others had relocated as well. The reason, repeated again and again, was that there was no millet in Niger. And no work. So, villagers are looking elsewhere — to coastal countries where the economy and the soil are stronger. Some will return when they have enough to live on. Some might not. Many kids I knew had grown and either moved to a nearby village for middle school (which is great!) or been married off shortly after hitting puberty. More on that later.
Back to how dirty it is… My first day was spent sitting in the shade with Dogo and Madou and their 2 kids who are too young for school, AbdouRazak (6) and Aminou (10 mo.) Working with World Vision, I’ve learned more than I knew when I lived here about how complex malnutrition and illness is for little kids. It’s not just that they don’t have enough to eat. Sometimes that’s not the case at all. It’s that they don’t have diversity in their diets, and the little nutrients they do get are often sucked away by worms they contract from the dirt and water, or voided by diarrhea and infections. All day long AbdouRazak rolled around playing in the sand that was littered with chicken droppings and Aminou’s lack of a diaper, his black legs turned light brown and little doubt left as to how he contracted the worms that had made his hair fall out in scaly patches and his belly swell above his skinny legs. When I took him to the clinic, the nurse tried to tell me he just had drank too much millet drink, and that his incessant cough was from all the filth. True, it’s filthy, but I pointed out that his cough was also bloody and she finally relented that maybe he should get some medicine. Aminou is nicknamed “Biri” (monkey) because he crawls around constantly with his legs straightened out rather than on his knees. He’s teething and putting anything within reach in his mouth. Some things were taken from him (when noticed)– a rusty screw, a knife, chicken poop; others were given back to him when he dropped them — a rock, a moldy discarded squash. When I explained how I needed to avoid eating most of the village food because I was scared of getting sick, Madou laughed that they don’t get sick because they have lots of dirt in their bellies. Well, I said, you know that it’s because your kids put dirty things in their mouths and eat with dirty hands that they’re sick all the time. Huh, remarked a visiting villager, is that why they’re always sick? Yes. But, I don’t know if the understanding will lead to change.
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