I’d only been living in the village a month when campaign trucks started rolling through. And this was back in the days when you could hear a vehicle from a mile away and nearly everyone would rush to the path through the center of the village to experience the once per week sighting. The political party advocates would stop at the chief’s hut to explain why the village should vote for their candidate. They would hand the chief a gift — kola nuts, pagnes or t-shirts with the candidate’s image printed upon them, maybe even a little cash — and as they continued on the campaign trail a small colored flag would be raised in the village announcing who we’d be voting for. And it would last until the next campaign truck arrived, bearing gifts and a different colored flag.
One group of campaigners tried to get me to do their bidding. They expressed to me, in French, how it was very important that I help the villagers understand that theirs was the only socialist party that was truly democratic. I laughed in response, since at that point my Hausa skills consisted of little more than greetings and discussions of the weather. There would be no political exegesis in my near future.
A late night dance party with the ladies.
In the grand scheme of things, Hausa learning happened quickly — I could hold a basic conversation within 6 months — but the days of learning seemed long. The evenings were the most productive. Some of my favorite memories are from after dinner, when the men would go to the village common areas to gamble and smoke, and we ladies would sit and gossip and dance. We may not have been able to communicate well, but we could laugh together as we danced together. The dancing involved lots of butt jostling, and foot stomping. And singing in a horrible falsetto. The only song I remember the words to is the one where we’d dance around in a circle, doing a sort of gyrating wedding march, waving our hand and singing “ByeByeLo (insert name here) ByeByeLo Sai Wata Rana.” I don’t know how the English “bye-bye” made it into one of their songs, but it did. “Sai Wata Rana” means “see you someday.” As the women taught me Hausa, they also asked for a few words in English. So, when they walked me back to my hut at the end of the night, I taught them “see you later.” Soon, the song evolved into “ByeByeLo Balkissa, ByeByeLo See You Later!” One time we even created our very own inside joke. Rabi butchered the English one night and told me “Balkissa, soumela.” “What?!?” we all asked. We laughed hysterically at her mispronunciation, and it stuck. Every night after that it was a series of good-night wishes: “Sai wata rana. See you tomorrow. Soumela!”
On election day, a truck arrived early. I was still cleaning up from breakfast when the coalition arrived at my door with a group of men from the village. Given my poor Hausa, the communication with me was minimal as they untied the ropes holding the woven grass mats that served as my bathroom walls. The mats were rolled up, hoisted atop their heads, and carried down the path to the mid-way point between the North and South villages where they were subsequently unrolled, propped upright, and assumed their new roles as voting booths.
my bathroom, the walls of which helped elect the President
The illiterate men and women congregated from both villages and waited their turn to step into the bathroom-booths with a stack of paper cards in various colors, each printed with the headshot of one of the candidates. The card for the canditate a villager voted for was placed in one box, the others were discarded in a separate box.
The moral of the story is — Tandja was elected president in part because of votes cast in my bathroom.
He served as president for his first 5-year term, and I didn’t hear a lot about him either way. In his second term, Niger was hit hard by a locust invasion and a famine, but he downplayed the plight of the hungry children, insisting it was an exaggeration despite his country’s ranking as poorest of the poor on the Human Development Index. Then, nearing the end of his second term, he decided the country needed him more than anything (or he needed the kickbacks from the upcoming uranium and bridge projects more than anything) and he dissolved the Parliament so that he could erase the presidential term limits from the Constitution.
Fast forward a few months and – voila! – a coup d’etat that was a surprise to no one. And, yet, the international community condemns it as a slap in the face to democracy and punishes Niger by witholding aid. My question is — why didn’t the international forces intercede when Tandja abandoned democracy to hold on to power? Why do they punish Niger for freeing themselves of a greedy dictator?
A military junta is now in control, and has a refreshing tone of honesty. They’re talking about the new famine on the horizon. But will the world step up to help even if they are not democratic?
At the end of the day, saying ByeByeLo to Tandja was the best thing for everyone. But will the hungry kids survive?