Ga Duniya

see the world

Tattoo Typos and Odd Couples

Two weeks from today I’ll be on a plane for Africa. Which means I’m spending a lot of time contemplating if I should invest in more equipment for my camera. Which means I’m looking back at all my favorite pictures from previous trips to Africa. Which means I remember two pictures that I wish I’d captured, but never thought to.

#1 – Rabi’s Arm

This is Rabi. She lived across the path from me in Tokoye-Bungou Sud, so she was one of my first and closest friends. She was, however, fiercely competitive with my very best friend, Madou. She was mostly competitive for the potential material benefits that could come from befriending an “anassara,” I came to realize, so over time I distanced myself from Rabi. At least in socializing.

But occasionally I’d feel bad about neglecting my neighbor, and I’d go spend an afternoon with her. On those days, I spent a lot of time staring at her tattoos. Rabi had many tribal markings. She had the two razor-carved lines that ran from the corners of her mouth across her cheeks to her ears, typical of many members of our Hausa village. She had the S-shaped tattoo between her eyes, uniform on nearly all the women of Tokoye-Bungou (including me, but I’d opted for mine to be on the small of my back, because “If I get it on my face, all the other anassaras will laugh at me.”).

Rabi was apparently a fan of tattoos. In addition to “S” she had a diagonal line beside her nose, and a line running down her chin. And once upon a time she had splurged on decorating her inner forearms. One arm displayed a scorpion — drawn as a cartoon (unintentionally, I would guess) with the thick black lines indicative of the technique of dipping four bound sewing needles into a jar of ink.

But the other forearm was the one I stared at. Tattooed there were two words — one on top of the other. The first was BABI, and right below it was RABI. When I asked Rabi about it she explained that she had asked the (probably illiterate) tattoo man to write her name – RABI – across her forearm. He completed the entire tattoo, spelling out B-A-B-I before anyone noticed. Someone eventually did notice, and so the tattoo professional corrected the error by spelling Rabi’s name correctly the second time. No line across the typo or anything — just a permanent misspelling. And I wish I’d taken a picture of that forearm.

#2 – Opposites Attract

Dogo and Madou, my best friends in Tokoye-Bungou, are similarly wonderful, but vertically opposite. Dogo (who’s name is actually Moussa but everyone calls him Dogo because it means “tall” in Hausa) stands at about 6 feet 7 inches or so. Madou, his dearly loved wife, stands at maybe 5 feet even. I have a multitude of photos of these two, but the one I always regret not having captured is a photo of them, standing side-by-side, illustrating their extreme heights (or lack thereof).

Which means that someday I hope to get back to Niger and capture these photos the way they are meant to be.


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