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Sabina: The Rest of the Story

216955_10150151653281487_624002_nHave you ever had one of those moments when you really didn’t want to do something, but had to do it anyway, and then you find yourself on the other side with a huge smile and a happy heart? That happened to me in Kenya.

You see, I had an agenda. It wasn’t often that someone from my team had the chance to travel to the field, so I was determined to make the most of it, to maximize the life-or-death story gathering potential out of every minute. And in a place where visiting just one rural family requires a two-plus hour drive each way over rocky hills and footpaths, I didn’t have time for a side trip to witness a successful (not need-focused) story about water (not food) programs.

But while I was the leader of our small team, I hadn’t anticipated the influence of Moses — the inspiring leader of the local office where we were guests. He was the type of man who demands, and then actually warrants, respect. And he wanted us to go visit Sabina and her family.

I knew about Sabina; she was somewhat of a celebrity in the story-telling world of our work. Two of my colleagues (and, might I add, two of the most talented people I know) had spent time with the Kenyan woman a year earlier to learn about and experience for themselves Sabina’s greatest challenge — bringing clean water to her family.

Ever since she was a little girl, Sabina had spent four hours every day in pursuit of water. She traveled to the closest river — over sand, rocks, and thorn bushes, and under the relentless African sun — one hour each way two times per day. At the river she would dig a hole in the sandy shore to create a pool of fresh water with which to fill up her canister. Then she carried the 70 pounds of water back home and used it to cook, clean, wash clothes, and bathe her children.

The endless need for water meant that Sabina hadn’t enjoyed the freedom to attend school, and it meant that she couldn’t pursue other activities that would benefit her family, like planting and tending a garden.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet Sabina. It’s just that I thought the most compelling part of her story had already been told. But I was wrong.

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We arrived at Sabina’s home in the late afternoon and found that she was out running an errand. Even though it was our fault for being hours late, I felt selfishly justified in my opinion that this visit was not worthwhile. But we were there, so we might as well wait for Sabina to return.

We weren’t alone as we waited. Some young children were among those at the compound when we arrived, and as we stood nearby they began quietly singing a simple tune.

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I asked one of our guides to translate the words. The children were singing: “My heart loves so much Kari.” And then my heart began to soften as I thought about how sweet it was that they remembered with fondness the colleague who had come before us.

As I walked slowly around Sabina’s compound, I began noticing some remarkable things. Like how she’d built a storage shelf to keep her modest collection of plates and cups perfectly stacked above the ground. And how, instead of relying on the open landscape as a bathroom, she’d constructed an actual walled-off latrine space out of the ever-present thorns. And how despite the dirt, the chickens, and the kids all around, her home was spotless. She owned very few possessions, but what she had was clean, tidy, and organized — even down to the decorative rock barrier she built to distinguish the area around her hut from the yard beside it.

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I thought about how unfortunate it was that Sabina was denied an education. A woman with so much natural drive could have accomplished great things with the right tools. Thankfully, she’d recently had a significant tool added to her life. A massive water project undertaken in her region had resulted in the installation of a spigot right in her back yard. Now, Sabina no longer has to walk to the river twice a day for the water her family needs to survive. Now a new chapter of her life begins.

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Sabina demonstrated for us how easy it is for her to access clean water now. She happily filled every container she had on hand, and offered a refreshing drink to her husband and children.

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Along with every task, she sang. Her song was a constant part of her life, and those around her joined the chorus.

We were delighted to see how quickly Sabina’s life was transformed by having clean water within reach. But part of why we came to visit her that day was to bring a little more delight into her life.

Sabina’s story had been featured in a recent issue of our organization’s magazine, and we brought copies for her to keep. In a part of the world where facebook and instagram are as incomprehensible as time travel, it’s a pretty big deal for someone to see themselves in a photograph. Her ambitious (but until now, denied) spirit burst through as she thanked us for the gift and asked, “What can I do to read this, since I didn’t go to school?” Then Sabina and her best friend, Christina, began jumping and waving their hands in the air as they laughed and shouted words of happiness and thanks. The outburst enthralled and engulfed us all.

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As the sun set someone opened up a laptop. And someone else brought over a case full of coca cola. The real fun was about to begin. The entire community gathered around on makeshift benches or the dirt ground to get a view of the little screen propped up on a stool. They sipped the warm liquid treats and stared enamored by the video documenting their lives before water came to their home.

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They didn’t understand the words they heard, but only they truly know the meaning of the story.

After our team said heartfelt goodbyes to Sabina and her family, we began a precarious trek along the short path back to the Land Cruiser, ultimately relying on the light of our iPhones to guide the way. “We’re so weak,” I thought to myself, “Sabina’s lived her whole life without running water and we can’t even walk 50 feet in the dark without the help of an iPhone.”

That’s when I realized that God had used this visit to change my heart. My agenda wasn’t as important as witnessing lives transformed. My plans weren’t so pressing that there wasn’t room to share joy. My ideas weren’t so concrete that they couldn’t be moved by an extraordinary woman and her overflowing spirit.

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Drought and Despair

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard advocate for the people of Niger. With one short and unreliable rainy season per year, the Sahara Desert threatening to overtake sparse crops, the highest fertility rate in the world, and often ranking in last place on the world’s development index, Niger needs our help.

I truly believed I’d never find people poorer than those I knew in Niger.

And then I went to Kenya.

Mamaselina, age 30, and her seven children were the first family who showed me that poverty can hit hard in other places too. I remember walking the rocky path to their home and noting that while the landscape looked green, it was a mirage. The bushes and trees weren’t lush, they were either cactus or branches full of thorns. There were no fields, no crops, no water sources.

To get water for her family, once per day Mamaselina walks two hours to the nearest river. She’s able to carry about 20 litres back home, which would be enough for one of us to take a two-minute shower or flush the toilet twice. My upstairs bathtub faucet drips about this much each day.

If her children have enough energy, they might join her in the task, carrying 5 litres each. That barely puts a dent in what they actually need, though. The minimum standards are 25 liters per person per day. As a result, each child is rationed one cup of water to bathe with once per week.

During her two-hour trek back home, Mamaselina will collect firewood–adding it to her 44 pound burden of water–in hopes that she can sell it for a few shillings at a nearby market. This is her only source of income to buy food. On the day we visited, only the two smallest children had eaten a bit of porridge. No one else in the family had eaten since they boiled some maize the day before.

I looked around the compound as we spoke with Mamaselina. Besides the mud hut, there was almost nothing to indicate that people lived there. No granary, very few dishes or utensils, barely any possessions even inside of the hut. I could see why she wasn’t worried about locking up her home during her daily trek for water. What could anyone steal?

The destitution was obvious in Mamaselina’s answers to our questions as well:

We asked if she knew why little Julia (left) was often sick, with a swollen belly and dull, yellow eyes. “Who knows?” she replied.

Do her children ask her to give them food when they are hungry? “No, they are used to being hungry.”

I was shocked at her fatalistic sentiments when we asked if she felt the baby she was nursing was receiving enough milk. “I believe the little milk the child is getting is enough and she will be used to this life.”

At 7-months old, how sad that a baby should already be resigned to a life of hunger.

Does she have hope? “I just believe that God will help me. There is nothing I can do.”

I wanted to argue. But what could she do?

In that thorny, hot, remote, dry landscape, Mamaselina needs resources. So what can we do? Pray. Donate. Help.

We emptied our water bottles into the family’s plastic jugs, hoping that would at least help a little. And we returned home to tell the story.

I often think of Julia, and her younger sister Chathrine. During our visit someone had placed a handful of thick-skinned fruits into an empty bowl and handed it to them. I’d already noticed how the toddlers simply sat in the shade, too tired and hungry to be playful. But it was equally disturbing to watch them with the bowl of fruit. Suffering from chronic hunger, you’d think they would have dug in and devoured it as quickly as they could. I know my two-year old would do that if she had a bowl of candy. But Julia and Chathrine mostly just held the fruits protectively, and picked at one. The toddler impulse had been replaced by the wisdom to ration the food and make it last.

The Trials of a Carnivore

April 2nd, 2011 was a very long day.

It began the night before, actually, at the guest house in Lokori, Kenya, when our hard-working, ever-accommodating staff moved my bed (with mosquito net, of course) outside in hopes that I could catch a cool, yet non-existent breeze.

Yes, I spent 2+ years sleeping outdoors in Africa, but that was nearly 10 years ago. The noises and heat and dust and fear of sleeping through my alarm made me restless. I almost welcomed the 4:30am wake-up call, until I remembered that this is the bathroom I’d be freshening up in before our 4-hour trip up north to Lodwar to catch a plane to Nairobi.

Allow me a brief moment to explain the challenges of using such a bathroom. . . First, you have to find a place to put your toiletries, so that they aren’t on the floor (for obvious reasons), but also so that no huge bugs crawl on them. Having a small bag of toiletries with a handle to hang it from a bathroom door handle is a must. Then, due to the absence of a toilet seat, and a general lack of sanitation, you must hover above the toilet to do your business. While using the facilities, try not to look around too much or you’re sure to notice cockroaches, spiders, and sometimes even frogs closed inside the room with you. Best just to ignore the fact they might be there. When you’re finished, heed the warning scrawled above the toilet — “Pliz no enough water for flush use a basin.” Now there is a good purpose for the drippy shower right next to you, as it has supplied a bucket full of water for you to pour into the toilet bowl and avoid any embarrassment about what you’ve left behind.

Back to our journey. The team convened at the land cruiser, in the dark, at 4:45am. It was then that we realized our flight was actually leaving two hours later than we thought. Maybe one of us should have checked the tickets last night. Oh well, we decided, at least we’d be traveling in the cool of the day. This was the first time that I was able to sleep in the vehicle, since Kenya has some of the bumpiest gravel roads I’d ever bounced over.

A couple of hours into our journey we stopped at a transit town (basically, one road with some shacks and people scattered about) for a breakfast of bland fried cakes and warm coke. I passed, and opted for my granola bar instead.

We’d given ourselves a generous window of time to catch the flight, plus the extra two hours of miscalculation, so we had a lot of time to kill in Lodwar. Unfortunately, there was nothing at all to do. So we sat at a hotel bar, where no other people were present, and it was about an hour before a lone waiter offered us some warm juice. Mine became fly-infested so I tossed it and ate some trail mix instead.

Eventually it was time to go to the airport. All airport designers please take note: The following is not a confidence-boosting sight to see on the runway when you are an arriving passenger.

We were the first ones there, so we took seats on half-plank wooden benches underneath a small shade hangar. That was the airport, so to speak. Three workers hand-inspected our luggage and issued us our very official-looking boarding passes.

And then we waited some more. The plane was delayed, of course. Something had happened during a stop in Kainuk. I had some more trail mix. An hour past our scheduled departure time, we finally heard the sound of the plane’s engine. By then there were all sorts of official cars parked along the runway, waiting for the Japanese ambassador. Once his entourage had left, we were able to board. And once our plane took off, I was happy to order a coke — the first truly cold beverage I’d had in nearly a week.

It was striking to look down at the landscape below us — the earth appeared cracked, which it was, but these cracks were actually dried up riverbeds. The drought in the Horn of Africa is real.

I felt guilty for having my cold coke and wishing I could have a real meal. So many on the ground were going without. Such is the emotional dilemma of an American aid worker.

We were more than ready to return to Nairobi for an afternoon of being clean and relaxed. We dreamed of the hotel pool. But the flight attendant disrupted our dreams to announce that we were beginning our descent to Kitale. Wait, what? My hand-written ticket says nothing about a stop. Ugh. Well, what can I do? As they say in Niger, sai hankuri — have patience.

We waited on the plane for the new passengers to arrive, but then were asked to descend. The plane had a flat tire that needed to be repaired. I suppose that’s no surprise given that the runway is gravel and in the middle of the African bush. But, wow — really, a flat tire?

Back on board I drank another coke and continued my dreams about Nairobi. We’d be there soon, and I’d finally have a meal. After all, I’d already been awake 12 hours and had only eaten trail mix and a granola bar. More guilt.

“We are now beginning our descent to Eldoret.” What?!?!? Where the heck is that? It’s not Nairobi! Ugh! We had to leave the plane again, since this time we were refueling. (Was there really not enough to make it to Nairobi? Really really?) I left my bags on board and waited in the relatively nice terminal this time, instead of standing in the dirt along the landing strip.

When we were invited back on board, suddenly a security officer was there to check our tickets, even though there were no other planes or passengers. Here comes the part I love about Africa — being able to talk your way through anything. I stood in line and when it was my turn to show my ticket I explained that I’d left it on board the plane. I smiled, looked apologetic and was very respectful. He let me by without a question.

Finally, Nairobi. The team agreed that we would take 30 minutes to check in to our rooms and shower. Then we were headed to the most touristy of all Kenyan restaurants: Carnivore.

I will say that returning from nearly a week of working 16-hour days in hot and rustic rural Kenya, and having endured a day that began at 4:30am without any real meals is perhaps the perfect scenario for an introduction to Carnivore. If nothing else, after all we’d seen in the past week, we knew we wouldn’t take it for granted.

The restaurant is an all-you-can-eat meat barbecue. I hear they used to have exotic animals like zebra and warthog on the menu, but environmentalists have rightly limited the variety these days. Still, there are a few things you can’t get back home.

How it works is that servers come around to your table with huge sword/skewers stuck through a huge slab of meat. They tell you what it is, and carve a chunk right on to your plate. Some of the options were tame — chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb. Others were unique — ostrich, crocodile. And, even though I’m not picky, there were two that I just couldn’t stomach — camel and ox balls. Camel just seems too much like horse. And ox balls, well… it’s kind of self-explanatory.

Abby was the bravest of us all, and had the biggest Carnivore adventure. First, while a server was slicing a piece of turkey onto her plate, the skewer slipped and the entire turkey carcass fell in Abby’s lap. All hot and greasy. Pretty sure that would have earned her a free meal in the States.

When the ox ball server came around, Abby was the only one of us who opted in. So of course we had to tease her — her being the young, single girl eating balls, after all. But we had a question — the menu shows ostrich meatballs, so were we sure that these were really ox balls or were they maybe the less gross ox meatballs? We had to find out.

Another waiter came by and instead of requesting a piece of meat, Abby requested clarification. “Um, can you tell me what kind of meat this is?” she asked, pointing to the half-eaten ox balls on her plate.

“Those are ox balls,” he replied. And then he leaned in closer to Abby, cupped his hand at his chest and bounced it as he further explained, “You know, the male part.”

And that was the highlight of our very long day.

You Don’t Marry The Teeth

There is a man in Tokoye-Bungou named Tobako. Yes, it’s pronounced “tobacco,” and the name suits him — he’s a bit unpleasant. One of those men who thought it was entertaining to ask if I wanted to marry him (3rd wife to a man 25 years older than me? No thanks.), and then following up the request with some eyebrow flutters and flirty, icky smiles. I wasn’t too sketched out, though, because anyone who happened to be nearby during Tobako’s proposal would support my rejection, and join me in teasing him relentlessly. And here’s why.

Tobako has two wives, one of whom is biologically disposed towards conceiving multiple babies at a time. I asked once about how many children she’d given birth to, and it was impossible to keep track: twins, then twins, then a single, then twins, then a single, and on and on. When I lived there, she was nursing a set of triplets. Or, I should say, attempting to nurse them. In the poorest country in the world, and the place with the highest infant mortality rate, these identical triplets were an eery sight to see. They had the same face, but their body size ranged at least a year. Put them in a row and one might have appeared 18 months old, the next a year, and the next a 6-month old baby. Yet they were triplets.

I say “were,” because none of them ultimately survived. In fact, I’m pretty sure none of the woman’s multiple births have made it past the age of two. It’s just too difficult for a woman to produce enough breastmilk, or for a family to have the means to provide sufficient weaning foods and medicines for one baby, let alone three. So even though her body prefers to conceive multiplies, it is the singles who have the best chance at life.

Tobako, though, was very proud of the multiples because he believed it demonstrated his power. Surely it was because he was such a strong man that his wife birthed so many twins. I asked, if that was the case, why didn’t his other wife ever give birth to twins? He discarded my question as nonsensical and insisted upon his manliness.

One afternoon when we were repeating the same dialog — Tobako flirting with me, me rejecting him by saying he was too old — I took it to the next level. People aren’t very self-conscious, so I decided it wouldn’t be over the cultural line to emphasize how old he was by teasing him for not having any teeth (they’d all fallen out a bit prematurely, but what do you expect when your name is tobacco?). Which is when he leaned over towards me and his toothless mouth delivered one of the most shocking and funniest lines I’d heard while living in Tokoye-Bungou, and affirmed for me that I’d come a long way in my comprehension of Hausa:

“Balkissa, you don’t marry the teeth. You marry the penis.”

Perhaps. But not yours, Tobako.

Celebrating Seyni

photo from David McNally

An incredible man — Seyni Soumana of Niger — died this week from complications due to high blood pressure. He’d surpassed the 52 year average life expectancy in Niger, but he died far too soon for those who knew and loved him.

For me, it was one of those times when you realize that you hadn’t stopped to appreciate how amazing a person was until they were gone.

Last night I pulled out my box of photos from the Peace Corps and sadly confirmed what I already knew: I never took a picture of Seyni. I’m filled with remorse for what that omission represents in my Peace Corps story. That I was self-absorbed during those years. That the only Nigerien relationships I invested in were with a few close friends in my village. That I spent far too much time obsessing about friendships with other Americans, and didn’t sufficiently value the friends I had made among Nigeriens.

You couldn’t help but like Seyni. He had a huge smile that was almost always spread generously across his face. One of those infectious kinds of smiles. He spoke a charming dialect of slang English that he’d learned from years of driving Peace Corps volunteers across his country. He had a special ability to make you feel welcomed and cared for.

It was Seyni who arrived in Tokoye-Bungou to move me and my belongings out of the village the first week of September 2001. I’d been crying off and on the entire day, but it was the sound of his truck coming down the path that solidified the reality of my pending separation from the Nigerien family I loved dearly. Seyni directed the men loading my bags into the vehicle as I gathered tearfully with the women inside my hut.

Saying goodbye to Tokoye-Bungou was one of the saddest moments of my life. And as Seyni and I rode down the sandy path away from my home, he insisted emphatically that he’d never seen villagers — “Even the men!!” he exclaimed — cry so hard to see a volunteer leave them. I was skeptical. I mean, there are a lot of volunteers who have close relationships with their village families. But whether he was telling me the truth or not, Seyni’s words were exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. He validated the relationships that I’d cherished for two years in Niger. I only wish I’d told him how much I cherished his words, and how much he had comforted me.

And you know what’s even more amazing? Four years later I returned to Niger and when I ran into Seyni at the Peace Corps bureau, not only did he remember my name, but he repeated — with as much conviction as the first time he’d said it — that he’d never witnessed villagers so sad to see a volunteer leave as when he’d moved me out of Tokoye-Bungou. It shocked me that this man — who I, shamefully, had not thought of much during my years away — kept a memory of me so fresh and vivid. And then he gave me his cell phone number and insisted that I call him anytime I needed help navigating my way through Niger as a non-PCV. His dedication to me extended far beyond what my own government was willing to provide.

A few years after that, Niger experienced a famine, and during a visit to neighboring villages Seyni willingly delivered a package of money to Tokoye-Bungou on my behalf. He not only helped me when I was in Niger, but he enabled me to help my Nigerien friends from half a world away. I called Dogo and Madou the day I heard of Seyni’s death. And we mourned his passing together over the phone, in broken Hausa, words failing me.

Seyni was a remarkable man. So warm, so caring, so genuine. The outpouring of love I’ve read from PCVs posting memories on facebook has sent me to the verge of tears multiple times this week. And it’s made me realize the need to reconnect with the other friends and Peace Corps staff members who worked hard to help me feel welcome in Niger. I need to tell them how much they meant to me. How much they still mean to me. I need to make sure they know that I couldn’t have made it three years in Niger without them. And I wouldn’t have wanted to.

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