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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.


    Thanksgiving in Niger

    The last time I traveled to Niger, I had the option of missing either Thanksgiving or Christmas back home. I chose Thanksgiving. I still wanted to celebrate the holiday, though, so I found a way to do so with my Nigerien family. In the absence of a turkey, we slaughtered a guinea fowl.

    If I were a Nigerien woman, one thing I’d be thankful for in the midst of this very male-dominated society is that the task of slitting an animal’s throat falls upon the man. And then if the animal is any sort of bird, it’s handed to the woman to de-feather and prepare. I worked on a chicken once when I was a volunteer, and the dead thing kept squawking as I squeezed its belly to pull out the feathers. This time I chose to just observe. So did Madou’s 10-month old son Aminou, who played around in the dirty feathers and fowl guts and bloody knives as he pleased. Pregnant with my first child at the time of that trip, I’d never realized until then how many dangers Nigerien babies are surrounded by. Or is it how overly-protective we American mothers are? For me, I’ve found a balance between realizing a little germ exposure is okay for my baby, but I keep her away from dead animals and such.

    The guinea fowl was tasty, as it always is. And I was thankful to be surrounded by my African family.

    Madou and the Beggar Woman

    Niger, my second home, is in the midst of a food crisis that’s worse than the devastation that hit the country in 2005. The people of Niger always struggle to feed their families, and typically spend a couple of months subsisting on one meal per day (or every other day). This year, though, the “lean season” is lasting half a year.

    In light of this, I want to share a story about one of the most profound moments I experienced while living in Niger.

    Madou was my best friend in the village, and I passed many hot afternoons and late evenings sitting with her, chatting about our neighbors and our lives. One day – when the harvest was still a ways off – she was cleaning up her cooking hut and emerged with a small bowl of millet grain. Showing it to me, she explained that this was all her family of seven had left to eat. And she didn’t know what they’d do when it was gone.

    At that same moment, an old woman approached the entrance to Madou’s yard and stood there, singing a quiet song – a signal to the locals that she was begging for food. Madou walked over to the woman, still holding the bowl of millet, and dipped her hand into the grain to share with the beggar woman.

    When Madou returned, I expected her to wallow further into expressing the woes of how she’d feed her children. But she didn’t. The only thing Madou said was “that poor old woman didn’t have any fingers.”

    Madou’s family survived the lean season. And if she could be generous in the midst of it, what excuse do we have?

    Madou pounding millet

    The Moussa Sisters

    Dogo and Madou’s family have been my closest friends in Tokoye-Bungou since very early on in my Peace Corps service. I ate dinner with them every night, and over time became able to communicate and converse with them about anything with very little difficulty. They seem like an odd pair — Dogo is probably about 6 foot 5, and Madou is about 5 foot nothing. But they are both kind and generous, and unlike a lot of couples here, I think they love each other. Well, at least it appears that way ever since Dogo’s other two wives left him (out of jealousy?).

    Dogo is not his real name. Dogo actually means “tall” in Hausa, and it’s the primary name that he goes by. His real name is Moussa Tchiwake, and he has 6 children. His wives have given him at least 9 children, and I know their stories. I want to tell you about the Moussa sisters.

    Diya Illu & her little brother Aminou

    The eldest girl is Diya Illu, whose real name is Sueba, but I’ve never heard anyone but her teacher call her that. I’ve thought hard about how old she must have been when I lived in the village, and it was probably about 7 years old, making her 15 or 16 now. She’s tall like Dogo, all the kids are, and quiet too. When I arrived in Tokoye-Bungou, she wasn’t in the village, and I was worried she’d been married off already. Two years ago I’d cried to the school director, begging him not to kick her out of school for her bad grades. But he told me that Niger is not America, and education is not a right here (which isn’t true, but it didn’t matter). So, Diya Illu has little choice but to marry, otherwise the fear is that she’ll become “spoiled” — not spoiled by things, but by age.

    Diya Illu (L) & Nafisa (R) in 2000

    She isn’t married yet, but she will be in less than a month. I insisted to Dogo and Madou that Diya Illu really isn’t old enough to get married and start having babies, but Madou’s argument was that clearly the fact that she now has breasts qualifies her as being old enough to marry. In the end, it wasn’t up to them anyway. Diya Illu returned to the village to see me, and soon after Madou happened upon the news that her marriage had already been arranged. Apparently, it is not up to Dogo at all to agree to the groom’s dowry — that’s the responsibility of Dogo’s older brother, Fodi. Fodi collected the dowry (about $80), but for some reason the message never got communicated that the wedding date was set. So, Madou was frantic, realizing that she would soon be stuck with the responsibility to provide food for the celebration, as well as all the cooking pots and serving pots and clothes and everything else a new bride needs. It seems all the burden is placed on the women, while the men get dowry money.

    Next in line was Nafisa, the daughter of Madou’s cowife at the time. Nafisa and Diya Illu were close to the same age and good friends. When I visited the village last time, I heard the tragic news that Nafisa had died. She must have had some sort of allergic reaction, because the story goes that her whole body became swollen to the point where her belly beads burst off and they had to cut off her necklace so it wouldn’t choke her. She suffered greatly, and I hate thinking that it might have been remedied. She’s not the only girl to have died. After Diya Illu, Madou gave birth to a big, seemingly healthy girl. As we sat talking one night last week, I asked what had happened. She said the girl was born alive, but by the time they were cutting the umbilical cord, she died. Dogo came into the hut, and lifted the newborn’s arm back and forth in disbelief: “She died? She died?”

    Indo as a Toddler

    Rachida as a Toddler

    When I first moved to Tokoye-Bungou in 1999, Indo was over a year old, but so malnourished she could barely walk. She had a hugely swollen belly button, which was further excentuated by her swollen belly. She cried constantly, and was never a happy toddler. When Madou became pregnant with Rachida in early 2000, she knew it would be too difficult to keep caring for Indo, along with a newborn. So she took Indo to live with her mother in a far-away village.

    Rachida was born healthy and happy. The difference between the two is still stark, and they don’t appear to be particularly close. Indo struggles in school,

    Indo Today

    and Madou says that after 3 years she still  doesn’t know how to write her name. Given how malnourished she was as a baby, it’s sad to see what an impact it has had on her learning potential. Rachida is bright, and her parents have high hopes for her education. She wakes up early every morning to bathe and put on makeup, and repeats the primping after lunch. One day, as Rachida was carefully applying black lines along her eyebrows, Indo walked by and pronounced, “The teacher says that girls who wear makeup aren’t smart.”

    “Lies!” insisted Rachida, as she peered even more determined into her mirror.

    Rachida Today


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    Tokoye-Bungou First Impressions

    The Fam & Me





    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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