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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.

God is Bigger than Storms and Spiders

I want to tell you about the time I witnessed God intervene.

It’s a story about a spider.

But not the spider you see here. No. This type of spider — I called them two-dimensional spiders — was a regular inhabitant of my mud hut, and looks infinitely more terrifying in a photograph than it did in real life. I called them 2D spiders because it looked as though they were merely a drawing of a spider. They’d just sit there, never moving, so flat that you could press your face alongside them on the wall (at a cautious distance, of course) and not see any protrusion of their bodies from the surface of the mud. They were harmless enough — no webs or anything — and when I attacked with bug spray their 2D bodies would crumble into a tiny dot of a spider corpse. Imagine my surprise when I developed this photograph, only then realizing my hut companions had fang-like appendages and a fuzzy exoskeleton.

Maybe God had blinded me to the creepy details of the 2D spiders in the same way he’d blinded me for a year from encountering a chariot spider. Towards the end of my service, I’d discovered that the Peace Corps training site was infested with chariot spiders. But when I was a trainee I never saw one. I believe it’s because God knew I would have been on the first airplane back to America if I had.

You see, before I moved to Niger I was terrified of spiders. As I child, upon seeing a spider I would scream until my dad came to squash it with his hand, which I found incredibly disgusting. When I moved out of my parents’ home, I was left to guerrilla warfare — stabbing the unsuspecting creature with a thousand blades of my broom and smearing the remains to oblivion. I hated, hated, HATED spiders.

Still don’t love them. But, I can tolerate a lot of things after living in the bush.

When I joined the Peace Corps, I thought that seeing a tarantula would be the limit to what I could endure. Fortunately, Niger does not have tarantulas. Unfortunately, I’d never heard of a chariot spider. What is a chariot spider, you ask? Well, the best introduction I’ve found is a language lesson. In Hausa, chariot spiders are called “Dokin Konama,” which means “Scorpion Horse.” The horrifying reason is because these spiders are so enormous that scorpions can literally hitch a ride upon their backs. Yes, as if it isn’t bad enough that a chariot spider is as big as your hand, is lightening fast, and comes out in the darkest night, chasing light with a flurry of crazed tentacle-legs — it can also be carrying a hellish-looking scorpion.

The first time I saw a chariot spider, I thought I’d seen a mouse run across the room. A few minutes later I noticed a strange creature on the wall, and realized that was the “mouse.” I stared at it curiously — it seemed to be more like an animal than an insect. On that occasion I was with some friends in a well-lit building, so the chariot spider wasn’t so terrifying. Things were always much more emotion-filled when I was alone facing demons in my very remote village.

But God was always there to protect me.

One night during rainy season, I arranged my bed under the stars as I always did — laying my mattress on the wooden bed frame, tucking in a flat sheet, securing the mosquito net at four corners and tucking it in to make an invasion-proof seal around where I sleep. I saw lightning on the horizon, and knew that I’d likely be awakened in a few hours to a storm front. This would happen a couple of times a week during rainy season, and when I heard the first clap of thunder or felt the rush of dusty wind I would only have a few seconds to pull the slip-knot from my net and toss the entire bed back into my hut. Then, I’d have to rush to set it back up before I noticed how many other beetles, flying termites, lizards, earwigs, and spiders had also sought refuge in my home.

At about 2am I felt the wind and knew the storm was coming. I grabbed my flashlight, jumped out of the mosquito net, and ran to unlock my door. As I opened the entrance to my hut, I witnessed — in absolute horror — a chariot spider race across the room towards where my bed would soon be placed.

I froze.

Then I looked at the storm. There was no doubt the rain would begin dropping in bucketfuls any moment. I’d seen it during many long, sleepless, scary nights before. But I’d never seen it in the company of a chariot spider. And I couldn’t do it. When faced with the options, I chose to weather the storm. It was only rain, I figured. Sure, rain so fierce that it had once drowned a baby goat that got lost in my yard, and another time melted my chicken’s coop so that she was buried alive with only her head poking out (that was pretty hilarious — her legs had fallen asleep by the time I discovered her and she walked all funny for about an hour later). I could handle getting wet — it would still be 80 degrees, after all — but I couldn’t handle being trapped in a room with a chariot spider.

So I crawled back into my trusty mosquito net, curled into a tight fetal position, and prayed. The wind whipped the grass mats that hid my bed from spectators, and my sheet was coated in sand. I was shaking in fear.

And then a miraculous thing happened. I looked up at the angry sky and there, right above my bed, was one small patch of clear night sky. All around me the clouds were thick, black, rolling, and electric with lightning. But directly above me, I could see the stars. It was like I was looking at heaven.

I kept praying until I fell asleep, and awoke still tucked tightly in a ball. But as the sun rose I realized with amazement that not a drop of rain had fallen. I was wind-whipped, but dry. God had intervened to calm the storm. And I hadn’t had to face the chariot spider.

It’s kind of silly to think that God, in his omnipotence and glory, would care about my fear of spiders. But it really wasn’t about the spider. It was about giving me a moment where I felt eternally loved and protected. When I knew that God could see me, and intervened. And I’ve been left with an unwavering confidence in how much he cares for me.


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.

    The Fiery Serpent Dies in Niger

    my Worm Week counterpart and friend, Abdou

    It’s been plaguing mankind since the 2nd century B.C., but now people in 2 of the 5 remaining countries where it’s recently been found are finally free. This week, the Carter Center announced the eradication of Guinea worm in Niger and Nigeria.

    What’s remarkable about the campaign to eradicate Guinea worm is that it doesn’t rely on vaccines or medicines. This parasite can only be terminated through awareness and intervention.

    I am honored to have played a small role in promoting Guinea worm awareness in Niger nearly 11 years ago.

    “Worm Week” had become an annual tradition by the time I joined Peace Corps Niger. Volunteers would travel with a counterpart/interpreter to spend a week roaming sandy, seemingly-deserted paths in the most remote parts of eastern Niger around Zinder. The goal was simply to share the story of Guinea worm with anyone we met. We carried an 8×10 laminated picture presentation, showing that the worm larvae lived in stagnant water, and that when a person drinks that water without filtering it, the worm can come along for the ride. Then, the worm grows and grows and grows until mating season, at which time it burrows through the host’s skin (usually out the leg, but sometimes it protrudes from much less convenient body parts) to release its eggs back into the stagnant water. Guinea worm is not usually fatal in and of itself, but it can cause severe pain and paralysis, and lead to deadly infections. Plus, there aren’t many things creepier than the thought of a parasite poking out through one’s body. Gross.

    I never saw one in real life, but my trusty friend Abdou and I trekked all over the dry landscape for a week making sure everyone heard the Guinea worm horror stories. The scare tactic seemed justifiable, since all it would take is one season of no one contracting Guinea worm for the parasite to become eradicated. And all people needed to do to avoid Guinea worm was to filter or boil their water. But there were always those few people who didn’t get the memo. Even though I walked so much that week that my feet turned bloody with blisters, it would take several more years of convincing before Guinea worm would die out.

    It’s kind of strange that I picked Abdou to be my interpreter; he and I could only communicate in Hausa. But, what made Abdou such a good friend at the time, was that he was someone who seemed to know exactly what I was trying to say, and could rephrase it in correct Hausa for others to understand. Abdou and I never had trouble communicating with one another, and we’d sit and talk for hours. So, when I heard that our counterparts would be paid for their efforts, I decided that my friend deserved the job. It was an amazing week of confidence-boosting for me, having to do real work with no one nearby who spoke French or English.

    There were some moments during Worm Week that I’ll never forget. The first was when Abdou and I were dropped off with our host family, who occupied a small encampment atop a slight hill with no barriers at all from the expansive desert plains. I wasn’t quite sure how the sleeping arrangements would work in this very conservative, very male-dominated society. Abdou and I were shown our (OUR?!) hut — which was essentially a tiny, cleaned out animal hut. We had to literally crawl to get through the opening, and we couldn’t stand up inside. It didn’t seem appropriate at all that we would sleep in there, so instead we just kept our bags inside and set up our mosquito nets under the stars. I can’t remember exactly, but I must have worn the same clothes that entire week — where would I have changed in privacy?

    Speaking of privacy, there really was none. In the early morning, Abdou and I would silently go our separate ways in search of a bush that was high enough to hide behind and take care of business. I walked far and squatted quickly, sure that anyone in sight would be staring at me. Oh how I missed my latrine.

    And then it was time for my weekly bath.

    Back in Tokoye-Bungou, I would have bathed every evening, but out in Guinea worm land, water was much more scarce. One evening when Abdou and I returned from our day of wandering, I noticed that a bathing area had been established on the edge of the compound, and I was given a calabash half-full of water to bathe with. There was only about a gallon of water in the bowl, but as soon as night fell completely, I would make do.

    Now, when I say that a bathing area had been established, what I mean is that our host found a 3-foot-high by 3-foot-wide piece of straw mat and strung it up on a few sticks just beyond the huts. Behind this fortress, exposed in every other possible direction to the vast expanse of desert beyond the huts, a blindingly white girl would strip down and bathe. I didn’t really doubt the decency of those in our compound — they’d be aware that I was bathing, and would never invade my privacy — so I figured I could manage a quick bath once it was dark. I remember there was a crescent moon that night — bright enough that it wasn’t pitch black out, but not so bright that you could read by it. I carried my ration of water behind the bathing wall, squatted down low, and removed the cloth I’d wrapped around myself. I scooped just enough water to wet my skin, then started scrubbing with soap.

    It was about that time that I heard the greeting “Salaam Aleikum!” — the traditional announcement when someone arrived for a visit. I gasped silently. Not 20 feet away from where I squatted (NAKED!), two men had arrived from the bush to visit my host family. And, to my horror and embarrassment, they remained standing and chatting right where they entered, plainly within sight of me, illuminated dimly by the moonlight.

    It was no small feat of discretion with which I rinsed off and re-clothed myself. I stared at the men intently throughout the last half of my bath, and they seemed unaware of my presence even as I emerged freshly clean. But it would be uncharacteristic of a rural Nigerien to not notice there was a white person nearby. So I will forever wonder if — while I now laugh at the memory of being “walked in on” during my exposed bath — there are a few old men in Zinder laughing about the time they saw a naked white girl when they went to greet their friends one night.

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