Le Niger, Mon Niger
By Mark Rodehorst
Many of you know of it—it haunts your dreams perhaps, and rightly so (c.f. Jed Augustine’s slightly overstated article on the subject from a few issues back). It’s a country about twice the size of Texas, three-quarters of which are an inhospitable wasteland. In other words, it’s an endless sandbox. But where there are people, one finds hospitality unknown to most of the world. It’s a place called Niger, named for the river that really only pokes an elbow into the extreme southwestern corner of the country.
I lived in the eastern region of Zinder in a town called Mirriah, and despite having the reputation for being the fly capital of Niger, it was magical. I had access to a magical forest of baobab trees, which at-tracted thousands of magical bats, which rained magical guano on the lucky souls resting under the limbs. Mir-riah is famous for its magi-cal drink called hura. It’s made of millet flour, water or milk (which may give you a magical case of TB), and sugar, lots of sugar. According to legend, hora has the power to put someone into a Snow White-like sleep. Personally, I never worried: there were plenty of children not unlike the seven dwarfs to carry me home.
I spent Tabaski there in November. Tabaski is the Muslim holiday celebrating the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son (in Islam he’s known as Ish-mael; in Judaism and Christianity he’s known as Isaac). In commemoration, every family that has the means kills a sheep and then shares the meat with their less fortunate neighbors. I suppose I fell into the latter cate-gory because there was an endless parade of people bringing me mutton and tripe, which I in turn re-gifted since one person can stomach only so much sheep intestine.
And speaking of food, now that I’ve whetted your appetite—there was street food! Niger is a fried dough lover’s dream: millet flour, sorghum flour, wheat flour, maize flour, bean flour all formed into different shapes, served with different sauces or spices, and given different names. There was also this peanut brittle-type concoction that easily made up for any weight I might have otherwise lost. Children even sold sesame cakes at bus stops! And the tea! It was out of the question that I make it home after work (if I may call sitting on a mat all afternoon eating peanuts "work") without drinking at least nine small glasses of tea.
People were just generous and friendly and thoughtful. Once, during my first few weeks in train-ing, I was resting under one of the only shade trees in our training village staring into a field of low shrubs and boiling sand. After some time hallucinating, a man came by. He was buried under the weight of two jerry cans of water that were hanging off of a wooden stick stretched across his shoulders as if he were on the road to Calvary. Despite my best efforts to camouflage myself, he spotted me, and with a look of genuine concern, asked if I had had enough water for myself. I assured him that I had. Quite relieved, he continued under the relentless sun down to the village on the yellow sand road.
Niger may be hot and dry and desolate; and the people there may not really know what a trash can is; and there may be terrorists running around looking for people to kidnap, but I miss it.