Scenes from Ville, Part Two: Welcome Wagon

Dusty is the key word that I would use to describe my new house. It has the distinct air of having been unoccupied for a while, even though it was only recently vacated by the previous volunteer, Nadia. In this climate, dust, mold, dirt, and insects can accumulate at a disturbing rate, and I’ll have to do some serious sweeping to make this place livable.

I stand in my concession and take stock of my new territory. The yard is ridiculously huge and totally unnecessary – I’ll never use this space, and I’ll have to keep it clear of weeds and grass to discourage snakes and other critters. The gates are falling down; the shade hangar, an approximately 10’x12′ structure made of millet stalk and held up by large, thick tree branches, was halfway to collapsing; and the lock inside the front door is broken, so I couldn’t lock my house from the inside. I don’t even have any water – a neighbor brought over a bucketful for me to take a bath tonight, but I’ll need to go to the well first thing in the morning.

I’m disappointed, annoyed, and frustrated at its disrepair – Peace Corps has very strict guidelines for volunteer housing (“locks” being one of them) and this definitely does not qualify. Why this wasn’t already taken care of is beyond me.

I heave a great sigh and resign myself for the evening. I’m a whole new kind of exhausted, and possibly in danger of falling asleep standing up. I also haven’t eaten a proper meal the entire day, as we’ve been going on visits all over the region and haven’t had time to sit down and eat. There will be no repairs for tonight. I barely have the energy to open a packet of hazelnut cookies (the only ready to eat food easily accessible) and inhale them while leaning against the wall.

It’s quickly becoming dark, and thinking about the tasks in front of me makes the dull ache behind my eyes pound. I have to unpack my multiple bags, set up house, sweep every square inch of all three rooms, weed my gi-normous yard, buy groceries at the market, and somehow find someone to make these numerous repairs. Not to mention, it will probably be over 100 degrees tomorrow, like it was today, and I will have to accomplish these tasks in Zarma.

I don’t know how, I think. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. I sit on the sandy floor, brushing a cobweb out of my hair. I’m just going to sit here, and eat these cookies, and I’m not even going to think about it.

I finish the pack and toss the wrapper on the floor, for lack of a better place. Heaving another sigh, I pull myself up from the floor and go to get my shower stuff, bucket of water, and headlamp, so I can at least wash off the sand and sweat and god knows what else that’s all over me. My bathing area (that’s really just fancy-talk for a slab of concrete) is behind the house within my yard, so I grab my key and drop my stuff right outside my door.

A problem presents itself immediately – I can’t shut my door. One of the large branches holding up one corner of the shade hangar has shifted somehow to cross the top of the corner of the door and is directly blocking its movement. I try to move it, but I’m not tall/strong enough, and it won’t budge. For nearly 20 minutes, standing on my tiptoes, I push, nudge, and cajole, but it’s no use, nothing works – it doesn’t move more than an inch.

By now it’s definitely dark, and the electricity has come on (it runs from a generator only in the evenings until 12am). The large florescent light directly above the door has become a shimmering beacon, summoning every moth and beetle in West Africa to reverently gaze at/violently fly into the luminous, flickering tube. The air above me is thick with flying insects – they’re in my hair, crawling on my arms, down my shirt. Toads the size of kittens hop near my feet, hoping to catch themselves some dinner, their bulbous eyes staring up at me with an unhelpful air of detached amusement. And I still can’t get this goddammned door closed! Furious with my predicament, I position my shoulder and give an almighty heave, slamming into the branch with the full force of my considerable exasperation.

As you might imagine, this was a mistake. The already shaky structure completely collapses around me, a large branch clocking me square on the head and knocking me over. Free of its obstruction, the door swings closed. Niger: 1, Me: 0.

Having hit rock bottom for the day, I lay on the dirt in a daze and start to wail, surrounded by judgmental toads, creeping insects, and the stench of failure. I am alone, alone, alone. What was I thinking, coming here? Who was I trying to kid? I can’t handle this. I was born in the land of indoor plumbing, Walmart, and 31 ice cream flavors. I’m so damn American I can hardly stand it and it took coming here to realize that – I love convenience, instant gratification, and 24-hour pizza parlors. In America, I lived off of $4 frozen dinners, I drove across town every week to get my eyebrows waxed, I once paid double for iPod headphones because I wanted pink instead of white, and my daily Starbucks order takes several minutes to explain. What the hell am I doing in Africa?

When I’m done feeling sorry for myself and my hopeless situation, or perhaps just tired of insects crawling into my eardrums, I brush myself off and walk inside, depressed and dejected. I’m staring at the wall when I hear a small voice coming from my gate.

“Saalam alekyum”, it says, Arabic for “I enter in peace”.

“Amin, alekyum saalam”, I respond automatically in a dead sort of voice. The response: “Amen, enter in peace”.

It’s a young boy, walking through the darkness in my yard with a silver pot. “Bon soir, mademoiselle,” he says quietly. He hands me the pot. “C’est pour vous”. This is for you.

I remove the lid. It’s a steaming hot bowl filled with a generous helping of pasta, sauce, and meat – a rare gift. Pasta and meat are expensive, and sometimes hard to find in villages like this. Overwhelmed by this generosity, I am momentarily unable to speak. Niger is crippled by food insecurity, people are starving and malnourished, and yet this thoughtful family that I don’t even know has sacrificed to purchase and prepare a meal to welcome me to the village.

“Merci,” I respond finally, a fresh lump forming in my throat. “Merci beaucoup”. Thank you.

The boy nods and silently disappears into the night.

I take a deep breath and make my way back into my house, dinner in hand. Maybe it’s not perfect right now; maybe this place needs some work. Okay, maybe it needs a lot of work. Yet, the tasks ahead of me suddenly seem insignificant next to this overwhelming gesture of kindness. I am welcome here, I belong, and though it may feel like it sometimes, I am definitely not alone. Right now, the only thing that matters is what I have right now – a hot meal and a place to sleep.

I’ll figure everything else out in the morning.

Check back on Friday for another automatic update 🙂

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