Layla’s Moussizes

I am lounging on my cot underneath my shade hangar during the hottest part of the day when I hear a car horn frantically beeping and a familiar voice shouting my name. I run out to open the gate and there’s Rachel, sitting in the back of a Peace Corps vehicle, holding a large bowl out the window for me to take.

“Here they are,” she says proudly. “What do you think? They’re cute, right? They slept for most of the ride but I think they’re waking up now…”

I look down into the deep wooden bowl to see two adorably tiny black-and-white kittens. Momentarily overtaken with glee, I revert to a four year old’s speech patterns, shouting, “Kitties in a bowl! Kitties in a bowl!”

Rachel’s cat, Kaydiya (named for the Zarma word for “rainy season”, which was when she’d gotten her) had recently had two male kittens, and Rachel asked me if I wanted one. I’m allergic to cats, but without any carpets or plush surfaces around, it would probably be easier to stay in control of the dander. Either way, the idea of a companion is quite appealing – and plus, cats are extremely easy to care for and can even help to control the ridiculous bug population around my house.

I tell her I’d love a kitten, and she promises to bring me one on the shuttle, which runs monthly on a set date between houses in our area to provide volunteers a transportation option to get in and out of our villages. She was going into Niamey to get Kaydiya checked out at the animal doctor there, and possibly see about getting her fixed. Several days before she was set to come, she asked me if I would take the other kitten as well, so she wouldn’t have to leave it alone. I can keep them both if I like, she says, or give the other one away. Why not, I think – two cats really aren’t that much more trouble than one, and they will be company for each other.

So with both kittens in hand, I say thank you and wave goodbye to Rachel as they drive off. I take the bowl back into my house, setting it on the concrete floor. The cats seem to just now be realizing that something has happened and their mother is no longer near. “Hello, kitties,” I say to them, “Welcome home.” They stare back, apprehensive.

The cats are virtually identical in markings, except the larger one has a black spot on his side. He climbs out of the bowl, sniffing at his new surroundings. I gently pick the little one up and scratch its ears. He squirms and I let him go down to the ground, where he immediately bolts for a corner of the kitchen, underneath a bench. His brother follows quickly, and they crouch there in the darkness, little bodies entwined, shaking slightly. I try to go near and the larger one makes a soft hissing noise, flexing his back and twitching his paw at me threateningly. “This is a good start,” I say to myself.

The rest of the day runs pretty much the same. The kittens have set up camp in that dark, dusty corner and stubbornly refuse to budge. I take the hint and avoid the area, going about my day as if they weren’t there, though I hear the occasional meow coming from the spot where they’ve sequestered themselves. I was a little concerned that they would run away – the wall surrounding my concession definitely has several kitten-sized holes – but clearly that’s not an issue for now.

I’ve set out a plate of water and another plate of pounded kuli-kuli, which are pellets of dried peanut mash, the byproduct of making peanut oil. Other volunteers have told me that it’s what they feed their cats, but so far as I can tell, mine haven’t touched it.

I leave them to their corner and go out for the evening to Ramatou’s house. The usual crowd of kids is there, and I announce excitedly that I have two new kittens. “But,” I tell them, “I don’t have names for them yet. What should I name them?”

The kids are confused and ask me why the cats need a name at all – the concept of pet ownership, keeping an animal in your home with you that doesn’t work for a living, is almost completely unheard of in this country, though I try to explain.

“So what should their names be?” I ask again.

There’s silence for a while, and then one particularly imaginative child ventures the suggestion, “Moussize,” – the Zarma word for “kitten”. The other kids seem to love that idea. I quickly veto and turn to one of the oldest boys. “If you were going to have a cat, what would you name it?”

“Layla,” he replies with absolutely no hesitation. Touche.

“What about Ibu?” I ask. It’s a nickname for the common name Ibrahim, pronounced “ee-boo”. One of my host brothers during training was called Ibu, and I think it’s cute, and will be a good name for the larger one.

I settle on Omar for the smaller one – another common Nigerien name. Omar and Ibu. The kids think it’s hilarious that I plan to call animals by human names.

Soon Ramatou’s husband, Seyni, comes home. I tell him all about the cats. “Great, Layla,” he says, “but what will you do with your cats when you travel?”

I stop in my tracks – in all the excitement, not for a second has this thought occurred to me. At least once a month I leave my village and go to the regional capital, sometimes I’m gone for four days at a time. I can’t very well bring cats with me everywhere I go. I stand there at a loss, marveling at what a horrible pet owner I already am.

Seyni laughs at my complete lack of attention to detail. “When you leave, you will give the cats to me and I will take care of them,” he tells me.

Relieved, I thank him and we sit down to eat. After dinner, I return to my house to check on the cats. It looks as though they still haven’t moved – which they probably haven’t. The sky looks cloudy and a fierce wind has started up, which means rain is imminent, so I set up my mattress inside.

I awake a few hours later with a jolt. Both cats are standing on my pillow, about two inches from my face. I jump up and they scamper away, and the moonlight from the window reflecting on their white fur gives them a ghostly radiance. They lie down across from my mattress near the door and stare me down until I finally drift off to sleep again.

The next morning, they seem to be warming up. I go to the market and buy them a major treat – 100cfa of fried fish and Solani, a bag of liquid yogurt. This is more than a little ridiculous, considering that most cats here live on a sporadic diet of spiders and gutter water. The smell of the fish is enough to bring them to my feet, and by the end of the day they have begun to follow me around and will even let me pick them up for a few seconds before they whine to be let down. I give them little bits of my food and drag strings of fabric on the ground for them to chase. They’re amazing companions and I could watch their little kitten antics all day – they viciously play-fight with each other, climb up my shade hangar, pounce on unsuspecting insects, and curl up to sleep next to me when I lay down to read.

Layla’s moussizes are soon famous throughout the village, and people I don’t even know are coming to my house to have a look and pet the kitties. I’m glad for the opportunity to share a bit of American culture with my village and introduce them to a new way of looking at animals, and, above all, I’m pleased to find that, of all things, a love for adorable kittens is pretty much universal.