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.

Scenes from Ville, Part Three: Layla’s Day

Allah u Akbar, Allah u Akbar…

I awaken to the Islamic call to prayer broadcasting throughout my village via loudspeaker, crackling and almost incomprehensible. It’s 4:30am, and my day is about to begin.

Soon people from all over my village will kneel on their mats, praying for the first of five times daily, as they have for most of their lives. The call to prayer is just one of the ways that Islam shapes daily life in Niger, but for me, it serves as a handy wake-up call. 4:30am probably sounds ridiculously early for most people stateside, but it’s only logical that when it will be 95 degrees in the shade by noon, making any kind of activity (or indeed, any kind of movement whatsoever) almost completely impossible, you start work as early as you can.

I stretch out on my cot, and look up at the sky. As long as it doesn’t rain, I sleep under a mosquito net outside, as it’s much too hot to fall asleep inside at night. Besides, I enjoy looking at the stars. The remains of my first shade hangar, which collapsed on my first night, have since been cleared away, but my Municipal Secretary, Seyni, has promised to build me a new one on Friday – market day, when he can get the materials. So, until then, I have no shade in my concession, but at least I can look up at the stars at night.

I squeeze out of my net, unlock my door, and walk inside. After brushing my teeth, I think about breakfast. I could make oatmeal, but that would involve not only washing a dish, but turning on my stove, and I would really like nothing to do with either endeavor just yet. Instead, I take out a loaf of bread and spread it thickly with off-brand Nutella I found in Niamey. Amazing. One of my favorite things about my village is that I have a baker, and can always get fresh, delicious bread – quite a lucky break.

I turn on my iPod speakers so I can listen to music while I start my morning chores. Sweeping my house is a thankless job – as soon as I sweep out the massive pile of dust that has accumulated on my floor in the last 24 hours, it will start again. But unless I want to live in a sand dune, it has to be done. After I’m done inside, I fold up my cot and bring it inside, and then take a smaller hand broom made of twigs and sweep my outdoor concession. I remember the training staff teaching us how do this, and thinking, You want me to sweep the dirt up off the dirt? Are you nuts? But the broom leaves an aesthetically pleasing pattern in the sand as it sweeps up all the little branches and random debris, which really does make it look better.

I pour out water from my large water bideau and fill up my water filter, adding bleach with an eyedropper to kill any bacteria, and leave it to sit for 30 minutes. The water comes from a filtered pump in the middle of town, and it would probably be safe to drink straight, but I’ve been relatively healthy so far and see no need to take chances with ameobas.

I take the rest of the bideau outside and pour it in a large basin – I have clothes to wash. As the sun comes up, I sit hunched over the basin, feverishly scrubbing my shirts and socks and sheets with a bar of soap and a little sponge, before hanging them out to dry on a line I’ve hung outside. After the clothes are done, I wash my dishes.

Chores done, and it’s only 7am. I sit for a little while, listening to music and thinking about what I’m going to do for the rest of the day. I then pour out the rest of the dirty water, and pull some fresh for my shower. As I’ve mentioned before, with no running water we have to take bucket baths – in my outdoor bathing area, I fill a little teapot with water, pour it over my head, soap up, and then rinse. This is actually quite satisfying and refreshing, while taking less time and using less water than a conventional shower.

After I’ve dried off, I dress for the morning. I tie a long, brightly colored piece of fabric, called a zara, to my waist and put on a simple t-shirt. Because women in my village cover their head, I loop another strip of fabric around my head and tie a bow at the nape of my neck. I catch a glimpse in the mirror. I think I look a little like a pirate…but of course no one in my village will judge me, because they’ve never seen one.

I fill up my water bottle, lock my door, and leave my concession. I really don’t have any set plan, but I do know that every single house in the entire village would be delighted for me to pay them a visit, which I do. I pick houses at random to pop in, greet them, and sit for a few minutes exchanging pleasantries. That’s really all I need to do – Nigeriens are a very social people, and they will always entertain company. Besides, my Zarma isn’t good enough to have an in-depth conversation anyway.

After visiting three families, I make my way down to the market to buy more bread, greeting everyone I see. I pass the doctor’s office, where several families are waiting outside to see the doctor. Gastrointestinal diseases are common here, as is malaria – the doctor has told me that this year alone there have been over 200 cases of malaria in the village.

It’s a bit of a hike but the market is located right by a beautiful valley. My village is located on a hill, and at the crest you can see for miles. It’s really a beautiful sight. After buying a few loaves of soft bread, I sit under the shade with a group of men who always seem to be there, I chat with them for a little while, mostly listening, gesturing, and nodding. They are curious about America and my life before I came here, and I try to explain as best I can. As a female American in the village, I enjoy freedom to sit and talk with both men and women. Male volunteers generally have a more difficult time sitting with women, and a Nigerien woman could never sit and talk with a group of men, it wouldn’t be appropriate. But because of my unique position I am able to do both, which I am sure will help me greatly in my work at a later time.

After sitting for a while, I bid the men farewell. I purchase a bottle of orange flavored Oriba, a brand of soda that I believe is one of the few products you can buy here that was actually produced in Niger – Oriba has a factory in Niamey. I’m not a big fan of soda in the states, and here it’s basically liquid sugar (even more so than in America, if you can imagine that). I drink about half of the syrupy beverage while standing again on the crest of the hill overlooking the view. Two little boys are watching me with great interest, and I wave merrily at them, which seems to give them courage to come up and talk to me. I hand one the rest of the soda, saying in Zarma, “Some for you, and some for you. Share!” A man putting a harness on his donkey nearby laughs aloud at my tone. The boys run off to enjoy their gift.

By now it’s almost noon and it’s getting hot. I go back to my house, take my now bone-dry clothing off the line, change, wash up a bit, and start on lunch – today I make some noodles with tomato paste. After eating, I take my daily anti-malaria medication along with a multivitamin. Then I lie down and try to nap. It’s pretty hot in my house, and because I have no shade hangar anymore, I can’t go and sit outside. The sleeping doesn’t really work out, so I pull out a book and read for several hours, enjoying the peace and quiet of my house.

After I finish my book, I turn on some music and play Solitaire with my deck of cards, just to wait out the heat. I’m playing when I hear a young boy approach. It’s my neighbor, Ishmael. His mother, Aischatou, is the wife of one of the school employees. She speaks French, so I’m able to speak with her better than most others.

I invite him inside and he sits with me. At this point, all I have on is a knee-length skirt and a thin white tanktop with no bra. It’s rather less clothing than I generally make a habit of wearing in front of 13 year old boys, but give me a break, it’s at least 90 degrees inside my hut. I pull out my Zarma dictionary and we spend some time going over money vocabulary – the Zarma system for counting money is confusing and I’ve had some difficulty with it. I pull some coins from my purse, putting together random amounts he quizzes me.

After a while of this, he takes his leave and goes to the market to hang out with his friends. Alone again, I play some more cards, read a little more, do the dishes from lunch, and then get dressed again to return to the village – I’ll walk around until 8pm, when I go to Seyni and his wife, Ramatou’s house to have dinner.

Seyni is one of my counterparts in the village, and he came to the training site for a two-day conference about what to expect out of having a Peace Corps Volunteer in his village. At one point, he and I sat down to talk individually about what I might be able to accomplish in my first three months. He wanted me to do an English club, and spoke fondly of the past volunteer, Nadia (her real name is Teri), who had been close with his family.

The night after I moved in, Ramatou invited me over for dinner, serving millet and sauce. They have a television and quite a nice house – they’re definitely one of the more well-off families in the village. Each night it seems like every child in the village comes to their house to watch this ridiculously bad Brazilian soap opera dubbed in French, Marina, which is funny because I’m pretty sure that none of the children even speak French.

That night, Seyni sat down next to me and explained in Zarma, “Every night, you will come here at 8pm. We will sit. We will watch television. We will talk. And we will eat dinner.” Laughing, I agreed. And just like that, I had a standing dinner date for two years. After several nights of eating with them, I decide to contribute, and purchase a very modest gift or some sauce ingredients – a bag of rice, a tiny can of tomato paste, and a few seasoning cubes. But it doesn’t go over well – they refuse the gift, saying that I am a guest and they don’t want me buying them food. Frustrated at their admirable, completely Nigerien, yet totally unnecessary insistence on feeding me unassisted, I try to tell them that I am not a guest but a member of the community, that I will be eating with them often, that Peace Corps gives me enough money to pay for food, and besides, in America it’s rude to go over to someone’s house to eat without bringing them a little something. No dice. They won’t take the food and kindly but firmly warn me against bringing any more. There’s no way I’m going to just eat their food indefinitely without contributing, so I’ll just have to find the right moment and try again.

But before going to Seyni’s that evening, I decide to go to Aischatou’s house, right down the road. She welcomes me warmly, and I sit and talk with her about my house and Ishmael. She disappears into her house and returns momentarily with a massive platter of rice and sauce. She digs in (literally, Nigerien women eat with their hands) and invites me to do the same. I have a whole other meal coming to me in an hour, so I attempt to politely refuse, which, by the way, never works in this country. “A si kannu ni se?” she asks. “It will not taste good to you?” Damn it. Thoroughly guilt-tripped, I begin to eat with her, loudly praising her cooking. She reminds me that there will be a baptism in two days, and wants me to come to her house on the morning of so we can walk there together, and then reminds me to bring a small gift. I make a mental note to buy a few bars of soap at the market the next day.

After we’ve finished, I wash my hands and thank her generosity, then make my way to Ramatou’s house. Her concession is filled with the usual gaggle of children watching Marina. I sit and join them. During a commercial break, some of the kids get up and sing a song to me that they had apparently composed together that day. It’s hard to convey in writing how adorably obnoxious the tune was, but I’ll try. Picture a group of 15 children clapping along and Ramatou rolling her eyes in the background.

Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla ga ba zankay
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla si ma hijjie
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla fun Amerik
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla gonda lampo
Layla, Layla, Layla

…etc etc

Which roughly translates into:

Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla loves children
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla is not married
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla is from America
Layla, Layla, Layla
Layla has a flashlight
Layla, Layla, Layla

…etc etc

It’s cute, but Ramatou soon tires of them and shoos the children away. Now, it’s just me and her eating together. She makes rice and sauce as well, and we sit on the ground eating with our hands. She is young and quite pretty, with one 2 year old daughter, Mariama. Seyni arrives shortly and he gets his own bowl of rice and sauce to eat with a spoon (men always eat separately and they usually eat with utensils). He’s brought Mariama a Solani from the market – a bag of liquid yogurt. Delighted, she sits on his lap and drinks the sweet liquid straight from the bag. Seyni reassures me again that he will come on Friday morning to fix my hangar. He’s already fixed my gate and my inside door lock, and hired a man to come weekly to weed my yard.

I sit and talk with them until about ten, at which time I take my leave and walk back to my house. I’ve brought my lamp, so I can light the way back on the road. It’s not far, and soon I’m back at my house. I brush my teeth, set up my mosquito net outside and lie down, exhausted, hoping it doesn’t rain tonight.

This day was both similar and different to every other day. I like having a routine, and I especially enjoy the freedom to interact on my own schedule. I try to take the philosophy that each of the villagers has something to teach with me, and I want to visit each of them in turn. I want to work with the villagers to understand their successes, their hopes, and to figure out what they need and want from me. I’m also enjoying having time to myself, to read, to write and think in peace and quiet. Hopefully, with a little effort and a lot of patience, over the course of two years I’ll be successful at both.