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Village Life in Niger

Amberura was a maze. A maze of structures, a maze of emotions.

A Hausa village home to 250 people, Amberura lies in south central Niger, a few kilometres from Nigeria. It’s surrounded by sorghum and millet fields, which are surrounded by the wild, untamed African bush. The nearest market, I learned, is a 45-minute drive by bush taxi, squeezed in the back of a small pickup truck bed with 27 other people, four goats, three chickens, and one ram. The nearest road is an hour and 45 minutes by foot. An hour and 15 minutes by donkey cart or camel.

In Amberura, small mud brick huts are built within larger, mud brick concessions. The huts, though, are for storage and severe weather only. Life is lived outside. Outside, in their concessions, women pound millet from down to dusk, beads of sweat breaking and running down their faces as they lift the heavy wooden clubs above their head, then thrashing them back down into their millet-filled mortars.

Men return from work in the fields, throw their dulled machetes down onto the dust, and sit brewing tea with a circles of friends.

Dirty children in tattered, American clothing run out of one concession and directly into another, and then into another, and then into a pin with shorter mud brick walls which house a small pail of water and a large, sand-colored camel. They run into an alleyway (tall mud brick walls on both sides), weaving around town, entering and exiting all of the other concessions.

Amberura is a maze.

It was a flashback to the leaf houses my sister and I used to rake in our backyard – short, thin piles forming the walls of a labyrinth of connecting rooms. It was a flashback to the forts my cousins and I used to build under blankets and upturned couches and chairs, creating cozy crevices for us to crawl around in.

When I first arrived in Amberura, I scurried through town – wide-eyed – like a lab mouse in a maze. A very happy mouse, though (or maybe a dumb one), who was so excited to turn each corner that she forgot to check whether there was a prize at the end.

At the end there was disappointment, confusion.

At the end, I stood outside Meg’s concession, mindlessly picking tiny pieces of twig from her mud brick wall. Our backpacks were stuffed. We stood waiting for the town’s donkey cart, which would take us to the nearest road, where we could catch a bush taxi into town.

“I have an idea,” Meg said, out of nowhere. “Let’s be pen pals!”

Meg was a Peace Corps volunteer. She was 22, raised on a dairy farm in Virginia. She could make a mean bush pizza with homemade flour tortillas, tomato paste, and powdered milk and oil mixed to make a fairly convincing cheese substitute.

Meg had spent her first month in Amberura locked up in her hut crying. When she dared to emerge, and when her friendly but blunt villagers dared to tell her she couldn’t speak Hausa, she forced a smile and said, “Shut up you fuckface,” in English.

That’s how she made it.

I liked Meg. I liked her a lot, so I decided to share why I got such a kick out of her suggesting (half jokingly) that we be pen pals.

You see, I used to do the pen pal thing. It started in fourth grade with Jennifer F., an artsy Jewish girl from Brooklyn who shared my affection for 30-page letters filled with pre-pubescent angst. Then I branched out, collecting pen pals like my friends collected New Kids on the Block paraphernalia. At times I exchanged letters with 30 girls at a time. I had standards, though. I would only write to people who wrote long letters, who had either cool handwriting or cool stationary, and who were American.

It wasn’t the additional postage that daunted me. My mom gladly funded my habit, falsely assuming I was developing my writing skills. (Little did she know that these letters were penned in clever abbreviations and cutesy slang – practically a dialect of its own.)

No, it wasn’t the money. It was that – and I hate to admit this – I found foreigners, well, boring. There, I said it.

Their English was too formal. They talked too much about school. And besides, at that point in my life, I wanted nothing to do with anyone who wasn’t familiar with Brenda and Brandon Walsh.

So sure, I told Meg, we could be pen pals, but only because you’re American. We laughed, and then we rode off on our donkey cart.

My feet dangling from the back of the rickety cart, I watched Amberura fade into the distance. (My 10-year-old self would have never predicted this scene.)It was hard for me to leave Amberura.

The villagers had taken me in. All of them. And they had won me over. Women removed pails of water from atop their heads to stop and chat each time they saw me. I stared mesmerized at their faces, beautifully decorated by intricate facial scarring. Their bodies were wrapped in bright West African fabrics and ornamented with even brighter glass beads. They let me pound with them. They didn’t care that I only lasted two minutes.

Men took me on camel rides. They helped me climb atop their crop bins so I could take pictures of the town. They sent their children to Meg’s hut with overflowing bowls of food.

It helped, of course, that Meg was always by my side, whispering Hausa phrases in my ear so discretely that most of the villagers never realized I couldn’t speak their language.

I had such fun.

Mostly, though, it was hard to leave because in only four days, I had pulled so much out from within myself, and I wasn’t done figuring out what it all meant.

You see, as tends to happen in 115 degree heat, I grew tired quickly, so I broke up my adventures with quiet time sitting beneath the shade of sorghum stalks in Meg’s concession, thinking.

I thought about Amberura. I was having such fun, yet I wondered why I hadn’t become lost in the experience. I wondered why Amberura wasn’t just about Amberura. It was about that great picture I took of the baby that Kate would appreciate, that funny food story only Donna would understand.

I liked Amberura so much, but as a supplement to my regular life. As a contrast. I realized that if I were there indefinitely, unable to share my anecdotes with people who would understand, unable to escape in a few days or a few weeks or a few months back until a culture that I understood, I wouldn’t have liked Amberura one bit.

I thought about my new friend Mariya, her life and daily routine. She was married before I had my driver’s license. She pounded millet all day, sweating yet smiling. She hauled water from the well. She cooked. She birthed child after child. There was no end to the manual labor her life required. I liked to watch her. It was fascinating. But if hers was my life, I’d probably jump into that well.

I’ve always thought what life each soul is assigned to is a game of chance. I couldn’t help but to wonder what would have become of me had the powers that be had shaken those dice one more time on March 16, 1982, before moving the game piece that sent me to DePaul Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri.

If I had been born into Mariya’s life, would I have been able to hack it? If she had been born into my life, would she have been happier? Would I have been a first or second wife? Would she have liked Brandon or Dylan?

It’s impossible to know. All I knew was that hers wasn’t my life, and I was glad. Yes, glad.

This threw my world into chaos.

You see, I had truly thought that I could be happy in any life I had been assigned. I had planned to spend my life proving it, being one of those free spirited wanderer types who feels at home anywhere and everywhere in the world.

Maybe it should have been a sign that, lately, my future vision had been frequently mutating. At first I thought I would spend my life roaming Africa, but over the summer I studied in South Africa, and it wasn’t what I had expected. It wasn’t enough of a challenge. I was disappointed to see so many shopping malls and fast food restaurants, so I decided I would just roam Africa’s truly developing world. Then I came to Niger, one of Africa – and the world’s – poorest countries. I was disappointed by the filth and discomfort I found in the capital city, so I decided I would just roam rural, developing Africa.

Suddenly, there I was in Amberura – as rural and developing as it gets – and I knew I could never be content with that life. I felt like I should want it, but I didn’t. I was realizing, or maybe finally accepting, that who I wished I were isn’t who I was. Ouch.

There I was, a mouse who had finished the maze, but who found no prize waiting. No cheese. No powdered milk and oil cheese substitute, even.

So now what?

Just another maze to enter. A bigger, harder one. More riddles to figure out. More hurdles to jump over before becoming my future self, whoever she will be. It scares me to follow a question mark into the future. I liked having a plan. I liked having certainty. But I suppose it’s important to remember my 10-year-old self, obsessed with pen palling and Beverly Hills 90210. That girl would have never guessed I would end up where I have today, and I’m pretty happy.

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