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Scenic images from the field

Trekking to the Sahara


Dust swept across the yard into the eyes of crying babies and patient mothers. I picked up the next naked baby to weigh him on the scale. Before I could get out of his target range, he peed down my dress and legs. I gently laid him down on the scale. He looked at me and saw my strange white skin and alien facial features, and he screamed until he was back in the comfort of his mother's arms.

After many months of dusty yards and frightened babies, I needed a break from my community-health care work in Niger, and thankfully, the group of fellow Peace Corps Volunteers with whom I had trained had planned to meet up for a camel trek. I traveled east for four days across sub-Saharan West Africa to find my friends. Niger does not have any trains, so the main form of long-distance transportation is by "bush taxies."

The vans were built to seat fifteen people, but the driver interwove legs and arms in order to sardine twenty-five passengers, plus a few babies, into the broken seats. To get maximum use out of the space, he placed live poultry under the seats. Everyone wore flip-flops, and the chickens and guinea fowl pecked at our exposed toes. The cramped quarters did not allow for any shifting and the unpadded seats and smell of twenty-five hot, sweaty, unwashed bodies made for an arduous ride.

Since Niger is predominantly Muslim, we stopped five times a day for prayer call. Everyone piled out of the car and rolled out small bits of carpet, straw or plastic mats. They kneeled toward Mecca and went through a series of half-hour rituals involving bowing, standing, and praying. Then the taxi man drove on at hair-raising speeds. He wove his way in and out of the donkeys, goats, and camels that meandered in the road.

The driver made stops to pick up stray travelers or drop people off in places that seemed completely uninhabited. There are no service stations along the roads in Niger, but our driver stopped to pour gasoline into the tank from his storage canister. During refueling breaks, we made use of the natural bathrooms -- one side of the road for the women and the other side for men.

Looking out the cracked window of the taxi, I could see across the stark, beautiful landscape. Herds of African cattle with elegant long white horns strolled together across land dotted with huge baobab trees. As we traveled east, the color of the majestic mesas, little mountains of wind-carved rock, changed from hues of deep red-orange to light pink.

On my journey, I had to go through forty-two military police check- points. Each road stop took at least an hour. All the luggage, elaborately tied down on the top of the taxi, had to be untied and lowered down. Military men holding semi-automatic machine guns searched all the passengers' bags. Some items, such as cases of beer, were sometimes confiscated for no apparent reason.

The military asked all of us for identification and interviewed each passenger. They enjoyed asking questions to the anasaras, or foreigners, in the group, particularly the women. I was often asked if I was married or single and if I would like a boyfriend or husband. In Niger the men buy their wives. I usually told the men my bride price was very expensive and quoted some outrageous sum of money that they could not afford. They laughed and enjoyed my mocking since they knew anasara men did not buy their wives.

I met up with some of my friends, and we continued the journey together. Twice our bush taxis reached the main cities late at night. Curfews meant we had to sleep in the taxi until morning, when the military would let us into the city. I had no warm clothes with me, so there were long, cold hours. The temperature went from 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to 45 degrees during the night. Some of us slept on the seats of the van and others slept on prayer mats next to or underneath the van.

The second time we had to wait to enter a city, my friends and I crowded around the bonfire the military guards had made. The guards were pleased I could speak Zarma (a West African language) with them. They asked about my journey and were surprised when they found out how far I had traveled. Though they would not let us across the border, they brought out a dirty mattress for us to sleep on as we waited for morning to come. My friends and I gratefully piled on it, huddling together to keep warm. The morning was signaled by the first prayer call, and then the military guards brought us to the police, who insisted that we register as tourists before they would let us into the city.

When we finally convened, our safari consisted of eight African guides, twenty-five fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, two Danish men, and six Frenchmen. Most of us were to travel by camel but a few in Land Rovers. We knew there was a war going on up north, and I was told that the rebels had shot a man on a camel twenty-three times with arrows. Our African guides were worried that we might encounter rebels, so they arrived prepared for the safari with bows and arrows. The rest of us were a little less informed and a little more carefree. We wanted to experience cameling north into the Sahara.

After the initial difficulties of mounting protesting camels, we set forth for our safari. We hid from the harshness of the sun under colorful turbans. The rough wooden saddles had no padding and were painful. Bruises set in a few hours into the ride. Yet, I could not resist racing with the other two Volunteers who rode in front with me. The lopey, choppy camel's gait turned into a smooth-sliding trot and then a lively canter as I bounced around hoping that the rope holding the saddle on would not break and send me tumbling twelve feet down into the scattered thorn bushes and trees.

Our friends who rode out in four-wheel-drive Land Rovers conveniently met us on the way north and handed out cold beers to refresh us for the rest of our tiring, but beautiful, adventure. Finally, we reached the Sahara. Here the sand slips like an incoming wave over the vegetation of the saheil. We camped out next to the dunes, built a bonfire, and ate chickens that had been killed and plucked that morning. I helped give out our rations of French baguettes and wine. I savored everything that went into my mouth, as if I had starved for days.

The next morning, we woke up early and braved the cold to explore the dunes. The part of the Sahara we were in is called the Tall...which makes me think of the tall white flowing waves of the sand through which we waded. We scattered in all directions running, diving, sliding, and falling down the soft white hills. We tackled each other and rolled over with the sand filling our shirts and pants.

I took off my shoes and felt the gentle carpet of sand with my toes. I walked along the windblown cliffs that were such great fun to slide down. The contrast of the foamy white sand against the royal-blue sky grew sharper as the morning light broke through. I thought about how Niger is full of contrasting bitter and sweet experiences.

Deborah Ball (Niger)

Deborah was a Health Extension Volunteer in Niger. She has a B.A. in Anthropology and is originally from Upperville, Virginia.

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