On Sunday There Might Be Americans

Personal essay

By Leslie Simmonds Ekstrom - Peace Corps Volunteer: Niger (1963-1965)

Musa sat up on his mat and he knew he was done with sleep. He strained to see a sign of light beyond the door of his mother's hut. The muscles in his legs were jumping already and he had to stand. He walked to the door and pressed his eye against the crack in the straw. There above the rim of the compound wall he could see a sliver of blue. It was Sunday morning.

Each night the family began their sleep outside, the suffocating heat of day lingering long past sunset. But in the chill Sahara dawn, one by one, they dragged their mats back inside the thick mud walls of the huts, where Musa shivered now though he'd wrapped himself in his blanket. He pulled back one side of the door and looked into the compound. Only his uncle, Old Baba, still lay asleep in the middle of the compound, stretched out like a crane skirting the edge of the river, his arms spread like wings and his cracked, spindly toes almost pointed. Old Baba slept soundly whenever he closed his eyes, warmed by the dreams of the cities he'd seen when there had been work on the other side of the desert.

Musa turned back to look at his mother. She lay on her mat with his baby sister, Fatouma, folded into the curve of her body. He knew his mother's dreams. Sometimes when she first awoke she called him by another name. Then she would tell him a story about one of his brothers or sisters who'd died of spots, a cough, or a mysterious fever the village doctor couldn't cure. He remembered some of their faces.

He stepped out of the hut, pretending not to notice the other wives of the compound emerging from the doors of their huts, kneeling to light fires where they would cook the morning meal. One or two had already gone to the center of the compound to pound millet and, soon after, the thunk of their heavy wood pestles joined in a rhythm that reverberated through the village. The sound of the pestles made him hungry for porridge, but today he could leave without food—it was market day. The cars would drive up from the capital city, full of Europeans looking for things to buy. There might be one who would let him follow in the market and be the go-between when they wanted to bargain with a merchant for something to buy. Maybe this would be an American. Americans would pay 10 or 20 times what anything was worth, and then they'd give you a tip so foolish and large that you could buy food and a pair of sandals on the same day.

Musa slipped out through the forecourt, hoping the other wives wouldn't see him and gossip that his mother never fed him. He stood for a moment in the narrow door of the entrance hut, listening for the sound of his name; but he had not been noticed. He pulled the blanket up over his head and walked out into the village, staying close to the wall, following it around to the rear where he could face the eastern sky. The sky changed slowly, veiled by a dull brown haze. Rain had fallen only three times this year and the slightest wind stirred the arid earth into the sky, where it stayed.

Musa's compound was at the back of the village. From where he stood against the wall, he could watch people on their way to the market, treading the wide, worn path that ran through the uncleared bush. They moved almost silently in the early light. He heard the bells of a train of camels before they emerged out of the haze, bringing in salt from the desert. The gray-white slabs hung in rope slings on either side of the camels' humps, bobbing heavily with each long, loose stride. The drivers, seated high above their cargo, swayed forward and back, forward and back. As they came nearer, Musa could hear the clucks of the drivers urging the beasts on and the deep, irritable growl the animals gave in reply. The men might have been half asleep, but they kept their feet pressed against the base of the camels' woolly necks, pushing hard into their flesh to keep them moving forward when they smelled the river and strained to turn toward it.

The women who scurried along the path carried large calabash bowls on their heads and babies tied against their backs. Musa knew the bowls would be laden with roasted groundnuts, dried okra, guinea corn, or locust bean cakes. His mouth watered, although even if he had the money, he wouldn't stop them now. They had to hurry. From his village it was only three more kilometers to town, and some of these women might have left their villages two hours before dawn, to arrive early at the market grounds, hoping to get a good place where there would be shade at midday. The Europeans could arrive at any time of day, taking shelter from the dust and heat in the machine-cooled rooms of the hotel.

He saw a woman on the path whom he recognized and ducked his head into the blanket. She had been a wife in his compound, the second of his father's younger brother, but she'd quarreled too much so he divorced her, sending her back to her village with all her belongings tied in a bundle on her head. She had been industrious but the other wives called her greedy, and they were glad when she was gone. He saw her glance up at the compound wall, her neck askew from the weight of a tray of bottles on her head. She could only roll her eyes toward the wall to take in as much of her former home as there was to see in the flat, cracked surface. When Musa's father had been prosperous, he'd had four wives. Long ago, his mother had been the favorite, and Old Baba once told him that she had been the most beautiful.

Musa pressed his back against the wall, let his knees bend and his buttocks slide to a seat on his heels. From here, he would watch the new sun as it rose above the horizon. When it had come between the earth and the first branch of the gao tree, he would check his mother's hut. If she had not awakened, he would leave without food.

"So you have not yet gone, Ugly One," his mother said, seated at a fire near the door of her hut, her eyes squinted with sleep.

"It's still early."

"Baba's goat has milk," she said. "You can have milk if you want it." She held out a small, round gourd. Now the wives would say she spoiled him.

"Give mine to Fatouma." Musa squatted near the fire to feel the heat of the coals. In a few hours the air would be as hot.

"Eat porridge at least." She handed him a bowl full of yesterday's pounded millet. It had not been heated through.

Fatouma toddled out of the hut on her fat baby's legs, hurrying to sit near him. "Moo-SA," she called. He opened his blanket to set her on his lap and wrapped her up beside him so that only their faces peeked out.

"You look like two morning flowers," his mother said with pleasure, "waiting for the sun to open your leaves." Abruptly she lowered her eyes and stirred the fire, poking it too much, fearful of what she had just said. Tempting Allah.

"But Fatouma is so ugly," he said, easing his mother's anxiety. "Allah would never want to take this ugly child." He felt his sister's body warm against him and gave her his porridge. He pulled her closer to him, looking down into her clear, dark eyes. Seeing her brother's face so near, she reached up and touched his chin, twisting up her mouth in the way she knew would always make him laugh. He laughed to please her and pressed his cheek against the soft down on top of her head.

Musa joined the stream of people on the path that led into town. A group of Bela women, grunting like beasts of burden, came up behind him, pushing past anyone in their way, eager to reach the market and unload the wood racks they balanced on top of their heads. Each rack held a half-dozen clay jars, but these women, their shoulders deep and muscular as men's, could bear the precarious weight of the load. Their dark skin, black as a cooking pot, already shone with sweat. Musa had to jump out of the path to avoid the tilting racks.

Three Fulani girls, sisters most likely, rode by on donkeys alongside the path. Each wore an identical head cloth, brilliant green and woven with golden threads—too fine for a bush market. These were girls whose fathers might wear a watch. They laughed and talked too much as they passed the others, who traveled on foot, and one of them looked at Musa, turned her head to stare at him, speaking to him with her eyes. Uneasily, he looked away. This had begun to happen often, even with girls in his own village. He had grown tall for his age, but he was still too young to answer back.

The path ended at the river where the market grounds made up half the town. The hotel sat on a rise above the river, surrounded by flame trees and high white walls. When he came within sight of the hotel, his stomach contracted, as it always did, seeing that there were at least a dozen boys milling around, expectant, hovering near the hotel gates. He saw no cars there yet. The road at the post office, by which the cars always came, was quiet and empty. The morning air still felt cool. The sun barely showed through the murky sky.

Musa walked near the group of boys, keeping his distance, cautious of their intensity. Many of these boys were his friends with whom he studied the Koran at the malam's house, but no one wanted competition when the Europeans arrived from the capital city. Like a pack of hunting jackals, each was on his own. Perhaps many Europeans would come today and there would be enough for all of them. If they were lucky, there would be Americans.

A tall, green car came fast around the corner at the post office, making a dust storm, and the boys ran, frenzied, straight out in its direction. They met it head on and jumped out of its way to run wildly at its sides, back toward the hotel. Musa joined them, shouting at the Europeans who sat cool and impassive inside the enormous car. The hotel gate swung open and the guard leaped out from behind the wall. He came after the boys with his cattle whip, beating them away. The leather snapped against Musa's thigh and he swallowed a yelp of pain.

There were six men in the green car. Six opportunities to be the go-between. They got out and dropped money into the palm of the guard. The guard followed behind them so none of the boys could get to them before they entered the hotel. Musa knew they would have coffee and bread before they went into the market. He tried to see beyond them, to the inside of the hotel. He had heard stories of the wondrous tables there, covered with crisp, white cloth and spread with sugar and butter set out to be eaten at will.

A small gray truck came more hesitantly around the corner, stopped, then turned away from the hotel and drove directly into the restless throng of animals tethered for sale at the market's outer edge. A man with pumpkin-colored hair and skin speckled like eggs stuck his hands and arms out of the truck, taking photographs, one after another, of the bawling baby camels tied in clusters on the open grounds. The boys left their position at the hotel gate, tearing toward the gray truck. Musa stayed where he was, rubbing the flesh that still stung from the snap of the guard's whip.

Now a white sedan appeared at the post office road. A Peugeot. Musa could name the car. He felt the thrill of self-importance, as though he alone possessed secret knowledge of the world outside his village. The Peugeot moved slowly into the large open space that separated the market from the hotel.

Inside the Peugeot, he could see one man, one woman, and their child, a little boy leaning out the window, whose hair seemed to shine with silver light. Musa touched his own head, pressed his fingers down into his dull black, tightly curled hair. The woman in the car held her child as he stretched out the window. "Cow," he shouted, pointing his finger at a wild-eyed bull rocking its head against ropes that tied it to a tree. Musa thought he recognized the little boy's word. Was it English? These might be Americans, and the others hadn't heard.

Instead of going through the hotel gates, this car drove up next to the wall of the hotel compound. The swarm of boys ran back to the Peugeot, and the guard came at them again with his whip, cursing their mothers because he stumbled and nearly fell. The man locked the car and walked with his wife and child toward the market, the guard hovering around them until they had gone too far from the hotel. Musa ran with the pack, circling the couple to offer help in the market.

"Leave us alone," the man shouted in the boys' own language. "We don't need you," he bellowed, his white man's accent falling hard on the wrong syllables. But none of the boys wanted to be the first to give up. "Get away from us!" He raised his arm threateningly. The boys moved back, more amused than afraid. Many Europeans who came up to the market were like that. They wanted to be on their own and wouldn't ask for help even if you followed them around all day.

One of the boys sent up a shout and the rest of them turned like a herd of sheep and stampeded toward the hotel, bursting into the dust of another car. Musa watched them go and turned to look toward the market. He could already see a shimmering mirage hanging above the market stalls. The heat of the day had already begun. The sky had cleared and the sun seemed to be eating the air. This might not be the Sunday he had hoped for. He should have taken some porridge.

The young couple were walking into the cattle lot, moving cautiously around the nervous, long-horned animals. Their little boy pointed his finger again and again, twisting in his father's arms, excited, his eyes wide. The woman stopped to watch a Tuareg man paint yellow lines on the backs of his bulls, to identify them and mark them for sale. Her husband placed the boy on his shoulders, spoke a few words to her, and he left her. She was alone. Musa's legs moved before his mind had made its plan.

The woman walked briskly into the marketplace without the usual hesitation of a European. She seemed at ease in the noise and clutter of an African market.

"Gud marn-ning, Madame," Musa said, the only English he knew, phrasing the words in a lilting tone that he thought sounded friendly. He alternately galloped and tiptoed as he spoke, trying to maintain a strategic position at her side. The woman ignored his greeting, gave him a look of impatience, and made her way through the crowd, heading into the center of the market.

He watched her go. She was tall and slender as a young girl, with hair yellow and straight as millet stalks. She wore pants the same as her husband's—washed-out blue and tight as skin. The shirt she wore was no finer than those he'd seen on boys coming back from the capital city. How strange it seemed. These people would spend on one bottle of beer what a man in his village couldn't earn in a day's work, yet they spent no money on the clothes they wore, and the women dressed as plain as the men. He glanced down at her shoes. With sudden excitement he almost turned to shout at one of his friends. She was U.S.A.! The white cloth shoes she wore had a bright blue symbol on both sides, shaped like the blade of a butcher's knife, curved back at the end. Only Americans wore those shoes.

The American woman stopped at the stall of a Hausa merchant and knelt down to examine a pile of his painted glass beads. The merchant ceremoniously opened a box to show her more beads, then another, and when she didn't react, another and another, making grand movements with his arms, like a storyteller, pouring out the beads on the mat where he sat on the ground. They formed little pools of color all around him. He thrust his hand under her face to show her a necklace, which seemed to irritate her, and she stood up to move on, the merchant shouting at her to come back and buy something—look at the mess he'd made for her.

Musa followed her, staying close, guarding his claim, pretending he'd been hired. They were walking through the pottery lot, Musa noiselessly on her heels, when the woman stopped suddenly. She stepped aside, out of the path that separated the grain pots from the water jars, and stood there waiting, her back to him. Musa froze. He turned around and walked the other way. Then she stepped back into the path and continued in the direction she'd been going. He turned again to follow her. After a few more minutes she whipped around and looked him straight in the eye. Musa lowered his head and passed her, as though on his way to some purpose. She walked off in the opposite direction, disappearing into the dense, noisy crowd.

Musa maintained his ploy for only a minute, then spun on his heels and darted into the rows of fragile clay containers. He craned his neck to find her, then anxiously looked down to watch his feet, taking small, careful steps between the pots and jars, avoiding the disaster of a debt he couldn't pay.

The American woman was not far away. He saw her. No other boy had found her. But he leaped too quickly into the next narrow path, and his foot hit the top of a long-necked water jar. It fell over on its side. He heard an old woman screaming at him—a shrill, toothless voice that made people turn and look. Musa stopped in the path, wishing he'd never left his mother's hut.

The old woman stood up, shaking her hands at him, imploring Allah to strike down this dangerous boy. She lifted the jar to show a gathering group of market women the damage that had been done. Miraculously, the jar came up off the ground in one perfect piece. The cackling old voice stopped in surprise. Musa lifted himself into the air and galloped down the path in search of his American.

She had stopped in a path that wove through a field of enameled tinware—dozens of bowls, pots, cups, and trays displayed on the ground, brightening the hard-baked dirt with their painted fruits and flowers. Among the tinware, a half-dozen Bela girls stood in front of his American. They giggled and pressed against each other, holding their henna-dyed fingertips delicately over their mouths. The girls were all dressed the same, wrapped in indigo cloth that gave up some if its inky color on their skin. Plastic rings and beads covered the girls' heads, woven into the thin, intricate braids they wore hanging down stiffly on all sides. They smelled of honey.

One of the Bela girls wanted to sell the American woman a bracelet, and a small crowd had formed to watch. The woman was interested in the bracelet, but she couldn't understand what they were saying about the price. Now she would need him.

Musa spoke up in careful French. "How much would you like to pay, Madame?"

"Five hundred francs," she answered.

Musa addressed the girls in their own language. The people of his village looked down on the Belas, whom they considered coarse and low, but one of the girls had large, soft eyes, gentle as a calf's and full of words. She turned from Musa's glance and lowered her eyes to the ground. He was distracted by his need to look longer at this shy Bela girl.

"The white woman will pay five hundred," he said. The Bela girls rolled their eyes and giggled; they tilted their heads and whispered. They loved the crowd and were taking their time. "Five hundred," Musa repeated, almost inaudibly. His mouth felt full of dust and he longed for a drink of the river.

At last one of them answered him, holding her fingertips over her mouth like a little red-orange cage, feigning modesty. "Not less than seven hundred and fifty," she said firmly.

Musa looked up at the woman. "They want one thousand francs, but I'm sure I can help you. I will tell them seven hundred and fifty."

She listened to him and repeated the amount he would offer. He nodded. "All right,"she said. "Good."

"She has agreed to pay seven hundred and fifty," Musa said. The girls squealed and leaned on each other in a haphazard circle. They studied Musa, flashing their eyes at him. Bold girls. He had to look away from them, but his eyes darted irresistibly back to the shy one, who was watching him, too, her head down, stealing a glance sideways.

The American woman counted out the coins, took the bracelet, and slipped it on her arm. The golden white brass lost some of its radiance against her pale skin. But she seemed pleased. As she walked away from the Bela girls, she was smiling. And he had helped her. He looked around to see if anyone noticed, staying close to her, making helpful comments. Which she seemed to ignore.

Suddenly Musa saw Aliyu. Sly Aliyu with the angel face who saw Musa's American.

"Bonjour, Madame," sang Aliyu, and held out both his hands, filled with rough clay beads. "My mother made these," he said in French.

The liar! "Your mother eats with hyenas," Musa muttered, his head turned away. If his American understood what he'd said, she might disapprove.

Aliyu ignored the insult and looked up appealingly at the woman. "My mother made them yesterday in our village."

"How much?" she asked. She spoke directly to Aliyu, ignoring Musa, her go-between.

"Seven hundred and fifty francs," smiled Aliyu.

The woman was furious. "Your mother eats with hyenas!" she snapped at Aliyu with the angel face, and Musa was staggering back and forth, holding his stomach, shrieking with laughter. This was his American!

She turned her back to Aliyu and walked away. Musa followed, suppressing his triumph for the business at hand. He could see that her shirt was wet and stuck to her back; she would be done with the market now. If she gave him 25 francs, he would buy rice and sauce. If 50, he would buy rice and sauce with meat. Today he would have meat.

She took off the heavy Bela bracelet and put it in the bag that hung over her shoulder. She looked at her watch, lifting her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the sun. "It's too hot." She looked at him now, spoke directly to him, using words in his own language. He held his breath. "I will eat at the hotel. Then I want to go back into the market. Can you help me buy a Tuareg ring?"

"Yes," he said, trying to appear serious and mature.

"I will be back soon." She walked away then, heading for the hotel. She took out a cloth and wiped her face. She did not take out any money.

Musa followed her to the hotel, taking no chances. He would wait there until she came out again. Somewhere in the shade on the other side of the wall, he could hear the guard sleeping noisily. One half of the double gate stood open and Musa looked inside, all the way to the wide glass doors of the hotel. He watched the woman disappear behind one shining panel of glass and for a moment he saw his own reflection—an almost beautiful, too-thin boy in rumpled khaki shorts and a T-shirt that hung awry at the bottom. He thought again of the Bela girl. He imagined himself a young man coming back from the capital city, bringing her a gift the likes of which she would never see in this bush market. By then he would be living in "the hut of the unmarried sons." He would wear new creased pants and a shirt as crisp and white as the hotel tablecloths.

He looked into the sky to judge the time. It was midday. The sun seemed to have ridden on wings that were closing down around him, suffocating him. He felt his head grow light, as though it would separate from his body. Other boys who had followed a European in the market might already be paid by now, sitting at a food stall under a thatched roof, eating rice and sauce. Rice and sauce. He would be satisfied with stale porridge. Musa slid down into the thin shade against the wall and set his swelling head against his knees, wondering why Allah had made the world unevenly.

He woke at the sound of a car's engine. He opened his eyes to see that the sun had left the top of the sky. He had slept too long. Shadows dropped from the trees around the market grounds. He looked out behind the hotel where the afternoon sun made a hundred thousand mirrors dance on the surface of the river. Boys his age, some of them naked, dived and rose up through the cool, sparkling water, rolling and turning on the surface like hippos. He would join them soon.

He heard the creak of dry hinges and looked over to see the guard walking the gate open. The guard saw Musa and slashed the air with his whip. Then he bowed absurdly low as the tall green car drove out through the gate. Large black letters marked the car: RANGE ROVER. Who had followed the white men in the Range Rover? Which of his friends there in the river had received more than 25 francs?

The sound of laughter came from behind the wall, a child's. The little boy with the silver hair ran out through the gate and turned to look behind him, bending his legs with his hands on his knees, as though to brace for a run. Musa's American came out after him, let her son run a few paces, then grabbed him up in her arms. The husband walked out after her, held out his hand to the guard. Musa heard the sound of more than one coin.

The husband took the little boy and walked to the car. She followed behind, taking a cloth out of her bag and tying it around her hair. The guard bowed and smiled, leaning toward her, his brown teeth coming too close to her face, and she hurried past him.

Musa stood up.

The woman did not see him, took quick steps along the wall toward the white Peugeot. She opened the car door, got inside, and rolled down the window. She was not going back into the market.

The car moved back toward Musa, passing the guard, who doffed his dirty hat and bowed again. When the car stopped in its backward path, his American twisted her head around to take a last look at the market. "Oh," she called, seeing Musa there. "I forgot about you." The Peugeot turned its wheels and sped away from the wall, making a long dust cloud that flared wider and higher at the post office road.

Musa looked again out behind the hotel. A herdsman was forcing his cattle into the river, smacking their hindquarters with a strip of curled hide to get them across the shallow water. Musa's friends stopped their play to whoop at the timid cows. He decided not to join them. He could swim just as well farther down the river, near his village.

"There you are, Ugly One," his mother said. "It's late. What did you do in the market all day?"

"I helped a woman from the capital city. An American. She wanted to buy a Bela's bracelet."

"You bargained with a Bela?"

"Yes, but only for her. My American."

"And did she give you something for your work?"

"Two hundred francs."

"So much!"

"I bought you a fine new water jar. And red bracelets for Fatouma."

"Did you eat in the market?"

"I ate rice and meat. I ate so much meat I can barely move."

"But you are moving very well, I see. You can't eat a little more?"

"Maybe some porridge. A little."

His mother filled his bowl to brimming with pounded millet. It was fresh and hot. He breathed in the steam as it rose to his face, clearing his head of the market dust.

"So where is our new water jar?" she asked. "The old one is frail as Baba's bones."

"It was too big. I had to leave it in town."

"With Fatouma's bracelets?"

"Yes. I'll get them next week."

"You will try again next week?"

"Americans come every Sunday," he said, and he stretched out his legs to make a place for Fatouma. 

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