Driving with Julie

Life in Niger can get serious very quickly. So, today, after a week of hearing of grave illness affecting someone at home, helping a friend here get malaria medicine for her child, miscommunication between English and French translation that caused a lot of confusion, etcetera, etcetera, it is time to write about something a little lighter – not because these other situations aren’t important, but because laughing at myself eases some of the tension.

First, a few key phrases (no guarantees on French spelling):

goudronne – paved road

couturiere – woman tailor

pot hole – something that the 8 passenger van I am driving can fit in

motos, camels, cows, goats and donkeys – when I use this phrase, just know that I’m not kidding

My dear language partner risked life and limb to allow me to drive her to her couturiere on Thursday. Along for the ride was her daughter, who was a little bored, in the backseat.

I wanted to have a Nigerien dress made for church. Here, you DO NOT go to church in jeans or pants. You wear a “complet” which is a beautiful two-piece outfit in very bright colors, and what you wear is a mark of respect. It needs to be modest with sleeves and, a headcovering, while not required, is most appropriate.

As I left the school compound, I navigated the van to the far right of the dirt road – there is a small herd of about 20 cattle (those ones with the big hump between their shoulders) meandering down our road in front of me. They have huge horns and they take up a lot of the road, but I pass on the right without incident.

Hajara directs me onto the goudronne from our dirt road, and I turn right to cross over the bridge that spans the Niger River. This intersection is a perfect picture of traffic in Niger. Cars, trucks, men pushing overloaded carts (10+ feet high), donkeys, small children, camels, taxis and motos clog the road. The road is made for two lanes, but there might be three or four vehicles across at any given time. Children dart in and out of traffic.

On the bridge, a donkey cart hauling firewood that will be used to roast goats on Monday for the M*sl*m celebration of Tabaski is in front of me. I slow down, and people behind me begin honking. There is nowhere to go, so I just wait until we get to the roundabout and pass the donkey guy.

Up ahead, I see a herd of goats with their shepherd walking along in the passing lane of the goudronne. I navigate over into the slow lane, but the motos who are trying to zip by me are HONKING at the shepherd because they are mad he is allowing GOATS in the fast lane. You can practically translate the honks: “HELLO?!” “Don’t you know vans, taxis, and motos are faster than goats?!” The honk-honk-HONNKKING is making the goats nervous, but they should really be a little more nervous about the fact that a holiday wherein 95% of the population is eating goat is just a few days away.  One particular motorcycle driver shouts, makes a few hand gestures, and is really clear about what he thinks of the situation. At first, the shepherd is angry, doesn’t he have a right to the road? Then, as I watch the dialog unfold, comprehension dawns, and I watch in my rear view mirror as the shepherd decides it is best to have his goats in the slow lane and drives them over with his staff. The moto driver nods in approval and zips past me a few seconds later, horn BLARING in case I didn’t know he was coming up from behind me.

After a few turns, we end up on a dirt road, and I am navigating the speed bumps, motos, small children, and goats. It’s a jolting hold-your-breath-as-you-pass-through-a-puddle-that-you-hope-doesn’t-turn-out-to-be-a-lot-deeper-than-it-looks kind of road. Hajara says that we have missed our turn, could I stop and backup a little so that we could still turn right? I can’t do it – the Westerner in me refuses to stop in the middle of a road and back up. The land rover behind me honks his encouragement to continue on in the same direction. So, I move forward and turn down another street to get myself turned around.

At this point, I was facing more pot holes than road, which was why Hajara had wanted me to stay on the main dirt road. Would the axles bear one tire in and one tire out of these holes? When was the last time I even thought the word “axle?” This road also had a few large blocks of wood strategically placed between the pot holes. Wood?! Where did that come from in a desert? Focus! I shouted internally. Hajara only shouted, “Attention!” once, when she thought we might be swallowed up forever. In my rearview I saw that I had her daughter’s full attention. We slowed to a crawl and got turned around. Whew!

As I enter the dressmaker’s shop with Hajara, I count four women and two sewing machines. This cement slab building is about 6 x 8 sweltering feet. The walls are covered with designs – pictures of women in all kinds of “complets” so all one has to do is pick a design, and the couturiere will copy it. Hajara introduces me, and we are invited to take a seat. The woman begins to show me western designs.

I look at one of the designs she has suggested, the skirt is mid-thigh in length. In French I say that I think it’s a little short for church. The four women working in the shop burst out laughing. We westerners who don’t even bother to cover our heads in public are a funny bunch. The woman shows me some other designs, but the “too short, too much skin showing” theme remains. I ask Hajara what the word is for “modest.” Her answer – “modeste.” Well, of course it is the same word in English and French. That is the story of my existence right now. So, I try again, and the couturiere shows me patterns that I could wear anywhere – church, school, or home. Now we’re talkin’ . . .

During this whole conversation, sweat is running down my back. We are all dripping with it. At one point, I see one woman wipe the sweat from her upper lip and gather it between her thumb and forefinger, then shake it on the ground. We walk back to the van. I look at Hajara and her daughter, I feel the sweat running down my back and neck in rivulets. We are overheated.

I ask Hajara if I can take us to a place called Amandine’s – a tiny oasis. She directs me because I don’t know my way around yet – no street signs is still tricky for me.

We arrived and walked into Amandine’s – which is to say “another planet.” Outside on the street, it is hot and LOUD and dirty. Inside it is cold and quiet and clean. We each choose a scoop of ice cream and sit in the AC and eat in peace. I cannot describe the feeling of going from one such environment to the other so rapidly – it is completely surreal.

We left Amandine’s, and I drove Hajara and her daughter home. She allowed me to drive back to my house seule, with my promising to text as soon as I was safely there.

As I left Hajara’s neighborhood and found my way to a main goudronne, I tried to get my bearings by keeping track of a cell phone tower on my left. Then my eyes wandered past it, and I realized I could see 5 identical cell phone towers within a mile of each other. I laughed out loud. Abandoning that idea, I kept my eyes on the road.

At that moment, I came upon a downed motorcycle. The two men who had been riding it were still lying on the ground dazed, and the guy who had hit them was just putting his car into park. I hit the brakes, and, as one, the motos behind me all laid on their HORNS and moved to pass me swiftly. As they zoomed around either side of my van, they realized why I had hit the brakes. They, as if in a synchronized action, stopped in a neat row in front of me and cut their engines. Every one of them got off their bikes and helped the two men up and talked with the driver.

As soon as I saw the two men standing, shaken but not broken, I went on my way. And all of the drivers behind me stopped HONKING and proceeded.

At the next roundabout, there was a large cow that had somehow gotten separated from its herd and was trotting down the road. Suddenly, the cow broke into a run, but I managed to pass it, hoping as I sailed by that it wouldn’t bolt into me out of panic.

As soon as I caught sight of the bridge, I knew I had found my way.  I made it home safely and texted Hajara.

My new normal is filled with nervous cows, hardworking donkeys, outsized potholes, concerned shepherds, and refreshing chocolate ice cream.

My worries over my friends still exist. None of my troubles went away. We are still homesick.

Yet, life is full of opportunities to be kind, to love, to have hope. God is good.

Whatever your week has been like, hang in there. We miss you. We love you. You are in our prayers. Thanks for your support and encouragement. We truly appreciate it.

4 thoughts on “Driving with Julie

  1. Hey Julie, my mother emailed a link to your ‘Driving with …’ vignette. I just now see the links to some other entries which I will certainly now catch up with. Mainly, just wanted to note that this is tremendously well written; really a good touch. Congrats


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