Something to Chew On

Each week, we continue to go to an orphanage for babies. We each hold the same baby we had the week before, establishing connection, enjoying time together. Last week, “my” baby died. Names have been changed to protect privacy.

In a culture where the main faith does not allow women in the cemetery, it falls to others to bury their loved ones if there is not a man in the house. So, it fell to Ibrahim, a friend of ours who works at the Centre, to bury Amadou while Deborah, Amadou’s grandmere, stayed home.

The following day, Sunday, Ibrahim took me out to see Deborah in her hut. We arrived on the outskirts of Niamey – to the east as far as I could tell. I had no idea where we were. Ken had been unable to come with me as a visitor had arrived at the school for a tour.

Deborah was not home, and we sat in the car with the doors propped open for ventilation as we waited for her to arrive. Ibrahim’s phone rang. A friend of his said he was at Ibrahim’s parents’ home; could Ibrahim go see him? Ibrahim got off the phone and asked me if we could go to his parents’ house.

So, we drive just a couple of minutes. Outside of his parent’s gate, there are three men. I think Ibrahim is in his mid-30’s, and these three look it as well. They all begin talking with each other, a couple of them looking over at me curiously. But, at this point, I am always being looked at curiously, so I ignore them. I know I’m not supposed to look at them. There are four little boys – about 8-10 years old – just sitting there. They greet me in Zarma. We start chatting, and then we are playing a game. I say a phrase in French, they say the phrase in Zarma, I mimic, then I say the phrase in English, they mimic. We are cracking each other up because I cannot mimic their words, but they cannot mimic my English either. Then, suddenly we look up, and all the men have stopped talking and are watching our game. We stop playing. Ibrahim excuses himself to his friends and walks me inside to meet his mother. She is sitting with a few other women in the inner courtyard. She only speaks Zarma. Ibrahim leaves us immediately. The women greet me.  They are in the middle of sharing a meal together, and one of them offers me some in very quiet French.

I hate to say it, but I don’t answer. I just pretend I don’t understand. When a lunchtime meal is prepared here, it is almost always mashed yam with brown gravy on top. People eat out of a communal pot with their hands. To be honest, it grosses me out. I have tried this dish when it was offered at Baby Home. I am a big baby when it comes to soft textures – I would go hungry for a while before eating something that is the consistency of cream of wheat, rubbed into a ball, with gravy on top, after everyone has had their hand in the pot and licked their fingers. Can’t. Do. It. – Such. A. Westerner.

Ibrahim’s youngest brother comes out and talks to me. He speaks French, and he tells me it is difficult to understand my French with my American accent. But he translates for me with his mother, and we talk back and forth quietly. She asks me to move to the other side of the courtyard where it is cooler at this time of day. We get up and kids move our chairs for us. Another woman is with us, but she does not speak. She is not unpleasant, but she makes no eye contact.

Then Ibrahim’s dad arrives. I know it is him because he is an older replica of Ibrahim. He introduces himself and asks me immediately what do I think of polygamy? (!) He motions to the silent woman and tells me this is his second wife. I say that it is very different in Niger than in my country. Ibrahim is nowhere to be found. His dad and I talk for about 20 minutes. He tells me about his family, about his kids’ educations, asks what I think of Trump (!), and tells me which of his kids can speak which languages. He is a tapissier – a carpet maker and an upholsterer of furniture. He gives me his card. He asks me what I think of his country. I say I find it is a difficult place for children without a father or women who don’t have husbands. He says that is true – but that it is difficult for a man here who truly works. That man will have 20 relatives dependent on him for money and provision. He says that even those who could work don’t because that man is taking care of them.

At this point, a younger child appears, and hands her mother two small baggies. I recognize one as a type of “fruit” that people sell here. You’re supposed to suck on it and then throw out the pit. It is supposed to be good for upset stomach. I have found the taste bitter, but not bad. The other bag holds what looks like large bits of tree sap. Ibrahim’s dad offers me some. He explains it is “gum Arabic.” It looks horrible, but he takes a big one and pops it into his mouth. He patiently, without touching it, works one out of the plastic and into my hand. It looks huge. I would like to take a tiny bite, but I don’t know if that’s allowed, and I pop the whole thing into my mouth. Major error. I end up spending the next 10 minutes praying silently that I don’t vomit. I chew and nod my head to try to keep up my end of the conversation. It is, as Ken put it later when I had him try a tiny piece, like eating that envelope glue that one finds on business envelopes, only it is big and mushy and super sticky and solid. I end up getting a large piece of it basically welded to my whole lower jaw on the left. I try to talk without appearing like I have this huge thing of glue stuck in my mouth. I imagine I look like someone who chews tobacco, and I’m trying to concentrate ON. MY. FRENCH. Ibrahim’s dad offers me the whole bag of gum Arabic to take home, as I probably don’t know where to buy it.

Ibrahim makes an appearance and joins the conversation. But he speaks to his mother in Zarma quietly for a long time, telling her a story as his father listens. I don’t know if it is the story of Amadou, but I think it is. I listen but can pick up no words that I can identify. At least I don’t have to talk. His mother listens and stares at the ground, nodding her head, occasionally clucking in sympathy. Then, Ibrahim turns and asks me if we should try again. Yes, I agree, and I get my bag. When I think no one is looking, I grab a piece of tissue paper from my bag. I rip at the edges of the gum with my finger nails and try to quickly pry it off my teeth and lower jaw. I get a good grip on one edge and pull. I cover it with the tissue, and wrap it in my purse. I look around – no one seems to have noticed. We’re all still moving and Ibrahim is still chatting as we move toward the door.

As we walk out, I say goodbye to my new young friends outside the gate. We get back in the car, and Ibrahim grins.

He drives back to Deborah’s. Ibrahim gets out once we arrive, and he knocks and knocks. Finally, he comes back to the car. Should we just give up? He asks if I have a few more minutes to wait? If she doesn’t arrive, we will leave. That’s fine. We have driven out a far way – at least for me. We prop open the doors. We talk a little. He tells me how he met his wife. I talk about children in Niger and how Ken and I hope to impact their lives. Then, Deborah peeks out of her gate! She is there!

She smiles at me shyly, and she beckons us to come in. We go inside the gate. We do not enter her hut, which she shares with several other women. But, she has a mat laid out on the ground. She sits on a stump about five feet away, and we take off our shoes and sit on the mat.

At first we are quiet. Then Ibrahim starts asking questions. He translates the answers for me. Deborah tells us her story. She was a widow with four children. They live in a village not too far from Niamey. One of her daughters has fallen from a tree as a child and had to have her leg amputated just above the knee. This daughter is handicapped and unable to work or marry. Deborah’s daughter who was Amadou’s mother was married with two children. Her husband died, Amadou was born, and in what sounds like a postpartum depression, she went crazy. She left her family and has disappeared. Deborah’s other two children are married and are raising their families in her home village. They are taking care of Amadou’s two big brothers, ages 2 and 4. There is very little food for subsistence farmers. Deborah remarried after her husband died, but her current husband does not see her children as people he can support. He is in Nigeria, with no plans to return to Deborah – though maybe in the summer. Deborah is making 10,000 cfa per month – that’s about $17 per month. She does not have enough for herself, nor anything to send back to the village to help the family.

Ibrahim looks at me and tells me this story is bad. No one should be paid such a low wage. Deborah says that she works six days a week about 10 hours a day, but that her salaire also includes food. On the spot, Ibrahim offers her a job! He says that he and his wife have been looking for someone to help care for their children. Could she start in a week? She agrees to this. I tell her that I will get Ibrahim a bag of rice; the next time she goes to her village she can bring a large bag of rice to her family.

I have thought many times over the last week about Amadou’s death. He is in heaven, away from the suffering he endured throughout his illness during his three short months here. His grandmother has hope. Her family has a little more food. If Amadou had not been “my” baby at the Centre, I would never have been witness to any of this. I think that because of his life, Deborah may not have to struggle quite so much now. At least I pray so. Amadou’s short life united three of us in purpose. Please pray for these two families and for Ken and me as we endeavor to love the people around us.

One thought on “Something to Chew On

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