Patrice Melnick
NONFICTION
 

Water

"A bus will be leaving in an hour," the policeman said. One of the front pockets of his uniform was torn. He carried a Jeune Afrique under one arm and he seemed anxious to go back to reading the magazine.

We had just registered in the tiny police shed on the edge of Niamey. A line of cars waited to have passports checked so they could go through the roped-off roadblock. In Niger you must register with the police when leaving and entering every city.

"We're not taking the bus," I told the policeman. "We're on foot."

Two busses waited on the right side of the road. One bus was no bigger than a van, and the windows had been knocked out. Several people sat on their bags by the road, waiting to board.

"With that big pack on?" the policeman said. "It's too big and it's hot. You can't walk when it's this hot."

The other bus was tall and gray with Bisimallah painted on the side in orange and white Arabic-style script.

"We're just going to Say. When we get tired, we'll rest."

The policeman shook his head, as Vikki and I turned and began walking. We looked straight ahead into the cocoa-tinted horizon that bled into the sky. On the gradually sloped hills sat clusters of half-collapsed mud houses. At 9:00 a.m., I could already feel the road heat burning through the soles of my shoes. Sweat dripped slowly down my neck, but no breeze blew to cool me. I would carry the pack for the first couple hours, then Vikki would take a turn. I kept shifting the pack, trying to support it by putting my hands behind me, or leaning forward so the straps wouldn't cut into my shoulders. The occasional trees seemed to grasp at the air with their branches. I watched for shade to walk in. Further down the road, huts made of woven straw dotted the dry hills like beehives. The huts looked so light you could almost pick them up and place them somewhere else.

As we passed one mud house, two little boys, both around thirteen, came out and ran after us.

"Hey, get out of here," Vikki said as one of the kids tugged on her small knapsack. They frequently asked for our water, which we shared with them. For two hours we walked with the boys trailing and drinking. We were irritated that they were following us for sport, and worried that we would run out of water.

Along the road grew crackly brush and dry-limbed trees with leaves the size of quarters. I thought we might have trouble finding water. We passed lines of people standing bare-foot in the dirt, waiting to haul water from a well. A wiry tar-black man helped pull buckets of water out. Wearing only a pair of knee-length pants, he led a cow with a rope harnessed to it. The cow walked away from the well, dragging the eternally long rope up until a bucket of water came to the top.

I had walked before in Central Africa where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer a couple years before, but the walk to Say was much harder. In the Central African Republic, the people of the forested villages offered, even forced, food on me. I had told Vikki of the papayas and pineapples people handed me, as I passed through their villages. Along the Niger road, even the live plants looked dead, coated in brown dust.

It was noon when we decided to take our first long rest. To the right of the road Vikki spotted a grass-roofed canopy with several older Muslim men sitting in the shade. As we approached, the boys who had been following fell back and began walking the other way, back towards Niamey.

"Do you know where I can find water?" I asked the men in French. One of the older men looked at me with steady, inquisitive eyes. The large man sat barefooted and bare-headed in a gold caftan. "Where do you come from?" he asked.

"The U.S."

"Where are you going?" he questioned, as if trying to catch me in a lie.

"Say," I answered.

"You should have taken the bus. You have enough money."

I knew better than to argue with someone who wasn't sure he liked us in the first place. I felt self-conscious. Of course we had enough money. He knew it, and I knew it. I felt angry that he assumed that just because we were white, we could buy anything we wanted. And I was embarrassed, because I knew it was true.

"Do you know where we can get water for our canteens?" I asked again, hoping his gaze would relax. He looked away from me, then waved his arm at a boy who stood nearby. The twelve-year-old boy walked with a kind of bounce in his step. He waved his arm for us to follow. Vikki and I hurried after him through the sand in our heavy leather shoes. We passed a half-collapsed brick house, and I glanced in the doorway but could only see jugs and mats on the floor. I wondered who lived there. We walked over hill after hill. I wished a soda oasis would appear, with ice chests of Cokes and Fantas stacked up under a tree. The boy had gotten still further ahead. Sand filled my shoes with each lift of my heel. Still more dry hills of sand and finally a damp riverbed just before we reached the spring.

In the pool of water below the spring, three women squealed and grabbed their dark, dripping cloths. They held the drapes to their fronts in a show of modesty. The water streamed out of a face of rock in the river wall. One of the women took my canteen and held it under the water for me. She didn't seem to care that her cloth had dropped. The modesty show had ended quickly. I wouldn't have minded stripping down and wading in the water with them. After the bottles were filled, the boy led us back to the small stand by the side of the road. Next to the canopy stood a small table with a few goods: cigarettes, matches, soap, sardines.

"How much is the soap?" I asked as an excuse to resume conversation.

"Cinq cent francs," the older man answered.

"Do you have change?"

"How much do you have?" he asked in French.

"One thousand francs," I said.

"Okay," he nodded. I bought a bar of soap just so I could get change. I knew it would be difficult to find change as we worked our way further from Niamey. We were about ten kilometers away. The five men watched us from the shade of the canopy. I was ready to collapse onto one of their mats, but the man in gold ordered the boy to lead us across the way, as if we were diseased. He clearly distrusted rich people who choose to walk, pretending to be people without bus fare, pretending to be poor, slumming. The man told the boy to take us to a mission. I was disappointed at being sent away.

"What kind of mission is this?" I asked the boy, barely keeping up with him.

"You'll like it."

"Where's he taking us?" Vikki asked.

"I don't know, but the older guy wanted us out of here. I could tell that much."

I asked the boy about this mission. "Is it Baptist? Catholic?"

"It's for everybody," he said to the ground.

"Trecie, what did he say?" Vikki said.

"Who lives there?" I wondered if he understood my French.

"People," he answered. I'd have had better luck getting information from a tree. And Vikki thought the same of me.

I imagined he was leading us to whites who would sniff tolerantly at a smelly pair of travelers. I thought of all my awkward encounters with missionaries, but the boy, confused by my apprehension, insisted that the missionaries had gone on vacation.

He led us to a cool mango grove. A concrete bench was in the middle of the group of trees. The boy swept the bench with a clump of leaves, then he looked at us. He swept it again, beating the leafy branch over the concrete as if it were a cow's rump. He cocked his head at me and finally held out his palm and smiled. He knew that we could afford to give him some money, just as we could afford to ride the bus, if we chose.

"We didn't ask to come here. Don't do it," Vikki said.

"I'm not going to."

Finally realizing I wouldn't pay, he threw the branch on the ground and walked off. The bounce had gone out of his walk. I wanted to call after him as I watched him walk off, and was sorry I hadn't paid him for his trouble. But I just looked down and let him go away.

Vikki lay across the concrete bench and closed her eyes. I sat on the ground and leaned up against the pack. The clearing was empty and quiet. I finally fell asleep.

"Pouvez-vous m'aider avec mon appareil, s'il vous plaît?" a girl woke us. "Il est Americain," she added, holding out her camera. The light brown girl looked at Vikki, leaning on her crutches. The girl had no cast or braces on her legs, but she kept all of her weight on the crutches. She was short and stocky. "Please, can you help me with my American camera?" she repeated in good French. She explained that she didn't know how to get the film out. I fumbled with the buttons.

"What's wrong with it?" Vikki asked.

"Something about getting film out. I didn't catch everything."

"That's no surprise," Vikki said. I shot her a dirty look.

"You speak English," said another girl with a Virgin Mary necklace dangling around her skinny neck. "Are you Americans?"

"Yes. We walked from Niamey this morning. You speak English very well."

"We are learning English. My name is Rama," the girl with the camera said. She managed to open it herself. Rama had on narrow blue jeans and a satiny shirt.

"Please join us for our picnic," the girl with the Madonna necklace said. "I cooked the food, and there is plenty." She wore a floral dress.

"You are very welcome," a teenaged boy with dancing shoulders said, proud of his English. He wore black leather shoes, and his shirt was unbuttoned. Each of the students spoke a sentence, and then the others added on until I understood that this was an end of the school year party, which included a group of private high schoolers and three teachers.

Seven young Africans danced to music from a big cassette player. I heard the faint samba rhythms and watched one of the teenagers throw his shoulders about with his hands swaying in front of him, loosely. The kids looked out of place with their pressed, European-style clothes. Rama handed us cold sodas out of an ice chest.

Marie introduced us to the teachers. One of them, Bettina, was from the Central African Republic. "Mbi bara mo mingi . . ." he said excitedly on learning that I had spent two years in his home country. He had spoken little Sango in the past three years he had lived in Niger.

Rama overwhelmed Vikki with conversation, practicing her English. One of the other teachers practiced sliding his arm around Vikki's back. "Attention avec ma soeur!" I warned him, pulling his arm from around Vikki. The others laughed. Vikki didn't seem to mind his attention, but I didn't like his advances. A few of the students watched Rama talk with Vikki, leaning forward and trying to catch every word Vikki said. Others watched Bettina and me. I kept an eye on the other teacher's arm.

"I'll get you another soda," Marie said, noticing our empty bottles. Then she called everyone to have lunch. She spooned out helpings of chicken in a spinach sauce over rice. "Do you want forks?" she asked Vikki and me. Some of the students preferred to use forks but most ate with their hands. We wanted to eat with our hands too. I watched Marie take pieces of chicken and a pinch of rice and put them in her mouth. I picked up some rice and spinach sauce and held it to my mouth like Marie had, but the sauce dripped on my lap and some of the rice fell out of my mouth. No one seemed to notice. I wiped the sauce and rice off my clothes frequently.

"Mo ye mingui?" Bettina said, asking me if I liked the food. Had he seen me brushing the rice off my skirt? His students laughed at the funny sounds of his Sango.

"Mbi ye kobé so mingui," I answered enthusiastically.

Vikki turned to the teacher beside her and said, "Wawayatitoosooyakashan," mockingly. "I don't believe they are really saying anything."

"Mockotikimeshua. They are not saying anything," the teacher beside her agreed.

"Jickoyackyackbicky," the other students joined in.

"Very funny," Bettina said in English.

I looked up. By the fence the man in the gold caftan stood watching. I wondered how long he had been observing us. The man nodded at me. He looked relieved and satisfied to see us among the dancing and laughing students. He walked off.

After exchanging addresses with us, the students and teachers packed up their picnic and headed back to Niamey. I left Vikki to watch the backpack, as I walked across the road to get water. I stopped to greet the men again.

"Why are you going to Say?" one of the men asked.

"To see the smaller villages along the way," I answered.

"How many days will it take you to get to Say?" the one in the gold caftan asked.

"I think about four days. We are slow."

"Are you sisters?"

"Yes."

"Oh, I see," he said, sounding pleased. "Are you the oldest one?"

"No, the other one is older."

"Why doesn't she ever talk?"

"Because she doesn't know French very well."

"You should get her to talk more," he said, almost smiling, but not quite.

"I'm going to refill these water bottles," I said. "The spring is that way, right?" I pointed to the nearest sand dune. He nodded.

"Thank you," I said. I walked off to find the spring. He watched me go over the first small hill, then he called me, so I trudged back.

"See that house?" he asked, gesturing towards the small leaning house on the second hill. "Go there and ask my wife for water."

I thanked him and then walked towards the house. When I came to the fence of long, dry sticks lashed together, I clapped my hands, a way of knocking in countries were doors are never closed. A tall, light brown woman came to the doorway, squinting at me in confusion. Her hair was soft, black and wavy around her shoulders. She looked at me with eyes like polished copper coins as she stood in the angled door of the hut. Then she signaled me to come over to her door. I pointed to the canopy by the road, and held up my water bottles. She invited me into the hut. Her smooth, ginger-colored skin made her look quite young. One small child played in the dirt on the floor. I saw five large pottery jars, about the size of the upside down glass jars on old-fashioned drinking fountains.

I imagined her walking barefoot back from the spring, through the sand over those hills with a full jug on her head. A long piece of cloth would be twisted up and coiled around the base of the jar to cushion her head. She must refill the jars many times a day. All five were lined up on the floor with sand piled up around their bases to keep them from rolling and to help keep the water cool.

Her baby didn't notice me at first, then looked up from his patterns in the dirt and started to wail. The wife laughed, scooped him up, comforted him a moment, and put him on the other side of the room where he wouldn't be so frightened. She was still chuckling to herself and looking at the baby when she took my two bottles and filled them. She handed me the bottles.

"Merci," I said.

Her copper eyes stared in fascination.

By 3:30 p.m. the air had cooled enough to begin walking again. When I got back to the canopy, I found Vikki seated with the old men drinking tea. They were trying to help Vikki understand French. But she just sipped the tea and smiled. I gave her the water bottles and she got up and took the pack.

"Merci," Vikki said to the men.

"Have a safe journey," the husband said. He seemed to mean it.

As we walked, I wondered where we would find water again. Whose water would we ask for, cool water drawn up a hundred meters through the ground. Would it again be from people who distrusted us, but gave out of obligation, for no one in the desert is refused water. Perhaps water would be given by a woman had carried it on her head. We would have to accept water again. What could we give? A song? I felt the sun burn like a pair of copper eyes.

 


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