Michel Bélisle

Michel Bélisle was in Kaba, Niger, in 1975. Here he shares some recollections of his stay and its benefits.

The sun was barely up but already we could hear the scraping of the mortars, the village women having begun their day’s work long ago. They would go to the well with their gourds and their pails to supply their families with water. Holding their bodies straight, they bore calabashes filled with the precious fluid on their heads, their steps unerring, elegant, supple and synchronized to avoid spills.

The well was a rallying point of the village. There, people talked, laughed, and exchanged news and gossip. Drawing water was mainly a task for women and children; the men were elsewhere. The buzz of action around the well denoted the importance of water in the lives of a people constantly threatened by devastating drought.

I am in Kaba, a village of a few hundred people in Niger, located 500 km from the capital. A single 12-km track leads from Madaoua to Kaba. One has to know the trails well to get there.

We were in the land of the Hausa, one of Niger’s main ethnic groups. Islam predominated, as it does today; but back then it had less media coverage and more tolerance. Extremism had yet to alienate people. Some of the village men had two wives, a matter of intrigue for a North American.

Eight of us had come to the village on the pretext of participating in Sahel Vert, a reforestation initiative. Kaba is located in West Africa’s Sahel region, an area that in the preceding years had withstood unspeakable drought.

Reforestation efforts in these regions are intended to slow the advance of the desert, which claims more arable land every year. The rainy season was late; the ground stayed sandy, cracked, parched. It was hard to believe that, in a few weeks’ time, the rains would turn the ground green and bring forth millet — an important food staple.

Our arrival created a stir among the villagers, who welcomed us with openness and great interest. Many of the children had never before seen a white man; the boldest set out to see if I was white underneath my pullover. We quickly became the centre of attention and would remain so for the next two months. Being in Kaba felt a touch surreal, like being frozen in time in a landscape wiped clean of familiar markers.

People, lifestyle, architecture, language, food, pace of life: everything was different. The utter lack of references challenged our Western notions of organization and adaptation. Culture shock hovered. We placed our things in a hut made from banco — a building material made from mud, straw and cow dung. A disused millet granary would serve as our lavatory. The WCs were located a little further out, in the millet fields: here, one fertilized the earth directly.

We quickly realized that life here was attuned to nature. From sunup to sundown, season to season, the daily chores went on, perpetuating the cycle of life. Much energy was devoted to simply surviving. Drawing water, preparing meals over a wood fire and working in the fields took up large parts of each day.

We slept outside. There were no streetlights to dim the beauty of the stars. A tree and a sleeping bag were our only shelter. We woke to find ourselves once again an interesting object of scrutiny for the villagers.

Directly beneath the tree sat a wooden block. It was to be our only chair for months. Getting by without a chair to sit on would prove a memorable experience. An American Peace Corps worker who lived nearby had an old lawn chair. What a pleasure it was to plant our North American behinds on its plastic strips . . . Our every move was closely watched by the children, who soon became our playmates. Zébulon in particular held our attention. We called him Zébulon for his remarkable good nature. His distended stomach, skeletal legs and reddish hair were clear signs of malnutrition. That summer, I lost 40 pounds in a month. Hospitality had made it so. We had our daily rations of millet, a little meat, some sheep’s stomach. Rice and maca (macaroni) were luxury items. People did not eat their fill in this village. The children took to gathering near us to salvage our leftovers. At the time, the Sahel was emerging from a dreadful drought that had left millions dead. Needless to say that, under the watchful eyes of the children, we invariably left something in the bottom of the bowl. When the signal was given, they devoured everything in seconds. The slow-moving Zébulon would often miss out. What ever became of him? He is almost surely dead, like so many we met in Africa 30 years ago. Not all children are born equal on this planet . . .

The summer passed by. My first African sojourn marked the start of an experience that would change the course of my life.

This anecdotal excerpt will bring back memories to many Crossroaders. But being a Crossroader gives you more than just stories to tell. Encountering different people, lifestyles, cultures and hospitality; living with them on a daily basis without trying to change or ‘save’ them; and humbly realizing that my Western values were not absolute, that on this Earth, reality has many facets — these are some of the things I learned through CCI.

Michel Bélisle
Niger ’75 and beyond

 

Mamane Oumarou, restaurateur!

Michel Bélisle was in Kaba, Niger, in 1975. He writes about his friend, restaurateur Mamane Oumarou, who ran an establishment in Niamey, Niger’s capital.

Niamey, Niger’s capital, sits on the banks of the Niger River, one of the longest in West Africa. It is home to several million people. The major market located on Avenue de l’Indépendance teems with activity. All capitals in this part of Africa have an Avenue de l’Indépendance, the legacy of the French colonists.

Each morning at the crack of dawn, Mamane, the restaurateur, headed to the market. This indomitable Djerma (the country’s second largest ethnic group after the Hausa), his face strikingly marked by scarification, was on his way to buy the ingredients for the day’s menu. He pedalled proudly on his cheaply made Chinese bicycle. Owning a bicycle denoted a certain social standing. Afterwards, he went to Braniger, the national brewery. A beer brewery might seem odd in a Muslim country, but Islamic fundamentalism did not have the same hold as it does today.

Coke and Fanta were also produced here: two fizzy drinks with international cachet that could be found in the country’s tiniest villages (or so I was told). Mamane would purchase a huge block of ice at Braniger and then transport it on his bicycle, wrapped in jute. He had to move quickly, since it would soon melt under the Sahel sun. The ice was to keep the soft drinks at the restaurant cold.

Known as L’Hôtel, his restaurant was located across from the bus station and welcomed truckers from across the country. The day’s menu included steak and fries, steak with fresh peas and onions, and "ooomelettes" (as Mamane called them). All dishes were seasoned with the extraordinary Maggi sauce and cooked in a little oil over a wood or wood-charcoal fire. Perpetually joyous, Mamane welcomed me eagerly. In the evenings, he sat his customers outside near the open sewer in the cloud of dust raised by the trucks. He often joined us, feet on the table, engaging in the conversation. Customer service could vary depending on where you were . . . Mamane was a trader at heart, ready to fill any special request. He was trusting enough to give me credit ("You can pay me tomorrow"), in so doing, ensuring repeat visits. He made me laugh when he chased off the children who hung about. In Africa, everyone knows his place in the hierarchy; any child will invariably encounter a bigger one, who will keep him in line. Before his customers, Mamane would chase the children away with a reed but would then feed them secretly behind the restaurant. I asked him about this one day. He told me that, as a good Muslim, he must feed his brothers who were hungry. He struck me as a happy person. 

Michel Bélisle
Niger ’75 and beyond

 

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