In the Company of Others
By Laurel Lundstrom
March 22, 2009. Niamey, Niger
I just left the house to say my goodbyes to Elhadji, the owner of my local boutique. I promised I would. I’m trying not to break promises on my last days here in Africa. I thought I would be gone 30 minutes, maybe 45. Naivety, still, exists, for me. Visits, here, always take longer. Life does too. As I waited patiently for Elhadji who had gone to the Internet Café to check his email, I chatted with his younger cousin. He told me, at 28, he is ready to take his wife, an 18 year old Tuareg woman, but, unlike many other Tuaregs yearns for a small family with two kids. A relative of his in Agadez has four wives, 45 children. This is too much for me, he said. Me too, I agreed.
While I waited, he made me a leather piece on which to put a new piece of jewelry I bought myself at another boutique in Chateau 1. I offered to pay, but he wouldn’t accept. Before going over there to have it done, I thought, maybe, my friend would be angry I bought this piece from another jeweler, instead of him. Naivety again. They are family, of course. The owner of boutique is his cousin. But still, even if he wasn’t, I don’t think there would be animosity between them. Niger is a place of brothers and sisters. Even if you aren’t family, you are, I realized as I watched Djerma, Hausa and Tuareg men make jewelry for Elhadji’s shop.
One elderly man was making a cross of Agadez, a typical piece worn by many locals and tourists alike, here. It would take him from morning to night to make this one piece, melding, pounding, shaping, cutting. I imagined his hands must be stronger than the muscles in his legs. I watched these silversmiths, these jewelers, as I waited another hour for Tuareg tea to be prepared. I was hot, although not unusually so. My shirt was drenched in sweat, but my skirt wasn’t. There was a slight breeze today, blowing the dust around. This made it a more bearable day than yesterday, for watching these men at their craft.
Elhadji will take some of this work to New Mexico in July. He will try to sell it for twice the price he sells it for here. This will be his second trip to the United States, although he doesn’t like to stay there long. It’s too different, he told me, too very different. Referring to a small trip to New York City, he said people work too much, earn too much money, walk too fast, run through the streets. This hustle and bustle makes him feel alone. He asked me if I felt alone here too. Sometimes, I admitted, of course I do, because we live in different worlds, planets. I promised to meet him if he is Washington, D.C. again. Perhaps we could recount our memories of sitting outside of his boutique. Perhaps this will make him feel less alone.
I took, finally, after two hours, the first Tuareg tea. I then had to go, to return to the house, for the little French baby here. I felt guilty for spending too much time, there, sitting, waiting. There is much to be done at home. But not to understand the time spent, the time waiting, would, again, be to not understand Niger. I measured, in my head, whether this time spent was productive, the American that I am. Although it was I got to see a new craft, speak French, ask Elhadji more about his family in measurable terms, that shouldn’t matter here in Africa. This is a country of company. Time spent in company is not time wasted, never wasted.
I wonder if I will take this mentality back with me. I don’t know that I will. As Americans, we like to feel productive, I think, even if we really aren’t. I sometimes do things, just to be doing something, not knowing anything but the feeling of productivity. Talking at the market, exchanging greetings, often takes too much time, in America. This is not productivity. But it is, I swear to you it is. Try it. Because when I lay down at night, I remember the people I meet along away, the hands I touch, the things I share.
About Laurel. Laurel Lundstrom is freelance writer and editor with an interest in Africa. She became involved with Amman Imman three years ago after a fellow journalist wrote an article about the project. Since then, she has been committed to bringing greater attention to the project through the media and her own writing skills. This past winter, she spent two months in Niger with Ariane Kirtley, Amman Imman's director, and her family. As a firsthand witness to the pressing crisis afflicting families in the Azawak, she is now poised to make the voice of Amman Imman more prominent.
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