Sadouan was the first to greet me when I arrived in the temporary Tuareg camp that eventually settled to be Tangarwashane. She invited me to her tent, prepared a traditional bed constructed with large wooden poles and woven mats, and gave me a mosquito net and elaborate leather pillows for armrests.
Late into the night her family members and friends from neighboring tents came bearing bowls of camel milk. Sitting on a pillow and sipping the frothy liquid, I conversed with Sadouan’s husband, Alhassan. The camp and its herds, he recounted, had recently returned from salt licks in the north near Ingal. He lamented losing 80 percent of his herd to drought that year.
“Around 100 of my camels died because they didn’t have enough food and water. When we ourselves had no more food, we had no choice but to eat some of them. I sold others to buy millet for Sadouan and the kids,” he alleged. “Ten years ago, only the poorest families in our camp owned fewer than 300 animals. With only 20 animals left, what can I count on to survive? Maybe if I grow enough millet this year, we’ll have enough to eat.”
Later on in the evening, Sadouan gently ran her fingers through my hair. “Why haven’t you braided your hair?” she asked, implying that she would never leave her hair uncovered and unbraided. To her, walking around with unbraided hair was almost equivalent to exposing herself publically undressed. “If you want, I can wash it with ochre, and give you the festivity braids.”
The next morning, I awoke to a large bowl of goat stew. Alhassan had walked over 20 miles overnight to find a goat, so that I would have meat to eat upon waking. No matter how few his resources were, it was a dishonor to not offer meat to his special guest. Little did he know that I am vegetarian. Nonetheless, I ate the meat and thanked Sadouan and Alhassan fervently for their hospitality.
Photo: Sadouan getting her hair braided. Text: adapted from “Water is Life, A letter from Niger”, by Ariane Alzhara Kirtley, in “Yale Medicine”.