Life Inside a Tuareg Family, Niger copyright 2008 Focus Agency
An invited guest to the home of Mohammed Ixa, once right-hand man to Manu Dayak, leader of the minority Tuareg’s rebellion against the government, finds himself charmed by the gracious hospitality of his hosts. Over the course of a week, this photo essay documents a unique way of life. Friends, family and customers to a small shop in front come and go with easy familiarity.
Made up of several small buildings set around two beautiful shady courtyards, this is a home where everyone is at home, a place with an ever-changing cast of characters flowing through multiple entrances. Meals are taken together, usually from a single platter piled high for everyone, and beds brought outside at night to share the evening cool. Relatives catch up on the family news, take care of the children, and cope with unforeseen circumstances with poise and character.
"Letter from Agadez," which is appended below, describes all three of the singular experiences I was to have in Niger. Please also see the stories Water from the Desert and Nomads of Tidene. I hope you can take some time to read about this remarkable country.
Agadez - a desert legend, an apparition, recalled in my mind’s eye as if from an old film, a child’s black and white memory, of Saturday afternoon alone with a tiny television, transfixed by the sight of camels, cargo and slaves slowly moving in single file towards the gates of a movie Khartoum. But this is Niger, not Sudan, and I am no longer young.
The station swirls with activity, eddies of dust playing around the bus, which radiates heat. Exhausted passengers emerge into the hard light of afternoon. It is too bright to look anywhere but down, at discarded water bags and paper wrappers, at the pile of dirty transport sacks bursting with pots and pans, people’s shopping and trading items, nameless suitcases full of clothes disappearing into the crowd. Motorcycles jam the entrance, waiting to whisk their fares into the ochre city beyond. On this last stop, I am all too happy to follow my hosts. A tall Tuareg clad in blue hefts my pack, and with a quick smile steers us through the traffic towards a waiting car, too hot to touch in the unsparing sun.
As a destination, one could hardly have chosen a place that seems more remote from the world, yet is so central to the great Sahara trading routes it still straddles, and to some of Africa’s most dramatic natural spectacles. Though the markets for salt and gold have long since dried up, the vitality that permeates this arid crossroad is undeniable. From Niamey by bus, Agadez is a headlong sixteen-hour journey east, flying first through Dogondouchi and Birni N’Konni, near Nigeria’s northern border, and then due north for the longest part of the trip, a departure at four AM forgiven for a few welcome hours of cool at dawn.
Strong impressions tend to linger when one is passing through at this speed, especially from the varied landscapes in the south of the country. Straw roofs like Vietnamese conical hats perch upon thick-walled huts, clinging somehow to the slopes of raw yellow sand dunes. Brilliant vermilion and tamarind fabrics stand out against monochromes of brown and black, and, where mud and dust are often all there is to life in this harsh place, there are glimpses of green fields, an orderly miracle where water blesses the lucky.
Though it has only now just reached nine AM, the sun is slowly but surely heating up the eastern side of the bus, and a seat by the open window is now much like a giant hairdryer. Most of the passengers wedged in their seats are unfazed, though, pulling the heavy curtains close, or simply adjusting their turbans and taking things as they come. Trees dropped away long ago, replaced by long vistas of pale scrub and rocky soil, our forward motion arrested only by occasional rough spots in an otherwise tolerable road. At each stop, the bus is quickly surrounded by a sea of snack sellers, in their few moments with us trying desperately to earn some francs from fried dough, small sacks of peanuts, barbecued meats and lukewarm drinks of every description.
On the outskirts of every town, ragged black plastic bags are spiked on every tree and shrub, a windblown phenomenon, and a true plague upon the land. In the expanses of this minimalist world, in the great empty spaces between a shell of an abandoned house, then a wall that leads nowhere, tiny humans navigate the desert, two or three children trudging ahead of a woman under a huge basket, a donkey pulling a water cart. Under a clear sky, they are equal to the task but dwarfed by the vast distances. Men are nowhere to be seen, the faraway domain of camels, sheep and goats to be tended for the most part theirs.
An image haunts me from these days, a visual fragment, if you will, frozen in time. Two great birds wait out the day under the shade of a single low tree, around them the blinding shimmer of surfaces burning under the sun, alone in the middle of nothing. But as I would be reminded by my Tuareg guide, “nothing” is a relative term, and no space once regarded is empty, either of substance or of value. One has only to know how to look.
I am here in Agadez as the guest of Mohammed Ixa, once right-hand man to Manu Dayak, leader of the minority Tuareg’s rebellion against their marginalization by the government. He is now owner of an expedition company, and it seemed fitting that in the end I would never actually meet him, since, as proudly befits a nomad of this stature, he was always away in the desert. His daughter Halimata Ixa-Graille, an acquaintance from the bus, had invited me to stay, and a day in their home had somehow turned into a week, while I got to know a little about the town, and a lot about their lives from the inside.
Since we had arrived in the hottest part of the day, most everyone inside the Ixa’s compound had retired to a big dark room set slightly below ground level, as many houses are to keep them cool. Stillness was welcome in this space, which was lined with carpets and cushions, a ceiling fan slowly stirring the air. Halimata and her “belle mere” Fatima caught up with the news from home, while Iman, Hali’s one-year old daughter, curled up in the corner. By the warm light from a yellow curtain hung in the doorway, tea was made in the elaborate traditional way, brewed atop coals resting in a neat wire basket, poured out from a height into small clear glasses, and made stronger and sweeter each time.
It would take some time to rest up from the journey, and I spent most of it watching in amusement as friends, family and customers to a small shop in front came and went with easy familiarity. Made up of multiple small buildings set around two beautiful shady courtyards, this was a home where everyone was at home, a place with an ever-changing cast of characters coming and going through several entrances. The structures themselves were often much bigger inside than they appeared, with few windows and great thick walls to keep temperatures reasonable. Tiny red birds swooped in and out, picking up crumbs and resting in the flowers of thick thorn trees, and hordes of flies shared the greenery in the heat of the day, but never seemed to bother anyone.
Life here was almost completely public. Meals were taken together, usually from a single platter piled high for everyone, and beds brought outside at night to share the evening cool. Exuding a quiet authority, Mohammed Ixa’s sister Takita was at home most often, a woman of many skills and few words, in French at least, preferring Tamashek, her native language. She ran the shop in front, where friends and neighbors often just dropped in for tea, only taking the milk powder or washing soap they came for after spending a while talking. Takita had created many of the elaborate weavings and colorful handmade necklaces I saw, including one remarkable thick quilt that had taken her twenty-five years to make.
Rissa Ixa, a big man with a cheerful gap-toothed smile, was Mohammed’s brother, and as a well-driller, knew every twist and turn in the vast landscape over which his tribe held sway. He had reportedly found water on Tuareg lands in over forty places, and would be my escort to the Tidene Valley, where some of his own family lived, four hours north and more than an hour from the nearest road. Among my fellow guests at the Ixa’s in Agadez was an elderly woman from that same area who had suffered a brain aneurysm, paralyzing the right half of her body. They had brought her here, bundled carefully into Rissa’s big Land Cruiser, only to be told by a local doctor that she needed an MRI, available at only one place in the country, in the capital, sixteen long hours further south. Before I left Niger, I would stay again with relatives of the Ixa’s in Niamey, and see her safely in hospital, attended to with a graciousness I will remember.
The sandy streets outside the gates can be disorienting at first. There are few structures in Agadez over a single story, the distinctive mud-brick walls of virtually every building seeming to blend into one another, roads beyond the center of town unnamed. The city appears to stretch out in every direction, with minarets occasionally puncturing the sky. One learns to navigate by remembering the names of landmarks and prominent businesses. Being willing to hop on the back of someone’s motorcycle is helpful, as there are not many private cars and no public transport. Shop schedules have become fluid, perhaps more so since this is the low season for tourists, and regular hours fall by the wayside.
Power is erratic these days, and sometimes even water, as the city was frantically preparing for a visit from Moammar Qaddafi, a devout Muslim and principal donor to the elegant central mosque in Niamey. Airplanes from Libya have jump-started the tiny airport, used to receiving a single flight a week. As a result, there are a few new folks in town, remarkable for their shorts, a rarity in Agadez, and colorful floral-print shirts. New curbs are hurriedly being installed on the main road by laborers working in the hell of mid-day, along with some better streetlights, and many doors refreshed by coats of Niger’s signature electric blue paint.
But when the sun is not high, walking is a delight, as is just getting lost, for the curious and the friendly are always rewarded by the unexpected, a young boy practicing handsprings in the middle of the street, the sweet sight of a row of green saplings against a brown wall, carefully cordoned off with chicken wire to protect them from goats, a glimpse into a schoolyard flag-raising, rows of boys and girls at attention, each holding close their study books and precious pencil cases.
On one of these wandering occasions, near a sprawling dusty market, I ran into a religious school. Bathed in a golden afternoon light, boys of all sizes sat outside under a porch of sorts. Though they understood neither the script nor the language, each wrote Arabic on their upright wooden boards, and at their own pace memorized lines from the Koran by repeating them, creating a pretty dissonant chorus. Many seemed to want to be photographed, but a few clearly didn’t, and there was a lot of shy staring at the foreigner. In halting French, I negotiated for permission with the headmaster in the middle of the street, attracting a small crowd as I broke out my family photographs and a few clips from magazines, but as light ever so slowly disappeared, so did the conclusion to our discussion.
With little more than an hour’s notice, I found myself in the Land Cruiser bound for Tidene in the north, with Rissa Ixa and his driver Heishi Ahi stopping over the course of two hours in a few places around town picking up essentials. Bags of flour, heavy ropes, some unmarked boxes, cooking oil in hefty containers went in the back, two heavy curved steel well segments, and a custom-made wooden stand were lashed down to the Toyota’s uncomplaining roof racks. As we waited in one market near the Vieux Quartier, I made friends with a genial tailor, who was embroidering away on a solid-looking machine the fancy patterns that characterize fine fabric for clothing. The biggest of the walls in his tiny shop was adorned with a calendar depicting Hajj participants circling the Kabaa in Mecca, the bodies of the faithful garbed in white flowing together in time-lapse like a forest stream, above a large poster of the 9/11 planes flying into the World Trade Center, Saddam, Bin Laden, Bush, and Qaddafi all lumped together in collage like a big happy family. Agreeing with him that they were all bad, and secretly wondering if Kim Jong Il was feeling left out, I took a few quick pictures, and left with a handshake and a smile.
The outskirts of town fade away quickly, and within twenty minutes we were leaving behind a desultory checkpoint and the giant cell phone tower that seems to mark the known edge of earth. On a cloudless afternoon where the temperature was to reach a debilitating 42 C, on the slowly unfolding landscape before us, everything was being punished by the sun. Dark escarpments in the distance are veiled by heat haze, and mini tornados of dust and brittle brush flit through wide pans of blinding white. Sporadic flashes of yellow and green mark where solitary plants have somehow hit water. The tarmac has deteriorated under these conditions, in one place memorably littered with hundreds of thick black tire shreds, where less careful drivers have blown out in hard ragged holes. The spidery pylons carrying power to faraway Arlit have disappeared, and within two hours we have left the road entirely, turning onto a deep sandy track. Heishi Ali stops to adjust the four-wheel drive, and our journey in the slanted light becomes a hunt for the path of least resistance, humping over dry creek beds, and between stands of cactus and the hardy olive-like bushes tall enough to hide the occasional wild camel.
We slowly cross an empty plain, as desolate as the moon, covered with black glassy chunks of pumice as if from an ancient explosion, and wind down into the valley, which beckons in grey green tones even through the heat. After half an hour, in the middle of an open area save for a group of trees, Rissa stops and waves to someone I cannot see. Soon a man materializes beside the vehicle, swathed in dark green, with a leather belt and scabbard slung low on his hip, and while they talk, I begin to see that I had missed their camp, low domed structures indistinguishable from the nearby natural materials from which they are made. For each of the two families that live here, thorn bushes, brush and heavy knotted branches tightly encircle raised sleeping platforms under arched hide covers and an open cooking area. Two or three big stockades for goats keep the herd close at night.
Twilight came quickly after our arrival, silent dogs greeting the truck. Within a few minutes, a cooking fire was lit by Rissa’s wife, and from the storage area up under the dark recesses of one of the sleeping structures, a pair of camp beds were produced for Heishi Ali and myself, who would sleep out under the stars. Wrapped tightly around an anchoring tree, their enclosure was made in the same ingenious way, each well-worn part made of gnarled wood designed to be freed from its lashings and moved within a day should circumstances prove unendurable. Insufficient rains have become a fact of life here, and though the Tidene Valley has been a hospitable location, the family was clearly prepared to move on if necessary.
Wheat is a staple food in these dry lands, and both pasta and couscous, for instance, keep well and are light to carry. As appetites return with quickly dropping temperatures, the men eat first, as is the custom, digging into generous helpings of elbow macaroni and bread from town, all of us accompanied by the murmured bleating of hundreds of goats settling in for the night. On woven mats made of palm fiber, tea is once again served, and it becomes all too easy to just sit and watch the coals burning brightly in the darkness. Although we were way out of range for anything but a satellite phone, the kids and I had some fun playing with the ethnic music on my mobile, then all of a sudden it was time to bundle up and go to sleep.
A great inverted bowl of blackness was my gift that night, sprinkled by stars the clear cold night soundless but for perhaps imagined singing from a faraway Tuareg camp. Dreams came and went, of walking through a ghostly field illuminated by the bright sliver of moon now up off the nearby ridge, of the emptiness of the plain, and idle wondering where camels went after dark, twisted shapes coming and going but never staying still, and finally an unbroken peace that went on long after pulling the blankets tight around my my neck
Pale blues, gray green and dusty brown, a pastel yellow with the faintest hint of red – colors of a morning just barely begun, to my new eyes as I padded through the sand away from camp the softest beginning to what would be a very long day. I would remember what I saw that day, diminutive animal tracks skirting a bleached white rib bone, a hornbill in branches above us surveying the land, a perfectly circular corral, intricate and strong, made without a single nail, the unfathomable look in the eyes of a bare-chested boy, too young to know he was beautiful in that faint light, restless goats circling behind him.
Within an hour Rissa and Heishi Ali were ready to go, having managed to make strong coffee as well, and we drove off without ceremony to the west, the sun already warm through the haze. For a time we drove in silence, stopping only to exchange lengthy customary greetings with solitary men who would suddenly appear along the way as if from thin air. Few possessions weighed down these herders during the day, only a stout crooked stick for the animals, some grain cereal cakes, perhaps, in an anonymous sack, and a burlap-covered plastic jug for water. As the day progressed, my eyes would grow sharper, and I could pick out a nomad camp from some distance away, but each was set so far apart in that landscape one couldn’t say for sure until the Land Cruiser was right upon them.
Suddenly we reached our first stop, one of the valley’s most successful and certainly low-profile enterprises. Behind an extensive network of piled brush, wire fencing and thorns lies an Eden of green in the desert, made possible by a single plentiful well. Acres of tomatoes, potatoes, beans climbing up corn stalks, peppers, gourds, rice and herbs all grow here, thanks to a rotating crew of Tuareg, who take turns cultivating and then guarding the produce. Tomatoes too fragile to ship over rough terrain are sliced and left to dry in the sun. These go to market, while much of the rest of this necessary bounty is shared within the community.
A tall wooden scaffold looking much like a catapult sits over the well, which is clad to the bottom in concrete and held fast by custom-made steel well parts like the ones we had brought in the truck. Using a complicated arrangement of ropes and pulleys, large baskets of water are brought up to the surface by donkeys, and then sluiced into irrigation ditches among the gardens. There are some places in the valley where two camels and two scaffolds can be used in tandem at one well, doubling the amount flowing into the fields.
Visible reminders of failure lie close by. In one location, an animal had fallen in early in the process, forever poisoning the possibility of water at this spot. Bores are made to no avail, and some wells deteriorate or simply dry up. But Rissa’s team is undaunted, their fearlessness and good cheer in these tough conditions truly admirable. On this hot morning, we would visit two more successes. They have invested in serious rigging and safety equipment during the work, and usually manage a smile even when sweating away at the bottom, forty feet below the scorching sand.
Like visions from the Bible, a group of nomads will spend the greater part of a day watering their herd of goats, zebu and camels, using methods unchanged for a thousand years. A boy tightens the thick palm fiber straps hitched to an uncomplaining donkey, and fixes the guide ropes expertly to his saddle. Mounting his charge, he spurs it into action, pulling up a full goat-skin water bag as he heads away from the well. Working together, a young woman will do the same, waiting to raise the next container, now on its way down to fill up. All will take turns emptying the bloated skins into bigger jars for transport, and into a nearby trough for the milling herd. Goats crowd around the wetness, and are given their fill, but no more - donkeys will drink several times, for they are doing the hardest work. The biggest zebu can only approach one at a time, their elegant curving horns making sharing impossible.
Over the course of four or five hours, everyone in this group of twenty will labor at this vital routine. Not everyone would envy lives as hard as these, but I can’t help but feel that these hardy souls will be the ones that survive, should all our fragile technology crash down around us. Like many Africans eking out a living from the earth, they will always be able to live here at least, to wait out a change of fortune, a change of government, or to just make do, once again, with the patience, grace and pride of people who know themselves and the land they live on.
Humanitarian Issues and Cultural Tradition Worldwide
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT COPYRIGHT JAY DUNN 2008