I’m watching this woman by the goatskin tent pound millet in the hundred-degree heat. She’s preparing breakfast for Mousafa and me before we hop into my SUV. The leftovers, he told me with a wry grin, will be for her. His robe is flowing and his face is leathery and bluff.
We are in the town of Tajae in Niger. I will drive Mousafa to the town of Illela. He will bring back his runaway bellah, member of the slave caste. The woman’s new owner, Mousafa told me, deemed her unfit and is returning her. She was Mousafa’s fifth wife. A slave can be a fifth wife here.
“You only take photos of me or the countryside. Right, cousin?”
“Only pictures to take back to London. Show my father.”
“No dreamt-up stories the BBC can exploit. Word spreads. People talk.”
“No dreamt-up stories. I take pictures all over the world. I won’t sell these. They are for family.”
We pass a labyrinth of mud huts in the sandy streets, donkeys carrying straw, a stocky Hausa next to a woman who is milking a camel. We are leaving Tajae.
In the SUV, I light up the last of my menthols. I think back some eight years ago: I was nineteen and Mousafa’s family visited mine in Soho. Mousafa’s father laughed at my poor attempts at French. I tried to teach Mousafa to play chess on the hard floor in the living room. He’d move a bishop as if it were a pawn. Each time I said “checkmate”, he’d raise his shoulders and grin. I gave up teaching him chess.
My mother served lamb for dinner. My father and Mousafa laughed often at the table, spoke in Hausa. Mousafa asked me what college was like. My mother chimed in that I was spoiled rotten, that I should have become an electrician or a plumber. Those are necessary skills, she said. The fine arts, she claimed, polishing a Teflon pot, are for the idle rich.
“I miss Aunt Timizgida,” says Mousafa, staring out the window,” I hope the operation will restore her vision in the one eye.”
“The doctors are giving it a 90% chance of success,” I say.
“90% is better than 50% or 40%. Here, you make do with one eye.”
My mother’s right eye, I want to tell him, is worth more to me than the price of the yellowcake uranium that is so abundant here.
We enter the outskirts of Illela. I spot longhorn cattle, goats and sheep milling about. There are few trees and I think of locusts devouring farmland. Whenever I try to bring up the subject of Mousafa’s escaped chattel, his concubine, his face tightens.
“She has caused me great embarrassment and I will say no more.” He says it was months before the woman’s new owner contacted him.
“Kadi, pull over,” he says. We are idling in front of a mud-wall compound with men sitting cross-legged in the dirt.
He orders me to wait while he takes care of business. He steps out. I watch him chat with some man wearing prayer beads and a gold robe. Then Mousafa disappears into a large settlement.
Men with open veils pass by the SUV, give me hard looks. I feel uncomfortable being a stranger; a stranger is to be distrusted. I peer at naked children plodding, stumbling close to adults, whose strides are more determined, exuding an air of self-assurance. An old woman stares wide-eyed at my vehicle.
My palms begin to sweat. They always sweat when my imagination, like a sandstorm, stirs, sweeps up everything in its path. Maybe he will beat and whip her. She will eat nothing for days. He will be kinder to his donkeys than to her.
I am mulling over a thought. Perhaps I will offer Mustafa a sum of money. I will take the woman back to England. My mother’s eyes would gleam at the thought of a new daughter, and, me, the thought of a new sister. I would spend hours teaching her English, telling her what to say at restaurants, dress shops. The right questions to ask at art galleries.
Or am I only daydreaming? The way I once did in my Humanities classes taught by stiff-faced professors to starry-eyed students, so eager to hear textbook fables about far-off places in the world.
I turn on the ignition. I think of my hotel room back in Niamey. This morning I heard reports of a sandstorm and I want to head into it. I want the sandstorm to spin my SUV around and around until I am too dizzy to be frightened.
I watch Mousafa saunter towards my vehicle. His head leans to one side and he is empty-handed. He opens the door and takes off a sandal. He rubs his big toe and shows his shiny white teeth as if he is holding a knife between them. He sits back, erect, and stares at a herd of goats before us.
“She took off again,” Mousafa says, “two hours ago.”
I pull out, beep my horn at a goat. This woman, I imagine, is walking with a glint in her eye, a gleam that shines through the dust-caked face. She will trudge through miles of furrowed sand, a red sea of it, until she collapses, her body, a tiny comma in the endless sheet of desert.
From the sand-speckled window, I look out at two women, maybe mother and daughter in dark robes, selling their earthenware goods. The daughter gazes into my face with a soulful and curious look. I step out, wishing to chat. She flashes a thin smile and holds up a freshly-glazed carafe of terra cotta. The older woman scrutinizes my face, lowers her eyes to inspect my toffee-colored sheepskin boots, mesmerized as if they were some kind of mirage.
Then, she turns away and leaves.