Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 18
Dry Niger
M. Shayne Bell

[271] That spring the Niger had gone dry. Ahmid, my castrato driver, careened our jeep down the riverbank and sped northwest up the dusty riverbed. “All the roads out of Niamey are blown in with sand,” he said. “We will make better time here.”

I had read the night before in Le Sahel of a military caravan that found a jeep, just like the one I was in, stuck in a sand dune that had blown over the main road to Tahoua. No one was in the jeep or near the jeep, and the soldiers found no sign of driver or occupants. The wind had blown sand over all their tracks and eventually, no doubt, them. “Maybe they saw the mirage of an oasis within walking distance,” one of the soldiers theorized. It was a terrible story. I was glad to be driving up the riverbed.

We passed under the Kennedy Bridge, and in the brief moment we were in its shadow I felt cold. “You will not shiver again today,” Ahmid said, very serious.

I looked back at the bridge and saw a thin man start across it from the south, driving three goats before him. Behind him came a woman carrying on her head a bundle of the black cloth favored by the Tuareg. We were getting a late start. But the jeep wouldn’t [272] start in the night, and though the minister of mines herself, Aissa Seibou, had come with the mechanic and waited with me and Ahmid in the shed while we watched the mechanic work, it took time to change a fuel pump, then the water pump just in case, then to put on the new belt I insisted on. “I will follow you in two days,” the minister had said. “By then you will have seen and studied these uranium fields as I have, and you will agree with me.”

Such confidence. But I was prepared to believe her because I had read URANIGER’s reports on the potential of these mines, and the World Bank was prepared to believe me and back my recommendation when I gave it. The bank had money to fund only one project that year in West Africa. The directors had narrowed their choices to two projects: one, a loan to help develop uranium mines in Niger’s Zermaganda province eighty kilometers northeast of Sinderj the other, a reforestation project in the highlands of Guinea around the source of the Niger so that rainfall might increase and in forty years the river might flow again to the sea, not dry up at Lake Debo in Mali. The reforestation project offered enormous long-term benefits decades after its start. But exploitable uranium lay waiting in the desert now. West Africa needed help now. Aissa Seibou was probably justified in feeling confident.

I turned back around and watched the riverbed ahead of us. “How often do you get flash floods?” I asked.

”That Allah should send us rain,” Ahmid said with almost a laugh. But after maybe ten minutes, he looked hard at me. “If you see any cloud, however small, tell me,” he said.

Ah, I thought. So we would have to get out of the riverbed. Fast.

We careened around a bend, and there were four women ahead of us digging in the dirt. Ahmid sped past them, blowing them with dust, but I looked in the hole they were digging and could see a fifth woman in it scooping dirt into a bucket and lifting it up to those above her.

“Have you found any water?” I yelled in French.

But the women just waved.

“They will not find water,” Ahmid said.

[273] We drove through all the heat of that day and toward evening were approaching Sansanne-Hausa, where they were building a camp for the Tuareg. The Tuareg were finally coming into camps, driven this time by a famine that would not end. Ahead of us I could see great mounds of dirt piled up in the riverbed and maybe twenty Zerma women. “Stop the jeep,” I told Ahmid.

He stopped it. I climbed out and pushed through the women that rushed up around us, left Ahmid to keep them away from our water, and climbed up a mound of dirt twice as tall as me. At the top I could look down into a great hole maybe forty feet deep. Three women were digging down there, tying their buckets to ropes. I pulled one up for them. “Have you found any water?” I yelled down, first in French, then in Hausa, which they could understand.

“No,” one of them yelled back.

That night I dreamt I was walking in the Gaoueye district of Niamey, though I had never gone with African whores, not after geneticists in Lagos won the Water War for the coastal dictatorships by spraying the Sahelian troops with mutated viruses that had since spread among whores all over the continent, some of whom could live for fifteen years with the viruses in their bodies. Those viruses could kill a European like me before a doctor could diagnose which virus had attacked me and get the antidote.

But I let a woman lead me up rickety stairs to her tiny room that looked out over the banks of the dry Niger. Her room was filled with plants and flowers that must have cost her a fortune to water. The room smelled clean, and she smelled clean, and I wanted to keep touching her but she pulled back and told me that if I held this certain cloth over my eyes I would see the Niger with water in it. It was the blue cloth she wadded on the floor to keep sand from blowing in under the door. She played these games with me. I knew that. I suddenly knew it was not the first time I had been with her, that I knew her well.

I put the cloth over my eyes. Nothing happened of course. I thought she would kiss me after a minute, but she didn’t so I took the cloth away.

[274] “No. Put it back,” she said.

She looked so serious. No smile. This was an odd game. I put the cloth back, then felt her small hands press down over my eyes to hold the cloth there, tight.

So I relaxed and lay back on her bed that smelled of her and thought I would play this game out, whatever happened, whatever she wanted.

And gradually heard water flowing by outside in the Niger, lapping the riverbank. I pulled her hands away and the cloth and looked out the window at water.

“I didn’t know if you could see it,” she said, and she smiled, happy that I could see the water.

She had sprinkled some drug onto the cloth and I was hallucinating, I thought, but the hallucination was lovely. She led me back down the stairs that were somehow sturdier now, and we walked to the river. The water was cold and clean. I drank it.

“You will not get sick,” she said, and she drank some water herself, then gave me water to drink out of her hands, then more water, then more. I drank it all.

 

And woke sweating in my hot room in Sansanne-Hausa. I got up and drank real water from the flask I’d carried in from the jeep, then walked to the window and looked out. The Tuareg camp lay black outside the city, a sea of tents, no fires among them. That sedentary camp marked the death of nomadic Tuareg civilization.

 

We got another late start that morning because Mai Maïgana, mayor of Sansanne-Hausa, insisted on feeding me breakfast. It really was very good: a mango imported from Brasil, dates, goatsmilk cheese, water. “You can tell the messieurs of the World Bank that Sansanne-Hausa will meet its population quota,” he said.

I murmured something polite.

“All of Niger will,” he said. “When we began this, when the Bank gave us our quotas, some said, ‘How can a country drop from sixteen million people to four hundred thousand in two generations,’ but we are doing it and without massacres like those in Mali.”

[275] The Mali had massacred their Tuareg who would not submit to population control.

“But the Tuareg do worry me,” he went on.

I looked up at him.

“They do not believe in a neverending famine until they walk to the Niger and see that it is dry. They believe the camps are set up to castrate their men.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Only if they father unlicensed children. But it is dangerous to go out there to abort babies and castrate men or to castrate the illegal male babies that somehow get born. A doctor was murdered in that camp just last month. I have to send the doctors in with troops.”

Castrati troops, no doubt, who like my driver had been illegal babies themselves. Such men were supposedly the most efficient at that sort of work.

“We will meet our population quota,” Mai Maïgana said.

 

We drove all day, but the riverbed past Sansanne-Hausa seemed to wind more, and it was rocky and difficult to drive over. Once we drove up what had been a long oxbow that dead-ended, so we had to backtrack. By night, when even with the weak headlights we could not see well enough to drive, we were still maybe forty kilometers from Sinder. So we stopped and slept in the jeep. “We can be in Sinder tomorrow by noon,” Ahmid said. If we were delayed much beyond that, I knew, someone would come driving down the Niger looking for us. We built no fire. The day had been hot, and now the night was hot. Ahmid took the first watch.

Sometime later he shook me awake. “You had better wake up,” he said. I thought it was my turn to watch, but I looked at my wristwatch and saw that it was just after midnight.

“Get up,” he said again.

I sat up and saw that veiled Tuareg men were standing around our jeep. Some had guns pointed at us, others had drawn knives. One started talking to me, fast, commanding, repeating one word over and over: attini, attini.

[276] “What does he want?” I asked Ahmid, hoping he could understand Tamasheq.

“Our water,” he said. “And your boots and your shirt and our food, the blankets, my belt, our extra clothes.”

Then I remembered what attini meant in Tamasheq: give me.

“Do you speak French?” I asked the Tuareg, thinking I could reason with them, tell them I was here to help them, but not one of them would talk to me in French. I tried Hausa and the little Yoruba I knew, but they would speak only Tamasheq, and I knew only a few words in that language. I could not speak it. Ahmid had to translate for me.

One of the Tuareg reached in the back of the jeep and took out our water. I let him.

“They want your boots and shirt,” Ahmid said.

I took off my boots and handed them to the man who had spoken Tamasheq at me. I handed him my shirt. They took the other things they wanted and walked away behind us, tall, regal. It was as if we were a caravan and had paid them tribute to pass through their lands.

“Why didn’t they take the jeep?” I asked.

“The army would find that,” Ahmid said.

I looked back at the Tuareg, but in their black robes they were already indistinguishable from the shadows of the riverbanks. I suddenly felt sorry for them. They had taken tribute from us, but they had no future outside of the government camps.

 

Ahmid slept fitfully while I watched. We both wondered if the Tuareg would come back or if others would come along and rob us a second time. Ahmid finally gave up trying to sleep, and we started off for Sinder long before dawn, driving very slowly, creeping around the rocks and holes in the riverbed till it grew light enough to see to drive faster. We had nothing for breakfast, and no water to drink. Once the sun was up, I could not stay awake. I dreamed again of my whore in Niamey. She pressed the blue cloth to my eyes, and when I could see the river we went walking along its banks.

[277] She had brought a picnic of melons, clean, juicy, and bright green. We ate on the grassy riverbank in cool shade under a great tree, and I marveled at the beautiful greenery all around me. I no longer believed I was drugged.

“Is this what was, or what might have been?” I asked.

She just smiled at me, and when she smiled I wanted to love her, there, on the banks of a watery Niger. I took her in my arms and held her, tight.

“Love me,” she said.

“I do,” I said.

“Love me for a long time, not just today,” she said.

“I will.”

She broke away from me, picked a leaf from the tree above us, and pressed it into my palm.

“Love me,” she said again. And I did.

 

I woke sweating and sunburned. The Tuareg had taken everything I could have put over me to keep off the sun.

“We are soon at Sinder,” Ahmid said. “They will have creams for your skin there and a shirt.”

I sat up straight and rubbed the sweat off my face—but regretted that. My face was so sunburned it hurt to touch it.

“Were you dreaming?” Ahmid asked.

I nodded. “Of a beautiful woman.”

He looked concerned. “A woman, you say?”

“Yes, Ahmid.” I regretted mentioning women to him, a castrato. He could never know the things I knew. I did not want to hurt him.

“You do not understand what such a dream could mean,” he said. “The Djenoun blow about on winds across these empty lands till they find a man’s mind to inhabit. If one troubles you, tell me and I will pray to Allah for your protection. Allah can protect you, even in your dreams.”

I could not believe that he believed what he was telling me about the Djenoun. Yet for one moment I wondered if Tuareg superstitions could be true, and if a Djenoun were haunting my mind. If she [278] were I would not ask Ahmid to pray to have her taken from me.

I looked at the palm of my hand, but there was no leaf in it. I looked at the dry riverbanks above us on either side and wondered what they would look like wooded. Then I realized I had come on this trip with my mind made up. I was going to recommend the uranium mines to the World Bank. I had never seriously considered the trees.

 

We passed four Tuareg women in the streets of Sinder. One looked like the woman in my dreams, then I thought all four did, then I thought every woman I saw—Songhai, Hausa, Fulani, Tuareg—all looked like that woman. The old French nurse who doctored my sunburn at the clinic looked like that whore. They were all beautiful. I thought that I had never looked at women like this before, that I had never realized that all women were beautiful. I loved them all. We got water, food, gas, clothes, and struck out across the erg to the Zermaganda uranium fields.

And they were everything I had been promised. URANIGER had set off one thousand seismic charges which proved the deposits greater than those at Arlit, the mines that made Niger the world’s fifth-largest uranium producer. The Zermaganda mines would make them the largest. I spent two days studying the ore and the results of the seismic charges, talking with the geologists and walking with them over flat-topped gara and down dry wadis to the best sites. But I spent my nights studying the reports on reforestation. I realized that plan was too modest. The source of the Niger needed to be reforested, yes, but so did the sources of five of the major tributaries. If that happened and if the rainfall increased as might be expected, the river might flow.

 

Aissa Seibou arrived late that second day, and though tired from the journey from Niamey, I could see the enthusiasm in her eyes. She looked beautiful to me, like my whore.

“What do you think?” she asked.

I smiled. “I think this deposit will be everything you dream of,” I said.

“You will help us, then. You will recommend us?”

[279] That was the question.

“Money from these mines would give us money to import water from the sea,” she said. “The coastal dictatorships are killing us for water.”

It was what the Water War had been fought over. By international law every nation had rights to water from the sea, including landlocked nations like Niger, Mali, Burkina Fasso. But the coastal nations were reluctant to give them land for desalination plants they wanted to sell them water. Taxes for road repairs on the roads used to truck water inland, charges from the trucking firms, tariffs were not enough. International law was not enough. And the Sahelian nations had lost their war and now had no choice but to pay for water trucked in from the coast.

“You have seen what this country has become,” she said. “If even four hundred thousand people can live here we need money. We need these mines.”

“Have you studied the reforestation proposals?” I asked.

“You can’t be serious,” she said. “There is nothing to reforest in Niger.”

“But there is in Guinea, Burkina Fasso, Mali. If it works you would have the Niger again and be freed of the stranglehold of the coast.”

“In forty years,” she said, incredulous.

 

I dreamed that night of my whore in Niamey, and she was big with child. “You fathered her, ” she said. “She will be your daughter.”

This was an unlicensed child, and I was horrified to think that it would be aborted.

“Only if you tell the authorities will it be aborted,” she said. “Otherwise all people will love her when they see her.”

“You can look in the blue cloth and go to the Niger with water,” I said, “and stay there.”

“And wait for you to come,” she said.

Then I understood that the blue cloth did not show what was or what might have been. It showed what could be and, I hoped, what would be.

[280] “Name your daughter Fecund,” she said.

I thought that name more beautiful than any I had ever heard. “I will come to you,” I said. “Down this river when it flows again, to these trees.”

She smiled, and behind her I saw the desert greening.

 

I made my recommendation to the World Bank, and they accepted it. But Aissa Seibou did not leave me in anger. I agreed to stay on with her in Niamey through the summer to help her find outside funding to develop the Zermaganda mines. Ahmid and I followed her jeep back to Niamey, down the dry Niger. We stayed maybe half a kilometer behind her, out of her dust.

Once we rounded a bend and ahead of us, against the bank, I could see the whitened bones of some great animal.

“Hippopotamus,” Ahmid said. “Extinct here now forever.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

“Ah, that Allah should send us hippopotamus again,” Ahmid said.

I had him stop by the bones, and we walked over to them. The skull was gone. “It is worth money in the markets of Niamey,” Ahmid explained.

All that was left were the ribs and leg bones, a few neck vertebrae. Dry leaves had blown in under the hips. I pulled out a handful of leaves and crumpled it.

“We should go,” Ahmid said. “Aissa Seibou will be far ahead of us.”

I picked up one dry leaf to take with me. We walked to the jeep and started driving again for Niamey. I held the leaf in my fingers, but it crumbled away piece by piece and blew off into the dust billowing behind us.