Living In The Questions

Sharing....is what its all about for me right now. This post is my attempt at continuing the wheel of reciprocity.....as my friends, fmaily and home have sent me here, to Niger, West Africa, with more love & support than I could fathom...here are my words, experiences, and heart. Read & share back. Love & Peace...Amy*

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sept. 2, 2005 Wodabee Fiance', Death & Homecoming

HELLO ALL!

I am sticking to English greetings for fear of goofing up yet again with language (two nights ago I said "Boyfriend" in Zarma "Arywaso" instead of "Thank You" which is "Aysaboo"....after dinner at my neighbor's house). I am sorry that its been several weeks since I've last written, between trying to keep up with language class and get through the last weeks of training its been difficult. Also I know that you all want to hear only so much about camels, amphibians and latrines...so I hope the weeks in between the last email and this one has peaked your interest again.

I have three stories I want to share....well, two stories and an insight I guess. The first is love (infatuation perhaps), death and home coming. So, lets get started :-).

The first thing I knew about Niger was about the Wodabee people. When I "Googled" Niger I got these wild pictures of beautiful men in amazing costumes (I highly suggest googling if interested). The Wodabee are a subgroup of the Fulan, and primarily nomadic in the Western and Northern parts of the country. At the end of the rainy season (about the end of Sept) they all gather together for a week of festivals to celebrate the rains. At the close of the ceremonies is a male beauty contest where the men paint their faces with elaborate colors to emphasize the different features they find attractive (what we Westerns would typically consider to be more feminie features). Young virgin girls choose the winner of the entire contest/dance, and all of the available women can choose which man she finds most beautiful (an interesting process where women are supposed to act shy and demure while choosing a man)....alot of "love matches" turn into marriages from the festival. Also, perhaps the most entertaining part of the dance is when the men make AMAZING faces, and do wild things with their eyes (rolling one while the other stays straight, crossing them). The winner not only has beauty, but also is able to do the craziest things with his eyes (they see strong eyes as a sign of a strong marriage partner). This was what I knew about them before I went.

Two weeks ago we had a cultural fair, where visitors from different ethnic groups visited our training site, including Tuareg, Fulan, Hausa, Zarma and the Wodabee. I felt like it was Christmas! All of these different kinds of people in one place where I could look at them and ask tons of questions! So, I made the rounds by sitting with all of the different groups, and saved the Wodabee for last....anticipating how it would feel to actually see people I had only seen in photographs...who had become almost magical for me over the months preceeding my arrival in Niger. Well, all of that anticipation didn't prepare me to actually see them.

I sat down infront of a young man, Darri, about my age, with long hair (past his shoulders) braided down his head, traditional dress (tons of beads and tailsmans), light mocha skin, and huge almond eyes. I sat down on a mat opposite him and sat, enthralled while he put on his make up (traditional festival dress). An intense sense of being so blessed to be in this place and time washed over me...almost in tears, because I was actually seeing what I'd dreamed about for so long (Africa) right in front of me. Since I knew what all the different makeup was used for I began to narrate what he was doing to my fellow trainees. Although he spoke only Hausa and French, he was very aware of what I was doing...almost as if he understood that I knew about his culture. Over the next two hours I sat asking questions and watching. I learned that they value beauty and hospitality to the extent that they give their last bit of food to their guests, they have competitions to see who treats their animals the best, and the posess a self-composed quiet energy unlike anything I've ever seen.

He sat, watching us. He answered questions when asked by the translator, but as we talked and watched him, he simply watched us back. There was no rush to fill silences with conversation, no discomfort on his part with our watching him, he was just aware of himself, and there. After my two hour observation session turned crush (I was not alone in this group...several of my other female trainees where right there just as wide eyed as I was:-), I got a real education on just how powerful superstition is in this country.

After Darri left our director told us that he and a group of his friends would return the next week to do a traditional dance for us. "BUT!" They said, "You women should not look them in the eye. Because Wodabee men have magic and can cast spells on women to make you run away with them." Initially my feminist self was irritated that we women would be considered weak enough to "run away with" these men, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how logical it was for them to call their presence "magic." Coming from the U.S. where we so often are uncomfortable with silence (both with ourselves and each other), and also in a culture where we spend so much time fixated on the "self", yet can't ever seem to locate it, I was awed by this man who seemed to effortlessly present his "self" to us, through simply "being" there with us. There is something very magic about a person who can present themselves to another person, wholly and powerfully, magnetic almost. Its human attraction at its most base level I think....

So, after testifying to our group that I agreed "they were indeed "magic", but I was strong enough to resist temptation and run away with one of them", our director asked me to present the dancing Wodabee group when they arrived!

As dusk settled the group arrived and prepared behind a partition while we ate dinner. Hoping to sneak a peak at them and show some hospitality at the same time, I carried a pitcher of water to them. What I saw amazed me. In the dark I could make out about 8 men, all about 6ft tall, lithe, standing in a circle with full make up on and costumes....feathers, beads, yellows, reds and blues. They were talking quietly in Hausa, and all fell silent as I approached to ask for Darri in my halting French. He thanked me as he took the water, and I quickly left to introduce them and begin the show.

The dance was amazing.....it almost seemed unsynchronized......they alternated between calling out together (these gutteral calls that were simultaneously high pitched and deep) and dancing on their own. I suddenly reazlied that this was why I came....I was seeing the same dance that night, that I would have seen 1,000 years ago had I been watching them. After an hour of watching Darri told everyone that now had come time for the women to pick the dancer they liked best! As he demonstrated the steps we were to do (a slow rythmic trot while holding one hand to the side of our faces), my logical side said "Don't Do It!" Everything in me that had ever said "Play it cool" told me that choosing which man I found most magical infront of 60 other people was a bad idea. But I thought, "You know what, how many times am I going to be infront of 10 Wodabee men dancing in costume, giving me liberty to choose one?".....so I DID IT! I got up, heart pounding and hands shaking, and trotted my way over to Darri! After standing infront of him I then realized that he hadn't told us what to do after we chose one, so I stood there red faced for a minute longer, and then rushed back to my seat, both exhilirated by and embarassed at my boldness!

After the dancing ended and a group of us (all women trainees) stood around their bus to say goodbye and gawk (I felt somewhat remnicient of my New Kids on the Block, and N'Synch days). I got a great laugh out of listening to our director ask if all of us women were "accounted for" ( i.e. had any of us fallen under their spell and hid out on their bus) and our other Nigerien women language instructors swap stories about how they averted their eyes from the Wodabee men for fear of being hypnotized during their performance (these are grown university educated women saying this!). And I laughed to myself knowing that whatever resolve and stance I took on the outside ("They are not really magic, this is silly, no one runs away with them"), that on the inside, I too wondered what it would be like to roam the streets of Agadez and the Sahara with a group of beautiful nomads.....

Not only have I gotten to see magic and beauty in these first 2 months, but I've also seen pain as well. I knew dealing with death would be reality here, but I had no idea that the "dealing" would come so soon. Two weeks ago as I walked through the village, returning from a day in the city, I greated my adoptive sister from afar. Since I yelled the greetings from about 50 feet away, the littlest boy, Reedwan (technically my adopted nephew) sprinted towards me and jumped into my arms. I was pleasantly shocked as he is normally shy around me. Smiling and laughing I carried him to the house where we passed his father, Kareem, who was leaving. Kareem quickly said hello to me and made a passing joke about Reedwan being my child since he liked me so much. Thinking nothing of it I walked into our compound to see the entire family there (parents, 2 daughters, 4 adult sons and neighbors), with one of the sons wearing ash on his face. Feeling a bit unsure I approached Shaybu, to see what was going on. He explained that that morning, Kareem's wife, Reedwan's mother had died (she had been ill for quite a while, but her illness was never explained to me). I immediately switched to English and got out "I'm so sorry" before realizing that I had no idea what to do.

I had not learned the proper condolences, and only knew that since death is so regular in their culture, they do not show grief like we do. They cry when it initially happens, and then at later ceremonies, but since I had arrived 8 hours after her death, they had already cried and were acting as normal as possible. I panicked, and tried to fight back tears, knowing that if I began crying I would not only risk interrupting their grieving process, but I would also force them to try and console me....which was not at all what they needed to be doing. I imagined what Kareem must have felt seeing his son run to a woman that wasn't his mother, and what Reedwan must have needed since he ran to me. Since tears were coming, I quickly made an excuse to leave and almost ran through the village to the training site. Once I got there I spoke with one of my teachers who reassured me that I was right in not wanting to cry infront of them. After we talked for a while they told me that all I needed to do (if I was comfortable) was return to the house to sit with the family for a while and then I could excuse myself to go to sleep.

Tondi, a huge Nigerien man with great English, an enormous laugh and a huge heart said that since I had told them at the training site of the death, it would be culturally inappropriate for them to go to sleep, without having paid a brief visit to the family to share greetings and offer condolences. What I saw next amazed me. After I returned to the compound, about 20 of my teachers walked in the moonlight, in a slow procession to the house. My eyes were wide with fear....what had I done! Now 20 people have come over and probably disturbed the family and are going to make them even sadder!

So I sat, and watched as the women sat on one side of the yard and the men on the other. There weren't enough mats so I got one from my hut to share with the women. Kareem came out of the house, looking surprised at all of the people, and sat on the dirt between the two groups. My heart broke. Here was this man, who had just lost his wife, sitting on the dirt (something they don't do). Since I didn't know how else to participate I looked around and found a stool for him to sit on. For about 10 minutes the group went through alot of rapid Zarma where all I understood was "Irkoy Beeri" (God is big). Just as quickly as they arrived, they left, and my respect for this culture deepend.....in the States I think we sometimes get so self involved in our own feelings that we don't acknowledge the death of someone's loved ones, because of how akward it makes us feel (I too have been guilty of this). But here, people go, spend a few minutes to share other's grief, no questions asked. Its simply what one does.....a beautiful show of support.

The following day, as I met with Tondi to discuss the previous evening, I found that the words of one of my favorite wise women & closest friends rang true ("Lead with your heart. No language is necessary when you lead with your heart,"Molly Bryant). Tondi explained that my adoptive family was touched that I had asked for help and told my teachers about their loss. Tondi also said that he had seen that I was now "Integrated." He said that as small as it was, getting a mat and stool was a sign of being connected. My eyes filled with tears and I felt, for the first time, I have proof of what I believe. Part of what I've been searching for here, in moving to Africa, is threads of commonality. I want to see, with my own eyes and my own heart, if people are really more similar than we are different. And I know it now. I feel it every time I laugh with a woman here or dance with a little girl...share mutual respect with one of my "brothers" or feel the kindness of a stranger. No words are necessary when you lead with your heart. I have full faith in our collective ability to change the state of things....both in our own lives and in relation to one another. Extending your heart to someone is cross cultural.

I am extending my love to each of you right now, and I send up prayers of thanksgiving and joy for your love and friendship. Each day I see something that reminds me of home, of the mountains of Asheville, of one of my amazing teachers or classrooms of MHC, of a beautiful memory with family and friends.....and I also send my love up to everyone hurt by the recent hurricane. I know many of you have family and friends that are hurting right now, as do I (Ricky & Kathy I love you and I wish you speedy recovery with your house), and I want to encourage everyone to do whatever you can to ease the suffering of our family on the Gulf.

My next large email will probably not be for several weeks, as I will be sworn in as a real PC Volunteer (my status as a lowly trainee will be a thing of the past :-), and expected to stay in my city for the first 3 weeks to feel settled in. I will be living in Balleyara....a "city" with less than 10,000 people, a great Sunday market and plenty of camels. I have a house with a large compound....large enough for a garden (please send gardening wisdom!), a chicken coup (yes, I will have chickens!), a latrine, and a 2 room concrete house with a grass roof. For the first 3 months I will be learning Zarma and French and learning how to live there. Excited....yes. Scared.....definitely, but its time. Time for me to be "home" here. I can't wait to share more stories, and keep your AWESOME letters and emails. Keep them coming.

Always* Love & Peace
Amy

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