To Do, To Have Done
John C. Cannon
“One of the differences between us was that Marc wanted very badly to climb the Eiger, while I wanted very badly to have climbed the Eiger.”
-“Eiger Dreams” by Jon Krakauer
I stepped out of the airplane. The stuffy cabin air had felt fresh compared to the waves of heat radiating off the black tarmac to where I stood, high above the runway.
I lumbered down the stairs under my heavy backpack, already pasted to my back with sweat, surveying the sea of hardpan burning red in the afternoon sun. My first instinct when my feet touched the ground was to run back up and head home. I was supposed to help the people of Niger with agroforestry—where the hell were the trees?
I couldn’t remember ever having been hotter in my life. And this was “cold season.” What had I gotten myself into?
At the entrance to the open-air baggage claim area, men and women in forest-green camouflage milled around a game of cards and a small teapot resting on a tiny basket of charcoal that glowed red when touched by a warm breeze. When I collected my bags with a sigh of relief that they hadn’t fallen victim to the notorious African merry-go-round of lost luggage, a sinewy little man in royal blue scrubs grabbed them from me, saying “S’il vous plaît, monsieur,” and scurried off.
I started after him, not sure whom I could trust here. He dumped my bags onto a growing pile in the center of the airport and ran back to grab more from my fellow Peace Corps trainees. If he had wanted to steal from me, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to chase him.
Twenty-four hours of travel and more to come had left all of us in a daze. The Peace Corps staff herded us together, called our names, and directed us to the waiting vans and Land Cruisers for our next leg.
I had arrived. I’d taken my first steps in the big desert country that would be my home for two years, and in my head, I had also begun the countdown. I had to get here before I could leave and go home and say I had been a Peace Corps volunteer.
I missed my family and friends. My stomach grumbled in distress, and I had yet to eat or drink anything in this country where I feared that every piece of fruit harbored amoebas and the water teemed with giardia. The paltry French I had managed to recall in the days before I left didn’t seem it would be much help, as the Peace Corps staff members we followed conversed with each other in another language that I’d never heard filled with guttural ‘g’s and hard ‘k’s.
If I could have sped forward two years in that moment, I would have. I would have preferred to relive those experiences while showing off my enviable photo collection, listening to my collection of African tunes, while sitting on a couch at home with friends, rather than actually live through them. Could I really put my head down for two years and just wait the time out to get to that point?
And this adventure was just the biggest such contradiction I’d gotten myself into. As far back as high school, I remember undertaking elaborate trips into the wilderness so I could think of myself as adventurous. I’d steel myself against extremes in the weather and physical exertion, but I’d leave the forest unchanged. Any experience with the power to change me slipped away like the rain from the Gore-Tex rain suit I wore on the trail.
In retrospect, the unique situations I’d been through always glimmered, as though they had been nothing but a joy to get through, and I tried to bolster my courage with that thought when I first arrived in Niger. It wasn’t that I hadn’t enjoyed them. But I always worried about the potential struggles that lay ahead, never fully embracing the reality of what was going on around me.
A week after our swear-in ceremony, after two months of training with 40 other Americans, I crammed my belongings into and on top of the Toyota Land Cruiser in Maradi, one of the regional capitals in eastern Niger. I said goodbye to the other new volunteers who would be posted in the same region, including a woman named Jenn whom I’d been close to during training.
Thin with soft skin and bouncy blonde curls, Jenn was a little piece of home for me. She had dyed hair, and she’d never been camping before Niger—not a type I’d have sought out in the States, but here, she was an antidote to the foreign surroundings.
We spent nights in the sandy West African Bush between her host family’s house and mine, tempting each other with descriptions of the food we missed from home and discussing our plans for life after we finished our service. She smiled constantly, and I drew energy from her enthusiasm. But our conversations always centered on where we’d be after our time in Africa, never on the present.
After an hour on the tarmac road from Maradi, we turned onto a wide dirt path and headed north. Zigzagging back and forth across the road, our driver Abdou guided the Land Cruiser, slowing down for ditches that could have swallowed the vehicle and charging back to top speed when the surface evened. It was a long haul, marked only by the plain black-and-white signs for the dozen or so villages that lay along the road, but the two jarring hours weren’t long enough to stave off the end of the journey for me that day.
We pulled into my new village, trailed by a throng of screaming children. I looked around and breathed deeply. This is what it’s all about, I thought, as the truck lurched to a stop between two mud buildings. I hopped down and started shaking hands with a few of the old men who had come to investigate. After the year it took to apply to the Peace Corps and two months of training, I was now on the ground, here to make a home in this little village.
Abdou led a short meeting in the town’s center, explaining why I was there and that the members of the village were to look out for me. And again too soon for my taste, we unloaded the car, he wished me luck, and I watched as the car backed out of the village. When I could no longer see it, I sighed again, looking around at the dark faces staring at me. Day one, I thought. Here we go.
Over the next few weeks, I spent time with my villagers, trying to keep names and faces straight and stammering in baby-talk Hausa.
I found a man, Nasser, to eat with at night. He spoke some French, so early on I could at least communicate my most basic needs. In the evening, I’d greet his wife, Nafisa, who spoke only Hausa, asking about her afternoon, her tiredness, her hunger—common questions in the litany of greetings that politeness dictates in West African cultures.
Invariably, she would always toss back a question I didn’t understand. When my only response was a quizzical look, she would clap her hands and pitch forward with laughter.
“Yacouba, you know a little Hausa,” she’d say to me, “but not much!”
“Hausa kadun kadun,” I’d say, holding up my forefinger and thumb so they were almost touching.
Neighbors would filter through Nasser’s concession in the evening, grab a few handfuls of pasty millet tuwo and sauce, and, if there was enough moonlight, stick around for a game of cards. I’d practice my greetings with them, but conversation disintegrated after that, and they’d lose interest in me. Mostly I’d sit and observe, listening for words I knew or trying to glean the meaning of what they were saying from their gesticulations. I’d smile when everyone laughed, though I usually had no idea what the joke was. In moments like these, I realized how white my skin was, how expensive my clothes were, how plump my cheeks were.
They would prod me with a question periodically, but usually by that time of day I was too tired to understand or say anything comprehensible in Hausa.
“She—uh—I went—uh—I want to go house,” I’d say late at night to roars of laughter, my mind exhausted. “I want to go house now now.”
“Why are you going home, Yacouba? You have no wife to keep you warm.”
“I feel warm now,” I’d say. “There is heat.”
“You’re too old not to have a wife, Yacouba. I had two wives when I was 23,” a man named Razack would tell me.
“No wife today,” I said. “No wife tomorrow. No wife the day after tomorrow. No wife the day after the day after tomorrow.” The Hausa language has a discrete word for each of these days. Gobé, jibi, gata. Razack always fell into the sand holding his stomach when I delivered that line.
“OK, OK,” he’d say through his tears. “See you later. Yacouba No Wife.”
I thought that with my little shtick, at least I was connecting with someone, though I worried I’d never get beyond those few phrases, that I’d be remembered as the affable idiot who couldn’t manage more than a few words of Hausa.
The days inched past, each one growing warmer as we plodded toward hot season. Babies grew cranky in the midday heat, and parents lost their tempers more quickly.
I’d wake up early each morning to the women’s rhythmic pounding outside my concession as they pummeled millet kernels into flour for the day’s meal. And I’d take a deep breath before leaving my house to go out into the village, fixing a smile to my face.
I looked forward to crossing each passing day off my calendar, and on the really tough days, when I’d heard one too many times from people that I knew no Hausa at all, I confess I put a half line through the day’s box in the afternoon, just to have some measure of accomplishment.
Two weeks into my first month, I found out that Jenn, despondent and frustrated with her language and the conditions, had decided to go home. She came to my village to say goodbye.
After she left, I watched the car disappear from the village. A few young boys stood around me, smiling at the excitement and oblivious to the freefall I was in. I eked out a half smile to ward off the tears and turned to walk into my house. I took out a folder stuffed with letters from home and sobbed as I hadn’t in years.
I knew I wasn’t crying because I missed Jenn. I did, but her departure was just a tug on the thread causing my comfortable blanket to unravel. It was the connection to the known that she had come to embody for me—my family and friends back home, a couch and movies when I was sick, speaking English—all those attachments to the banal life I’d left behind that now seemed special and rare.
After some time—I don’t know how much exactly—I stopped crying. I felt empty. Perhaps this had been the feeling I was searching for. I wiped my eyes one more time and went out into the village. Separating myself from the village would keep me from the language and the culture and all those things you first learn as an infant that help you assimilate. So 23-year-old baby that I was, I took a first step toward my new life there.
I started taking walks in the mornings, looping through the dusty village streets, the greasy pungency of millet cakes frying in peanut oil mixed with the campfire scent of wood smoke hanging in the air. Much of the time, I felt like a sideshow. My white face scared one woman from an outlying nomadic encampment so badly, she jumped and the clay tukunya of water on her head crashed to the ground.
Gradually, though, people started to recognize me. And I picked up a few unusual greetings to show people that my language was inching along.
“How sits the world, Yacouba?”
“Have patience,” I’d reply.
“God is great, Yacouba. You’re learning Hausa.”
“Today and tomorrow, I can,” I’d say. This means something like, “Little by little, I’ll get there,” in Hausa. They wouldn’t laugh when I said that. They’d smile like proud parents.
I reached out to a few of the women—an unusual thing for a man to do and only accepted because I was anomalous. It started out as a novelty for them. But over time, they became some of my closest friends in the village. They’d bring me hura—an earthy broth of pounded millet dough and milk or water that was as tasty to amoebas and bacteria as it was to me. And they’d come to check on me when I was sick, no doubt on occasion thanks to the delicious hura.
Once or twice a week, Loali, a boy who had appointed himself my village guardian, and I would share a hundred francs of gamey goat meat coated in long-burning red pepper and salt. He kept me posted on the village cadence—how I was supposed to act, which baptisms I should attend, what celebrations were going on at that particular time of year. I spent afternoons sitting with the old men in the center of the village. We’d chat from time to time, and I’d even fall asleep, face pressed into the sand as they did.
Lying on a cot after a meal at Nasser’s house one night, I stared up at the stars. Searing and barren in the day, the Sahel transforms into a grand, sandy-floored planetarium at night. Nasser’s two young sons squabbled at my feet. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but their bickering launched me back to my own childhood and the spats I had with my sister, one of the people I missed most. I laughed at the boys.
Seeing that relationship that I so treasured played out here, a million miles from home, bridged the great distance. I stopped seeing my life in Niger and the one I had known as two distinct worlds. Things began to overlap, and I found it everywhere I looked. From the woman who cheered and clapped and shook her fist at me every evening as I ran past on the dirt road outside our village, the same way my mother had during my high school cross country races, to Nasser’s mother, who lived in his same concession, and complained about Nafisa’s tardiness in serving dinner. A mother-in-law, it seems, is always a challenge, no matter where you’re from.
As I became more fluent, my relationships matured, and my interactions grew more complex. Nasser and I discussed village politics late at night after everyone had left. And I began to work, meeting with elders to discuss plans to build a new well that the previous volunteer had started but never finished. I mourned next to friends when they lost a parent or a child. And I rejoiced with them when the rains came, transforming overnight the desolate sandscape into undulating green fields of thick-leafed millet and sorghum.
Soon afterward, I found I’d gone more than a week without crossing off a day on my calendar. It all became life—my life—as much as attending classes and going to work and nursing pints of beer and bits of conversation with friends had been in the States.
This time in Niger wasn’t something I could—or should—just suffer through. If I was going to make anything of this experience, I would have to shift a paradigm I’d been living by for 23 years. I had this one chance to absorb what was going on around me, to build a community in a place as different from what I had known all my life as was possible.
All through training and the first weeks in my village, I had had a permanent smile on my face—a fixed mask to show everyone that I was happy to be there. One morning, I woke up and realized that those muscles had relaxed. And I actually looked forward to chatting with my neighbors on my morning walk.
The balance of my two years in Niger would be filled with ups and downs. But that shift in my attitude had taken hold, meaning I could embrace each one as it came, instead of hunkering down, worried about the storms on the horizon and oblivious to the life that those rains could awaken.
John C. Cannon is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on science, travel and the developing world. He currently lives with his wife in the Democratic Republic of Congo.