Africa Speaks: Childhood 1

Children at Filingue Market, Niger, 1992

Contents:. . . Aviatio . . . Eclipse . . . The River Devils . . . Big Lorry . . . home page


Gandah Nabi Mahamadou: 2/10/92 and 3/17/92

We have been living at the airport since I was a child. We moved there when I was three months old. My family lived in Niamey proper before I was born. The airport neighborhood, or "Aviatio" (abiotio), according the spelling of its inhabitants, used to be a village 10K from the capital city. Now it is a part of the town. My father, who was transferred to his new job at the airport, had to move with his family to Aviatio, for there weren't as many means of transportation between the town and village as there are nowadays.

It's difficult to say which came first, the village or the airport. According to some elders, it was the workers who settled around the airport and founded the village, even though before the airport was built there were some hamlets here and there in the area. Anyway, most of the inhabitants of Aviatio now work for various companies at the airport.

The village is divided into two parts by a main road, which crosses it from one to the other. This division is not accidental; it makes the whole difference between its inhabitants, their lives and living conditions. It was done in the usual way, like in many places where the local population and white people had to live together in the country.

On one side of the road we have the Whites' zone with its nice houses made of concrete with very large windows and doors, with many nice, roomy, large compartments. The compounds were large, with fences made with trees surrounded with wire netting. In front of the houses were beautiful cars, and green grass was everywhere in the compounds, and lots of different kinds of flowers. Taps with clear running water were in the compounds and on the roads and the green parks to water the trees, grass, and flowers, and in order to cool the area so the inhabitants could breathe fresh air. The roads were paved, trees were planted on both sides. Trees and green grass were everywhere. Elsewhere there were places of leisure to while away the time, such as tennis tables, volleyball courts, swimming pools, and recreation centers where they met in the evening. At night there were electric lights everywhere which illuminated the whole zone. All these things made the Whites' zone a place of attraction for the children of the village. They couldn't keep themselves from going there.

On the other side of the road we have the zone of the local population. During the night it was in deep darkness except for some lights which glowed at a distance in the fireplaces or in hurricane lamps. The houses were made of bunko [mud brick] or thatch. They were very tiny houses with no gates, and when there were doors and windows they were very small. Usually these houses have a veranda and one inside room. The thatch houses have just a single room with no compartments and the walls let the air in. The compounds were made with fences of thatch, with no grass and no trees inside. The streets were very narrow and dirty, with no trees along the sides. During the rainy season there were puddles everywhere. There was a lack of water in the village for there were few wells in the whole village. All these things made the local zone a dull and uninteresting place, a dead place, compared to the White zone which was alive, a place to go to admire.

* * *

When we were young my elder brother and I were in constant fear of our father. We were not the only ones who were constantly trying to escape his scoldings or beatings. Everyone in the family, women and children, kept to his or her task, whether Father was present or not. Everyone had his task, which he performed perfectly, and at the right time. We knew by heart what pleased Father and what didn't. And we also knew what we were allowed to do, and things which were forbidden to us. One thing we were forbidden to do was to follow the boys of the village and go in the White area.

Boys of our age group were always tempted to go in the white area because of its beauty. It had many things we didn't have in our area. No matter how parents punished their children, they could not stop going there. Not a single day passed without a clash between white people and the young boys. Both parents and children were constantly being reported to the police station, where they were changed with various crimes, threatened, or beaten.

Because of our fear of our father, we had never tried to follow the boys of our age group into that area, except when we went to cut grass around the runway field, which was quite a long way from the compounds of the white people. I still remember some of the awful things that happened to boys who couldn't resist going in the white area. For white people, I don't know why, didn't want to see boys from the village wandering in their area. They always found something wrong with the gang in order to prevent them from coming there. Some whites phoned the police whenever they saw the boys wandering around, and the police automatically came in their cars to take the boys to the police station. Usually the boys managed to escape by running away. Some white people kept dogs for protection, and sometimes boys were bitten by those dogs when they were searching through the dust bins, for what I don't know.

Sometimes when there was a thief in the white compound, boys were trapped and taken to the police station and beaten bloody to get them to tell the "truth" about something they usually didn't know anything about. Or the police would question people from our quarter--laborers and house boys who worked in the white area. Sometimes investigations were made by the police in the compounds of the boys who were known to be members of the gang who were always wandering in the white area. And of course their parents too had to pay the price. Some boys from the gang still have some scars on their bodies, from when they were beaten for going in a forbidden area. Many boys got serious wounds, and many boys, while running away to escape from the police or a wicked dog, found themselves on a bed in the hospital.

* * *

I still remember the day when I faced the police for the first time in my life. I had a very hard time, for I was in constant fear of those policemen. One day during the summer holidays, after having my breakfast as usual, I went to cut green grass for our domestic animals. I was in second year of primary school, and I was in charge of these animals during the summer when we didn't go to school. I used to go grass cutting with some friends who were also in charge of their animals in their compounds in order to feed them and fatten them. Usually these animals were killed during Tabaski, or when there was a ceremony in the family. So we were always looking for the best quality of grass that we could find in the area. And the best place to find the best grass was at the airport, around the field where planes landed and took off. Everyone was forbidden to go around the airfield, so nice green grass grew everywhere around the field because men and animals were obliged to keep off. The police were always on patrol around the field for the security and benefit of every- body.

Even though the place was forbidden, we always managed to go there and cut grass. We were always observing the police going to and fro, and we knew the intervals when the policemen took a break or had their rest. And whenever we had the opportunity to cut grass, we did it. That day we were cutting grass, and we were in such a hurry we forgot that we were in the forbidden place where we were not supposed to go.

Everybody was busy filling his bag with grass, and we lost track of the time. Suddenly I heard footsteps. When we looked up it was too late; we were already surrounded by the police. None of us could escape, and we were trapped in a net. We were forced to get into their cars and were driven to the police station . . .

Copyright © 1998 Gandah Nabi Mahamadou



Iyo Ibrahim: 2/24/92

When I was in primary school my grandmother Sabia was more than eighty years old. She had white hair and the flesh of her arms trembled as she moved them. Some very small children were afraid of her because they thought her age made her look like a monkey. She was a little bent from the hard work people do in that part of the country. Despite her age, she would rather spend her time picking cotton or weaving than sitting with nothing to do.

She was good at stories or relating events, and all the children and wives in our big compound gathered to listen to her in the night. It was from her I learned why cat and dog are enemies for ever, and many other stories. It is good to know stories about animals and people, but it is also good to know about certain natural phenomena, things she did not know.

One Friday, the market day of my village, Takorka, an event happened which marked my childhood. On market days we did not go to school, but we caught up on Saturdays. My usual Friday task was to sweep my father's compound and cut grass for his horse. That Friday was exceptional, because I got more money than I usually did from Dad, and from some of his friends to whom I brought food and water every week. At sunset, people usually gathered at the center of the village. Those who had not sold their commodities yet laid them out under the light of oil lamps. The drummers were ready to start playing their drums here, and we, the children, were waiting for the moon to appear to start games such as hide and seek, and "selling." But the moon did not come out. We wondered what had happened, but we had no answer. From the other side of the village, we heard our elder brothers drumming on anything that would make noise. On their way they sang, asking the sun to let her slave free. I could not understand how could the sun have a slave. Who was that slave, I asked myself. I realized that something had happened, so I ran home to get more details from my grandmother.

I found her praising God and his prophet, imploring them to forgive human beings. All the members of the family were with her that night. When she had a pause in the prayers, she explained to us what the matter was in these words:

"The moon has taken the sun's road, so the sun catches her. If the sun does not liberate her soon, the moon will die, and it will be the end of the world."

On hearing this, I suddenly leapt and got close to her. I was very afraid because I did not want to die. I did not know when I started whimpering, and I finally fell asleep on her lap.

The following morning, when I woke up, I was very surprised to find things in their usual places. I did not ask my grandmother any questions, because I was late for school. At school, our teacher told us what happened last night was called an eclipse. It was not what people in the village thought.

When I heard this, I thought of what grandmother had said. She was one of the wisest people in the village. When an important thing was going to be undertaken, she was often asked for advice. How could I agree that she was not right? But the teacher had the knowledge; he was not wrong either.

As I grew up, things started to be clear in my mind. When there was another eclipse a few years later, I did not get frightened. I tried to explain to the old woman how an eclipse occurs. Unlike what she said, there was no possibility that sun and moon could meet. She got angry and cursed me, because she thought that I had said something bad against God.

Copyright © 1998 Iyo Ibrahim


Niger River at Rio Bravo, 1992

The River Devils

Issa Mariama, 1/27/92

In 1978, when I was in primary school, I spent my holidays in my father's village, Tera. I was about ten years old.

One day, all the children of my quarter gathered to go to the river to fish and to swim. Everyone knew how to swim except me. When I saw the children swim, I got excited, and jumped in the river. My legs were caught in the current and I slipped in the middle of the water. I began to drown, and I couldn't do anything except cry. I was completely underwater, except for my hands. Suddenly four fishermen with a canoe came to save me. They pulled me out of the river and threw me in the canoe. I had drunk a lot of water and was unconscious.

My family heard the bad news and came to the river quickly. They found me lying on a piece of cloth and they began to cry because they thought I was dead. The fishermen made me vomit water, and water went out of my mouth and nose and anus. I started to move my arms and legs and my parents took me home.

After that I felt ill. I had a bad stomach ache and I suffered a lot. I spent all the time sleeping. I went a week without going anywhere. I thought that my life was gone forever. I was afraid to die, and I didn't want to be alone. I believed this event was like a fate which I couldn't escape.

Before this happened, I always wanted to go to the river and fish and swim. Since this event happened, even now when I go to Tera, I am afraid to go to the river. I have been told that the devils of the water are very dangerous. And the greatest devil which we call Harakoye or Toula kills more than four children every year in Tera.

I advised myself not to go to the river at Tera because it is more dangerous than the river at Niamey. I always advise my brother not go to the river because I still remember this experience.

Copyright © 1998 Issa Mariama


Bush Taxi at Niger River ferry, [toward Tera], Niger, 1992

Big Lorry

Medji Abdou

The most important event that took place in my childhood was the arrival of the first lorry in my village. It was around 1969 and I was only seven years old. However, I remember it vividly.

It was one morning of the hot season. From very far away, we could hear the engine roaring. All the people came out of their huts to see what was going on. At that time, only some elders who had already been to town had already seen a lorry. But for most of us, I mean the younger ones, it was the first time. And we are going to be lucky, because we are going to see a lorry without having gone to town.

At each minute, the noise was coming nearer and nearer, and the nearer it came, the more our curiosity increased. Finally, the big heavy lorry appeared from behind the bushes, and all the people cried "Moto! Moto!" as it's called in our local language. We were about to run toward it when some elders tried to forbid us from doing so. Why? really can't tell. Maybe because the elders didn't want us to go and bother the visitors or perhaps it was in fear that an accident would happen.

Anyway by the time the visitors were being welcomed by the elders of the village, my band and I escaped and went straight to the lorry. We started walking around it, smelling it and touching it. It was covered with dust and I noticed that at anytime we put our hands on it, they left some marks. I myself was very fond of touching the tires, kicking them, or making some signs on them. To me, it was very curious. The tires were not made of iron, but they didn't get flat!

The younger children weren't the only ones around the big lorry. There were some elders and of course the women because, like us, they had never been to town. for our village was located in a very big forest and about 100 kilometers away from the town. Some people who were fetching water at the well ran to the village, leaving all their utensils there in order to take part in the event.

Yes, the event was really important to all of us, for two reasons: first because we all could see a lorry, and talk about it later on, but also from that day on our village would be put among the most important ones, for a lorry had been in it. Oh, really! I was very young but I could understand that. Even animals took part in the event, because all goats and sheep got afraid when they heard the noise and went behind the bushes to hide.

Did we know why the visitors came? No, that wasn't our business. It was the business of the chief of the village, and not ours. Our business, the women and us, was the big lorry, and it was there we spent our morning under the hot sun, touching and bending under it looking for details.

It was only in the afternoon that the visitors decided to go back to town and the driver got in. Everyone came to his side to see how he was going to start the lorry and drive. He pressed on the horn, his friends shook hands with the elders, they got on, and he drove. He took a sharp bend behind some huts, disappeared, leaving behind him the village and all its inhabitants, and a cloud of dust and smoke!

It was then that everyone went back home with a feeling of pride and also a kind of sadness for the big lorry had gone!

Copyright © 1998 Medji Abdou


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