Africa Speaks: Life Stories 2

Sheep and goats at animal market, Filingue, Niger, 1992

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Grandfather and the Old Days

"Rah Man Youcif" 3/16/92 In-class writing

It all happened in the past during a period in which going to study in Abisra, Egypt, was as important as holding a PhD today. The people of those days lived with honorable values and codes of conduct completely different from ours nowadays.

My grandfather's name is Soumaila Bawala Sina Kombo. I never met him because he died before I was born. My first fancies regarding what he was like derive from a picture of him I have, from what I was told about him by my uncles and aunt, and from what I read about him in my father's writings.

Soumaila was a tall dark man with curly black hair and black eyes, almost always wearing white robes. As the only son of his parents, he was cherished and educated in a way unthinkable today.

At that time, a man was judged according to his nobility, his bravery, and his wealth as well as his ability to talk meaningfully and to understand animals' cries, particularly the cries of horses. This last skill came from telepathic training in Abisra where Soumaila was sent with some of his fellows for two years.

Father gives details of life in those days: A boy had a very close relationship with his fellows (age mates). Then as now, the color of the turban played a very important role. The unmarried men wore black turbans, which were changed to white ones when they got married.

Table manners were important: children were made to leave the table if they made rude sounds, such as a belch. Today, people just gently say "pardon." In those days a man was educated to become a gentleman, but aristocracy was acquired by birth and not with money.

Soumaila's father, my great-grandfather, was the chief of the quarter of Farko in Tera, so he was noble. He once killed with his bare hands a lion which was terrorizing the shepherds and their herds. Of course he was wealthy, as Tera is a golden land even nowadays.

What impressed me about Soumaila was his exceptional art to communicate with animals, and his ability to make rain fall, a power which is nowadays in the hands of Adiza, his daughter and my aunt.

I first experienced her powers during the end of a rainy season. Two of my brothers and I were taken by surprise, our hands were tied, and we were laid on grandfather's tomb, which was well swept before. Then, Adiza and the villagers surrounded us, clapping their hands, singing and dancing. Less than five minutes later, some clouds filled the sky and it rained rounded pieces of ice. I never saw hail before. The downpour continued all afternoon long.

This practice, and other beliefs of the area are mysterious indeed. For example, I think the reason we lacked musical training schools in the country until very recently is a consequence of such beliefs. It was said that a noble should not touch a musical instrument, nor sing. Other beliefs are very positive: for example, it is well known in Niger, though folk tales, songs, praises and other means, that a native son of Tera does not steal.

Nowadays, all over the 20,220 kilometers of Tera's land, people are hard workers, although there are of course exceptions to every rule. Growing millet of different kinds, cultivating gardens of various sorts of fruit, and fishing are practiced by almost everybody: the Songhai and their shepherds, the Fulani people, the Tuaregs and the Gourmantche descendants.

Soumaila had four children; the eldest was my father, a teacher; then my uncle Soumana who is a farmer; the third is Adiza who takes care of the garden and sells vegetables; and the youngest is my uncle Oumarou who is chief mechanic with the Nigerien Transportation Society in Niamey. Soumaila Bawallo Sina Kombo's tomb is in the west side corner of our family's present day compound at Farko, Tera.

May his soul rest in peace, Amen.

Copyright © 1998 "Rah Man Youcif"


Market woman near dairy, Niamey, Niger, 1992


Iyo Ibrahim 4/5/90

I learned everything from grandmother Sahia before her death a few years ago. When my father divorced my mother, I was only a child, so I passed my childhood without her.

In the beginning, I thought that my grandmother was my mother, because I always shared the same bed with her, ate in the same plate as her, and she was the one who looked after me. She was a little bent by age and walked with a walking stick.

As I watched her work, I also watched everything around me. I was especially interested in sunsets. The golden rays of the sun on the horizon made everything beautiful. One day, I suddenly realized that the same sun reappeared in the morning, at the other side of the sky. I asked Sahia, "Where does the sun go to, and how does it reach the other side in the morning?"

Her answer did not satisfy but only made me more curious: "The sun takes one road to get to the other end of the world--the West--and in the night it takes another road to return to the East," she said. "But some say that the sun passes under the ground to reach the East."

Sahia was very skillful in telling stories, particularly when it was to talk about her family.

I still remember the long nights she spent with her grandsons and some neighbors, telling about her grandparents and how they settled here. Her great grandfather Ali was a great warrior. He came from Borno. He had been traveling from area to area, from village to village, trying to find a brave man who would dare to challenge him.

He had made many victims before he met a man as brave as him. Grandmother said that they spent about three days fighting, without any winner. That was a fight of Power, my grandmother added, and you can see this special power in our family even now.

[Note: "Power" means supernatural power, "medicine."]

I completely agreed with her because when my uncle got into trouble with the leaders of the First Republic, they tried everything to arrest him but they could not. He did not share the same ideology with the leaders so they wanted to lynch him, but anytime they got in the compound it became dark and they could not see anything.

As great-grandfather Ali had not been able to defeat his opponent, he decided to put an end to his long trip. He settled in the same village as his adversary, with whom he made friendship, added Sahia. He got married to the daughter of the chief of the village.

Unfortunately his hot temper led him to quarrel with his brother-in-law. One day in a fight, Ali decapitated him and was exiled to Sokoto. There Sahia's grandfather, Chipkao, was born; the only son Ali had. When the king of Sokoto empire heard of Ali's arrival in his kingdom, he sent for him and made him commander of his army. Ali led this army to many victories before he died on the field of battle.

With her single son, Ali's wife traveled to Sabon Birni which is presently the oldest village in that part of North Nigeria. The widow refused to get married again.

She brought up her child according to his father's principles. When it was time for Chipkao to get married, he took the daughter of the king of Sokoto as wife.

She was called Kaude and unlike her husband she was a cool and calm woman. She gave birth to my grandmother's father, called Joki. Chipkao, said Sahia, had thirteen children, all of one mother, Kaude.

My grandmother's father, Joki, was the third of them. But instead of living among his brothers Joki preferred to go far from his village. She said that he had the same physical traits as his grandfather Ali. The way he refused to stay among his brothers and sisters is a convincing example. He too went from village to village for wrestling matches and had never been thrown on the ground.

In a village called Jataka, Joki met a very beautiful girl and fell in love with her. The idea of getting married to her made him stop his travels and he finally settled there. My grandmother Sahia was born there, and those who knew her grandmother could easily see the likeness between then.

Throughout this long story Sahia pointed out hereditary likenesses between grandparents and grandchildren. Heritage goes back more than a generation or even beyond memory. Sahia told me that I acted like her sister, and had the same voice as her, but my cousin Sani is the image of her Sahia's mother.

Sahia said I had the same height, the same walk, and the same voice as her grandfather. Because I spent most of my time quarreling with the other boys she concluded that I was as hottempered as all her male grandparents. I had never accepted defeat even in discussion. And when I had a fight it was usually with people bigger than I, but I always made victims.

In contrast, my cousin Mariatou shares the physical characteristics of Great-Grandmother Kaude. Mariatou is a woman now, but she has never got into trouble with the others. Like Kaude, she is calm and confident, and despite her young age she is considered as the wisest of all the young people of the family.

Along with the family resemblances, we have in our family some practices which belong to us only. These rites have been performed since the time of the ancestors. Every year, all the members of the family gather around the oldest of them. This man or woman holds the Power, left by their ancestors, of leading all the family together, protecting its members against any kind of evil. This is why our family is feared. Nobody dares offend us.

I am very happy, because although most young people of this large family have been to school, our education has not moved us far from our traditions, and we know ourselves in respecting them.

Copyright © 1998 Iyo Ibrahim


Children at Niger river ferry landing, (toward Tera), Niger, 1992


Yacouba Saibatou 4/27/92

Life has never been easy for orphans. This is the story of my bringing up by my sister and her husband. Life was not easy for me in any way. Often I had to face danger and misery.

In our village, people disliked school. My sister, who had the chance to be educated and was a teacher, took me with her when she got married. However, her husband was very wicked and he seized the opportunity to beat her at the least fault. I for my part was not spared. Because of his wickedness, my sister's husband caned me whenever I got the second rank in my class. "Why not occupy the first rank, you ugly and foolish girl!" he furiously told me.

As she was a teacher herself, my sister asked permission from my teacher to let me leave school and come home and prepare meals for her family.

This is still a common thing to do, especially during the rainy season where there is no servant in the house. The government here has a program called "operation return village." Under this program all men and boys who have left their villages to look for work in the city (so-called "delinquents") are forced to go back to their villages during the rainy season to help with the millet crop. If they don't go, the police arrest them. Because of this my sister had no houseboy or cook, and she wanted me to drop out of school and do that work for her.

The other teachers told my sister that taking me out of school was very bad and though I was only in primary school, my class was still an exam class.

But my sister, who was very afraid of her husband, continued to keep me out of school and make me their cook and errand girl and that was how I failed my exam.

In 1978 and my sister sent me to a private school, College Mariama, where she paid 75,000 cfa ($300) tuition each year. As a drinker, her husband thought that was a waste and wanted her to give him the money instead. The only good luck for me was I was a boarder at the school, and as much as possible I avoided his anger.

I easily passed the exam that permitted me to go to high school. Then the government canceled the system of boarding schools. According to the government, pupils must live at home and see the misery their parents faced.

This was in 1979, the year former President Sayni Kountche (dead now) affected negatively many pupils who lived in Niamey without their parents. For my part, it was more than a misfortune because it coincided with the year my brother-in-law went abroad. My sister was obliged to go back to our home village and teach there, because, according to the custom, a woman must not stay alone when her husband was not with her. I was left alone in Niamey to study.

From this moment, I was in danger and misery, because I had to live as a beggar to survive. I was first taken in by a cousin whose husband shared the same house with his elder brother. They had a lot of children and there was not enough food to eat. There, no one took care of me. My sister could not send me any money because, as her husband thought, it was time she thought of their own children.

I became pregnant. Though my sister had been very harsh with me, I wrote to her and asked her to see a marabout and get some medicine to help me miscarry. I did so because in the village traditional medicine is more efficacious than what is available here in town. She did as I asked, and then came an event that nearly cost me my own life. All the same, I was lucky, because at that time no pregnancy was accepted in College Mariama.

After this misfortune, I left to live in my uncle's house. He was a government minister at this time, and the major problem was that his wife did not like me. She was not from Niger, but from Upper Volta [Burkina Faso]. I twice failed the exam that would permit me to go to the university. I left Niamey and came back home to the village and stayed with my sister, whose husband was still abroad.

I became the derision of the village. People gossiped and said what a misfortune, how could someone study for years and be rejected like that; more, the poor girl had no man to marry her, and yet she is already a mother [has already been pregnant.]

In fact, the suffering I endured at that time was worse than the time I spent in Niamey at the time of the departure of my brother-in law when I lived as a beggar. I would spend a month or more without going out, because the villagers considered me a mother, and there was no unmarried girl of my age in the village. Some of the villagers could not help coming to our house to watch me, because, as they thought, I might be pregnant.

Some months later, I had a chance to be taken as wife by a cousin. However, what a shame, I had not even a bed, because my sister who thought he had suffered enough for me, refused to buy me one. This caused her to have a quarrel with our elder brother in the house. So, as if he were a big official, my husband had to pay for everything.

While living in his house, I took the University entrance exam for the third time and passed it. We then left Agadez to Niamey and that was the end of my pains.

Now I believe that after having suffered, one is supposed to acquire a certain happiness in his life; more, I also realize that losing one's parents at an early age is very bad. It is a misfortune because one will never escape the misery and all the evils that society brings upon you.

Copyright © 1998 Yacouba Saibatou

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