Brian Minalga (Niger 2008-10, Namibia 2010-12) served as an educator in the Peace Corps in Niger and Namibia. He then was a Peace Corps Recruiter from 2013-2014. Brian also completed a Master of Social Work degree as a Paul D. Coverdell Fellow. He now lives in Seattle where he works nationally to advance justice for historically underrepresented communities in HIV clinical and behavioral research.
Honey for the Heart
by Brian Minalga
A ga kanu ay se.
It is sweet to me.
THIS IS HOW YOU SAY that you like something in a dusty town called Dosso in Niger, West Africa. The language is called Zarma, and Zarmaphones are very interested in what’s sweet to you:
Dunguri nda mo, a ga kanu ni se? (Beans and rice, is it sweet to you?)
Kaidiya wate, a ga kanu ni se? (Rainy season, is it sweet to you?)
Zarma seni cawyan, a ga kanu ni se? (Learning Zarma, is it sweet to you?)
Many things in Dosso were sweet to me, but the sweetest things came unexpectedly.
One quiet, moonless night, I walked down a dirt road toward my house on the other side of town. Though it was nighttime, the temperature hung in the 90s. It was May—the hottest month of the year. Even the crickets and owls seemed to idle in the heat, their chirps and screeches noticeably absent from the night.
Just ahead of me stood a tin vendor’s shack, warmly lit by several kerosene lamps. As I approached, I noticed a man seated on a prayer rug facing East. He had just finished the last prayer of the day.
“Fofo,” I greeted as I passed.
“Ngoya fo,” he replied as prescribed.
I took 15 more steps in the night silence before he called after me.
“Ni ga dey yu?”
I stopped. I’d been in Dosso for nearly two years, and nobody had ever asked me to buy honey. I had seen it in plastic soft drink bottles in the open market, but it wasn’t advertised like the tomatoes and mint leaves, beautifully displayed on wide market tables. It was always hidden back in a corner somewhere — available by request only.
I looked over my shoulder, and the man gestured for me to come. He maneuvered his hefty body up from the prayer rug. He was draped from shoulders to ankles in an immaculate, white bubu with some beautiful embroidery at the collar, spooning the V of his neatly trimmed beard. A splotch of red sand stuck to the ablution-clean skin where his forehead had touched the ground in prayer. He turned around and disappeared into his shop.
I followed him inside to find the typical Nigerien merchandise: soaps, perfumes, candies, some canned vegetables. I reached out and shook his hand, and he held mine for a long while as we spoke.
“Ni ga yu bey?” he asked (Do you know what honey is?).
“Oho, ay ga yu bey,” I replied (Yes, I know what honey is).
He released my hand.
“Ah-ah, ah-ah,” he corrected, shaking his index finger no. “Ni si yu WONE bey” (You don’t know this honey), he said. He knelt down to a clear plastic bucket that croaked like a frog when he opened its lid. He tilted the bucket toward me. The bottom of the bucket was thick with three or four inches of dark, warm-looking honey that immediately flooded the shop with a rich, smoky aroma.
“Ni si yu WONE bey,” he repeated with a distant expression, allured by the honey. He began to gently dip a red plastic cup into the bucket, lifting it high and streaming the amber honey back in, over and over again. Then he looked up at me and switched to French:
“Il faut gouter,” (you must taste), he said, holding the dripping red cup out over the bucket. I knelt to swirl my thumb around the cup’s rim, then stuck my thumb in my mouth.
I had to close my eyes. Its taste matched its aroma so precisely: rich, sweet, smoky. I opened my eyes, and the man nodded his head majestically with a proud smile on his face.
“A ga kanu ni se?” (Is it sweet to you?)
I looked back at him with my thumb still in my mouth and smiled.
“Han i bobo!” (Drink a lot!), he almost shouted, dunking the cup back into the bucket, then thrusting it toward me once more with the vigor of a man offering a hearty stein of beer. I held up both hands and told him that just a little would do. He began passionately stirring and streaming the honey again with the red cup, uttering in a mix of French and Zarma, “Ça c’est la qualité! Haikulu go a ra — yu dey no!” (This here, this is quality! Nothing is in it— only honey!).
“Ay ga hina ga di” (I can see that), I said.
“Borey kulu kan ga ba yu kanu” (Everyone who wants sweet honey), he continued very matter-of-factly, “Ils savent que c’est ICI!” (They know that it is HERE).
Then, in very slow, soft, deliberate French, his face broad and serene as if waking from a dream, he said, “Je vais vous donner un échantillon de ce miel pur” (I will give you a sample of this pure honey).
He fetched a tool consisting of a small glass vessel fastened to the end of two metal rods. Over the honey bucket, he opened a tiny, clear-plastic bag, clunked in the dipper, and poured honey into the bag in one swooping motion. Some honey trickled down the metal rods to his fingers, but he didn’t seem to notice. He tied the mini bag on itself. I accepted it with both hands. Somehow, it wasn’t sticky at all.
Then, he spoke again.
“Dieu a dit . . .” (God said . . .). He trailed off in Zarma, “Mate i ga ne . . .?” (How do you say . . .?). “Ah oui” (Oh yes.) “Dieu a dit que le miel, c’est pour pour le corps” (God said that honey, it is for the body).
“Oui?” I inquired.
“Et l’âme” (and the soul), he continued.
“Oui . . .”
“Et le sang” (And the blood).
“Et le . . .” (And the . . .)
He tapped a finger against his chest.
“Le cœur?” (the heart?), I asked.
“Oui” he whispered with a smile. “Le cœur.”
I LEARNED A LOT about Islam during my time in Niger. When this man spoke to me about honey, however, he wasn’t just giving me a lecture in scripture. He was sharing with me his values — the values that Nigeriens showed me time and time again during the two years I lived in Dosso: kindness, generosity, and compassion for others — not merely in spite of differences, but because of differences.
This is the country that makes more babies than any other. This is a place in which children are so adored that it’s imperative to name twin girls Mecca and Medina. This is a culture that values sweetness. What’s sweeter than honey? A man who sees an outsider walking alone at night and shares with him the tradition — the principle — that Nigeriens hold more precious than any people I know of: sweetness as healing for humankind.
I SHOOK THE MAN’S HAND once more to thank him. As I walked away in the moonless Nigerien night, he purred in perfect English, “Goodbye.”