by Margot Miller (Niger 1972–74)
This essay was first published on the blog of PeaceCorpsWriters.org
on January 31, 2006
THE SUN SLIPS ABOVE THE HORIZON on the dot of six in Madarounfa, a mere thirteen degrees north of the equator, close enough that sunrise and sunset vary almost not at all the year ’round. The ten primary school teachers who have gathered for this late-December, weekend school-garden-project instruction are up within minutes. Once they have washed and made their separate trips to the bush, they gather for breakfast under the old baobab tree. It’s still cool and they drink hot tea, brewed very strong, with great chunks of sugar chopped out of a cone that comes wrapped in blue paper. Jon, the American who is instructing them, has made oatmeal. It’s nice of him but the teachers find it rather bland. They add sugar and salt and are polite while watching the light begin to sparkle on the lake just below the camp. The water level has fallen since the end of the rainy season, and will fall lower still before it rains again.
The pink and yellow light has dried up the drops of water left on the leafy plants inside the garden enclosure during the night. The windmill stands silently above the demonstration plot and the small-bore well that lies beneath it. There is no wind today. Jon speaks in Haussa and hands out tools. His instruction covers what plants to chose for the gardens in which today’s pupils will in turn teach primary school children the simplest rudiments of farming. In front of them are large, green cabbages with leaves the size of elephants’ ears, and kohlrabi, a vegetable foreign to this land but which grows well, as long as there a little is water now and then. Of course, they also discuss the peppers, hot red and green, the millet and corn plants, and in the corner there are tomatoes. These are delicious and new. They can be used in tuo sauce. Another new food is the lima bean. These two Western tastes bring a surprising sensory experience: they delight the eye as well as the tongue.
The black men toil lustily all morning as the sun warms the garden and at noon they sit for a discussion in the shade of the baobab once more. Everyone savors the millet paste made by Ali’s wife, Halima, smothered in the sauce she has made from Jon’s tomatoes. As they are relaxing under the baobab for the afternoon sieste, farther down near the lake, Halima is pounding millet in a large mortar and pestle and her sister, Zenabou, is sifting the chaff away in the light air. The men doze in the heat of the day before resuming their weeding and harvesting at four o’clock. At the end of the day each makes a packet of sample vegetables to take back with him.
As the night settles, the group shares a meal of six roasted chickens brought from the market in Maradi, a distance of thirty kilometers, just for this purpose. Chickens, or at least this many of them, are not often available in the tiny Madarounfa market. The tomato-hot pepper sauce is very spicy and makes their tongues dance. Later, they roll into their bedrolls for the night, so many black bodies, tucked together to keep warm inside Haussa blankets made of strips of woven cotton stitched together. The nights are cool now in the dry season and they are glad to sleep inside the small, enclosed space Jon has built for this purpose. In warmer weather, which is most of the year, everyone sleeps under the sky, but before morning the temperature will fall to a very low sixteen degrees (centigrade), halving the daytime level. In the morning the school teachers will pile into the land rover with their gardening knowledge and their packets of sample foods, and Ali, Jon’s driver, will take them to the gare routière in Maradi. There they will find bush taxies back to their villages where they will transfer what they have learned into the soil of their own pupils.
Note from the author: From memory, some of the vegetable material may be inaccurate!