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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
The Missing Past

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Niger is Africa's second-largest country, about twice the size of Texas. Much of it lies in the Sahara Desert, north of Nigeria. It's a difficult location which, combined with the fact that the nation is landlocked, helps explain why its population is a relatively-small 11.3 million. Indeed, this former French colony is one of the least-densely populated places in all of Africa.

Not that you'd know this from stepping into the streets of Niamey, the capital city. They, positively writhe with activity. Cars rush headlong. Scooters with men riding double weave dangerously among them. People drive with a recklessness that would make a New York cabbie flinch.

The curbs are crowded with mud huts and lean-tos from which sellers step into the street to hawk candy, Coca-Cola and cellphone calling cards. The air is cross woven with sounds of French, Hausa, Djerma, more. Some people wear traditional African robes. Others opt for T-shirts advertising Adidas, Phat Farm and Jesus. The sand is everywhere, covering everything. Indeed, there are places where the pavement just ends, as if in surrender, and the sand takes over, vast avenues of it, ferrying cars and people and the occasional camel to their destinations.

My guide is Kedidia Mossi, a 40-year-old single mother who runs a public relations firm. A Nigerien born in France, she spent a dozen years studying and working in the United States. For the last five years, she has moved back and forth between France and Niger.

Kedidia is Songhay, the tribe to which my maternal DNA links me. She says her family is after her to stop her wanderings and settle in her ancestral home.

She wants to. And she does not.

France has infrastructure, medical care, opportunity. But Niger is home. She is torn.

On this first morning, she takes me to do some sightseeing and to run some errands within walking distance of my hotel. It's an educational experience.

We visit a zoo where sickly looking animals lie prostrate in the shade. We tour a small museum of Songhay artifacts musical instruments, cloth and gourds.

Then Kedidia leads me through a crowded marketplace. People reach toward us, advertising either the trinkets they have for sale or just their own misery and need. Kedidia passes them as if they are not there. Which seems cold until you count the hands and realize that if you stop, if you even make eye contact, you will be subsumed. The need for food, for clothes, for everything is greater than your resources.

So I keep moving, stepping gingerly across a sidewalk where a vendor is selling guinea fowl. The birds lay still, as if plastered to the concrete by the heat. The street itself is also obstructed, so crowded with vendors that cars are forced to creep through single file. At the end of the block, a white woman stands looking sheepish, having driven her 4X4 head first into one of the craters calling them potholes really doesn't do them justice that pockmark the streets.

Kedidia and I pass by just as a crowd of two dozen African men seizes the front bumper of the car and with a manly shout, lifts it from the hole. The sheepish woman drives quickly away.

We cross to a supermarket. Sitting on the curb outside, a man in a dirty Chicago Bulls T-shirt reaches an empty hand up to me. I ignore him as I have seen Kedidia do. He swivels after me on his hands and I see that he is wearing sandals on them. His legs are shriveled and useless. Polio, I will later learn.

I pass him a couple times and each time he follows me, swiveling as if on a hinge, then lifting his empty hand.

We go around the corner where we finally find what we were looking for: a vendor selling an adaptor that will enable me to plug in the expensive electrical devices I have brought with me from home.