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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
Africa’s "Shame"

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Photo by Sarah J. Glover
Tera Village is a Songhay Village, located about 175 kilometers from Niamey. This is a scene of villagers carrying goods on their mule-led cart to sell. The streets are an open market.
Poor, yes, but
dignified still

"I hope you don’t take our pictures and go away and put shame on us."

A woman I don’t see yells this after photographer Sarah Glover and me the next morning as we walk through the rural Songhay village of Boubon, a parade of children stringing out behind us. It strikes me as a perceptive thing to say.

It has always been easy, after all, to "put shame" on Africa, easy to heap pity upon a continent that seems like the world's eternal basket case. Consider Niger itself. Only 15 percent of the population is literate. One in four babies born here dies. Its people have a life expectancy of 46 years.

But you are not here long before you realize there is more to the picture. That poverty is not the end of life.

"Even if you're poor here, dignity is very important to you," Kedidia counsels.

Indeed, for all its undeniable suffering, Africa is also a reminder that you don't miss what you've never had, that contrary to what the American advertising community would have you believe, one is not incomplete because one does not own a microwave and a Cadillac. And that, regardless of circumstances, life has this way of being lived.

So in Boubon, about 15 miles northwest of Niamey, where there are no cars and narrow dirt paths cut between the huts and every building is made of mud, you don't find people sitting on their hands bemoaning circumstance. What you do find is a girl pumping water out of the ground and a lively marketplace where vendors are selling peanuts, plastic bowls, tobacco and millet, a grass that is a staple of the Nigerien diet. And you find, too, a small group of men and boys on the porch of a thatched-roof hut, eating from communal bowls, taking a break from studies of the Koran.

When they learn why I am there, someone makes a wry offer to give me a "chita," the facial marking that distinguishes Songhay men. The tradition began centuries ago, when people started disappearing and no one had any idea what had happened to them, no knowledge of the Middle Passage or the slave trade. All they knew was that their children were gone. So they began to mark them in the hope that if they ever saw them again, they would know them.

"That's your identity card," the man says, "so wherever you go, they know that you are Songhay."