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Journey Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
A Nightmare

The Miami Herald
November 7, 2004

Photo by Sarah J. Glover
Two Nigerien women walk near the Niger River with their babies in Tera Village, 175 km from Niamey, Niger. The babies are being carried in a hampy, which is a Songhay/Niger term for a baby wrapped in cloth on one's back.
We leave the village the way we came meaning, at high speed on a road that rides like one long rumble strip. Nasser, gifted with more enthusiasm than actual skill, accelerates through craters that bounce us against the ceiling, the vehicle fishtailing as it lands.

Somehow, we reach the ferry crossing the Niger River without injury. The boat's ramp is lowered into the muddy water, so that the line of cars and trucks must drive down into the river and then up a steep and slippery incline to the deck. This challenges the skills of even the most experienced driver. And then there is Nasser.

When our turn comes, he stomps the accelerator and we hit the ramp with a jarring thump. Our wheels whine and spin, seeking purchase on the wet metal, but to no avail. We slide back into the water. Nasser backs up to take a longer run at the ramp, but we just end up in the water again.

At this point, Kedidia's had enough. She bails. Sarah decides to stay in the car because she is a professional photographer with thousands of dollars worth of equipment at stake. I decide to stay because I am an idiot.

One more time, Nasser gives it the gas. The car bolts forward and slams the ramp, wheels squealing. We begin to slide but then, without warning, the tires catch and the vehicle leaps onto the deck.

Straight toward a row of parked cars.

Nasser spins the wheel and the car skids left, now sliding toward where the passengers are seated. Miraculously and thank you, Jesus we stop short of tragedy. Nasser backs triumphantly into place.

Other vehicles follow, some with livestock tied on top. One van has a bunch of birds chickens, or guinea fowl, I can't be sure tied by their feet, hanging upside down. All seem resigned to their fate in someone's cooking pot except one feisty rebel who keeps cawing, flapping his wings and lifting above the van until the restraints on his feet are stretched taut.

The three of us cross the river in gathering darkness, the ferry engine chugging loudly. The sun is an orange disk in a sky the color of dust. The river is placid and brown.

Half an hour later, we are speeding toward Niamey, when I chance to glance at the gas gauge. The needle is poking E.

I point this out to Kedidia and she asks Nasser if we have enough gas to make it back to Niamey.

"Maybe," he says.

The sun goes down. Blackness settles, featureless and impenetrable. I slump into my seat, mentally calculating what it might be like to spend the night stranded in one of the more remote places on earth. No cellphone signal. No gas station. No auto club.

And little in the way of food or water.

Eternity passes twice before Niamey appears.

When we pull up at the hotel, I blow kisses to the building. In the darkness beside me, Nasser chuckles softly.