Africa Solo

A filmmaker learns a lesson about giving from three small children in the heart of West Africa By Kevin Kertscher.

By Kevin Kertscher
Published April 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For six days Henri and I moved slowly towards Niamey, trying to sell car parts along the way. In every town Henri seemed to know some strange and disreputable character -- usually a European who had crossed the vague line between native and foreigner. Though most of them would probably have been in jail if they had stayed in France or Belgium or Germany, here they lived like petty lords. "Come to Africa, be a king," seemed to be their motto. Though there were few fences anywhere in Niger, these expatriates always had big gates, full-time guards, and cook/maids rushing around their three-room homes. They all held a condescending view of the Africans that at times was outright disdain. "You can't trust them to do anything right the first time," they would say, or, "They have no concept of time. A day is a minute to them." These shop owners and tradesmen and black marketeers would greet Henri as a comrade-in-arms and then try to maneuver and exploit him in the most amicable way. They all seemed to have the same deep corruption and loneliness that he had, and they would take him in as kin for a few hours and then be glad to send him on his way.

I sat in on some of these meetings, but often I would just roam around the town a bit, or watch the cars as I read or wrote under some tree. Whenever we stopped in a village, kids would appear. They would crowd around my car so that I could barely open the door. And then they would follow me wherever I went asking for "gifts."

"Monsieur, cadeau! Cadeau!" they would yell, holding out their hands to me and to Henri.

"I'm famous all over Africa," Henri joked. "Everywhere I go they call out to me. But they all think my name is Mister Cadeau."

It soon became clear to me that most of the west Africans saw Europeans primarily as people they could get something from. Centuries of trinkets had created an unhealthy relationship that made it almost impossible for people from two different cultures to have any meaningful interaction. Though the locals were often very pleasant about it, the goal was almost always the same -- get something before the white man leaves. Almost everyone I'd pass would say, "Ga va? Ga va bien, monsieur?" In France this means, "How's it going?" -- just a casual greeting. In francophone Africa, it seems to mean, "Would you like to start a conversation that will lead to a gift for me?" When I didn't answer, the locals would just keep asking, sometimes belligerently. When I did answer, they would then ask where I was going, where I was from, how many children I had ... etc. Then after a pleasant conversation, they would start looking to see if I had anything with me they might want. That was the pleasant approach in the villages. The other approach along the well-traveled tourist tracks was simply mob and grab. Sometimes I couldn't even get out of the car.

At first I rebelled against the whole system, not wanting to play a part in reinforcing a negative dynamic. I went out in the streets with no money at all and let the kids dig through my pockets and run through their whole list of questions, trying to joke with them until they would finally settle down. Then I would ask them some questions about themselves. Sometimes they would tell me about their school or show me a toy that they had made from pieces of scrap metal. In the northeast, near Agadez, some of the kids played a kind of hackey-sack game, kicking a rolled-up wad of trash around a circle. A few times I joined them and left them all giggling because I couldn't kick it as well as the smallest of them.

But even these brief, enjoyable encounters would invariably be broken up by a group of older kids who would send the younger ones scurrying and then start in with the "cadeau" routine all over again. Sometimes they would push a friend forward who was crippled or who had a bad cut that was festering horribly.

"You must go to the hospital," I would say emphatically, and they would all giggle.

"I have no money for the hospital," one boy with a deeply lacerated leg told me one day, smiling and holding out his hand while flies crawled around his wound. He and his friends would not tell me where the nearest hospital was or what it would cost to go there. I went back to the car, got some money for him, and tried to get him to promise to use it to go to a doctor. He nodded emphatically. But when I gave him the bills, the whole crowd mobbed him and the money was divided everywhere, leaving the injured boy with almost nothing. I watched in frustration as some of the bills were ripped into small pieces and could only hope that they might eventually be reassembled. This happened again and again in villages along the road. I finally had to turn my back on even the injured kids, but then I felt worse than ever. It was impossible to give and it was impossible not to give.

After just a few days in sub-Saharan Africa I felt like this was my tortuous African koan. Every dime meant a lot to most of the locals and a dollar or five dollars was a major windfall. Knowing that I had a few thousand dollars saved in my bank account for the trip, I felt I should be giving away something. But then I would be just another in a long line of white people who came through, gave handouts and went away. Henri felt that he had a perfectly equitable solution. He would give them candies and old pens that he had brought along to hand out.

"I think they are past the pen stage," I told him one day when I was feeling particularly frustrated with the whole situation, "maybe you should give them some paper."

The poverty just seemed too pervasive for anything to really help -- anything short of regular rainfall. The Sahel, I came to realize, is a region entirely on the edge. It is on the edge of the Sahara and it receives just enough rain in a good year for the local people to eke out a meager farming existence. When the rains don't come, it is devastating; if they don't come for two or three years, there is widespread famine. Most of the region has much less vegetation than most of the southwest United States, looking like what most Americans consider to be desert. After four weeks in the Sahara, though, it seemed almost abundant. As we drove along, we were amazed by all of the vegetation -- more bushes and trees, an occasional garden, even a few patches of green grass here and there. I was soon told that it had been a very good year for rain, well above average.

Driving down the narrow tarmac road, I could glimpse some of the quiet patterns of the local life. There were clusters of huts, with thatched roofs and thinly covered sides through which I could see a woman nursing her child or a man sleeping in the middle of the day. Sometimes there were herds of goats with young boys watching nearby. And sometimes there were women pounding cassava roots into meal with large wooden poles. The harmattan -- a warm wind that blows dust in from the Sahara all winter -- had started blowing, and though I couldn't really see the fine sand in the air, I could see it in the people's hair, and feel it in my sinuses. Every evening, because of the dust, the sun would turn into a glowing orange ball long before it settled to the horizon.

At night we would try to camp well outside of the towns so we would not attract attention. Invariably though, the people would appear, sometimes hours after we set up camp. They would sit just outside the firelight and watch every move we made. With Ludo gone, I had taken over as the cook and I was usually too busy to really notice our visitors while I was preparing the meal. Henri would eat voraciously and loudly, but between his noises, I could hear men breathing beyond the firelight and sense the hunger and sadness. It would fill me with guilt and anger. I was hungry, but I knew they were hungry too. Their gray turbans and long robes would move closer and closer into the firelight and then almost next to us until eventually they would ask for something.

"Don't give them anything," Henri would say, "or we'll have a hundred in the morning." But in the morning when we could see their kind faces, he would often give them something before we left.

One night, when Henry went straight to bed after dinner, I offered the leftovers to three kids who had been watching us for a couple of hours.

"Non, merci," a little girl who looked about ten or eleven years old replied. The two younger boys with her shifted. They were shivering a little from the cold, so I motioned for them to come closer. She smiled and moved in to warm her feet and hands on the fire, pulling her nine-year-old brother with her. A smaller boy who might have been five or six stayed just out of the light for a little while, but eventually he came in and sat right beside me. The girl had big, curious eyes, a small upturned nose and an angelic voice that sounded like she was singing when she talked. "C'est jolie, ga!" she would say, tilting her head back and forth when I showed them something they were particularly curious about. They wouldn't take any food or tea because they had already eaten, she said, but I finally talked them into sharing some chocolate with me. They told me that their father was the policeman in the nearby town and that they lived in the closest house to our campsite. We could see a light burning about a mile away. Even though it was already late, we talked by the fire for nearly an hour, all in French, with her and her brother correcting me when I made a grammatical error. They told me about going to school and playing soccer, and about life in their village. They said that in years before, people had been very hungry, but that now it had rained for three years and the life was very good.

"The cows and goats have much milk," they said, "The gardens are very big."

I asked them if they had seen the Paris-Dakar Rally because I knew it had passed nearby and I wanted to know what they thought of it. The little boy took a deep breath and his sister told me they had not seen it, but they had heard it roar by when they were in school. And then later they heard that one of the motorcycles had hit a small child on the road. At first I thought I had misunderstood, but I hadn't. They said that a three year-old in their village had been killed by one of the racers. The mother of the child had been so distraught that something had happened to her as well, but I could not understand exactly what. The kids were very matter-of-fact about all of it, but they were also wide eyed in the telling and I knew that they were rattled by the whole thing.

No wonder no one else has come out to the camp, I thought as I poked at the fire, wishing I could really talk to the kids, that I could offer them some adequate explanation. But there was nothing I could say, because I couldn't make the roaring trucks and the quiet African town fit together myself.

After a while I knew I should turn in, so I showed them how my tent went up. Each of the two poles snapped together with the help of their internal bungee cords and then they formed the front and back arches that made the whole thing nearly stand up on its own. The kids loved it and couldn't wait to get inside. I didn't have the heart to tell them no. The four of us climbed on in and the littlest boy fell asleep on top of my down sleeping bag, while I showed his brother and sister some postcards I had bought in Europe with pictures of Paris, Venice, and Rome, and my maps of Africa showing all the terrain in color with big swatches of yellow for the desert and green for the jungles. They knew almost every capital when I named a country, but they had never seen them on a map. They were particularly excited to see where their home was, right in the heart of West Africa. They scoured the area nearby to find names of places that they knew, and they seemed very surprised that Niamey was so close and that the great Niger River went through other countries besides their own.

"C'est jolie, ga! C'est trhs jolie!" the little girl said with a big smile before she dragged her brothers home.

I slept peacefully all night and in the morning I woke to Henri yelling, "Allez, allez -- go away!" I could see my three little friends, scampering across the sand back towards their house. I yelled to them before they got too far and they came back, though the littlest brother kept giving Henri a wary eye. Henri tried to give them bread to make up for his rudeness, but they politely refused. Instead, the little girl brought out three small oranges and gave them to me, "for breakfast." Then the older boy produced a leather bracelet with cowry shells and some small, colorful beads sewn on it. It was a "friendship bracelet" his sister explained as he smiled broadly.

I let them help me pack up the cars, though Henri was sure they would steal something. I just laughed at him. Before we left I told the little girl that she was "tres jolie" and that they were all very good kids.

"Merci, monsieur," she said with her big smile.

"Merci, monsieur," the older brother said also, while the little one smiled. Then they picked up their bags and headed off to school. Only later did I realize that I hadn't given them any "cadeau" in return and they had never asked.

Excerpted from the book "Africa Solo: A Journey Across the Sahara,
Sahel, and Congo," by Kevin Kertscher. Copyright 1998 by Kevin Kertscher.
Reprinted by permission of Steerforth Press.

Kevin Kertscher

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