Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
At Playgroup in Africa the Topic is Kidnap


We took a left out of our gate and walked through the thick orange sand.

"It's hard to go fast," my 7-year-old daughter Vespérine complained. "I keep getting sand in my shoes and I have to pick them up and shake them."

My 3-year-old son Etani beat the back of my neck with his fists from his perch in the back carrier. "Le gros bébé!" a Nigerien guard yelled in a friendly way. "The big baby!"

We were on our way to a playgroup. It's hard to find your way around Niamey, Niger's capital city, because the streets don't have signs (or names) and most of them are unpaved. "Keep going straight," Ardell had told us, "until you get to an intersection where you see the stadium on your left." But after less than a minute of walking, the unpaved road forked left and right. Which way was straight? "I think we should go this way," Vespérine pointed to the left. "We need to stay on the main road, and this looks more like it," I said. So we went to the right and kept walking. Ardell said the road would turn this way and that but she didn't mention that in five more minutes we'd be at another fork.

"We're lost. Let's call." But Ardell didn't answer. We were already 25 minutes late, and the sun was beating on our heads. I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. We weren't that lost. We could just walk home. But all three of us were stuck on the idea of going to playgroup, Vespérine holding her swimsuit and goggles, Etani talking about the toys and kids we'd find there.

A few minutes later Ardell called back.

"Any idea where you are?"

"In front of us is a yellow and white store shack with a thatched roof hut," I said. "Right after that is a pile of tires and some young guys."

"Okay, I'll come pick you up."

"Do you know where we are?"

"No idea."

We trudged forward and in a few minutes saw a big gray 4X4. "You weren't far," Ardell exclaimed, opening the car doors and ushering us in as if shooing chickens into a pen. The inside of her car smelled like stale soup. The smell seemed to be coming from the air conditioning, which was turned on high and blasted tepid air. There was no way to avert one's nose.

Her house was a few blocks away.

Dozens of small children played on her porch under the watch of a few mothers and African nannies. Other children splashed in the pool. Her courtyard had a tree house, a jump house, a sand box with dirt in it, and lots of toys everywhere. We had arrived.


"Niamey's the safest place we've ever lived," Ardell said as five of us sat on the terrace while our kids played with toys on a huge mat on the ground. The Embassy consular officer sat next to me. Rochelle, a missionary woman with seven children sat across from us, with the youngest, four weeks old, in a bassinette on the ground by her feet.

"We were carjacked and held hostage by armed men in Nigeria," Ardell continued. "I was pregnant. 'Take the car, take everything,' we pleaded, 'please don't hurt us.' But they decided to take us too. We talked to them in English ... they didn't know we spoke Hausa ... they weren't sure what to do with us."

When we were leaving the States I worried about things like schistosomiasis and accidents. Car hijackings and kidnap had never crossed my mind.

"If they knew we spoke Hausa, we thought they might get mad and kill us. I just prayed and prayed to the Lord. They asked my husband, 'What's she doing?' Then one of them asked what he does and he told them he was a pastor. 'We should kill them,' one said. 'Oh shit, we can't kill them, he's a preacher,' the other said. They took us out to a field and fired. I was sure they killed Henry but they fired over our shoulders, to scare us, I guess. Then they took the car and left us in the middle of the bush. My kids were barefoot because they take their shoes off in the car. We had no idea which way to go. A man bicycled by but got scared and biked away. We shouted after him to come back. He did and showed us the way to the road. Henry took one kid on his back and one on his front, I put one on my back --"

"-- and you had another on your front," said Rochelle, "since you were pregnant."

"Right, and we backpacked out. We had to walk for half an hour to the road and then we stopped a taxi. God sent the taxi driver who said he wouldn't charge us. We had no money. When my son was born he was 12 pounds and Code Blue for five minutes. If we'd been in the hospital in Nigeria he would've died. But the Mission sent us back to America, and that's why he was born there. God has a way of working everything out ... For us Niamey is paradise."

"You're saying that to someone who got robbed at gunpoint in the middle of the night in Niamey," another missionary said.

I listened to her story with wide, worried eyes. Soon it was time to walk home again. My husband and I had been frustrated because we couldn't find a car we could afford. But suddenly, carrying Etani on my back and holding Vespérine's hand, not having a car felt like a blessing.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D. (“Poker Face”) is a freelance writer, consultant, and parent educator. She is the editor and co-author of Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love (Seal Press), which won the Independent Publishers Book Association Award. Her writing has been published in Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 2008), Ms. Magazine; Pregnancy; Newsday; Mothering Magazine; Brain, Child; World Pulse; and dozens of other national and local magazines and newspapers. She has eaten fried crickets in Niger, appeared live on prime-time TV in France, and performed the can-can in America. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, with her husband and three small children. Find out more about her at:

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Thank you for the great stories about your travels in Africa!!! It's good to get a view into a culture halfway around the world. I'm glad you're all safe (or safe as can be)! Keep us all posted! Sue.
Je suis tres choque des situations que des gens peuvent vivre notamment celle d'insecurite dans notre pays voisin et qui ne cesse de prendre des proportions tres dangereuses avec les guerres claniques voire religieuses. En tant qu'africain et meme nigerien, le pays voisin nigeria me fait beaucoup peur pour l'insecurite qui est au quotidien, facilement les gens sont menaces par des armes ou battus a sang avant d'etre rançonne. Je connais des compatriotes qui ont vecu des situations similaires sinon pire. un des diplomates nigeriens a Abuja a vu des voleurs entrer chez lui un apres midi avec un pistolet a la tete de sa fille de 7ans. Ils les ont pris or et argent et sont revenus un mois apres. ils etaient obliges de changer de demeure. les consignes pour tous les diplomates residant a Abuja c'est d'avoir des dollars et un peu d'or a la maison pour sauver sa vie en cas d'attaque. Un autre chauffeur qui a conduit une dame au nigeria s'est vu attaque au retour et battu a sang. Niamey connait ces dernieres annees des situations de vol arme qui trouble le sommeil de plus d'un. L'insecurite grandissante des grandes villes a envahi ou troubler la tranquillite d'antan que connait la paisible cite de niamey. pour la plupart, ce sont nos confreres du burkina apres les problemes de la Cote d'Ivoire ont essaye de rejoindre nos frontieres et former des bandes qui trouble la tranquillite des citoyens.
Thank you for writing about life in Niger. It brought back wonderful memories of our time there and made me laugh out loud. I don't, however, remember feeling so afraid, even after Sept. 11th. We used to joke that it was just too hot and took too much energy for people to do any kind of activity, let alone bad ones. Then again, maybe I was just burying my head in the tons of sand and ignoring the possibilities that bad things could happen in what seemed to me to be the complete end of the world. I remember feeling very safe there, compared to other places I'd lived. Again, thanks for writing. I look forward to the next installment.
Jennifer, you're going to be so glad you wrote these columns when you get back to Oregon and promptly forget what it was like to be in Niamey. Loved the "instructions" that you had to follow. I can only imagine.
Jennifer, Your experience sounds amazing! I've bookmarked your blog and I'm looking forward to reading more about life in Niger. Best, Jodi
C'est dur, la vie. Plus aventures, s'il vous plait.
It's amazing how parents immediately go into survival mode when necessary. I commend your courage. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. We have friends who have just moved there -- It's a blessing to gain more insight into their day to day lives; and to know that there are some nice families there as well. Wishing you and yours all the best in the new year! S.
Gripping account, Jennifer. Thanks for keeping us up-to-date and taking us with you on your adventure. Vicky
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