Abdoulaye was staring at me so intensely I started to feel uncomfortable.
"I know you," he said. "We went to Morocco together!"
I was sitting in my friend Philo's studio where Philo's friend Illiasou, Abdoulaye, and Philo's younger brother were all living. I had no idea what Abdoulaye was talking about. I didn't recognize him when we were introduced, and I was sure we had never been anywhere together.
"I've only been to Morocco once," I protested. "With my brother. About 20 years ago!"
Abdoulaye didn't answer but he also didn't stop staring at me with a hungry look on his face, like a lion following the movements of a prey.
"You did travel with him," Philo said a few days later when he called from Belgium, where he's completing a doctorate. Philo was a close friend when I lived in Niger 14 years before. Even though he hadn't been in Niger for two and a half years, he had enlisted Illiasou, his best friend, to help my family and me get settled.
"When you left. Abdoulaye was going back to Morocco to study. You were on the same plane."
I remember that plane ride. I flew from Niger to Senegal. Abandoning a volatile relationship with a man who had been engaged to a young woman from his village since he was a child, and deeply saddened by leaving a country I had grown to love, I sobbed for an hour on the plane. But I didn't remember Abdoulaye being there at all.
Returning to Niger with my family after a 14-year absence has been much more difficult than I expected. When I lived here the first time I was only 23, an insecure, energetic, libido-driven young woman hoping to gain the experience in West Africa that I needed to help make America a better place. Men would hold my hand too long and ask: "C'est Madame ou bien mademoiselle? Is it Mrs. or Miss?" I took to lying, fabricating a husband who was working in America to support me in Africa. But I was also lonely, craving intimacy and deeply attracted to Nigerien men with their smooth dark skin and lanky bodies. Making love with Nigeriens was more than a sexual release; it was a moment in a culture so foreign and exotic it often eluded me.
Living here as a married woman with three children, I can no longer use sex to conquer cultural barriers. At the same time, now that I'm older and married I've entered a higher rung on the social ladder. Everyone automatically calls me "Madame" and married women, a once inaccessible group, freely approach me now. But this is a country where the sexes are divided: they pray separately, eat separately (in the villages the men eat the better food first, the women and children eat afterwards), and socialize separately. When we invite colleagues to social functions here they invariably come without their wives. While married men can freely interact with unmarried women, married women are supposed to stay home, take care of their children, and cook for their husbands.
Niger is a polygamous country and Nigeriens can marry up to four wives. In fact, Africans often hint that James could take a second wife and recently a friend pulled me aside to tell me to keep an eye on my husband. "Actually, I'm looking for another husband," I told her. "Or maybe two more. One will be African, one Chinese, and then we'll have no trouble telling who the father of each child is." Haoua looked at me in silent astonishment for a moment. When she realized I was joking, she burst out in guffaws, slapping my hand with hers and wagging her finger at me.
The next time I visited Illiasou, my kids came along. They jumped on the sofa and ran around the rocky garden screaming. "In all these years, you've had three children," Abdoulaye said in an almost envious voice. "And none of us has even laid an egg."
Abdoulaye, Illiasou, Philo, Philo's little brother, my friend Bouhary -- all of them are in their late 30s now, college educated, and unmarried. They're all being pressured by their families to marry. Philo's grandparents urged him to come back from Belgium to collect the beautiful young village woman -- a distant cousin -- who was saving herself for him. Abdoulaye says he's looking for his soul mate but hasn't found her yet, Illiasou that Nigerien women are too difficult and traditional, Bouhary that he's not settled enough at work, and Philo that he's not interested in marriage at all, and certainly not before he's finished his doctorate. It seems like my bachelor friends are having as much trouble finding their way here as I am. While they've changed as much as I have, the prescribed roles for men and women in marriage in Niger have not.
I bump into Abdoulaye a few days later. "Ina Maigida? How's your husband?" He asks, holding my hand for a second too long, that same tinge of envy in his voice.
"He's well!" I say, pulling my hand away. "It was a flight to Dakar, not Casa Blanca -- the flight we were on together," I add.
His face breaks into a wide smile. "I remember now," he says. "I remember."