"When you said you were going away for a year--" my aunt Judy began as we were driving in the car to her favorite shoe store in the East Bay.
"--an academic year," I interrupted. "Only ten months."
"It seemed like such a long time," she continued. "But here you are. Back again so soon! It's kind of scary to think how fast it went by. It seems like you just left yesterday."
It doesn't seem like yesterday to me. This past year in Niger, where I moved my family in order to teach and do research, was in some ways the longest year of my life. It took us a long time to settle in -- the first house we rented was a disaster of rotting cabinets, an exploding toilet, and a roof that leaked so badly that it rained in the living room. It took even longer to start teaching -- classes were delayed because of strikes at the university with gendarmes firing tear gas on demonstrators and militant students burning tires and torching vehicles with international license plates.
We finally settled into a semblance of a routine, even if it was interrupted by things like broken air conditioners in the second rental house and a landlord who hung up on me when I called him to tell him the toilet in the bathroom was overflowing and there was water up to my ankles on the floor, as well as by a second round of even more violent striking at the university. Our two daughters attended a wonderful international school where they got lots of attention from the teachers. My husband looked after our littlest, a housekeeper made the beds and the meals every day, and during the student strikes I was able to use the extra time to interview some of the most interesting personalities in Niger: an independent candidate running for president in 2009, the visionary woman who founded Niger Lait (Niger's most successful dairy company), fishermen in a small town on the Niger River who feel antagonistic towards the hippos that draw tourists to their area but also upturn the wooden pirogues they use to cross from one bank to another.
It seemed to me like we had just settled in when it was time to leave. For my husband, who was miserable all year (he hates the heat, he was upset by the poverty and open sewers, and he didn't like the food), the end didn't come soon enough. When our departure became imminent, his mood changed. While I found packing up our spacious house with its high ceilings and tiled floors overwhelming and felt depressed about leaving, James was completely relaxed and happy, cheerfully filling suitcases, giving things away, and packing boxes. The kids, too, were delighted to be going home.
"Aren't you the tiniest bit sad to leave?" I asked my almost 8-year-old daughter as we sorted through her stuff.
"I can't wait!" she cried.
"Won't you miss the camels?" I said. "And the goats in the road? And the beignets and mangoes? And your friends? And Mrs. Walsh?" I reached into my mind to think of what my daughter liked about Niger, "Won't you miss anything?"
"I don't know Mommy," she answered honestly. "I'm just happy to go home!"
The orange sand, the camels galumphing along the road and blocking traffic, the students at the university, our friends. I missed everything before we were even gone. I'd become so accustomed to this different pace of life that I wondered how I'd manage anywhere else.
"What is it, exactly, that you like so much about Niger?" My friend Illiasou asked. Illiasou studied in Benin and knows the interior of the country and much of West Africa, but has never been in Europe or the States. I wasn't sure how to answer. Perhaps there's a code in our mitochondria for how we react to geography? The first time I came to Niger I knew I would come back -- I started a love affair with Africa that I doubt will ever end. In contrast, when I went to the Soviet Union in college looking for my roots (my grandfather immigrated from outside Odessa when he was just 19 but he never lost his heavy Russian Jewish accent), there was little that grabbed me enough to make me want to return.
Despite the difficult living conditions, most Nigeriens are warm and curious, treating strangers with interest instead of with the hostility outsiders often find in America. A rich spirit world lives alongside the material world (even Illiasou believes in demons); giraffes, hippos, and manatees alongside the villagers. Everything is reused and recycled out of necessity and ingenuity, a threadbare tire becomes the bottom of a sandal, an empty coke can is forged into a child's toy car. All the problems mean that there are lots of ways to fix things, to be kind to others and help people. Nobody takes anything for granted in this country at the end of the earth. It's a refreshing change from America with our oversized cars and waistlines, our throw-away culture, our entitled attitude.
The plane, delayed two hours with no explanation, finally surged upwards into the sky, north toward Morocco. In Casa Blanca we changed planes and flew to Paris. James didn't mind the delay and chatted happily about all the things he wanted to do in France. The kids fell easily asleep. But as we flew North through the darkness my heart was heavy, my head aching. Africa. The birthplace of the world. I don't want to leave you. Will you wait for me to return?