“We can’t stay here,” my husband says after we’ve been in the house we rented sight-unseen only two days. “We need to leave. Today. Now. I can’t take much more of this.”
There are myriad problems with the house: it’s filthy, the walls are festooned with gecko poop and splattered with some kind of orange goo left by the previous tenant, the kitchen cabinets are rotted, cockroaches the size of mice scurry across the floor, termites have impregnated the cracked walls, the toilets have exploded, and when the rains come — which they do with a vengeance — it pours in the living room. The smashed lizard head stuck to one wall becomes a recurring theme in my fitful dreams.
I agree. We have to move. Even though we’ve spent a month’s rent on this house, we can’t stay here another day. It’s hard enough for James, a native of Buffalo who has never been to Africa, to adjust to the heat, dust, and different pace of life without being in an uninhabitable house. And though my three children are more good-humored about it, they keep asking when we’re going home. Etani, my two-year-old, says he wants to get back on the airplane right now. Athena, who’s five, agrees: “It needs to come pick us up on the roof and fly us back, Mommy!”
The first house we see has five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a large patio, and a living room so big a family of five could live in it comfortably. The ceilings are low and the yard is too landscaped for play, but the house is empty and — unlike most rentals — has a refrigerator and stand-alone freezer. The biggest problem is the price: $200 more than my housing allowance. I ask the owner how much he could come down on the rent. In a country where everything is negotiable, I stumble upon the only Nigerien unwilling to bargain.
James goes to see a well-appointed studio apartment, one of several owned by a woman who works at the World Bank. Everything works: the electricity, the nicely tiled kitchen, the AC. Her representative, a typically tall Hausa man named Dogo (“Tall”), won’t give a price. Instead, he writes down the number for someone called “Raab.”
“Work something out with Monsieur Raab and you can move in,” the rep says, handing James the key.
“What!?” Rob exclaims in his friendly Jersey accent, “I don’t have anything to do with it — I just lived there for a few months.” No one had told him that he is the new authority on the studio. “But why don’t you and your family come over for dinner on Friday and we’ll try to figure something out?”
For the four days we’ve been in Niger, we’ve been eating muesli with powdered milk out of the one bowl I brought with us, using the plastic spoons I saved from the airplane. With no fridge and no stove, no idea of where to buy food, and no car, food has been one of our biggest challenges. I feel like crying, I’m so happy we have a real meal to look forward to.
When Rob’s wife, a Congolese woman with a welcoming smile, hears our story, she gets up from the table and beckons for us to follow.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” she says as we walk down the hall. “Rob will drive you to get what you need for the night and James and I will clear out this room.” She opens the door to a room that has a big bed in it but is filled with unpacked boxes. “You’ll stay here tonight.”
After looking at half a dozen more houses, I find the perfect place. It’s four blocks from my daughter’s school, the pool has a rope swing, and the palm and neem trees in the garden provide shade for the house. A missionary family with four children lived in it for six years; everything about it feels right. The rental agent takes me to talk to the landlord, a member of parliament who wholesales clothes from Saudi Arabia and China from a booth in the Grande Marché. We sign a contract for October first. I pay him a month’s rent in advance.
The next day I find out that the current tenant, an MIT scientist studying thunderstorms in Niger, has no intention of leaving.
“I signed a contract with the landlord,” I splutter on the phone. “My family and I are in a difficult situation. We were even hoping to move sooner than the first –”
“I’m finishing up a project,” the scientist interrupts. “There’s no way of knowing if I’ll be leaving by October third or nineteenth.”
“How is it possible,” I ask Rob, who has spent most of his adult life working on public health campaigns in different countries in the developing world, “to do so much but accomplish so little? I feel like I’m running myself ragged going nowhere.”
“Welcome to Africa,” Rob says.