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?”
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.