“When are we going back to our Ashland house?” my 5-year-old daughter Athena asks me at least once a week. The girls wake up early one Saturday morning and make their own calendars. “Only 39 days until Valentine’s Day!” 7-year-old Hesperus cries when I come bleary-eyed and tousle-haired into the dining room. “And 53 days until my birthday!” Athena adds. I wait, trying not to cringe, for the next factoid: 173 days until we go back to the States.
“I just want to go home and not go anywhere else on the way!” Hesperus says with tears in her eyes when I tell her of our latest plan to go to Europe to visit friends and then to the East Coast to spend time with family, some of whom we haven’t seen in more than two years. “Can’t we just go to Ashland and stay there for one month?”
Everyone says that kids are adaptable, that they integrate more quickly and easily than adults. So before we moved overseas I figured my kids would have an easy time of it. They’re little, too young to have ingrained prejudices and habits. A new culture would be nothing more than another life experience for them. Culture shock just wasn’t on my worry list.
But almost halfway into our stay in West Africa, it hasn’t turned out exactly that way. True, the girls go to an international school with only a few other Americans, and have friends with names like Fatimata and Salmata. They like wearing headscarves and wrap-around skirts made from colorful African cloth. And my 3-year-old son calls out greetings in Zarma: “Fofo!” (Hello) and “Maté ran go?” (How are you?) But the deeper truth is all three of my kids miss their house, the bedroom they share, the cherry trees they climb in the yard. They miss speaking English, walking to the playground, riding in a red wagon to a grocery store where everyone knows them by name. In America we live in a small town. In Niger we’re in the sprawling capital city, full of noise and cars and people we don’t know.
“It’s too trashy here,” Athena complains. By “trashy” she doesn’t mean tacky or crass. She means, literally, trashy. In Niamey goats and cows forage on hillock-sized rubbish heaps, open sewers breed green slime that smells like vomit; and people throw litter everywhere. Yesterday I saw a young teen with a bundle on his head crouching to urinate, the head of his penis out of his pants, in the middle of the street. The dirty plastic bags, scratched off phone cards, empty sardine tins, gnawed animal bones, and other odorous trash blow around in the gusty winds of the Harmattan. For the past month, a thick haze of dust and sand has enveloped the city.
Despite the shock of a new culture, we’ve finally established something of a routine. On days the girls don’t go to school we invite friends over, go for walks, read chapter books aloud, or haul a table outside and paint. Our neighbors are also from the West Coast of the United States and we go back and forth between the two houses so frequently we’ve taken to calling ourselves the commune. We’ve ridden camels, floated in a pirogue down the Niger River, and scrambled up the cool sand dunes just east of Niamey. We’ve made friends with Nigeriens, Beninois, French expatriates, Americans, Israelis and others. But the truth is we’re still very much outsiders. When we go outside our gate to play in the sand or kick a ball, people stop to gawk at us like we’re a show on TV. And because we don’t speak Hausa or Zarma with any fluency, we can’t communicate very well with our spectators.
Class differences make the culture shock more acute. Although we live in a wealthy neighborhood by Niamey standards, most of the kids tooling around outside have broken sandals, holes in their clothes, and the tired looks of children who have grown up too fast.
My husband rigs a huge rope swing on the towering gawo tree outside our gate. Duma, whose father is a Tuareg nomad from Mali and whose family lives as squatters in the courtyard of a half finished villa (their goats, sheep, and chickens live inside, along with piles of firewood, while the family sleeps on the terrace), rushes over to try it. A rag tag group of neighborhood children gathers as Duma soars on the swing, his smile as wide as the sky. Then he gestures to Athena that it’s her turn, helps her on, and pushes her as high as he can.
I want to open the world to my children, to foster friendships like this one that bridge cultural and economic differences. And I want them to be curious, instead of critical, about those differences. But when Hesperus slips away with the American neighbor’s daughter, I find them watching a video in English. “We were too hot,” she complains when I ask her why they left. “We wanted to come inside.”
“Sai hankuri,” people often tell me in Hausa (“have patience”), whether they are talking about our car breaking down or the university students who are striking. Sai hankuri, I tell myself looking at my 7-year-old who is so comfortably ensconced in the neighbor’s plush couch. I go back outside to push Duma and Athena on the swing some more. Sannu sannu ba ta hana zuwa. Even if you go slowly it doesn’t mean you won’t arrive.