Even though Nigeriens tend to be reserved and Niger is a conservative, predominantly Muslim country, evidence that men and women enjoy each other’s bodies is everywhere. The average woman in Niger gives birth to more than seven children. The American missionary women here seem to be following suit. One acquaintance of mine had her seventh child a few months ago; another has four. But I can’t help wondering how? In Niamey, the capital city where we live, everyone knows everyone’s business, families entertain a constant parade of unannounced visitors (a Hausa proverb states that “the visitor is king”), and most people, even among the lower middle class, employ several domestic helpers. Also, when you already have a bunch of kids how do you find the time and space and privacy to make more?
The logistics in our house, even with only three little ones underfoot, are not easy. Our three-year-old son sleeps in our room, albeit in a separate bed. And once the kids go to sleep we’re usually scrambling to finish work projects that we neglected during the day. Plus our plywood bed with its thin foam mattress and tangled mosquito netting creaks like a braying donkey. One night when, despite our tiredness, we thought we’d take advantage of some alone time, the first hee-haw of the bed made our toddler — sound asleep just moments before — bolt upright.
“Mommy!” Etani cried. “Where is you?”
To make matters worse, we don’t have a TV or a VCR, so the trusty electronic babysitter we often employ at home to keep the kids busy while we sneak off for a cuddle is not an option here.
Our prime time is when the older girls are at school and Etani is napping, though even then it’s hard not to have an ear out for him or for the doorbell (which seems programmed to ring at only the most inconvenient times) or even for the washing machine, which has been emitting a burning smell lately along with the thunderous rumbling it makes on the spin cycle.
But the last two and a half weeks have been school vacation, which means all three kids have been home. “Let’s make them take naps,” James suggests, putting his hand on my thigh.
“One hour of Quiet Time,” I announce to the girls. “In your beds.”
“What’re you and Daddy going to do?” My 7-year-old raises her eyebrows suspiciously.
“We’re going to have Quiet Time too,” I say.
As soon as my seven-year-old is settled with a book and my five-year-old is lying on her stomach on her bed drawing a picture, James and I tiptoe into the study. I lock the door and we spend our quiet time as quietly as possible on the falling-apart secondhand sofa that we’re borrowing for the year.
The door opens — so much for the lock — and my seven-year-old bursts in, her picture book in her hand.
“What’s that word, Daddy?” she asks, marching up to us.
“‘Shelter,'” James answers. “It means to protect someone.”
“Oh.” She turns to go. Then she stops at the door, her hand on the knob.
“Why are you both naked?” she demands.
“We were hot,” I say quickly. “And we were taking a nap.”
“I saw you and Mommy wrestling,” my daughter tells James while they’re playing chess before dinner. The bishop he’s moving hovers over the board before descending tentatively. He raises his eyebrows but says nothing. “I knocked on the door but you didn’t answer,” my daughter continues, taking the bishop with her queen. “So then I thought I’d come back later.”
A few days later when all three kids are playing nicely together I announce that Mommy and Daddy are going to take a nap, and that we need privacy. My seven-year-old looks offended and suspicious. “Why do you need privacy?” she asks. “Are you going to take off your clothes and roll all over each other?”
“Don’t be silly,” I say in the exact tone my mother used to use with me when I exasperated her. “We’re going to sleep . . . and we don’t want to be disturbed.”
“You’re going to get naked and roll all over each other!” She says loudly. “I know you are!” She giggles uproariously and starts saying it like a chant, over and over again, following me from room to room as I pick up toys. She enlists the support of her younger sister and brother.
“Let’s spy on them!” She suggests. “Let’s see if they get naked and roll all over each other!”
James and I look at each other. Now what? Something about your children stalking you around the house takes the romance out of an afternoon embrace. Chalk up another worry: will my daughter’s burgeoning awareness of (and interest in) her parents’ sex life traumatize her later? But James reassures me that her curiosity is normal. Besides, he adds, most Nigerien families sleep together in the same room and the parents obviously manage to make love without upsetting their children.
The missionaries who live here must have big-screen TVs and extensive libraries of kids’ videos. We set our kids up with a snack of yogurt and pumpkin bread, and put out watercolors, markers, crayons, and paper on the dining room table. “Mommy’s really tired,” I say, feigning a yawn. “Be good,” James adds, “and when we wake up we’ll look at your drawings.” Before my 7-year-old thinks to give chase, we bolt down the hall to the bedroom and lock the door. Really this time.