September 18, 2010
Sam and I, with awkward giggles, walked over to her and told her we were her new daughters. She nodded without the excitement I anticipated and stood up to leave to take us to our host home.
Next to her was a toddler, who sneaked glances as if it was forbidden to be curious. My new mother tossed the baby she was holding on to her back and tied a sheet around her stomach to keep the baby in place. Coming from the land of strollers, car seats and baby slings, my mouth gawked a bit in amazement of this completely normal way to carry an infant. Then, the four of us walked down the hill and off into the setting African sun.
After what felt like a 20-minute confusion swirl of terrible French, we arrived at what would be our new home for the next two months. Our mother led us into their home, and motioned for us to sit on the tiger-print couches. Sam and I just smiled, and when she said something we didn’t understand, our smiles just kept beaming as if to say, “I have no idea what you are saying but I would like to know.”
Although we’d only been in country for three days the day we moved in with our host families, we understood that the Nigerien family is different than the ones we grew up with in America. Many families have more than one wife, as Islam accepts polygamy, and, which in turn means, there are several children in one family. I excepted numerous children, eight or so, and maybe a few wives, but our family seemed typical, or what I know as a typical family. Two children, a mother and a father. I understood the oddity of this more the next day, when my fellow volunteers explained their families and the number of people living in one concession.
It was too hot to stay indoors for long, so my mother, whose name we wouldn’t know was Zara* until days later when we became familiar with the Nigerien accent, spread out a mat for us to sit. So we sat, and stared. We tossed phrases back and forth, but were more concerned with absorbing this new world. A chronic multi-tasker, this new pastime of sitting on a mat and just sitting was going to be hard for me to adopt, I thought that day, but it was a bit of relief to know no performance was needed.
After the questioner, which was not a role I could play with limited language, my next social safety blanket is children. Being good with kids is a skill I tend to pull out when I am too timid to interact with the adults, so I picked up the baby, Safia, nine months, and started tossing her in the air to invoke giggles. Nigerien babies don’t have rooms full of flashy, spinning, noisy toys like American children, so their entertainment is less refined but their curiosity just as strong. My little sister’s favorite toy was my water bottle or whatever else she could pick up on the ground that day. The toddler, Jamillia, fought off her my playful attempts for the first few hours, hiding behind her mother. The more I giggled and smiled the more her wall came down, and after two days, the shy attitude was nothing more than an act, because Jamillia is everything but shy.
Soon, our father came home. Unsure how to handle males in this country, I was a bit apprehensive to meet him. I pictured him as a demanding figure that didn’t seem to care if we were there or not.