The red van bobbed along the orange, dusty road. There were already 18 people squeezed into three bench seats, the passenger place and another makeshift bench composed of plywood. I got on after the initial load and was seated in the front row, or the most front real row, and near the window. Comparatively, like all things in Niger, it was comfortable.
The car was going straight to Zinder. Usually, my voyages to the regional capitol require three sets of bush taxis — one 15 K up the road to a transit town, another 15 K to the region’s second largest village and then another two or hours so to Zinder. ‘
As I headed to the tasha, the transit area, which in my village is a table with bottles of gasoline and a bench, the usual men asked where I was going. I told them Zinder and by vehicle, although they’d prefer I take a motorcycle despite that I’ve repeatedly told them it’s against policy. One of them told me a vehicle would take me straight there and I repeated his statement him to as if he was telling me aliens were the ones driving the car. He said it comes every day, a fact it’s taken me three months to discover. I didn’t believe him and thought he was being tricky for an easy laugh at the American. When the car came, the driver charged me for a Zinder trip.
I was still in disbelief as we headed out on the road, trying to predict which town the driver would force me out and to pick up another taxi. That moment never came. We picked up people and dropped some off, but I stayed under one rusted metal roof.
Along the way, in a small that town that only resembles a town with a few huts and a couple lounging Nigeriens, we stopped for a woman near the road. Before taking her seat in the makeshift row, which faced my row, she untied the pagna around her waste and a brought a small boy to her hip. Getting in and out of the vehicles takes a bit of concentration, especially for woman who have to shift their weight against constricting skirts. I held out my hand and she took the clue; she handed her child to me.
I left out a gentle smile laugh to reassure my attentions were pure but she didn’t need it. Her seat was closer to the other window and she appeared a little squished between two men so I kept the child in my roomier space.
I’d switch glances between her and the child. He wasn’t an infant but not at the age to understand that a white person was the same as a black one and I was shocked that he didn’t scream at my ghostly appearance. He stared at me and my features and would squish his lips together as if he wanted to laugh but didn’t know how. He stretched crossed my lap and seem content in a foreign place.
Without the pagna wrapped around her waste, I could see the woman was wearing a T-shirt with P. Diddy’s face. Her face looked worn from work and the exhausting sun, but no older than 18. I expected her to watch her baby in my arms to make sure he was constantly safe and wouldn’t disappear the way I do when Abdou, my 17-year-old host brother, listens to Eminem on my iPod. She wasn’t worried. She trusted me, a stranger.
Trust is understood here. In small villages like mine, people don’t have locks to their doors. They allow their children to wander through the village and into any concession. Men barely finch with another takes their motorcycle for a cruise through the bush. And women have no objections to allowing a foreigner, a funny-looking one at that, to cradle their most-prized possession.
There is no real explanation for it, but I’m not good at trust. It’s hard to remove the barrier, even for small things like Abdou taking my iPod for a walk around the block or my villagers’ knowledge of the car schedules. Yet, to be in this life and to live like Nigeriens, I need that trust. Trust doesn’t mean recklessness, but the ability to abandon worry and have faith.
My villagers have trust in me and, although I haven’t proved my presence here, they believe that I can bring something good that didn’t exist. It doesn’t have to be big or astonishing, just joyful. Failure and disappointment taunt me, but if they can trust me then I should be able to trust myself.
At the next stop, the woman got out and I handed back her baby. She smiled at me and hoisted him on her back and we were returned to our route. In a record three hours, I arrived in Zinder just like the said I would.