Once or twice a week, I wake up to a missed call. My soft ringtone isn’t enough to arouse me at 3 or 4 a.m. and the attempt to reach me becomes a red light that blinks from a small rectangle in the corner of my phone until I am awake. A +227 in front of the number reveals the caller’s location, but I am not sure who else would call me at that hour.
Before the African sun hits midday, someone in Niger is trying to call Hassia.
When I left Dantchiao, I promised friends and coworkers that I would call when I reached my next location. At the time, I, along with most other volunteers, assumed I’d be transferred to another country to fulfill my service. Maybe we’d be close enough to visit, our thoughts inflating with hope. I would call them, I told myself, I’d keep in touch and wouldn’t lose these bonds that I worked so hard to create.
As I was traveling throughout Morocco and Egypt, calling became more obligatory that something I wanted to do. I could barely explain this mess to myself, how could I to them? I decided it would be best to wait until I was home, in my landing place, before I reached out to the people I couldn’t stop thinking about.
The day after I returned to Pierre my mother and I went to Altell to put me on the family account and buy a phone. Choosing a phone had given me anxiety for several days. Do I get a smart phone or a regular one? A Droid, Blackberry or iPhone? Do I have the money to, or do I even want to, spend that much for a phone? I stared at all the phones, flipping them over and pretending to observe them with knowledge. My mind wrestled with prices and need as the polite sales man continued to throw information at me that I couldn’t digest. The amount of choices overwhelmed me, but more so was the call I knew I would need to make once I did have a phone.
An hour later, we left the store with a phone and a number. I tried desperately to get my old number back, but God did not will it so I was assigned a new one. Now, I had all the tools I needed to finally get in touch with my villagers, but I was missing the courage.
I found my Nigerien phone as I was unpacking. It had all the numbers to the people I said I would call, but also a dead battery and wouldn’t turn on. I didn’t have the right adaptor for the charger, so, with relief, I put the task off until I could find a way to charge my phone and retrieve the numbers.
As I continued to unpack my Nigerien things into my new American life, I found a piece of paper. It had been ripped out of my journal months before and scratched in black ink was a phone number. It was Mustapha’s.
Above everyone else, he was the person I knew I needed to call. I didn’t know what I would say to him, but I all could remember is our goodbye and him saying, “You will forget about us.” I could never forget about him or anyone else from my village, but I knew I had to call so they wouldn’t think it.
Waiting until after the 8 p.m. prayer call, I called him with Skype. He didn’t answer, but I wouldn’t have either to a ‘0’ number. I then texted him with my number and he called that night at 3 a.m. I did answer and tried to call him back but we couldn’t hear each other.
“Alo? Ca va? Alo?” was pretty much our conversation.
The next morning, I called him using the method my mother had to telephone me when I was abroad. We greeted each other, my throat stiffening when he asked about my work. With formal introductions out of the way, he asked when I was coming back to Niger. Feeling my heart breaking, I said that I wasn’t and that I was in the United States with my parents, looking for another job. I didn’t have the language to say anything beyond that, but I didn’t have really anything else to say.
Our conversation was brief, like they usually are, and ended with his typical thank you.
We talk once a week now and for a few minutes, nothing beyond “how is school?” and “how is America?” He sometimes brings up Ramatu, an inside joke we have, that makes us both laugh. Much of the time, he speaks to fast for me to understand, which was even a problem when I was using French daily.
It’s extremely expensive to call the States, so he calls and lets it ring a few times and I call him back. Each time I dial his number I have to take a deep breath. It’s nice to talk to my friend again and I know that he’ll tell my villagers that we have spoken, but it’s an excruciating reminder that I am not there anymore.
It’s also hard because here I sit with my fancy phone and clean clothes in a warm house with water, electricity and plenty of food. I can’t relate to my villagers anymore. It’s as if I am ashamed for all that I have and I don’t want them to find out because my life is one they can only dream about.
Like a hard workout, I do feel better after I talk to Mustapha. He usually makes me laugh and feels good to let Hausa and French roll off of my tongue. It does hurt my heart to know that this connection is now long distance, but each time I wake up and see his number I know that I missed in Niger as much I miss it.