Postscript: Niger – A Personal Note

Usually when I write about paleontology, I am doing so in the abstract: not only am I not involved in the research itself, I am almost always describing fossils from locations to which I’ve never been.  This is not the case with the previous post. Niger was my home for a couple of years in the mid 1990s.  When Dr. Ralf Kosma described some of the experiences he and his colleagues had, when he wrote of the friends he made, the people with whom he worked, the landscape in which they dug, his memories evoked my own.

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Granted, our experiences were in two very different parts of the country. The less-populated, harsher environment of northern Niger is in direct contrast to its southern more hospitable regions. Whereas Dr. Kosma and team were in the desert, I lived on the very border of Niger and Nigeria: an area comprised of millet fields as far as the eye can see, considerably more trees, and a glorious jewel of water on the outskirts of town during the rainy season.  I didn’t camp at night. I lived in a large mud-brick enclosure that held two little homes (one for, Ai, my Nigerien host; one for me and my dog), our own artisan well, and fledgling mango and lemon trees.

Did I know of Paul Sereno at that time? I can’t remember. I was aware of recent paleontological digs; one of my Nigerien friends had been involved in at least one of them.   I knew of the road that lead north to Agadez from the nearest city—a road my friend took to go to those excavations–and I often wished I could travel its path.*

(*Due to increased internal conflict, US citizens were prohibited from traveling north while I was there.  This is why I never went to the areas visited by Dr. Kosma and his colleagues.  That edict, however, did nothing whatsoever to prevent my US friends and I from traveling slightly north to participate in a Fulani festival.)

The village in which I lived was largely home to people within the Hausa culture. In a world of seemingly homogenous natural color—mud-brick walls with mud-brick homes, the deep sand upon which the village was founded, the sandy expanse surrounding the village—people, in their brightly colored attire, became the flowers that blossomed across the landscape.

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My friends were predominantly Muslim.  They were farmers, herders, teachers, nurses, chiefs, veterinarians, and merchants.  They were mothers and fathers.  Some of my friends’ children would sing my name and then laugh when I chased them each morning on my way to work at the local health clinic. Often at night, Ai—the woman with whom I lived—would lead me through the darkness—sandy paths between homes and their enclosures–to visit neighbors. We would sit around the fire; they would talk, I would listen. Night was usually blissfully chilly, a great contrast to the heat of the day.

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This picture from Getty Images shows a young girl pounding grain.  Women all over West Africa (not just in Niger) pound grain (ie: millet, wheat, etc) in these large wooden basins to make flour. It is extremely difficult work.  My friends would often pound together, each one with their own large wooden pounder–clapping between pounds and singing.  What was obvious work became a choreographed work of art.

Two years is hardly enough time to become an expert on a country, its diverse cultures, its language, its wonders and its struggles.  It was certainly not enough time for me to speak Hausa with any kind of intelligence.  That my friends embraced me as they did, when I could not communicate as I can in my native tongue, makes me love them that much more.

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A huge herd of these cows passed by Ai’s and my door each morning, taken out to graze by local herders.

And while there are so many stories I could share about my experiences there, I want to share only one.

It was—like most days—absolutely beautiful. On the very outskirts of town, an enormous expanse of land transformed into a lake during the rainy season.   Flocks of white birds (herons, maybe? Storks?) dotted the trees like blossoms.  I needed to be near water that particular day, so I decided to go for a walk.

One was never alone for long in that village, and such was the case soon after I left my house.  Within moments, I was joined by several little 5 -7-year-old boys, one of the youngest slipping his hand into mine. Smiling, I grasped his hand.  We walked together, surrounded by the others who talked and ran around and ahead of us.

Not long afterwards, there was a commotion in the bushes behind us—a loud crashing through the vegetation—the branches and thorns so thick they hid whatever moved beneath them.  We could hear the loud whoops and cries of young men. I saw some of them running into and around the bushes, chasing something with sticks and machetes.

Those two things alarmed me: whatever it was they pursued required several people to catch it AND they needed weapons.

“SNAKE!” one of the young boys declared, confirming my worst fear, because what else could it be? I knew of nothing else that dangerous, that low to the ground.

With eager abandon, the troupe of little boys started running toward the action, disregarding any protest on my part to stay away.  My little friend looked up at me, worry and fear in his eyes, looking to me for guidance. I’m pretty sure I mirrored that fear, but I held his hand tighter in comfort. Neither of us moved.  I wasn’t sure where to go.  The only way back to the safety of the village was past the commotion.   On one side of us was the lake (a known refuge for guinea worm and other parasites); on the other was dense bush (with who knows what beneath it).

I don’t remember how long we stood there, but eventually the chase ended—a group of young men and their weapons surrounding something on the path up ahead.  Whatever it was wasn’t moving, so I decided it was our chance to get out of there.

We approached them cautiously. I watched the dark shape for any sign of movement, ready to run the other way (carrying my little friend if necessary) at a moment’s notice.

My god, that is a big snake, I thought, as we got closer. Walking even faster, we dashed past the group toward safety, my eyes keeping the creature in sight.  With what I realized later was wonder, I found I didn’t recognize what the men had caught, what species now lay dead at their feet.  Part lizard, part dragon, part alligator, I remember thinking.  This was before the internet.  I had little idea, outside of megafauna and snakes, what Nigerien wildlife contained.  What I knew of lizards in the US—much less the world–was small. What lay there matched nothing I had ever seen before.

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I’m not sure what species of monitor lizard lived in the area; internet searches tell me there is a West African monitor lizard–which is not pictured here in this image from Getty Images.  This is a Nile monitor lizard.

Why tell this story? I’m not sure.  It’s fairly innocuous in a collection of stories that mean much more to me and remain closer to my heart.  But writing about Niger in the previous post prompts me to write about it; I want people to know about this place I love, even if briefly.  Two years in paleontology is negligible.  That time-span in my life, however, was significant, and its impact on me and who I am today cannot be dismissed.  I did not make an impact on Niger, but Niger had a profound impact on me.

When Dr. Kosma wrote of missing the people of Niger, my heart responds, ‘Me, too.’

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