Nassirou and Sherifa are our names in Niger. We were given these names by our host family when we arrived in the village for our pre-service training. All Peace Corps volunteers have a Nigerien name which enhances the idea of immersing into a different culture. I actually like my name, Sherifa. Its meaning is unknown to me, however, it seems to be popular in my village. Nassirou means “lucky”. I hope that proves to be true.
Last Friday night after a day of language classes, visiting a new baby in a neighboring village, touring 2 local health huts, and planting a small vegetable garden, Nassirou and I just wanted to sit for a bit, relax or fulanzam(rest) and cool off before dinner. Nassirou’s lucky failed because 3 village children appeared immediately at our door saying “salum alakaim”, “salum alakaim”. We had to respond—“Amin Alakum salum”, I said, and in they came to our small space. One boy, Moumuni, reminds us of Jared, our grandson. The other 2 children tag along with him most nights. They long for attention from someone.
The children sit on the dirt floor, quiet, just watching us. Our language skills are still so lacking that we did the same—it did not seem to matter. The children just like to look at us. We don’t have anymore Peanut M&M’s to share, but they don’t seem to care.
Finally, not being able to stand the silence, I got our playing cards from inside our hut and began shuffling them for a game of Battle. Moumuni dealt them to Nassirou, Sherifa, and himself and did so quite aptly, I’d say. Even though this African bush child speaks his local language, Zarma, he is learning French and Arabic in school and knows his numbers in English. With limited ability to explain the game, we just started playing, laying our cards out face up with Moumuni doing the same. We’d then indicate the high card as the round’s winner. Moumuni and his friends who were, quickly caught on and began pointing to the winner of each hand. No verbal exchange was needed but plenty of laughter ensued as we sat with these children playing cards by flashlight and by starlight.
When Hamsu, one of our host family wives, brought our dinner, the children scattered and returned to their own fu (home). They were well trained. Hamsu had brought her sleeping baby with her. She said, “ay sinda bani” (meaning sick), pointing to the child and indicating I should touch him. I placed my hand on his small body—it was hot with fever and the child coughed as he began to stir on the Mother’s back where he rested. As Hamsu uncovered the bowl of rice and beans which was our dinner, I lost my appetite. I just couldn’t eat. Was it because I felt badly about not being able to help this sick baby or was I afraid of Nassirou and Sherifa getting sick? I asked Hamsu if she was planning to take the baby to the local health hut and she said, “suba” (tomorrow). I looked up words in our Zarma dictionary for sponge bath and tried to explain the comfort measure for the baby. It is difficult to speak with Hamsu since she knows no English, but I felt that she understood what I was trying to tell her. We walked Hamsu and her baby across the concession to her home.
After taking bucket baths by moonlight, Nassirou and Sherifa were in bed by 8:30 pm, protected by mosquito nets and overcome with exhaustion. It was too warm to immediately fall asleep so we lay quietly thinking about the busy day we’d had in West Africa and about all that was planned for the next day..
Nassirou’s name means lucky. We’ll find out if it’s good luck or bad luck as time goes by.
Post script: Nassirou experienced some bad luck soon after that Friday night. He caught an upper respiratory infection from one of the village children. Don’t worry though, he recovered quickly.