“Promise you will stay one more year. We are so happy with how you relate to us. And you are happy, yes? You are getting fat.” Looking at Mama Ami, I know she is quite serious. How would she know that where I come from, being called fat isn’t exactly a compliment? My mind jumps full speed into a rapid analysis of how much I may have changed in the months since my arrival in Nigeria – a diet primarily of okra or bitter green soups with starchy porridges; the occasional dish with beans and crayfish but general deficiency of good protein; the dearth of fresh produce in our market, the lack of refrigeration and my waning interest in learning the labor intensive traditional methods of preparing their dishes – anything was possible. Snapping out of it, I let myself simply feel pleased that they are comfortable with my presence.
Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I would be here – a country of over 200 different ethnic groups, a mixture of Muslims and Christians, an international image well ensconced in corruption and scams. But here I was, living in a small town, working for a local organization whose office was housed on the family compound. The business’ fish tanks and hatchery edged one side of a large dirt yard otherwise surrounded by the homes of the cousins, their families, and the elder mamas. Sitting on the porch with Mama Ami and her husband Joshua, I know she is right - I am happy. The contentment has been unfolding so slowly I barely noticed it; made up of hundreds of tiny milestones of recognition and inclusion.
Mama Ami is no-nonsense and hard-working. She speaks in broken English, mixed with Pidgin and some Hausa, so I only understand part of what she communicates, but am so grateful she tries. My attempts to learn Hausa haven’t resulted in much actual dialogue. Joshua, a retired teacher, notices: “I have been grading you and you are doing excellent on your cultural integration but not so good with the language. But still, at least a 70%.” He grins at my feigned outrage with the “C” grade. He seems to be enjoying the restful and playful mood of a Sunday afternoon. Mama Ami won’t be doing much cooking today and we already made our social calls – she makes sure I occasionally accompany her on visits to neighbors and extended family members. And today, I finally succumbed to her weekly invites to attend the Ecumenical Hausa church service: Images of the women - hips, feet and arms moving in unison (step, 2, 3, touch), swaying with the words they sang as they dropped their money into the plastic bowl – still startling me as I try to envision the offering being taken in this joyful way at church back home.
The heat slowly dissipates as the afternoon light rests on the horizon. Mama calls for her elder daughter, Ami, so they can go to the field and gather the last remains of the drying ginger she harvested earlier in the week. I am pleased when, this time, she accepts my offer to help. It isn’t strenuous for me – it is Mama who carries the load back and forth to the house as Ami and I make large piles of the root. Nonetheless, she frets, in a grateful sort of way: “You don tire?” She is sure that I need a stool. “All the people will be surprised to see a baturi farm.” We both laugh, satisfied. She is a beautiful woman, with two teardrop scars descending beneath her eyes, a tribal relic. She is my exact age, yet her responsibilities require so much more than I’ve been willing to give. She is my closest friend here, yet I don’t know her first name. Angelina, she tells me when I ask. On the tip of my tongue are the rest of the unasked questions: why aren’t you known by your own name? What is it like to be a wife and mother here? Are you happy?
We lift the last loads, cross over the main village road, and begin the ritual of greeting (Sanu, Lafiya) to all those we meet on our journey back home. It is an act that happens over and over every day, simple, common place, and I suddenly know this is where my own contentment lies. I haven’t managed to build a school for the village, somehow assure every child has adequate nourishment, or accomplish anything extraordinary that might help alleviate some of the serious needs that exist here. But right now, that is OK.
Some have said that Nigerians are amongst the happiest people on the earth. My mind can’t make sense of this, but somehow, at times, my body can. We part ways for the night – she to her family, me to my darkening room where I hunker down under the mosquito net and wait for sleep. But instead of feeling alone, I feel myself lingering in the dusty air, in the sounds of the cicada, in the flickering light of the candle flames in the village homes, and boundaries blur a moment or two before dreams over take me.
Ariel enjoys both the wonders of the Rocky Mountain West, residing in Missoula, Montana, as well as the adventures of travel, particularly connecting to women and children around the world. She has worked on food security and economic development issues locally and abroad. She writes at www.arielbleth.com.
Photography via istockphoto.com and Ariel Bleth.