My grandfather in the paternal line had traveled by camel, my father had travelled by Land Rover, and I had travelled by Land Rover and by plane. Our Bedouin family is composed of three generations which have used four different way of transport across the same desert of the Sahara’s Tanezrouft.
Tanezrouft is the portion of the Sahara Desert located north of the Niger River Bend and south of the Algerian oasis of Adrar. There is nearly no water resources, which makes it difficult for animal caravans to cross. The plains are covered by sand dunes called ergs. For centuries, caravaneers like my grandfather have travel through the same oasis. Oases made trade possible between Algeria, Niger, and Mali. These wet rest stops for camels and humans made the crossing of the Tanezrouft’s desert possible. So, these oases made it possible for caravaneers to stock up on water and to bargain for food for the rest of the trip.
It is this desolate region of the Sahara Desert that my grandfather used to cross during six months every year. He would leave in November and he would come back to our oasis situated at 200 km of Adrar after six months. My grandfather and a group of twenty men were exporting dates to Mali and Niger and they were importing back to our oasis spices and dry meat. They traveled by night because they used the stars to guide them. In the day, they would find a refuge from the hot sun and they would put their turban, which were 16m of white cotton fabric, to protect their head, their eyes, and their mouths from the hot scorching desert wind. Otherwise, the khamsin, the wind which sweeps the desert from March through May, would fill their noses, their mouths, and their ears with sand would tear their breath apart.
While my grandfather was crossing the rolling sand dunes of the Tanezrouft Desert by foot, my grandmother was giving birth to his son under a date palm tree. My father was told that his umbilical cord had been planted under that same date tree which had witnessed his arrival to this hot and burning desert world. My father had been to school until the age of ten. Then, he started travelling with his father by foot with the camel caravans to Mali and Niger. He was learning trade from his father’s experiences and he became a very skilled business man. Then, during the last years of the French colonization of Algeria, my father met a Captain in the army who taught him how to drive a Land Rover. When the Algerian War of Independence was over, my father was able to keep the Land Rover as a reward for his loyal and good services in the army. Then, my father decided to move to Niamey, Niger. He opened a shop and he was selling dates and spices. He had never traveled again with the camel caravans anymore and he did all his travel back and forth regularly between the oasis and Niger with his Land Rover.
I was born in Niamey, Niger, in a hospital and my mother had a midwife to help her go through the pain. I lived all my life in Niger and I had attended a French school until I had my Baccalaureat at the end of high school. When the French school closed during July and August, my dad would put mattresses on the back of the Land Rover, the suitcases on the top and we would cross the same Sahara’s Tanezrouft desert to visit my grandparents in their oasis. The goatskins which were full of water would be attached on the sides of the Land Rover. I have always wondered how these goatskins would hold the water very fresh!
It took us one week to cross the whole Tanezrouft Desert. Our Desert trip started from Niamey. Then, we arrived at Gao, Mali during the night and we spent the night there. The next day, we started crossing the silent Saharan spaces where we did not meet a single Bedouin tent for five days. When the sun began to set, we pulled up to the first tarmac at Bidon V. We spent nights on the dunes of sand with the only company of shining stars. We did appreciate the coolness of the night because during the day the temperature soared above 50 degrees Celsius. The wind and sand together entered the Land Rover and burnt our skin. The long turban protected our nose and lungs from the individual grains of sand. I always used to wake before dawn to contemplate the horizon. I wrapped my turban around my head and over my face, covering my nose and mouth because the dry air was cracking my skin and lips and I sat still listening to silence.
The trip always seemed very long to me but I was not really in a hurry to reach the oasis. The two months of holidays that I spent there seemed to be an eternity for me. We walked five times a day 5km to fetch water from the closest saguias (canals). In Niamey, I had tap water and air conditioner at the French school. But in my grandparents’ oasis, I had no water and no electricity. But the underground rivers and oases made it possible for dates and some vegetable to grow.
When I used to narrate my holiday story, at the beginning of the year in my French literature class, I did not understand at all the great interest that my teacher was holding for my story. He had called my experience in the Sahara Desert as being an exotic trip to paradise. Well, we definitely did not share the same definition of Paradise. From my point of view, the crossing of the Tanezrouft Desert was synonym of suffering, hard work, open-air toilet and sleeping in a tent with the threat of being bitten by a scorpion. Even though Niger is among the poorest countries in the world, with most of its territory consisting of desert areas, it was still more advanced than my grandparent’s oasis.
At the age of fourteen, for the first time of my life, I have set foot on a plane. During the flight over the Sahara Desert, I did not feel happy. Reflecting back now, I can understand what my literature teacher had said to me about the desert. It is indeed a magical place where my soul was closer to God. And now, my big regret is not to have had the possibility to share concretely this part of my childhood experience with my two teenager boys.