After the end of the meal, we all sat around the table to drink the hot sugary mint tea in little glasses. We were singing and belly dancing with our scarf head around our waist to support the rotations of our hips. The only music we could produce was made of our voices, the clapping of our hands and the derbouka since we had no electricity, no television, no tape recorder and no radio. We were swirling and taping our feet to follow the rhythm when suddenly my grand-mother stood up. We all stopped and still wondering what was going on. When I saw a long shadow behind her, I understood it was my grand-father in the entrance of the court. He was standing still with a telegram in his hand. We all sat quietly back on the mats and we lowered our gaze in sign of respect.
And he said in a low and grave voice...You are officially divorced! I have just got a telegram from your husband in Niamey who does not want you back in his life. We tried to mediate between you and him but he said no! He said that he cannot stand you and he does not want you in his life again.
My mother, indeed, never came back to Niger and she had never seen again the house where she had lived some years of her life. She left all her belongings in the house and she had never had the chance to come back to Niamey to pack up her belongings.
My mother never spoke to me about relationships between men and women or about her relationship with Dad. I had witnessed my father beating my mother but she had always refused to talk about it. When I saw that his violence toward her increased, I was only nine years old but I knew inside me that they would not last together very long. It is true that my father had a violent temper, and when we sat before him we were never at ease. But he was also capable of showing mercy and compassion.
He asked my mother to send us back to Niamey because he wanted us to finish our schooling at the French school. He was very strict with us. He always had high expectations for his children and he provided us with the support necessary to achieve these expectations. He used to tell me, "We have no electricity and no tap water in our oasis but I have the great chance to be able to send you to a French school and you must never forget that, my daughter." Indeed, I am genuinely thankful for that! It is a very expensive school!
At the end of the summer, we came back, my sister, my two brothers and I to Niamey using the same route. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world, but we were able to have a good education. Every summer, my Dad had sent us back to the oasis to spend the summer in a "bath of heat." We did not notice the hot temperatures because we were so happy to see her again.
The first summer, we arrived late in a land rover which bumped its way along rough, mud tracks. After a night's sleep and breakfast made of honey and clarified home made butter, my grandfather asked us, my cousins and I, to carry water for his goatskin. He had a goatskin which keeps the water very cool all day long. We set off for the water hole while the sun was edging over the horizon. We can feel its heat on our back and shoulders as the water trickled over my scalp from the heavy bucket. Every day we had to collect water on a padded ring to balance the bucket on our head.
My grandfather was never particularly kind to my aunts and mother but he was raised that way; he had learned to show kindness only to boys and not to girls. If fathers show kindness and a tender heart to their daughters, they would never live home in order to get married!! Definitely, my grandfather is not the kind on man to create a Taj Mahal in my grandmother's honour!
One day, he entered the women's quarters.
"Assalamu alaykum (Peace be upon you)," my grandfather shouted while he was getting inside the living room.
"Wa alaykum salaam (And Upon you be Peace)," we all answered politely.
Then, he sat next to my grandmother and he told her that my cousins and I must start the Medersa (the only religious school of the village) every morning and she should make sure that we are veiled properly before our "male" cousin escorts us...every morning and every afternoon!!
The next day, we were ready to follow my cousin like a well behaved flock of sheep. At the mosque, every morning and every afternoon, we had lessons in religion. The lessons deal with mariage, illness, death, and how to deal with them. They give us a feeling for what is right and wrong. We also memorize verses from the Quran. The first lesson was about fasting, prayers, and how to perform ablutions.
When we arrived at home, my grandmother would always ask my cousin if we behaved well during the walk and if our veil was always covering our head. She used to tell us, "a woman's honor is her most important asset!" She always takes her example and she would say proudly, "Look, I have been married so long to your grandfather, but I still do not call him by his first name."
It is true that women do not call their husbands by their first name. I have never heard my Mum calling my dad by his first name and she had never shared a meal with him. She had always eaten in a separate table and my dad had always eaten alone or with his children.When she calls out to my father, she doesn't say his name. She just start talking about what she needs to say! I have always asked myself why women do not call their partners by saying outloud their names. My mother had five children but she would never call her husband by saying his name. I guess a husband's name is something so intimate and therefore unspoken!
It was the end of the summer holiday and we were getting ready to go back to school...to cross the desert one more time in the Land Rover, through the hot Sahara desert.
to be continued...