(Based on actual events in the southern Sahara)
NO WATER WITHOUT RAIN
Sadouan sat underneath a goat-hide tent, braiding her daughter Mouheini’s hair. The air inside was stifling. It was early May, with temperatures soaring higher than 45 degrees Celsius. It was rare that Sadouan could get her fifteen-year-old to sit still, so she tried to ignore the heat. For over nine months it hadn’t rained, and there was no water to bathe with. Skin infestations had become common yet again, as they did every year during the hot season. So, she took advantage of the moment to remove fleas and lice from her daughter’s scalp.
“Mother, you are pulling too hard!” Mouheini complained. At the same time, a goat walked into the tent. Sadouan gently shooed it away, “I have nothing for you today, little one. We are nearly out of water.”
“My darling, keep your voice down,” Sadouan scolded Mouheini. “You’ll wake up Tahir!” Mouheini glanced tenderly at her baby brother, asleep on a traditional bed made of woven mats and carved wooden posts. “The braids need to be tight so that they will hold until the Tabaski festival,” Sadouan said. “You must look beautiful. I’m giving you the special festivity braids.” She smiled and added teasingly “Abdoul will be here.”
Abdoul was Sadouan’s nephew. Mouheini and he had been betrothed since her birth. They were to be married the following September, after the rainy season had ended.
Thinking of her daughter’s wedding reminded Sadouan of the day, sixteen years ago, when at age thirteen she had married her own cousin Alhassan. Arranged marriages to cousins was a centuries-old tradition for these Tuareg herders in the Azawak, a huge plain of sandy grasslands in northwestern Niger, on the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. Yet, Sadouan did have concerns. Would Abdoul be a good husband to her firstborn, she wondered? Would he be able to provide, so that her daughter and her unborn children would have food to eat every day? And most importantly, would they have water? A constant search for water had become an ever-increasing preoccupation in the Azawak over the past ten years.
“Mother, I wish you would not remind me about Abdoul. I do not want to marry him.” Mouheini knew that in the end she would not have a choice. But she wanted her mother to know that the situation was not of her own volition. “My dear,” responded Sadouan sympathetically, “I know you are not happy about it. But you are fifteen, and most girls have already gotten married by your age. Your aunt is starting to wonder if you will ever marry Abdoul. She and the entire family are becoming impatient.”
Mouheini knew she could not convince her family to change their mind, so she changed the subject. “Anyway, Tabaski is a few days away, so why are you braiding my hair today?” She winced as Sadouan tightened a braid. “I do not want to sit here in the heat, I want to go with the other girls now. It’s much cooler underneath the acacias. Please, Mother!” she begged.
Mouheini wanted to be out in the dry marshland, sitting under the shade of the acacia trees with her girlfriends, playing games, singing songs, or engaging in storytelling contests, which she often won. She loved recounting stories that Sadouan had told her, and making up some of her own. Already she had spent all morning doing chores.
“My darling daughter, I really do not know how you will be ready to marry and raise a family. You still have the heart of a child.” Sadouan shook her head. “By the way, have you forgotten?” she asked. “Tomorrow it is your turn to fetch water for the community, together with Takat and Raichatou. I must braid your hair today, in case we don’t have time before Tabaski.” Mouheini moaned. “I have to fetch water already?!” At least, she told herself, she would be traveling with two of her favorite cousins.
Mouheini missed the rainy season, when the water chore amounted to frolicking in the wet marsh. She longed for the long baths in the water, and playing with clay statuettes that she molded out of the mud with her siblings and cousins. This year, the rainy season had only lasted five weeks, beginning in late July and ending in early September. After it had ended, the marsh water had evaporated, forcing her and her fellow water fetchers to dig in the mud, often for hours at a time, to reach rainwater reserves that had seeped below. Once this water had run dry, men came and dug shallow wells in the dry marsh. She had spent hours watching as the men chased the water, digging deeper and deeper into the pits of the earth. During a single day, they would move from one hand-dug water hole to the next, waiting for the water to pool back into the bottom. This water was turbid and polluted, hardly more than mud; drinking it meant that Mouheini and her siblings often suffered from diarrhea. They did not know that unclean water could cause illness, and drank the rare water they could get with relish.
Fetching water at these marsh pits was a trivial task compared to the hardship to come; now that they had run dry, she spent her water fetching days travelling to deep pulley-operated nomad wells, no less than half a day’s journey away from home. Many times, her water quest would last several days; if the first well had run dry, she and her cousins had to look for another, even further away. During this time, Mouheini would worry about her little siblings at home. If she was gone for too long, one of them might become very sick, or even die from thirst.
This responsibility was heavy to bear, especially for a young teenager. However, it wasn’t only the long walk that caused her anxiety. Added to the heat and fatigue was the risk of running into drug traffickers coming from the south out of Nigeria, or jihadi rebels coming from the northwest out of Mali. In recent years, the attacks by armed men on civilians were increasingly frequent. She had even heard stories that they sometimes did terrible things to women and girls. She wondered how they justified their violence in the name of Allah. Her Allah was kind and good. How could Allah want people to hurt others?
Mouheini’s thoughts were cut short by Tahir’s crying. Her baby brother had just awoken from his nap, and wanted to breastfeed. “Tahir’s diarrhea is getting worse and worse,” Sadouan stated gravely, while offering her breast to her baby. She was truly concerned for his life. She had already lost one child due to complications linked to dehydration and diarrhea. She could not bear the thought of losing another.
While nursing Tahir, Sadouan’s thoughts transported her back to when she was a little girl. During her youth, it rained often, even daily, from June to September. It had been a much easier time. In those days, she had herded her parents’ goats, while her brothers and father cared for their cows and camels. But as time went on, the rains had become more and more infrequent. Why did it rain so little now, only filling the marshes for a few months after the rains ended? Without water, most of their animals had died. These changes deeply frightened her, and made her worry about her children’s future.
THE WATER SEARCH BEGINS
At four in the morning, Mouheini felt a hand rocking her gently. “Wake up, my daughter, I’ve prepared your donkey.” Her father, Alhassan, sat above her with a wistful regard, wishing he did not have to ask his daughter to undertake such an arduous, and possibly perilous journey. “Mother has prepared the illiwa for you.” As Mouheini quietly sipped this millet porridge with a large wooden spoon, Alhassan sat with her to keep her company. He explained, “After the Tabaski festival I will be leaving toward the south with our camels and cows, to find water for them. Your brothers will be coming with me. So will Abdoul.” Mouheini felt a sinking feeling in her heart. She didn’t want her father to leave. Sadouan would be distraught about caring for the family alone. When he was away, times were always harder; they skipped many meals, sometimes living off of one small bowl of rice or millet a day. Sadouan often went begging from the other families; yet they too had little to eat. This pending reality frightened Mouheini.
“Daddy, do you really have to go?” asked Mouheini, committing senti, talking while eating, a Tuareg faux pas. “Don’t worry, I will make sure that Abdoul and your brothers stay safe.” Alhassan caressed his daughter’s face, trying to reassure her. “I am not worried about Abdoul. It is you I care about,” she responded firmly.
“Ok, my gazelle, it is time for you to leave now,” Alhassan said. “Otherwise you will be caught in the worst of the heat before reaching the well.”
“The well? Oh, no!” she groaned. Mouheini had almost forgotten her responsibility of the day… she sorely hoped that there would be water in the nearest well, which was around 25 kilometers away, so that she and her cousins would be home by that evening. If there was no water there, they would need to seek even further away; they might not be back until the next day… or even later. “We will be back tonight,” she promised herself.
Alhassan checked the ropes holding the empty jerry cans attached to their donkeys. Sadouan wrapped a few pieces of dried goat meat in a cloth for her daughter’s lunch, and handed it to Mouheini while whispering, “Please, darling, stay safe and return home quickly! I don’t know how long our water will last… your siblings won’t have anything to drink soon… and…”, she continued, with a stammer, “I don’t know how long Tahir will live if we run out of water.” Mouheini knew that her mother meant well to remind her of her brothers and sisters, but it was a burden knowing that they relied on her to live from one day to the next. “Yes, Mother, I will not let you or Tahir down. By tonight, we will all have water, Allah willing!”
Takat and Raichatou, Mouheini’s younger cousins and water-fetching companions, stood sleepily next to their donkeys, while their parents said goodbye to them. A small group of additional donkeys with jerry cans attached to their sides milled about nearby. All would undertake the water quest. The girls were tasked with fetching as much water as they could for the five families that made up their small nomadic community.
Takat and Raichatou also felt downhearted about their mission. They went water gathering at least once a week. Mouheini, as the oldest of the girls, was sent on almost every water quest. To her, it felt like each foray for water was more difficult than the last, and the idea of another day-long round-trip hike under the searing sun filled her with anxiety, especially since she could not be certain of what she would find at the well.
The girls finally left around 5 AM. They were so accustomed to journeying at night, that they knew their home territory even in the dark. Until the day broke, they counted on the positions of the stars to guide them northwest beyond their home territory, toward the closest well. For the first few hours of the journey, the girls walked alongside their donkeys, not wanting to tire their animals before the heat set in. Already temperatures were over 38 degrees; by 7 AM the heat would be nearly unbearable.
At first, the girls walked in silence. Takat was practically sleepwalking, until she tripped on a large stone. She fell to the ground, burying a long acacia thorn into her leg. Her shrieks of pain sent shivers through Mouheini’s body; all three of them felt exhausted, even as the voyage was just beginning. Mouheini helped removed the thorn; as the eldest, it was her responsibility to care for the younger girls. She took Takat in her arms, “Now now, dear, we must continue on to the well’” she said. “If we get there early enough, there will be more water, and we’ll be able to get home faster.” Seeing that this reassurance had little effect, she added, “I will tell you a story I learned about a genie, if you get up and walk.” Takat nodded that she wanted to hear her cousin’s story. Raichatou chimed in, “Yes, please tell us a story, otherwise I’m going to fall asleep!”
Mouheini, though she also felt the effects of too little sleep, took it upon herself to cheer up her little cousins. She told her stories until a halo of pink encircled the eastern horizon, announcing the rising sun. The splendor of first dawn brought extra joy to the girls, despite the bittersweet reality that the heat would also begin rising on the trail of the sun.
“Let’s take a break to rest and eat before it gets too hot,” Mouheini proposed. Takat and Raichatou both eagerly answered, “Yes!” They removed a plastic mat from one of the donkeys, laid it on the ground, and sat down. Mouheini pulled out her dried meat, Takat her gourd of fermented goat milk, and Raichatou unpeeled a cloth wrap that hid the traditional Tuareg boule of millet. They untied a small metal bowl, into which they scooped a portion of the millet which had been cooked into a paste and formed into a ball, and stirred in milk and a little water. United under the splendor of sunrise, the girls enjoyed their meager feast and forgot about the challenges of the morning so far, as well as those that might lay ahead.
After a short rest, they packed up their belongings onto their donkeys and continued their journey. The closer they got to the deep nomad well, the easier it became to ignore the constant flies and sweat trickling down their faces. They sang and giggled freely, while Mouheini became even more creative with her stories. They no longer felt defeated by their thirst and dehydration. Around an hour away from their destination, they shared their last few drops of water, trusting that they soon would fill their jerry cans and drink to their heart’s content.
The screeching of wood pulleys welcomed them from afar. As they approached the well, they saw three donkeys attached together, pulling ropes of interminable length on one side, while four others pulled together opposite them, heaving up large rubber water containers from 130 meters into the earth. Even ten donkeys on either end would not have sufficed to make the job less strenuous. One donkey tripped from exhaustion, bringing down the others with it. As the girls approached, they noticed a donkey lying almost lifeless on the ground near the well. They knew that the animal would be dead by the end of the day. It was often this way during the dry season.
Mouheini went up to one of the men to ask if they could fill up their jerry cans, pointing to her cousins and their donkeys. The man glanced over and shook his head. “You will have to wait a while,” he said. “Many people and animals are already waiting, and there is hardly any water seeping through at the bottom of the well. Right now, we are only bringing up mud. We’ll be sending in a boy soon to dig the well deeper. Maybe there’ll be water afterward, Allah willing.” Mouheini informed Takat and Raichatou. “This means we’re going to be stuck here several hours!” Raichatou exclaimed, “maybe we should walk ahead to the next well?”
“There is no guarantee there’ll be water there either,” replied Mouheini. After considering their options, the girls decided to wait rather than look for another well. Takat found a shady spot beneath an acacia tree, where an elderly woman sat weaving a mat while she waited. After laying out their own mat, the girls distracted themselves by playing mancala and other traditional games with rocks in the sand.
They waited for hours, as more and more people and animals showed up at the well, hopeful to retrieve water. “I’m not so sure we made the right decision to stay,” Raichatou opined. “We’d still be walking if we had gone,” replied Takat. Mouheini, trying to keep the peace, reassured them, “It will be our turn soon.”
Just at that moment, Mouheini looked up to see a woman walk by, hiding herself behind a mat. The old woman also observed the lady with her mat, and shook her head in disgust. She whispered to the girls: “This water problem is the root of all evil these days. Men are leaving our land to find jobs elsewhere, and when they return, they bring back crazy ideas. A woman hiding herself so that men do not see her?! Tuareg women used to show themselves proudly, and now they cower behind mats and veils. They say it is for Allah. It’s just silliness, if you ask me. Those men are trying to keep their wives to themselves, as if a mat is going to stop a woman from finding another man!”
The old woman went back to her weaving. The girls looked at one another, not quite knowing what to think. The two younger ones giggled. Mouheini did not. Would Abdoul also insist that she cover herself with a mat whenever she was not among family members? She did not want to find out. She did not want to leave her parents and siblings to live with Abdoul’s family. Thinking of her brothers and sisters brought her back to reality, to her water quest. She direly hoped they were okay, and that Tahir still had water to drink.
“I’m so thirsty,” lamented Raichatou, “and hungry, too.” Wanting to see if they would be able to get their water soon, and hoping to distract her cousin from discouragement, Mouheini proposed, “Let’s find some water to drink.” Not far from the well sat a corroded aluminum trough from which a few cows drank muddy filth lying at the bottom. The girls scooped as much of the liquid as they could into their hands to assuage their thirst.
At the well, men were tying a teenage boy around Mouheini’s age onto a rope. The girls drew nearer to watch as the boy was lowered into the bowels of the earth; he was being sent into the well to dig the bottom deeper, in the hope that more water would seep through. The process seemed interminable, and Mouheini felt badly for the boy. “If it’s hot up here,” she told herself, “I can only imagine what the heat must be like so deep into the earth!” Just the thought of it made her shudder. They watched and waited, but nothing happened for quite some time. So, they returned to their mat beside the acacia tree, to snack on their food.
After a while, the men holding the rope felt tugging from the bottom; it was a signal for them to lug the boy back up. Several men began pulling on the rope, when suddenly the one nearest the well yelled frantically, “Pull harder, pull harder, the rope is being dragged back in. Pull harder!” Five more men joined, but all were being drawn into the well. One man hollered “keep pulling!” while another screamed, “the well is caving in!” The girls watched this dreadful scene in horror.
Ten minutes later, the men were still desperately trying to retrieve the boy, but it was too late. The boy had been buried alive. “How could this be possible?” Mouheini asked herself. Less than a half hour earlier, the boy had been standing in front of them. He could not just be gone!
After much effort to heave the boy out of the well, the men finally accepted that the earth had won the battle. The only way of retrieving the boy now was to send another man in to recover his body. Cries of anguish rang out around them. Takat and Raichatou sobbed while Mouheini pulled them together into a group embrace. “It’s ok, my little ones. It’s ok. We must go so we can get to the next well before dark”.
“The next well?” Raichatou asked, incredulous.
Mouheini asked the old woman if she knew of a well that might have water. “About 17 km north there is a well. I heard that it is still operating. You should try there.” She explained as best she could the path to take, while the three girls listened intently but with increasing discouragement. On the other hand, this was not the first time that they would have traveled to several wells before finding water. It was, however, the first time that they had ever seen a boy die in a well.
Takat placed their mat back on her donkey, and the trio somberly headed north. Walking wordlessly, they had no heart to sing or tell stories. Mouheini could not get the image of the boy’s face out of her mind. The thought of the dead boy repeatedly reminded her of baby Tahir. “Don’t die little brother!” she prayed to herself.
A CLOSE CALL
Undertaking this trek beneath the torrid mid-afternoon sun was unbearable; Mouheini’s entire body felt like it was baking. The girls had not been able to fill up their jerry cans, and were desperately thirsty. With each step, they felt like weights were being added to their feet, and their donkeys walked as if all the water cans were full rather than empty. Mouheini did not like flogging them, and so she resorted to pulling the weary beasts, while Takat and Raichatou helped by pushing from behind. During one of these efforts, one of Takat’s flip-flops got caught on a protruding plant root, and she fell flat on her face. She ruefully examined her shoe, which had torn apart. From then on she winced at every step, because the earth burnt her foot. However, she dared not voice her pain; she did not want Raichatou and Mouheini to worry. What could they do for her anyway? Even the donkeys were too exhausted to carry her.
They stopped counting the dried marshlands that they walked through. On the one hand, these parched spaces of earth provided shade, thanks to the acacia trees that grew there. On the other hand, both the girls and the donkeys stepped on one long painful thorn after another. Along one of these marshland stretches, Raichatou yelled out, “I can’t move, I can’t move.” Mouheini looked back to find her hobbling on one foot.
Both Takat and Mouheini rushed to the injured girl’s side. Raichatou had been punctured by a particularly long thorn that had “nailed” her shoe to her foot. Mouheini, using all her strength, helped pull out the thorn while Takat held Raichatou’s hand. The girl’s whimpering brought everyone to a standstill. They looked at one another and began crying. “I cannot get that boy’s face out of my head,” Takat admitted, sobbing. “I know,” Mouheini answered. “What a terrible way to die. He went in there to help us have water. And he died for it. Dear Allah, why oh why?” She quickly pulled her spirits together, “I know that this is difficult, as it always is getting water. But we’ve got to think ahead. Tahir is sick at home, and mom is waiting for us. I know aunties are waiting for you. We will find water, I promise you.”
Looking at Raichatou, Mouheini asked, “Will you be able to walk?” Then, glancing at Takat, realizing only now that her cousin was walking with only one shoe: “What happened?” Takat reassured everyone with a grim smile: “It’s not so hot anymore, and I’ve gotten good at avoiding the thorns.” The girls walked on.
The sun began to set on the horizon as the trio neared the second well. Mouheini tried to improve the spirits of the younger two by recounting a story about a genie who fell in love with a human maiden. She was deep into detailing a love sequence, when suddenly, machine guns rang in the distance. Mouheini jumped. Confused, she looked around. She saw nothing strange. Again, they heard more gunshots, followed by men’s angry screams. Suddenly, several pickups transporting dozens of men whizzed past, lifting up a huge cloud of dust in their wake. Dressed all in white, the men whooped and pumped their AK-47s into the air, as if in celebration. The girls fell to the ground, hiding behind their donkeys.
Mouheini grabbed onto Takat and held her tightly. More angry voices and screaming rang out from a distance, prompting Mouheini to pray, “Allah, protect us. Do not let these frightening men catch or hurt us.” Lifting herself up behind her donkey, she peered over to see if the men were still in sight. It seemed as if they had not noticed the girls, and as if they had, they had more pertinent business at hand. Nonetheless, remembering the stories of rape and violence she had heard about armed men from the West, and already traumatized by the long day’s event, she yelled out at Takat and Raichatou to run away, ordering them to leave their donkeys behind. They ran and ran, until they collapsed on the ground from exhaustion.
“What will we do now?” Takat wailed, “I’m so scared. Where will we go tonight? How will we get water?” Fear and desperation finally won over Mouheini’s ever strong and cheerful spirit, “I don’t know, I just don’t know,” she cried.
“Psst, psst.” The terrified girls did not hear the strange sound at first. “Pssssst”, this time the summons was more insistent. They heard it clearly, coming from behind a giant termite hill. “Pssssst!!” There it was again, and out from behind the hill peaked the dark face of a turbaned boy. He waved them over. Mouheini motioned to the other two to stay back. “What do you want?” she demanded, tears streaming down her face. “I overheard you talking,” said the boy, beckoning. “I can take you somewhere safe.” He had an accent. Tamasheq, the Tuareg language, did not appear to be his native language.
Emotionally and physically drained, and desperately hungry and thirsty, Mouheini did not know whom to trust. Already so much calamity had befallen them during the day; her first impulse was to grab her cousins and run away again.
Still, the young adolescent looked friendly and reassuring. He stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, “My name is Fada.” Mouheini saw that he was dressed in the typical garb of the Fulani nomads, including the large straw hat topped with a feather, that he cradled next to his body. The Fulani and Tuareg, both traditionally nomadic pastoralists, lived harmoniously together throughout the Azawak. There were hardly ever any problems between them, so Mouheini did not think she should fear the boy, who appeared to be about her age.
“What are you doing here?” Mouheini asked.
“I had just filled my gourd at the well,” Fada replied, “when I heard the pickups arrive, with the crazy men shooting in the air and yelling at everyone, demanding to have water and food. I didn’t wait to see what happened next; I simply ran away as fast as I could.” The boy took deep breaths, clearly traumatized by what he had undergone. “Anyway, I’ve been hiding here for a while, and then I heard all of you crying.”
He paused, “I think it’s safe now. If you want, you can come with me to my village. There you can get water and sleep tonight.” Mouheini looked at him dubiously. Yet despite her suspicion, she wanted to believe in something. She was too tired to think of questions to ask. All she wanted was to drink some water and sleep. She looked over at Takat and Raichatou, and called them over. “This boy… Fada… says he can help us.”
Fada stepped up to them with a smile: “I live beyond those hills, not too far away. There is a well in my village. You could get water and spend the night there.”
“Then why are you here?” Raichatou demanded. “Don’t be so angry, I am only trying to help,” Fada responded, trying to stay patient. “I am returning home after a few weeks away herding cows with my uncle. The well was on my way. Do you want to come with me or not? We could be there in less than two hours if we hurry. I know the way, even in the dark.” He understood their fear and distrust. He too had been terrified by the armed men. He wondered what had happened to the village where the well had been attacked. He had heard stories of people being kidnapped during these types of raids, and then left stranded to die in the middle of the desert.
“Two hours! I don’t know if I can go that far,” wailed Raichatou. “I’m so hungry and thirsty.” Mouheini sympathized with her, but then she thought of Tahir. “We don’t have any choice,” she declared. “We could die out here.” Choking back tears, Raichatou and Takat nodded their assent.
Takat asked Fada if they could have a sip of his water. He handed over his plastic milk jug, and each took a swig. He then pulled out a few wild yellow berries from his sash. “Would you like some?” he offered. The girls took them gratefully, suddenly feeling more energized, thanks to the sustenance, and to Fada’s generosity. Mouheini pulled out her last few pieces of dry meat, which she shared with everyone. “Before we head away, we must retrieve our donkeys,” she declared. Fada offered to help her find the animals in order to allow Raichatou and Takat time to rest at the termite mound.
The four companions stayed clear of any vehicle tracks, fearing a return of the armed men, and hid in the shadows of the night. Fada asked a few questions in an attempt to converse with Mouheini. He explained that he lived in a village shared between Tuareg and Fulani, which was why he spoke some Tamasheq. He told them that Cheikh Almoustapha, a well-respected Tuareg religious leader from neighboring Mali, presided over their village. He felt sure the cheikh would be kind to the three water searchers.
After a long moment of silence, Mouheini recounted the story of the boy at the well, “He was about our age, Fada. I can’t get his face out of my mind. I can’t imagine what a terrible death that must be.” Fada waited a moment before responding. “I’ve been sent down into a well to dig like that boy,” he shared. “It’s what I imagine hell being like. So dark and hot, and no air. And you know going in how dangerous it is. You just know. Any time dirt starts falling from above, you think that your time has come.” Mouheini cringed at the idea of Fada deep in the well.
Fada changed the subject: “Aren’t you old enough to be married?” he asked. Mouheini blushed and defensively retorted, “Aren’t you?” Suddenly feeling uncomfortable, she added, “We really must hurry back home early tomorrow. My brother is sick and Mother needs water quickly. She fears he may die otherwise. The problem is, I have no idea where we are going and how far we are from home by now. I’ve never heard of your well.”
Fada felt sorry for her. “I will help you get your water quickly,” he said, “so that you can get back to your family. Your brother will be fine, I’m sure.” Mouheini appreciated his compassion.
Fada continued, “Our well is new; it’s been open since January. It was built by people from far far away, who called it a “borehole.” You should have seen them when they came with their trucks and drilling rigs. Those machines looked like gigantic monsters eating away at the earth. And when the drilling was done, I’d never seen so much water pour out of the ground. I didn’t even know so much water existed!”
Mouheini listened in awe. She couldn’t comprehend most of what Fada was saying, but his excitement was contagious. “What is a borehole, and what is a rig?” she asked naively. Of course, she could not possibly know what all these things were — how could she? The only reason he knew himself was that he had seen the magic with his own eyes. Trying to simplify his description, he said, “A borehole is dug by a rig, and run by a pump that brings water to the surface. Not like a normal well, where donkeys have to pull water out with long ropes.”
“Ahhh,” Mouheini nodded her head, though she still did not understand what he meant. “The best thing,” Fada continued, “is that the water comes out clean. It won’t make you sick. I didn’t know before that marsh and well water could give you diarrhea. But the people explained to us that the water that we used to drink could kill people. This water gives health instead!”
Mouheini hung on to Fada’s every word. Even though they were unfamiliar, they were magical coming out of his mouth. She grew impatient to see this very special well. She was also enjoying listening to Fada in his imperfect yet melodious Tamasheq.
Despite not wanting to alarm her, Fada voiced his innermost concern: “I hope that my village hasn’t been attacked.” Sensing Mouheini’s sudden tenseness, he quickly reassured her: “No one dares hurt Cheikh Almoustapha, so I think it will be safe.” Mouheini prayed that he was right.
By this time, Raichatou and Takat had mounted onto their donkeys and fallen asleep. The animals walked slowly, but did not balk. They seemed to understand that better times were close ahead. Mouheini hummed to herself. Fada joined in, thinking to himself that she had the voice of an angel. He had not yet seen her in the light of day, but she looked very beautiful to him, even in the dark. He sensed in her a purity that he had never seen before. As he followed the stars homeward, he felt proud to help her and her cousins.
After a while, Mouheini stopped thinking about her brother and the boy in the well, or the possibility of running into additional danger at Fada’s village. She even stopped questioning the confusing feelings that Fada’s presence provoked in her. She had lost herself in a walking, humming trance.
Fada’s voice brought her back to reality. “Look over there,” he exclaimed. “Do you see the light in the distance?” It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust, but she did see firelight ahead, atop what seemed to be a hill. “Do you think that it could be dangerous people?” she asked fearfully. “No,” Fada reassured her. “That’s my village. We are almost there.” Mouheini sighed with relief. She dreamt of curling up on her mat and sleeping, restfully and peacefully.
WELCOMED LIKE PRINCESSES
“Who goes there?” A looming voice bellowed, before the children reached the hill. The voice belonged to Wasselkou, Cheikh Almoustapha’s right-hand man. “Wasselkou, it is Fada, with friends.” Wasselkou beamed a flashlight toward Fada and the girls. “Ah, it IS you, Fada! Come quickly. It is a dangerous night. There have been attacks nearby. We are patrolling the area to protect the village. Come quickly.” Fada guided the girls toward the cheikh’s home. “Assalamualaikum”, he said, announcing himself before entering: “Peace be with you!” From inside came the customary response “Bismillah”, meaning, “By the grace of God!”
Fada promised Mouheini that he would personally introduce the girls to the cheikh before heading home, and added, “I wish you could stay with me, but I think the cheikh will prefer to keep you in his concession.” Mouheini felt tempted to insist on staying with him, but was too shy to do so. She had also hoped to see Fada’s magical well, but realized that this wish would have to wait until the morning. Fada went inside the adobe house, while the girls sat waiting outside. A teenage girl brought them a bowl filled with delicious crystal-clear water and a plate topped with dates, both of which they consumed ravenously, though Mouheini set some dates aside for Fada.
A few moments later, a magnificent tall man wrapped in an indigo turban, and holding a kerosene lantern, stepped out of the home. He beckoned the girls to him, ushering them inside: “Come, children, Fada has informed me that you are looking for shelter and water. He says you have had many misadventures. I will help you as best I can. Come tell me your story.”
The trio followed Cheikh Almoustapha into his home, where the the light from his lantern illuminated a room adorned with wool mats on the ground and traditional Tuareg camel bags and other decorations on the wall. The girls hesitated to talk. They felt shy in front of such a mighty man. The cheikh called a young teenage girl over to his side. “I understand, you do not want to speak with me directly,” he said. “You may talk to me through my daughter Housseina.” Relieved, Mouheini recounted their day’s misfortunes.
The cheikh listened with great empathy, while pretending to be otherwise occupied. When Mouheini had finished, he turned around, “Alhamdulillah, you are safe now. Thanks be to God that the armed men did not get a hold of you.” Turning to Housseina, he said, “Please bring our guests water for their bath, and food to dine on. Tomorrow, we will fill their jerry cans with water from our borehole.”
Mouheini turned to Housseina: “Fada also mentioned something called a borehole. I still don’t understand what this is.”
“It’s a special type of well,” the girl replied, “that makes water easy to get from the ground. You will see for yourselves in the morning.” She handed each girl a long candle.
Despite their weariness, the cousins washed themselves with the warm water, pre-heated outside in the sun during the day. It was the first bath that they had enjoyed in many months; in fact, they had forgotten what clean skin felt like. They had never been so clean, because their prior baths had all taken place in the marshes. Housseina laid out colorful clean clothes for them to wear; clothes that she had sewn for herself and her younger sisters. She also brought out a dish of millet laden with goat meat and vegetable sauce, which the girls ate ravenously.
“Where is Fada?” Mouheini asked Housseina, hoping to thank him and wish him a good night. Longing for the familiarity of his presence, she would have preferred to spend the night at his home. “He has gone to be with his family. You will see him in the morning,” responded the cheikh’s daughter, “Eat and rest now. Your bed has been laid out over there.” Housseina pointed to a mattress lying outside of the home, near the mattresses of other children and women who had already fallen asleep. It was much too hot to sleep indoors. Raichatou turned toward Takat, declaring, “We will sleep well tonight.” Both of them smiled.
Mouheini also wanted to smile. But she had a longing she did not understand, to talk more with someone she hardly knew. And she could not help but go over the day’s events: their near escape from the armed men, the boy in the well, and baby Tahir at home. She picked at her food while the younger girls feasted. Takat, committing senti, exclaimed, “we have been welcomed here as if we were princesses!” The other two girls giggled.
Finally, the trio lay their weary heads to rest; Mouheini slept in the middle, ever-protective of her little cousins. She lay awake looking at the stars, pondering many things. She could not help but think of her imminent wedding with Abdoul. She knew she had no right to question her parent’s choice, but why must she marry Abdoul? Why?
In the middle of the night, Takat woke up screaming from a nightmare about the face of the boy who had died in the well. Mouheini held her tight, caressed her hair, and sang her back to sleep.
A FOUNTAIN OF LIQUID SILVER
Completely worn out by the previous day, the girls slept until mid-morning, when the sun, already high in the sky, seared their skin. Other than a few goats, the concession was empty. Next to their mattress sat a covered bowl filled with illiwa porridge. They ate eagerly before heading out to look for their hosts. Hearing a great deal of commotion behind the concession wall, they decided to take a look. Mouheini was particularly eager to find Fada; she still could not explain to herself why she cared so much. She also kept reminding herself of Tahir — they must find water quickly, and begin their journey back home this morning. If they arrived there before evening, he might still have a chance. After all, Sadouan did have a little water remaining when the girls took off on their quest.
When the girls stepped out of the concession, an inexplicable vision stopped them in their tracks. A large metallic tower loomed above numerous people and animals, all lined up near strange metal things out of which flowed clear gushing water. The liquid, its clarity and quantity, looked to them like magical flowing silver. The girls had never seen faucets before, nor a water tower. More importantly, they had never in all their lives seen so much water; and never ever had they seen such happiness-inducing beauty and purity. They had entered water paradise.
Fada spotted the girls, and knowingly observed their giddy expressions of joy; he had experienced the same sense of awe not so long ago, when the borehole was first built. Approaching them, he exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up for hours! Cheikh asked me to fill up your jerry cans, which I did. You are all set to head home, as soon as your donkeys finish drinking. They already ate, and I think they’ll be fit to carry you!”
Even though Fada did not really want them to leave, he was proud to be of help to Mouheini. He felt that she was truly angelic, and was deeply attracted to her combination of innocence and strength. “Cheikh even gave you some additional jerry cans,” he added. “Look!” They peered over to where several jerry cans stood, theirs and others, on the ground, near the foot of the borehole. It all seemed so extraordinary. Mouheini could not take her eyes off the boy. He exuded luminous kindness, which accentuated his handsome features. This type of staring was uncustomary; when she realized that her gaze had been transfixed upon Fada, she regained her composure, and looked away.
“Come over here,” Fada beckoned them. Raichatou and Takat ran over to the faucets and splashed water over their faces, hands and feet. Near the faucets were six troughs; each filled with the same miraculously crystalline water. Drinking contentedly at these troughs, their donkeys stood in the midst of cows, sheep and goats. Mouheini would have happily jumped into one of the troughs to take a bath. Instead, she became mesmerized by the magical scene of her cousins and Fada playing in the water fountains. Filled with an overwhelming sense of amazement, she wondered why she had never heard of the existence of this very special well, or this village, before now. She could not have imagined such a perfect scene in her wildest dreams. This village and its “borehole” would provide material for future stories, that was for sure!!
Mouheini’s reveries were interrupted by the cheikh, who appeared from beyond the hill, trailing behind him a herd of sheep. As he came nearer, he waived the girls towards him, “Come now, young ladies. Did you rest well?” he asked. They nodded, respectfully looking downward. “You should begin your journey home quickly,” he said. “Tomorrow is the Tabaski festival. Your parents will want you near them. And they will also want their water.”
“How can we ever repay you?” asked Mouheini. “You need not repay me,” he replied. “Water is a gift from God. This borehole was a gift from God. Come here whenever you need water. Be safe and careful, and always remember to thank Allah! Now, follow me.” Mouheini did not want to leave Fada, so she waved for him to follow. He did, but kept at a distance. He too was confused about his feelings; why was he so sad knowing that the girls would be leaving soon?
Cheikh Almoustapha guided the three cousins to Housseina, who gently handed a parcel of food to Mouheini, “Be safe, my friends,” she said, “I pray that you arrive before dark, so that you can be with your families for the festivities tomorrow!”
“Before you leave, take these,” the cheikh handed over three sheep, one for each girl. “It is my gift to you for the Tabaski. Many villages were attacked last night. The genies of protection must have followed you into our village. May Allah protect you as you protected us.”
“Leave in peace,” he added. “I have decided to send Fada to accompany you home. Fada knows how to get just about anywhere in all of the Azawak, so I know you will be in good hands. Wasselkou is explaining the shortest route to him as we speak.” Mouheini’s heart skipped a beat upon hearing this news. She glanced back to Fada and Wasselkou, and smiled.
“What is going on with Mouheini?” Raichatou asked Takat. “I’m going to tell Aunt Sadouan how they look at each other, and she won’t be happy.” Takat snapped, “Just keep quiet, you have no idea what’s going on. Leave Mouheini alone, she’ll be fine without your help!”
Fada and Mouheini gathered the donkeys together so that Wasselkou could help tie the jerry cans onto their backs. The load was heavy, but the donkeys felt revived thanks to the water and food that they had been given, so they did not seem to mind. The girls all gazed one last time in wonderment at the miraculous fountain of life. It was one of the most beautiful sights that they had ever seen. If only this well were not so far from home, they would return often.
Fada and the girls waved an animated farewell to Cheikh Almoustapha, Housseina, and the other villagers. Raichatou and Takat mounted their donkeys, but Mouheini did not. She preferred to walk near Fada. She justified this choice to herself with the thought that the donkeys were already carrying enough weight — she would just slow them down if they were to carry her.
Takat and Raichatou chatted merrily and sang songs; for the longest time, Fada and Mouheini advanced side by side in silence. Finally, Mouheini said, “yesterday, you mentioned that neither of us is married. Indeed, I am still a girl. But after the rains, I am set to marry my cousin Abdoul. It has been arranged by my parents, as is customary.”
Fada took a while before asking, “Does he make you feel like I do?”
“What do you mean?” asked Mouheini.
“Do you look at him the way you look at me? Does he make you feel good when you see him?” responded Fada.
Mouheini blushed. “I still do not know what you mean,” she said, falteringly.
Fada responded, almost a whisper, “Sure you do.” Again, both went silent.
Moments later, a jerry can started slipping off a donkey; it had not been tied on tightly enough. Fada and Mouheini ran in unison to catch it. As they tied it back on, helping one another weave the rope, their hands touched several times. Every time, Mouheini felt feelings she had never felt before. Fada did not hesitate to look at her, and he caressed her hand purposefully. She glanced away. Part of her wanted to run away. She could not allow herself think of him in this way. In a few months, she would be marrying Abdoul; besides, never before had a Tuareg and a Fulani married each other in her community. Cross-ethnic marriages were simply unheard of.
No, she could not let herself think such thoughts. She avoided Fada much of the way home, ignoring her impulse to spend as much time as she could with him, and despite his efforts to speak with her. Instead, she edged closer to the younger girls to tell them stories. Fada finally kept his distance, all the while listening to Mouheini’s enchanting voice. He did not understand why he yearned to be near this Tuareg girl; he had never before had such feelings, despite the many girls he had met during Gerewol festivals; these celebrations were held after the rains began, so that young Fulani men and women would meet and elope.
After many long hours under the unforgiving sun, and a few breaks to share the food that Housseina had wrapped in their parcel, the landscape became familiar. Mouheini recognized the acacia trees and dry marshland that belonged to her home territory, and rejoiced at the idea that they would all arrive before dinner. And yet the thought also made her sad. Part of her did not want the walk to end so soon; she guessed that Fada would not stay long. At this thought, she moved to his side again. “I am sorry, Fada,” she said. “I didn’t mean to ignore you. But things are confusing to me. I do not know you. My parents do not know you. I like you but I cannot go against my custom.”
Fada looked down, happy to be near her again, yet sad knowing that she spoke the truth. “I understand,” he replied. “Do not be downcast. Rejoice now. You are almost home. Your family will be pleased to have you home, and so happy to have water and the sheep…
“And so will that man you are to marry. Abdoul. He is very lucky,” he concluded. They both continued walking in silence.
The sun began to dip behind the horizon. Takat and Raichatou jumped off their donkeys; they were so eager to get home that they sang songs and chased one another, in order to pass the time. Raichatou looked back at Mouheini and Fada occasionally, unhappy that Mouheini had allowed herself to become so close to this boy. Takat, on the other hand, felt intrigued by their friendship.
Fada and the girls began crossing one of the dry marshlands near their camp, when suddenly they heard men’s voices beyond the acacia trees. Before they went much further, they saw men riding atop camels. Mouheini ordered everyone to be quiet, whispering that they might have to run. “These men might be dangerous,” she warned.
As the men came closer, Mouheini recognized the loving, familiar face of her father, and bounded joyously towards him. He got off of his camel as fast as he could, and welcomed her into his arms. “My dearest gazelle, we were so worried,” he declared. “Abdoul arrived late this afternoon, informing us that armed men had attacked villages and kidnapped people. Alhamdulillah, you are safe, my beautiful child!”
She held on to her father tightly. “How is Tahir, Father?” she asked. “I tried to come back as quickly as possible… I hope I am not too late.” She began crying, allowing all her pent-up apprehension to flow out of her in the safety of her father’s arms. Alhassan held her even tighter. “Come home and see for yourself my child,” he said softly.
Mouheini introduced Fada to Alhassan and Abdoul. As they all began walking home, she told them about the boy who had been asphyxiated in the well, the armed men at the second well, and described at length how Fada had helped them. She also recounted the cheikh’s generosity and described the borehole of clean flowing water.
Looking at Fada, Alhassan said, “Thank you so much for providing safety to our children, and for bringing them home to us. How can we ever repay you?” Fada knew the answer he wanted to give, but a single glance at Abdoul reminded him that he had no chance to win Mouheini’s hand. “Please, it’s nothing,” he replied. “It is I who would like to repay you for this opportunity. Look, the cheikh has sent his gift of gratitude, to help you celebrate the Tabaski feast tomorrow.”
Fada was uneasy. He did not want to return home, but he also could not bear seeing Mouheini alongside Abdoul. Hastily, he announced, “I must return home now, so that I too can be with my family for the festivities.” Mouheini whipped around, facing Fada to protest, “No, you cannot leave now,” she exclaimed indignantly. “It will be dark soon. Come home with us please. Spend the night with our family. You can leave early tomorrow morning!” Abdoul looked at Mouheini incredulously. What could explain this strange and inappropriate outburst? He decided he did not like the attention she gave to this Fulani boy.
Alhassan would not allow such an honored guest to return home in the middle of the night. He too objected, along with his daughter: “No, you must stay with us tonight and return tomorrow. We will feed you and share our mats.”
“Dear Father,” Fada responded respectfully, “you forget, I am a Fulani. Walking is my second nature, and I really do prefer to be home before morning, so that I can be with my mother during the festivities.”
“But it isn’t safe!” Mouheini challenged him. “What if the armed men are still around? No, father…” Fada gently cut off Mouheini’s words, “Thank you, kind Mouheini, for your concern. I promise I will be fine. I will leave now, and rest in a few hours under the stars.”
Alhassan insisted some more, “I do not want to let you leave like this. You saved the life of my daughter and nieces. Might you at least have dinner with us?” Abdoul stood observing this interaction, and secretly hoped Fada would say no and leave.
Fada looked over at Mouheini; their eyes caught, and both noticed the other tearing up. He looked away, determined that he needed to leave as soon as possible. He felt such anguish in his heart that he feared he would not be able to control his crying. “Again, thank you,” he said, “but I have enough food for my journey home. I will leave now. Please do come often to Cheikh Almoustapha’s village. You will always find plenty of water and a friendly welcome there!”
After filling up his plastic milk container from one of the jerry cans, he approached Mouheini and whispered, “Never forget me. Come see me whenever you can.” She handed over the food that was left in the parcel given to them by Housseina, and whispered back, “Allah willing!” not truly believing she ever would. She looked back at him until his silhouette could no longer be distinguished from the acacia trees in the advancing twilight.
Hearing the camels and donkeys arrive, Sadouan stepped out of her tent, holding baby Tahir in her arms. Her heart leapt for joy at seeing her daughter riding alongside her husband, along with her nieces Raichatou and Takat. “You are safe my child, you are safe!” she cried out, folding her daughter into her arms. “When I heard of the attacks,” she exclaimed, “I was so worried. And you hardly ever have been away this long. Praise Allah for your return!”
Mouheini hugged her mother tightly, and then swept Tahir into her arms, kissing his little face over and over. “Tahir is safe!” she told herself, her body trembling.
“Let’s get you some water young man!” she murmured lovingly to him.
Sadouan and the other women looked in wonderment at all the full jerry cans and the three braying sheep the cheikh had offered to them. They praised Allah and prayed for the cheikh. “We will have a wonderful feast tomorrow!” they told each other gleefully. Everyone was mesmerized at the liquid’s transparent color. After tasting it, Halima, Mouheini’s four-year old sister, spat it out: “It’s no good,” she declared with a grimace. “I like marsh water better, at least it tastes like something.”
Mouheini laughed at her little sister. She then recalled that Fada had explained to her that clean water meant healthy water. Should she tell them this new information, she wondered? Or would they disbelieve it, coming as it did from outside their culture? Mouheini’s head was spinning. Fada had just left and all she wanted was to tell her parents to call him back, so he could explain everything — why clean water was best and why he wanted to spend so much time with her.
She suddenly realized how much she had changed over the course of a day and a half. Before she left yesterday morning, she was a simple Tuareg girl in a simplistic world of fetching water to survive. She was going to get married in the long-established universe of a desert nomad.
Today, nothing seemed so simple. She had seen a boy die, and grown men who might kill others. She had discovered that some people, not that far from where she lived, not only drank clean water but had it in abundance — while she and her family more often than not drank mud. She had benefitted from the great kindness of strangers, and yet she was not permitted to think of marrying the kindest of them all. And she had felt her first heartbreak, as she watched Fada depart into the desert.
As she stood there, laughing at her sister, she made a decision; she would learn lessons from all these things. Her world view had shifted; how could she now accept everything she had been taught after everything she had experienced? She didn’t know the answer, but she decided one thing. As her first order of business, she would lead water-gathering expeditions to Fada’s borehole, so her family could drink more healthily. Of course, she also realized that it would be a good pretext to visit her newfound friend.
That was as far as her thinking got that day, because her family decided to start Tabaski festivities early. Alhassan slaughtered one of the sheep to welcome the three girls home, and to celebrate the joyous gift of the crystalline water. Mouheini, Raichatou, and Takat were offered the most prized pieces of meat – the entrails. Mouheini, holding tight to Tahir, distributed her share among her six brothers and sisters. The smaller children were also given the brain, as tradition would have it. Mouheini made sure that Tahir had plenty of water to drink.
While she sat eating her meat, she did not commit senti. Yet her mind did wander to a paradise where liquid silver flowed, and to a trail lost in the desert, where a captivating, luminous soul was heading on his trek homeward. She prayed Allah for his safety.