Like an actual parent, I know that I shouldn’t choose favorites among the hordes of neighbor-spawn who regularly manifest on my front porch and clamor for my attention. Like an actual parent, I secretly have. My absolute favorite is my neighbor Howa’s 5-year old niece, Habibatou. A child of Howa’s older sister in the nearby village of Douroum, Habiba came to live in Mandama when Howa gave birth. Howa needed help around the house and with the newborn, and it was decided that her sister Maimouna had enough to spare one—and so Biba’s entire life was uprooted, because children here are above all a practical consideration.
Habibatou has big, doleful eyes and a jutting lower lip. Her face is usually composed in the glum, hang-dog expression of a retired bureaucrat, occasionally touched with self-conscious dignity. This, along with her penchant for resting things on the shelf of her swollen belly—like so many of the children I see, she is massively bloated with malnutrition and worms—make me think she should be wearing tasseled loafers, drinking a gin and tonic, and shaking the Financial Times closed with a sigh.
Biba wears the same outfit every day. Until recently it was a purple-and-orange pagne dress that was patently too small; the waist would ride up to her armpits over the swell of her stomach. One afternoon her aunt impatiently demanded to know why she never wore the larger hand-me-down dress she had been given. Biba hid her head, and when that method of avoiding response failed, burst into loud and dramatic tears. Sensing that something was up, Howa ordered her into exile outside until she stopped crying and changed into the dress. Howa and I tried not to laugh at the great, gulping sobs floating through the open doorway, which quieted into low keening. Eventually she made a reappearance, pulling the door curtain aside solemnly. The dress in question was destroyed; one sleeve was hanging by a thread, and a side seam had been torn open from top to waist. She entered the room, head held high, pride and defiance writ large on her face and only slightly marred by tear-stained cheeks and the occasional sniffle. She could have been Mary Stuart facing Tudor justice, or Marie Antoinette leaving the Bastille before jeering Jacobin crowds, such was her comportment before her aunt’s impending wrath.
Last night I ended up staying over with the volunteer in Douroum, having lingered at the market until nightfall. Since I was in town, we went to Maimouna’s for dinner—she inherited me as a friend and couscous sponge from her sister. A small figure came barreling out of her house and tackled me around the knees: her daughter, Habibatou. I expressed surprise at seeing her here instead of in Mandama. Maimouna explained that someone from Mandama, headed to market, had given Habiba a ride to Douroum so that she could visit her nuclear family.
This morning my route home took me again by Maimouna, who flagged me down. In fact, she explained, they weren’t sure who had given Habibatou a ride; the mysterious benefactor had just left her in the main market and she had found her mother, who sells beans and beignets, from there. Whoever it had been, he was long gone now, leaving Habiba effectively stranded—unless, of course, I could give her a ride home? I immediately assented, and rode home with my charge wedged between me and the moto driver, thin arms threaded around his waist and head in an oversized helmet tucked under my chin, a grin plastered across her wind-whipped face.
|The road home, from the back of a moto, driven by my stylish friend Moussa.|