GREAT STORIES:Africa’s "Shame"
Yields Glimpse of Missing Past
November 7, 2004
Poor, yes, but
by Sarah J. Glover|
Tera Village is a Songhay
Village, located about 175 kilometers from Niamey.
This is a scene of villagers carrying goods on
their mule-led cart to sell. The streets are an
"I hope you don’t take our pictures
and go away and put shame on us."
A woman I don’t
see yells this after photographer Sarah Glover and me
the next morning as we walk through the rural Songhay
village of Boubon, a parade of children stringing out
behind us. It strikes me as a perceptive thing to
It has always been easy, after all, to "put
shame" on Africa, easy to heap pity upon a continent
that seems like the world's eternal basket case.
Consider Niger itself. Only 15 percent of the population
is literate. One in four babies born here dies. Its
people have a life expectancy of 46 years.
you are not here long before you realize there is more
to the picture. That poverty is not the end of
"Even if you're poor here, dignity is very
important to you," Kedidia counsels.
all its undeniable suffering, Africa is also a reminder
that you don't miss what you've never had, that contrary
to what the American advertising community would have
you believe, one is not incomplete because one does not
own a microwave and a Cadillac. And that, regardless of
circumstances, life has this way of being
So in Boubon, about 15 miles northwest of
Niamey, where there are no cars and narrow dirt paths
cut between the huts and every building is made of mud,
you don't find people sitting on their hands bemoaning
circumstance. What you do find is a girl pumping water
out of the ground and a lively marketplace where vendors
are selling peanuts, plastic bowls, tobacco and millet,
a grass that is a staple of the Nigerien diet. And you
find, too, a small group of men and boys on the porch of
a thatched-roof hut, eating from communal bowls, taking
a break from studies of the Koran.
learn why I am there, someone makes a wry offer to give
me a "chita," the facial marking that distinguishes
Songhay men. The tradition began centuries ago, when
people started disappearing and no one had any idea what
had happened to them, no knowledge of the Middle Passage
or the slave trade. All they knew was that their
children were gone. So they began to mark them in the
hope that if they ever saw them again, they would know
"That's your identity card," the man says,
"so wherever you go, they know that you are