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By mid-November 1994, Arthur was in the desert-frontier town of Agadez, Niger. Because of a violent rebellion against the government brought by the northern desert tribes in Mali and Niger, travel was severely restricted. Stories of abductions and banditry were common. The border with Algeria was closed and all merchant trucks, public buses and private cars traveled to Agadez and the other northern towns solely under the protection of military convoys. After a chance meeting with one of the few travelers in Agadez--a Japanese Muslim named Hassan--Arthur was introduced to a guide named Abba Kele.
Based on Hassan's experience, Arthur hired Abba to take him by convoy to Bilma, a salt oasis four hundred miles northwest towards Libya. In theory, they would then proceed across the desert by camel to Chad. But the convoy to Bilma was held up because (it was rumored) the Niger government had no money to pay the military. Stuck in Agadez for three weeks, Arthur finally convinced Abba to go all the way by camel, a distance of nine hundred miles. Judging it safer to travel in a group, Abba found a salt caravan that was leaving soon. Arthur agreed to purchase one of their camels. The following is a one-day excerpt from Arthur's journal:
December 2, 1994; Agadez, Niger
I'm awake at 6:00 a.m., feeling rested and very thankful for mosquito nets. I pack for the fourth and final time and stop out in the road for a last meal of galettes. I generously tip the lady whose pancakes are as good as her smile is bright and unfailing. I post a letter and walk across the street to the gare to hunt down a taxi. There are scores of trucks loaded with produce waiting to leave, but I know it isn't the convoy to Libya. I hold the taxi at the Agreboun (Hotel), pick up my bag and say goodbye to my favorite proprietaire. I'll miss him. He is humble, quiet, to the point, yet very friendly and with no airs. I tell him I'm off to Arlit and Tahoua; the opposite of our actual plans. Rumor travels fast here and Abba fears that the wrong people will hear that we are going into the desert. I jump into the waiting taxi. I never thought I'd be so glad to be behind a combustion engine. How much happier I am to be on the move again!
Abba, however, isn't well; those blustery days running errands left him weak. But we walk out into the town anyway to take a last stab at changing travelers' checks. Much of the money I changed in Arlit has been whittled away by weeks of delay and Abba's unceasing needs. We try the Lebanese market on the main drag but the owner is as curt and unhelpful as ever.
"Give me 10,000 CFA for cigarettes," Abba says suddenly in his Saharan-accented French as we walk back down the dusty yellow dirt road.
"I don't know, Abba, I don't know," I reply, hedging. Later I relent and give him the money. I rationalize that little things like this will make the trip a lot more pleasant.
Abba turns off to the market where he will meet Alhausa and, not wanting for us to be seen together, motions for me to go back to his home. I find it once I see the big rusting truck engine by the door and the hut at the corner where goat meat is always on the grill.
As I wait in the courtyard, Amena and I have a short but, for the first time, successful conversation in French.
"The desert is very cold, very dangerous, non?" she asks quickly.
"Yes, sometimes," I say, not really sure of the truth.
"You're leaving today?" "I hope so," I reply, realizing that Abba is even keeping his wife in the dark about our plans. I explain to her about my journey getting to Agadez and what I plan to do after we arrive in Chad. I give her the little broom that Suleyman had left for me. I regret not having a picture of her smiling the way she can. Like everybody else she is a different person when she smiles.
I wait for two hours--as long as I can stand--before I have to go out, find Abba and see what is going on. I zigzag through the streets in the general direction that I remember from earlier in the week when I first met Alhausa. Abba sees me first. He's crouched in the open first-floor of a building across from the market. So this is where he has been spending the long hours waiting over the last two days! I gather that the caravan still hasn't come in.
"Artur," he says furtively. "Why are you here? Why? Return to the house and wait. Wait!"
There isn't much to say. He knows the circumstances far better than I do. I just have trouble accepting that I have no control over what happens. I walk out on the only tarmac road to the Lebanese store for coffee and contemplate once again that I'm about to ride out into the open Sahara with nomads I hardly know. Sometimes I like coffee when I'm nervous. I pick up a pack of cards for Amena. She has been admiring mine and is pleased when I give them to her. Immediately she asks for some money for lunch.
Abba returns but he hasn't seen Alhausa. He and Amena's brother pull out one of the large tire inner tubes that has been adapted as a water container. They wash it out vigorously with soap and tie ropes to it with great force. Abba is pushing himself to continue working. Amena pours four cans of corn oil into the same white, five-liter plastic container that is widely used in the Sahel for water. Her oldest girl steps in and patiently waits for the last drops of oil to fall out of the cans. Ample supplies of tea, sugar, macaroni, peanuts, onions, tomato sauce and manioc are loaded into two sacks.
Abba's son Ismail runs in with the news that Alhausa is in town. Abba takes off immediately. My excitement and blood pressure take off with him. But still I have to wait. I play soccer with the boys to kill time and they love the attention. Abba returns and continues to pack, saying nothing. We have a quick lunch of millet and meat sauce and Abba only stays sitting for one tea. I change into the white shirt and black turban and stitch money away in the cuffs of the shirt.
"When will you return, Artur?" Amena asks.
"In the summer or next year, in'shallah (God willing)," I say hopefully, knowing it is unlikely.
Boom! Abba returns suddenly, the door flying open with a crack.
"Parti, parti," he shouts, wasting no words. Bags are thrown together ready or not. Three camels poke their heads in over the courtyard door.
"Cadeaux, monsieur, cadeaux?" An eight-year-old watching the camels asks for presents the moment I appear at the door.
"Give 5,000 CFA to Amena," Abba barks out without even looking at me.
"That's difficult," I say. "I have just enough to call the U.S. and there's no more." Without the money to call, no one back home will know if I make it.
"I'll reimburse you in Bilma," he replies.
"You'll have to." I'm annoyed at this but there is no time for discussion. Abba grabs his flashlight and a two-foot long weapon that is a cross between a machete and an ax. I've never seen anything like it before. He stuffs them both into my hands.
"Go with Alhausa," he says abruptly. We march off quickly with the camels, the ax-tool in my hand. We cross the last few streets to the south and pass a gathering of women at the edge of town. Piercing ululations rise from the crowd and I try not to make eye contact. I'm a jumble of emotions. Although I knew that Abba was unlikely to accompany us out of the city I still acutely miss his presence as we walk out into the open sands. But I'm also elated; very nervous and very excited. I'm slipping out of an obscure desert town into the Sahara with three camels and a man I can't talk to!
The land is generally flat with slight swells and patches of vegetation. Agadez gradually recedes in the distance with the mosque tower still dominating the northern horizon. Alhausa is wearing a very worn black jacket with the word NORDICA written across it, a light blue smock, blue pants and a black turban.
We walk straight into a stiff wind for 45 minutes without any sign of trouble when Alhausa notices that the bags tied on so quickly have fallen off a ways back. I didn't know what to expect from these nomads but I surely didn't think they'd have trouble tying on a load. We nearly make it back to the bags when I'm shocked to see two military vehicles and five soldiers appear out of nowhere. I cover up as tightly as possible and look away but I'm not fooling anyone.
"Papers, please," they ask immediately. "Where are you going?"
"A la brousse (To the country)," I tell them. Facing into the stiff wind I pull out the authorization paper from the pouch around my neck. Almost too late I notice that the folded bottom tip of the paper has pulled out travelers' checks, too--3,000 French francs worth! The checks fly against my shirt and are nearly lost as the wind presses them there for all to see. Great! Enough money to buy three camels! The soldiers motion me over to the vehicles.
"He has papers," one of the soldiers says with great surprise.
"Here's my passport," I say holding it out. But they show no interest in it. Although the paper clearly identifies Abba as my guide they never ask about him or his whereabouts. They never ask why I'm heading south instead of the stated direction of Bilma (northeast). I'm sure that my trip is in jeopardy. Instead, I watch them hop in their vehicles and drive off. I feel very lucky. We quickly pack up and go on our way, whooping and clasping hands in some version of a high-five. What a great icebreaker for Alhausa and I! We keep on for more than two hours on a mostly sand road with the slowly lowering sun to our right. There are signs of recent truck travel on the road and there are thorn bushes and bushes with yellow flowers amidst the dry grass. Alhausa keeps looking over his shoulder. I see nothing, but figure he must be watching for Abba.
Sure enough, Abba catches up with us just as we reach a thicket of trees and bushes with scores of camels grazing nearby. The ground is bone dry and there are thousands of deep pockmarks left by camels in the last rain months ago. To my amazement, Abba only stays a minute before walking all the way back to town for some medicine that he has forgotten. Two other men and a boy are busy bringing in the camels as the sun sets. Alhausa brings over a large wooden bowl of something brown-gray, cold, lumpy and sandy. He hands me a huge, carved wooden spoon. By look and smell I can't tell what the hell it is. We share out of the common bowl in silence and I'm just happy to keep the stuff down. I think to myself that if I'm ever going to get sick, this is it.
All of the men are friendly and, within an hour, a fire is started and we gather around for tea. There are no introductions; they don't know French. Later, Abba will help me get their names and relations straight. Their names are: Alhausa, his brother Mohammed, Mohammed's son who is about fourteen (also named Mohammed and whom I start to think of as Mohammed II), and the youngest of the three men who is a relative and goes by the name Mubul. Abba says later they are from the Iffedhen tribe and live to the south and east of Agadez.
Mohammed II has a cream-colored coat that is split halfway up his back and a dirty, faded orange sack hat with a little peak. Mubul wears a green sweater-vest over a light blue shirt, gray checked pants, and a black turban. Most of them wear cheap plastic shoes.
The brothers and Mubul quickly set about making ropes from plant fibers in the light of the fire. I'm very happy to be here. I feel like I have stepped way, way back in time with a lost family. They take turns pounding grain as the sun sets with the camels in silhouette against the skyline. It's very tranquil.
Another meal just like the first is prepared except that it's hot. I have to steel myself to eat it. Not them! They go through it in no time. As is the custom, we huddle around and have three glasses of tea. Mubul knows three English words: "sleep," "eat," and "good." Any number of times we try to hold a conversation but it always ends with me saying in English that I don't know what he's saying and all of us laughing and smiling. The wind is picking up and they marvel at the fact that I'm comfortable in only two shirts. Mohammed II can't help but stare at me constantly. I feel relatively secure though.
They continue to pound more grain (Abba tells me later that it's millet) and then bring in the camels and hobble them for the night. Mubul grabs one of Abba's two blankets and all of us find a spot close together around the fire to sleep. In an hour, the temperature has dropped rapidly and I bring out my sleeping bag. It works wonderfully against the cold and steady 25 mph winds. Most of them have only a single thin blanket. I sleep fitfully, flopping from one position to another. My stomach growls like there is a world war going on. Never have I heard such sounds! The gruel or the water is causing a violent but painless reaction. Every time I waken through the night I hear the camels chewing and chewing and I wonder what it will be like when we start our long march in the morning across the desert to Bilma.
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