We started out two weeks ago. We had three vehicles. The first vehicle, which went ahead by an alternate route, was a Toyota safari truck loaded with our supplies. The second vehicle was an aging Toyota Land Cruiser with our military escort, and we were in the third vehicle – the newer Kirker Foundation Land Cruiser with Deputy Grema, our driver, and a guard.
Our route was initially to the west on the paved road as far as Goudamarie. There, after a brief visit with the village chief, we headed directly north entirely off-road. At this point we were still in the Sahel, sandy savannah with a thin growth of trees and a fair growth of grass courtesy of the recent rains. We followed a marginally visible track up to the village of Boutti. We arrived there about noon for a scheduled rest. We were brought to a thatched shelter which provided shade. Mats and blankets had been spread over the sand for a place to sit or nap. During the heat of the day we rested and were served fresh water, roasted mutton with couscous and fresh yogurt. Everything was served “family style” with large communal bowls of food which is to be eaten with the right hand. The couscous and yogurt were mixed together and quite hot. It takes a little practice to learn to “roll” the couscous and yogurt into a small ball which can then be lifted to the mouth.
During the early afternoon Orietta and I explored the local market. In one of the market stalls we were surprised to see the daughter of one of our previous hospital patients – a woman with tuberculosis of the spine. She spoke some French and invited us to her house to see her mother. We were pleased to find her mother making good progress. She appeared elated to see us and the visit seemed to lift everyone’s spirits, our own as well. I am always amazed by the therapeutic and psychological value of a house call. Everyone benefits.
From Boutti we continued directly north until we reached the first of the large Saharan dunes.
At that point we turned back to the east and paralleled the line of dunes. There are a number of small villages along this route and we stopped a few minutes in each one. While Deputy Grema did a little politicking Orietta and I would go to visit the local dispensary and talk to the nurse running it. All of these dispensaries are supported by our hospital, so it was a nice opportunity for us to introduce ourselves and meet some of the other healthcare workers. I will have to say that in my mind these nurses are real heroes.
Most live with their families in these remote areas. The salary is about $40 US per month, when they get paid. Several had not been paid in a couple of months, yet there they were, on the job with clean and well organized dispensaries and clearly devoted to their work.
Our last stop for the day was a small unnamed village at the edge of the dune line. The village elder and about 15 men greeted our arrival. He told Orietta and me that we were the first Americans to ever visit. After handshakes and greeting we headed north into the desert about 5 or 6 miles. We found the tracks of our supply truck and followed them to the top of a large dune where camp had been set up. We had time to find our tents, get mosquito nets set up and wash up a bit before sunset. The dunes were incredible. The sand was absolutely pure white and completely clean – devoid of any organic matter, or anything for that matter. Walking around barefoot felt wonderful after a hard day in the Land Cruiser.
As night fell we heard people approaching. It was the men from the last village we had visited. They arrived by horse and camel bring freshly cooked mutton and fresh raw milk and yogurt.
A fire was started and they sat with us in a circle talking well into the night. It could have been a thousand years ago.
After their departure, and with the fire going out we were treated to our first night in the desert. The stillness was palpable and I have never seen the stars like this. The moon set early yet you could see by starlight – the Milky Way, constellations, nebulas, the Southern Cross, everything. Our sleep that desert night was the most restful I’ve had in years.
The next morning we were up at dawn. Breakfast was yogurt and bread. The fresh raw milk from the night before had soured. This is actually considered a delicacy here and was consumed by all except Orietta and me. We both tried it, but just couldn’t get it down in quantity.
After breakfast Orietta went back to the village and held a small clinic using some medications which we had brought with us. I was invited by our military escort to do a little exploring. We went back south to the edge of the savannah. We saw lots of animals – outard, a large crane-like bird, hawks, falcons, eagles, desert fox and antelope.
Following the morning activities, we broke camp and headed back into the savannah. We traveled through beautiful pastureland and saw enormous herds of long-horned cattle, sheep and goats tended by Fulani herdsmen all of whom use flutes to calm and call their animals. As well we saw several groups of Arabs with large camel herds moving south toward markets in Nigeria. Deputy Grema showed us the rather large system of wells put in by the Danish government to provide good water for the herdsmen and the small villages. By late afternoon we were back in Maine-Soroa.
It was a remarkable two days. We covered almost all of the Department of Maine-Soroa. We saw land and met people unimaginably remote from our Western world and culture, yet we felt welcome and secure and experienced a night of remarkable serenity.
8 September 2007