Elderly, beer bellied, goattee bearded white men aren’t often seen running around the desert tracks of Arlit. In fact, since the events three years ago, white people of any description are in short supply, and those that are still here are zealously guarded by the combined might of the Nigerien defence forces.
Since my sojourn started here in November, I go running about four times a week, and even now, seven months on, I’m still stared at by people who would appear never to have seen someone with different coloured skin than themselves. Heads actually do turn round when they pass me on their motorbikes, and I fear for their safety sometimes, they stare at me for so long. More than once the motorbike has left the beaten track and ended up on its side in the powdery stuff. By the time I arrive at my elderly dawdle, the bike is back up, all the occupants are up and laughing, I pass by, affirm that all is ok, this provokes more laughter with my dreadful attempts to speak Hausa, and all is well with the world.
This evening I had a wonderful experience. I was pootling along, in a world of my own, spending my unwon lottery winnings when I noticed three youngsters dressed in football shirts and shorts up ahead of me. As I got closer to them I could see by the head coverings that there were two girls and a boy. They turned as they heard the wheezing and spluttering that passes for breathing when I do exercise and saw…. said elderly fat white bloke. Huge smiles erupted across their faces when I managed a gasped “Ina weeny” and they replied as one “Laheealow” and all fell about laughing. I waved and slowly overtook them, and saw that I only had about 4km’s left before I was finished. It was hot, my mouth was dry and I felt very tired, and I was about to turn round and look for the army truck that always followed me, when I heard footsteps. I looked, and the three of them had started running.
Cant stop now can i? So, trying to put on my “i’m not tired i can do this for hours” face I kept jogging along, and the three of them caught up with me in about 10 paces. I told them I spoke very little Hausa but they all spoke French so the conversation continued.
They were all students at the high school in Arlit, all loved playing football and all wanted to be professional sportsmen and women when they got older. The two girls especially were very erudite, they knew that the expectancy for them was to be married off as soon as possible, to have kids and to live in crushing poverty, and they were absolutely determined that this wasn’t to be. They were studying hard in school to get a scholarship to the University of Niamey, for, as much as they wanted to be sportswomen, they realised it was unlikely, so they needed another career to get out of the situation that is pre-ordained for them.
The conversation flowed so fast that before I knew it I arrived at my turning back to where I live. I asked them how much further they had to go, and the crushing realisation of how fat and old I am hit me. They weren’t quite sure but probably about another 12 or so. I was a bit puzzled and asked why they had been walking when I passed them. It was explained to the kindly white man that they’d done 16km’s of their loop at quite a fast pace, so were resting for a km before starting on the last 16.
A very brief insight into the world of young Nigerien kids in Arlit, but I was filled with hope for them, and admiration for those two young girls, desperate to escape what they knew was almost definitely going to happen to them anyway, irrespective of their dreams.