An extract from ‘Harmattan’

PrologueHarmattan

Niamey

January 2000

The floor feels cool against my hands. It is how I want my face to feel. Instead, my cheeks burn and my hot tears, splattering on the ground, form tiny craters and are sucked into the dust; lost forever. Like a giant, I crouch above the little landscape my tears have made. Cradling my throbbing left ear now, I rock backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards. I tilt my head to one side and then, cupping my ear, I swoop and sway above the tiny dunes and gorges, again and again, like a great, shiny aeroplane.

I think of the walks I used to take with Fatima and my mother – before I came to this house, this city. We would walk out into the bush, far from Wadata, and climb to the plateau where our ancestors lie. Sometimes my mother would weep. Often, on the way home, Fatima would be tired; we would take turns at carrying her on our backs. She was almost as heavy as me, but I didn’t mind. My mother would fix my pagne and make sure that Fatima could not slip.

You are a good girl, Haoua,’ she would say, and it made me feel so proud. Beyond the plateau, the dust is swept into a rolling sea of red by the strong Sahelian winds. If you struggle to the crest of one of these great waves of sand, and look north, all that you will see is range after range of glowing red dunes, taller even than the baobab trees. The desert is very beautiful, but one day I would like to see the ocean. My father used to tell me that there was, truly, a Red Sea. I no longer believe my father. I had been looking at my treasures when Doodi hit me. I had my back to the doorway and did not hear her come in. I had sensed that she hated me from the very first momentMoussa had introduced me to her and Yola. Yola does not hate me, I am sure, but Doodi has eyes like stagnant wells. My beautiful pictures lie torn and crumpled around the room. Most of them are so badly damaged that it would be impossible to tell what they had depicted without first gathering together many fragments. Over near the window I can just make out the shape of the prow of a boat on a piece of shredded postcard. Nearby, the mangled remnant of a snapshot of my beloved brother, Abdelkrim, in his military uniform lies forlornly by the door: the head has been severed and is nowhere to be seen. Tiny pieces of photographic paper lie scattered over the chair, the bed, the woven mat. It had been a gift from my mother.

I place one hand cautiously on the seat of Moussa’s chair and, holding my ribs with the other, I slowly straighten my back. A narrow shaft of sunlight cuts across my face and, as I pull my head back with a jolt to shield my eyes, a searing pain shoots through my body.

Yola enters. She is older than me – in her twenties I think – but much younger than Doodi. ‘Doodi has sent me to clean up in here,’ she says. Her eyes belie the coldness of her words and I know that she wishes she could help me. She stoops uneasily to pick up the debris and it is only then – although I have been here for some three months – that I realise she is bearing Moussa’s child. As she works, she makes a small pile of the torn paper on the bed. When she has finished, she glances at me, momentarily, with something close to a smile. She scoops the fragments up, turns to leave the room, then pauses, handing me several larger pieces of the postcard and the twisted torso of my brother. I open my mouth to thank her for this small kindness, but it is so dry that no sound comes out. As I watch Yola go, it occurs to me that she too has felt the wrath of Doodi. When all is still again, I move my left knee and ease my most precious surviving picture from the earthen floor. This, together with the torn postcard pieces, the headless image of my brother and the one which I keep hidden, is all that is left of my collection. I raise the battered photograph to my mouth, to blow the dust away from the image. The faces of the two anasara children smiling before me somehow give me strength, and I push myself up into the seat. With my bare foot, I sift frantically through the dust in the vain hope that it might yield the face of my brother. But Yola has carried out her duty thoroughly; not a single shred of paper has been overlooked. When I have caught my breath, I place the crumpled pictures and the fragments carefully onto my lap and begin to smooth them out. The familiar, pinkish faces are like old friends, although I have never actually seen or spoken to these children – Katie and Hope. In the photograph they are standing in some sort of compound. Locks of their strange, almost golden hair stick out from beneath their bright, knitted hats, and the ghostly vapour of their breath in the cold air frames their happy faces. One of them (Katie, I think) holds a gloved hand out towards the person who has taken the photograph. In it she holds a ball of snow! (I have seen pictures of snow before – in Monsieur Boubacar’s beautiful books in my school – shrouding the mountains of places far away, cool and clean and whiter than Solani.) Behind the children lies more snow, caught in thick pockets on a tall, dense hedge and beyond that again, on top of a hill, stands a huge, grey stone building with a tower. Near the building, spindly trees are silhouetted against an almost white sky. In the top right hand corner, a black bird flies high above it all.

The building reminds me a little of the great mosques at Niamey and Agadez, which are also in Monsieur Boubacar’s books. I am not supposed to think of my school, of my teacher Monsieur Boubacar, or of my friend Miriam. Moussa has told me I must put all of that behind me now that I am a woman. When I have smoothed out the photograph of Katie and Hope as much as I can, I set to work on the postcard. It was a beautiful picture before Doodi’s rage. In their letters, my anasara friends said that the place in this picture is called Portaferry and that it is the village nearest to their home. When I start to piece it together, I realise that more than a quarter of the image is missing now. Still, I can make out a cluster of brightly painted wooden boats on a dark blue sea. It must be quite a small sea rather than a great ocean because, beyond it, I can see the mountains of another country; blue-green mountains nestling under fat white clouds, in a sky much bluer than that in my photograph of Katie and Hope.

Monsieur Boubacar once showed me a wonderful book with a map of Ireland, where they live. It looked so tiny I could hardly believe that anyone could live there. On another page, Africa looked so big – and Niger so far from its shores – that I doubted if I would ever see the ocean. But Monsieur Boubacar said that anything was possible. He had travelled – to Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Liberia – so I had no reason to doubt his words.

That was before my twelfth birthday.

© Gavin Weston 2012