I can feel the rumble of the road along my back through the solid sacks of grain. Above me, a silvery morning sky. The flat, scrubby tops of the familiar plateaus, the Three Sisters, loom into view on my left. The cool brown water of the Niger slips by on the right. We’re almost to the Kennedy Bridge. I’m almost home. As I turn onto my side, the wad of bills sewn into my waistband digs a hollow in my hip. It’s been three years.
Niamey is as I left it, a mass of corrugated tin shacks with hand-painted signs, shelters made of grass mats, and tall mud walls over which bougainvillea branches trail, hinting at shady opulence on the other side. All of this is held together by a network of dirt roads and the odd paved street in various states of disrepair or construction. An army of white Toyota Starlet taxis shares the road with donkey-carts, camels laden with straw bundles, and Chinese-made motorcycles weaving dangerously through traffic and crater-sized potholes.
Our overburdened eighteen-wheeler turns onto the Rue de l’Indépendance. We pass the Stade General Seini Kountché where my brothers and I cheered for Mena victories on the soccer field. As we lumber past the green-lettered awning for the Pharmacie Deyzeibon the street becomes narrower, congested by the gaggle of micro-buses picking up passengers and cargo and the numerous vendors sitting amongst piles of bright tomatoes, striped West African cucumbers, and purple onions arranged along the side of the road.
We turn left into a cobblestone alley that cuts through the heart of Katako Marché, our destination. The air is full of sound. Cars honking, motorcycle engines revving, hammers clanging on metal, and voices. Hundreds of voices. “Gafra! Gafra!” someone yells as I stand up to stretch. I look over the side of the eighteen-wheeler to the street below and see a young man pushing a cart loaded with long bundles of rebar. He is trying to push his way through the crowd of shoppers who have been squeezed into the narrow space between our truck and the gutted shops where produce wholesalers store mountains of freshly unloaded mangoes, yams, and onions.
A middle-aged man with three lines of scarring running from the corners of his mouth to his cheekbones, like whiskers on a cat, shouts up at me. I begin throwing sacks of grain down to the small area he has cleared. The sound of fifty kilo sacks landing on the cobblestones is added to the cacophony of market noises. My sleeveless white tank-top sticks to my back, but I continue at a steady pace to numb thirst and hunger so I will make it to the last sack of grain.
An hour later, the truck is empty and I am free to find my way to my parents’ house. A young boy with a cart made from recycled scrap metal walks towards me. I give him 10 CFA for a bag of water from the Styrofoam cooler he is pushing along. Biting off a corner, I suck down large mouthfuls of water, letting the cool liquid slide down my throat and fill my belly.
I pick my way past young men in western clothes and aviator sunglasses filling up their wheelbarrows with mangoes from the wholesalers. They will push their loads under the scorching sun to every corner of Niamey looking for customers.
As I make my way out to the street, a veiled woman in a maroon Mercedes cuts in front of me, rolls down her window and screeches at an old woman selling onions, “Margé no?”
“Zongo! Zongo!” says the vendor. The woman reaches into her handbag on the passenger chair and tosses the old woman a 500 CFA coin. The vendor transfers a bowlful of onions to a black plastic bag, and passes them through the car window. The Mercedes quickly pulls away, almost knocking over a motorcycle passing on its left. I stick out my finger and point it towards the road. A white Starlet Taxi pulls up and I climb in.