Going home

Aren't you sad to leave?" I asked my almost 8-year-old daughter. Our time abroad is at an end. We're packing up our house here in Niamey, Niger, the least developed country in the world, and heading back to Ashland.

"I can't wait!" she cried.

"Won't you miss the camels? And the goats in the road? And the beignets? And your friends? And Mrs. Walsh?" I tried to think of more things that my daughter likes about being here. "Won't you miss anything?"

"I don't know, Mommy. I'm just happy to go home!"

Hesperus isn't the only one. My husband James has been pretty miserable in Niger. He hates the heat and worries about the children's health. The lack of infrastructure in this country is hard for him to deal with, and little frustrations explode into unsolvable problems. African time is very slow, and Nigeriens don't rush to fix things, to attend events on time, to get things done. James finds himself impatient with the attitude here: that there's nothing that can't wait until tomorrow. The stress of leaving is no match for the fact that we're going and my husband's in a constant good mood for two weeks before our departure.

Unlike my family, I feel sorry to leave. The orange sand, the camels galumphing along the road and blocking traffic, the students at the university, the friends we have made here. I miss everything before we're even gone. There are some things I won't miss: the intolerable, infernal, indescribable heat (even though it's the "rainy season" and not supposed to be as hot as during the hot season, the thermometer at the Embassy reads 110 degrees when I pick up my daughter's new passport, which arrives the day before our departure), our irresponsible landlord who hangs up on me when I call to tell him about a problem in the house, the careening traffic in Niamey and the daily accidents I witness. But I've become so accustomed to this different pace of life that I wonder how I'll manage anywhere else.

"What is it, exactly, that you like so much about Niger?" My friend Illiasou asks me. Illiasou studied in Benin and knows the interior of the country and much of West Africa but has never been in Europe or the States. I'm hard-pressed to answer his question. Perhaps there's a code in our mitochondria for how we react to geography? The first time I came to Niger I knew I needed to come back &

I started a love affair with Africa that I doubt will ever end. In contrast, when I went to the Soviet Union in college looking for my roots (my grandfather immigrated from outside Odessa when he was just 19, but he never lost his heavy Russian Jewish accent), there was little that grabbed me enough to make me want to return.

Despite the poverty and difficult living conditions, most Nigeriens are warm and curious, treating strangers with respect and interest instead of with the hostility outsiders often find in America. A rich spirit world lives alongside the material world (even Illiasou believes in demons); giraffes, hippos, and manatees alongside the villagers. Everything is reused and recycled out of necessity and ingenuity, a threadbare tire becomes the bottom of a sandal, an empty Coke can is bent and forged into a child's toy car. There are many problems and lots of ways to help fix them, to be kind to others and help people. Nobody takes anything for granted in this country, which is in some ways at the end of the earth. It's a refreshing change from America with our oversized cars and waistlines, our throw-away culture, our entitled attitude.

The plane, delayed two hours with no explanation, surges upward into the sky, north toward Morocco. In Casa Blanca, we will change planes and fly to Paris. James looks happier than he has been in a long time, and the kids fall easily asleep. We fly through the darkness and my heart is heavy, my head aching. Africa. The birthplace of the world. I don't want to leave you. Will you wait for me to return?

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