by Alexis Sathre Wolff
A budding humanitarian learns that a lot happens when things don’t go as planned.
Several weeks into my four-month stay in Niger, I walked through the gates of le Musée National in search of Mamadou Abdou, the Tuareg silversmith who was expecting me.
To get there from my apartment, I’d wandered down the dusty rue de Martin Luther King, leaping over deep ruts and accidentally stepping in puddles of sewage. Niger had no sewage system or waste disposal infrastructure, so everywhere there were piles of excrement and waste ridden with infectious diseases. I turned onto Avenue de Gountou Yena, where, in a country whose average temperature hovered in the 90s, I fought goats and camels for occasional patches of shade, then I took a shortcut through Djamadjé, referred to by my expatriate friends as the smelly market, where I passed piles of unrecognizable spices, heaps of tomatoes teeming with flies, and slabs of meat baking in the sun, hairy tails still attached. I jetted across Avenue de la Mairie’s traffic—Peugeots and Citroens plucked from French junkyards to be reborn as Nigerien taxis—and headed down rue de Musée, stepping over polio-mangled limbs crawling awkwardly down the street, their writhed hands outstretched to ask for a little change.
This wasn’t my first jaunt in the developing world. I’d traveled in Haiti, Nicaragua, and southern Africa, but I’d come to Niger (the West African nation that was the second poorest country in the world at the time, and projected to be the poorest again when Sierra Leone recovered from its civil war) to prove I could hack a career in humanitarian work. I figured if I could survive Niger, I could survive anywhere. But it was worse than I’d expected—poverty on steroids, as I’d begun to say—and I was beginning to question whether I wanted this life after all. This doubt beleaguered me, and I traveled to the muséeseeking a respite.
Inside the musée, I followed a maze of stone paths that wove me past cages of scrappy-looking animals and one-room buildings with eclectic glass-cased displays. I traveled over a small bridge and then looked up and saw it—the artists’ hangar, an open-front structure in which leatherworkers, woodworkers, and metalworkers toiled away at their trades.
As I approached I saw that half the hanger was occupied by several dozen silversmiths working on straw mats, each sitting with one leg on the ground in Indian-style and the other bent up into his chest. A flat-headed anvil was jammed deep into the sand in front of him, and it was on this anvil that he worked, holding his silver steady against it with pliers as he hammered, engraved, or filed. A square leather mat, a jagged hole ripped out its middle, surrounded the anvil to collect the falling slivers of silver. Behind him was a metal lockbox with his tools, and in front of him was a short display table, draped with red or black velvet, that showed off shiny finished pieces—knifes, letter openers, barrettes, bracelets—all arranged by object in straight, neat lines. As I got closer still I heard a handful of languages—not only the silversmiths’ native Tamashek, but also Hausa, Zarma, and French—mixing with the cling cling cling of the metal hammers hitting silver.
“Bonjour Aicha,” an older man called to me, using my Nigerien name. He was tall and thin, and his skin was wrinkled and worn like that of a well-loved football. His face was small and his top lip protruded further than his forehead, making him look a bit like a turtle. With a smile that exposed his crooked teeth, he jumped up from his mat and extended a hand in greeting. He introduced himself to me as Mamadou, and then introduced me to nearby silversmiths as <Î>his American. I smiled. He would be my Tuareg.
I’d interacted with members of most of Niger’s major ethnic groups—the Hausa guards of my apartment complex, the Zarma men who washed my laundry, the Fulani children in my neighborhood—but not yet a Tuareg. Although hunger and modernity had recently brought some of the nomadic group to the capital, most of Niger’s 700,000 Tuareg still traveled by camel caravan through the Sahara desert.
“You’ll make the cross of Agadez,” my Tuareg told me in French, pointing to a pendant on a nearby display table. Tuareg silversmiths, I knew, were renowned for their crosses. Although early missionaries assumed the crosses proved a Christian presence, they’re in fact secular: the Tuareg attribute crosses to towns and encampments in addition to names. The most famous is the cross of Agadez, which represents the city in central Niger that was once a bustling trading post and the largest Tuareg settlement.
I appreciated the cultural significance of Mamadou’s proposed project, but the cross wasn’t my style. A hollowed circle sat at its top, connected below to a diamond with sharp arrows on the side and bottom points. It looked like something goth high schoolers would have worn. My eyes wandered to other pieces of Tuareg jewelry. I spotted dangling earrings I had to have and a chunky chime bracelet I wanted to make. I was here, after all, to make my souvenirs. But that I could do later. For now, I’d acquiesce to my Tuareg.
My arrangement with Mamadou was casual: he’d be working under the hangar Monday through Friday, and I could join him as frequently or as infrequently as I wanted. Several days after my first visit I returned, plopping down on the space Mamadou cleared for me on his mat and watching him eagerly as he put away his crosses. Because my language skills were elementary, we communicated through gestures and movements. He motioned me to follow him to an area in the front center of the hangar where a few rocks glowed with heat, and instructed me to feed the fire by pumping gusts of dry air with an organ-like device, likely made by the leather workers nearby. Mamadou held a ball of hard yellow wax over the rocks, and I pumped for several minutes until he motioned me to stop; the wax was sufficiently warm.
Back on Mamadou’s mat, he handed me a wooden board, a sharp metal tool, and the ball of warm yellow wax. I followed his lead, shaping the wax into three rough replicas of the cross before me. I rolled a small piece in my hands until it became a long cylindrical strip. I bent it into a circle, flattened it on the board, and smoothed its edges with the metal tool. I used the same tool to cut a diamond shape, which I connected to the bottom of the circle, then rolled three small rounded pyramids, which I joined to the side and bottom points of the diamond.
After peeling the three yellow crosses from the board and setting them in the palm of my hand, I nudged Mamadou to signal that I was done. Grinning, he took my other hand and led me into the sunlight. I walked palm up, carefully, as if carrying a tray of champagne glasses. He peeled the crosses off my palm and plopped them carelessly—my heart skipping a beat—on a cement block in the dirt. I went home for the day.
I lounged in the shade of a baobab tree near my apartment one afternoon during the mini hot season, a few weeks in October and November when temperatures hover around 100 degrees. It hardly compared to the regular hot season, which plagues the month of April with temperatures nearing 120 degrees, but the mini hot season affects the country profoundly because it typically overlaps with Ramadan, the Muslim month of ritual fasting. Between the heat and the hunger, Niger’s already slow-paced life wanes practically to a halt. Although I fasted only half-heartedly, it was enough. The tedious tasks of everyday living—bathing, getting food from the market, washing dishes—proved grueling. I took a break from silversmithing.
I pumped my T-shirt in and out and scratched the pink spots that dotted my ankles. My hair, washed only an hour before, was already wet with sweat and oil. I was tired. I’d lie sleepless in a pile of my own sweat the night before, using my hairbrush to scratch bites from the countless mosquitoes that somehow found a way under my net. I eventually admitted defeat and jumped into the cold shower fully clothed. Wet and cool, I finally fell asleep only to awake an hour later squirming in my sweat again. In the morning the bright sun stole the small amount of energy that survived the night, and I sat now wondering what I was thinking when I decided to come here (and how I’d survive until my return flight in December) when suddenly the space around me turned dark.
I ran out from under the tree for a better look at the sky. I didn’t understand what could have happened to the sun. There were no hills for it to tuck behind, no clouds to obstruct its bright rays. But the sky was now orange, and as I stood staring at it, my T-shirt and long skirt flapped like a flag in the wind. I held out my arms and closed my eyes. Sand and dirt crashed into my skin. It hurt, but it was a good hurt… tingling, sparkling, and then itching as it stuck to my sweat. Then rain poured down and washed the sand away. I smiled and danced in circles, delighted that I’d outsmarted the weather. I thought the sun would come back and my drenched clothes would keep me comfortably cool, at least for a while. Instead, the cold air stayed longer than the rain, and so, on the same day sweat dripped from my body, goose bumps popped out my sun burnt skin. It was typical of Niger, where all my expectations were being negated.
When I returned to the musée a week later, after the heat began to calm, Mamadou’s eyes lit up. He put aside his work to stand and shake my hand, slipping on his blue plastic flip-flops and leading me back to the cement block to pick up my yellow crosses, which were now hard. I followed him back under the hangar, where we wrapped the baked yellow wax with a cement mixture, covering each cross, then piling the cement-covered crosses atop one another and adding another layer of cement. Mamadou was careful to keep the very top of each cross visible, a yellow dot poking out from gray. He led me back to the sunny spot in the dirt, where I again watched him drop my creation.
After fetching my baked cement the next time I returned, I followed Mamadou to a small structure a few hundred yards from the artists’ hangar with a metal table with coals in its center. Following Mamadou’s instruction, I turned a crank attached to the back of the table, which caused flames to rise from the cracks between coals. Mamadou threw the cement creation into the fire, and after poking it a few times with a metal rod, he reached in his pocket and pulled out my silver—a clear bag filled in one corner with silver chips. He dumped the chips into a shot-glass sized cup, made of blackened cement, and then placed that in the fire as well. As I watched the glowing silver turn to liquid, Mamadou explained that the wax inside the cement had melted. It occurred to me only then that I’d made a mold. We watched the fire for several minutes, then I followed Mamadou’s instructions to pour the melted silver into the cement mold, filling the space where the yellow wax had been.
A few days later I cracked the baked cement with a hammer and found three rustic crosses of Agadez inside. I smiled, assuming I was done, but my creations, as it turned out, were only rough approximations. Not only did I have to file away the grooves and textures left from the cement, but I also had to file each cross into the exact right shape. What was more, I had to do this with tools that resembled metal nail files. I pressed as hard as I could, but progress came slowly. Day after day, I filed and filed my crosses (which I knew I’d never wear) until my hands ached, daydreaming about future projects as I watched Mamadou throw aside perfect pendant after perfect pendant. I didn’t feel like much of a silversmith.
I shouldn’t have felt like much of a silversmith, especially after a few months of a part-time apprenticeship. Traditionally, prospective smiths work first with wood, then clay, and then only the cheapest metals before finally being entrusted with silver. Most apprenticeships last a decade, and not all those who enter apprenticeships become smiths. Tuareg silversmiths, moreover, are all male—a fact of which Mamadou reminded me once when I imprudently showed up to work in a skirt; he sent me home.
Given my gender and skin color, being allowed to mingle with the silversmiths at all was unusual, and actually studying under one was an extraordinary privilege. But it was difficult to remember this as I struggled to finish my crosses; I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. Silversmithing hadn’t turned out to be the escape from my worries that I’d intended, it’d become an embodiment of them.
Weeks and many visits to the hangar later, the silver on my three crosses was finally smooth. It was time to carve designs onto the pendants. Studying Mamadou’s work, I noticed that circles and series of short parallel lines appeared occasionally, but triangles appeared most often. The triangle, Mamadou explained, is a common theme in Tuareg design; it’s thought to protect against evil. Mamadou got out his tools: two stamps (a triangle and a circle), a hammer, and a flathead screwdriver. I placed the stamp atop my silver cross and hammered down lightly to leave an impression. It was simple, even for me, but using the screwdriver was another story.
Mamadou used the screwdriver to carve both borders and intricate patterns of lines. Holding the screwdriver against the silver with just the right amount of pressure, he rotated his wrist back and forth quickly but slightly, pushing forward, digging a small, straight canal. Mamadou told me to carve a border just inside the edge of the diamond section of my cross, and I tried, but several millimeters into the task, I pushed too hard and rotated my wrist too quickly, slipping off track and carving an awkward line across the diamond. I threw my pendant on the mat, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. I went home for the day.
“At last, my American Tuareg has arrived,” Mamadou greeted me in French a few days later. As I lowered myself to the mat, I laughed and continued our ongoing joke, insisting that I was completely Tuareg, no part Americaneven though I felt anything but. My dissatisfaction with my crosses made me hesitant to start a new project, so I shook my head when Mamadou tried to hand me a file. Today, I just wanted to watch.
Soon an American tourist approached Mamadou hoping to buy a necklace for his wife. He ran his fingers up and down a larger piece Mamadou had pulled from his lockbox. The pendant required a lot of silver and a lot of work, and it usually sold for about 25,000 CFA, roughly equivalent to forty American dollars. I drew circles in the silver dust in front of me as Mamadou attended to the American, engaging in the standard bargaining ritual. After a few minutes the frustrated American—all American and no part Tuareg—turned to me.
“He says thirty-five thou… is he ripping me off?” I sat up, folded my hands in my lap, and replied, “Oh no, not at all. They usually go for forty.” The tourist bought the necklace, and Mamadou and I shared a smile. I congratulated myself for helping rip off a cocky American; maybe I was some part Tuareg after all. Mamadou wrapped the tourist’s necklace in recycled scraps of an outdated UN Development Report, and I returned my attention to the silver dust, pressing my hands palm down on the mat and then lifted them to eye level, turning them this way and that so the silver dust sparkled.
As I watched my glimmering hands I forgot everything—my ineptitude at silversmithing (and everything else Nigerien); the burgeoning realization that when Air France flight 731 jetted me back to the land of flush toilets and garbage trucks in a few weeks I’d have to redraft my life’s plan; and most of all, the disappointment that the person I wished I were, a fledgling humanitarian, wasn’t who I was.
After a while I looked up and noticed that the American customer was gone. Mamadou was watching me, waiting. It was time for me to start a new project, he said, and I could make anything I wanted. I strolled the aisles of the hangar studying the displayed jewelry before settling on the pair of dangling earrings I’d admired for months. “Ceci,” I said in my rusty French. “Je veux ceci.” Mamadou handed me some solid yellow wax and sent me over to the fire to warm it. As I pumped, I wondered how I’d make my earrings. I’d thought only crosses required wax molds.
When the wax felt warm in my hand, I headed back to Mamadou’s mat, arranging my limbs in that uncomfortable Tuareg position—one leg on the ground Indian-style, and one leg bent up into my chest. I looked at Mamadou with wide eyes and smiled, letting him know I was ready. He rustled around in his lockbox for a few minutes, his hands eventually emerging holding two metal crosses. “Copy,” he said in French, throwing them down in front of me and gesturing toward my warm wax.
I stared at the crosses. They weren’t crosses of Agadez (they were crosses of Tahoua and Iferouane, I’d later learn), but they certainly weren’t my dangling earrings. I shifted my stare to Mamadou, waiting for a laugh. Mamadou, however, had already returned to his own work. I watched him for a moment before the laugh finally came—but it came from me. Maybe nothing works out quite as planned, I thought as I ran my index finger through the silver dust on Mamadou’s leather mat one last time and then picked up my yellow wax, and maybe that’s okay.
Alexis Sathre Wolff is a recent graduate of Yale (where she majored in African Studies) and a current MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at Columbia. Although she’s pursuing employment stateside, she hopes to venture back to Niger soon.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.