A temporary tent (click to see the whole photo, the blog crops a bit)
The other day, I came across a discussion about humbling experiences, and began in my head to list mine. I thought of a few, and some more popped up, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this year has been an endless stream of humbling experiences.
Like when Hussein and I arrived in Tabrichat, a tiny village in the community of Tarkint, and were welcomed like royalty. We rested during the midday heat, inside a mud house. After a few cups of tea, I went out and watched the camels and donkeys calmly lined up by the well that essentially constitutes Tabrichat. A little boy rode a camel that was attached by a rope to the bucket that drew water from the cool depths. They moseyed back and forth, filling and emptying the bucket, watering the countless thirsty animals.
When the sun had begun casting slightly longer shadows, we started out in a small caravan across the scorched landscape, our bags on the back of a donkey. As I looked around, I saw repeated shapes and patterns everywhere: shrubby acacias, flat cracked land, a line dividing the sky and the desert. Then the thought struck me that maybe we were navigating towards the horizon, with no other goal than that dividing line, and we could keep walking forever.
After some thirty minutes, or maybe an hour, the landscape still had a surreal effect on me, but Mohammed said we had arrived. At closer inspection, a tent did indeed slouch to our right, and a group of people relaxed in the shade of a small acacia. As we approached, the camp stirred. Children peered out from the tent, rugs were rolled out for us to rest on, curdled milk came in big aluminium bowls to quench our thirst.
It would continue like this for the several days that we stayed in the camp. Goats lost their lives to stuff our bellies, a seemingly infinite supply of camel's milk cooled our dry throats, and I was even given my own tent while the family moved into a provisional one.
I did not know how to show my gratefulness, but Mohammed just laughed when I tried to express it, and said "If we came to visit you, you would give us a room to stay in, no?" Of course I would. "And you would feed us, would you not?" Sure, sure, of course I would feed a visitor to my house. I could not explain the difference, though: no food that I would feed a guest in my house would be food I might not eat later. It would constitute an act of hospitality, sure, but the magnitude of the gesture would be so much smaller, relative to our total possessions.
Then Mohammed's short wave radio broke. Hussein and the community's newly educated teacher (the government had provided him with 28 days of formation) and Mohammed spent an entire day picking the apparatus apart, putting it back together, screwing and fiddling, brushing off sand. I had a crank radio, the kind that does not require batteries. We listened to it: the Radio France International news over shortwave, something about a small Tuareg revolt in Niger, possibly, crackle crackle, and when they were over. I thought it natural to leave the radio with Mohammed, but for some reason, he didn't.
When evening came, I withdrew to my tent, and Hussein came over. He was giggling to himself, and had barely sat down before he cackled "Mohammed is too funny!" He paused to cough, and to light a cigarette, and continued, "After you left, Mohammed looked at the radio, and said 'this is too much, what do you think... maybe I should give her a little lamb as thanks?'"
The road to understanding nomads’ lives, how they are affected by economic development, and their views of conservation, runs through many a tent. Lined by countless cups of tea and stories shared, by challenges and treks on horseback, and by unfamiliar notions it is a road that is unfrequented and untravelled upon. I will wear down the soles of my shoes on that road, I will get tired on that road, but I will find something along it that I cannot find elsewhere.