Stop All the Clocks

Issaka, Anne-Claire, Ramatou and a sleeping Khadidja at the Niamey Airport, August 3, 2011

Insha’Allah. The phrase is often the last you’ll hear from as you say goodbye in a Muslim country. As we passed through the barriers at the Niamey airport to board our flight back to Morocco, we told Issaka and his wife Ramatou that we’d see them when we returned, some day.

“Insha’Allah,” they said. “If God wills it.” It didn’t occur to us that God wouldn’t will the reunion we all looked forward to in that moment.

I’m still working on my last post from our summer travels. But we got some sad news today that makes it difficult to share more of the joy we experienced this summer, especially when someone who played such a big role in bringing us that joy is no longer with us.

This past Monday night in Niamey, Ramatou—Issaka’s wife, not Anne-Claire’s best friend from her service—died after getting sick that day. I haven’t spoken with Issaka directly, but he mentioned in an e-mail that she’d had some heart trouble in the past. Nothing about her 30-something appearance suggested that she’d fall ill so quickly. Not the way she buzzed around the house making sure Anne-Claire and I had everything we needed to feel at home. Not the way she looked after the children, whether hers by birth (Khadidja) or by marriage. Not the way she prepared more than a dozen meals for us while we visited.

Like so many Nigeriens, her first instincts in any situation were to smile and to laugh. That never-met-a-stranger smile put us at ease right away.

Not just statistics: Khadidja and Mohammed each face a childhood with only one parent

I won’t make much hay here trying to reconcile why these things happen. I’ve certainly tried to rationalize the unfairness that seems to pervade places like Niger, to no avail. The conclusion I come to is that so much in this life, and the way in which it often ends, is dependent on where you’re born. Ramatou’s death is a jolting reminder that a life expectancy of around 52 years (compared to ours, nearly 80 in the States) and other statistics are grounded in the real devastation for many families. Unlike other countries, Niger is not beset with the scourge of high AIDS rates (at least that we know of) that drags down the age to which people can expect to live in otherwise up-and-coming African countries like Zambia, Botswana and South Africa.

Putting a face on these numbers is not a new topic for this blog, but it’s perhaps the most sobering lesson from our trip this summer. I’m left with few answers and only sadness for Issaka and for Khadidja, yet another toddler who found her way into our hearts and now will grow up with only the memory of one of her parents.

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