Sunflowers in the Desert

There are sunflowers growing in my front yard. Yesterday morning I discovered them; after taking my daily bucket bath I went to pour my waste water on what I assumed to be a row of sandy soil when I found that my gray water was cascading down on a line of tiny green seedlings. I half-dropped my towel with excitement—an act that would have been rather unfortunate had one of the many village children chosen that moment to peek over my mud wall.

Years ago, one of my elementary school teachers had casually mentioned that she loved sunflowers because they were such a happy flower. Being a rather strong-willed 10 year-old, I would stop at nothing until my mom agreed to drive me to the local home décor store where upon I filled our shopping cart with every plastic, happy, yellow flower the store possessed. The same plastic—although now slightly ragged—sunflowers followed me to college, where I decorated every dorm room and cramped apartment I inhabited.

Sunflowers began to take on real meaning in my life, their strong green stalks telling me to reach for the sky and happy yellow faces telling me that nothing in life is so terrible that it can’t be overcome with a happy smile and a positive attitude. It was around this time that I began writing down the best part of my day on a small calendar square each night before I went to bed. It helped; no matter how stressful my day was, I could always find one small moment of joy.

But, somehow, plastic sunflowers weren’t on the Peace Corps packing list and, although there was a part of me that thought they might be just as useful as the GRE books, long skirts and trail mix that made up my allotted 22 kilos, I ended up leaving them by the side of my bed in a small pile and walked out the door to Niger with a suitcase filled with logical items.

Thankfully, one of my younger sisters knows me far better than I know myself, and mailed me a large package of sunflower seeds. On the back of the letter she drew what she imagined my mud house to look like. In my front yard, she carefully drew a multitude of sunflowers, yellow faces reaching up to the hot African sun. Her instructions couldn’t have been clearer: plant these sunflowers and be happy.

I was skeptical. Sunflowers are not native to Niger, they don’t belong here and are superfluous in an agriculturally-dependent country that fills every empty patch of ground with millet, their main staple. Unlike the sturdy, thick brown millet stalks, sunflowers are slender and delicate—how could they ever survive in the desert?

Perhaps it is silly to tie my fate to a bunch of seedlings but, when I saw those small green stalks begin to form, I knew we could make it.