“Winter” in Niger

Last week, after a slightly chilly night, I opened my door and immediately bursting out laughing. Judging from the fluffy parkas, woolen hats and layered clothes of my neighbors, one could only surmise that I live in a small mountainous village, perhaps somewhere in northern Russia. But no, this is Niger; the streets were full of their usual sand, entirely without a sugary white frosting that might merit such clothing. My neighbors looked at me and were equally amused. Apparently, my long-sleeve t-shirt and running pants were unfit for the 70 degree weather that they call winter.

Ina sanyi? They called out to me. Ina can either mean “where” or “how is” while sanyi means “cold.” I used to think they were asking where the coldness was, i.e. “Niger is too hot, where is winter?” But now I’ve discovered that no, this is winter, and even when I felt as though the sun was beating through my hat and turning my skin new shades of freckled pink, they were asking me “how is your coldness?”

Sometimes I miss the white snow blankets that cover Walla Walla and the misty gray of the San Francisco Bay in December. But Niger’s “winter” is not without beauty; after laughing at my neighbors I went on a run through fields of brown millet, stalks slightly bent as though congratulating themselves on their ability to feed an entire country. Brightly colored hibiscus flowers stretched upwards, out of the millet, reaching up to the big orange sun that was rapidly rising over the brown mud houses of my village. Many of the trees still kept their green leaves and I silently thanked the Peace Corps for putting me in a part of Niger that actually has trees.

Children rode by me on bicycles, a few of them recognizing me as their teacher at the middle school and shouting “Good morning Miss Laila” and they rode by. A group of girls, decked in pants under their long skirts and hi-jabs, broke into a run as I passed them and kept up with me for longer than I would have thought possible in sandals and bulky clothing. I reached another village and decided to turn around, sucking in the deliciously chilly air that enabled me to run with ease.

Then, only a week later, I came down with a cold. Perhaps my memory of my infrequent colds in America is faulty, but I’m pretty sure that this was the worst cold of my life. A few weeks before, during Tabaski, I’d come down with a cold that had left my nose running and my throat voiceless. At the time, I thought that might just be the worst cold of my life. But no, once again, Niger has proven that my body can become sicker that I ever thought possible.

I’ll spare you the details of the mucus that began to cover my clothing (I ran out of tissues/toilet paper), the pounding in my head that made me feel as though all three of my village drummers were banging on my brain and the intense fatigue that made it difficult for me to remain standing during my morning English classes. The funny part of all this, if I can call it that, is that I began to dress like my neighbors. Although I know scientifically that cold weather does not cause the virus we refer to as a “cold,” I felt it better to be on the safe side.

Lacking legitimate warm-weather clothes—who packs a parka when traveling to one of the hottest countries in the world—I began to layer in ways that would make my two, very fashionable American sisters, cry in shame. Socks under sandals, pants under skirts, double headscarves; it is a good thing that I own the only camera in my village as these are certainly not outfits I hope to remember.

Noticing my change of attire and my obvious sickness, my villagers became telling me sanyi ta kamakki, meaning “the coldness has gotten you.” Fine, Niger, you win, maybe you do have a winter after all.