Guilt and Malaria ~ Peter Chilson


A boy lay on his back beside his desk, whole body shivering. His lips quivered and spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. I knelt beside him while students gathered round, wide eyed and chattering. I attempted to mop sweat off his face with my bandana, but he knocked my hand away. I asked the boy his name to see if he was coherent, but he just stared up. Not at me, not at anything. He was a tall boy, thin, not strong, mostly bones. I held the back of his head in the palm of my hand because he kept knocking his skull against the floor, leaving a dim round sweat spot on the concrete.

This happened in a classroom in West Africa one April 15 years ago. I remember that some students laughed. “You don’t even know his name,” a boy behind me said in French.

Il s’appelle Hamza,” shouted another.

Yes, the boy on the floor was Hamza and he curled up, drawing his knees to his chest as if he were cold or as if tensing his body for a beating, and maybe he really expected one. I stood and shouted at the students to get back, and then motioned to the biggest boy in class to help me carry him to the medical dispensary on the other side of the village. But the eyes of everyone in the room looked past me, and I turned in time to see Hamza leap out one of the high, open French windows that lined the classroom walls. He fell to his knees in the sand, then rose and ran, stumbling and rising again, across the school compound.

I didn’t go after him. The indignity he’d just suffered was worse in some ways than the malaria. When I visited him at the dispensary late that afternoon, Hamza had fallen into a coma, his body arched on its side on the mattress of an iron-frame cot.

His humiliation began with me half an hour before he fled my English class at the junior high school in Bouza, a remote village in southern Niger. When I entered the room at 7 a.m., it was 100 degrees and the boy had his head on the desk. So did two other students. “Hamza, Moctar, Fatima!” I said in English, clapping my hands, “Wake up!”

I began a lesson about the present perfect tense. Hamza revived for a few minutes, but then leaned his head back on the wall. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open. A sweat spot ran from his neck down the front of his long tunic. We were all sweating. This was April, hottest time of year in the Sahel—-that narrow band of arid savanna that stretches across West Africa between the Sahara and the tropical coast–just before the monsoons arrived, and when no time of day offered relief from the heat.

“Hamza!” I shouted, clapping my hands again twice. “What are you doing? If you weren’t roaming the village all night, you wouldn’t need to sleep in my classroom.” This time I spoke French.

Students looked at him, giggling. Hamza folded his arms and looked around. He was 14 years old, nearly six feet tall and dressed in a cotton khaki tunic, like a robe, that fell to his knees, and leggings. He wore red plastic sandals. His hair sprouted from his head in uneven orange tufts, a symptom of long-term protein and vitamin deficiency—-a lifetime of not eating well. His eyes seemed glassy, flickering from me, to the blackboard, bouncing over the heads of his classmates with little purpose, as if he had no control. Minutes later, the shivering started and became so violent his desk rattled. I stopped again and looked at him. Certainly, he was clowning around, just defying my authority. That little troublemaker, Hamza.

Tu dors dans ma classe?—-You’re sleeping in my class?” I demanded, glaring at him. The shaking stopped and then he did something strange. He slid out of his chair and deliberately stretched out on his back on the concrete floor. The shivering resumed.

Hamza Souley died the next day, just before dawn.


All that unfolded in 1986 on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Niger, a Moslem country that was until 1961, the year I was born, part of France’s West African empire. I taught English in the Bouza College d’Enseignement Generale for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Until I sat down to write this, I’d told no one about Hamza, not even my wife. What I feel is not that somehow I should have been able to save his life. After all, quinine administered at the dispensary failed to save him. Hamza’s body–tormented by malaria, repeated intestinal infection, lack of food and certainly other problems–had simply reached the end. No, what I feel is the loss of not having understood, of not taking the time to understand. That, and the guilt of having humiliated this boy in his last moments alive among his mates. For me to do otherwise, to investigate the reality of what might have been wrong with him, would have meant reaching across a cultural void complicated by language, race, religion, disease, and fatigue. I’d been in the village nearly a year, keeping company with other teachers, or staying in my house, reading and writing letters, to avoid the humiliation and frustration, the stares and questions, the hard work of confronting another language and culture. In fact, I’d been teaching at that school five days a week for eight months, and never seriously considered what it was like to be there from the point of view of Hamza, or any other student.

He was dying, and I was teaching English grammar.

In the end, it was easier to yell at him.


After classes let out in late afternoon the morning Hamza ran away, guilt sent me in search of him. I found Hamza where three students had brought him on their own. “Il est au dispensaire, Monsieur,” they said. The Bouza medical dispensary was a poorly equipped and staffed collection of old whitewashed cement buildings with corrugated iron roofs, the medical facility for a thousand-square mile governing district in southeast Niger, 60 miles north of the border with Nigeria. The Bouza arrondissement is the equivalent in the French governmental structure (imposed during colonial times and retained after independence) of a county seat. I entered a long, narrow building with cots lining the walls beneath high French windows screened with mosquito netting. Over the years the walls had been patched with mud and painted over in white, but the roof leaked under heavy monsoon rains that poured over repairs and streaked the walls with mud.

Hamza lay on his right side, his body arched in a crescent like the shape of the parasite that was killing him. His right arm was tucked beneath him, and the other was bent behind his back at his waist. He’d crossed his feet and his mouth was wide open. He was drooling heavily. The white sheet he lay on was soaked in sweat and near his face, with saliva. A male nurse standing behind me said Hamza had been brought in at noon, already unconscious.

The Peace Corps had schooled me in First Aid and tropical diseases. So I knew from what had happened in class and from the way his body lay in a coma that Hamza was in the last stages of cerebral malaria, most deadly of malaria’s four strains. The Latin name for this curse, plasmodium falciparum, reads so quietly to my ears, disrespectful of the war that had exploded in Hamza’s blood straight from the saliva glands of a female anopheles mosquito, and which had spread to his brain.

One statistic came to mind as I looked at him—-malaria in general kills 200 to 300 children every hour, every day across the world. Cerebral malaria in particular kills 25 to 50 percent of its victims, mostly children, usually within three days of the onset of the attack.

I tried to imagine what was happening inside Hamza. The parasites enter the bloodstream and hide in the liver where they multiply, protected from the body’s normal defenses. They form new “plasmodia” or clumps of parasites that break apart to multiply again, eventually bursting back into the blood in armies of billions that overwhelm the body’s immune system. Individual plasmodium invade red blood cells, dividing into more clumps until the cells themselves burst in massive chain reactions, clouds of parasites moving in a vast blood storm that induces classic malaria attacks–the chills and fevers, the intense bodily pains, stiffness, delirium, convulsions and awful headaches. But the falcipara parasites, for reasons scientists don’t understand, multiply much faster and hide not only in the liver, but in muscle tissue, bone marrow and the brain, where they block blood flow and shut down motor control of the body.

I knelt beside Hamza. The nurse said, “The boy can’t hear anything.”

“He’s one of my students,” I said, looking up at the man. I was vaguely aware of occasional coughs and murmurs from other patients in the ward.

The man nodded. He wore a traditional red fez and long white medical smock, streaked by dust stains and traces of dried blood. “We gave him quinine.”

“Where’s his family?” I asked. “Shouldn’t there be someone here with him?”

The nurse shrugged. “He comes from the village of Mumbe, seven kilometers from here.” He pointed northeast and continued talking. “He walks in to school every day?” He pointed again, out one of the windows, trying to be helpful. “He passes by here early every morning.”

The Bouza junior high school served the whole

district, and children from villages across the countryside traveled to school on foot. Most villages are a half or full day’s walk from Bouza, so many students boarded with townspeople at school expense. But Hamza apparently walked the seven kilometers to school every morning and back home in late afternoon up a barren slope of maroon laterite rock and sand, when the heat was 110 degrees.

I nodded and the nurse smiled. I turned back to Hamza and behind me heard the man’s sandals tap the concrete floor as he moved among patients in the ward. The room was full of infected wounds, snake bites, guinea worm, dysentery, fevers. Most also suffered from malaria.

The boy’s eyes looked wet and empty. He wore only dirty red gym shorts. Hamza had long awkward legs with big knees and not enough muscle tone, though somehow he didn’t strike me as too thin, starvation thin. No, just teenage thin. His ribs showed, but not alarmingly. I am 6’3” tall and had about the same build at his age when I was 5’11.”

Hamza breathed shallowly, occasionally releasing a soft gasp. His body moved in slow convulsions, his torso twisting a little and his legs moving back and forth gradually so that it looked as if every tiny movement was immensely painful to him.

There was time to think. I remembered an incident in my eighth grade history class, when I was 14 and so tall and awkward I couldn’t go through a day without accidents—-tripping up a flight of stairs, knocking a tray of chemicals on the floor in chemistry lab, and always bumping into things and people. In history class one afternoon I got up from my desk during an exam to sharpen my pencil and tripped over an electrical cord that ran from an overhead projector, yanking the plug out of the wall and nearly pulling the projector over on its side beside the teacher’s desk. I stumbled to my hands and knees and got right back up. The teacher looked up from paperwork on his desk, regarding me blankly. He said, “You’re a klutz, be more careful.” He got up, rearranged the projector and plugged the cord back in the wall. I sat down.

But I do not remember Hamza ever being a klutz. I picked up his hand. The fingers felt wet and warm, but stiff. In the end, I couldn’t watch him any more and quietly left the ward.


At Washington State University, where I now work, I tell my students about Africa. About food, music and poetry, natural history and politics. Funny stories, sometimes, like the fact that my favorite African meal is boiled goat head, which you eat not with knife and fork, but with a rock to crack open the skull so you can scoop out protein rich brain matter with your hands. And other things, such as sandstorms that peal away the West African landscape, layer for layer. About my hatred for the military class that oppresses the entire continent. And I talk about malaria, which I’ve had.

Suffering from malaria, I tell them, is like being in a vise that squeezes your head and pulls your limbs apart, while your body cooks and then cools, back and forth in a toxic swirl of fire and ice, terrible muscle aches and terrific pressure in your head. You can’t move, you can’t think straight, you can’t eat or sleep, or raise the energy and mobility to go to the toilet on your own.

Hamza showed me that, and so did my own illness. The attack I suffered was not cerebral, but one of the other three, brought on by forgetting to take the chloroquine pills that render the parasites dormant in the liver. I was bedridden for three days, my body aching, but my mind mildly, even deliciously, delirious, alert enough to know the symptoms and double the chlorquine dose. The medicine injected my sleep with crisp, violent full color dreams. One night I was in a nuclear bomb shelter, watching the Grateful Dead perform live, while missiles fell and a firestorm raged outside. We watched the fire through thick protective glass portholes in the shelter’s roof while the band played “Truckin, got my chips cashed in…”

I can afford to look back on my brush with malaria and “study” it, even find humor and family history. My father served as a Marine officer in the Pacific during World War II and spoke delightedly about how malaria got him into a hospital and out of harm’s way. Allied troops engaged the Japanese island by island and tens of thousands of malaria stricken soldiers were evacuated to Australia, until bombers began dropping DDT in the jungles. My father’s island was Okinawa. He died (of a heart attack) many years ago, but I recall one thing he said. “Malaria may have saved my life.”

I’ve never been in a war, but I think of this disease differently. I have to. It’s a hell of a thing to watch someone die of malaria, or any disease, especially a child.


I met Hamza in September 1985 during my first week in Bouza. One day, walking through the village, a stone hit the back of my head. I whirled around to challenge my tormentor and there he was. I recognized him as a student, though not yet one of mine, and I didn’t know his name.

I looked at him a moment, stunned and confused between the shock of the blow and my surprise that the thrower was still standing there. I picked up the rock and walked up to him rubbing my head and raised my hand, as if preparing to throw the rock back at him.

“Imbecile,” I shouted, “C’est quoi ca?” But the boy Hamza just stood his ground and stared, puzzling out my reaction. I raged at him in French, the “official” language, which Hamza never learned well and that day he probably understood not a word of French.

Let me tell you about Niger and about language and schools and people. Just two percent of Nigeriens speak French, which governments across French West Africa still use as a neutral bridge by which different ethnic groups communicate. Thus, French is the language of bureaucracy and the classroom. Here, in a country of 500 thousand square miles, more than 10 million people make up 16 ethnic groups, all of which have their own languages. Arabic, Djerma, Hausa, Tamachek, to name a few. Most of the population lives in the far south, in a 300-mile wide belt of Sahelien land about 1,000 miles long from the borders with Burkina Faso and Mali in the west, to Lake Chad in the east. This is Niger’s only remaining farmland and little is left. In Bouza, a village of farmers, most people have to walk many miles, often a journey of a day or two, to their fields because wind has stripped topsoil from nearby land.

The Peace Corps had trained me as an English teacher for three months in the capital, Niamey. Then they sent me here, 600 miles east to live and work among the Hausa people, who make up 40 percent of Niger’s population. My French was good, but not my Hausa. English–the “language of technology” I was trained to tell students–was useless outside my classroom at the Bouza junior high school.

The school was six barracks style cement buildings, built in rows of three, on the south end of the village, the “new quarter” where the government buildings stood and the functionaries lived. The school buildings had thick walls covered by mud stucco, and corrugated iron roofs. Green metal shutters protected the rows of French windows that we opened wide every morning. Each classroom was furnished with plywood and metal frame desks, two students per desk, and blackboards. The teacher sat at a table on a raised concrete stage at the front of the room. Outside the administration building stood a steel flagpole at the center of a circle of stones, where students gathered at attention each morning for the raising of the flag.

Niger’s national school system was still based on the French model, so this secondary school covered grades 7 through 10. We lacked proper texts for everything and students shared the texts they did have, such as the outdated English language readers (produced in Britain for Nigeria in the late 1960s) used in my classes. Students had no gym or science equipment. Every September they received one notebook and two ballpoint pens, which the students protected fiercely, a factor that gave rise to vicious and bloody fights.

Hamza started such a fight the year before he died, when he was 13 in eighth grade. The students never let him forget. I was standing in class and turned my head a moment when Hamza half stood at his desk, reached forward and grabbed a pen from the hand of a girl who sat in front of him. Her name was Aichatou. She squealed, turned and slapped him and then she stood in the aisle. With her left hand she grabbed his right hand holding the pen as he laughed, and she hit him on the head with her other hand. The class exploded in shouting and some students stood on their desks to get a view of the fight. Aichatou, a short, strong 13-year-old in a white cotton head cloth and matching blouse and cloth wrap, continued hitting him. Hamza was unprepared for such intensity and only raised his hands in defense. Aichatou, one hand striking the side of his head and the other holding a fistful of his tunic, pulled him out of his desk so he fell on the floor. She straddled him, sobbing and screaming, and pummeled his head and chest with windmill blows of both hands.

I waded up the aisle, between desks and students, pushing them aside and I remember consciously standing there a few extra seconds as Aichatou hit him, letting her deliver her justice. Then I took her by the shoulders and pulled her off. She returned to her desk, gasping and heaving deep breaths, her face wet with tears. I picked up the pen from the floor and gave it to her. Hamza propped himself up, one hand on the floor. His nose bled and a lip was cut. Later, one eye swelled shut.

There’s something else. Aichatou was three or four months pregnant, which must have fed her rage-—not just against Hamza, but against life. The rumor was the unborn child belonged to the school headmaster, a married man with children. Students had been viciously teasing Aichatou for weeks, telling her she could never return to her village. The teasing probably motivated Hamza to steal her pen, just so he could be part of the crowd. But the fact that Aichatou, a pregnant girl, had beaten him bloody, followed him every day after that. Boys called him “woman face” and girls taunted him. “Hamza,” they shouted, “want to fight?”

Aichatou did return to her village, just days after the incident. The headmaster gave the official reason at a faculty meeting. She was a discipline problem, he said. And I have wondered ever since about my stupidity at having let the fight go on a few extra seconds, knowing Hamza might have fought back and induced a miscarriage, threatening Aichatou’s life.

I wonder as well if Hamza knew not to strike back. He was a bit of risk taker himself, but not a dumb one. He was 12, just entering seventh grade, when he threw the rock at me on the road. He was like many school children who came to Bouza from the countryside. These were kids who knew little of white skinned foreigners except from stories adults told in the villages–an observation of a European traveler’s odd behavior or maybe an affectionate or bad memory of an aid worker, and the tales village elders told of colonial times. Many elder men were veterans of the World Wars, having been soldiers in the French army. I knew several who had fought in France’s colonial wars in Algeria and French Indochina in the 1940s and 50s. A few had brought back Vietnamese wives. This means some, maybe even most of what children heard about Europeans wasn’t pleasant. In my walks around the village, parents occasionally picked up young children and gleefully thrust them at me. The children screamed in terror and the parents laughed. One woman, struggling to control her little boy, picked him up and pointed at me, “C’est le capitaine Voulet,” she said to him.

Every West African school child knows about Captain Paul Voulet. He led the Central African Mission, an expedition that in 1899 marched across Mali and Niger, razing villages and killing thousands of people in the name of France. He ordered his soldiers to stuff bodies down wells to poison water supplies and confine the stench of decaying flesh. The expedition passed a few miles south of Bouza and the whole sordid story marks one of the most sinister moments in Africa’s colonial history. 

So, for all kinds of reasons I was worth staring at and students from local villages studied me constantly. Some would run up and touch me on the arms or face to feel my skin, even on the school grounds. They were a little different from Bouza’s other children, who, though they were from Niger, had arrived there like me, from afar. Bouza was first a farming village of 3,000 people, but as the arrondissment capital it was also a government town with a military garrison, medical dispensary, regional forestry bureau, secondary and elementary schools, and junior governor called a sub-prefect. Many students were children of other teachers, soldiers, medical workers and bureaucrats posted to Bouza from different tribal lands around the country. Many of them spoke French better than I did and paid me little attention.

But Hamza’s world was his home in Mumbe, his school in Bouza and the seven kilometers of sun baked rock and sand between them. The likes of me he’d never seen before. Most students, even those from villages in the region, called me “Monsieur Peter” or “Mister Peter,” but Hamza called me “Anasara.” I learned when I first got off the plane in Niger that this was the word for white people–-anasara–-an Arabic term that literally means “Christian person.”

In fact, what I heard just before the rock hit my head was that word in Hamza’s high pitched voice. “Anasara!

I forget what Hamza was wearing or what he looked like that day, except that he showed no fear, just wide-eyed wonder as if he’d been experimenting. (In my journal, I recorded only that the boy had “orange hair”). I yelled more and threw the rock into the sand to show my anger, but he just watched, like a boy teasing a dog. I continued yelling and hoping, I suppose, for some sort of contrite response. But he reduced me to huffing, puffing and sputtering, which must have earned him a certain status at the school. The scene attracted a small crowd of villagers, who watched in silence until there was a pause in my rage.

An older man, the imam of the small mosque on that side of the village, walked up to me. He was tall with deep creases in his forehead. He wore a great flowing pastel blue robe called a boubou and a white skullcap. Gently, he touched my head where the rock hit and said in a mixture of French and Hausa, “Il est petit garcon. Sai hankuri–-He’s a small boy, have patience.” I stared at him. Finally, I walked away, down the street, shaking my head.

I thought about this scene a lot in the coming months and a lot more after Hamza died, wondering what I must have looked like to the villagers, and to Hamza that first day and every day. He meant no harm, I believe, but wanted somehow to have a little fun and find out what I was about.

Right to the end of his life, Hamza succeeded in getting a rise out of me. After I left him in the dispensary, I decided to visit his village. At that moment, I thought he still might live.


Here’s what I think happened inside Hamza’s brain during his last hours. The malaria parasites formed ring lesions in the tissue and altered his blood chemistry by breaking down red cells enough to induce coma but not enough to shut down the brain. Some scientists blame not the lesions for inducing such a coma, but the effects of a toxin byproduct of the malaria attack. No one is quite sure. Meanwhile, the parasites work destruction in the liver and in muscle tissues, producing the spasms I witnessed in Hamza’s body. On some reduced level, the brain keeps on working so the victim may break coma in delirium or simply dream straight through to death, or to life at the end of the attack.

This was on my mind at dawn, when the heat was not quite unbearable, as I began walking to Mumbe wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat against the sun. Hamza had been dead a week and I’d been able to think of little else. The body was immediately taken back to Mumbe in the dispensary’s old Land Rover ambulance and buried within 24 hours of his death, as Moslem tradition requires. I watched them load the body, wrapped in sheets, into the ambulance, but as a non-Moslem I decided not to attend the burial.

I followed a dusty path from the north quarter of Bouza, the “quartier ancien” or “old quarter,” which sits on a hill above the rest of the village. After two kilometers I could see Mumbe’s golden brown mud homes come into view like blisters. They stood out against the maroon laterite rock of the gradual slope where Mumbe looked down on Bouza. Heat shimmered just above the earth, as if the soil were evaporating and Mumbe itself were melting. My white cotton shirt stuck to my chest and beads of sweat rolled down my spine, a cool sensation I savored because in two hours the heat would evaporate sweat instantly. I walked northeast, up and across crumbling laterite and brown hardpan soil, which is what lay beneath the topsoil the wind had taken away. Little grows here. In rocky ravines, where sand collects, villagers cultivate meager groundnut and tomato crops.

I carried a shoulder bag with water, my notebook and a half dozen mangos to offer as a gift. I’d made a few hikes into the countryside from Bouza, sometimes visiting villages and hamlets. Always, my arrival was announced a half-mile or more before I ever reached a human settlement. Children and men and women tending goats or gardens would follow me in, laughing and shouting, “Anasara, Anasara.”

But as I drew closer to Mumbe all I heard was wind and the clamor of morning in Bouza behind me. After 45 minutes, I entered the hamlet’s tiny courtyard, surrounded by a cluster of 20 or so mud buildings. I clapped my hands and shouted, “Ina Kwana,” the Hausa morning greeting. No one answered. A few feet away a rooster pecked at the ground.

The village was neatly kept. Several hoes with wooden handles and metal blades, probably made from automobile fenders, leaned against a wall. Through open doorways I saw bedding, and through one a copy of the Koran lay open on a white cloth spread over a wood table. Then I heard faint shouts, growing louder, accompanied by the snapping of sandals as someone came at a run.

A man in a muddy blue sleeveless tunic and white leggings rolled above his knees turned a corner into the courtyard, breathing hard and smiling. He’d been shouting, “Alla hamdallalai, Alla hamdallalai,” an expression of thanks and welcome. Then he switched to French. “Bien venue,” he said, raising his hands to show that they were muddy and he could not shake my hand. Then an old woman in a bright green wrap and head cloth and white T-shirt came out of one of the houses carrying a metal bowl of water for us to wash in. She must have been there in the house as I’d announced my arrival and waited. The man said something to her and she set the bowl on the ground and went back inside, returning with a heavy steel lawn chair that she dragged across the compound and underneath a leafy nim tree. She hurried away and returned again carrying a covered metal bowl with two wooden ladles on top. She set them on the ground as well. I smiled at her and she shyly retreated to the house, returning again with a straw mat that she unrolled in the sand opposite the chair. The man motioned me to sit in the chair and set before me the water bowl so I could wash my feet and hands. He sat on the mat and waited. When I was finished, he washed himself.

The time had just passed 6:30 a.m., a late hour in a land where people rise at 4 to work in relative cool. Down slope to the southwest I could see the hundreds of mud homes in Bouza’s old quarter spill down a rocky hillside and spread out a short distance over a sandy plain. A south wind carried the murmur of thousands of voices and the clatter of work, mainly the steady thudding of women pounding grain in wooden mortars.

We made introductions and I learned my host was Yaou, the village chief. He spoke with me in French, which was a relief to me because my Hausa was poor. He told me he’d finished secondary school in Bouza three decades earlier, and had been working the fields ever since. Together, with the wooden ladles, we sipped thick gray millet gruel from the metal bowl that sat on the ground between us.

Yaou was a solemn man, maybe 50 years old (he did not know his exact age), wiry and quick of movement. Mud covered his calves and clothes. He told me that he’d been mixing mud and gravel in a shallow pit a few hundred yards above the village. He used an old wheelbarrow to transport the mud back to the village where he was repairing the house he shared with his wife. He had broad shoulders and strong arms. The muscles on his forearms bulged like lengths of bark. Deep wrinkles fanned out from his eyes, and his face wore a thin coat of gray dust and patches of dried mud, so I never clearly saw what his face was like. He apologized for his appearance.

As we sat, I said, “The village is empty today. Everyone must be out working, like you.”

He sipped gruel from the spoon, smacking his lips before answering. “Yes,” he said, “working, I hope. Everyone who is healthy has gone to the coast to find work. I am the chief so I must stay.” He looked at me for a few moments. The news confused me and he must have seen this in my face. “That’s true for all the villages around here, even Bouza. Every October after the harvest, people travel south to work.”

I listened, but also worried about the gruel and my health. I sipped gingerly, making loud slurping noises without taking much into my mouth. Yaou saw this and frowned.

“You do not like it?” he asked.

I smiled and nodded. “It’s good.”

Millet gruel, or boule, as the Hausa call it, is made from water and millet or sorghum grain pounded to flour. The gruel is tasteless, at least to me, even when heavily sugared, and I was concerned about the purity of the well water used to make it. I’d already lost 38 pounds (down from 165) through successive giardia infections, one malaria attack, and had only just recovered from my second attack of amoebic dysentery-—which can cause hepatitis and permanent kidney and liver damage. For weeks I’d been walking around with diarrhea and a churning stomach that felt as if I were digesting broken glass. I finally made the trip to Niamey to see the Peace Corps doctor, who gave me pills that for a week made me feel worse.

I put the spoon back into the bowl and wiped my mouth with my fingers. Yaou was only one of 15 people left here– very old men and women and a few small children. Some 50 villagers from Mumbe had traveled to the seaports of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Ivory Coast, to work on the docks or on coffee and cocoa farms along the coast. Hamza’s three brothers and four sisters (all in their teens and twenties) and his parents, had gone to Abidjan, the Atlantic port city in Ivory Coast.

 I nodded. “Can you really farm the land around here?” I asked. “Where are your fields?”     “In the Tarka Valley.” Yaou pointed west. “Two days walk from here.” He encouraged me to have more gruel. “But there’s no work now. Not enough food. They send money to help us and when the rains come in July, they’ll return for planting season.”

I’d been in the village half an hour and Yaou never asked the reason for my visit, but patiently answered my questions and fed me. I began to explain that I was Hamza’s teacher and wanted to pay my respects to his family.

The old man smiled weakly. “Yes, we know of you. Everyone knows about you here, in all the villages. You’re the white teacher, the American.”

I asked, “Can we send them a telegram about Hamza?”

Yaou shrugged. “I don’t know the address.”

We sat together nervously. The old woman came with a small metal tray of sugar cubes and added them to the gruel. She was thin and her face was so heavily wrinkled I thought she was about 70 years old. I asked Yaou if she was his mother, and he frowned. “That’s my wife,” he said. “She is 10 years younger than I am.” So she was about 40. I nodded, embarrassed. He looked at me, mixing the gruel with his ladle. “Ici la vie est dur,” he said—-“Here, life is hard. We live outside, out in the sun.”

There was a silence. Yaou wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I asked where Hamza was buried. 

“In the rocks,” he said, gesturing with his right hand to a rocky area up the slope north of the hamlet. Then, sitting on the mat with his legs folded, Yaou looked at me. “He was the only child from here to attend school in many years. Hamza was never strong enough to go to the coast to work. He didn’t seem to have the stamina for the journey. It takes weeks by bus to get to the coast, you know. Sometimes, when there is no money we walk part of the way, maybe for days. I’ve done it many times. Nigeria, Ghana, Togo. So we sent him to school.”  

Hamza was a good boy, I told Yaou. He smiled and nodded. There was no breeze and beads of sweat cut the dust on his face.

“He never did well in school,” he said.

I shook my head. “He was just a boy,” I said. “He liked to tease people, even me.” I told Yaou how Hamza was one of the few students who called me, “Anasara.”

I meant this to be humorous but Yaou frowned. “That is disrespectful,” he said. “I hope you punished him.” He put the metal cover back on the bowl of gruel.

I kept on talking. “School is not for everyone,” I said hoping to sound empathetic. I told him I had been a poor student, that I flunked first grade in the American system, that I nearly failed math in high school—-all true. Yaou shrugged, as if to say that I was only telling him what was obvious about life’s struggles.

This was not going well.

I wasn’t ready for Mumbe’s emptiness and the absence of Hamza’s family. No one else seemed to be mourning him. I wanted to explain, to confess-—to someone, someone close to Hamza and who knew him well. I told Yaou about Hamza’s last day in my class, about the malaria and about my own behavior, my lack of understanding. Yaou listened, nodding, staring at the ground and making the sounds of listening.

“Mmmm,” he said. “Mm…huh ahhhh.” Over and over. Finally, when I was finished, he said in a very matter-of-fact way, “We all have the fever.” He paused and looked at me. “But not you, I am sure. White people have medicine.”

This shut me up. I pictured myself beside Yaou in my clean khaki pants and white shirt, my hat, needing to relieve my conscience and doing a bad job of it, and this man, muddy, wanting only to get back to work before the heat became too much.


Fever killed Hamza. The nurse told me his temperature stayed around 108 degrees for hours before he died, cooking his brain and muscle tissue. When body temperature passes 106 degrees for a prolonged time, more than an hour, the internal cell structure of body tissues begins to break down, forming lesions, areas of deadness. Sometimes in cases of high fever, before the critical 106 degrees is passed, the body releases adrenaline in an attempt to cool off, producing more chills, which eventually cease. The intense energy of adrenaline heats the body even more to push the temperature over 106. The body loses control. The thermostat blows. This is the boiling point. Death.

I’d been obsessed with fever since Hamza died. The heat weighed on me as I walked out of Mumbe under the awful mid-morning sun. I’d thanked Yaou and left him the mangos from my bag. Then I hurried back to Bouza, down the slope where there was no shade. The heat intensified, reflecting off the ground and burning through the rubber soles of my walking shoes. I saw myself as a creature crawling across a vast campfire pit where everything was ashen gray, dull brown and maroon. The air felt so hot it hurt to breathe deeply. There was no escape except to keep walking, which made me think of Hamza burning up on a bed in a cool room with no way out of the heat. I was dehydrated and light headed, but not in danger, for water would be available soon. Still, for a few moments I had the sensation that I was floating around in the boy’s fever.

Back in the village, it took a few minutes to confirm what Yaou had told me—-that from October to June, Bouza, too, becomes a place of the very old and very young. I wandered the old quarter along narrow byways through the maze of whitewashed mud homes that covered the hillside. In the shadows of the buildings, old men in cotton robes lay on mats talking and drinking tea. A few young women and the old ones passed me on errands, carrying water or bowls of grain atop their heads, always working toward the next meal. People waved and called to me. Some students shouted my name, “Meeester Peter.” Children followed me.

At a tea table I refilled my water bottle and dropped in two iodine purification tablets. Then I bought a glass of hot Nescafe from an old man named Hassan and sat on a long bench beside the table in the shade of a high wall. He told me right away that he was a veteran of the French war in Indochina, which was his way of starting a conversation with the anasara who now sat at his place of business. He sold hot tea and Nescafe from a large kettle of water he kept over an open fire from six in the morning until midnight. He worked every day in his white cotton tunic and skullcap, this man with a shaven head and tuft of white hair that grew from his chin. Hassan stooped a little and he was missing the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand. He caught me staring and held his hand up. “La guerre,” he said—-“The war.”

I sipped coffee and watched a tailor working inside the doorway of his shop across the way. He, too, was an old man in a dark blue robe, hunched at a table and moving a piece of cloth under the needle of an old pedal-powered sewing machine.

I turned to Hassan and blurted out a question, “Where are Bouza’s young men?”

The question confused him. He frowned and shrugged.

I drank my coffee, thanked him and walked on. I walked every street in the old town into late afternoon. I was 25 years old and had only just realized that almost all the young men here were soldiers in the military garrison near my house, and other teachers with whom I spent most of my social time. This was a village of people just starting life and those near the end, living off the labor of a generation in the middle.

The trend was decades old, rooted in prolonged drought begun in the mid-1960s and which hung over the land like a fever, feeding the Sahara. The great desert was suffocating countries, eating thousands of square miles of land across the continent on a southward march. That much I knew by traveling Niger’s countryside where every village seemed locked in a struggle to survive. But how could I have missed the exodus, the absence of youth?

I dug up the facts later. Hundreds of thousands of people had been moving south over the decades as the desert grew like a lesion on the face of a continent. The whole north of Africa was hemorrhaging people. I thought of a soul leaving a body, and about Hamza who never conformed to the brutal reality of this place. He, too, left. But I still had a year to live in Bouza, and a lot of work to do.

That same evening I abandoned my habit of listening to the BBC alone at home and returned to Hassan’s tea table, where men talked late every night. He greeted me with a shout, “Ahh, Monsieur Peter le grande.” My drink was Nescafe with cheap condensed milk that came in tins from Europe. Hassan dipped a glass in the kettle of water, never seeming to burn his fingers, and raised it above his head to empty the water into another glass he held near his waist. This way he cooled the liquid, using quick back and forth actions, as if juggling water. Water splashed about, but he never missed. Then he set the empty glass on the table with a hard knock. He thrust a spoon of Nescafe into the glass, followed by sweet milk and hot water, and stirred furiously. I loved the staccato clinking of the spoon. Finally, he handed me the drink with the words “A toi.—-To you.”

Passersby would stop to watch him. “Hassan,” I said, “Tu es artiste.”

With my new friends I stumbled through a mix of Hausa, French, and hand signals. A man pointed at me and said, “Ammerricaa, grande militaire!” and made an arc in the air with his index finger imitating a missile. “BOOM!” I laughed, but really didn’t know how to respond.

The next evening, three days after my visit to Mumbe, I sat at Hassan’s table and greeted him and two elder men who shared the long bench. A few children gathered to stare at me. I asked for a Nescafe, but Hassan came around the table and sat beside me at the bench.

He said in French, “Monsieur Peter, now you make my coffee.” The men nodded at me, the children giggled. In this part of Africa the most honored guest in a home prepares the tea. I looked at Hassan and he nodded sternly “Au travail,” he said–“Get to work.”

I went around the table, picked up a clean glass and dipped it into the kettle, burning my fingers. I cursed and sucked my fingertips. Hassan watched with his hands resting on his thighs, laughing. I picked up another glass and began the cooling process, spilling water on my shirt and wincing because the glasses were hot to hold. I, too, laughed. The onlookers quickly grew to around 30 people and became noisy with chatter.

Someone said in Hausa, “Kai! ga anasara mai chi—-Hey, look at the white tea maker.”

I poured Hassan his Nescafe and one for myself. I raised my glass to toast “Hassan mai chi—-Hassan the tea maker.” He laughed and raised his own glass.

Then, privately, I raised my glass to Hamza Souley.