A Name for Regret

by Kimbra Cutlip

Ruwa was ten when I met her, or there about. No one could say for sure, so, I thought of her as ten during my first year in West Africa, and eleven at some point during my second. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, and Ruwa lived with the Hausa family next door. But she was not Hausa, and her name was not a Hausa name. It means water, and I thought it was beautiful, evocative. The roll of a soft R over Saharan dunes. The rounded waiting of parched lips. The cool satisfaction of moisture upon the tongue. Ah, Ruwa. Singularly ubiquitous and necessary. Unlike the names of everyone else I met in Niger, hers was a name I thought I understood.

I tried to ask her about it once, but she just shrugged her shoulders with a child’s self-consciousness and mumbled something I didn’t understand. The other women of the household waived my questions away impatiently. “Bawa,” they barked, “Bawa.” I asked them if that was her village or her family name, and they rolled their eyes and clicked their tongues with repugnance, directed not at my shaky grasp of their language, but at the question itself. They were the co-wives of the man who ran the bus depot. Maigari took people’s money, and waved them on and off the crammed, rattling buses and trucks that passed through the village. He negotiated fees for tethered goats and chickens, and decided whose baskets of grain and bundles of cargo should be checked by the soldiers playing cards in the corner of the depot. He was a man of influence.

When the griots made their rounds, they sang their praises loudest in front of his door. When the Bedouins arrived with dates, his family was the first to taste them. When the locusts swarmed, those with nothing else to give collected the fattest insects from the fields, fried them with hot peppers and brought them to Maigari’s house by the basket load until his wives and I could eat no more. If you needed a favor, he was the man to see.

When I first moved into my village, Maigari’s women watched from the adjoining compound. Hadiza crouched on a low stool over an open fire, stirring something in a charred black cauldron. Her co-wife, Hamsatou, sat flat on the baked dirt with her legs stretched out in front of her, 14-year-old Aichatou’s head in her lap. She weaved long strands of hair against Aichatou’s head while Aichatou winced and craned her neck to get a better look at me, the American.

I did not see Ruwa that first day. Her presence in the household eased into my consciousness in much the same way that their language and culture became part of my daily existence—over chores shared with the women. We squatted in the courtyard picking sandy grit from baskets of grain while I practiced vocabulary and asked simple questions.

“Menene wanun?” What do you call this?

“Akwai ruwa chikin rijia?” Is there water in the well?

And once, I turned to Ruwa to ask, “Ina garinki?” Where is your village?

Again, the women scoffed. Aichatou flicked her wrist and snapped her lips in anger. “Ba’ komi?” What does it matter?

I wanted to press her for a real answer, but Ruwa had already receded. At 21, I hadn’t the stomach for the investigation. I conceded to the cultural gap. And it was a wide gap that spanned an immeasurable distance from the world I knew.

In this new world, in Ruwa’s world, I woke each day to an ancient symphony that lifted the morning over an ochre horizon in three parts. First, the roosters stretched their necks and scratched their staccato alarm to the fading night. Their cries were followed by the Mallam’s soulful call to prayer, a prayer that swelled the desert air and spilled through the village like a haunting — echoing, reverberating, and fading languorously into hush. A fertile pause. Suspension of time while the sun balanced on the edge of before and after. And then, beat by hollow beat, the silence gave way to the rhythmic drumming of mortar and pestle. Women began their work. Day had broken.

On most mornings, I joined my neighbors for breakfast. Hamsatou and Hadiza took turns cooking while Ruwa swept the ground beside the fire, and Aichatou yawned and whined in the universal language of adolescence. I watched and learned to eat from a bowl with my hands, politely. With breakfast done, I would begin my rounds through the village, visiting women who expressed interest in the stove-building technology I was sent there to peddle, though even then, I suspected their interest was roused more by me than my wares.

In the afternoons, visitors would sometimes join me under the shady acacia tree in front of my house. Aichatou and Ruwa stopped by often to talk and to watch me go about my day. Once, I invited them to share in the pageantry as I opened a care package from my mother. I fed them a kaleidoscope of treats like M&Ms and Good and Plenty, and showed them magazine photos of places that far exceeded their imaginations. As I flipped through the starched pages of Cosmo, they stopped me on a shiny picture of colorful baubles on a string. “American food,” the two girls declared almost in unison.

“Jewelry,” I corrected them. Aichatou snapped at Ruwa as if it had been her stupid fault they were wrong. It was the silent invective of a favored child.

We were nearing the bottom of the package, and I turned their attention to the crinkly cellophaned rolls of Sweet Tarts lingering in the folds of newspapers yet to be discovered. I handed one to each. Aichatou opened hers immediately and shot a possessive look at Ruwa who put the candy in her wrap for later. I knew she would never taste it, and I wanted to ask again about her family. Where were the people who loved her? I had the training, or rather the obligation, to seek the truth, having arrived in Niger with newly printed degrees in journalism and cultural anthropology. But I lacked the strength for it. I think perhaps it was that day when I bent to the sin of conjecture. I imagined Ruwa had come from a small farming village some miles away. Maybe her family had feared she would starve in their arms, or had themselves fallen victim to famine. It was not an uncommon thing during times of drought in the desert. I cast Maigari as the wealthy patron who had taken her in, offered her refuge from a terrible fate. It was the narrative I had been looking for. But it was the wrong one.

It has been 25 years since I left Africa, and it has taken me a long time to listen to my Peace Corps stories as I retell them for my daughters. There was Hamsatou who laughed as she tried to plait my silky hair. There was short-tempered Hadiza who judged the village women harshly. There was Aichatou who had a biting tongue. And then there was Ruwa whose name meant water. Ruwa who was bawa and had no family–whose only place was at the fire or beneath Aichatou’s animus. Ruwa in the retelling did not feel right, and so, one evening, as I translated words like donkey, and camel, and shadow for my children, I finally reached for the frayed Hausa dictionary I still keep on the bookshelf. There in the tissue-thin pages lay the one word I had neglected to search for all these years. Bawa: a slave.

Ruwa, was a girl to carry water.

Water . Maigari’s compensation for an unpayable debt.

The truth is sharp, but it rings clearly now through the safe distance of time. I imagine how I might have purchased her freedom, though I can’t see the path that would have kept her free—a young girl with no education in a country with no place for young girls. Would Maigari have replaced her with another? Was it within my power to lift even one child up? Did I fail her, or is that hubris? These questions come too late to matter, so I resort to telling myself again and again that I could not have changed much.

In the 25 years since I left, Niger has suffered a coup and civil unrest. The drought has lifted and returned. The gentle nomads with whom I once traveled have taken up jihad for their survival. The ambassador’s friendly wife was revealed as a spy, and U.S. troops have built a base for drone missions into neighboring Mali. It is not the Niger I remember. It never was. Niger has always been bigger than I allowed, with a disturbing history and a complicated future. I see that now. And although I can never fully excuse my reluctance, or inability, to see through such thinly veiled darkness, I have come to accept that I was young, and I have found peace in the admission that I am not someone who will change the world.

In the village, Maigari and his two wives are surely dead. Aichatou is an old woman at 39. But I have not allowed Ruwa to age in my mind. Through guilt and regret, I have chosen to preserve for my conscience, the shy, unassuming ten-year-old who would one day return to her natal village—a village in which the mornings are sung into being by roosters and prayer calls and the timbre of pounding wood—a village where her family named her Ruwa because they loved her. Because Water in the desert is life itself, and the name is beautiful.

Kimbra Cutlip has made a living as a writer in one form or another for the past 25 years. She has worked as an editor for Weatherwise magazine and a science writer for the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to contributing feature articles to national newspapers and magazines, she has written children’s books, short stories, and marketing copy for medical institutions. She lives on the Chesapeake Bay with her husband and two daughters.