Mouheini wanted to be out in the dry marshland, sitting under the shade of the acacia trees with her girlfriends, playing games, singing songs, or engaging in storytelling contests, which she often won. She loved recounting stories that Sadouan had told her, and making up some of her own. Already she had spent all morning doing chores.
“My darling daughter, I really do not know how you will be ready to marry and raise a family. You still have the heart of a child.” Sadouan shook her head. “By the way, have you forgotten ?” she asked. “Tomorrow it is your turn to fetch water for the community, together with Takat and Raichatou. I must braid your hair today, in case we don’t have time before Tabaski.” Mouheini moaned. “I have to fetch water already ?!” At least, she told herself, she would be traveling with two of her favorite cousins.
Mouheini missed the rainy season, when the water chore amounted to frolicking in the wet marsh. She longed for the long baths in the water, and playing with clay statuettes that she molded out of the mud with her siblings and cousins. This year, the rainy season had only lasted five weeks, beginning in late July and ending in early September. After it had ended, the marsh water had evaporated, forcing her and her fellow water fetchers to dig in the mud, often for hours at a time, to reach rainwater reserves that had seeped below. Once this water had run dry, men came and dug shallow wells in the dry marsh. She had spent hours watching as the men chased the water, digging deeper and deeper into the pits of the earth. During a single day, they would move from one hand-dug water hole to the next, waiting for the water to pool back into the bottom. This water was turbid and polluted, hardly more than mud ; drinking it meant that Mouheini and her siblings often suffered from diarrhea. They did not know that unclean water could cause illness, and drank the rare water they could get with relish.
Fetching water at these marsh pits was a trivial task compared to the hardship to come ; now that they had run dry, she spent her water fetching days travelling to deep pulley-operated nomad wells, no less than half a day’s journey away from home. Many times, her water quest would last several days ; if the first well had run dry, she and her cousins had to look for another, even further away. During this time, Mouheini would worry about her little siblings at home. If she was gone for too long, one of them might become very sick, or even die from thirst.
This responsibility was heavy to bear, especially for a young teenager. However, it wasn’t only the long walk that caused her anxiety. Added to the heat and fatigue was the risk of running into drug traffickers coming from the south out of Nigeria, or jihadi rebels coming from the northwest out of Mali. In recent years, the attacks by armed men on civilians were increasingly frequent. She had even heard stories that they sometimes did terrible things to women and girls. She wondered how they justified their violence in the name of Allah. Her Allah was kind and good. How could Allah want people to hurt others ?
Mouheini’s thoughts were cut short by Tahir’s crying. Her baby brother had just awoken from his nap, and wanted to breastfeed. “Tahir’s diarrhea is getting worse and worse,” Sadouan stated gravely, while offering her breast to her baby. She was truly concerned for his life. She had already lost one child due to complications linked to dehydration and diarrhea. She could not bear the thought of losing another.
While nursing Tahir, Sadouan’s thoughts transported her back to when she was a little girl. During her youth, it rained often, even daily, from June to September. It had been a much easier time. In those days, she had herded her parents’ goats, while her brothers and father cared for their cows and camels. But as time went on, the rains had become more and more infrequent. Why did it rain so little now, only filling the marshes for a few months after the rains ended ? Without water, most of their animals had died. These changes deeply frightened her, and made her worry about her children’s future.