At four in the morning, Mouheini felt a hand rocking her gently. “Wake up, my daughter, I’ve prepared your donkey.” Her father, Alhassan, sat above her with a wistful regard, wishing he did not have to ask his daughter to undertake such an arduous, and possibly perilous journey. “Mother has prepared the illiwa for you.” As Mouheini quietly sipped this millet porridge with a large wooden spoon, Alhassan sat with her to keep her company. He explained, “After the Tabaski festival I will be leaving toward the south with our camels and cows, to find water for them. Your brothers will be coming with me. So will Abdoul.” Mouheini felt a sinking feeling in her heart. She didn’t want her father to leave. Sadouan would be distraught about caring for the family alone. When he was away, times were always harder; they skipped many meals, sometimes living off of one small bowl of rice or millet a day. Sadouan often went begging from the other families; yet they too had little to eat. This pending reality frightened Mouheini.
“Daddy, do you really have to go?” asked Mouheini, committing senti, talking while eating, a Tuareg faux pas. “Don’t worry, I will make sure that Abdoul and your brothers stay safe.” Alhassan caressed his daughter’s face, trying to reassure her. “I am not worried about Abdoul. It is you I care about,” she responded firmly.
“Ok, my gazelle, it is time for you to leave now,” Alhassan said. “Otherwise you will be caught in the worst of the heat before reaching the well.”
“The well? Oh, no!” she groaned. Mouheini had almost forgotten her responsibility of the day… she sorely hoped that there would be water in the nearest well, which was around 25 kilometers away, so that she and her cousins would be home by that evening. If there was no water there, they would need to seek even further away; they might not be back until the next day… or even later. “We will be back tonight,” she promised herself.
Alhassan checked the ropes holding the empty jerry cans attached to their donkeys. Sadouan wrapped a few pieces of dried goat meat in a cloth for her daughter’s lunch, and handed it to Mouheini while whispering, “Please, darling, stay safe and return home quickly! I don’t know how long our water will last… your siblings won’t have anything to drink soon… and…”, she continued, with a stammer, “I don’t know how long Tahir will live if we run out of water.” Mouheini knew that her mother meant well to remind her of her brothers and sisters, but it was a burden knowing that they relied on her to live from one day to the next. “Yes, Mother, I will not let you or Tahir down. By tonight, we will all have water, Allah willing!”
Takat and Raichatou, Mouheini’s younger cousins and water-fetching companions, stood sleepily next to their donkeys, while their parents said goodbye to them. A small group of additional donkeys with jerry cans attached to their sides milled about nearby. All would undertake the water quest. The girls were tasked with fetching as much water as they could for the five families that made up their small nomadic community.
Takat and Raichatou also felt downhearted about their mission. They went water gathering at least once a week. Mouheini, as the oldest of the girls, was sent on almost every water quest. To her, it felt like each foray for water was more difficult than the last, and the idea of another day-long round-trip hike under the searing sun filled her with anxiety, especially since she could not be certain of what she would find at the well.