Fada and Mouheini gathered the donkeys together so that Wasselkou could help tie the jerry cans onto their backs. The load was heavy, but the donkeys felt revived thanks to the water and food that they had been given, so they did not seem to mind. The girls all gazed one last time in wonderment at the miraculous fountain of life. It was one of the most beautiful sights that they had ever seen. If only this well were not so far from home, they would return often.
Fada and the girls waved an animated farewell to Cheikh Almoustapha, Housseina, and the other villagers. Raichatou and Takat mounted their donkeys, but Mouheini did not. She preferred to walk near Fada. She justified this choice to herself with the thought that the donkeys were already carrying enough weight — she would just slow them down if they were to carry her.
Takat and Raichatou chatted merrily and sang songs; for the longest time, Fada and Mouheini advanced side by side in silence. Finally, Mouheini said, “yesterday, you mentioned that neither of us is married. Indeed, I am still a girl. But after the rains, I am set to marry my cousin Abdoul. It has been arranged by my parents, as is customary.”
Fada took a while before asking, “Does he make you feel like I do?”
“What do you mean?” asked Mouheini.
“Do you look at him the way you look at me? Does he make you feel good when you see him?” responded Fada.
Mouheini blushed. “I still do not know what you mean,” she said, falteringly.
Fada responded, almost a whisper, “Sure you do.” Again, both went silent.
Moments later, a jerry can started slipping off a donkey; it had not been tied on tightly enough. Fada and Mouheini ran in unison to catch it. As they tied it back on, helping one another weave the rope, their hands touched several times. Every time, Mouheini felt feelings she had never felt before. Fada did not hesitate to look at her, and he caressed her hand purposefully. She glanced away. Part of her wanted to run away. She could not allow herself think of him in this way. In a few months, she would be marrying Abdoul; besides, never before had a Tuareg and a Fulani married each other in her community. Cross-ethnic marriages were simply unheard of.
No, she could not let herself think such thoughts. She avoided Fada much of the way home, ignoring her impulse to spend as much time as she could with him, and despite his efforts to speak with her. Instead, she edged closer to the younger girls to tell them stories. Fada finally kept his distance, all the while listening to Mouheini’s enchanting voice. He did not understand why he yearned to be near this Tuareg girl; he had never before had such feelings, despite the many girls he had met during Gerewol festivals; these celebrations were held after the rains began so that young Fulani men and women would meet and elope.
After many long hours under the unforgiving sun, and a few breaks to share the food that Housseina had wrapped in their parcel, the landscape became familiar. Mouheini recognized the acacia trees and dry marshland that belonged to her home territory and rejoiced at the idea that they would all arrive before dinner. And yet the thought also made her sad. Part of her did not want the walk to end so soon; she guessed that Fada would not stay long. At this thought, she moved to his side again. “I am sorry, Fada,” she said. “I didn’t mean to ignore you. But things are confusing to me. I do not know you. My parents do not know you. I like you but I cannot go against my custom.”
Fada looked down, happy to be near her again, yet sad knowing that she spoke the truth. “I understand,” he replied. “Do not be downcast. Rejoice now. You are almost home. Your family will be pleased to have you home, and so happy to have water and the sheep…
“And so will that man you are to marry. Abdoul. He is very lucky,” he concluded. They both continued walking in silence.