“What will we do now?” Takat wailed, “I’m so scared. Where will we go tonight? How will we get water?” Fear and desperation finally won over Mouheini’s ever strong and cheerful spirit, “I don’t know, I just don’t know,” she cried.
“Psst, psst.” The terrified girls did not hear the strange sound at first. “Pssssst”, this time the summons was more insistent. They heard it clearly, coming from behind a giant termite hill. “Pssssst!!” There it was again, and out from behind the hill peaked the dark face of a turbaned boy. He waved them over. Mouheini motioned to the other two to stay back. “What do you want?” she demanded, tears streaming down her face. “I overheard you talking,” said the boy, beckoning. “I can take you somewhere safe.” He had an accent. Tamasheq, the Tuareg language, did not appear to be his native language.
Emotionally and physically drained, and desperately hungry and thirsty, Mouheini did not know whom to trust. Already so much calamity had befallen them during the day; her first impulse was to grab her cousins and run away again.
Still, the young adolescent looked friendly and reassuring. He stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, “My name is Fada.” Mouheini saw that he was dressed in the typical garb of the Fulani nomads, including the large straw hat topped with a feather, that he cradled next to his body. The Fulani and Tuareg, both traditionally nomadic pastoralists, lived harmoniously together throughout the Azawak. There were hardly ever any problems between them, so Mouheini did not think she should fear the boy, who appeared to be about her age.
“What are you doing here?” Mouheini asked.
“I had just filled my gourd at the well,” Fada replied, “when I heard the pickups arrive, with the crazy men shooting in the air and yelling at everyone, demanding to have water and food. I didn’t wait to see what happened next; I simply ran away as fast as I could.” The boy took deep breaths, clearly traumatized by what he had undergone. “Anyway, I’ve been hiding here for a while, and then I heard all of you crying.”
He paused, “I think it’s safe now. If you want, you can come with me to my village. There you can get water and sleep tonight.” Mouheini looked at him dubiously. Yet despite her suspicion, she wanted to believe in something. She was too tired to think of questions to ask. All she wanted was to drink some water and sleep. She looked over at Takat and Raichatou, and called them over. “This boy… Fada… says he can help us.”
Fada stepped up to them with a smile: “I live beyond those hills, not too far away. There is a well in my village. You could get water and spend the night there.”
“Then why are you here?” Raichatou demanded. “Don’t be so angry, I am only trying to help,” Fada responded, trying to stay patient. “I am returning home after a few weeks away herding cows with my uncle. The well was on my way. Do you want to come with me or not? We could be there in less than two hours if we hurry. I know the way, even in the dark.” He understood their fear and distrust. He too had been terrified by the armed men. He wondered what had happened to the village where the well had been attacked. He had heard stories of people being kidnapped during these types of raids, and then left stranded to die in the middle of the desert.
“Two hours! I don’t know if I can go that far,” wailed Raichatou. “I’m so hungry and thirsty.” Mouheini sympathized with her, but then she thought of Tahir. “We don’t have any choice,” she declared. “We could die out here.” Choking back tears, Raichatou and Takat nodded their assent.
Takat asked Fada if they could have a sip of his water. He handed over his plastic milk jug, and each took a swig. He then pulled out a few wild yellow berries from his sash. “Would you like some?” he offered. The girls took them gratefully, suddenly feeling more energized, thanks to the sustenance, and to Fada’s generosity. Mouheini pulled out her last few pieces of dry meat, which she shared with everyone. “Before we head away, we must retrieve our donkeys,” she declared. Fada offered to help her find the animals in order to allow Raichatou and Takat time to rest at the termite mound.
The four companions stayed clear of any vehicle tracks, fearing a return of the armed men, and hid in the shadows of the night. Fada asked a few questions in an attempt to converse with Mouheini. He explained that he lived in a village shared between Tuareg and Fulani, which was why he spoke some Tamasheq. He told them that Cheikh Almoustapha, a well-respected Tuareg religious leader from neighboring Mali, presided over their village. He felt sure the cheikh would be kind to the three water searchers.