Sadouan sat underneath a goat-hide tent, braiding her daughter Mouheini’s hair. The air inside was stifling. It was early May, with temperatures soaring higher than 45 degrees Celsius. It was rare that Sadouan could get her fifteen-year-old to sit still, so she tried to ignore the heat. For over nine months it hadn’t rained, and there was no water to bathe with. Skin infestations had become common yet again, as they did every year during the hot season. So, she took advantage of the moment to remove fleas and lice from her daughter’s scalp.
“Mother, you are pulling too hard!” Mouheini complained. At the same time, a goat walked into the tent. Sadouan gently shooed it away, “I have nothing for you today, little one. We are nearly out of water.”
“My darling, keep your voice down,” Sadouan scolded Mouheini. “You’ll wake up Tahir!” Mouheini glanced tenderly at her baby brother, asleep on a traditional bed made of woven mats and carved wooden posts. “The braids need to be tight so that they will hold until the Tabaski festival,” Sadouan said. “You must look beautiful. I’m giving you the special festivity braids.” She smiled and added teasingly “Abdoul will be here.”
Abdoul was Sadouan’s nephew. Mouheini and he had been betrothed since her birth. They were to be married the following September, after the rainy season had ended.
Thinking of her daughter’s wedding reminded Sadouan of the day, sixteen years ago, when at age thirteen she had married her own cousin Alhassan. Arranged marriages to cousins was a centuries-old tradition for these Tuareg herders in the Azawak, a huge plain of sandy grasslands in northwestern Niger, on the southern rim of the Sahara Desert. Yet, Sadouan did have concerns. Would Abdoul be a good husband to her firstborn, she wondered? Would he be able to provide, so that her daughter and her unborn children would have food to eat every day? And most importantly, would they have water? A constant search for water had become an ever-increasing preoccupation in the Azawak over the past ten years.
“Mother, I wish you would not remind me about Abdoul. I do not want to marry him.” Mouheini knew that in the end she would not have a choice. But she wanted her mother to know that the situation was not of her own volition. “My dear,” responded Sadouan sympathetically, “I know you are not happy about it. But you are fifteen, and most girls have already gotten married by your age. Your aunt is starting to wonder if you will ever marry Abdoul. She and the entire family are becoming impatient.”
Mouheini knew she could not convince her family to change their mind, so she changed the subject. “Anyway, Tabaski is a few days away, so why are you braiding my hair today?” She winced as Sadouan tightened a braid. “I do not want to sit here in the heat, I want to go with the other girls now. It’s much cooler underneath the acacias. Please, Mother!” she begged.