George moved to Niger from Lebanon when the fighting got bad there. He chose Niger because his cousin was already here; lots of Lebanese have moved to West Africa actually. The plan is to wait out the unrest at home for a few years and then return. Niger seemed a better bet than the U.S. or Australia because going to those more developed countries might mean never going home.
And so George has been in Niger for the last 32 years and I found him in his living room this afternoon.
The documentary I’m making will focus on the lives of several Africans and when it’s done I think the first question at most Q&As will be: How did you meet the people in the film? Maybe I’ll explain how George drove me 200 miles to a remote village where we camped for three nights to shoot with a certain woman but that won’t really explain the long and winding road of finding the subject in Niger who I haven’t yet found.
It started when I met Boudouin at a guesthouse in Burkina Faso. He’s a very kind and well placed EU official who brought me to his house here in Niamey this afternoon for the best meal I’ve had in all of Africa. Before that though we sat in his office and after some pleasantries he said, “So you want to meet a woman who walks a long way for water?”
Then he drove me to George’s house and George said I should come back later to chat some more.
I walked over to his house at 6:30, just before sunset and he invited me in. His wife looks like a younger copy of the grandmother and aunts I remember from my childhood, Lebanese women growing old in the diaspora.
George is Christian and he said that made it even more impossible to move back to Lebanon. He sympathizes with Israel and America in their battles with Islamic “fanatics.” They shoot missiles into Israel from schools and then blame Israel for killing children when they return fire, he said.
One of the big challenges filming in small villages is finding an English translator. George was brainstorming possibilities and suggested it would be better to have a female translator. That seemed reasonable enough since we’ll be following a woman.
“That way they can cook for us,” George said. “And help us out.”
It was dusky when we left his house for a little drive around town. He picked up mail from the post office and bought 15 pounds of mangoes for $4 after some intense bargaining that included adding extra mangoes to the bowl because the “scale is no good.”
Every week or so George drives out into the country to hunt duck and other birds and the plan is to hitch a ride with him this weekend to a village he knows with extreme water problems. We’ll camp out there for three nights in the hopes of shooting some video and ducks.
In the post office parking lot George—whose actual name isn’t George—made a call on his cellphone and spoke in French for a few minutes. I could tell it was about an English-Djerma translator.
“We can have two girls come with us,” he said. “One will speak good English and Djerma. She will call back in an hour but we have to see if they are pretty. And we’ll have to negotiate.”
I expressed some doubts about the plan.
“Are you afraid of AIDS?” he wondered.
Not wanting to resort to moral nitpicking I tried another tack.
“When I’m working I like to just focus on work,” I said.
“You work in the day. At night you can stop working and have fun with the girls.”
As we pulled into the driveway, George explained these were issues best resolved outside the home. An hour later, as we awaited the call-back, we were sitting in the living room singing French hymns with a missionary couple who had brought a guitar and ten hymn books. I never heard the phone ring.
George’s wife and five children were there too. His daughter was unspeakably young and unfortunately attractive and seemed to be looking at me a lot. I reckoned there was a good chance I’d be encountering her leg when we moved to the dinner table. The spectacle of the cheating husband and flirting teen singing their hymns was so deliciously absurd that I couldn’t withhold a constant grin which I hoped to pass off as the power of the Lord.
After the singing we had dinner, including some recently felled duck, and I ended up sitting next to the daughter. She was exceedingly attentive filling my plate but kept her feet to herself.
There was a Nigerian guy there fixing the satellite and he said I must not like the French language if I’d been in West Africa for two months and not tried to learn it. He’s never been to America but he can speak some English.
George decided he could be our translator but the cable man said he needed to be in church Sunday so it wouldn’t work.
The whole clan walked me down the block to my hotel and I told George I’d work on finding a translator tomorrow.
“Oh no, this guy will do it,” he said.
“Be he has to go to church.”
“I will talk to him. He will do it. But really, it would be better if we have a couple girls come with us.”
Say a prayer for me this weekend.