George told me not to bring the sleeping pad or water jug or English language translator I had arranged; he would take care of everything. In fairness, he agreed not to bring any prostitutes so it was probably an even trade.
We took off Thursday on short notice and teetered into the bush in his beat up Toyota with the flatbed enclosed with canvass and rope. I rode shotgun and the translator and George’s young, poorly treated assistant crammed in the back seat with the water and ammunition.
After a few bumpy hours we reached a sizable village and met the regional chief. He and George are good friends and George presented him with some fruit and retrieved his gun. As we sat outside the chief’s small mud palace, George explained our hope to film in a certain village with water problems. The chief said the village we wanted to visit was out of his dominion but he would take us to one of his own villages with the same problem.
It was pointless to argue but I did a little anyway.
We ended up sleeping in the main village on a concrete slab outside a seemingly abandoned home where the chief may have lived before he became chief two decades ago at 28.
After forever our dinner arrived and the chief sat with us while we ate. Whenever George eats anything he makes loud noises of extreme culinary pleasure punctuated with exclamations about the quality of the food. It gave me some insight into what I would have heard if we had actually brought the girls.
We set up mosquito nets and I said I might as well sleep on the sand since the concrete was hard and George hadn’t let me bring my pad. “I thought you said you had another pad,” George said. He gave me a spare pad which didn’t hurt at all or help nearly enough.
Breakfast was served with the chief’s compliments around 7am and then we headed out towards the dry, sparse, remote expanses of perhaps the world’s poorest country.
As we rode through town people noticed the chief in our car and bowed with interlocked hands as he passed. As we rolled out of town George spotted some birds, grabbed his gun from the back and shot five of them without leaving his seat. George’s emaciated dog chased aimlessly after an injured bird.
“He can’t catch anything,” Brahim, the translator, said with a laugh.
George slit the birds’ throats but blood only oozed from the neck of the living, injured one that had careened into a fence and been retrieved by a neighborhood boy while the dog ran in circles.
We reached the targeted village around 10am. It lacks not just water but power and transportation (other than a few donkeys) and when we emerged from the Toyota all 150 residents made a semi-circle to greet the chief and his two white visitors.
The local village chief sat with the three of us as the regional chief explained how the white guy with George was a journalist. He would show people the village’s water problem and hopefully that would lead to someone building a well for them.
George and the chief drove off to buy eggs a few hours away and Brahim and I looked around town for the proper subject.
I ultimately chose a woman with a very nice smile and three adorable kids. I had followed her and others to the well, which was supposed to be six miles away and was actually two. Two miles is still pretty far.
This was all just a getting-to-know-you day. I woke up the next morning at dawn and started shooting.
There is no one I know harder to engaged on camera than poor, rural, uneducated, Muslim women; though I’m certain you could remove any of those four adjectives without lessoning the challenge.
Isha was the hardest interview I’ve ever attempted and the first to include an in-interview breast-feeding. The average length of her answers was less than five words. But the interview (which is just a small part of the overall shoot) was very well lit and had one moment of serendipity as she discussed the quality of the water she retrieves and showed a murky bucket of it next to her, all while feeding some of it to her infant son who, as if on-cue, spit it out and grimaced.
Things ended pretty badly with Isha. The shoot was sunk when her mom convinced her not to make the daily trip to the well even though we had decided to follow her because she said she would be going. The mom dropped endless hints that she would like gifts but never actually asked for one. I decided to pack my journalistic ethics for the trip to Africa and not pay for interviews, though this policy can be morally confused when the requested sums are so small and ABC and NBC recently offered six-figures to none other than Paris Hilton if she would sit down with them.
Without batteries to shoot another day (or electricity to charge them) returning to Niamey was our only option. You could make excuses, assign blame, or extrapolate the meaning of the wasted day forever but I think that would be pretty useless.
We drove back with the kind of exhaustion and crankiness I’ve only encountered from severe heat and dehydration. And, I suppose, a lot of wasted effort. It wasn’t lost on me that my exertion was roughly equivalent to the villagers. Except I didn’t carry 100 pounds of water two miles. And after two days I got back in the Toyota.