How to be happy

During my tour of the tiny ‘Centre d’appareillage’ at Niamey’s central hospital I met Hawa. She had already greeted me enthusiastically, speaking in perfect French when I came in. I wasn’t sure whether she was staff or patient.  She was practicing walking, with one leg of her own and the other an artificial one that was produced at the centre.  After my rounds I returned to where we had met. She was taking a break. What she is doing, learning to walk again, is hard.Hawa1

We sat for about an hour and chatted. I learned that she was from Agadiz, a city more or less in the center of the country, which also happens to be the meeting points of all the traffic routes: trafficking of drugs, weapons and those poor souls from all over Africa who spent fortunes to get to a very uncertain future in Europe, if they make it through the Sahara at all, and survive its various predators, heat, thirst and then the boat ride to Europe.

Hawa and her family were in a car when they were attacked. Here in the Sahel and Sahara, there is the equivalent of the Somali piracy practices. Most of the attacks are done by criminals who want cars and money, or maybe they are just high on drugs and have guns they like to shoot.  She was severely wounded and, her luck, picked up by ICRC and transported to the hospital. At the hospital her leg was amputated. After that she became a patient of the rehab center where I am spending this week. She is poster lady for CICR, for the rehab center and for the miracles that P&O (prosthetics and orthotics) professionals and physical therapists can perform.

Hawa is about 40 years old and has three children, divided between her ex-husband and herself.  Her French is so good that I suspect she was a school teacher but I haven’t asked. There are so many other things I want to ask her about her life before and after.

I noticed she had the name of a man tattooed on her arm, looking much like the numbers one sees on the arms of concentration camp survivors. I asked her what that was and why, wondering whether she was, at a young age – it was clearly an old tattoo – promised to a man who had already written his name on her. The ensuing conversation was a bit confused and I could tell she was not willing to share much with several men standing nearby. One of the attending therapists told me she had written it herself because she was in love with that man, at which she started to laugh. It’s hard to imagine a woman in this conservative country doing such a thing. Suffice to say she is no longer married, also unusual. Maybe hubby has taken a younger wife elsewhere – after all what good is a wife with only one leg.

There are other people I saw in the center and in the adjacent PT section, with what look like bullet wounds and/or amputations. Some told me their stories – attacks survived. North and Northeast of Niamey is like the Wild West, where there is only one law which is dictated by those who have the most guns, good transport and money that can buy loyalty from anyone hungry for money.

In the book A Force for Good that I am reading, about the Dalai Lama (and written by Daniel Goleman) he tells the story of someone who is asked to comment on people who are ultra rich. He responds by saying, incredulously, “but they only have one stomach?” I was wondering about these warlords and traffickers in the Sahara – they too have only one stomach; what can they do with all these riches they accumulate, while traversing the Sahara, over the bodies of all these hapless people, seeking a better life?  Maybe they drive around in a nice car, with air conditioning, a Rolex on their wrist and the latest Apple watch/phone. But they are in the Sahara where there is no electricity, no recharging stations, just heat and sand. Do they care what time it is and whether they had sufficiently REM sleep last night?  Are they happy? And then I think of Hawa and her smile and her positive energy to embrace whatever comes her way.

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