Being white in rural West Africa has unexpected drawbacks. There’s all the pointing and staring from the crowd as you arrive in a far outpost of a village via a decrepit Jeep. Then there’s the kids who dare each other to run up and touch your arm or pull your blonde hair, only to run away squealing. There’s the young boy who hides behind his father’s legs, crying, and when your translator asks him what is wrong he says he thinks you have no blood. There’s the even younger boy, naked except for the amulet that kids his age wear sashed around their swollen bellies, who darts out it front of his mother offering up his small frame to protect her from you, the foreigner with skin that requires heavy duty sunblock and a body that can’t seem to stay hydrated no matter how many liters of bottled water you drink.
It was one of my first nights in Africa, staying in a Malian village north of Timbuktu. I hadn’t been keeping up my fluid intake and I woke disoriented, after having thrown up in my sleep. There was a clear directive running through my head: get water now. I peeled off my vomit-soaked shirt and stumbled to the entryway (there was no door to the room where I slept). Perhaps it was the water in the communal cistern that had made me ill, I thought to myself, realizing that my only option was to get clean water from the pump at the edge of the courtyard. I looked out across the expanse of darkness, with only a smattering of stars peeking out from behind the clouds, and accepted that I couldn’t spot the outline of the pump handle. I knew that would walk into oblivion if I didn’t set out directly for it.
I stood there on the threshold unsure of what to do. After a few minutes, a stroke of luck came in the form of heat lightning that shot across the sky and showered a few seconds of light to the ground below. I saw the pump, clearly, and started out across the sandy ground toward my salvation. Every few minutes I waited for another flash of light to guide my way. Before I was halfway there I lost consciousness and crumpled to the ground.
I don’t know how long I lay there but eventually I came to, nearly naked on the desert floor, looking up at the vast sky pinpricked by dots of light that had started their journey many years ago and now gradually entered my field of vision as my eyesight restored itself. I crawled the rest of the way to the pump and slaked my thirst in drops by squeezing the water into my cupped palm and tipping it into my mouth. All around me the villagers slept on. My only witnesses in that vast emptiness were the twinkling stars and bolts of lightning that watch over us all.