Sunday, August 12, 2007

Relationships in a world of epithets

One of the most complicated things about Niger is relationships. They are not the least complicated when you are there, but are very much so when you are absent.

Before leaving for Sweden this year, I made a deal with my jockey, whom I had a very high opinion of. He told me that he was tired of touring and that he wanted to stay with his family in Zinder, working exclusively with my horses (personal loyalty is such a huge issue in Niger). I perceived him as genuine (in being tired of touring, because I knew he loved his little girls), and I decided to give it a try. "No one would be happier than me," I told him, "but if you're going to live of my horses and my horses only, then you need a raise. I don't need you now, but I do need you later on." All cards were put on the table; I told him what I needed, what I expected (and what I would be paying for!), and an agreement was made.

For the first two months, things seemed to be going well. Yaronbaba came regularly and rode out the horses, sometimes to the track, sometimes to the bush. He had my full confidence and I knew the freedom of action was important to him.

In my absence however, something must have happened, for three days ago, I was informed that he had told the workers that he was not actually working for me, but was just "helping out a bit". In fact, he had so many other things to do (read: touring) that he hadn't been to ride my horses during the whole month of July (!). This was not what we had agreed upon.

I don't know what saddened me the most; loosing my confidence in him or the fact that he of all people had told an untruth (and being irritated when doing so). He, my Nigerien brother, who so enjoyed being taken for real, being treated as an equal, who thought truth was the foundation for trust and all those things we kept talking about. His recent behavior was a sudden and dramatic change of character, and such a drastic change that I had trouble believing it at first. What had happened that made him pull out, and why on earth did he start lying about it?

Being so far away, I do not have the answers. I have no idea what went wrong. It could have been lack of money. It could have been lack of prestige as well, because although I make people feel equal when I'm there (by not letting people carry things for me or greet me with two hands as a sign of submission, or bowing (!) when they receive their well earned salary etc), they don't seem to be able to hold on to that dignity when I'm not around, which the entire society telling them that a man in Niger is judged by his tasks. Niger is full of epithets. If you ride a horse for someone, it places you as "the little one who rides the horse to the track". If you are a jockey, then you cannot ride a horse to the track as that is a lowly job; and hence, you need a motorcycle, even if this eats up better part of your salary.

In the beginning, I really enjoyed going to the track and turning a very narrow world upside down. Since owning a horse was one of the highest signs of "social accomplishments", it gave me a immense platform for social development.

In a world of epithets, I was the only "woman" to own a horse (which made me a man, lol!), the only "horse owner" to actually ride her own horses, the only "important person" to sit down on the ground and mingle with the "lowly people", and the only "trainer" who offered my jockey to drink from the same water bottle as herself! There was no end to my inspiration, which was only fueled by the fact that the most prominent "accomplished people" were following suit! All of a sudden, horse owners started to touch their own horses, sit on the ground and "mingle with the lowly people", train their horses Swedish racing manner etc. I was thrilled - and I must admit: slightly hooked. The racetrack became my playground.

There was one big catch however. Despite my good intentions, the racetrack setting (featuring all the who's whos of Zinder) just didn't bring out the best of me. I remember one discussion I had with God, coming back from the track after having publicly humiliated my former jockey. I seem to possess a talent in the art of making people I dislike feel uncomfortable about themselves, and this guy had really let me down. But the one I answer to wasn't as pleased with me as I was. When coming home, a very simple question popped up in my heart, breaking my train of thoughts:
"Do you think that what you did today will inspire him to become a better person?"
The question startled me. I was on the verge of defending myself, but in the same moment that the question had been raised, I knew the answer to it. No, taunting a broken soul publicly was not going to inspire him to become a better person. The only thing that had been proven was my talent in fighting with words. I had used the right words, but had the wrong desire, and what I had done might in fact have a worse effect on him than had I just concentrated on forgiving. I was ashamed of myself, and taken aback. Why did I - despite my good intentions - join the line of people who live to achieve their own means? It definitively gave me something to think about.

Now, the recent discussion with some of the most prominent programmers with interest in Africa has taught me one very valuable lesson. You can either spend your energy discussing and arguing in order to point out other people's faults and mistakes. Or, you can leave those things behind you and go do something constructive with your life.

Putting it simple: the rac track is not my turf, and it does not bring out the best of me. Yaronbaba's recent behavior suddenly made a previously difficult choice very easy for me. When the last jockey disappointed me, I broke with him but not with the track. This time, I will break with the track, but not with the person who disappointed me. And the funny thing is that although loosing my jockey would seemingly give me less liberty, it frees me of the (unwanted) social obligations that I have somehow managed to take upon me, concerning the forum for all the who's whos of Zinder.

Let them have their track. The horses were meant to be a blessing, not a curse. I want to live my life feeling alive and in tune with my heart's desires, and the challenge that lies ahead of me - in contributing to help the poorest of the poor achieve a sustainable life - calls for my full attention.



karin andersson said...

Tråkigt att läsa om din jockey, jag vet att du hade ett sådant förtroende för honom. Det är inte kul när människor man haft höga tankar om gör en besviken. Hoppas det löser sig för dig!

Kram Karin

L said...

Good choice!

Ishtar said...

@Karin: I know, it's sad when it happens, but it's life. At least life in Niger... :-) He's a decent guy really. I'll be interesting finding out what happened, although it won't have any impact on my choice to pull out of racing. Finally, I'll get to roam around the countryside with my crazy mare without anyone telling me to be careful and "save her for the next race". :-)

@L: Thanks! Some decisions can be hard to make (for variable reasons) but once you've made them, they feel so good! And this just feels right... How's your own girl doing?