Doing ‘The Toad’ in Niger

We’re blowing down the open road at 65 mph. The sky has darkened to steel blue. Thunder is rolling across the hot Nigerien scrub. Van Morrison is on the radio, and I’m harmonizing with him.

Well it’s a fabulous night for a moon dance
With the stars up above in your eyes

Then, without warning, Mamadou cuts in.

Can I just have one more moondance with you my love.
Can I just make some more romance with you, my love.

Who knew? Mamadou, the CRS driver, has got some pipes on him. While neither of us will ever win a Grammy, Mamadou isn’t going to let that stop him from showing off his vocals to his captive audience: Me.

Niger driver

Mamadou Issoufou, a driver for CRS Niger, stands with Lane Hartill, West and Central Africa regional information officer. Photo by resident of Niamey, Niger

The passenger seat next to a CRS driver is where I learn the most about the countries I visit. And the drivers who educate me are some of the most valuable employees at CRS.

There was Ken in Ghana who spoke 15 languages, and Ernest in Congo who, during the conflict, smuggled targeted church members to safety by dressing them up, hiding them in the backseat, and bribing men at road bocks. During a 17 hour drive with Moses to southern Liberia, we sluiced through roads as soupy as oatmeal and never got stuck. But that’s nothing. During the civil war, Moses sweet talked stoned teenagers into lowering their guns and letting him through road blocks.

It took some time for Mamadou to open up. We’d sit for hundreds of miles in silence. To pass the time, I made a list of the things I liked about Niger: the cattle horns as long and sleek as Harley handlebars, roasted skewers of succulent beef, tall men riding short donkeys. And then a song would come on and Mamadou would come to life, shocking me with his knowledge of American 80s music.

We both love Dire Straits and Michael Jackson in his prime. Like me, he was a break dancer in younger days. Before I knew it, Mamadou and I were talking sports – another mutual love of ours. He’s a volleyball player. We debated the merit of jump serves and how to put side English on the ball. And despite his size (he wouldn’t look out of place in an NFL locker room) he told me he loves ping pong.

Mamadou is a sports nut. During those stifling days in Niger, Mamadou filled a sports void in me that always gets deeper and darker when I’m on the road.

Mamadou and I also had something else in common: Both of us could drink incredible amounts of water. That meant Mamadou had perfected the fine art of the pit stop.

“Time to water the flowers?” I’d ask him.

“Yep!”

After our gardening was done, we’d stretch our hamstrings, Mamadou counting out the seconds like a PE teacher.

I’d jog around the truck. Sometimes I’d backpedal up and down the highway, resorting to old basketball drills to get the kinks out of my legs.

Just outside of Dosso with the temperature hovering just under 100 degrees, Mamadou who’d been driving about five hours straight, decided to join in.

“Toad! Toad!” he yelled at me.

“What?”

“Do the toad.”

“What’s that?”

“You do like this,” he said, sticking his arms straight out in front of him, and then squatting into a deep-knee bend. Then he exploded upward and landed in another squat.

I couldn’t resist joining him.

Long-haul truckers stared. Mini vans bulging with passengers gaped. Men dozing under nearby trees rolled over and must have thought they were dreaming when they saw us: A massive African man and a wiry American, bullfrogging their way up the national highway.

– Lane Hartill, CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa

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