Comes A Horseman

COMES A HORSEMAN Joel Neuberg July 11, 2011


I once owned three horses. When I arrived to begin two years service as a Peace Corps volunteer in the village of Guecheme, Niger (West Africa) in the summer of 1967, I discovered I had inherited a house, a houseboy, and a horse. The house was a substantial mud brick structure with a cement floor and a corrugated iron roof. The downside to the house was that it was a school building about a quarter mile from the main village in a low lying area that had been the center of town before the chief had moved everyone to higher ground. The villagers believed the old village was populated by ghosts who came out at night, so no one came to visit us (my roommate, Sandy Leeder, and I) after sunset. The downside to the houseboy, a skinny fifteen year-old kid named Anaruwa who spoke passable French and had a perpetual grin that made you smile just to look at him, was that he was so respectful of his employers that he was unwilling to explain to us when we were on the path to disaster. The downside to the horse was that it was lame, spavined, sway-backed, and appeared to be starving to death. Being very young and foolish, I supposed the horse short-comings would be easiest to correct.

After four weeks of studying the Hausa language fourteen hours a day with one of Anaruwa's former schoolmates for a tutor, I thought I was ready to buy another horse. Anaruwa's uncle Dan Sumba found us another farmer who was interested in selling a horse, and we met him and his horse in a compound in town and began the timeless ceremony of horse trading, just one way station on the endless road of Hausa negotiations or ciniki. My Peace Corps training on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix had actually included instruction by former volunteer and actual farmer Warren Enger on buying a horse in Niger. I remembered it was important never to accept the first asking price and that you could expect to settle on a price about half of what was initially asked. I remembered it was important to closely examine the mouth of the horse you were shopping, so I courageously approached my prospective steed and got his lips curled back and teeth separated so I could look into his mouth. My sage examination drew appreciative hums and grunts from the crowd of bearded men who had taken time out from their busy day of sitting around chewing goro nuts waiting for the millet to ripen to watch the tall mallam anasara (European teacher) trying to speak the tongue and getting snookered in a horse trade. Unfortunately I didn't remember what I was supposed to be looking for in the definitely not a gift horse's mouth, so I just looked and moved on to counting the legs (four) eyes (two) and ears (two) out loud much to the amusement of the crowd.

I bought the horse for nine dollars, a grey almost Appaloosa looking beast which looked a great deal healthier than the brown equine skeleton chewing the sparse weeds in the schoolyard bequeathed to us by Guecheme's previous PCV. I was already contemplating how to unload the first horse and where to acquire the ornate boots I would need to be an impressive knight on the second. If I had paid more attention to Enger's St. Croix lecture on horse trading, I would have known what I should have been looking for in that horse's mouth: the teeth were worn enough for advanced maturity; the roof of the mouth was so scarred by the traditional Hausa spade bit that no rider would be able to command obedience with a hackamore, a snaffle or a curb. If I had looked at the horse with other horses standing nearby, I would have learned another important feature of what I soon would be calling my Trojan Horse: he was too small. The first time we went riding in the Sahel, fully outfitted on medieval-looking Hausa saddles, blankets above and below, saddlebags for travel essentials and sorghum for the steeds; Sandy on the wasting brown and me on the lively grey, our horses soon stepped into the slight depression that was the main trail from Guecheme to Fadama, and I found myself standing on the ground holding the reins. The horses legs were so short and mine so long that he had simply walked out from under me when my heels touched the ground on either side of the trail. We eventually found a Fulani herder who cured the brown horse of most of his difficulties through a worming process that was two thirds magic and one third traditional medicine. There was nothing we could do to get the grey to grow at his age, so he became Sandy's mount on the occasions when we both needed to ride at the same time.

My third horse was a beautiful black gift. Tall and healthy with a soft mouth, he was a magnificent animal who put me in mind of the Black Stallion of books and movies. I can't remember who gave him to me or what great deed I was being honored for with the award of a wonderful horse, but after a year in Niger, I had figured out the true relationship among Hausa farmers, Hausa horses and American Corps de la Paix.

Sandy had caught Anaruwa stealing grain that was supposed to be used to feed the horses, and I was trying to work out whether and how we could fire the houseboy whose main tasks for his sixteen dollar per month salary were to feed the horses, arrange for women from the village to feed us dishes consisting largely of millet and goat guts, to get our clothes washed, and to provide the household with potable water. Anaruwa, of course, did none of this work himself. He was the supervisor of a complex web of relatives who made a small profit from bringing us food, water, firewood, and anything else we might need to survive. Sandy and I each had a monthly living allowance of one hundred twenty-five dollars. With his salary and the disposition of about one hundred dollars of ours, our houseboy was the fourth biggest employer in town (after the deputee – the equivalent of a U.S. Congressman, the Chef du Canton/Ministre du Justice who simultaneously held the posts of County Supervisor and Attorney General of the Republic, and Dungaladeema a kind of local sheriff cum chief of mounted police). Uncle Dan Sumba explained that firing Anaruwa would start dominoes falling that would eliminate any position of respect we had managed to established in a year of bringing the Green Revolution to struggling subsistence farmers. The sub-text of this explanation was that it was actually Sandy and I who were at fault for paying Anaruwa such a low wage that he had to steal from our horses to feed his ever more numerous dependents. In the end, we boarded the horses (essentially gave them away) with separate Anaruwa relatives along with a monthly feeding allowance, part of which it was understood would be taken to feed hungry children.

Once the horses were disposed of, all we had to do when we were ready to tour the nine villages of our far-flung agricultural cooperative empire was to inform Anaruwa that we would need the horses ready at dawn. He would then inform the responsible relatives who would be holding the reins in the courtyard when we awoke. We would, of course, have to compensate the hostlers for the grain they would miss out on while we were on tour for some weeks, but that was understood. With me mounted on the Black and Sandy on the brown horse, we looked less like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza than when he rode the grey and I was saddled with the Rocinante-like brown.

The boss of my African boss in the Niger Union of Credit and Cooperation was an Israeli agricultural expert named Moshe Artzi. On the single occasion when I reported directly to Monsieur Artzi, he told me to savor my position as an American Peace Corps Volunteer. “No other country in the world would make it part of their foreign policy to send a couple of Jewish boys half-way around the world to play cowboys.”   

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