Streets of Lido
THE STREETS OF LIDO Joel Neuberg July 16, 2011
At the end of the 1968 rainy season, I moved into the recently abandoned Jack Saunders residence in Lido, Niger. Jack abandoned the house, a two-room adobe brick thatch-roofed African hut with a mud floor, because he was extending for a third year to ensure the success of his plan to bring democracy and a form of literacy to the peanut markets of the farmers’ cooperatives in our part of West Africa. He had a car, a little French Deux Chevaux that only took two people to get back on the road if it got stuck in the sand, a house in another town, and a job that put him in charge of several cooperatives with several thousand farmer/members, two of which were “directed” by Sandy Leeder and I. Also, the roof of Jack’s house had collapsed toward the end of his residence there, and beyond clearing away the fallen mud, thatch, and roof poles; he did little to repair the situation. I knew I would leave Niger before the next rainy season, so I, too, much to amusement of my African neighbors, lived in a house open to the daytime blue sky and the stars at night. Sandy was in Guecheme, a town of 3,000 people that was the center of a cooperative that included another dozen villages for the peanut market. I was in Lido, a much smaller operation that would, none-the-less see the sale of thousands of hundred kilogram sacs of peanuts during the two-week market after harvest.
There were two main crops grown in Niger: Millet, used in the United States primarily for birdseed, is the corn-wheat-barley-sorghum-soybeans of Niger. It, and little else, was grown to eat. Peanuts, though producing some oil for local consumption, were grown to export to France, producing some cash for the farmers so they could pay their taxes and purchase meat, clothes, and anything else they needed that they couldn’t grow. The peanut harvest and market was a time of frantic activity. Farmers harvested their crops, picked up burlap sacs from the coop, transported the sacs of peanuts to the scales in Guecheme or Lido, read Jack’s ingenious bareme/scale to determine how much they should be paid, collected their money, paid their debts, and tried to buy something useful with what money they had left. During my first peanut market in Guecheme the previous year, I had distributed about a thousand tiny Dexedrine pills ($6 for a number eight can) to laborers, tailors, truck drivers, weighers, and donkey drivers trying to stay awake to make a year’s income in two weeks.
Every morning at sunrise I shared a continental breakfast of buttered bread and coffee with three of my African counterparts: agricultural extension agents and cooperative organizers. The café au lait was served in a gourd the size of a bathroom sink and consisted of a can of Nescafe instant coffee and a pound box of sugar cubes mixed into about a gallon of scalded milk. On the seventh day of the market, I could not get my nightly figures (money, peanuts, empty sacs) to come out right. I realized I had had no sleep at all in eight nights. I sent a kid with a note to Sandy in Guecheme, seven miles away: “No sleep in eight days, ask missionaries for sleeping pills.”
About two in the morning, I heard the clop clop of hoof beats that seemed to be coming from the sky through my missing roof. Then a mournful voice singing:
“As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a poor cowboy all wrapped in white linen;
Wrapped up in white linen and cold as the clay.”
I was sitting on the mud floor with my back against the wall as I took the pills and Sandy (an accounting major with an MBA from Columbia) cooked my books by the light of a kerosene lantern. When I woke up in the same position twenty-seven hours later, Sandy was gone, and there was a note on top of the stack of my corrected records: “No more coffee!” I’ve been decaffeinated ever since.