Amanda Jones
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One Night in the Sahara

Written by Amanda Jones for the Kindness of Strangers book, published by Lonely Planet, 2003. Edited by Don George, introduced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

On the subject of kindness, I recall one night when a man with whom I could not speak saved me.

I was in the Sahara Desert, traveling with a group of people I neither knew nor liked especially well. We were en route to a Tuareg wedding, moving via jeep during the day and sleeping under the stars at night. It was arduous travel. The daytime heat was stupefying and the drives were long, with nothing to do but stare morosely at the passing desert.

I would wait for the nights with their cool air, the gloom relieving the sun, the moon hovering huge and the Milky Way luminous. And each evening, after my companions ate dinner and retired to their mattresses, I would leave on a walk.

That particular night I left camp at about nine, foolishly dressed only in a thin cotton shirt and light trousers. The sky was inky and the moon had arced high, casting a metallic light on the ground. The desert seemed radiant, and I was overjoyed to be alone and moving.

After an hour, I finally turned back towards camp. It was not until that moment that I realised how far I had come and that I had no idea where I was. I looked for footprints, but beneath my feet was hard-baked earth - flat and stony. With horror I realised there were no landmarks and I had left no trail.

Resisting panic, I looked to the sky as I imagined one is supposed to do in such situations - and found I was, of course, utterly clueless about celestial navigation. As I stumbled onward I was reminded of a game I had once played with a Tuareg guide in the Western Sahara. He had delighted in taking off one of his many scarves, wrapping it around my eyes, leading me in a straight line into the desert, then telling me to find my way back, blindfolded, to the starting place. It seemed easy enough, child's play, but I was hopeless, repeatedly veering off course. The more certain I was of my direction, the more off I was, as if the desert itself conspired against me. My stately, indigo-shrouded guide had laughed, then had me spin him in circles before performing the task himself. On every occasion he strode back to the starting spot without faltering. When I asked how he had learned this trick, he replied, 'It is no trick. It is the most important rule of the desert. You must learn to watch, to be sure and always remember where you have come from.'

And so I now had broken the cardinal rule of the desert. The flamboyance of my stupidity dawned on me. I was a city girl who fancied herself an adventurer and now I was lost with no water, no food and no warmth. It was almost comical in its cliché. The cold had descended and I shivered; Sahara nights being as brutally frigid as the days are blisteringly hot.

I lurched over the featureless land, knowing my fellow travellers would be sleeping and there would be no light coming from our encampment. I could stumble within twenty feet of them without knowing it.

I'd been searching for a good hour when I turned and saw a smudge of fire glowing in the distance. After an initial rush of relief, I froze, realizing my predicament. Here I was, a youngish blond woman alone at night, lost and increasingly desperate. Tuareg rebels ranged throughout the area and they were armed, angry and not known for their tenderness towards women.

However, having little choice, I walked towards the glow with as much assurance as I could muster. As I came closer I recognised the lone figure of a Wodaabe tribesman, his lean body draped in white robes, face encircled by a turban, aquiline features etched by the penumbral firelight.

The Wodaabe are nomads of the Sahel, the rocky scrublands that signal the beginning of the Sahara. I had spent time with the Wodaabe in the past and I knew they were magnificently gracious people, beautiful, proud of their heritage and impeccably hospitable. They do, however, have quite liberal sexual practices and an unsettling tendency to request sex of a woman by scratching her inner palm. The woman is expected to follow the scratcher then and there behind a bush - although, thankfully, the Wodaabe respect women and tend to accept rejection with a shrug.

As I approached, the man looked up in surprise. I must have made a shocking vision: a woman staggering from the darkness wearing safari pants and hiking boots. Previously, when I had camped with a Wodaabe tribe, the women had not hesitated to tell me how peculiar and unappealing it was that I wore men's clothing. With unabashed candour they had also informed me that although my long, straight hair and high cheekbones were somewhat attractive, and that my height and long limbs were good, the blondness of my hair, the paleness of my green eyes and the whiteness of my skin rendered me substantially less than desirable. Being considered ugly, I factored, could now only work to my advantage.

I extended my hand to the man mumbling, ' Foma, foma, foma ,' the Wodaabe Fulfulde greeting which means 'Hello, how are you, your family, your goats, your camels, your donkeys?' That, sadly, was the extent of my Fulfulde. I spoke again in hesitant French, knowing that many Wodaabe spoke the colonial language of West Africa. He shook his head, indicating he didn't understand, but took my hand and led me to the fire, gesturing for me to sit on the ground. He had a fresh pot of the sweet tea that the Wodaabe have adopted from North Africa. He poured me a glass, speaking soothingly in Fulfulde.

Nearby, a gargle issued from the dark. I looked over and made out the figure of a recumbent camel beneath an acacia tree. The man rose and went to the camel, returning with a cotton cloth which he placed around my shoulders.

Wodaabe are officially Muslims, although they have their own interpretation of Islam. They wear the voluminous robes of desert dwellers - designed to capture and swirl air around the skin. Good looks are highly esteemed and they are in fact a striking people-tall, thin, mocha-skinned and fine-featured.

My rescuer looked to be in his thirties. His eyes were widely spaced, almond shaped and molten brown. I spoke to him in English and French, aware it was useless, but gesturing blindly into the darkness to indicate I was lost and needed to find my camp. He stared at me sagely, although I had no idea what, if anything, he understood. He made no movement other than squatting on his haunches and pouring tea from high above the glass, returning the first serving back to the pot, as is tradition, then pouring again until the amber liquid frothed.

I stopped speaking entirely and felt the immensity of the desert. I looked about me and understood that this would be a memory that would exist in me forever. I saw myself, finally warm beside this fire, drinking tea with a stranger with whom I shared no more than two common words. My life was as odd to him as his was to me. In all likelihood he had never ridden in a car, had never seen a city, knew nothing of computers or telephones. Yet it was his knowledge I now needed, my own, more modern, skills having proved utterly useless. But what I needed most was for him to be kind to me.

After some time of drinking tea in silence, my host rose, checked the tether on his camel and beckoned to me. I folded the borrowed cloth and followed the softly billowing whiteness of his robes into the desert. We walked in quiet, although at times I would break into speech, feeling awkward with such great silence in the presence of another. He would turn and smile but say nothing, continuing to move effortlessly over the stony earth.

Several times he stopped and took my hand. When he first did this I tensed, anticipating the scratch of the palm. But it never came. We just walked like that, hand in hand, and quickly the oddity faded.

Within thirty minutes a cluster of mosquito nets loomed not ten feet in front, and then the humped shapes of the sleeping bodies beneath them. His finding this small encampment in the dark seemed to me utterly miraculous.

I turned to him, put my hand over my heart and said the only other word I knew in Fulfulde: ' Abarkidi '. Thank you. He laughed, his perfect teeth gleaming, then covered his heart and backed away, raising both hands upward in farewell. I stood still and watched until that confounding desert night reclaimed my kind stranger.