It wasn’t just any crafts store, selling cheap souvenirs to tourists. Tourism had long ended in Niger and the only foreigners passing through were by and large in the aid sector. Many of the visitors on UN Missions or working for NGOs like myself found an oasis in the Grand Hotel du Niger since it was not encouraged to go out walking on your own, and the large terrace overlooking the River Niger afforded a beautiful view of the sunset which even a CNN crew decided to photograph, before heading up to Agadez the next day. The Internet connection was barely functional so we spent most evenings on the veranda playing tag with the elusive waiters who were far less numerous than the cats that straddled our feet pleading for a morsel.
I would only be in Niamey for less than a week, before heading East to another town, just past the Kouré Giraffe Reserve, hoping to spot a giraffe on the side before getting to our workshop site. So I meandered in to the crafts shop in the hotel to purchase my few gifts early in my stay and struck up a conversation with the saleswoman. Who would expect to find a nun in robes behind the counter? For a good cause, I learned that she spends a proportion of her time in the store, to promote the sale of jewelry, bags, T-shirts, and a plethora of other items made by local craftspersons. While her visibility was rather remarkable – a nun in a Muslim country and then in the role of a shopkeeper – Sister Tia was unusual in many ways. I quickly came to observe that she had a personal relationship with each of the local artisans and with each piece of jewelry or cloth came a story, not only of the designer but of their lives and trajectories.
She began by explaining the gallery of photographs on display in the lobby of the hotel. They were the work of a Peace Corps volunteer who had spent years in the region of Diffa but had to flee his post due to the activity of the Boko Harem. But she too had to do the same, after 30 years of living amongst the Tuareg and other nomadic people of the region of Agadez, she had to leave her home, because of the insecurity along the border with Mali. And such has been the case for many inhabitants in the region, driven out by grinding poverty or insecurity that they would risk crossing the Sahara, only to wind up in Libya where they were likely to be imprisoned and tortured. While I was in Niger, 52 migrants lost their lives in one day after being abandoned by traffickers in the desert. A trail of similar stories appears regularly in the news.
Sister Tia belongs to the order of the Petites Soeurs de Jésus who are spread across the globe. Frère Charles de Foucauld who founded the order developed a love for the Tuareg in Algeria, after living an eremetical life in the desert, and settled with the people, learning their language and culture. His sainthood and inspiration after his tragic death gave rise to a community of nuns and priests whose life choice was to live simply and in the fashion of the people they served. What impressed me in particular is that they saw their devotion as service and specifically did not proselytize, contrary to missionary groups who stay anchored in one place for that sole purpose.
In between the stories of her artisans and the vivid descriptions of each piece she picked from the shelf, Sister Tia, who still seemed to me an anachronism in her vendor role, was responding to phone calls. And then the conversation would turn to the friends and acquaintances who seek her advice or consolation. “Imagine this,” and she would go on about the Nigerian man who died on vacation in France and his own children do not want to accompany the corpse back to Niamey. Sister Tia, originally from the Netherlands, spoke with a natural enthusiasm about everything, switching back between French and English, but also quite adept at greeting a Nigerian who stepped into the store in the vernacular. She was quintessentially accommodating, absolutely present for every single incident that arose and without the least sense of annoyance or distraction.
I made several trips to the shop during my stay and I felt connected to the personal lives of the artisans. I never questioned the price tag and I never felt pressured to leave with more than what I wanted. And in my own inspired state, I wrote to a friend during my visit there and told her about the shop run by a nun. A blessing in disguise, she asked me to buy a silver necklace that might very well have been the most expensive piece in the whole shop. I had to find a way to cobble together the money and when I managed to bring in the sum, Sister Tia said the family had been waiting to hear if I would purchase it. It was surely the equivalent of several months of salary and already the young artisan was planning on sending a good share of it back to his family in Agadez, while keeping some for his closer members in Niamey. An entire extended family had benefitted from one necklace. I was elated to say the least! Little did I know that, more than my assembly of small purchases, the greatest gift was the bounty of insights I gained into the country and its people from the heart of a Little Sister of Jesus.