In the Niger River region, there is a town whose name is the stuff of dreams: the mysterious Timbuktu. They say that, a very long time ago, the nomads entrusted the care of a well there to an old ... [+]
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Translated by Kate Deimling
Her name is Amina. The keeper of the tribe's goats, she knows all the paths and all the trails on the great plateau of white stones that stretches all the way to the horizon. She walks and hops on the broken pebbles, which are sharp in this expanse where there are neither trees nor grass. She knows how to lead her flock toward the basins that hold water, where greenness remains. But this year, the rain hasn't come. For long months they have been waiting for it, hoping for it, praying to God to send it, and scanning the sky. Will these big black clouds come and bring smiles back to the adults' faces?
Sometimes when the sun's rays shine, she finds refuge in a hollow rock and, rediscovering ancestral gestures, she carves signs onto the limestone wall. She is the daughter of the desert. She knows its traps and dangers: the scorpion who raises its tail as soon as it is flushed out, ready to sting the intruder. She fears most of all the wind, the one coming from the east, preceded by the flight of dragonflies who, driven away from their oases, fly toward the ocean that roars in the distance. Last night Amina heard its breath, she felt the tent cloth fill like the sail of a boat. But at sunrise, only a light breeze remained, and the sun rose into a blue sky. Yet this calm is suspect, this abnormal motionlessness, as if nature held its breath before inhaling once more. The animals are nervous. Apparently indifferent to signs, all the members of the family have resumed their activity. Around noon, a few insects whirled by, and the breeze picked up and changed direction. Coming from the north, it arrived from the east, bringing heat. Quickly they got everything organized, put away the equipment, secured the ropes, closed the animals in the protected pen, but nothing came. At twilight the wind changed direction once more, and the sun set behind dark clouds. Then the storm rumbled. The thunder bird is hungry, Amina thought.
She remembers the legend that her grandmother told her one stormy night when fear made her rush into the old woman's arms. The thunder bird is a giant bird who lives in a big black cloud in the distance, far off toward the west. When hunger torments him, he flies off and goes to hunt a gazelle or a fennec fox. Flying over the earth, the beating of his huge wings produces a rumbling, his powerful breath triggers a tornado, and lightning bursts from the flashing of his eyes. When he is satisfied and replete, he returns to his nest and the calm returns. Fear makes the cumulus clouds burst and nurturing rain waters the desert.
Amina hopes for the thunder bird but she trembles when lightning splatters the plateau with brightness.
Suddenly the rain comes; it's always nighttime when the rain comes. The big drops fall and patter on the fabric of the khayma over their heads. Water streams over the hills and the rain bounces on the ground and mixes with the dust, raising a good smell of wet earth. The women are busy, putting out containers to collect water from the sky, and the men are already planning to sow the fields. Amina is happy; tomorrow will be a bath day.
The tribe goes to sleep lulled by gentle music. It rains all night long and at dawn the sun rises in a completely blue and cloudless sky.
The thunder bird has reconciled man and nature.