Early in the afternoon we left for Rharous, a town even further to the north. Our caravan had grown by one car as some of the Islamic Relief officials from Gossi were joining us for the trip to Rharous and then onward to Timbuktu. Until now, we had been traveling on paved roads. Now we found ourselves off-road bouncing over sandy humps, tires spinning in deep sand-filled gullies, similar to the way a vehicle might move through twelve inches of newly fallen snow. Our driver being the most experienced, and our car being the strongest, we took the lead and quickly moved far ahead of the two of the other cars. Little did we know, one of those cars would become stuck in the sand. After a couple of hours, we stopped in a vast open plain, literally in the middle of nowhere and waited about an hour for the others to catch up. When they did, they described how the car had been stuck in the sand; how the men had unwrapped their turbans and twisted them together to make a rope that was used to tow the car out of the thick dunes. However, the car was also experiencing mechanical problems and would have to be abandoned in the desert.
As we were waiting for the cars that had lagged behind, one of the most incredible experiences of our trip occurred. As I mentioned, we were in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by giant termite mounds, some of them at least ten feet tall. The vegetation was scattered desert scrubs. A trail that was beaten into the sand by the hooves of camels, still the most reliable means of transportation in these parts, was the only sign of human activity. As we stood outside the car stretching and enjoying the cool breeze of the declining desert day, we saw a distant figure approaching us. As he drew closer, we noticed that he was carrying two staffs, one noticeably longer than the other. When he finally reached us we learned that he was an old man as shriveled and emaciated as the old, pruned-up water skin he was carrying. He evoked the description of the traveler described in one of the prophetic hadiths, “…dust-covered, disheveled hair, having traveled a long way.” He signaled that he needed water, which we readily provided. He squatted and proceeded to empty half of a large bottle of into his parched body. He then indicated that he had a headache, most likely brought on by sunstroke, a sure consequence of the unforgiving midday desert sun. We offered him half a bottle of aspirin. He took two and deposited the rest in a little pouch dangling at his side. He fervently thanked us, praised Allah with equal resolve, and then as mysteriously as he had appeared, he slowly walked off into the desert and soon disappeared. When we related the story to Belcasem Nadi, a member of our delegation who hails from Morocco, but now lives in the United States, he opined that the man was in reality an angel, sent by Allah to test of generosity. No one present, still struck by the mysterious aura of the desert visitor, was inclined to disagree.
After redistributing the supplies and passengers of the broken down car among the other three remaining vehicles, we continued onwards. Ten kilometers later, we approached another village. It was a sparsely populated outpost, close to a lake, that would probably be dry in a couple of months before being replenished by the much anticipated summer rains. We were welcomed into the walled courtyard of a hospital where we performed Asr prayer in the rapidly disappearing light of the waning day. The men in charge of the hospital, a well-built structure, informed us of the sad reality hidden behind its colorful concrete walls. The government had built the facility, but had no money to run or staff it. Hence, it was as bare as the desert expanses we had traversed during this particular afternoon. No doctors, no nurses, no medicine, no furniture, no equipment, and most critically, no water meaning the hospital could not accept patients. The Islamic Relief official with us, discussed the feasibility of building a deep, small bore well in the area, a vital first step in rendering the facility viable. Were that well to be built, it would provide 11,000 people scattered around the area with a source of clean drinking water. Perhaps someone reading these words can step forward and finance such a project.
In the dusk of twilight we set off on the final leg of our journey to Rharous. We arrived some time after ‘Isha. We prayed Magrib and Isha prayers and then enjoyed yet another splendid meal that had been prepared for us by the staff of the large Islamic Relief compound located in Rharous. This meal was unique in two ways. First of all, it was being enjoyed in the open air, the roofless courtyard of the facility. The cool desert air and the canopy of stars afforded our “restaurant” a charming ambiance. The meal was also enhanced by a large bottle of thick, molasses-like desert honey, which proved the perfect compliment for bread accompanying the meal. Exhausted, satiated, and enveloped by the now cold air of the surrounding desert, with the serene timelessness of the River Niger flowing in the dark a few hundred yards beyond us, as we would learn from the rooftop in the morning, we all collapsed into a deep and rejuvenating slumber.