First Kiss. First Love. Pt. 1

First Kiss First LoveFIRST KISS. FIRST LOVE. (1/3)
In this photo, my daughter, Indima is kissing our neighbor, Adam. While I sat outside their squatter hut with Adam’s mother, Haoua, chatting about life, money matters, and happiness, Indima fed Adam pistachios that we had brought back from France. Adam must be very special to Indima for her to want to share her special treat. She would pop one into her mouth, and then the other into his. Then, every once in a while, she would bend over to kiss him and hold his hand. Goodbyes were difficult; as we left to eat lunch at home only two houses down, she cried and cried, waving goodbye to her first love.


The Shangri-La of Tofatat


THE SHANGRI-LA OF TOFATAT: The next thing Aubine and I did was to climb high into the boulders, through indescribably twisted passageways where we repeatedly had to help one another. At the summit of Tofatat we discovered a natural marvel whose existence still baffles me to this day: there was a small limpid pond surrounded by an earthen sward where a few flowering acacias and tender shoots of grass grew.

In our travels we had occasionally chanced upon pools of water in rocky Saharan environments. Called “gueltas” in Arabic, they were usually fed by rain but sometimes by springs. However, we never before had encountered such an anomaly at the highest spot in a citadel of stones — especially during the dry season! Because of the vegetation we decided that our guelta must be fed by an underground source. But where could spring water come from, here at Tofatat; and how did it rise to this level?

Aubine and I were enthralled at finding this unexpected Shangri-La. We danced and hugged each other, and splashed rapturously in the water. Grateful that the life growing inside Aubine could experience our euphoria, we felt more blessed than ever by Creation. Together with our child-to-be, our growing “family” became like a vessel for the energy flowing from the boulders, the guelta, the trees, and the deep blue sky.

Text: by Michael and Aubine Kirtley, excerpt from “An Invitation to Tofatat” published in “The Walkabout Chronicles, Epic Journeys by Foot”, recounting their first trip to this mystical land of dreams.

Photo: by me… upon my return as an adult to the one place on this earth that I can truly call home. Here a lone donkey enjoys the grasses of Tofatat’s plains.

The Escorts

The Escort

THE ESCORTS: In this photo, I am with my big brother Tercelin, surrounded by mask escorts of the Guere tribe in the Ivory Coast. (Soon thereafter, I was kidnapped by the mask of comedy). The escorts warn the arrival of a mask to the villagers by conducting cartwheels and other acrobatics.

The escort has a crucial role.  He oversees the safety of the mask, and serves as the mask’s interpreter given that he alone has the right to speak to the mask.  The number of escorts depends on the importance of the mask.

Photo by Michael and Aubine Kirtley, my parents, who were on assignment for Jeune Afrique.

The Artist

The ArtistTHE ARTIST: Aghali , aged four, belongs to a reknown family of Inadan, the Touareg artisan cast. The man, the Inadan, makes tools, crafts intricate jewelry from metal, makes camel saddles, sharpens stone… the list goes on.  The women artisans, the Tchinadan, are leatherwork specialists.  They craft bags, pouches, and various decorations from beautifully dyed leather.  The artisan tradition is inherited from father to son, mother to daughter, and Inadans almost always exclusively marry amongst themselves.

Aghali’s family has been very close to mine now for three generations. His grandfather was a close friend of my parents, and made several pieces of silverwork that were featured in National Geographic. I learned of his passing only a few days ago. RIP, Saidi!

Mother’s Day Everyday

In this photo, I am dancing with my son, Soriya during a cultural festival at what was to become his school in Niamey, l’Ecole Primaire “Alliance”. How blessed I am to be a mother of three sparkling, curious, hilarious, and brilliant human angels; to share every single day’s adventures, joyful moments, and frustrations with my teachers in life.  With them, I am humbly learning to grow more patient, and to view the world through their innocent eyes of love and understanding.  In return, I share with them the world, exposing them to cultures and ways of life that permit them to question what they know and understand, so that they can shape their life view, with a better understanding of a global world; so that they may develop tolerance for the unknown and unfamiliar; so that they may welcome discomfort and question what the world presents and exposes to them.

Sunday was mother’s day in the USA.  While I actually believe that every day is mother’s day, I would like to dedicate this next week in particular to mothers around the world by showcasing mothers through my pictures. I would like to display the universality of motherhood: the joy, the love, the frustrations, the questioning, the concerns, the daily life, the struggles, and the brilliance of what it is to be a mother.

From Guerwuls to schools

From Guerwuls to schools
Fada dressed for the Guerwul ceremony, which celebrates the rain, and where Fulani men dance and sing for women


Fada, adorned with charm talismans, a round feather- topped hat and a Tuareg saber, came bouncing toward me as I struggled to walk through through prickly burrs. “Hey, follow me, I’ll show you where it’s best to step,” he said. “Come to my camp. It’s just over that dune.” Two hours and about 2,000 prickly burrs later, with a herd of long-horned cows following, we arrived at his home: a wooden bed and a table covered with calabashes.

The camp was deserted. “Oh, I forgot—everyone has left to prepare for the Guerwul tomorrow.” I had heard of Guerwuls, beauty competitions held by the Woodabe people, a subgroup of the Fulani. “Can you come?” Fada asked.

As we walked back to my camp, I asked Fada if he had ever been to school? At first he laughed and then answered that the Fulani reject education; a child who attends school is considered dead because he or she no longer understands magic or the art of herding.

This is how Fada’s uncle, Ali, came to go to school 35 years ago. French colonists demanded that his grandfather, the chief of his camp, send the children to school. He sent only his own grandchildren to their “death,” Ali among them. Ali ran away and hid in the bush for three weeks, traveling by foot through unknown prairies. When he reached his camp, the white men were waiting. He ran away five more times before accepting his fate. Ali never returned to life as a herder. He now works for a large development organization based out of Niamey.

After I refreshed myself with a bowl of curdled cow milk and promised to see Fada at the Guerwul, he said, “I’d would have liked to go to school. Maybe when I have children, there will be schools in the Azawak for them to attend.”

Photo: Fada dressed for the Guerwul ceremony, which celebrates the rain, and where Fulani men dance and sing for women.  Text: adapted from “Water is Life, A letter from Niger”, by Ariane Alzhara Kirtley, in “Yale Medicine”.

Amman Imman

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Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

These young boys were driving their oxen home after a long days work farming along the Niger river. I can only imagine their joy arriving at their hut, eating a hot meal of rice and sauce prepared by their mother, followed by a welcomed night’s rest provided by a familiar mat strewn on the pounded earth floor of their home.  Like most sedentary folk around the world, they would soon find comfort and peace in their familiar “nest”, surrounded by beloved friends and family. 

This concept of “home”, which often includes a personalized physical location, feels alien to me. “Homeward bound”. What does this mean to those of us who belong to the nomadic breed?  I am home in the unfamiliar, in the discovery, in the discomfort of the unknown.  I am home close to God in prayer, surrounded by my children, as we take off on a new adventure to meet new cultures and novel lands. 

Forever the vagabond, the untrampled path provides me solace.

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