Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World

by Paul Stoller


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Yaya's Story: The Quest for Well-Being in the World by Paul Stoller

When Paul Stoller was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2001 he was understandably despondent. But as odd as it may seem, the presence of cancer in his body opened up a new pathway to personal growth and development. The nature of that pathway is illuminated in this new book through a combined life history and memoir of Yaya (El Hajj Yaya Hamidou), a Songhay trader whom Stoller befriended during his fieldwork in the Malcolm Shabazz Market in Harlem. The book tells the tale of two restless, world-traveling men whose lives converge, sparking mutual understanding regarding key emotions that define our humanity. Just as Stoller has “sat” with African masters (of spirit possession, healing, and commerce), he invites his readers to sit with him to learn lessons about the lifelong quest for well-being, for being comfortable in one’s skin and in the world. He describes the elusiveness of well-being, and the social nature of the quest. The metaphor of pathways makes the combination of socio-cultural context and unexpected contingencies vivid. We not only see how different are the lives of West African art traders and North American academics, but we come to understand how the witnessing across cultural divides of the uncertainties of illness and identity create spaces where wellbeing can emerge. Using concepts of wellbeing learned from his Songhay friends and teachers, Stoller realizes that wealth in commerce is only one half of wellbeing; the other half has to do with the cultivation of wholesome relations with others who are directly a part of what makes life meaningful. In the end, it is the trust one is able to cultivate with family networks and friends—what Stoller calls “wealth-in-people” —that allows each of us to generate wellbeing, to cultivate wholesomeness in our own lives by the way we comport ourselves in social exchanges with others, be they life-giving or life-taking. This is a remarkable book—part ethnography, part biography, part autobiography, and altogether quite excellent storytelling.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226178820
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/08/2014
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Paul Stoller is professor of anthropology at West Chester University. He is the author of many books, most recently Stranger in the Village of the Sick and The Power of the Between, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press. 

Read an Excerpt

Yaya's Story

The Quest for Well-Being in the World

By Paul Stoller

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17896-7



Niger is a hard land. When you first confront Niger's heat, it grabs you like an angry wrestler. The air feels like a fire burning close to your skin. Even in the cool season, the sun is intense. The unremitting presence of such searing heat creates a rugged, parched vista: vast clay plains that pancake to distant rocky buttes that give way to other stretches of tawny plains that abut to yet another line of rocky buttes. Clusters of scrub, an occasional acacia or baobab break the flat sameness of the brown haze of rock and clay. A few clusters of green in the distance sometimes mark the presence of a water hole and perhaps a well-situated village whose inhabitants can exploit the regular presence of water in an arid land. When you travel toward Niger's northern provinces, the vegetation thins out. There the plains are often strewn with rock. Buttes give way to dunes. Eventually, you cross an invisible border and find yourself in the Sahara. No matter where you are, the Harmattan, the desert wind, swooshes across the plains, kicking up dust devils here and there, carrying with it the stale odor of dust.

* * *

When you travel to Belayara, which is only sixty-six kilometers northeast of Niamey, Niger's capital city, you see vast stretches of those desiccated rock-strewn plains, the flat monotony of which is occasionally broken by buttes that rise up along the horizon. In Niamey, your taxi, a Toyota minivan, makes its way to the Wadata market, which is near the intersection of the Boulevard Mali Bero and the N25, a "paved" road that snakes its way from Niamey's northeast quadrant toward Fillingue. The market consists of a series of dirt paths that divide row upon row of mud brick and crudely crafted wooden stalls. Roofs crafted from corrugated tin or daub and wattle protect the stalls from the elements. The market is densely packed with buyers and sellers who trade all sorts of goods transported on donkey-pulled carts, burdened donkeys, or loaded camels. As you pass the market on the N25 its din gradually fades as you head toward Niamey's outskirts. A police checkpoint marks the edge of the city beyond which you get your first glimpse of the bush's vast emptiness.

At first glance the landscape is marred with garbage—mounds of it line the road. Beyond the heaps of trash lie innumerable shards of discarded plastic bags that the wind has wrapped around scrub brush, scraggly acacia trees, and an occasional tamarind. Niamey's uncultivated "suburbs," which seem devoid of village life, have become the capital city's dumping grounds. Given Niamey's ever-increasing population, it takes some time to clear the trash fields. As the taxi enters the bush, the road deteriorates. Frequently you must leave the pavement for the older dirt road to avoid axle-breaking potholes. The older road takes you to a village of conical mud and thatch huts, a ramshackle market of stalls fashioned from sticks and woven grass, and a well-manicured mosque marked by the deep green of a freshly painted minaret. Dressed in rags, a cluster of children will smile and wave as you pass them. They are soon obscured in a cloud of dust—the wake of the vehicle. Leaving the village, the taxi soon returns to a trackless bush of empty fields, rocky stretches of scrub plain, and the outcroppings of sandstone buttes. After crossing ten kilometers or so of rocky plain, you come to another village, which looks surprisingly like the previous settlement—mud-brick houses and huts, a dusty market space of empty lean-to stalls, and a well-kept mosque. As the taxi heads farther north and east, the plains get sandier and dunes rise in the distance like so many loaves of bread. The road conditions continue to deteriorate. Crumbling edges and gaping craters make it ever more necessary to follow the winding ways of the old dirt road. Where a washed-out bridge appears, the taxi has to cross a deep-sanded wadi—a good place to get stuck. If the driver has packed metal planks to put under the buried tires, it's relatively easy to get free. Perhaps ten kilometers from Belayara you begin to see people streaming toward market. Some ride donkeys or camels. Some market goers ride carts loaded with firewood. Dressed in colorful printed cloth, women walk with pots balanced on their heads.

When the taxi finally gets to Belayara on market day, you see a village clogged with huge transport trucks, minivan taxis, cars, people, camels, donkeys, horses, and cows—so many cows. On the outskirts of town you pass an empty primary school. Farther on, there is the mosque. In the town center a cement building whose whitewashed walls have been dulled by exposure to wind and dust houses the post office. Nearby is a bar and restaurant. Just beyond the bar toward the north stretches a large and vibrant market, a series of sandy paths bordered by hundreds of market stalls where merchants offer colorful Songhay blankets; mats woven from dried grass; long leather pillows, dyed red and yellow with leather tassels; onions, garlic, tomatoes, and greens (in season); spices; clay pots, porcelain plates, knives, and forks; Dutch wax print cloth; kola nuts; and tobacco. You can even find furniture—desks, chairs, bed frames, and mattresses.

Beyond the market stall area, there is a wide-open space where livestock—cows, sheep, and goats—is bought and sold. Herders travel for days to bring livestock to Belayara. Buyers from Nigeria and Benin travel for days to purchase some of the best cattle in West Africa. They eventually load the cattle into large trucks that will deliver their cargo to southern markets where they will gather a good price and a handsome profit.

By late afternoon, the market begins to wind down. Fully loaded trucks leave the vehicle depot, which is situated next to the livestock space. Headed for distant destinations, the trucks rumble onto the paved road. Stuffed with people and goods, overloaded minivans putter along the road. Perhaps they will make it home without a breakdown? Fully loaded donkey-drawn carts, camels, and donkeys begin their slow return to home villages. Men, women, and children follow these beasts of burden. They, too, carry bundles of goods. Just before your own return, you go to the bar, order a cold drink, and repair to a shady courtyard, where you find musicians who play lutes and sing Songhay epics—all for a modest fee.

As you climb into the taxi for your return, the market din subsides and you notice that Belayara has begun its slow return to a normal state—a sleepy town on the road to Fillingue, the seat of the provincial government.

* * *

Like most markets in West Africa the one in Belayara has been shaped through gender and ethnicity. Gender usually determines what you sell. Women sell fresh and dried spices, milk and cheese, and handicrafts like woven baskets, fans, and mats. Sometimes women sell peanut oil, but so do men. Men sell blankets and bulk printed cloth as well as rock salt brought in from mines deep in the Sahara. They also sell leather goods—wallets, sandals, hassocks, and pillows—and fuels like kerosene. Men also own the rights to buy and sell livestock.

Ethnicity also plays a role in market dynamics. In Belayara region there are four major ethnic groups. The principal group is Songhay-Zarma, direct and indirect descendants of the Songhay Empire, a medieval state that ruled much of West Africa. The SonghayZarma population is complemented by two semi-nomadic groups, the Fulan, cattle herders known for their love of the freedom you find in isolated stretches of bush, and the Tuareg, desert nomads known for their past marauding and bellicosity. Finally, Hausa-speaking populations, long known for their long-distance trading, migrated to the region to exploit regional markets.

At the market Songhay people sell foodstuffs and spices, blankets, and are livestock brokers. Fulan people sell cows, milk, and butter. Hausa people butcher meat and cook market kabobs. They also sell leather goods. Tuaregs buy and sell camels, sheep and goats, firewood, and rock salt. If Tuareg smiths are present they will sell hoes, knives, spears, boxes covered with tooled leather, and silver jewelry. Yoruba from Nigeria sell hardware—forks, spoons, pots, cooking knives, nails, and screws.

As a characteristic market town the population of Belayara is not only multiethnic but multilingual as well. Accordingly, many of the market-savvy residents in Belayara speak not only Songhay but also Hausa, the major trade language in West Africa, and Tamasheq, the language of the Tuareg nomads. Put another way, the size and reputation of the market makes the small town of Belayara a cosmopolitan space. Many of its inhabitants have traveled far and wide following long-established trading routes as well as those more recent.

If you grew up in Belayara, the market and its ethos would have had a deep impact on your worldview. From an early age Yaya and his brothers, Abdou, and Daouda, learned that the trading life was an honorable one, a life that could bring a person both money and social prestige. They learned that truly prosperous merchants not only enjoyed material prosperity but also possessed "wealth in people," a person with a wide network of people whom you could trust.

From talking with senior traders, the young Yaya learned that Islam is central to trading practices. The key to successful trading, according to the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, devolved from relations based upon mutual trust. If a trader extended credit to trading partner, he or she would expect that the credit to be repaid. If a trader purchased goods from a partner, he or she would expect that partner to ship those goods.

And so growing up in Belayara exposed Yaya and his brothers to the West African culture of trade, the lure of the good sale, the adventure of travel, and also to the considerable comforts of home. When traders returned to the market from long trips to Niamey, Niger's capital; to Lagos, Nigeria; or Lomé, Togo; and most especially the thriving metropolis of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, they would recount their adventures in distant worlds of wonder—the food of youthful imagination gave young men the appetite for travel. But they also stressed how good it was to return to the familiar smells and sights of home. What could be better than to return to the warm embrace of their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters?

Abdou, Yaya's older brother, left Belayara in the late 1950s. A fraternal relative invited him to work in Abidjan, which, at that time, was a fabled commercial city. The young Abdou sold watches and bracelets in Abidjan markets and following the instructions of his elders saved as much money as he could. In time, he had the capital to buy and sell his own goods—soap, hard candy, chewing gum, homespun cloth, bracelets, and cheap watches. Because of his entrepreneurial talents, he gradually expanded his network of suppliers and clients. By the time he was in his early twenties Abdou had fashioned himself a place in Abidjan's economic life. He had become a trader of nyama-nyama, a little bit of everything.

Although Abdou had learned to speak, read, and write French in elementary school, he saw his future along the path of commerce. Yaya, too, attended primary school and did well enough to become a student at the middle school in Fillingue, the provincial capital. There, he boarded with a family that housed and fed him—not always so well. Despite being far from kith and kin, Yaya liked studying French, math, and science, and also took to the study of English, which was required in middle school. Like his father and older brother, he made sure to recite his prayers five times a day, and when the month of Ramadan occurred during the school year, he fasted from sunup to sundown.

By the end of middle school, in 1970, Yaya, now a teenager, decided to forgo his formal studies. At the invitation of his brother, who by now had married and had become a successful Abidjan trader and the head of a growing household, Yaya traveled to Abidjan. It was his first step on the path of trade. Despite these adventures, he admitted to me during our conversations at the Warehouse or at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, he always looked forward to return visits to Belayara.

For his part, Daouda excelled in school. Yaya's younger brother was among the best students at the Belayara primary school. He won entry into the Fillingue middle school, where he impressed the teachers. In his last year of middle school, Daouda received high marks on his brevet, the exam you must pass to enter a lycée or a normal school. Because he wanted to be a primary school teacher, Daouda decided to attend an École Normale. By the time Yaya had begun to buy and sell Tuareg jewelry in Abidjan—silver Agadez crosses and beautiful silver rings—Daouda had graduated from normal school. He found some temporary positions in isolated villages but couldn't find a more permanent position in a larger town. Eventually, he, too, decided on a life in commerce. He left Niger and joined his brothers in Abidjan. Like his brothers, he looked forward to return visits to Belayara.



With the arrival of Daouda in Abidjan, the three brothers began to prosper. Abdou took an interest in wooden masks crafted by ethnic groups in the Côte d'Ivoire. From Abidjan he traveled upcountry into the forest to buy Guro and Baule masks. When he had amassed a substantial collection of masks and figurines, he flew to Paris, where he sold them to other African traders or to tourists at the flea market at the Port de Clignancourt.

The quick sale of the collection produced handsome profits. Abdou used these to invest more extensively in the highly stylized masks and figurines of the Guro and Baule peoples. In time, he brought his inventory to New York City, where the profits proved to be more substantial than those in Paris. As his inventory grew in size, he shipped containers of masks and figurines to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they cleared customs. He then brought the goods to the Warehouse where he consigned them to trusted couriers who would take them to private clients or to African American trade shows. These sales also produced substantial profits that Abdou used to buy more masks and figurines, build houses in Abidjan and Belayara, purchase transport vehicles, and buy precious gems—mostly rubies and diamonds.

By the late 1980s Abdou had hit his stride. He had a home and farms in Belayara, a house in Niamey, Niger's capital city, and an extensive compound in Abidjan. He had been to Mecca two times, had three wives, and more children than he could count. Every year, he spent several months in North America, mostly in New York City, but sometimes he visited clients in Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Montreal. He had become a highly respected and prosperous man who had amassed "wealth in money" and "wealth in people." Despite his extensive travel, Abdou always found time to return to Belayara.

Daouda, the former primary school teacher, took a commercial interest in antique tools and weapons, horse and camel saddles, and household items like stools, neck rests, and chairs. He started small in Abidjan but eventually amassed a substantial inventory of items, which enabled him to shepherd his pieces first to France and then in 1995 to New York City. Unlike Abdou, he preferred to do all of his business in New York City. Traveling to outposts like Chicago, Indianapolis, or Dallas did not interest him very much. In time his family also grew—two wives, many children, and houses in Belayara, Niamey, and Abidjan. Although he could afford to travel to Mecca, he practiced a more relaxed Islam, which meant that he hadn't yet made the expensive pilgrimage.

Yaya wanted to sell objects that Tuareg smiths crafted. These included finely etched silver rings, some new and some quite old; and silver and brass bracelets, also finely etched with geometric designs. He also collected the famous Croix d'Agadez, a tooled cross, inspired by the Southern Cross, that had as many as thirty design variations. When Yaya had put together a substantial inventory of these objects, he, too, decided to try his hand in the North American market, which by all reports, including those of his older brother Abdou, seemed ripe for exploration.


Excerpted from Yaya's Story by Paul Stoller. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Prologue: The Story of Yaya’s Story

1    Belayara
2    Three Brothers and the Work of Art
3    New York City and Transnational Trade

4    Silver Spring
5    Stumbling into Anthropology in Niger
6    New York City, Immigration, and the Warehouse

7    The Shadow of Sickness
8    Three Years in the Shadows
9    A Remarkable Convergence

Epilogue: The Quest for Well-Being in the World


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