I like to go for walks around the neighborhood where my guest house is located early in the morning, along broad dusty streets planted with mature trees. The air is cooler (That is to say not scorching) and things are quiet; one feels that the City is waking up. Women walk by balancing loads on their heads, children on their way to school in crisp, brightly colored cotton uniforms. The heavy, powdery red soil muffles sounds – a taxi slips buy almost silently like a sailing boat cutting through calm water in a light breeze.
The sky is big and pale blue with some of the haze from yesterday gone. Mornings start out at a mild 21 degrees C (70 degrees F): by Noon we’ll be at 45 C (105 F) and I’ll be heading to the cool of my room with a ceiling fan on full throttle.
I find my way to one many tea stalls that dot the road on a wide, plastic bag strewn, dusty street. A teapot heated with a few pieces of charcoal, simmering. A dozen men are gathered sitting on benches in the shade talking in an animated fashion. Some buy instant coffee, others single cigarettes.
Still others, OTC medicines – e.g. Paracetamol, heartburn relief, something mysterious for back pain – that the enterprising chai man sells. I get a very strong, very sweet glass of tea with a sprig of mint for about $0.20 and take my place on a bench and listen to my neighbors chat and watch life unfold on the street.
A few goats nosing through piles of plastic bags and other refuse, bags caught in trees and bushes and coils of razor wire flapping in the wind. A bright pink spray of Bougainvillea reaching over a compound wall. Pocket mosques every other block; their calls to prayer are remarkably subdued; perhaps a tacit admission that they own this market. Half built construction projects, firewood and large sacks of charcoal neatly stacked. A herd of old tube televisions. Stacks of tires here and there.
Niamey is the capital Niger and, at 1.2 MM people, by far and away its largest City. Droughts in the ‘70s and ‘80s drove folks to the City and Niger’s birthrate – at 7.0 per thousand, the highest in the world – has driven the City’s growth. If growth continues at present rates, the country’s population will double in 18 years; this will make raising it out of poverty very difficult.
And Niger is poor. Dirt poor. The country comes in dead last out of 189 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index, a measure of health and well being. Almost half of a recent government budget was funded by international donations, and the country’s GDP per capita – a measure of wealth – is lower than 180 countries and more than only four other African countries and a couple of failed states. The country is large – double the size of Texas or France and its northeast third is trackless desert, populated only by a few traders and nomadic herders.
The Chinese have been exploring for oil and gas and, in a weird twist, agreed to build a petrochemical refinery here (These are normally built on coasts with access to large markets – Niger has neither). The country’s oil production is expected to grow significantly in the next few years. France sources most of its uranium here for its nuclear reactors and so take an active interest in the affairs of the country. France produces 75% of its electricity using nukes – a remarkably green way to live.
We tour a market where folks make all manner of things – buckets from inner tube tires, large cooking pots in sand cast aluminum sourced from old engine blocks and drink tins. Adzes, axes and hammers hand made. A Nigerien Maker Faire The flood of Chinese manufactured products you see in most developed countries is not evident here likely due both to the country’s income level and its lack of an ocean port.
At a casting shop, some men shape moulds in damp clay with an expert touch – the mold a large cooking pot with walls less than an 1/8th of an inch. Others melt scrap aluminum down in a foundry fueled by charcoal and hand pumped bellows. They ladle the molten aluminum into the clay molds wearing absolutely no protective gear. Flip flops, bare hands, no eyewear.
We visit a welder that makes parts for the manual pumps for hand dug wells that Jim works on. Two boys no more than 10, wearing flip flops, working alone in a shack with a grinder, a drill and an electric spot welder, skillfully repairing some chairs. Sunglasses for eye protection. Work-study Nigerien style.
On the busier paved roads through the City, one sees pharmacies every 400 – 500 meters, distinctive with their sparkly bright green LED signs. Without fail, nearby you’ll find a patisserie that makes passable croissants and baguettes and carefully iced pastries and cakes. Undoubtedly the French insisted on this setup: get your meds and then have a nice pastry. Or maybe have a nice pastry instead of your meds. I purchased some cold medication at a large pharmacy and was smoothly upsold a fistful of antibiotics, which I declined.
Niamey’s airport is modern, built for an African Union conference a couple of years ago, and feels calm and lightly used, displaying a fearsome dinosaur skeleton found in the desert by researchers from the University of Chicago. At the far end of the runway is an American military base that manages a fleet of drones that monitor and occasionally strike Islamist groups: things have been unstable in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Northern Nigeria for a few years, with fighters returning from the Middle East looking for things to do.
Downtown has a modern strain, with several high rise buildings, including a new French hotel and a conference center with, disconcertingly, a statue of Mahtma Ghandi at its entrance. Ghandi had a low opinion of black Africans when he lived in South Africa (He was in a struggle to differentiate “Coloreds” – South Asians – from Blacks in the country’s tiered apartheid system), after studying law in London. There have been protests against erecting his likeness in countries like Malawi.
The area along the Niger River – La Pays Bas (Lowlands) – is five or 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the City and is quite green. Small plots with neatly tended vegetables looking verdant and productive. Men and women scooping water from open wells in large buckets: access to water gives life. Random amateur-built speed bumps, tires marking private parking spots and drivers expertly navigating the maze, tooting, starting and stopping. The odd cart being pulled by a sinewy donkey.
A Hausa Church
Jim and Jodi attend a Hausa church – the tribe that dominates Northern Nigeria and is mostly Muslim there. The tribe extends West and North to a couple of hours East of Niamey, so Hausas in Niamey, and particularly Christian Hausas are not common.
Rapidly spinning ceiling fans keep the air moving as it warms up outside and provide a thrumming background noise which all but drowns out the MC talking in Hausa and French on a portable sound system. Women sit on one side of the church with beautiful attire and covered heads, men on the other. Children are scrubbed and clean and well dressed.
Several scripture passages are read with calm and earnest sincerity. The choir, nicely decked out in solid choir robes, sings with abandon – we join them by reading transliterated Hausa hymns set to old school Methodist tunes (“Nearer My God to Thee”). The pastor gives a sermon in French, with simultaneous translation into Hausa – with the odd translation correction politely shouted out by the congregation. His talk ebbs and flows over the course of an hour and folks seem satisfied with both the quality and the quantity of the sermon.
As the service ends, with the choiring recessing out the main door, warm greetings and loud conversation, we leave, 3.5 hours spent under thrumming fans, and climb into our nicely broiled SUV. Down the alley where the church is located a tent and chairs have been setup for family celebration.