I have been revisiting some of my old travel writing, from long before these pages were a twinkle in my eye. These were pieces I wrote for friends which I emailed around- and got promptly told off for being far too wordy. Nothing changes. I thought I’d add some of them to this site and let you wander through some of my journeys past.
This first account is from a trip I did while working in Niger, in West Africa, in December 2005. I had to visit a program in Mauritania for a few days, and had arranged a flight from Niamey to Nouakchott. Needless to say, being West Africa, all did not go according to plan…
How Not to get to Nouakchott
Last night I dreamt I went to Nouakchott again.
Actually, it was last week. And it was more of a waking nightmare really.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I headed off to the airport. I haven’t heard many wonderful things about airlines in West Africa, and this time I was flying with some of the old favourites- Air Burkina, Air Senegal, Air Mauritanie- and with a corker of an itinerary that saw me going from Niamey to Ouaggadougou, Ouagga to Bamako, Bamako to Dakar, then an overnight in Dakar before flying on to Mauritania the next morning. (West African airlines operate a lot like bus companies- they just swing past and stop at as many different places along the way in the hope of attracting passengers). It sounded like such fun I just couldn’t wait.
But I got to the airport at two o’clock on a stifling sun-seared Saturday afternoon, and the Air Burkina Fokker Fellowship managed to make it into the air without too much complaining. There is always a sense of incredible faith in the laws of physics when strapped into some of these aircraft, an acute awareness that what you are doing is ever so slightly at the edge of what ought to be possible, that you are effectively in a controlled hurtle skywards and hanging from a very fine thread while flaps and ailerons and elevators try and keep you from settling into an easy tumble. The safety briefing before take-off consisted of pointing out the exits and directing people to the emergency card in the seat-pockets; one is not filled with a sense that people would know what to do if anything serious happened. But despite all, we touched down safely in Ougadougou, and it was hot and dry, and trouble kicked in.
What the Dougou?
Some facts about Ouagadougou:
Q. What is it?
A. It’s the capital city of Burkina Faso
Q. Burkina where?
Q. That’s a country?
A. Yes. Some of you might remember it as Upper Volta. But probably not, as its name was changed before most of you were born, or at least before you were looking at maps of West Africa.
Q. So what do you call people from Burkina Faso then? Fasists?
A. No. They’re called Burkinabe.
Q. Was there ever a Lower Volta?
Q. What’s a Volta anyway?
A. A river.
Q. So how do you pronounce Ouagadougou?
A. Pretty much how it’s spelt. Wag-A-Doo-Goo.
Q. That’s funny. Do you think that might be the coolest sounding city name in all the earth?
A. Quite possibly, though it’s got competition with Woolloomoolloo.
Q. So what does Ouagadougou mean?
A. Literally translated, it means “Take your Dougou and wag it”.
A. Yes. Infact they were going to call it “Ouagle-adougou” but they
decided that was just silly.
Q. Uh-huh. And what, exactly, is a Dougou?
A. If you don’t already have one, you don’t need to know.
Q. So, erm, not wanting to change the subject or anything, but why would somebody Want To Go To Ougadougou?
A. I have absolutely no idea.
I left the arrivals hall after getting let out of immigration with a ‘Transit’ stamp in my passport and went over to departures, fifty paces away. I stood in line behind an older Senegalese gentleman with a worried expression. The line was very long, but after a few minutes of not getting anywhere, somebody told us both this was the Air France line and we shouldn’t bother standing there. So we went forward to the front of the checkin hall and found a little printed notice on the door saying that the Air Senegal flight was delayed from 8 that evening until 6 the next morning. Super. We sat outside for a while, waiting for somebody from Air Senegal to show up so we could shout at them. None came. I chatted to a french guy sitting on the step next to me who was waiting for his partner to arrive on another flight. He’d been living in Mauritania for 4 years and he told me how to get overland to Nouakchott from Dakar if I missed my connection in Dakar. It sounded fun. I sort of hoped I would. The worried-looking Senegalese gentleman on the other side of me was called Theodore and told me he was staying at a Catholic guest-house not far away that was cheap, and did I want to share a taxi with him. This sounded like a good option, so having no better ideas as to what to do, I headed off with him and found myself at a very pleasant little compound a ten minute drive from the airport in the city centre. The place was clean, quiet, safe and friendly, and best of all clocked in at less than 10 bucks a night.
Now, a brief shout-out to all you Catholics reading this (assuming you’re out there). For those of you who have spent time in Africa, and particularly with Christian organizations, you’ll know that alcohol among African Christians is a bit of a no-no. But the wonderful thing about Catholics, the world over, is that any time is a good time to have a drink (a worldview I share, having grown up in France). At dinner it was a choice of wine or beer, and some sangria thrown in the mix as well, all of which were passed around long before anyone thought to offer me something soft, which was fine by me. With my beer I gnawed on pieces of sheep or goat. This included foot. I distinctly recall sucking on a hoof.
3.30am. There’s nothing fun about getting up before 6am, whatever the context. The taxi got us to the airport, and it was forebodingly quiet. The printed paper notice was still stuck to the door, but somebody had come along with black marker and crossed out ‘6am’ and written ‘arrives 4pm’ instead.
I dozed on the floor of the airport while my friend Theodore looked worried and sat quietly on the bench. He had a meeting in Dakar, I had a plane to catch in Dakar that I was certainly going to miss, and a very short window of time during which I could make a meaningful visit to Mauritania. We waited on the offchance that somebody useful would come, and again that ever elusive goal that somebody from Air Senegal would show up and we could have an old-fashioned tarring-and-feathering. We eventually learned that there was an Air Burkina flight to Dakar, and we endeavoured to buy tickets. We failed. There were easily 20 other people trying to get on, and Theodore and I missed seats by a long shot. By now it was 10am and we’d been hanging around the airport for 6 hours. This is not an airport like Heathrow where there are things to do. The front concourse is effectively a hallway. If you’re looking for a good time in Ouagga, don’t go there.
Having said that, if you’re looking for a good time in Ouagga, I’m not really sure where you should go. We went back to the compound. Theodore wanted to rest, so I went for a wander by myself and explored the city centre, finding remarkably little of remark. Other then getting hassled by quite a few young men, all of whom wanted my email address and all of whom wanted to be my best friend, all the while trying to sell me rubbish at extortionate prices. Touching.
Back at the airport that afternoon, and there was a growing sense of trepidation among the restless throng of would-be passengers, a mixture of hope and resignation. People laughed and muttered abuse at Air Senegal. A comradery built, as I have noticed is the wont among travellers inWest Africa, exposed as we are to the farce that is West African transportation systems. We gradually learned the story as to what was happening. The plane supposed to take us to Dakar was in the hangar, broken down. The plane supposed to bring the spare parts to fix it was also having mechnical problems. Nobody knew where it was. Including, it transpired, the people working the control tower in Bamako- one of our number with a cell-phone and a friend in air-traffic control phoned them, but to no avail. The plane remained distinctly unaccounted for.
Shortly after 4pm, when checkin was supposed to commence, we were told that it had been bumped back to 6pm. We had ascertained enough to know that at very least the plane had not left Bamako for Ouagga. We didn’t even know for sure that it had arrived in Bamako. I made a decision. If I waited, there was no guarantee of getting a flight. I could wait for 3 more days and still be here. There was a bus leaving for Bamako at 6pm. It would be cheaper than flying, and was pretty much guaranteed to get there. I asked if it was an overnight bus. Yeah, you’d be there the next morning, I was told. From there I could get a flight on to Dakar, or better still fly direct to Nouakchott. My erstwhile travel companions looked at me funny, but to me it at least meant I was doing something, and stood a chance of getting to Nouakchott while it was still worthwhile.
I started walking.
The kid I met on the street as I walked away from the airport indicated that it wasn’t far to the bus station, but after we’d been walking for ten minutes I learned that it was at least another half hour’s walk. No good. I have discovered that most Africans have a very different sense of time and distance than westerners. I eventually found out it would have taken an hour. We took a taxi, and ended up at the wrong bus-station. Another taxi got me to the right one with comfortable time to spare. I checked with the woman selling tickets. 30 bucks to Bamako.
“When does the bus get there?” I asked.
She looked a little confused, which surprised me. “Oh, sometime between tonight and tomorrow morning.” She said vaguely.
I wouldn’t learn the meaning of that for quite some time.
“You need to change busses at Bobo-Diolasso.”
“Just change and go straight on to Bamako, right?”
She told me that was right.
“What about a visa for Mali? Can I get it at the frontier?”
She said yes, it wasn’t a problem. “Ce n’est pas un problem.” You hear that a lot in West Africa. It’s not always true.
The bus wasn’t air-conditioned, and I can only assume that the Burkinabe have a thing against fresh air, because they purposefully and maliciously kept the windows shut most of the time. Note to self: next time sit by the bit of the window that opens. Unlike western buses with four seats per row, somebody clever here had managed to squeeze in an extra seat, all the way down the bus, so we were five across instead. Hard, upright seats with little padding and no movement. The word snug comes to mind, and yet somehow fails to describe the sensation of having your back pressed against the seatback behind, your knees against the seat in front, and your hips firmly lodged between the passenger on your left and the side of the bus on your right. Yeah, snug.
We left just after sunset. I braced myself for a long night. It sounded like this would be a full 12 hour ordeal. I lowered my expectations of sleeping as the journey wore on and my physical surroundings grew slowly less comfortable. We stopped every half hour or so, in no particular hurry. Sometimes it was to take more passengers or drop them off. Sometimes for toilet breaks. Sometimes it wasn’t clear, except that the young men running the bus decided they had something important to do.
Every time we stopped, and what little air was circulating fell, the sweat broke out. From below the windows of the coach, food in bowls hovered like an unearthly offering from the darkness, and voices sang out in languages I didn’t know looking for customers. The discomfort was, well, uncomfortable. They lifted the mood by playing West-African music through the speakers. Then they put on a Celine Dion CD. Imagine, if you can, the scattered falsetto voices of a dozen West-African males dotted throughout the darkened bus singing along quietly to old Celine Dion hits, and you will know what madness sounds like.
When we got to Bobo-Diolasso, it was past 11pm. I had dozed, briefly, drooling onto the bag on my lap. My eyes were itchy and I felt fetid, but I was glad to be there. Swap buses, and it was then just the long-haul through the night, and I could worry about catching my flight.
What was it that made me think anything about this trip would be that easy?
“Where’s the bus to Bamako?” I asked.
There was a brief discussion, and then they dragged me over to a wall nearby where large letters proclaimed that the bus to Bamako left Bobo each day at 1pm.
“But the lady at the bus-station in Ouagga told me they go straight through!” I protested.
“Yeah.” Said the guys with me with a knowing shrug. “They lied. They do it all the time to get people onto the busses.”
Bobo and the Dark Road
The taxi driver dropped me at a nearby hotel for the princely sum of 60 cents.
“This is cheaper than the other one.” He told me. I had done what you’re never supposed to do, anywhere really, but especially rocking up shortly before midnight in an unfamiliar town at the tail end of an unfamiliar third-world country: I had walked out of the bus depot, greeted the first taxi tout to approach me, and ask to be taken ‘somewhere cheap’.
Bobo by night was just a cluster of deserted shack-lined streets. It occured to me, briefly, that I was somewhere in the middle of darkest Africa, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, and nobody in the world knew where I was. I was led down a dark passageway and found a reception desk still staffed by an obese Burkinabe lady. I filled out the obligatory admin forms. They still make you do that at every hotel, even 8-buck-a-night hovels, right down to your passport number. One day I’ll understand why.
Hovel. The word fit so well. I had two consolations. One, the door set into the stone wall was metal and it locked from the inside. And two, there was a roof. There was also a fan. The bed looked filthy and I began to wish I’d brought my sleeping-bag and a thermarest. There was a used kleenex under one pillow, and I didn’t touch that pillow again. I didn’t lie on the mattress itself for fear of what I might disturb, but decided to lay on the single bedsheet draped over the mattress, which I assumed had a slightly better chance of having been washed since last Ramadan. I have seen hotel rooms worse; just once, in southern Sudan (which doesn’t have hotels), where there were rat-droppings on the cell-sized floors and evidence to suggest that sleeping on the beds would result in the contracting of all sorts of hideous diseases including but not limited to Ebola.
That night we had all opted to brave the snakes and scorpions and sleep out under the stars instead.
The place was noisy, surprisingly, even at midnight, and I discovered a bar across the street. There a young Burkinabe was rapping into a microphone at earbleeding volumes, but if it hadn’t been for the noise levels it was a catchy sound, a blend of contemporary western urban and traditional African beats and rhythms that worked well. He would go around to the various tables and sing/chant/rap for the various customers, who would then be obliged to give him money. I’ve seen worse ways to make a living. I chatted for a while with a young man who had managed to get himself a senior position in a national NGO in Mali and we compared notes on program implentation over beers. He was on his way home to Ouagga to see his family for the holidays, I was heading up the other way. Despite my best efforts, mosquitoes feasted on me through the night, and if I come away from this trip without a rare and intriguing disease I think we need no further proof of a loving God in heaven working miracles here on earth.
The Burkinabe are friendly and engaging, and like most West Africans, the young men are quick to latch onto a white face wandering through their town, especially when you’re the only white face. Bobo by day bustled, one of Burkina’s main towns and a huge centre of commerce. The main avenue for a couple of miles up the hill to the town centre is lined by shacks and workshops and throbbing with humanity. They are very industrious- far more productive than the Nigeriens for example. In Bobo they work a lot with metal, taking old oil drums, or aerosol spray-cans, and beating them flat or cutting them up and turning them into useful household items like stoves and pots. Close to the bus depot was an immense stack of used oil-drums waiting to be processed, easily 20 feet high and neatly lined up on their sides. The banging of metal hammers on metal sheets was like a small army of three-year-olds with Mom’s best pan and metal spoon.
Killing time wandering through town before my bus, I sat and shared a coke with two young aspiring musicians. Most of the young men I spoke with in Burkina seemed to be musicians. I don’t know how much of it is a hook to catch the culture-hungry tourists (such that there are- I never saw any white faces), and how much is just the hope of turning something fun into something lucrative. Every one of them has a story to tell, and it’s always bittersweet- the combination of the aspiration of youth and the hard confines of the realities in which they live.
I sat myself by a window that opened this time. My seatmate was a Burkinabe lady of ample proportions in her mid-thirties who filled her seat and a fair wadge of mine as well. I discovered that we would be getting into Bamako sometime around 3 in the morning. It was 1 in the afternoon.
The journey was slow. I don’t know how far it is between Bobo and Bamako, but we stopped frequently. I slowly grew to despise the four young men who were responsible for the bus, as they clearly had an agenda, stopping the bus whenever they felt like it, keeping things rolling slowly, and generally disorganized. We stopped at the Burkina-side customs office. Disembarked. Wandered through. Back onto the bus. Then the Burkina-side border police. We stood in a line under the spreading branches of an acacia tree as the afternoon sunlight deepened. My passport was taken into a back room and studied. I knew I didn’t have a proper visa for Burkina because when I’d gotten off the plane two days earlier they’d only given me a stamp to say I was in transit. They pointed this out to me, which I knew well, and I braced myself for trouble and smiled politely, and I got my passport back and was told I could proceed with my journey.
Mali. The border police were officious and curt. I got the distinct impression they liked the bus staff even less than I did. I saw one getting a lecture off to one side.
My passport vanished into a hut somewhere. I hate it when they do that.
We waited. The afternoon was hot. We stood around in the dust, and gradually, one by one, people were called forward to collect their passports.
I heard my name. There was a back window to the hut where the visas were processed, and they ushered me around out of sight of the rest of the passengers. I realised this was where they could hold the quieter conversations. It’s all a game of course, but they’re the guys with the say, so they set the rules. I was told that I had no visa for Mali. Why did I have visas for Niger, Senegal and Mauritania but not for Mali- didn’t I want one?
I told them I’d very much like one. They eventually got around to telling me I couldn’t go on, as I didn’t have a visa. I looked surprised, and quietly cursed the lady in Ouagga for telling me all I needed to do was show up.
“Go get your bags off the bus.” They said. “We’re sending you back.”
Images of spending the rest of my days caught in the no-man’s land between the Malian and Burkinabe borders in the middle of the Sahel flashed before my eyes. I grabbed my daypack from the bus (my only luggage- I was suddenly glad I was travelling light) and went back to the window. I had a hunch what was coming, but there was no point in rushing things.
“What do you do?”
“I’m an aid worker.” I told them.
“Aid? What does that mean?”
“I work in emergencies.”
“We have an emergency right here. Why don’t you work here?”
I told them our organization also has offices in Mali.
“No, here at the post. Look around.”
I had. The place was a shambles. There was no village here, just an outpost in the bush. There was a two-room mud hut for the office, a couple of tukuls and some wooden stalls on the other side of the road from which women sold fruit and men emerged with trays of brown sticky tea in shot-glasses. There was a lean-to on the back of the office, and I had noticed that one of the tarps had “UNHCR” stamped on it.
“You’re already receiving assistance.” I joked, observing the salvaged relief tarp. It fell flat. Clearly they were allowed to joke around, but I was not.
“Here’s what we’ll do for you.” Said one, making it clear that I was to understand this was a big burden for him. “It’s not worth the pain of sending you back to Ouagga. But you’re trying to get into the country illegally. So you’ll give us 20,000CFA, and we’ll give you a receipt for 9,000CFA, and then when you get to Bamako you go to the immigration at the airport and with this receipt you’ll be able to get your visa. Understand?”
I smiled and said I understood. The bus driver had started the engine and wanted to leave, and I had no doubt that he would drive off and leave me if I wasn’t ready quite soon. This looked like a bad place to spend very long amounts of time. I gave them 20,000CFA and got big smiles.
“We will drink tea with this.” They told me happily. I smiled and said thank you. The bus was starting to leave and I had to chase after it to get them to let me back on.
The shadows were already long by the time we stopped at the customs station ten minutes later. They got us all off the bus and went through everybody’s baggage one by one. Those of you with experience in Africa know what African baggage is about. Imagine the entire contents of a farm bundled into a series of suitcases, plastic bags, nylon hold-alls, with the remainder tied up in a roll with a bit of string, and then jammed into every available nook not already occupied by a human. Per family. We were there a very long time.
Back on the road, I watched the sun set through the far side of the bus. It was a perfect African sunset, the sort you see on nature videos, with a crisp disk turning from gold to orange, and finally to a pale translucent pink before being lost behind the passing thornbushes. Half an hour later, when the dusk was violet, we stopped at the side of the road for dinner, the Malian equivalent of a service station. All the transports stopped here, and before long there were other coaches pulling up. The air was warm and the scent of cooking was strong and mingled with woodsmoke. Chicken and lamb and plantain and frying oil, thick and heady. As the light faded and the stars came out, fires crackled orange in brick ovens. Transports- enourmous cargo trucks- pulled up, and human silhouettes perched on top scrambled down in a delicate ballet that always threatened to come apart, spilling limbs and wares over the road below, but somehow managed to hold together.
We continued. The moon was a sickle but you could see the whole disc still somehow illuminated. It spent itself early, and the Milky Way gleamed overhead. The pace changed. It was clear the bus company was not well liked among the Malian security, for we stopped frequently at checkpoints. Sometimes we got out and stood around in the darkness, sometimes they came on and rummaged through the belongings. We rarely seemed to keep moving for more than twenty minutes at a time.
Some time into the night we stopped again at a roadblock. Again the bags were searched. This time the stop was longer. I asked what was going on. I was told we were negotiating for security as the road ahead wasn’t safe to travel at night. Seeing as the company drove this route every night I failed to grasp why there was not a regular system in place for working this out, but nonetheless it took 90 minutes of haggling and angry words, and eventually the guys who ran the bus (as crooked as a Florida election ballot) demanded that everybody on board cough up 100CFA to pay for this. We had little choice but to comply.
Standing on the road outside the air was growing cooler, and if it hadn’t smelt of stale urine I would have been happy to find a patch at the roadside for myself and doze. It was so dark it was hard to see beyond the edge of the road, dogs and donkeys occasionally emerging to snuffle at the rubbish by the roadside. Finally, we had our deal, and soldier and Kalashnikov assault-rifle safely on board at the front of the bus, we began our transit across bandit-land.
The night passed in a haze. I dozed. My seatmate dozed, spending some time on my shoulder. We stopped a lot. People got on, people got off. No Celine Dion this time. It was quiet but never relaxing. After 15 hours of road, we arrived into Bamako. 4am. I was going to go straight to the airport and wait for a flight, but my seatmate- who together with her two travel companions had taken it upon themselves in true mother-Africa fashion to ensure that I reached my destination safely- told me it wasn’t safe and I should stay in the bus depot until morning.
The depot consisted of an open courtyard with scattered junk, belongings, engine parts and a small thatched roof on wooden poles beneath which were straw mats and benches alternated, and draped over them as many as twenty other travellers crashed for the night. Taxis waited like hawks on the road but few people ventured out to them.
I never cease to be amazed at the conditions in which the human body can actually find sleep when it is exhausted enough. On the bus, I phased in and out of conciousness in a cramped seat, my back threatening to spasm at any moment with being kept upright for so long, my legs periodically numb, my backpack in my lap. And here in Bamako, I lay alternatively flat out, or curled on my side, on a rough wooden bench perhaps 10 inches wide, head-to-toe with another man so that if either of us moved, the whole bench shook. I draped my sweater over my sandalled feet, and my towel over my head and bare arms, which together fended off the cold of the night and the mosquitoes, both in fine supply. I echo Douglas Adams when I say that the single most useful item an intergalactic hitchhiker can have on them is a towel. Or, if Adams were to quote Mr. T.: “Pity the frood who don’t know where his towel is at.” Enough said. Somehow I slept a good hour inbetween fits of extreme physical discomfort, and managed not to fall off the bench to boot.
I went to get a taxi just as dawn was breaking. The drivers settled around me like flies on a carcass, and did their utmost to tell me that it really was 7,500 CFA to get to the airport- fully half the cost of my bus fare from Ouagga in the first place. My seatmate, ever valiant and to the rescue, and I think having images of me lying abducted and dead at a roadside somewhere, physically dragged me from their midst, did some yelling, and ushered me into another vehicle at a better price. She made a big show of writing down the taxi’s license plate and told me with a big wink to phone her when I got to the airport to let her know I was there safely, knowing full well I didn’t have her number and she had no phone.
Way to inspire faith in the taxi service.
We got to the airport at 6.30. I was not murdered. There was a flight to Nouakchott at 8pm, a long wait, but I was too tired to try and fight with the taxis to get back into town, and have to spend all day fighting off young men trying to sell me things as my new best friends. Enough had been had.
Bored in Bamako
Time passes slowly in Bamako, like the slow, seeping trickle of sweat down glistening temples, just as you would expect it to in an old outpost on the edge of the desert. I look at walls that are yellowed with the dust of the Sahara’s edge and I think of Foreign Legion soldiers in their margarine-tub hats. I doze, and in my empty mind hours have passed, but when I look at my watch I see that it is really only minutes, and I am barely closer to leaving. I dream of the souls of blow-flies crackling slowly over an open fire, my retribution for the eternity of torment they lay upon me in the muggy afternoon warmth.
My flight finally comes.
City of Sand
The city lights of Nouakchott end abruptly where the desert begins, the darkness as absolute as that of the ocean, so that from the air the city looks pinced like an island, on one side sand and on the other sea, a sprinkling of lights between two great sheaves of darkness. One of the great joys of belonging to an international family like my organization is unexpected meetings. A colleague I had met 3 months earlier in Niger boarded my flight in Dakar and we shared the flight together. Unbeknownst to me there were actually a total of four other staffers on the flight that night, quite by coincidence.
I told the story of my journey several times, to much laughter. The hotel I was dropped at was spacious and tiled and cool, smelling very slightly of burned incense. I was exhausted. My bed was large and softer than any I had known since leaving Australia. I slept better than I had in months.
Several years ago a friend bought me a wall-poster of Mauritania. It is an aerial photograph by renowned photographer Yann Arthus Bertrand, taken not far outside Nouakchott shortly before dusk, and shows a sea of orange sand-dunes, evenly rippled and warm to look at. A Tuareg camel-train is making its way along the tops of one of the dunes, and casting fantastically elongated shadows down the lee slopes. It is one of my favourite images, and I still place it on my wall wherever I have a bedroom. Ever since receiving that poster I have wanted to go to Mauritania.
Nouakchott is a city of not quite a million people, in a nation of less than three million. The country is, quite simply, enourmous and, by default, enourmously empty. It is among the world’s poorest, with most of the population laid out along the River Senegal on the southern border, wetter and therefore where crops can grow. The rest of the country consists largely of sand dunes and rock, the sort of desert Lawrence of Arabia could have really gotten his teeth into. Their currency is called the Ouggia. You pronounce that “Oog-ee-uh”, a distinctly neanderthal sound. It is among the world’s poorest countries, although the recent opening up of oil reserves means that shortly, money will be flowing in. Coupled with a bloodless coup earlier this year that deposed the country’s autocratic regime for a military junta who promise free and fair democratic elections in 2006, and things are really starting to look up for the place. Concerns are however that due to the income that will arrive with the outflow of oil, the average GDP figures will show the country to be prospering to international donors, while the status of ninety percent of the population will remain unchanged, desperately poor.
Of course, I was in Nouakchott for less than 48 hours, so I only know most of this from what people told me. I am, quite obviously, just going to have to go back again to see for myself.
I travelled to Dakar with my colleague Geoff. Our Air Mauritanie flight never came. Eventually we were loaded onto a small dutch charter flight with no tail emblem and paid for by Air Senegal. 3 hours late we arrived into Dakar, where the driver failed to meet us at the airport. To those of you who have been reading my tales these past years, you know that the relief world can be a strange dichotomy of hardship and excess. Francois, the regional relief director, had for logistical reasons put us for our one night in Dakar in the Meridian. Three nights earlier I had been scrunched onto an overloaded, overheated bus jolting its way across the Malian Sahel. Now I could step out onto my balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and listen as waves washed onto a rocky shore under the watchful gaze of back-lit palm-trees. We feasted on Yassa chicken and Gazelle beer in the warm sub-tropical air and mused on the ironies of life.
Dakar went by quickly in a blur of meetings. We met with regional UN emergency representatives and listened to their bleak outlook for the West Africa region, and with colleagues in our headquarters not far away, before being ushered back to the airport. Between meetings, Francois drove us on a roundabout route through the winding colonial streets of what has to be West Africa’s funkiest city, alternatively pointing out historical landmarks, and personal points of interest such as the gym where his wife goes to work out. The city itself is large, colourful, cluttered and bustling, with an almost mediterranean feel, perched as it is on cliffs and beaches along a narrow peninsula- the exciting mix of a rich and sinister colonial past, and a progressive hopeful present that sees Dakar as the hub and melting-pot for most of Western Africa. It took little work to convince me that Dakar is a place I need to revisit.
The Insomniac Violinist
Our Air Senegal flight reached Niamey a miraculous ten minutes late. Air Senegal, or as colleagues have started calling it, “Air Peut-Etre” (Air
We queued for a while at immigration. Geoff’s Yellow Fever card had expired, so we doctored the ‘1995’ to look like a ‘1998’ and spared ourselves another bribe. When I told the border guards that Geoff didn’t have a visa yet and we’d collect it on Monday, they told me he’d have to go back to Dakar, not quite straight-faced. I laughed with them, and we passed through, so different to the lecherous officials at the Malian border just days ago.
It was nice to be back in Niamey, I thought. I felt a strange sense of homecoming, although I have spent less than 3 months in Niger so far. There is an excitement to travel which is addictive, but always the familiar is safe and comfortable. It doesn’t matter. I know within a few weeks I will be restless again.
Home. I sleep on a mattress in the living room, eight of us sharing a small family house. Every time somebody closes a door, the noise echoes through the building like a gunshot. I resort to cowering under my mosquito net to avoid the constant bombardment of humming malaria-prone messengers. At three in the morning, Edwin, our insomniac relief manager, gets up and starts wandering around the compound outside with his violin. A cacophany builds, the pre-dawn crowing of next-door’s rooster, the first call to prayer, the warble of strained cat-gut, and the grating hum of a cicada so loud I am convinced it must be coming from within my own head. Earplugs fail to help, and I try and hunt the wretched insect down, but to no avail. While I was away, a frog had appeared in our toilet for a couple of days, periodically disappearing then resurfacing. Eventually, Oscar flushed it and it hasn’t been seen since.
It’s good to be back.