A City of Sand and Sun

First shared in February 2006, while on a 12-month assignment in Niamey, Niger, working in response to the 2005-6 famine in that country.

Part V in the Nigerien Nostalgia series.

I am still living in a team-house in Niamey, a pleasant if overpriced affair which comes complete with colleagues (the most permanent of whom being Program Officer Anne-Marie and her fiance Ryan, who doesn’t actually live with us but might as well), a cook called Ibrahim (who we love dearly and who is very good), Boubakar our night guard, and a television set which shows CNN International and nothing else. The house is a five-minute drive from the office, which helps breed healthy working habits such as returning to the office after dinner and working until midnight. Sadly I do in fact spend most of my time in Niamey, when I’d much rather be out in one of the project areas not addressing administration or management issues.

We have developed our routines. Anne-Marie, Ryan and myself spend a lot of time hanging out together- miraculously we have bonded well, for despite working together, living on opposite sides of the same corridor and sharing almost every meal, we still enjoy eachothers’ company. But since Agadez we have also extended our network of friends around town, several assorted groups including other NGO workers, young missionaries, and some young French travellers we met on the bus up. There are a limited number of places to go around town, and it is now very hard to be out without seeing people we recognize.

Saturday nights is the Exotic Restaurant, an open-air maquis which serves the best pizzas in Niger and has a groovy live band which throws back elements of blues and jazz, sixties classics and guitar-riffs reminiscent of Pink Floyd and Mark Knopfler. On Sunday afternoons, we meet friends down at the Hotel Gaweye, nicest in town, nestled on the east bank of the Niger River a stone’s throw away from the country’s only bridge. There the pool is deep and clear and wonderfully cool beneath tall whispering palm-trees, and we watch as the sun slowly lowers itself on the far side of the river while in the near-foreground men fish or wash clothes in the ever-diminishing water. The gang at the Gaweye is more sedate- mostly European NGO workers- compared to the crowd at the US Embassy rec centre, where missionary kids and young families make more of a splash.

At least once a fortnight we go down to the Diamoungou, otherwise known as the Bateau, a river-boat moored on the river-bank and strangely low-key given it is by far the most spectacular location in the city. It usually bobs serenely at the end of a narrow deteriorating track, not half a mile from the busiest part of the city, but at the bottom of the steep bank and in a village neighbourhood you would only travel through if you knew where you were going. However over the last three weeks we have watched with astonishment as the river, once broad and flowing quickly, has dwindled to perhaps a third of its former volume. The floating restaurant now sits squatly in a small field of drying mud, while herders drive their cattle across the ever-narrowing river by foot. Soon they say you will be able to walk from one bank to the other and barely get your feet wet.

There is our local favourite, the Toulousaine, run by a frenchman and his Nigerien wife. The Toulousaine is a maquis- an Ivorian-style open-air restaurant- with sand underfoot and metal garden chairs for seating gathered beneath ramshackle awnings just a few hundred yards from the office. Here you can buy 66cl bottles of Biere Niger for a dollar, and the best brochettes (beef kebabs) in Niamey for 50 cents a pop. It is a must, and will be sorely missed when I leave.

Finally there is Le Pilier, the Niamey chapter of the restaurant I mentioned in Agadez. The architecture is nice, not as spectacular as its northern counterpart, but it boasts four or five different restaurants in one- a courtyard restaurant, an air-conditioned VIP dining room, a glacier with Niamey’s best ice-cream, and a pizzeria in the cool downstairs, somehow coming across as very meditteranean despite the ever-present mud-brick architecture. Expensive, but worth it for a treat from time to time, this is where the UN types go for lunch.

All in all, we’ve carved for ourselves a fairly comfortable little niche here in Niamey. Eating out is cheap and fun, and helps break the routine of being stuck in the same little pocket of town. Once a fortnight we go to one of the 3 Lebanese supermarkets where there is a decent range of French brand foodstuffs which are our overpriced luxury treats to ourselves- President Camembert, Haribo candy, even Lays potato chips sometimes (although there is presently a potato-chip famine). I also indulge myself in my 20-dollar-a-month habit of port wine.

But just as we find some familiarity in our surroundings and try and bring some balance to an unbalanced life, so too there are things that remind us exactly how far we are from home. The Harmattan season is slowly kicking in, cold northern winds that whip the dust into the air and turn the sky a featureless white expanse. When the Harmattan doesn’t blow, every day is forty degrees and more, and the locals laugh and point out that the heat hasn’t even started yet. The sun makes the skin tingle when you stand out in it, making the eyes ache in the dryness and the lungs burn with each breath of searing air. The power cuts are increasing at the moment; last night the electricity went off at 3am, and so did my fan, and there endeth the night’s sleep. I stop at a set of traffic lights in the centre of town, and in the dusty blur of my headlamps, an overloaded camel crosses serenely over the road ahead of me.

Last week I was driving Anne-Marie to a WFP coordination meeting (one of the few perks of being relief manager is that I get to delegate boring meetings to other people), when I noticed the road was a little quieter than normal. I saw people all looking up the road I was headed, and thought that was odd, but I was in mid-conversation. It was not until a small concussion device went off not far away with a lung-thumping bang that I noticed all the people running, and something burning in the road ahead of us. Students running rampant over some new university legislation. Whiffs of tear-gas smoke in the far distance. There have been a few of these demonstrations in the last couple of weeks. I promptly turned the car around and found a different road to get to WFP, with strict instructions to A-M to stay inside the compound if things started to get hectic. They didn’t, though a friend’s house got a friendly dose of CS riot gas.

I wrote the proceding paragraph three nights ago. Two days ago, I was driving to another meeting and failed to notice the riot police on the street again. As I drew level with what I thought were just a group of young people standing around, they dashed forward with a cry towards my vehicle, hurling sticks and stones. A rock the size of my fist smashed through the rear passenger window six inches behind my head as debris pattered the side of my car. Thanks guys- you really know how to make an aid-worker feel welcome. As I was pulled off the road a hundred yards up where the police had set up an observation post, a small knot of uniformed men with glass shields and billy-clubs advanced across the street and the students scattered for shelter.

Not your average commute to work.

When I’m not resisting the temptation to yell at people in the office, life here has the potential to be a lot of fun. Two weekends ago to celebrate a friend’s birthday, about 15 of us got together and headed out to a little plateau outside town overlooking the river, a convoy of white four-wheel-drives heading out across the bush trails, typically expat but lots of fun as we barbecued dinner on an open fire and toasted marshmallows. As foreigners here, we are in such a minority, and in such contrast to our surroundings, that it is inevitable that the bonds we forge are forged quickly and with strength. I am going to a small white english-speaking church on Sunday evenings, reminiscent of the little church I grew up in in Switzerland for all sorts of reasons, and I’m fairly confident I now know most of the Anglo-saxon Christians in Niger. Despite the encroaching hardship season in Niger, the number of NGO workers seems to be dwindling somewhat, with fewer and fewer white expats visible around town- though there are apparently still far more than there were 12 months ago. For my own part I’m not sure how much longer I will be here either. I do know though that when I depart it will be with heavily mixed feelings. Relief, certainly. Frustration, possibly. But there’s no doubt that I’ll miss this place sorely when I leave as well. For all its faults and irritations, it’s a beautiful little place. Check it out if you ever get a chance.

And now I find myself on the tantalizing verge of 3 weeks’ annual leave- having taken just 7 days in the last 2 years. The last couple of days have dwindled slowly, like dust settling after a fan has been turned off. Now I sit at the airport terminal, and the flight has been delayed three hours because of a technical fault in Ouaggadougou. We were originally supposed to leave at 12.30am. I start to wonder if I will make my connection.

There is a reason nobody in my team in Australia is willing to travel with me any more.

As long as I can remember my life has revolved around airport waiting rooms. There was a time I found them frustrating, aggravating places, with nothing to do and a sense of powerlessness to control the delays and bureaucracies that envelop them. I have now grown neutral to them. I find I can pass long hours just sitting and staring, without so much as a book or notepad to occupy me. Not that I’m saying I want to be here. Just that I can be. It is the empty space between one destination and another. In life, we look forward to the goal, the destination, which gives us the richness that we enjoy so much, the experiences we value. But it is what we learn during the journey getting there that makes us who we are.

Boarding a plane is always an emotional experience. I think it is for everybody. Some people get excited. Some get fearful. For some it is a sense of loss, for others excitement of what is to come. It might be a new beginning, the end of an era, or maybe just yet another transit between poles. For me every takeoff I find bittersweet. Tonight I look forward to arriving in Canada, seeing friends I haven’t seen for 2 years, hopefully getting a few days of good skiing in as well. But that joy is still a long way off yet- probably another 24 hours before I touch down in Calgary- and you know how long those 24 hours are going to feel. In the meantime I sit here in Niamey, tired and alone in a hot, dingy, stale room full of people I don’t know, knowing I also leave behind people and places I will miss, even for the 3 weeks I will be away. For every eagerly-anticipated new adventure, there is a leaving behind of the safe and familiar.

And once again we return to the dichotomy.

One comment on “A City of Sand and Sun

  1. Pingback: Nigerien Nostalgia- A City of Sand and Sun « WanderLust

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