First shared in June 2006, while finishing up my year’s assignment in Niger during the 2005-6 famine in that country.
Part VI of the Nigerien Nostalgia series.
The rains arrived last night. We’ve been waiting for weeks now, since early May, since the heat. The heat and the dust. You never really get away from it, though you can step into your air-conditioning, jump in the pool on a Sunday afternoon. Every time you step outside, the sun pounds your shoulders, takes your breath away. The dust gets everywhere, until you don’t really notice it, except when something ordinary and everyday takes on a fine orange hue, and you see the smudge-marks where your fingers disturb a fine layer of sand on your toilet seat, on the door-handle, on the screen of your computer. This is a country where the US government refuses to send people if, during their medical screening, they claim to have suffered from respitory problems in the past.
The heat is in every greeting and every conversation. “It’s that time,” they say with resignation, a subdued sense of in’shallah. In February and March, they shrug it off. “It’s not hot yet,” they say with a knowing smile. But it’s been nearly 9 months since we last saw a real rainfall, a rain that lasts for more than five minutes, and we’ve only had four of those since September. Since the end of March it’s been above forty degrees almost every single day, and forty-five on many. I have no idea how hot it actually gets; if there’s a forecast, I never hear it. But people observe that there’s hot, and then there’s very hot, but after a while your body can’t tell the difference. I went to the gym tonight and Hamisou, who looks after the place, asked me how the heat was. I shrugged it off.
“It was fresh this morning!” I replied enthusiastically. “It’s cooler!”
“It was forty-three today,” He shook his head with resignation.
Our benchmarks for heat are subjective. Air-temperature is taken in the shade. A friend’s thermometer in the sun by the pool one Sunday afternoon read fifty-seven degrees, and the temperature I felt there was by no means outstanding. My gym is large and only has two small air-conditioners in it. We go in the afternoons so that there are no other customers around, and the thermometers on the elipticals read thirty-seven and thirty-eight degrees as we start our run. Sometimes we run for an hour. I sweat like I’ve never sweated in my life before. I drink a litre and a half of water in forty-five minutes and I’m dehydrated.
Everybody feels it. The landscape is parched and restless. Driving out to Maradi, we see seven hundred kilometres of Sahel. No crops grow; the fields wait for water. The earth is dry and brown from horizon to horizon. Amazingly, some of the trees still have green leaves, and they stand out in their starkness. During the heat of the day, after noon, nothing moves. Villages seem deserted, save for a couple of kids loitering in the shade of doorways, or a man slowly chewing on a twig lying beneath a wooden table at the roadside. Goats and cows cluster beneath the spattered shade of a thorn-bush. Dust-devils spiral across the countryside, leaving a smudge of brown against the blue-white sky, opaque with heat-haze. When we stop the car to take a comfort break- checking the tyres, as my Chadian colleague refers to it- the silence is crushing. After the air-conditioning, the heat makes the skin tingle and the eyeballs burn. When the wind moves, it is like standing in front of an oven with the door cracked.
I went for a hike three weeks ago. A few of us like getting out of the city from time to time and walking, just to do something different, escape the rabbit-hutch. Usually we go at dawn, keep to the cool of the day, but this time we got well out of the city and didn’t start our walk until mid-morning. We crossed 20km of sahel over nearly six hours, scaling low rocky plateaus and climbing sand-dunes, picking our way up dry wadi beds or pausing beneath the shade of the few sparse trees we found. It was a test of will, and although that was one of the reasons we chose the route we chose, it still hurt. I drank four and a half litres and was parched for liquid. When we dropped into narrow sand-walled canyons, what little air moved was stilled entirely, and the weight of the sun pressed us into the ground. We finally stumbled into the shade of a wadi, and there we found a well hand-dug in the sand, and a shepherd who topped up our water-bottles while we stood in the shade of trees that were better equiped than we to survive in this place. The water was warm, yellow and floating with sediment, but it made no difference; we drank it, and the water that we didn’t drink lifted our spirits just to know it was there. We understood on that day the code of hospitality that the desert cultures cling to. Wherever we go as Anisara (whites) in this place people scratch their heads and think we are strange, but ironically, as three trekkers across the landscape, the nomadic cultures probably found more in common with us than in all the time we spend in Niamey trying to be relevant. Water is life out here, and no shepherd would deny a thirsty traveller a drink as they cross the terrain. I find myself seeing Bible stories coming to life, and Rebekah watering the camels of Abraham’s servant passes before my eyes, or Isaac’s squabbles with the Philistine herders. It never ceases to amaze me how little life has changed in parts of Niger over the millennia.
They say the arrival of the rains is always preceeded by dust-storms. If that is the case, the start of the rainy-season has been marked by a splutter and a backfire. Every few days the wind picks up and the dust swirls, and the sky turns a pale orange colour while sand hangs in the air. Sometimes the dust is fine and passes quickly, nothing more than some itchy eyes and gusts of wind. Other times, peals of wind-swept sand sweep down streets, stinging the skin and causing people to brace and close their eyes, pull their turbans tighter about their mouths. Plastic bags catch up into the breeze and dance, and mini-whirlwinds batter piles of garbage, disturbing feasting goats.
The tension works its way into everything. The city itself grows restless. On Thursday the police clashed with rioters again, one of the worst incidents we’ve had in months. I was due on the other side of the river to help out at the missionary school for a couple of hours, but when I got to the bridge (the only one in the country), I was turned back by police. I asked what was going on.
“Students.” A policeman told me impatiently with a wave in the general direction of the university, also on the other side of the river. I drove to the nearby Grand Hotel, which overlooks the city high atop the riverbank, a perfect view to the other side. I was joined by two friends, and together we watched the battle rage as the rioters tried to march onto the bridge and the police kept them back with batons and tear-gas. We couldn’t see the actual people, lost among the trees on the far bank, but could see instead the thick black smoke from rubber tyres and torched cars mingling with the white columns of CS gas, and could hear the shouts and cheers from the angry crowd of students, the periodic bangs and pops of exploding canisters. Sometimes we could see the tear-gas canisters themselves as the police fired them into the air, leaving little corkscrew trails through the sky. Once or twice, when the wind shifted, we too got a mild dose of the stuff, making the eyes itch and the throat burn where we stood nearly a mile away watching the fun. We tried to work out whether the fighting was getting closer to the school, itself just a few hundred yards away from the thick of the action, but apparently it stayed on the main road. That didn’t stop a friend of mine getting dosed when the wind blew the gas into the mission compound at the corner, he dashing across to get back through his front door and having to wash his face and eyes down with water once he was inside. For our part we stayed and watched for about forty-five minutes from our distant vantage before finally accepting that we had more important things to be doing with our time and headed back to our offices.
But on Friday we had the Sandstorm.
We are at the gym. It has been hot and, as the rains approach, so the humidity rises. I have had a bad day at the office. Denver has been sick and is resting outside. He comes back in.
“You may want to see this,” he tells us. We follow him outside.
Like an avalanche suspended in time, a long tongue of orange-brown dust hangs in the air in the distance off to the west, an unholy cloud. Ahead of us, we have a perfect view north, for the gym is on the northern edge of Niamey and north of us lies the Sahel, then the Sahara, then Algeria, and eventually, a thousand miles away, a thin strip of green on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. A wall of dust hundreds of metres high has stained the sky, and behind that we can see towering cumulus clouds miles into the atmosphere. The air is still. Something is brewing. We sit back and watch.
The wall approaches. To the west the tongue of dust continues to advance, slowly but perceptibly. Ahead of us the dust seems to grow. In the distance, things are growing hazy. It takes mere minutes. Then trees half a mile away start to buck. The Village de la Francophonie, a prefab town erected during December’s Francophonie Games for the athletes to use, is ahead of us, utterly deserted; it would make a good setting for a Stephen King horror story so foreboding is its atmosphere. In the distance the rooftops start to be lost from view. The sky is growing darker. We can hear the wind, we can see its progression towards us marked by flying garbage and thrashing tree limbs. Five hundred yards away is now lost from sight. The dust is thick. The closest line of houses starts to fade. We can see the wind now marking its race as it picks up sand and swirls towards us. Becky counts down aloud.
The wind hits us like a wall and we brace against it, sand stinging our faces as it envelops us with a roar. It has taken a minute and a half perhaps from when we first started losing sight of the rooftops in the distance. We holler with delight and shield our eyes from the driving sand. It is growing darker by the second. A minute later, and visibility is less than two hundred yards. It is hard to open our eyes towards the wind.
A line of wooden shacks sits just on the edge of our vision. We watch as a renewed wall of wind strikes them. Several waver, then collapse and are lost from sight in the dancing dust. We are now thoroughly enveloped in an orange bubble a hundred and fifty yards in diameter, beyond which nothing can be seen or heard. Just sand, and the roaring of the wind. A cry goes out. From the murk, the remains of one of the shacks- several pieces of plywood the size of doors- hurtle towards us like leaves on a stiff breeze. We dash for the shelter of the gym and manage to get through the entrance as the plywood sails past, missing where we stood by mere feet, one chunk ending up slammed into the back of Denver’s pickup. We giggle in overexcited tones and watch the storm through the glass door while debris and sand continues to fill the air.
The storm lasts ten minutes, and then the rain comes. It is cold, and we rejoice as huge drops spatter from the heavens before being picked up by renewed wind and hurled sideways into us, stinging every bit as much as the dust. But now we don’t care. The air is clear at last, the dust moved past us, and we can just see the rich grey clouds. We are soaked in short seconds, and we laugh and cheer as the rain pelts us. The squall is short-lived, and when it is over a warm wind blows us dry while we investigate the remains of the row of shacks, now flattened over their foundations or blown to careless oblivion.
But these were not the rains. Refreshing, but nothing more. The next day people mourned the abortive start to the season, already several weeks late. Friends from Timbuktou point out morosely that if there are several small smatterings of rain in the weeks leading up to the start of the rainy season, the rains themselves will fail.
Last night there were no real signs that anything was afoot. I left the office around seven thirty, when the twilight was at its deepest, neither light nor dark, but a blue-grey glow coming from the sky, warm and uneasy. It was not until I turned onto the main road that I caught a flash of lightning. By the time I got home, three minutes later, the wind was gusting, and sand was blowing. The air felt charged, the smell of ozone and the hint of moisture teasing at the nostrils, the unmistakable smell of a storm on its way, of water molecules that have been churned high into the upper atmosphere then plunged back down again, water droplets looking for a raindrop. I went for a walk. The sky turned sinister colours and then went dark. Sand blew. I stood for a while on the corner of one of the roads near my house, sand in all directions. Dust and garbage was periodically picked into the air. Trees hissed restlessly. I listened to the chanting of Qu’ranic scripture from a group of men perched in the porch of the little mosque across the street, adding to the eerie atmosphere. Lightning flashed and forked in the distance, and I wondered sadly whether this was just to be a dry storm again.
I was inside finishing dinner when the rains hit, breaking into the periodic grumbles of thunder that had not abated. They started as a broken patter on the tin roof of the overhang, and that was my signal to head outside. Giant drops, cold and heavy, smacked into the ground with an audibly increasing momentum. I padded barefoot into the street where the sand was already growing muddy between my toes, and the downpour kicked in. The few people still outside scurried for shelter while I grinned like a maniac and stared at the sky. The wind gusted and I braced myself against it. The air was full of water, tearing past in solid walls that made me flinch as they hit me, forcing me to turn my head just to breath. Lightning flashed every couple of seconds, thunder clapped. Fifty paces away a large branch dropped into the street from the compound opposite. I could watch curtains of water sweeping down the road towards me. Lighting flashed and half the lights in the quartier suddenly went dark. A man scurried past me and we stopped briefly to exchange soggy greetings, shouting to be heard over the sound of the pouring rain, braced in the shelter of a wall and watching nervously as the storm raged. Water flowed down the middle of the street and pooled at the intersection. A fork of lightning struck three hundred yards away at the end of the street, searing my eyeballs, and when the thunder-clap hit me a second later I jumped. A moment later, and lightning struck the far side of the compound opposite, perhaps a hundred and fifty yards away. The flash-bang came almost simultaneously, and I dropped to me knees in the mud in fright, then scurried giggling to myself into my courtyard where I decided I would wait out the rest of the storm.
[Added a week later]
Following the storm we had two more rains, and since then it has been cooler and more humid, and we know we have entered the season, though it has still not established itself. There was storm-damage all over our neighbourhood, mostly trees and branches felled, with some lines down as well. The garbage-pile two minutes from my house, at one of the dirt-road intersections, managed to entirely block the street for a couple of days until somebody came with a bulldozer and opened up the passage again. Our fear now is that if the rains don’t settle in properly soon, the growing season will be abortive; many farmers have planted with the first rains, and driving up to Maradi this week we saw little shoots of green in many fields. If there is a long period of dry now, these crops will fail.
The river is still low. There are dams in Mali which hold back the water, and this year it is especially low and late to rise. I took advantage of the fact with some friends to swim across it last week. We had tried several weeks ago, but part-way across the little network of islands and channels night fell, and we had to turn back while we could still see. In the swirling current my favourite Columbia sandals came off my feet and were lost, which was a source of much pain for me (especially given that I then had to scramble back up the scarp face to the car in bare feet).
Our trip this time was more successful, and we made it across with ease. There were only a couple of points where the current tugged, and one of those was a fun little rapid set which we could float through. Learning from the previous attempt I went barefoot, and pulled more thorns from my feet than I could count, as well as slicing my toes open on a rock. But the water was beautifully warm and we had a good time. On the way back across however, we got across the second channel before we saw kids on the other side of the bank waving and pointing.
“What?” We yelled back.
“Hippopotame!” They gestured energetically. Sure enough, a hundred and fifty yards downstream we could see the round humps indicative of a semi-submerged hippo. Territorial and aggressive, it is a beast that kills more people than crocodiles and has the dubious honor of being Africa’s most dangerous animal. We scuttled across to the other side of the little island and finished the second half of our crossing with some haste, looking tentatively in both directions for unexpected swirls, humps or lines of bubbles before committing ourselves to each new swim. I confess my heart-rate was up more than once.
I have just two weeks left here. I won’t go into the details of the emotional tug of war that this puts me through, the complicated combination of wanting desperately to get out of my office but wishing I wasn’t leaving a place and friends that I dearly love behind when I go. The one definite upside is that I won’t have to be back in the Melbourne office until October 1st. I have a first-aid training course to go to at the beginning of August back in Sydney, but that gives me a month, during which time I am planning an ambitious overland itinerary during which I will attempt to travel overland (including ferries) to London from here. I have no idea whether I will make it all the way in the time I have, but I am hopeful. I’m sure you’ll all hear more about it if I make it…