The potholes in the street on the way to the office are still in the same place. Filled with muddy orange water, they overflow as the white Land Cruiser lurches a route through them.
It’s monsoon season here in Niger. It’s almost exactly five years since I first arrived here, four since I last left. I’ve been many places since, done many things. The world has changed, and so have I. None the less, memories of this country have stayed ingrained in my mind. It was a hard time, one of intensity, where experiences were a bittersweet maelstrom of suffering and revelation.
And I’m staggered by how little it’s changed here.
The flashbacks started early. Sitting in the gate in Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport, the woman sitting on the row of seats behind me waiting for the call to board leaned over and got my attention. It was an old friend from my time here in 05-06, and we immediately began an animated reacquaintance.
You’d think that after four years of being away from a country, getting onto a flight with someone I knew would be unlikely, but in fact it’s typical of Niger. Niamey presents itself with the charm of an oversized village. The place is small- despite having a population of around a million. Community is intact. People talk. Information passes. There’s an interconnectivity which is refreshing after coming from the west. In the thirty-six hours that I’ve been back here, I’ve already run into countless people I remember. Right down to the hostess at the Toulousainne maquis, and the blind beggar who came to our car window yesterday in Chateau 1.
It was thirty-five degrees and humid when we touched down on Sunday afternoon. Stepping onto the staircase down to the tarmac, I heard somebody behind me observe that for Niamey, this was paradise. In a country where during the hot season the temperature spends several months in the high forties, this was absolutely true.
It’s a walk of a hundred and fifty yards from the airplane to the entrance to the terminal building, but perversely, you have to climb into a hot and overcrowded shuttle-bus, wait while the thing fills with other laden passengers, and then get driven the thirty seconds to the doorway- a journey that would have been both quicker and more enjoyable on foot.
Standing in the immigration line, I was overwhelmed by smell- a scent that was a mix of cheap cleaning-soap, dust and sweet body-odour, instantly pungent and familiar. It brought back a swirl of memory, and I felt as though no time had passed since I last stood here.
The line moved with traditional opacity. People who felt they were more important simply walked themselves to the front of the queue, where officials made no attempt to maintain equity. When I finally shuffled forward to the counter, my passport was passed between three officials all perched behind the same wooden desk, thumbing the pages of my worn travel document with a bored countenance until one finally cranked an ink stamp onto a spare page and passed it back to me.
Standing collecting my luggage from the carousel, declining offers of assistance from half a dozen uniformed porters, I remembered returning here from a trip to Canada, reflecting that I may have been both the first and the last person to ever transport a pair of touring skis through Niamey International Airport.
And further afield little else had changed, either. Leaving the airport, Ravi, my driver, handed over a little piece of torn ticket to the gentleman manning the counterweighted boom-gate, and we were let out. The landscape- orange scrubland pocked with fresh green scrub- rolled gently down to the Niger River and, beyond, to the low line of flat-topped hills near the horizon.
Driving through the city itself, every signboard felt familiar. Old landmarks I had forgotten I remembered revealed themselves at every turn. I charted my way through the streets, placing things on the mental map of my memory. Orange sand lined the gutters as we drove, occasionally swirling on the asphalt.
That night I visited the little church I used to attend, on the other side of the river. I recognized faces. Far more remembered me than I recalled of them.
Driving over the Kennedy Bridge, the Niger was in flood. When I left in June 2006, the river channel was barely 20 feet wide, narrow enough for herds of cattle to be driven across amidst clouds of dust. Now, it stretched hundreds of metres wide, and the island in the midst of the flow was all but flooded, the tops of bushes sticking out of the water marking its erstwhile borders.
We went for dinner to a restaurant that had been opened since I was last there- my first new experience of the night. Afterwards we waited in the street for one of the little red-roofed taxis to offer us a fair price to return to the hotel. We were in Petit Marchee. The stench of rotting vegetables made the throat close. They piled in the roadside, mixed with produce waiting to be sold the next day and guarded by vigilant nocturnal vendors whose eyes shone whitely in the gleam of headlights. Stale water made the street muddy. I had forgotten how squalid the place could get.
In the office the next morning, I was staggered by how little had changed. I don’t know what I’d expected. Four years is, well, four years. It’s time. Not a lot of it. But enough of it.
The worn carpet hadn’t been replaced. It had just grown more worn, trodden with dust and almost smooth in places. The cracked yellow walls had not been repainted. There was just more white plaster showing through from where the paint had peeled away.
Every hallway held a memory. The upstairs meeting room, which had been our operations centre when we first kicked off the response in 2005. The patch of more-recently rendered cement on the wall of the Country Director’s office, where one of the first acts of the then-incumbent and now-defunct director had been to move the door to their office six feet to one side, to better fit their aesthetic (which is the sort of behavior you get when you appoint a former politician from a neighbouring country to run an NGO). The finance office, site of numerous shouting matches between myself and the Senegalese finance director. The HR office where four of us shared two small desks in a tiny room, bundled embarrassingly out of sight where we wouldn’t interrupt the rest of the office’s ongoing operations.
I’d be remiss if I implied that nothing had changed here. Things do change, some for worse, some for better. Already generally considered the poorest country on earth, things have become even harder for people here. Rises in commodity prices have meant that both food and household goods are harder to access. This has also resulted in increased crime and insecurity. Niger is still a very safe country, but there are now concerns that were never there when I was here previously- such as the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), now the source of much overstated gossip among panicky expats.
For me the most uplifting discovery has been the state of our own office. In 2006, when I left, I would not have hesitated to label the place dysfunctional. Coming back four years later, changes are afoot. Dead wood has been purged, and some great staff are in place. I hear overwhelmingly positive things from managers and implementers alike.
Tomorrow I head to the field for several days of project monitoring and media work. It’ll be interesting to see how my first impressions and expectations hold up against the realities of rural Niger.
As a Third Culture Kid, I’m very familiar with the notion of jumping between worlds. You learn to pick up relationships where you left off, develop the ability to transition out of one place and back into another with fluidity. My french is rusty from disuse, but quickly coming back to me. Likewise I’m already back to giving directions to the drivers on where to turn to get me back to old hideouts.
That said, in some ways it’s getting harder to do this. The excitement and newness that was once there has started to fade a little. I’ve been to enough poverty-encrusted locations that squalor no longer evokes a sense of the exotic in me. It just feels squalid. I don’t need to see a man with polio-withered legs dragging himself down a muddy garbage-strewn sidewalk on his knuckles to feel moved by the plight of the world’s urban poor. This has been my life for a long time now. It’s my worldview. Deeply engrained. I worry that I’m starting to grow numb.
I’ve left behind me for a month a fiancee, and a five-year-old soon-to-be stepdaughter. That’s a month we don’t get to share life together. A month in which we’d rather be together, and have to try and connect over shaky internet connections and frustrated Skype conversations where one or other of us is constantly dropping out, and where days may go by when I’m in the field where we won’t get to talk at all. I assure you there’s absolutely nothing fun in this.
But it is the cost of living this sort of lifestyle- a lifestyle that is privileged if in no other way than it allows one to remain connected to the reality of life for most of the people on this planet. The reality that the lifestyle we live in Australia, and Canada, and the UK, is an unobtainable dream for much of the rest of the world. And more importantly, a reminder that despite this, people are happy- even in what we term material poverty. That sort of perspective- and the humility it should engender- makes life all that much sweeter when you step back home.
And I have to say, I’m counting the days.
– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad