The air-con is broken. This is rarely a good thing at the best of times, but when it’s so hot outside that opening the window doesn’t reduce the perspiration soaking into the back of my t-shirt, it starts to become something of a drag. We’re halfway into the ten-hour journey between Maradi and Niamey, and the day’s still getting hotter. Happily my iPad doesn’t seem to mind the heat. So far…
The trip is much as I remember it. Long, dull and unremarkable. But then I’m seeing it through the eyes of familiarity. Granted, a familiarity several years old. But I’m seeing only a couple of differences. One is the amount of green. This I recall from the very first times I did this journey, the same season in 2005. It was striking, because the fields seemed so lush for a country in the grip of it’s worst famine in a decade. But as colleagues pointed out to me, if the food is still growing in the fields it means it’s not on people’s plates.
Of course, the last time I did this journey it was the height of the dry season. I have vivid memories of stopping for a comfort break (‘checking the tyres’ as an Ivorian colleague euphemistically observed) along some desolate stretch of country far between villages. The air was so hot that inhaling it made the lungs burn. My skin sang under what felt like pressure coming from the sun, and I got little shivers up and down my back. Crickets whined a persecuted song, but otherwise the landscape was silent. In the distance, across brown scrubland near a line of low flat-topped hills, a pair of dust-devils, small brown tornadoes, twisted in a macabre dance. It was the sort of scene to crush a traveller’s weary soul.
Thank God for the rains.
The other difference now is the road. I noted immediately in 2005 how good the highway between Niamey and Maradi was at the time, certainly compared to other Sahelian roads I had driven. I can no longer make the same claim. While much of it is still in good nick, there’s a good two hours of driving where the blacktop has deteriorated into a potholed mess barely better- and in some cases far worse- than a dirt road. I have had a number of colleagues tell me that life here for the population of the world’s poorest country has gotten harder over the last half-decade.
Otherwise the journey is remarkably similar. It is an alternating pastiche of farmland with antenna-high millet, thicket-spotted scrubland running to a low, flat horizon, and run-down villages replete with square mud-brick buildings and ricketty wooden roadside stalls. The few towns are dusty but buzzing with energy. Gigantic overladen trucks jam the streets. Vendors hawk loaves of sugary yellow bread, cheap plastic wares imported from Nigeria, and chocolate wafers that taste like cardboard. Where we stop for lunch at a stall in Dogon-Doutchi we chow down on a plate of rice and sauce, liberally sprinkled with a local spice mix that is both tangy and delicious. It costs a buck fifty a head. Standing out on the street a few minutes later waiting for the car to come back for us, a skinny old man shuffles past us. His trousers are held around the middle of his thighs, he’s covering his genitals with a school exercise book, and nobody pays him any attention as his bony, dusty buttocks recede down the street. It’s a tragic indifference to poverty and neglect in a country where most people live on less than two dollars a day.
But now Ravi, our driver, is tootling along at 120kph, and if you see this post online it means we haven’t ended up as a metallic confetti at the side of the road, which some do as evidenced by twisted vehicular remains littered along the highway. George is dozing in the front seat, Cam has his head in the open window catching the breeze on his face like some satisfied pooch, and Mike is next to me in the short-straw seat in the middle, listening to an mp3 player (I’m trying to talk him into getting an iPad; which I do with most people). And we’re all looking forward to getting to our hotel rooms in Niamey, having a cool shower, and heading out for some Bieres Niger and good local cuisine.
Uncomfortable travel is a part of any aid worker’s job description- and any foreign correspondent’s too. It is, of course, by far the most dangerous part of the job we do- even though it gets far less press than abductions and hijackings. The combination of poorly maintained vehicles, bad drivers, meandering donkeys, long distances and deteriorating roads make traffic accidents among the leading causes of death for adults across the developing world- and that includes foreigners silly enough to take to the roads as well.
I actually quite enjoy road travel as a rule. I prefer it if I’m the one driving, and if I’ve got the time to stop, explore, take photos and let the roads lead me. However even on work trips, it makes for a great way to see the country up-close, to get a feel for landscape and people, and show how things hang together.
In my early twenties I wrote a list of things I wanted to accomplish or expeience. It was (unsurprisingly) quite long, but I recall that one of the things on the list was ‘to have a job where in order to commute I need a four-wheel-drive’. I’ve certainly ticked that one off the list. Just in the last four days I reckon I’ve spent an easy 24 hours in Land Cruisers getting to remote field locations, mostly on sandy tracks through the scrubland and getting nicely knocked around in the process.
The novelty wore off a long time ago, but it still beats the heck out of the Monash freeway at rush hour.
(Actually, root canal work beats the Monash at rush hour, but that’s the subject of another post…)
So our wing-mirror slips down the length of another overflowing truck trundling the other way up the narrow highway, and the verdant landscape glides past in a blur of contrast with rich red soil. Heat haze makes the horizon white and featureless, like a washed-out photograph. The car stinks of dust and diesel fumes, and the clothes I’m wearing now will need to be washed before I put them back on, even though they’re fresh from this morning. The sun slanting through the passenger window washes out my iPad screen, but not enough to halt my typing. It burns my skin and makes my eyes squint. Mumford & Sons are singing ‘Awake My Soul’ in my ears as we pass some dead animal hidden in the bush, and the stench fills the vehicle.
They’re the moments both mundane and exotic that form the patchwork of memories that are often all that we, sojourners, get to carry away with us when we leave these places through which we pass so temporarily and so frequently. On the one hand, they tend to fade, after so many similar journeys, into an obscurity that is hard to distinguish one from another. On the other, they sit at such sharp contrast from the routines of our daily lives that they become in their own way enough of an experience to justify coming here; just to live the difference.
Both a privilege and a pergatory.
Yet another example of the dichotomy that is the aid worker’s existence.
Three more hours till Niamey…
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