Sunday, December 26, 2004

Back from Africa

I'm back from Africa and I thought I'd attempt to summarize my experiences, although I'm certainly not a good enough writer to do my trip justice.

Perhaps first I should start with a few generalizations. Niger is directly north of Nigeria. It is a large country, twice the size of Texas, with about 11 million people. There are two main types of climate. In the north is the Sahara. South of the desert are semi-arid plains known as the Sahel, which is where the people live.

I might as well clear up a few possible things right off the bat. Niger is not romantic Africa. It is not lush Africa, nor is it beautiful Africa.
Niger is poor (the least developed in the world, depending on how one measures). It is dry. It is dusty. One doesn't go on safari there, because the animals are so rare. It is dirty. It is hot. It is over populated. When one walks outside, one is surrounded by beggars, mainly children incessantly chanting "cadeaux, cadeaux" (French for "gift"). In the capital, one smells burning trash at night. Transparency International rates it as tied for 122nd place in the world for openness (although in fairness my sister says that since the army has been paid more regularly the last few years, soldiers are less likely to demand bribes at roadblocks, so it's better than it used to be). As my dad said, going to Niger is not a vacation, it is an adventure.

But on to the adventure. We flew from Paris to Niamey, the capital. The airport at Niamey has one runway. It doesn't really have a gate. They run a portable staircase up to the plane, one walks down the stairs and then across the tarmac to a door in the airport. There in't much to see in Niamey. The roads, laid out by the French (who essentially created the city about 100 years ago) are wide. The main ones have four lanes of pavement and wide sidewalks which aren't paved; they're dust. One still sees camels walking around the city streets.

We left the next morning on a small boat, known as a pirogue, for Parc W. There is one river in Niger, the Niger River (and one bridge, the John F. Kennedy Bridge in Niamey). Pirogues are how one gets around on the Niger River. Ours was about ten yards long and maybe five feet wide. It was powered by a single outboard motor. Which died about lunch time. Very luckily for us, another boat happened by and towed us to the nearby market. After a some negotiating, the owner of our towboat lent us a new motor. Wisely not trusting our crew, he also sent his own guy along to run the motor. We arrived at our campsite that afternoon.

Parc W is a national park. One really feels isolated in the bush. Before dinner we had time to climb a nearby rock promontory, and outside the campsite, there was no sign of human habitation. The next morning we left before dawn to go looking for wildlife. We spent a day and a half driving around Parc W. It was fairly productive--we saw many antelopes, small crocodiles, buffalo, baboons, monkeys, innumerable beautiful birds, and lions. Yes, lions. We were close to the lions, about ten yards. It was very cool. We missed out on elephants and hippos, although we heard a hippo bellow from the riverbank.

After a couple of days, we drove back from Parc W to Niamey on a dirt road most of the way. While swerving to avoid a pothole so deep it had grass growing at the bottom of it, our driver gave himself a flat tire. He then proved himself unable to lower the spare tire from its place underneath the vehicle (i.e. we were stuck). I redeemed my five years of engineering education by figuring out that he was using the wrong tool and freeing the spare.

We had one night in Niamey and then we were off. We drove east, on one of the few paved roads. Our goal was Sabon Gida, the village where my sister lived for two years while she was in the Peace Corps. First, however, we had (the inevitable?) mechanical difficulties. Something was wrong with our vehicle's reserve fuel line. After sputtering all morning, the engine died in the heat of the day. As he pulled off the road, our driver must have hit a sharp piece of glass, because we then had a flat tire as well. Ugh. With the spare tire on, he managed to get the engine running enough that we could limp into Konni, a market town on the Niger-Nigeria border. After a few hours pursuing repairs, we eventually got to Sabon Gida.

It was fascinating. It's really two villages in one location because there are two ethnic groups: the Hausa (farmers) and the Fulans (herders). The Hausa (language: Hausa) and the Fulans (language: Fulfuldei) know each other, and get along fine, but they have two chiefs, two mosques, and they never intermarry. My sister and her husband speak Hausa, as do most of the Fulans. None of the Hausa speak Fulfuldei.
We were big news. Everyone came to see us. Both chiefs, both religious leaders, all of Kristen's friends. We saw a side of Africa that few people have a chance to see.
I did not expect to find that in this devoutly Muslim country, the people of Sabon Gida were jokesters. They laughed, they teased, they were witty and clever. They were also extraordinarily generous. They brought us all kinds of food, including lots and lots of milk (which was delicious, once we boiled it). They, the people who live relatively close to the subsistence level, could not stop bringing food to us, who are incomprehensively rich. I was warned that it would happen, but that did not make it any less poignant.

After two nights in the village we went further east, to Agadez, an old caravan town at the base of the Air (two syllables: aye-year') Mountains. Our hotel room in Agadez was very nice, with clean sheets, a ceiling fan, and, most importantly, a shower and a toilet. After a few days without either, they are much appreciated.
On our way out of Agadez, we stopped at the incomparable Dabous giraffe carvings. I'd seen them in National Geographic or something, and it was astonishing to see them in real life. They are just marvelous.

Next we ventured into the Air Mountains themselves. They resemble nothing so much as the surface of the moon. Much of Niger is devoid of plants; much of the Air Mountains are devoid of soil as well. It's a blasted, barren, and empty place. There are a few washes where bushes grow, and we did see a few people and camels making their way slowly, but this was rare.

{Brief historical diversion: North Africa was not always a desert. It used to be quite fertile. It supported all sorts of big mammals, it was forested, there were lakes. This was when the Dabous giraffes were carved--today there are no giraffes within hundreds of miles of the carvings. About ten thousand years ago, there was some sort of climactic change (I don't remember the cause--maybe a shift in ocean currents?) and it began to stop raining. Over time, the desert advanced and almost everything died. In the Air Mountains, there are enormous piles of rocks. I assume they once were verdant hills, but the plants all died, and then the wind and occasional flash flood washed all the soil away. Libya today is drilling for water. Vast stores of water exist under the Sahara, remnants of this earlier time.}

We spent the night in the mountain town of Iferouane. As I lay awake and looked up at the incredible stars on a nice chilly night, it occurred to me that I would never be in a more obscure place. Unfortunately, by this time every member of our party was suffering from food poisoning (or worse), and we had to turn back to Agadez. Driving over rough roads in extreme heat while suffering from intestinal difficulties is no one's idea of a good time.

So what to make of Niger? It's an interesting place. It's a hard place to visit. The only real reason to go is the people, who are as a general rule open, kind, funny, generous, and clever.

I leave you with some observations about Niger:

I lost about 15 pounds, between the heat and my intestinal ailments. By the time I left, I weighed in at 167, which I haven't been since early in my freshman year of college, when I was just starting rowing.

Private car ownership is very rare, well beyond the means of the vast majority of the population. At least 80% of the vehicles on the road fall into one of three categories:
(1) Vastly overloaded transport vehicles--this is how most Nigeriens travel and transport goods. The smallest are 'bush taxis', which are cars (Toyotas or Peugeots) crammed with about four paying passengers per row. Bags on top. This category also includes minivans, again jammed with people, often with 20 goats riding on top. On the large side are big semi trucks, overloaded with all manner of cargo, people, and animals.
(2) Mercedes sedans--unquestionably the vehicle of choice if you can afford one.
(3) Toyota Landcruisers (diesel)--unquestionably the vehicle of choice for trekkers like us. We had three while we were there, each with 200,000-300,000 miles. Incredibly rugged vehicles, considering the extreme conditions (astonishingly rough 'roads', 110 degree heat, incessant dust). I'd be interested in seeing how long a so-called rugged SUV (Built Ram Tough!) would last out there...

To amuse myself, I kept track of soccer jerseys I recognized in the towns. The tally:

France: 2
Nigeria: 1
Agentina: 1
Michael Owen: 1 (England)
Figo: 1 (Real Madrid)
Zidane: 3
Ronaldo: 1
Rivaldo: 1
England: 2
Brazil: 1
Arsenal: 1
and finally
Beckham: 11 (4 Manchester United, 4 Real Madrid, 2 misc.) He really is ubiquitous.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

This will likely be my last post for a while. I leave for Africa on Saturday. Specifically, Niger, in West Africa. Why Niger? A valid question. My sister was in the Peace Corps there. She came back to here, and then has spent the last six months over there. I've never been.

We'll be spending some time in Parc W ("Park Doo-bl-vey", they speak French over there), some time in my sister's village, and some time in and around Agadez, which is deep in the Sahara. Agadez is near the Air ("A-year") Mountains which, perhaps counterintuitively, appear to be rather solid. (Get it? Air Mountains? Solid? Oh, nevermind.)

It's winter there. Note that the current forcast for Niamey calls for highs in the mid 90s, lows in the mid 60s, and widespread dust. Agadez, in the desert, should be somewhat cooler.

Niger has been relatively safe. No, I'm not going to forward that particular article to my mom, who will be spending the entire time worrying about us.

I'm meeting my dad in Paris and we fly to Niamey. I've already started my anti-malarial Mefloquin and the vivid dreams have started. Last night's was very intense, whatever it was.