Travels in Niger: Part One
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
How the West continues to tarnish an African nation
The Republic of Niger is named after the Niger River. Bordered by Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Libya among others, the country has an area of 490,000 square miles. However, more than eighty percent of Niger's land area lies in the Sahara Desert (the largest in the world) thereby significantly dictating where Niger's population of some 25 million people settle and live.
The reason I decided I must travel to Niger, Agadez in particular, is that, as noted in my previous blog, my next novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ, has as its backdrop the painful phenomenon of migration to Europe from sub-Saharan countries, especially Nigeria. Agadez is the well-known transit point from West African countries to Libya (and on to Europe). Therefore, I had to go there. Anyone can google. At a book club or book fair (virtual or otherwise), I wouldn't take much pride in saying I wrote the scenes in the novel by using an Internet search engine.
As it turns out, there was an even more important reason not to google the topic of Niger, because much of the information online is sweeping, irresponsible, inaccurate, and sometimes spiteful.
The smearing of a nation
Here are a few examples of what I read when I googled "Niger." (The bolding in the paragraphs below is mine, and I did it for a reason I'll explain later.)
Reconsider travel to Niger due to crime, terrorism, and kidnapping . . . Terrorist groups continue plotting kidnappings and possible attacks in Niger. Terrorists may attack with little or no warning, targeting foreign and local government facilities and areas frequented by Westerners . . .( US Department of State Advisory, travelsafe.gov)
Travel Safe-Abroad states: This is a politically unstable country, and lawlessness is ever-present . . .With its political turmoil and UN labeling it the major drug smuggling port, violent and petty crime on the streets, there are lots to think about when planning a trip to Niger . . . Pickpockets are somewhat active, especially in markets and places where rare tourists, if there are any, tend to go . . . Muggings and robberies are common and you should be extremely careful all the time in Niger . . . Niger* is not very safe to visit, due to political turmoil and crime on the streets. This website also writes: "Niger, also colloquially referred to as the Heart of Darkness is a landlocked country in Africa with a population of about 16 million."
In the first place, that is incorrect. Niger has never been "colloquially" known as "The Heart of Darkness." That phrase comes from the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad, and refers not so much to the Congolese backdrop of the novel, but to the twisted souls of the exploitative Europeans at the center of the story.
Secondly, why would one even bring up this pejorative connotation in a description of Niger? Why paint this negative picture at the very beginning of the blog? What's the point? And when it comes to stupid appellations, which country in West Africa is ever as dark for as many hours as a Scandinavian country in the wintertime?
3. Do not travel to Niger due to:
the high threat of kidnapping, terrorist attack, crime and the unpredictable security environment
the health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant disruptions to global travel.
If you're in Niger, leave as soon as possible if it’s safe to do so. (Smart Traveler).
"Leave as soon as possible if it's safe to do so?" Are you being serious, or is that a joke from a bad standup routine?
The Smart Traveler, in all its smartness, provides this suitably red-zoned map on their website:
Note that the focus of my trip, Agadez, lies in the highly dangerous "red zone" of this supposedly informative map, courtesy the Aussies.
What I'd like to ask the authors of these dire warnings about Niger is this: Have you actually set foot in the place, or did you just copy what you read from the last website you googled?
My arrival in Niger
I traveled from Lagos, Nigeria to Niamey, the capital of Niger, via Lomé, Togo, on Asky Airlines, landing at Niamey's renovated and modernized Diori Hamani International Airport.
Through customs, I began resurrecting my post-high-school French a little haltingly as my tongue learned to loosen up. Given my rusty French, one of the airport officials helped me through customs, baggage claim, and all the way to outside the terminal where my host was waiting for me.
At this point, having read the dire Internet warnings about this "politically unstable" and "lawless" country with terrorists, kidnappers and pickpockets, I was ready to duck flying bullets and fend off hordes of malicious attackers. Instead, all I saw were pleasant, smiling people greeting and welcoming their loved ones and loading up luggage--you know, kind of like a normal airport?
My host and guide, Abba Djitteye, of Timbuktu Explore Traveler, met me and rode with me in the rear of a car belonging to a friend. Once we leave the airport, I thought, the real, dangerous Niger will reveal itself. Thus, as we proceeded to my hotel, I was on the alert, looking around for armed, ragtag renegades wielding AK-47s and shooting randomly at people. Where were they? I wondered. They had to be somewhere. Maybe someone would stop our car to rob us?
Instead, what was all this civility I was witnessing? People riding around on their putt-putt scooters and motorcycles in the cool of the evening (very few cars), adorable yellow tricycle taxis zooming around at top speeds of 30 mph (if that), pedestrians strolling down the sidewalks--and always, people waving at each other with the greeting, salaam alaikum, which means peace be upon you. Wait, peace? That can't be right. This is a lawless country with crime on the streets, isn't it? It must be, because I read it on the Internet, and everything on the Internet is true. Right?
Or maybe I was being actively kidnapped right now? Could they be moving me to some undisclosed location where I would be tied up, gagged, and held for ransom?
Well, it sure was a luxurious held-for-ransom place they pulled up to: Niamey's Noom Hotel. Check-in was smooth, quick, friendly, and effortless. I had booked a regular room but discovered I had been upgraded for free to a suite.
Bottom line? A beautiful hotel.
Look back at the above paragraphs where I bolded several words and phrases I call trigger keywords. They are designed to scare the living daylights out of people, particularly white people: words like kidnapping, muggings, robberies, terrorists, and crime on the streets. These words have a predictable psychological--perhaps even physical--reaction of fear and loathing.
Kidnapping: If you search "latest kidnapping news in Niger," Google asks if you meant to say Nigeria. Bing.com cites an occurrence of alleged "self-kidnapping" in Niger, for which the perpetrators were charged.
In October 2020, Reuters reported the kidnapping of US citizen Philip Walton from his Nigerien home in Massalata by gunmen. US Special Forces rescued Walton three days later. Massalata is close to the border with northern Nigeria, where the terrorist group Boko Haram, one of the largest Islamic militant groups in Africa, is active.
In July 2021, the US Department of State reported a kidnapping threat in Niger, but the language in the report is vague:
There is an unspecified kidnapping threat to Westerners in Diffa, Diffa Region, Niger targeting residences. We have no further information regarding the timing, target, specific location, or method of the alleged kidnapping plan.
Diffa, again, is close to the border with Nigeria.
In October 2020, Reuters also reported six foreign hostages held in Mali (two), Burkina Faso (two), and Niger (two). But these kidnappings are hardly an avalanche in the international context. In the world kidnapping ranking list below, search for Niger and let me know when and where you find it.
Another site, GlobalEconomy.com, places Belgium at the top of the kidnapping list in 2017, and lists New Zealand quite high up as well. Of course, no one warns you not to go to Belgium or New Zealand, because kidnapping in an African nation is always more of a moral outrage than it is in a western country, isn't it?
To label Niger as a whole as a "lawless" country on the basis of kidnappings you can count on the fingers of one hand and that occur largely at its borders with Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali is unjustifiable and at the heart of it, racist. It robs Niger of its basic humanity and tars it with an image which is at best a gross exaggeration.
This portrayal was responsible not only for my preconception that I was about to enter a den of violence and evil in Niger where my very life would be threatened, but also the preconceived notions held by friends and family who expressed concern about my journey. I actually thought that I would need armed protection at every step of the way, but while that may be true of selected border areas of Niger, the same can't be said of Niamey, Agadez, and many other places I never got to see. A guide, yes, but not an armed escort. Guides are advisable in many countries around the world, in most cases to assist in language, safety, and direction. Niger is not unique in this regard.
The deadly attack that killed eight at the Kouré Giraffe Reserve is cited as an example of terrorism that occurred outside the conventional "red zone" in Niger, prompting the French government, one of the globe's worst purveyors of condescending, racist attitudes, to declare the entire country of Niger a "red zone" (except Niamey, which remains "orange.") This is not only unfair, but a vindictive, spiteful attempt by France to further hobble one of its ex-colonies.
Knowing now about this horrific event at Kouré, would I visit the giraffe sanctuary? Well, of course I would, no more or no less than I would the United States Capitol, the site of the deadly January 6, 2021 insurrection by swarms of vicious extremists foaming at the mouth. No more or no less than I would visit Norway, where Anders Brevik killed 77 people on 22 July, 2011. "But that's different," you say.
"In what way is it different?"
"Well, you know," *voice dropping to a whisper* "Norway is only white people, Niger is, you know, black and stuff."
I rest my case.
Just to be sure the entire gamut of crimes from serious to petty is covered, websites imply that towns of Niger are ridden with pickpocketing thieves. Again, let's put this in the international context. Check any number of in the world to see if you come up with Nigerien towns. Anecdotally, the only place my US passport was ever pickpocketed was Gothenburg, Sweden. Does that mean I avoid that city like the plague from now on? Of course not, and if I can't label the entire Sweden a nation of pickpockets, the same standard should apply to Niger.
I spent time in a couple of marketplaces in Agadez and in villages between Maradi and Niamey.
Agadez animal market (kassuwar dabbobi in Hausa) (Video: Kwei Quartey)
There were no hordes of pickpockets sidling up to me in the market, children or otherwise. Niger doesn't have a pickpocketing problem, it has a poverty problem.
The western media need to take a good look at themselves and desist from making glib, damaging generalizations about African peoples and nations. You use nuance to discuss the West, so how about a little nuance and common sense when discussing Africa?
In Part Two, we'll talk about the hegemonic role of France in the continent of Africa. It's not as bad as you think. It's worse.
In Part Three, I'll give you more of a glimpse of the rhythm of life in Agadez and the surrounding desert. I didn't encounter terrorists, lawless people, or kidnappers.