Published: April 30th 2005April 24th 2005
Niger, Il fait chaud!
Niger is hot, very very hot.
And Niger is big, so very very big - thousands of miles of barren scrub and desert. As a result there were times in Niger where I felt I was on the road to nowhere.
For those of you that have been following my blogs regularly there is news about the political situation in Niger. I'm quoting here from IRINnews.org
IRIN is a project of the UN office for the co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
"Niamey, 20 April 2005. The government of Niger has struck a deal with a civic movement that brought the country to a standstill with a series of strikes and demonstrations at a new tax on food and essential services. The agreement... exempts flour and milk from a new 19% Value Added Tax on food. It also establishes a higher ceiling on water and electricity bills before VAT can be applied."
Niger is the 2nd poorest country in the world, with a shocking 16% literacy rate, and severe food shortages caused by the plague of locusts last year.
So, the partial climb down by the government is good news. Talking about poverty, the Millennium Development Goals talked about halving poverty, infant mortality and illiteracy by 2015. By current trends it will take until 2165 to achieve those ends in the poorest sub-Saharan countries. That's 150 years! That's criminal neglect. The rich nations have made many promises, but delivered nearly nothing. Poverty in Africa could be reduced drastically if only
actions reflected words.
Nelson Mandela: Jeune Afrique, The Africa Report
"The Global Campaign for Action Against Poverty can take its place as a public movement alongside the movement to abolish slavery and the international solidarity against apartheid.
In this new century, millions of people in the worlds poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains.
They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings...
Make Poverty History in 2005. Make History in 2005. Then we can all stand with our heads held high."
Unfortunately, thinking of Togo, which I visited a couple of weeks ago; as I write this it looks as if the military elite in Togo have been back to their old tricks of rigging elections and shooting people.
Returning to my personal diary where I left it, on the 14th of April I was in Niamey the capital of Niger.
THURS 14 APRIL
I got up early to try to get as much done as possible before the day became too hot. The weather forecast had promised a temperature of 43C. It took a while to explain to the taxi I took into town, where I wanted him to take me. The driver didn't know any of the road names or places I mentioned, but finally when I gave him the name of the nearest Roundabout (round point) he knew where I meant.
I got myself a croissant and coffee for breakfast in a cheap Patisserie and then found an instant photo shop. I had run out of ID photos and
needed 3 photos for the Chad Visa. I then walked to a supermarket and bought some bottles of water. Next I went to a bank and got a cash advance on my credit card. Having done that I walked for half and hour to the Embassy of Chad.
At the Embassy, the person I saw didn't seem very sure what to do. He went to see a colleague taking me with him. The colleague told him what to do. Once I had filled in the forms, I was slightly surprised when he said to return at 12 noon. I was impressed with such quick service.
It was by now 11am, so I had an hour to kill. I walked down the road and found a Buvette (bar) where I sat and drank a soft drink. I was sweating profusely from a very short walk.
When I returned to the Embassy he didn't have my passport ready. He was trying to finish something on his computer. He asked me to wait whilst he finished. So, I waited. At 12.30 he left the room and came back with my passport, stamped with a
Visa for Chad. I thanked him and caught a taxi into town.
In town I found a restaurant, which was part of a hotel I was thinking of moving to. The staff seemed very friendly and it was a much better location than the Hotel Sahel.
After lunch I spent 3 hours in an internet cafe, on the same road from where I had eaten.
At 5.30m I walked back to the Hotel Sahel - it was a 20 minute walk. Obviously, I was very hot from the walk. Il fait chaud! I didn't go out again and had dinner in the hotel.
FRIDAY 15 APRIL
First thing in the morning I changed hotel to the Hotel Mourey, saving myself 4000 CFA's To be honest it was just as good, if anything I think the air conditioning unit was more effective, and the staff were much more friendly. At the Hotel Sahel, you got a very impersonal service, whereas at the Hotel Mourey it felt like the staff cared.
After I booked into the hotel, I went straight out to the Musee National de
Day trip in the desert from Agadez
Niger. Well worth a visit. It has the famous Abre de Tenere. The Abre de Tenere was formally the last surviving tree of the Sahara, felled by a Libyan truck in 1973.
I then returned to the hotel for lunch and a siesta.
Later in the afternoon I went out to get a ticket for the SNTV bus to Agadez for the next day. Agadez was one of the great towns of the Saharan trade routes.
I walked to where the Lonely Planet suggested the station was. It's not there! I asked someone. They told a taxi to take me to the right place. The SNTV coach station is a fairly new building, so maybe... just maybe I'll forgive the Lonely Planet, just this one time.
After buying the ticket I returned to the hotel and had dinner. I also asked the hotel to arrange an early morning taxi. The person who sold me the ticket told me to be at the coach station at 4.30am.
SATURDAY 16 APRIL
Because of the really early start I didn't bother going to sleep. Instead I
watched satellite TV and read a book.
At 3.45am I went down to reception, woke someone up and gave him the room key. I had already settled the bill the night before.
The taxi then picked me up from outside the hotel and delivered me to the coach station. When I got to the coach station, I noticed that I had lost my dark glasses - they had been in the top pocket of my shirt. They must have fallen out at some point. I was annoyed but they could be anywhere.
I was under the impression that the bus was supposed to leave at 5am. But in fact it didn't leave till 7am. So, I had a 3 hour wait. I also for some reason developed trapped wind whilst I waited - something that continued to plague me throughout the bus trip.
When we got on the bus it was already very hot. Everyone looked at the air vents - looking for cool air, on a bus that was supposed to be air conditioned.
Unfortunately for all of us the air conditioning was broken.
The only ventilation came from 2 skylights in the roof of the bus. The windows were tinted and there were curtains, but we were in for a journey where we would all slowly be cooked. When the bus was moving there was a breeze from the skylights, but whenever the coach stopped or slowed down, it was hell. The trip was 1000 km. It was a fast bus for Africa because it was a good sealed road, the bus was fairly modern and had comfortable seats. We were offered little plastic sachets of pineapple juice and filtered water throughout the 11 hour journey. We needed them, in conditions that felt like sitting in an oven.
The bus arrived in Agadez at 6pm. I made my way to a hotel, stopping at a shop on the way to stock up on water. I had drunk all my 1 and a half litre bottle on the bus, plus the sachets provided by the bus company.
It was a cheap hotel, but the most expensive room because I needed air conditioning! After 11 hours in hell I needed a chance for my body temperature to normalize.
I took a shower and lay down for a couple of hours. At 8pm I went out (leaving the air conditioning on - not very environmentally sound) and found somewhere to eat.
Back in the room at 9pm I found the bathroom was infested with cockroaches. I killed dozens of them, and flushed their corpses down the toilet. Even so, I kept finding more to kill every time I visited the bathroom.
At breakfast in the hotel I asked about registering at the commissariat (the police station). You are required to get your passport stamped when you arrive in Agadez. The guy in the hotel found a motorcycle taxi who took me to the police station. I told the taxi not to wait - the police were only a few hundred metres from the hotel! After some discussion with the police on the gate of the station I was told to come back tomorrow as it was Sunday.
So, I then went for a walk around town. I visited and photographed the Grande Mosque - the most definitive image of Niger. I also chatted with some
would be guides about the cost of camel expeditions into the desert. One of the guides was very proud of having guided a BBC journalist and showed me the journalists' contact card. They also told me that trade was not what it once was. In the past, before the Civil War in Algeria they used to get large numbers of people arriving with the trans Africa overland truck tours from Algeria.
For those of you that don't know, the overland truck tours are what they sound like. A group of people travelling through Africa on the back of a specially modified truck. It's an organized tour, where you camp in tents and is usually fairly cheap. It also takes away many of the hassles of traveling in Africa. There tend to be far more women than men on the overland trucks, often Aussie's and Kiwi's.
I then had a cheap lunch and went to a bar. In the bar I met a couple of Frenchmen who were working for the Uranium mining company in Arlit. Arlit is another 3 hours further up the road into the desert. The road is sealed all the way
to the Uranium mines, but not beyond. They were in Agadez for a week end break.
At 2pm I returned to my room. In my room I fumigated the bathroom with insecticide. I sprayed the stuff into cracks in the walls, around the door and window and into the air. I hid from the sun till the evening when I went out to eat.
I registered with the commissariat first thing in the morning and then booked myself onto a trip out to the Dunes for the following day. I had some difficulty finding anyone - everyone that might have been selling tours had disappeared! I booked a one day tour by 4 by 4 off-roader. I had decided not to go by camel, even though it would be much cheaper. I was leaving at 6am and returning at 1pm. I didn't do much else all day, but I noticed a lot of places weren't open - it was now the low season, there were no tourists around.
I left the hotel at 6am for the tour. We were at the dunes at 7.30am. At
this time of the day it was still cool. We ate breakfast out on the dunes. We also visited a Toureg village and saw a caravan passing. I was back in the hotel for 1pm and took a long siesta.
I had breakfast and waited in the hotel. I had arranged the previous day for the guide who had taken me out to the dunes to buy a ticket to Zinder. There is only one SNTV coach a week, so I was going to have to use a minibus. The guide though, bought the ticket and did the waiting for the bus to fill. The bus then drove to the hotel and picked me up at 9am. A civilized arrangement! I took the front cabin seat - the most expensive but best seat. It cost me 8000 CFA's.
The minibus then drove to the edge of town and stopped for breakfast for 20 minutes. I had already eaten. Then we drove to the town checkpoint. At this point the driver noticed we had a flat tyre. So, we sat there for 1 and half hours whilst the driver got the tyre
repaired. Finally we left. The first part of the journey was a good road, for the first 2 hours. But despite this we driver kept stopping to fiddle with something in the engine. I had the good fortune to get yet another minibus that wasn't fit to be on the road. After a couple of hours on the sealed road, the road ended abruptly and were were on a desert track for 100 km. The bus got caught in the sand at least 6 times, at which point gripping metal tracks were produced and we often had to help by pushing. The minibus was a battered old 2 wheel drive, so not suitable for desert travel. Added to the sand problem, I lost count of the times the vehicle broke down and the driver fiddled with the engine.
At about 7.30pm I saw lights in the distance - the first evidence of human habitation for hours. I could hope that we were near to Zinder. No such luck! As we continued through small villages, some with no electricity and only oil lamps for light, it began to feel that we were getting nowhere very fast. Particularly as
the bus kept breaking down. I really began to feel I was on the road to nowhere!
Finally just before midnight we rolled into Zinder. I avoided the taxi touts because I was looking for a stall that sold water or soft drinks. I found one and bought a sachet of orange juice. I asked the stall holder the way to a hotel - I'm sure he didn't know his right from his left. I found the correct street and saw that a general store was still open. I went in and bought biscuits and a large amount of bottled water. From there it was a short stagger to a hotel, where I booked in, drank a whole 1 and a half litre bottle of water and went to bed.
I got up early had breakfast and walked to the museum. It was closed, for repainting. It's the hot season and they don't expect tourists. The bank and and the internet cafe were also closed for a holiday. It was hot, but I wandered around the old town and got some photos. At 11.30 am I returned to my hotel to
hide from the sun. I had an air conditioned room with an erratic water supply. Because of severe water shortages there's only mains water between 6.30am - 8am and 3.30pm - 6pm. What that means is outside those hours the only water supply was a bucket in the bathroom. So, for most of the day it's bucket showers only, for the whole of the city.
In the late afternoon I went out to buy a ticket from the SNTV coach station for the town of Nguimi. Nguimi is a small town near the border with Chad, which is the place to pick up transport for the town of Mao in Chad. Four wheel drive pick ups run between Nguimi and Mao, which is a long journey through the desert.
Then I had a meal in a restaurant. Whilst in the restaurant the electric cut out for the city. It continued to fail off and on throughout the night, meaning I had to keep turning my air conditioning unit back on in my room!
I got up at 3am to pack. At 4am someone from the hotel knocked on
my door to wake me. I was already up and ready. The hotel employee checked around my room to see I hadn't left anything. We said goodbye. I walked to the coach station. The bus was due to leave at 5am. The SNTV coach from Niamey to Agadez had been a modern coach, but this wasn't. It looked like a converted truck. This meant that it had the advantage of a high clearance of the passenger compartment from the road. Obviously some of the road was not going to be good!
In fact the road was bad, but the bus was well adapted to cope, even if it did poison us with exhaust fumes whenever it stopped with the engines left turned on. The ride was bumpy, but at least it didn't break down.
It was a long journey. We eventually arrived in Nguimi at 6.30pm.
Getting off the bus, I was met by only one person trying to give me a motorbike lift. I told him to wait whilst I got something to drink.
Then I asked the motor taxi to find me a hotel, or a
bed for the night. The taxi man took me to a building with a guard outside, it wasn't a hotel, or at least not one that was open. He then told me to wait. He disappeared on his bike and left me standing there for half an hour. When he returned he took me to a house. I was displacing a woman from her bedroom for the night. I paid her for the room as much as I would have paid for a cheap hotel room. When I arrived all the electrics in the town were out, but her mud brick shack had electricity when it was running. The taxi man took me to a Buvette where I had a drink. On returning to the house, the electricity was running. A cooling fan had been set up for me. The stereo was also turned on, I asked the woman who's house it was to leave the music on as I liked it. The room she gave me smelled of her perfumes. She fetched some water for me. I took a bucket shower in her combined squat toilet and shower - an open courtyard with a shoulder high wall and a
concrete floor with a hole in the floor for the toilet.
Despite the fan it was still very hot and difficult to sleep.
SATURDAY 23rd APRIL
The motorcycle taxi man came to the house at 6am as arranged. He took me to the garage for vehicles leaving for Mao in Chad. There was only one lorry there which wasn't going anywhere. He left me and went off on his bike. 10 minutes later he returned and took me to a house in the town. I spoke to a man who was selling tickets - he said to wait till 9am. So we returned to the garage, I waited and the taxi man left.
At 8am the man I had spoken to earlier arrived. He was sat in the shelter opposite from me. - I went over the road and sat with him and other hopeful passengers. As the day wore on there was no sign of any transport. I spoke with one hopeful passenger who said he'd been waiting 2 days! At 11.30am I asked the tout selling tickets how many seats he had filled and how many he needed.
Niger - Zinder
From his reply I got the impression I might be waiting days. He had 8 passengers but needed 13 for the pick up to leave.
I offered to pay for the missing passengers - not something I usually do, he didn't suggest it. I didn't want to wait for days in this small border town. I then had lunch in a chop bar. As I was finishing my meal the tout called me. He introduced me to the owner of the pick up. The pick up driver told me he would arrive with his vehicle at 2pm and we would leave at 4pm.
The pick up did arrive at 2pm, but we didn't leave at 4! Time in Africa can be a bit elastic. We finally drove off at 6pm. Within half a kilometre we stopped at a check point. When we got there, the police told me that I had to have my passport stamped and they couldn't do it. I would have to go to the main police station and if I gave some money to another policeman to pay for his petrol he would drive me there.
I gave some money. I was driven on the back of a motorbike to the police station. It was a scary ride. He rode at high speed through the town. The roads were full of holes, so I was bouncing like a ball on the back of the bike. Added to that the roads were drowned in sand, so I could feel the wheels of the bike slide. I think the policeman thought he was a stunt driver! When we returned to the check point, the police told me that the driver wasn't there. He had been told to return to the town to get an essential travel document he hadn't bothered getting, despite having all day to do it.
The policemen at the checkpoint became very chatty. They shared their evening meal with me. It was the best food I had eaten in days.
Finally at 8pm the driver returned with the document he needed and we could leave. Only 1 km further up the road another group of policemen checked our documents!
Then, we drove through the desert for an hour. We stopped at a barrier in the desert and a group of heavily armed men approached our vehicle.
It was at this point that it went through my mind that if they were bandits, then I was stuffed. I remembered a conversation with a French couple in Benin. They told me that they had been told that it wasn't a good idea to attempt this border crossing by the French Embassy. As a result they had flown.
I wasn't worried for long, it turned out that they were border guards. We were at the Niger border post. A guard took my passport and returned 10 minutes later with it stamped. We then entered no man's land and drove through the desert for 3 hours.
We got stuck in the sand several times; so we had to use the sand gripping tracks. Whilst the pick up was getting out of the sand, I got out of the cabin and walked. I had paid to sit in the front cabin, rather than on the back of the pick up.
It was a pleasant night with a light breeze, which made a short walk pleasant. When the pick up was stuck I walked with a large group of turbaned men towards solid ground. It was easy to see, as the sand was brilliantly white from the light of the full moon.
Finally we arrived at the border post for Chad at midnight. The border guards had gone to bed for the night, so we piled out of the pick up and made ourselves comfortable in the sand. The border post opened at 6am, so I went to sleep in the sand by the light of the full moon. To be continued in the next blog!