Finding giraffes and jewellery in Niger

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Africa » Niger » Niamey
July 2nd 2008
Published: July 2nd 2008
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After the awful bus from Cotonou dropped me off in Fada, I met up with PCVs Beth and Aisha. We happened to be in Fada on the night of a Floby concert, what luck! (Floby is a popular Burkinabe singer.)

The next morning we joined PCV Courtney on a bus to Niamey. There was a big fiasco in which the bus company sold us tickets and then didn’t want to let us get on the bus, but we managed to get some spots standing in the aisle.

It was about an eight hour trip including a long stop at the border. While we waited for the border guards to stamp our passports we found some omelet sandwiches for lunch. As soon as we were seen ordering food we were surrounded by young garibous.

In Muslim communities of Burkina and Niger, some families send a young son away to a special school where he learns the Koran. The school then sends all of these young boys into the streets to acquire all of their food by begging. The garibous are usually barefoot kids carrying empty bowls or tomato paste cans. They are a disheartening sight that leaves you torn between not wanting to support the practice and not wanting to see the kids starve.

A dozen young mendicants followed us closely while we ate, each trying to get in front of the others, sustaining a chorus of “white person, donne-moi…”. When we finally relinquished the last parts of our sandwiches, the food was torn apart and disappeared in an instant. When that was gone the boys surrounded us again, begging now for money and other gifts. If you drink a soda, they always want the empty bottle as a toy. Yet by the time Beth and I finished our Cokes, the garibous had become obnoxious, so we snubbed them by finding some polite little girls to give our bottles to. Because in this society the girls don’t even get to beg.

When we arrived at the PC hostel in Niamey we met a whole group of Niger volunteers including Jenn, another Guinea transfer. Jenn has lived in Niamey since we transferred, so she was an excellent tour guide. We spent the evening at a lively restaurant that had the soccer game on a huge TV.

The next morning we took a trip to 65 km outside of Niamey to see West Africa’s last herd of wild giraffes. We were dropped off near Kouré on the side of the road where there is nothing around but sun-scorched bush and a couple of thatch huts where you can hire a guide. Most tourists rent a car and hire a driver to take them out into the bush looking for giraffes, since the herd is sometimes dozens of kilometers from the road. Now, during the rainy season, the herd tends to be closer to the road and it is possible to explore on foot (the cheaper option more fitted to PCVs).

So our guide led us out into the Sahelian semidesert, mostly hot sand with shadeless patches of shrubs or small trees. Unfortunately it worked out that we were setting out around noon so the sun was sizzling. But at least there was a breeze.

We only walked for 30 or 45 minutes before we found a group of five young giraffes. They were a little timid since they were young, but we were still able to get pretty close to them (30 or 35 meters). They were the size I’d expected full-grown giraffes to be, but our guide said they were small ones.

We followed the giraffes and took pictures for a while, and when our water started to get low we began walking back. A French couple had set up a new, nice café in one of the thatch huts at the road. After that walk in the sun we didn’t care that cold sodas were three times the price they should be.

That night we had dinner at Ziggy’s, a popular PCV hangout. The restaurant is not expensive but has good food and an amazing view of the Niger River and its spectacular sunsets.

We spent much of the next day at Niger’s National Museum, where Jenn had been volunteering with the artisan’s co-op. The artisans there make beautiful leather goods and quality jewelry out of ebony wood and pure silver. We spent some time at the jeweler’s stalls. Shopping there required some serious haggling skills.

The National Museum of Niger also has a zoo. The most depressing zoo ever. You know in old cartoons when they would show the lion’s cage, just a lion in a tiny cage where you could actually reach through the bars and touch it? It was like that, only they put three lions in the tiny cage. And of course they could never clean the cage, because what would they do with the lions?

There were also tiny stinky cages of lethargic hyenas, baboons, and crocodiles that looked dead. They had two hippos in shallow pits where you look down on them from a railing. A group of kids was tearing up weeds from the ground and setting them at the edge of the hippo’s pit, and the hippo would come over and eat the leaves off the ground by your feet. At one point the hippo put its front feet on the edge of the pit, and it looked like it could climb out if it really wanted to. A guard who saw a kid feeding the hippo quickly ran over and hit the kid.

Kids must do this pretty often because I swear to you the hippo had learned to beg. When the kids dispersed the hippo came over to us and rested its snout on the edge of the pit by our feet, just like a dog rests its snout on the kitchen table. Wow.

That night we had another good dinner at a “floating” restaurant on a small boat on the Niger River. Well, actually the water level in the Niger was low so the boat was totally on land and the locals had planted corn around it. The bank was a bit uneven right there so the boat and the table were slanted, but it was still nice. The food was good and we hung out with some really fun Niger PCVs who took us to a nice club afterward. The club was all outdoors and overlooked the river. We stayed until 2:30 and then we had to go back to the hostel and pack our bags so we could catch the 4:30 am bus back to Ouaga.

So now I’m back in Ouaga for the last time, leaving Friday night for Morocco with Stephanie and Leslie. I talked to my director and learned that this year 12 of 59 students passed the national exams to get into high school, a slight improvement over last year and a pretty average success rate among rural Burkinabe secondary schools. The ones who passed were the ones who really deserved it, they worked very hard. Assourou, the student who had come to me every day for tutoring and had made huge progress this year, passed. Ibrahim, my very supportive chef de classe, also passed. We also had one girl pass, Barakissa. The class had other students who I think can pass next year, and others who are certainly smart enough but have thus far chosen not to apply themselves. En tout cas, I wish the best for all of my students.


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