Sunday, March 15, 2009

What Up Niger?

(It’s pronounced NEE-jair.)

So, nearly four years since the last time I set foot in West Africa, I was back. Niger is just to the east of Burkina on the Sahel belt, so the climate and culture are very similar. To be honest, the whole experience was a little strange, like what I would imagine going back to the small town where you went to college would feel like. If the small town where you went to college was brutally hot, dusty and almost inconceivably poor. I have been lulled into complacency by years of working in Asia and East Africa. Things are different in the West.

Niamey is more low-key than most African capital these days, in that the country is still too poor to have enough cars to clog it with smog and traffic. Not to say that driving wasn’t adventurous. My taxi-man of choice for the week, Moussa, was constantly yelling out his window (the Nigerien equivalent of leaning on the horn) at trucks, bikes, motos, cars, pedestrians, dogs, camels, sheep, goats, donkeys, herds of cattle, etc that moved willy-nilly about the town. There were cops at most of the intersections to direct traffic, but it was the hot season, so they spent most of the day watching the chaos from underneath a shady tree.

The hotel where I stayed was the only four star hotel in all of Niger, having a swimming pool, exotic flowers, and a jazz band that played on the terrace overlooking the busy John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge. Disorientingly incongruous with the world outside.

I don’t really have much in the way of fun stories to tell. I spent most of my time in meetings. I did do some shopping in the famous silver markets, visit the Grand Mosque, and pick up few West African specials for my fellow Burkina Peace Corps volunteers (including a kilo of peanut flavored beef jerky, which made for an amusing interaction with the drug sniffing dogs back at Dulles.) But that’s about it.

The only vaguely interesting story I have was buying West African beer to bring back for my RPCV friends. Beer is a little tough to find in a Muslim country like Niger, but I have a good instinct for these sorts of things. So I go into the marquis, with Moussa waiting in the car like I am off to score an eight-ball of coke, and ask the kid behind the bar for four bottle of beer. I tell him that I need to pay for the bottles as well as I am taking them back to the States. (In West Africa, you can’t take the bottles out of the bars because they are recycled. Not in the melted and re-made we do it here. As in taken, (theoretically) washed, refilled and re-capped.) Kid thinks that is the funniest thing he has ever heard. No, serious, I need to pay for the bottles. When he finally figures out that I actually do plan on bringing these four bottles of beer to the United States of America, he gets really excited. He calls his friend over to tell him. And I recognize the language they are speaking as Morre (of course it is the Burkinabe selling beer). I look at them and say, “Eiya! Bwen taara fo? Nassara wunda Morre! Maam ya Mossi. Maam yuur la Ouedraogo Mariam. Maam yiita Yako!” (which is basically all the Morre I could speak even if you held a gun to my head, and means “Hey! What’s wrong with you? White people understand Morre! I am Mossi. My name is Mariam Ouedraogo (typical Burkinabe name). I am from Yako!”) Kid literally fell off his bar stool. Now he was convinced that I was some sort of weird mythical creature. He was still staring at me slack-jawed when I picked up my sachet of beer and jumped into Moussa’s waiting car.