Well, Niger really, but for me that is pretty close to what it was. I knew it had been the middle part of the great trans-Saharan trade and slavery routes, that a Tuareg rebellion had been an on and off affair for ages, that slavery was still a problem today, and that Al Qaeda Africa had been sticking it’s repulsive little noses into things for a while. Not exactly a stellar tourism brochure…
The truth of Niger includes all these details, but you have to step back and let the square blocks of pixels smooth out into the image of the entire country before you judge it. Slavery is a huge concern, but it allowed the 2008 Hadijatou Mani case to be tried in Niamey, the capital. Muslim extremism is a ongoing issue, though the country is legally a secular state with good interfaith relations. Sharia law is unofficially practiced in some communities, but they have resisted all attempts to officially impose it in any region, unlike more westernised and developed countries such as Nigeria. Al-Qaeda and the Tuaregs have made much of Niger a no-go area for westerners. The local Tuaregs, however, have maintained their independence from Al-Qeada and have generally run a fairly ‘clean’ rebellion compared to the mostly foreign led Al-Qeada.
As the least developed nation in the world Niger has an enormous way to go. Perhaps- hopefully- that’s all it has to do. Unlike some of it’s more developed neighbours maybe it doesn’t have to slow down to change direction before it starts to improve the lives of it’s citizens.
Okay, so what did I do there..?
With much of the North a riding dead-end (for me at least!), I decided to take the main route from Zinder to Niamey through the Sahel region. The road was decent, the people pleasant, and the sights generally lacking. Other than in places like Djenné, most of the old mud buildings have been replaced by more modern block construction and the old Saharan trade routes no longer really exist anywhere. The scenery was also rather bland since the Sahel is on the edge of the Sahara, not quite letting you in- just leaving you on the dusty doorstep peaking through the mail slot.
The turn north to Niamey changed this a bit when my ride was wonderfully interrupted by the last herd of West African giraffes grazing close to the road. Not only had it been a while since I’d seen any of the big African mammals (the problems all along the west of Africa have almost exterminated most of them), but seeing this last herd by complete fluke instead of on a game drive or something gave them that aura of wonder that had been missing from my last encounters in southern Africa.
As the sun started it’s daily ritual of painting the African sky, I rode into Niamey and a complete surprise. Most African cities, especially capitals are usually best when experienced through books while sitting somewhere far away. The reality of these grimy, overcrowded, and desperate cities is rarely the stuff of romance. Then there’s Niamey…
For the first time I was annoyed when I was able to clear up my needed paperwork faster than expected.