Niger – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part One

I almost hit the ceiling, and then crashed down hard on the armrest of my seat. Eduardo couldn’t help laughing out loud. We had just hit a speed bump on the highroad between Agadez and Birni N’Konni. It wasn’t huge, but riding in a bus without shocks means that any inconsistencies, pot holes or slight bumps make you fly like a bird.

The first thing you learn about West African buses is that what you see is not what you get. A bus that looks in fairly decent shape from the outside can be a total wreck mechanically. And on the contrary, a bus that looks like it belongs in a junk yard can actually be quite comfortable and run smoothly.

In Niger, all bus drivers seem to have one thing in common – making every ride a suicide mission. Not because they long to go to Paradise as martyrs and marry seventy young virgins, but because the faster you drive, the more money you make in one day. And driving through a village at full speed, where goats, children and women have to run out of the way in order not to get killed, must be totally normal to these lunatics.

After the first twenty minutes of the nine hour ride to “Konni”, we learned that when the bus slows down, it means there’s an obstacle. And to avoid getting hurt, you have to lift your butt off the seat so that you don’t fly away when the bus hits it. But when the bus driver forgot to reduce the speed, everyone in the overcrowded bus went flying through the air and slammed down hard. And screamed like pigs in a slaughterhouse.

Outside, the semi-desert landscape passed by; miles and miles of red soil, dunes of sand, and in a few spots bushes, trees and tufts of grass. Every now and then we would pass a nomadic camp with round, temporary huts made of long twigs and covered with canvases, old clothes and any other material they could find. Along the road where carcasses of camels and cows, some recently passed and others semi-rotten or completely skeletonized. A Tuareg on a camel appeared out of the bush, his face completely masked by a black turban, and a large sable hanging off the belt of his long blue kaftan. Frightening, but harmless, he was not one of the rebellious terrorists we had been warned about.

Sensuous music pulsed through the speakers of the bus; drums, horns, kora, accompanied by wailing Nigerien vocals. Eduardo made friends with the other passengers by asking about the music , and writing down the names of the bands. I was trying to survive the ride by focusing on not getting hurt, while listening to Alejandro Sanz on my iPod.

When the bus finally rolled into Birni N’Konni, we were bruised, tired and dirty. Our heads and bodies ached from the punishing ride. But we were still alive after having passed through one of the most dangerous, kidnapping-prone stretches of tarmac in Niger, with a driver who didn’t care if we lived or died. At that point, being “home safe” was all that mattered.

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