Kano to Zinder – How Many Bribes Can You Pay in Seven Hours?

Theoretically, the road from Kano in Nigeria to Zinder in Niger should take about three and a half hours. It’s not that far (200 km), and the roads are actually quite good. But when travelling in an overloaded bush taxi, African style, things change.

The Nigerien driver, Moussa, was not too happy when we brought three pieces of luggage to the bush taxi stop in Kano. He was eager to get our business, but tried his hardest to get us to pay extra for our bags. We refused. Since everyone else brought lots of luggage, we weren’t quite sure what the problem was. Until the car started filling up.

Bush taxis are five-seat Peugeots that serve as public transportation between major cities. Often, this is the only method to travel in Africa. The goal of the driver is to cram as many people as possible into the car, and thus make as much money as possible on the route. Usually, this means three people sitting in the front seats and four in the back. But Moussa obviously needed more cash, so he made room for two women and a toddler in the trunk. The luggage was spilling out from the back, tied down with cords, and so we started our journey with nine adults and two children in a five-seat car.

Now, this method of travelling is not without problems, something Moussa must have taken into consideration when calculating the risks vs. gains. In Nigeria and in Southern Niger, there are police checks in every village. Given the bush taxis are legally only allowed to carry six passengers (and only carry as much luggage as would fit in the trunk), this gave the police a good reason to stop the car and get their bribes. In every village, at every police check along the 200 km route, Moussa paid the police a bribe of about a dollar. Which meant that every single policeman on the route, both Nigerian and Nigerien, was corrupt, and that it’s simply an accepted fact that no one even questions any longer.

However, the most interesting situation happened about 10 km before the border, at the Nigerian customs check. Suddenly the car stops, three men get out and get onto moped taxis. All the luggage is reloaded to fit into the trunk, and the poor women in the back finally get to sit on proper seats. We drive 2 km, and the car stops again. The men who had driven away on mopeds are sitting under a tree waiting. We reload the car and the two women get to go back into the trunk again.

Apparently, if the customs see that your car is overloaded, you need to pay a fine of 10,000 Naira (~$60). Unluckily, someone tipped off the customs guy, who caught us as we were reloading the car. A bribe of 2,000 Naira satisfied him.

Strangely enough, the immigration officials at the Jibaya border crossing were of the honest kind, and Eduardo and I didn’t need to pay any bribes this time. Phew!

So, in this style, seven hours and twenty-thirty bribes later, we arrived in Zinder, Niger.

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Zinder – The Blind Side of Niger

After crossing the border to Niger, I turned to Eduardo and asked: “How many blind people have we seen in the last ten minutes? Twenty?”

It seems Niger is flooded with sight-impaired people. Everywhere you look, there ‘s a blind person begging for money. It appeared like a coincidence at first, but after seeing more blind individuals in one day than we’ve seen before in our entire lives combined, we had to start wondering; is it a contagious disease, a freak gene, or an epidemic?

Kelley, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Florida is writing a thesis on the subject. From what she has learnt from hundreds of interviews with local tribes, there seems to be a wide range of reasons for the occurrences of blindess. But somehow, she doesn’t know why yet, there’s a much higher incidence of blindness in Southern Niger than anywhere else in the world.

And it’s extremely sad. In this, one of the poorest countries in the world, where the majority of the population survive on less than a dollar a day, blindness must be a death sentence. Blind parents use their toddlers to lead them around begging on the streets. What else can they do? There is no work for people with perfect eyesight, and much less so for the blind.

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Children and young Nigeriens seem to suffer the most. Women have an average of eight children. And it’s not because of love, but so that the children can provide additional income to the family. It’s not unusual to see a 4-year old pushing a cart of merchandise down the street at an age when he should only know how to play and have fun. With only a quarter of children entering primary school there’s no future for them, either.

Most children in Niger will never know the joy and happiness of childhood that should be a fundamental right of every human being.

They will never have a chance.

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Zinder – Tea Ceremony with the Wodaabe Nomads

The Wodaabe tribe may be mostly known for their male beauty contest during the Cure Salee festival, but meeting them for a tea ceremony on a more personal level can prove to be very interesting, too.

A North American friend, Kelley, invited us along to visit some Wodaabe friends living in Zinder in Southern Niger. This nomadic family is currently residing in permanent house, due to the last years droughts in which most of their cattle, their livelihood, has perished. We arrived at sunset, and were invited to sit down on a mat in the front yard. The subdued women, covered in headscarves and long kaftans were seated with the children further back, while the bearded men in traditional white turbans and gowns gathered around us and conversed with us in soft voices. Once night fell the darkness was complete, except for the orange light of glowing coals on which the kettle was being heated.

Massa, a strong, lean and handsome man in his late twenties, prepared the tea with great pride, immersing his entire soul into the act. The first cup of the three-part tea ceremony is made from black tea leaves, boiled until bitter, and slightly sweetened with sugar. The bitterness represents the unfamiliarity of strangers meeting for the first time. In a sweeping movement, Massa poured the steaming tea in a thin stream from high above, trickling slowly like a waterfall into four glasses. Lovingly, he then poured the tea back into the kettle, and repeated the procedure twenty or so times, until Massa decided the tea was ready to be enjoyed.

As we sipped the bitter but delicious tea from our tiny glasses, Kelley told us the story of how she had met Massa and his family ten years ago. She was posted in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer and specifically worked in the bush with the Wodaabe tribe.

A friend of hers from California fell head over heels in love with Massa, and spent three years living with him as a nomad. One day the girl decided she missed the comforts of home, and Massa agreed to move with her to the United States. Massa even showed us his passport with his US Visa, where his profession was stated as “shepherd”. But Massa hated living in the States. After only two months he realized that his love wasn’t strong enough to endure the lifestyle in the West, and the separation and subsequent divorce was a fact. Kelley, however, stayed in touch with Massa and his family throughout the years.

As the mosquitoes whizzed around us in the thickness of the night, the second cup of tea, made of green tea leaves, was served. Softer and more sugary, it represented a friendship that has blossomed into a trusting relationship.

The third and last cup of tea was made of weaker black tea with a lot of sugar, to represent the sweetness of love.

After sharing a communal bowl of vegetarian spaghetti, we bid our goodbyes and left the family still conversing in the dark. As foreigners, we had the luxury of leaving their simple abode, and spent the rest of the night enjoying cold beers in a dirty back-alley bar called Escaliere with a traditional Nigerien live band and in the company of plenty of hookers.

A perfect night!

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Agadez – Sweating in A Not So Sleepy Desert Town

After only ten minutes in Agadez, we were ready to leave. We had just gotten off an eight-hour journey in a steaming bus, chock-full of people with “interesting” body odors. Outside, the scorching desert air hit us like a hot wall, so we quickly checked into the only hotel still open to tourists. But when we turned the faucet to take a refreshing bath, there was a hissing sound, but not a single drop. No water? Panic! This place was not only hot as hell, this was hell.

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But there was air-conditioning in our room in the ancient mud-made hotel, and it’s incredible what a difference a drop in temperature can make. After cooling down, and bathing with water from a bucket, things didn’t seem so bad. So we stayed.

Agadez used to be the main tourist destination in Niger. People would arrive by truckloads (and direct flights from France) to visit the Teneré Desert, the Aïr Mountains, and to see the male beauty contest during the annual Cure Salée festival in nearby In-Gall. But in the last three years, the Tuareg rebellion has put a stop to that. And although the Nigerien authorities have opened up Agadez to tourists again, most Western countries advise their citizens against travelling to Northern Niger.

However, visiting Agadez itself is still worthwhile. Walking through the old town with traditional Hausa and Tuareg mud-brick architecture takes you back hundreds of years. The inhabitants still live in dire poverty without running water and electricity, with a sewer system that consists of a pipe leading into a back alley. But it’s nonetheless an intriguing place, where behind every corner you discover something interesting, like an old man reading the Koran out loud, or teenage mother with a baby tied to her back doing laundry by the village pump, or a group of boys playing football with a ball made of dirty rags.

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The center point of Agadez is a tall, mud-structure mosque, decorated with wooden beams sticking out on the sides, much like a cactus. For a “small dash”, the caretaker opens the gate and you can climb to the top via a narrow staircase. I crept through a small opening into total darkness. A swishing sound of wings just above my head made me stop. Then I heard the screeches. Birds? I ducked and climbed higher, slowly. As the light seeped in from above, I started making out the shapes of what seemed to be millions of tiny flying things. Bats!
“Eduardo!” I screamed. But he was still taking photos below.. Crouched down, and with my heart beating at super-speed, I ran all the way up, with Eduardo, now following me closely at my heels, was panting with fear, but laughing.
We made it to the top, unbitten, to enjoy the 360 degree view of the dusty town. And stayed for a while, knowing what awaited us on the descent.

The caretaker chuckled contently when we returned back down. We had not paid him enough for him to warn us about the bats.

While Agadez may not be the most pleasant place in the Universe, a visit is definitely doable by exploring the town in the early hours of morning and late afternoons, and resting during the hottest hours of the day. And we ended up loving Agadez!

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Agadez – Rocking It Out During Ramadan

Many travellers avoid visiting Muslim countries during Ramadan, because it’s really quite boring. Most restaurants are closed, the fasting faithful are in a bad mood, and all entertainment is postponed until after Eid Al-Fitr.

In Agadez, the scarce offerings were enhanced by the overall lack of tourists. With only one hotel and two restaurants open, we survived on olives, tuna and water during the day, and found one restaurant that made a decent omelet at night.

As the only non-Africans in town, every single souvenir salesman made us their target. They invited us to tea, and scolded us if we did not want to buy anything. “I haven’t sold anything in three years,” they would say. “I have to eat.” And, more interestingly: “First I want you to buy something from my friend’s shop, then come to my shop to buy things,” as if it was our responsibility to feed the whole town.

But after sunset, the town shifted gears and came alive. Behind the night market, a bar with live music rocked out even during Ramadan! A local band, with the musicians rotating every few songs, was playing for an all-male audience. As in any bar in any Muslim city in West Africa, the only women present were prostitutes; some girls with traditional dresses and headscarves, and others with tight, see-through tops and mini skirts. The men, however, had shred their daytime pajama-looking outfits and were sporting western-style jeans and t-shirts.

The band, Agadez Ouriganes, joined the floor-level “stage” one by one. Around ten o’clock, there would be just one man plucking his guitar, and a drummer softly beating his djembe in time. As the night moved on, a singer would walk up to the microphone and start humming a whining tune, reminiscent of a Chinese folksong. Then a bassist would join, and a saxophonist, a percussionist. The tunes would expand, slowly but surely, from a simple beat to a full-powered African symphony with tropical undertones, Asian essence, lead in the ebbs and flows by the guitarrist. As the musicians entered and exited, the rhythms stayed intoxicating, strong, powerful. Amazing.

Once in a while a man would step onto the dance floor and dance for a minute or so. Their style seemed inspired by the camel’s walk; stiff legs kicking, trotting, and the body swaying from side to side. Cool, self-assured moves, perfectly in tune with the music.

The black sheep of Agadez, including us, loved this oasis from the otherwise strict environment outside. Beer was flowing. There was not a single Coca Cola in sight. And whenever anyone entered the bar, they would walk around the room, shaking hands with everyone. It was heaven in hell.

We could only imagine how this place would rock during non-Ramadan nights!

Agadez – Staying Safe in Niger

Half-jokingly, I wrote on my Facebook page: “We made it out of Agadez without being kidnapped. Woohoo!” Because a few months before all NGOs had left the area due to threats from the Tuareg rebellions and Al Qaida. But as we had heard of other travellers visiting the area recently, we decided to head the warnings and go anyway.

Once there, we made friends with the local Tuaregs resting from the midday heat in the shadows outside our hotel. And while one of them called himself the Nigerien Osama Bin Laden, and promoted Sharia law in Niger, he became quite mellow and friendly once he managed to sell us some souvenirs.

But there was also a constant, although vague, feeling of unsafety. One day, on our way to the bakery, there was thick, black smoke rising up from the middle of the street. A tire was burning. People were screaming and running towards us. It took us a moment to realize what was happening. Then stones started flying, Suddenly, there was a big bang, like a gun shot. Shit! We were caught in a cross-fire between protesters and the police.
“Let’s get out of here,” I screamed. “Now!” As we ran, our eyes started burning. Teargas! We covered our faces with wet bandannas, and ran until we reached safety a couple of blocks away.
We were later told that they were protesting against the police, who had shot and killed a moto taxi driver the previous day. Nothing to worry about. Just a normal day in Agadez.

In the Camel market on the outskirts of town, where the Tuaregs converge to sell their camels, cows and goats, the atmosphere was equally ominous. Being the only non-Africans there, all eyes were on us as we walked around the open field in the afternoon heat. A group of men approached us, their heads and faces completely covered by their black turbans and sunglasses, and their hands resting on the large sables hanging on their belts. Shaking our hands, they asked us if we were French. No. Italian? No. From where? Peru. Aaah, Peru. Conversation was over. We were not the enemy. But we were not friends, either. Feeling uncomfortable in the hostile surroundings, we fled to the safety of our hotel room.

A couple of weeks after we left, seven people, including five French, were kidnapped in a uranium mine in Arlit, north of Agadez. So even if nothing happened to us, the threat, however small, was definitely real.

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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