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The Ticketless Traveler, Africa and the African Diaspora

Sannu Niger!

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ferdinandreus on flickrferdinandreus on flickrThe capture last week of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi who, disguised as a Tuareg, was trying to flee to Niger — where one of his brothers and some high-ranking officials have found refuge — has turned a spotlight on a country few people have heard of.

“Niger? You mean Nigeria?” No Niger, the largest country in West Africa. “The country of the Nigerians?” No, the country of the Nigeriens.

I have visited Niger several times and always came back with wonderful memories... and exceptional crafts. It is one of the most fascinating places I know.

Sannu (hello) Niger!

With over 490,000 square miles, Niger covers more territory than Nigeria. But the latter’s 167 million inhabitants make it the seventh most populousWikimedia CommonsWikimedia Commons country in the world while the former is home to just above 15 million people. Not surprising since the Sahara desert occupies more than two-thirds of Niger’s landmass. The landlocked country is surrounded by seven sometimes difficult neighbors: Algeria, Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, and Chad.

A Tuareg rebellion that lasted for years; famines in 2005 and 2009 and food insecurity foreseen for 2012; the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; and the reinsertion of 200,000 Nigerien emigrants who fled Libya empty-handed are some of the issues the country has been facing. Moreover, at the UN General Assembly, President Mahamadou Issoufou, a mining engineer, has warned that the circulation, in the desert, of heavy weapons following the Libyan revolution could pose serious threats not only to his country but also to the region and beyond.

Mariam M. KamaraMariam M. KamaraBut Niger is more than the sum of its problems. I love its arid environment and the desert has someMariam M. KamaraMariam M. Kamara extraordinary sandscapes, however it is the people I find remarkable. Nigerien pageantry is unparalleled. It is colorful yet restrained; mysterious and friendly.

I vividly remember the astonishing sight of thousands of men crossing a bridge over the River Niger, in total silence. Hausa on horseback, their boubous (kaftans) and turbans shining in the sun; Tuareg on camels, with only their eyes visible; and Bororo on foot, sporting long braids and delicately embroidered clothes. It had taken them days and for some, weeks, to reach the capital, Niamey, for a cultural festival. 

An otherwise poor country whose main resource is uranium, Niger is rich in culture and diversity. The Tuareg, people of the Sahara whose men wear face veils but women do not, are incomparable silversmiths. Their delicate, abstract jewelry is too hard to resist. The Wodaabe or  Bororo, Fulani nomads, are renowned for the gerewol, a distinctive yearly event. Young men, painted and dressed up, dance in front of young women in a male beauty pageant that has no parallel in the world. The Hausa, majestic horsemen whose brightly caparisoned horses are a sight to see, look like medieval knights.

One could imagine that Niger lives in a time warp with camels in the streets and people who look like they have just stepped out of a historical epic; but these same people have a cell phone in their pocket. Young entrepreneurs are opening high-tech companies; students back from universities in Morocco, Great Britain, France, or the US are creating new businesses; and the country will extract its first barrel of oil next week.

Wikimedia CommonsWikimedia CommonsOn the cultural front, Niger has emerged as a leading force in African hip-hop. Fearless rappers tackle political and social issues. High fashion may not come to mind when talking about Niamey but the city is home to celebrated designer Alphadi, called the Prince of the Desert, whose creations are shown all over the world. 

If "land of contrasts" were not a cliche, I would apply it to Niger.

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