We had jokingly used the term intellectual tourism, but I do not know what Dr. Munzali Dantata will make of it. Dr. Dantata is my specialist when it comes to tourism and nearly all the fine points of tourism that I know came from him. But this time we needed no professional stamp to embark on our tourism in search of ideas and sharing them. Our party of four (Charmaine and Jibo from Abuja, Dalha and myself from Kano (assisted by Nazeer as our transport Adviser), decided to spend a week in Niger from the 22nd December, 2017.
Jibo and Charmaine had wanted to take a flight to Sokoto so that we could join them there to commence the trip but there was no flight to Sokoto from Abuja on Wednesday, and fearing that if they gamble the Thursday flight which could be cancelled, the plan would suffer a setback so they opted to drive. Their plan was to drive to Gusau and sleep there. In the event, they could not make it to Gusau before night fall and had to sleep in Funtua instead. The Kano party left very early on 22nd December and by 10.30 we were already in Gusau. Since we had arrived there earlier than the Abuja party, we decided to have breakfast at Food Palace, and also to deliver a message to a colleague, Musa Aboki. By the time we finished eating and delivered the message for Musa, the Abuja team had arrived. But Jibo wanted to make some transaction at GT bank. Being salary period and the second to the last working day before the Christmas holiday, we met a long queue at the bank and decided to proceed to Sokoto and make the transaction there.
Jibo and Charmaine changed to our car and said goodbye to their driver who was driving their car back to Abuja. On the way we thought that we could do the transaction at Talata Mafara, given that it is a major commercial town. However we found that GT has no branch in the town. We arrived at Sokoto around 2pm, two hours ahead of our plan so we had much time at our disposal. We asked for direction to GT bank and when we got there, we were happy at first because from outside the bank looked empty. However on getting inside, we were met with an incredible long queue, like the one earlier at Gusau. Since we had no option we waited, and by the time we were through, it was past 4pm, and now we had to rush because we wanted to arrive at the Nigeria/Niger border before night fall and sleep at Birnin Konni on the Nigerien side of the border. We could not even afford to look for a restaurant to have lunch, hoping we could get some kilishi to buy. We did not get any and because we were extremely hungry, we have to stop at Kware to buy balangu. In spite of our protestation of both the environmental condition of the spot and the way the owner was cutting the meat with his bare hands without globe, (he was also intermittently counting money) we bought some. I could not eat.
We got to the border at Illela around 6.30pm. The artificiality of the boarder is that passport seems to be of no use, especially for the ordinary border communities whose residences would be in one country and their farms in the other. Passports seemed to be loved however by immigration officers and they even loved Charmaine’s passport better as they had to transport it all the way from the border to Niamey. Charmaine who had just returned to the country from a research trip abroad on the 17th December, did not have time to process her visa in Abuja since doing so would require her passport staying with the Embassy for two weeks. So through our host in Niamey, an electronic visa was issued to her but this could not be stamped on her passport. We had made a print copy of it. The idea was that her passport would be collected at the border, stamped and then taken to the immigration headquarters at Niamey for embossing the visa on her passport. We did not understand this and neither the Nigerien border staff did. They told us they only had instruction to collect the passport but could not explain to us why and directed us to report at the police office in Birnin Konni where they thought we could collect it. When we arrived at the police station, we were told that the officer who had the passport was not on sit and that we could either wait or go and come back later. We decided to go for dinner and return after. When we met him, he informed us that the passport would have to be collected at Niamey. While he assured us there was no problem, we were a little worried that we would arrive Niamey late Friday and since Saturday was weekend followed by Christmas, we did not know how this could be sorted out, given that we had planned to leave Niamey for Maradi on the 26th December, which was still a holiday. Nevertheless out host assured us that there was no problem. Indeed there was no problem.
It so happened that the day we arrived Niamey was also the day that Prof. Mahamane Tidjani-Alou was giving out his two daughters. Prof. Mahamane Tidjani-Alou was Prof Jibo’s colleague at Bordeaux, France where they took PhD in political science. Until recently, he was the dean of Faculty of Law at Abdou Moumouni University, Niamey. As a Professor of Constitutional law in Niger, he is thus also a leading political scientist. Political Science is taught at the Faculty of Law in Nigerien universities whereas here in Nigeria it is in the social sciences. The reason for this is that the French system conceives political science as the sphere of civil administration, which is government by law and so administrative science becomes a study of laws! Understandably therefore political science here is the major producer of civil servants and other officers for the state. For this reason, Prof. Tidjani-Alou is former teacher to many ranking officers of Nigerien civil service, police officers, journalists, etc. Thus it was not surprising that the wedding of his daughters turned out to be meeting of the creams of Nigerien society. As it was also an Hausa wedding, I was interested in observing if there were differences between Hausa wedding in Niger and Nigeria.
Three differences caught my attention. The first is that back in Nigeria, Hausa women do not appear at the wedding Fatiha, here women came out in large numbers and had their own separate tents outside the house at the venue of the wedding fatiha. The second was that back in Nigeria the sadaki is announced to the audience, here it was not. Instead, the imam kept telling us that there was no debt on either side. A third difference was that the amount of goro and dabino given. In Nigerian Hausa wedding, we have moved from kola nut to date nuts and now to sweets and biscuits, here the kolanut and dates come in several bags and sacks!
On Saturday morning while taking a morning walk, we arrived at a junction where we wanted to cross to the other side of the road. As we were waiting an official Hilux car with a police officer driving passed us and then stopped. He yelled “Birnin Konni” when he read that we were not understanding him. I thought he was asking us whether we wanted to go to Birnin Konni but Jibo quickly recognized him as the officer we had seen on Thursday night at Birnin Konni who had Charmaine’s passport. He told us that the passport was now at their headquarters and that they would contact us to collect it as soon as it was ready for collection. And they did. As we were having tea in the afternoon of Saturday, we got a phone call that the passport was ready and we should be there immediately to collect it. They were kind enough to come out on a holiday. Moussa Tchangari, the Executive Director of Alternative Citizen Spaces (Alternative Espace Citoyens), our host, drove us to the police headquarters, where we also met Prof. Mahamane Tidjani-Alou who was our link to the immigration people. He did the introduction and we could not but notice the irony of the occasion when the police officers cordially welcomed Moussa Tchangari whose office the police had barricaded two days earlier and he himself had been detained on a number of occasions. We remarked that we had brought them the “trouble maker” and we all laughed about it. As they were about to give us the passport, the officer noticed that it was not stamped at the border. He apologized for the mistake and asked us the date we entered Niger. We told him and he stamped the passport, ensuring that it was back dated to the date we entered. Off we left, back to Alternative to continue our discussion.
As we continued the morning walk that Saturday, we saw what looked like plums and decided to buy some. Charmaine had brought some with her which she bought in Abuja but they had finished as we feasted on them on the way from Birnin Konni to Niamey the previous day. Plums are imported into Nigeria, mostly from South Africa. They are eaten mostly by the middle and upper classes. Indeed, many Nigerians do not know “plums”.
We found that the plums looking fruits were actually locally grown magarya which in Nigeria grows wildly across many states in the north. These ones looked bigger and fresher than the ones I am used to seeing in Nigeria, plus the fact that in Nigeria we pick them dried while here they are picked while yet to dry. We bought a measure. We also bought kanya fruits, another wild tree fruit from the north. Jibo’s post on the local plums in his Facebook profile generated a debate as to whether they were actually local variety or genetically improved (GMO) variety. Either way, it is surprising that our agricultural scientists and policy makers have never cared about leveraging our local fruit trees that grow widely. If magarya can be made to replace imported plums, they certainly will not only stop the importation of plums into the country but could also enable us to export ours to other countries.
We took time off in the afternoon of Saturday to visit the Niamey Museum and Zoo. As it was holiday period there were few staff around but we were lucky to get one who served as our guide. We first visited the animals section which is the zoo part of the complex. There were not many animals, although the few there were in good numbers. For example the lions numbered over 10. Similarly hyenas were more than 10. The ostriches were about 8, consisting of four different species. There were giant crocodiles. There also domestic animals such as sheeps, goats, etc. A variety birds, including vultures, were in abundance. There were fossiled woods, which were found in the desert, signifying that there was water before in the now dried parts of the country. The arts and craft section was very impressive, workshop, and gallery and sale areas. Woven clothes were being made and sold. Different of types of earrings, headgears, hand chains, rings, etc made from bronze, cow horns, silver, etc were being worked on as were there as well as being sold. From there we moved to the dinosaurs section. This has two dinosaur skeletons which have been preserved. The height of one is as tall as a storey building while its length was as long as 6m, with such a long neck, probably for eating from tall trees. The other, equally long, though not as tall as the first, was carnivorous, walking on short numerous legs. We only entered into one section of the museum which has many collections of representatives birds skeletons of the country, animals found in Niger, tools and weapons, footwear and shoes, battle gears, different money types, cooking utensils, etc, all representing the different cultures, regions and times of the country.
The Kano-Niger Bilingual College, Niamey was another site of our curiosity. This school, an initiative of Kwankwaso while he was Governor of Kano State, was set up as to provide secondary school education in English and French through a partnership between Kano State Government and the Government of Niger Republic. Under the MoU, admission to the school is 50% to Kano and 50% for Niger. Each partner has clear commitments to the school, which is boarding. We were received by the amiable director of the school, along with some of the teachers, including the three English teachers from Kano. Jibo interviewed some of the students and it was clear their French was good, though we did not try to find out their English competence since we focused our interest on the Kano students.
It is important that Kano State government continues to discharge its own commitments to the school. The survival and sustainability of this good initiative which provides Kano State indigenes with sound education in French and English at early age should be assured. It is also important that Kano State government commits to its commitments to the Zinder School which is for females at least in the interest of gender equality.
On Sunday we decided for our morning walk to follow the course of the River Niger, starting from the foot of the main bridge that linked the commercial parts of Niamey with the more posh areas where ministries, embassies, the University and other research institutions as well as other government offices are located. We took an immediate left turn to pass behind our hotel, which is actually situated on the bank of the river. We followed the course into rural communities which did not know the urbanization in Niamey. These rural communities have no schools but as we went deeper, it became lush green with orchards and vegetable gardens. The Chinese are planning to build road through the place, beautify the beach along the course of the river and open up the area for the rich to evict the rural folks from this shanty of the river bank.
We continued until we reached the second bridge linking the two sections of Niamey. By this time we had done more than 4km going down the slope mostly. Coming back was going to be a problem, not least because of the distance we had covered but also because now we would have to go upland. We were conquered and trudged on further, rather than come back, until we claimed the bridge and got a taxi that took us back to our hotel.
In the afternoon our visit to Alternative Citizen Spaces (Alternative Espace Citoyens), our host for the seminar, was a pleasant surprise. There is the feeling that Nigerien civil society organizations are small but this entirely disputes the notion. Alternative, as it is more popularly referred to, has its headquarters at the outside fringe of Niamey, consisting of three major blocks. The first block on the right as you enter has a conference hall that was only walled on one side while the other was left opened and is usually covered with tarpaulin when functions take place. This was named after Franz Fanon. It has a capacity to sit about 100 people, and has a raised stage, used not only for seminar but also for staging plays. The floor is fine sands without any cementing or artificial enhancement. Next to the hall are set of offices, where staff in the entrepreneurship section of the organization work. On the immediate left is the main office block where Moussa Tchangari, the Executive Director also has his office.
Behind that is the Amilcar Cabral cafe restaurant where food is served not only for people who work there but also for outsiders who are interested in eating a good meal in an environment that promises alternative perspectives on issues. Next to this is the radio station, comprising of conference room, news room, staff offices and a studio. This is where daily the radio station of Alternative makes its broadcast from Niamey. But Alternative has also four other community radio stations located at Maradi, Dosso, Diffa and Agadez. Attached to the radio station building is the film studio of the organization where they edit films they produce. So far they have produced over 12 different films on various social and human rights issues and also run a series on documentary that was into its 56th episode by the time we were there.
Alternative is one of the most influential civil society organizations in Niger. By the time we arrived, their offices were surrounded by police as they had mobilized for a national protest over tax and other policy issues. They had gone to court to assert their right to freedom of assembly and to be out on the streets but the court had ruled against them, arguing that they cannot organize a protest during a government function. The government function in reference here was the visit of Macron, the French president who was in the country to do the pre-Christmas dinner with the French army in Niger.
Albert, it was who suggested that we should go and watch the sun set outside Niamey. We did not know what to expect of this as we set out for the more than 50 minutes’ drive outside of Niamey on the way to Burkina Faso. The site was a dry tributary of the River Niger that has abundant white fine grain sands. We sat a few meters away from the point it at which the tributary joined the River Niger, meaning that we were not far away from the water, even as where we were was completely dry. It was refreshing siting and walking barefoot on the sands. We had good conversation on various interests. Mousa told us that they occasionally take tents and holds seminars, workshop and meetings here. That is what Nigerian civil society needs to learn, the creativity of using the nature sites than just some posh hotels as venues for meetings.
We also watched small Fula children playing football in the sand. Dalha even tried his skills in the gymnastics. I tried to find out if they spoke a different Fulfulde dialect. They understood me, although at some stage, I was not sure I understood them. This was nothing to do with the dialect. It was simply the result of my poor linguistic competence.
As we were coming back from the sunset watching, our convey (of three vehicles) made a stopped and because it was already dark, we could not at first understand the cause for the stopover. I had thought it was another check point, which are many along major roads of Niger Republic. But then our hosts came down from their vehicle and beckoned us to do the same. This was how we arrived at The Garden.
The Garden, situated close to the Abdou Moumouni University, Niamey, is a meeting point for university academics, civil society activists and international development workers. It was developed by Alou, the president of the Niger Chapter of Publish What You Pay. Alou along with his party of more than 20 others welcomed us to what turned out to be a seminar dinner, with the talk focusing on Nigerien politics. Typical of a multiethnic confraternity, we got the tension within the multiethnic group. Alou who is Zarma (the same ethnic group with the current Nigerien President) told us that during the negotiation to constitute the President Yusuf’s government at the collapse of the previous, Alternative, which was headed by Mousa (a Kanuri, the ethnic group of the former President) decided not be part of the coalition which it argued had no clear programme. Alou said at that time they thought Alternative was simply hiding behind principle to play ethnic card but now having seen that President Yusuf has reneged on all the things they thought he could do, are applauding the foresight of Alternative.
Dinner for us was three-course, starting with danwake (yes, danwake in the night!). Serving danwake in the night led to a new debate around cuisine and culture: was this danwake a Zarma one or an Hausa one? It was resolved that since Hausa people do not serve danwake in the evening, it must be Zarma (of course, it has to be since it was arranged by Alou!). Danwake was followed by roasted chicken which was washed down by balangu. I had a full take of all, even as I kept warning Jibo to eat less meat.
Talking about dinner, the previous night Jibo had talked us into trying a Togolese cuisine, it is called malku. This is close to the Nigerian ishiekwu (the Igbo delicacy made from goat head) but this is made with sheep head rather than goat. The soup is similar although the malku soup is lighter and spicier. Also whereas ishiekwu is served in small pieces, malku is served in big pieces (probably 4 pieces to a head). It is eaten primarily with kappa (watery paste made from maize) and bread. We eat ours with bread.
Our intense engagement in Niamey was rounded up with the seminar on 26th December. Held at the Franz Fanon Hall of Alternative and attended by over 60 people of different organizations and professional engagements, it turned out to be a nice conversation. Chaired by Moussa Tchangari of Alternative, Jibo and I did the presentations. Jibo who speaks French very well did his presentation in French, giving a general overview of the national security problems in Nigeria. I did my presentation in Hausa on Community Resilience in the Context of Boko Haram Insurgency in Nigeria. Jibo then returned and made a presentation on transitional justice based on a research conducted by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja. We had a lively discussion, although often, the questions tended to spiral away from the topics. For instance someone wanted to know the influence of foreign actors in Boko Haram. A legitimate question on its own right, but we were focusing on community resilience, not on the Boko Haram insurgency itself. The participants were also well informed and engaging. They have a deep knowledge of Nigeria. I doubt much if Nigerians have similar deep knowledge about Niger.
During refreshment time, Alternative did not serve us meat pie and coke (as would have been done in Nigeria). Instead, it served us options of tea and coffee and zogale salad and roasted groundnuts. You cannot fail to notice the high local content of the cuisine in Niger. From snacks to beverages and to main dishes, there is high reliance on locally grown food items. This is unlike in Nigeria where everything foreign is valued over its local equivalent.
We took off from the venue of the seminar to Birnin Konni on our way to Maradi, our plan was to sleep in Birnin Konni and complete the more than 9 hours journey to Maradi in the morning. The drive itself was uneventful until we were about 60km to Dogon Dutse when we had burst tire. We were assisted by a team of medical staff on their way to Tawa to fix the spare tyre and followed them behind just in case the spare tire disappoints us; but it did not. They were such a nice people who we did not know. We did not even remember to exchange contacts as they left us at Dogon Dutse where we bought a second hand tire to replace the burst one. We could not get a new there and even the one we bought was not good so about 60km to Maradi it too burst, our second burst tyre of the day. The time was past 7pm and coming to from Nigeria where when your vehicle breaks on the highway, you are at the mercy of either kidders or robbers, we were worried. Thankfully we were able to quickly fix back the spare tire which faithfully took us to Madari.
Birnin Konni is a typical border town and nothing special about it. Probably the only two striving businesses would be smuggling and legitimate transborder trade. It lacks the cultural attractions of Zinder or the cosmopolitanism of Maradi or the government presence of Dosso. So beyond being a convenient stopped over for us, it did not hold any attraction. We spent two nights here, the first on our arrival to Niger, and the second on our way to Maradi from Niamey. Both dinner and breakfast were problematic for me here. For dinner, it was mainly rice with options of chicken or beef. The first night I ordered rice and chicken, the chicken was intimidating (half) and I was immediately put off. Those who requested for beef got also too much of it. In the end, I had only several cups of shayi, which we wrongly called “tea”.
“Tea” is an industry in Niger. But what we call tea in Nigeria has different meaning in Niger. During our morning walk on Saturday, Jibo and I wanted to take “tea” (Charmaine did not care much about it). We saw a place that in Nigeria we could refer to as Maishayi and asked to be served “tea”. He told us he only does coffee and pointed to a place we could get tea. Lesson number one is that in Niger there is a specialization in hot beverage making. In Nigeria, you can get coffee, bourmvita, lipton or any other thing, including gadagi from Maishayi. Here the Maishayi has only one product. Lesson number two would soon be impressed upon us. We asked the next tea seller to give us “tea”. He poured hot water and dropped in a couple of Lipton bags. Now this was not what we wanted and when we pointed out this to him, he added condensed milk to the cups and returned them to us. We politely declined to drink but paid and explained that it was the traditional Buzu tea we wanted. He told us he did not sell that: lesson number two is that the Buzu tea is not called “tea” here but “shayi”. For us coming from Nigerian Hausa background, shayi is a generic term for all brands of hot beverages, including coffee but here the name is reserved for the one served in small cups.
We gave up and decided to return to our hotel and take ordinary tea. As we were about to cross the roundabout in front of our hotel, we saw some people with the pots making shayi and here we could learn our third lesson. We requested that they give us shayi. They obliged us, though both Charmaine and I did not drink. We wanted to pay and they said it was not for sale but was just for a meeting of neighbors. Lesson number three is that don’t mistake all those shayi joints as commercial spots. Many are private!
Unlike in Nigeria, bed and breakfast is not popular here. Grand Hotel du Niger, where we stayed in Niamey is a five star hotel. It has no bed and breakfast policy so we have to pay for our breakfast. Since it was rather pricely, we decided to have our own self-made breakfast. This was aided by the fact that we were all fruity people. We had in addition to tangerine, bought kanya and magarya, which served for the fruit part. Charmaine had bought yoghurt and cereals which we mixed and we had bread and regular tea. On the second day, I added to the Charmaine’s yoghurt-cereal concoction roasted groundnuts and declared to own the right to the recipe!
In the morning of our first night in Birnin Konni, Dalha had complained that the hotel had no hot water to bath. This was the same in the hotels in both Maradi and Zinder, although in Niamey we had hot showers. While inspecting the Bilingual College, the Director of the College had pointed to a borehole which he said provided warm water in the morning. The question on Dalha’s lips came out: how do people cope bathing with cold water? The Director who had actually schooled at Bayero University, Kano related a story on how when you find students under the cold shower at BUK it was most likely to be a Nigerien. He said most Nigerians do not use hot water to bath. This might probably be due two factors: the hotter climate of Niger and a possible engrained energy consciousness.
Charmaine used to think that both Jibo and I were social media addicts and we were beginning to feel so. I had already put it as my new year resolution to cut down on social media use, even as I keep telling myself that use of social media is part of my professional work. Anyway meeting Dr. Souley Adji, our guide in Niamey changed all this. Adji was in Bordeaux, France about the time Jibo was there so they knew each other from there. He has, since completion of his PhD, been lecturing in the Department of Business Administration at Abdou Moumouni University, Niamey. A strong pillar of Alternative, Souley had had many encounters with the Nigerien security agencies, including one in which he was kept in detention for days and taken to a bush where he was dropped with a warning that next time, they could end his life. Souley has since turned his fighting spirits to his fingers and is permanently clicking his handset. He is now a typical Facebook warrior and cannot spend up to five minutes without checking his Facebook profile. So Souley mercifully relieved us from the charge of social media addict. We have seen one whom we cannot compete with!
Maradi is the second largest town in Niger Republic and the commercial capital of the country. It is the hub of farming in the country. More than that, it is a major border economy which feeds on both transnational trade and smuggling. Driving on the streets of the city gives you the feeling that the government of the state is working hard to uplift the status of the city, befitting a major prosperous one. There are many good roads, nice houses and good looking buildings. After checking into our accommodation which was provided a by friend, Dr. Mahama, an Indigene of Maradi working in Niamey (who arranged for their family guests house to be opened for us), we decided to visit the Maryam Abacha English University in Maradi.
The university is situated right in the middle of town and we had missed it the first time, thinking that it was outside the town. When we got in, there were neither students nor lecturers but we were lucky as with the help of the security guard at the gate chanced an administrative staff who himself was getting set to travel out for the holidays. He informed us that as the university had closed for holidays, the lecturers and students have all travelled out of the country. At first this was perplexing given our background of Nigerian university system in which lecturers remain to mark scripts and do research and other activities during holidays.
But then this was not a usual university. It was established by someone from a different country, recruiting staff mainly from a different country to train students from a different a country and in a language that is different from the official language of the host country. Over 90% of the academic staff of the university were Nigerians. Only those lecturing in the French programme were Nigeriens. Similarly over 99% of the students were from Nigeria. They run a couple of social sciences, environmental, and management science courses at various levels ranging from first degree to PhD. Although it is the only university offering English language programme, yet it is hardly patronized by citizens of Niger. That is curious.
The drive from Maradi to Zinder took us about three and half hours. The road was smooth with patches of lush green in the midst of generally dried up areas. You could see camel caravans across in the bush and occasionally, cattle herds but they do not cross the road as is often the case in Nigeria. There are a couple of streams and a large dam. As you approach Zinder, there is a large fadama for all year round cultivation. Both this section and the section from Birnin Konni to Maradi dispute the notion in popular consciousness that Niger Republic is an arid flatland. Here you see valleys, rising hills and rivers and stream snaking wildly, testifying to a land that is variegated with a variety of landforms.
Niger Republic is a major source of cattle, rams and camels for Nigeria. Most of the animals sold in Nigerian major cattle market such as Jibia, Maiadua, Babura, Maigatari, etc are from Niger Republic. This is the result of a large and striving animal husbandry in the southern belt of the country. This belt is also the agricultural food basket of Niger, the northern part being largely arid and desert. It is even said that many of the herdsmen in Nigeria come from Niger. Yet while Nigeria is a perennial site of farmer-herdsmen conflicts, resulting in the death of thousands of people annually, no such conflicts are recurrent in Niger Republic. Why and what can we learn from this? Is Nigeria too big to learn from its less resourced neighbor?
Handling farmer-herdsmen conflict is not the only lesson to learn from Niger. In the 10 days or so we travelled through Nigerien cities from Birnin Konni to Niamey to Maradi and Zinder, their roads are better and well maintained than Nigerian death-taps road. All road users pay tax which goes into maintenance of the road. In the past we had toll gates in here at home which were supposed to generate the funds for road maintenance but they never worked because first, much of the fund generated was stolen and secondly a number of VIPs in Nigeria do not want to comply with similar regulations. In Niger, every check point, you will be required to show your tax receipts and no one ask you of any other things, unlike in Nigerian where police will be asking you about triangle or other funny items all in an attempt by the law enforcement agents to extort motorists.
But it is also not only the smoothness of the roads that matters but also the fact that the roads are safer compared to Nigerian roads for which our rich people are being forced to join trains where there are no flights or disguise in funny looking clothes as ordinary factory workers. You do not hear about highway robbery or kidnapping. That is not to say that Niger does not have its own share of problems. The Boko Haram insurgency is active in some of parts of the country. In the north, there has been a long standing insurgency by the Toureg population. But these have not made it the hell that Nigerian roads are.
Zinder holds an annual international wrestling competition. This year’s fiesta which happened to be the 31st in the series began on Friday 24th, December and since we were in Niger we decided that we might as well visit. So off from Maradi, we made the more than 3-hour journey to Zinder which is the capital of the state of Damagaram. Zinder is smaller than Maradi and clearly also less prosperous, even as it is host to the petroleum refinery industry of the country. We arrived at Zinder a few minutes to 3pm and having been warned about the possible shortage of hotel rooms, we checked in at the first hotel we could find (Amadou Kouren Daga- what a name but this fits a place that is fascinated by wrestling). Our luck was that we got the last set of rooms in the hotel.
We got to the Zinder’s traditional wrestling arena (stadium), the venue of the wrestling competition and it was looking organized and orderly. Parking our car was not a problem, even as the stadium was full. We paid for tickets and walked into the stadium. It turned out that you needed a tag to get to the seated parts of the stadium but after our persistence and Jibo’s flawless French (which probably made them to think we were members of the diplomatic community), we were allowed to have seats in the privilege sections.
Watching the wrestling was a little bit confusing for me. By the time we were seated, the match was between a wrestler from Dosso and another from Niamey. Since they were not speaking English (later they used both French and English) for the commentary, it was not easy to follow the fight. There was also the fact that I did not know the rules. Nevertheless as it unfolded, our kind neighbors explained some of the rules. Each set had 15 minutes to complete a fight, taken in 10 minute, followed by a two-minute break and then another 5 minutes extra of fight if the bout was not decided within the first 10 minutes.
The first set we watched was almost about to exhaust the extra five minutes when suddenly they felled out of the ring. We thought it was over but soon they were about to resume. However as they were about to start, the referee gave a warning to one of the players, that he deliberately pushed the other to the outside. This ruling was protested by the Dosso side so the matter was escalated to the Jury which took about 10 minutes and came to announce their ruling. They upheld the decision of the referee and for a few minutes there was commotion as Dosso removed its player and made protest against the ruling but they were later prevailed upon and the players returned to the field to continue the fight. They had just three minutes left and at the end of the extra time, none was able to fell the other. Ordinarily, this would then have been a draw, however, because the Dosso player had a warning, he automatically lost the fight and the Niamey player was declared as the winner. The two next set we watched were early decided under 10 minutes and were not controversial.
Football is not only a big name but also a big money for Europe and European teams as well as for their media. It is an economic drain out of African, even as we celebrate the new icons of foot slavery. Why can’t we also develop African sports and elevate them to at least continental levels, if not global? That way we can promote our culture, provide entertainment and sports for our people, and retain our money or at least part of it as we spend in sport tourism. But sports also have a way of boosting tourism, witnessed the mammoth crowd that attends the Annual Zinder Wrestling Competition, not only from within the country but also from many African countries such as Chad, Senegal, Morocco, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, etc.
Our last activity in Zinder was vising the arts and craft centre. In terms of size and variety, it was a disappointment, at least not as good as that in Niamey. But there was an interesting section that caught my attention. This was the toys section: here was a collection of various toys, including many home deco items. What was interesting about was that they were all made from calabash. Neither plastics nor metals, these were artistically cut, shaped and painted, there lamp stands, cars, aeroplane for children, etc. It was creativity at its best. But this is more than that. It is also about sensitivity to environmental sustainability. These products are bio degradable. They are not products of extractives so do not harm the environment. They are products of farming, meaning that they are always replenishable. In a sense, they are part of the self-correcting elements of a healthy ecosystem. So why do we endanger our environment by spending our money to buy either foreign imported toys or those made from plastics and metals that are not biodegradable.
Well it seems I have missing my itinerary. The crafts centre was actually not the last activity. We decided as souvenir to buy magarya fruits and it fell into the hands of Nazeeru to do so while we packed and checked out of the hotel. Nazeeru had eaten the magarya we bought at Dosso but he probably thought it was still the plums that Charmaine had shared days earlier. So his notion of magarya was still the dried fruits found in Nigeria. Not surprisingly that was what he bought for us. However we did not know of this until we were in Kano, unpacking and ended up with no souvenir for Ganygreen to verify whether the Nigerien plums were GMO-magarya or not!
We also have much to learn from Niger in terms of cuisine culture. We have had danwake, malku, Dakar rice as main dishes. We have had zogale as both side dish and snacks. We have had kanya and magarya as substitute of plums and kuka as enrichment to yogurt (in the past, because we look down on local fruits, we thought Fulani women were diluting the quality of mono with kuka, but now we know better that it is actually enrichment!). Why does our food culture so much volarizes imported food with its dangerous additives over local food that is fresh and natural?
Coming back to Nigeria rudely reminded us of the bureaucratic inefficiency and corrupt system we have. It took us less than 30 minutes for the five of us to be cleared at the Nigerien side of the border but at the Nigerian side, it took us nearly two hours. First the officials were not happy with our presence because we had interrupted their taking payment from people without passports. For this they could punish us. But their system was also terribly slow and untidy. They were asking us questions whose answers were on our passports. The most annoying at which our patience snapped was when the SSS officer asked for our yellow cards! Yellow cards, to enter our country? And being requested by an SSS officer who does not know anything about health system? That was too much for us and unfortunately for him, he also did know his guests were veterans of ranting against the system so in the end it must have pained him that he picked on the wrong targets.
Ok, I had thought I had done with the lessons that Nigeria could learn from Niger but now I need to add this one as the last point which is that we should learn more in running our immigration and borders from Niger. In Niger, all the border personnel are friendly, competent, willing to assist and welcoming. In Nigeria, border personnel are unfriendly, corrupt and looking for easy prey.