At the one week mark here in Niamey, I’m going to try to give you a sense of la vie Africaine, the very non-Western style of living embraced here in the Sahel.
Quick background: Niger is poor, large in landmass but not in population, extremely hot, and dusty. To some scholars, Niger is a state that, landlocked and multiethnic, should never have been, a colonial mistake more than a nation.
If such pessimism exists in Niger, I haven’t seen it. Nigeriens are more likely to point to their role as a model democracy for Africa and rich cultural diversity. Even now, as the president tries to defy Niger’s highest court in pursuing an unconstitutional third term in office, Nigeriens remain postitive.
I’ve encountered four major ethnic groups here in Niamey. The Zarma are from the area surrounding the capital so they and their language are prominent here. It’s also relatively easy to learn, and Lawali has made excellent progress in it during his 5 months here. Hausa is the largest ethnic group in Niger, and their language is a common trade language throughout the region. I don’t know much about the Fulani people, but they’re around, and finally we have the Touaregs.
If the word Touareg reminds you more of a car than a people, don’t worry. I didn’t really know either, but now I live with a wonderful Touareg family and spend much of my time listening to Tamasheq, their Arabic-sounding language full of difficult to prounounce gutteral sounds. They are traditionally desert nomads, known for drinking tea, keeping camels, making silver jewelry, and wearing turbans. There has been a “Touareg rebellion” since the early 1990s, and this is one reason why travel to the north of the country is extremely difficult for foreigners.
Niger is extremely hot, like one of the hottest countries in the world, 100+ most of the time. There is also extremely little A/C. Despite this, only little kids wear shorts, so pants it is! A cultural decision I’m happier with is that no one wears closed shoes, just sandals. I quickly realized that my cheap plastic flip flops weren’t going to cut it for daily use (even though many Nigeriens wear these around the house and even around town), so Tahi brought be to the Grand Marché to buy some Nigerien-style shoes – actually synthetic leather sandals from China. They’re quite comfortable.
The most prominent feature of African life is the focus on rest, sometimes to the detriment of punctuality. Sitting for long periods of time, occasionally talking, but mostly just sitting, is the national pasttime. In a country drowning in sunshine, Nigeriens are masters at staying in the shade. During the heat of the afternoon, most people consider it too hot to work, so they go to sleep. Most people sleep out side at night, myself included.
Niger is what they call “infested” with mosquitoes and “endemic” with malaria, so I set up a mosquito net around my sleeping mat out on the porch each night. The dry season is actually so hot that it kills most of the mosquitoes, but as we enter the rainy seasons, everyone assures me the mosquitoes will be back with a vengeance.
Now if this entry seems like it has strayed from its central theme (the African take-your-time-and-relax lifestyle), au contraire mes amis! I counter that I wrote this whole entry and more, in pen, while sitting around with Ihya ALL afternoon, otherwise doing nothing. There was a little music, sure, and some conversation, but it was sporadic. Certainly you couldn’t say anyone here did a single “productive” thing (in the American conception of the term) all afternoon. Except for me, the American, not yet fully adapted to my new environment, unable to just sit back and relax.