As I found when I started telling people about my trip, if most people know that Niger and Nigeria are separate countries, they don’t know the difference between them. It’s a common source of confusion, since they have ridiculously similar names. Complicating matters, the Niger River flows through both countries and its delta, which is in Nigeria, is the site of a violent conflict at the moment. Nigeria was a British, so they speak English over there, whereas Niger was controlled by the French.
Professor Kight asked a very good question: how do you distinguish between a Nigerian from Nigeria and someone from Niger? In English, people here are Nigerien, with an e. It’s pronounced with a French j sound, as in /knee-zher-ee-en/, to distinguish it from Nigerian. The French demonyms are the same, but pronounced French-phonetically so that the “-ien” vs. “-ian” differentiates them.
As one of my former teachers liked to say, moving right along! I won’t go into the details of latrines, no toilet paper, no garbage cans, shared plates and cups, and so on, but suffice it to say that sanitation standards are very different here. You do get used to it though. I avoided getting sick for a week, but stomach trouble hit last weekend. I’ve been mostly avoiding local water (full of unusual bacteria that don’t agree with western stomachs) but it’s so hot and bottled water is so unreliably available, that sometimes you have no choice. Then yesterday, I REALLY got sick, laid up in bed all day barely able to eat plain rice. But I’m already feeling a lot better, and I should have a better tolerance now.
Nigerien cuisine is also quite different from what I’m used to. In my family, we eat beignets (fried dough balls, similar to a hearty, unsweetened, greasy, roughly spherical donut) and plain baguettes for breakfast. With several servings of tea, of course! Lunch is often a couple of bags of drinkable yogurt (traditional African lunch is rice and sauce from a nearby stand). For dinner, we usually eat rice and beans or pasta with oil and garlic, as most people’s staple food is rice, with a millet substitute available at lower cost and couscous as a higher-end option.
African restaurants commonly serve brochettes, which is meat on a stick (tasty). Other restaurants offer certain foreign foods, and there is one rather western-style place called Amandine that is very popular. They even have a “Philly cheesesteak”! I’ll try to get a picture of that posted when I get a chance. It doesn’t look or taste like Gino’s, but it was actually quite good. Food is generally very cheap, so an “expensive” meal in a restaurant will still come out under $10 USD. I don’t really mind the lack of culinary diversity; that’s what France was for!
As for currency, Niger uses the West African Franc, known as Francs CFA (pronounced: say-fah). They’re worth about 500 CFA to one US dollar, so my abovementioned yogurts are 20 cents each, a taxi is 40 to 80 cents, and manufactured bags of filtered water are about 5 cents. Of course, most Nigeriens aren’t exactly raking in the dough, so these are real costs.
Niger is over 90% Muslim, so the call to prayer wakes me up early each morning. Many of you have probably heard a beautiful recording of the adhan, a lone voice cutting through the tranquility of the recent dawn, chanting the beautiful words, Allahu akbar, God is great. Yeah, it’s nothing like that. A better description would be several men shouting guttural noises through competing, peaking loudspeakers, reminding me more of chaos and disaster than the greatness of God.
Niamey doesn’t grind to a halt five times a day, but you definitely see a lot of people out praying, particularly in the evenings and at noon on Friday. Quiet alcohol consumption is tolerated, and they even have a national beer, Bière Niger. That said, you won’t see MTV Presents Spring Break Niamey anytime soon. The party scene is mostly confined to relatively calm outdoor bars and a few nightclubs.
I’ve so far neglected to mention one aspect of Niger that has made my entire stay possible: the French language. Schools here are taught in French, businesses and government use it extensively, and most people in Niamey speak it at least passably. This allows me to communicate quite well with people, especially since Africans tend to speak a lot slower than Parisians. The downside is their crazy accent, which still confuses me after more than a week of hearing it every day. It actually sounds a bit like Quebec French with a rolled R.
In part so that I can refresh myself listening to French accents from time to time, I recently bought a cheap, Nigerian-made (i.e. in Nigeria) radio. I had to haggle over the price, bringing it down 50% from the original offer, but I still paid twice what it was worth. Curse you, white skin. When foreigners bring Nigerien friends along to help us negotiate prices, vendors will even chastise them, “Why are you helping them? You should be helping me get more money!” People in Niger have the impression that all white people are rich, and so we should pass our days handing out coins, but that’s an issue for another post.
When I got the item in question home, it turned out that it didn’t even work. The tuner spun, but the station didn’t change. Miraculously, I managed to take apart the whole thing with my Swiss Army knife, repair the tuner, and get the whole thing back together, minus the needle indicating which station is playing. So I now enjoy Radio France International (which broadcasts in French and Hausa), BBC Africa (English, French, and Hausa), and a slew of local news and music stations.
I’m trying to get a few pictures uploaded, but as I may have mentioned, internet access speed in Niger leaves something to be desired. I’ll see what I can do.