If it’s been a while since I’ve updated, you’ll have to excuse me at least for the last week. I was in the north of Niger, a region to which the US State Department discourages travel due to Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda operations along the border with Mali. Fortunately, I look just like a Nigerien so I was safe. Okay, maybe not. But as I was accompanied by Tuaregs, I decided to take my chances with Al Qaeda. An encounter would have been good fodder for my terrorism research anyway.
As many of you know, I’ve been living with a Tuareg family in Niamey, the relatives of my friend Alissa, who I met in Paris. The Tuaregs are a nomadic people from the Sahara desert and surroundings, mostly in northern Niger and Mali. I’ve mastered only the greetings and a few random words of their language, Tamasheq: mess imin Nicholas, naku amerikan, oiye wan? Most important to our American imaginations, they wear turbans and ride camels.
The trip up to Tchinta baraden, the nearest town appearing on a map, was a complicated affair. It began with my host brother Ihya and I leaving the house at 4am to walk to the nearest Rimbo bus station. From there, we took a shuttle to the main Niamey station, where we transferred to the Agadez route. Agadez is traditionally Niger’s main tourist attraction, a Tuareg city in an oasis on the edge of the desert, but current safety concerns mean that all unnecessary travel is restricted to foreigners.
Bus travel in Niger hardly meets American safety standards, with drivers bringing their passengers repeatedly within inches of death before jerking back on course, roaring over bumps and potholes sending passengers flying out of their seats. After a seven-hour trip, the bus dropped us off at Tahoua, a little nothing of a town on the edge of civilization, where we relaxed at Alissa’s dad’s house. After a couple days, he kindly drove us the next few hours north to Tchinta baraden, first on a paved road, then on well-worn dirt. After a brief siesta and lunch, we boarded a bush taxi bound for Dembutan, the village Alissa’s family calls home. Bush taxis are a new level of unsafe and uncomfortable, with upwards of 20 people piled with animals and luggage on the back of a 4×4 pickup.
Tuaregs living in the bush are pastoral, not agricultural, so they raise animals and use the proceeds to buy their millet and other needs. Traditionally, this was sufficient for survival. With increased costs, however, many young people now head off to Niamey or to Libya for a few years or more to earn money to support their families’ traditional lifestyle back home. In any case, a Tuareg village is bound to be full of cattle, goats, sheep, and a few camels.
Despite having no electricity and very spotty cell phone coverage, most people have cell phones, which they often must pay to charge with a gas-powered generator. One night, a couple of Pull (another nomadic ethnic group) women passed by our compound, passing the night on their plastic mats and dining on our family’s hospitality. They appalled us with their rudeness by demanding the use of a cell phone, refusing our offer to let them borrow one to ‘beep’ their husbands (hanging up after one ring so your contact will call you back, at their expense).
Incredibly, given the middle-of-nowhere feeling you get standing outside the house, visitors are commonplace here, arriving every day. Another Pull visitor told us his family had long been living right nearby. When he got back from the market at Tchinta (a couple of days by foot), he found that they had packed up and moved on without telling him. He rested under our tent for several hours before continuing his search. While families often stay in one place for years, building mud huts and compound walls, they will not hesitate to pack up their tents – traditionally made of animal skins – and lead their animals quite literally to greener pastures.
Innumerable unspoken rules govern Tuareg social interactions, rules which I surely broke time and time again. At one older (thereby more respected) man’s tent, a twenty-five minute walk from our compound through completely empty bushland, I caused mild shock by sitting down right next to the gentleman – well beyond the limits of respectful distance. As it turned out, this man averted his eyes while speaking to younger men, and they did the same, out of respect. Fortunately, as a foreigner I was largely exempted from these expectations.
I could go on for days about my week in the bush, but since internet access costs 1000 CFA an hour, I’ll leave my summary at that – for now anyway. I really encourage you to write or comment with questions or reactions. Salamu alaikum.