A Magical Carpet Ride through the Sahel

Trip Start Jun 02, 2003
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Trip End Dec 31, 2006


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Flag of Niger  ,
Sunday, October 31, 2004

Camels, turbans, minarets, dried mud cities, hot sun, and desert landscape...Niger sometimes felt like being in Disney's Aladdin. I wouldn't have been surprised to find an old dusty lantern with a genie inside. Nor would I have been shocked to find that the carpet/blanket that I slept on under the stars one night had suddenly decided to take flight and transport me through the stars, over a dusty town, and off into the desert. Niger was quite a magical trip, but it started off like any other "ordinary" voyage in West Africa.

Kelley, Cristy, and I set off first, but many other Peace Corps Benin volunteers would join us later on and bring our number up to 12! But the three of us girls got to explore Niamey on our own, and we also had ourselves an adventure in the sparse bush south of Niamey when we decided to look for the last "wild" giraffes in West Africa.

We rented a Niamey city taxi to take us to Kouré, where we would find a guide and eventually giraffes. When we arrived on the outskirts of the little town, tons of kids of all ages bumrushed our little car to shout their merits and their prices through our windows. We selected a small,cute boy, probably about 12 years old but not yet having hit his growth spurt. He wore raggedy clothes. He had a large rip in the seat of his pants that later revealed red and white striped shorts when he lay on his stomach and shimmied under our car to pull something out of the wheel well. They made me think of pajamas with feet.

So, our little guide leads our small but courageous taxi off the paved road and into the bush. Pretty soon, we aren't on a road anymore. Our driver squeezes between short trees and shrubs scraping the sides of his car and more than once protests that we could not POSSIBLY go down that path. Some of the paths, that are more like miniscule openings between trees, he does accept to drive through are so narrow that I wonder how the car will fit, and it is I who is thinking "We cannot possibly go down that path!" We come upon a group of Fulani boys waiting as their cattle drank from a watering hole. The boys come over, and one hops in the car with our guide in the front seat, having said that he had spotted the giraffes earlier. I speak a few greetings in Fulani to one of the older boys in the group, and as we drive off, he runs behind us, his long blue robes flowing, and his stick trailing on the ground or in the air behind him. I look at him through the back window, and he waves and smiles as though saying goodbye to a long-lost friend.

Our new guide who looks like a little hip hopper in baggy pants and a backwards baseball cap takes us in some more circles (or at least, that's what it seems like). We get out and walk a bit and watch guide #2 climb to the tip-tops of trees to look for the long-legged animals. I take pictures of some giraffe footprints just in case we never manage to find the actual flesh and blood creatures...got to have something to remember them by! The sun is scorching. Cristy, Kelley, and I wipe sweat off our foreheads and necks and guzzle from our water bottles. No luck. Back to the car. Drive some more. Walk some more. Wait in the shade as our guide climbs another tree. Success? He thinks he sees some over there! We walk back to the car, and out of nowhere (and we really are in the middle of NOWHERE!) another couple of kids come running up to the car. How could they have possibly found us?! They have just seen the giraffes! One of them hops into the car. One more guide to add to our slowly growing collection. (Our original guide had meanwhile been relegated to the job of watching the car while the rest of us trekked off to look. Watching the car to protect it from whom, from what, I wonder. What thieves could be out here?) Now, he squeezes into the back with Cristy, Kelley, and I to make room for the new guide who sits in front with the hip Fulani.

We are driving along and proceed to get stuck in the mud (it is the end of the rainy season after all). The kids get out and push, and mud splatters all over the windows. We sit in the car worrying and contemplating how this might raise the cost of our trip. The kids are strong for their size, though, and eventually, our car finds its tread.

Then, suddenly, we pull into a small clearing. A cluster of trees to the right of us has strange heads sticking up between the branches. GIRAFFES!!! They are eating the leaves. We get out of the car, and the boys begin to whistle. The giraffes, curious about the noise, start to come out of the trees. There are about 10 of them! They are tall and awkward-looking, yet they move with a strange grace. They look at us. They tower over us. Are we the spectacle, or are they? We watch them for a while and take pictures. We are able to get pretty close to them, and it is strange to be that close and not to have a zoo fence separating us. Even our driver gets into the giraffes. I think he is happy after all that he has decided to break free from the city limits today.

We pay our guides, and two walk off into the bush to rejoin their friends. Guide #1 with the torn pants gets back into the car and leads us back to the paved road, where we drop him off. We drive back to Niamey with huge smiles on our faces. We have survived the sun, the sweat, the dust, the mud, and the bush on our quest to marvel at the last remaining giraffes in West Africa.

After exploring Niamey (the cultural center/museum/zoo is pretty interesting, though the zoo part is VERY depressing - lots of malnourished, on-the-verge-of-death-looking animals), the three of us head up to Agadez. It is a long trip. Our un-air-conditioned bus leaves at 4:30 a.m. It takes 12 hours. Twelve hours of driving on a road through a desert landscape. Not a dune desert - not yet. Unfortunately, we won't make it to the dunes on this trip, as our security officers won't allow us to go that far northeast into Niger. Bandits. Tuareg Rebels. Al-Quaida.

But it is still desert. A sparse landscape dotted by low trees, sand, and the ocassional watering hole. We watch through the dusty window as camels - dromedaires - march single file in the distance. Cows, camels, and turbaned boys and men take respite from the sun in the shade of the trees near the stagnant pools. We pass villages made up of a few mud-brick houses and shade hangars.

Hours later, we see Agadez off in the distance. Agadez is a large town (or a small city) made up entirely of mud-brick buildings. An ancient, mud-brick minaret dots the horizon like a thorny phallus. The "thorns" are the wooden planks that stick out on all sides, that hold the structure together. Looking out over Agadez from the top of the minaret, walking through the streets and the market, I feel like I might see Aladdin with a monkey on his shoulder.

Cristy, Kelley, and I find ourselves being roped into having a "guide" (a friend who expects payment by means of buying his jewelry at the end of the day). We have been invited to the Sultan's for tea later in the day, but Moussa, the guide, must take us. Oh well. Moussa seems nice, and he leads us in the direction of the camel market. On the way, we attract two more "friends." I explain to them that we do not need any more guides and that we will NOT be paying them with anything. They say, "No problem! We led your friend Sam to Cure Salée last year! We just want to be friends!" Rocky whips out Sam's business card as proof. And we have two new "friends" to accompany us on our tour.

At the camel market, we see a man with the hugest, black scorpion I have ever seen crawling all over him! Snap, snap. Photos to record the wonder! We see camels resting after arriving from a long camel drive across the desert. They groan as we get close to them to take photos. Snap, snap. We see Fulani haggling over the prices of cows, their hats with feathers on the top different from what we have seen. Snap, snap.

We go to the market near the camel market and outfit ourselves with Tuareg clothing - a long, white embroidered wrap skirt and a flowy embroidered top. Tuareg sandels shod my feet. We pay an arm and a leg too much for this ensemble. Our "friends" surely take their cut. It's frustrating not to know prices, nor the language of negotiation in Agadez.

We walk through the old quarter and enter a house that has been decorated inside and out with elaborate carvings. We stand on the roof of the house and gaze out over the city. Later, we visit Heinreich Barthe's house. The German explorer left behind his bed, a platform with giant wheels as legs, and some camel saddles. The first house is worth a visit, but Barthe's is a bit of a disappointment. We see cute but raggedy-looking boys walking alongside donkeys laden with bunched up grass or hay. We see beautiful, young girls carting their wares on the tops of their heads, on their way to the market. Kids come out of the woodworks screaming for gifts, one drawback to visiting such a touristed town.

Eventually, we make our way back to the Sultan's palace and wait for the prince who will take us inside to tea with his father, the Sultan. The Sultan is a laid-back dude. After taking of our shoes, we walk inside and are led to chairs beside him. Mysterious, lumpy objects covered by a colorful cloth sit on the coffee table in front of us. The Sultan's aid whips off the covering with a flourish to reveal trays of cookies and peanuts, a variety of drinks, and teacups. We drink grenadine with water and snack on peanuts as the Sultan tells us about the time he spent several months in the U.S. as a guest of the female U.S. Ambassador to Niger. He shows us pictures of himself with the prince and princess of Belgium.

Our eyes wander around the enormous room. Chairs line the walls. Coffee tables set up the same as ours was are in front of the chairs. How many visitors does the Sultan receive everyday? How does he maintain his cheerfulness. He is an old man who will never retire. We ask if the Prince who has brought us here will replace him. The prince is the third son, though, and is not in line for the throne. The Sultan and his son invite us to visit the mosque and climb the minaret when we come back to Agadez after Ingall. It is too dark to climb now.

We leave the Sultan's welcoming room and head to our favorite restaurant, Le Gourmet, for Spanish Omelettes. There, we meet the rest of our Peace Corps friends. We say goodbye to our non-guides, who have, by now, managed to royally rip us off. The next day we will go the Tagadoum for the Wodaabe festival.

Getting to Tagadoum is not an easy feat. We negotiate for a minibus taxi to take us to Ingall, and from there, we must find a 4X4 to take us across the sand to Tagadoum. We climb into the back of a blue truck and pull our turbans tight to protect against the sun and the dust as we bounce across the sand and bumps. Locusts in huge swarms fly behind us. These must be the same ones that have ravaged so many crops across the West African Sahel. They look like harmless insects, but there are so many of them that I can imagine the damage they might do.

About an hour later, we see the festival off in the distance. Hundreds of people mill about in groups or lounge under trees. We climb out of the truck and gently rub our sore butts and take a few stretches. Then we wander around and look for a place to set up camp. Several people come up to us asking for water. There are so many people and only one well. People crowd around the well for so long, waiting and fighting for the water that donkeys slowly pull up. We have brought bottles of water with us, but not enough to hand out.

Eventually, we find a spot to set up our sleeping arrangements. It turns out to be right next to one of the organizers of the festival. I greet him in the little Fulfuldie I know even though he speaks French, and later, he invites me over to talk to him about the festival and instruct me about where we can find things to eat, etc. His name is Dimoune, and he is Wodaabe, a unique group of Fulani people. Dimoune welcomes us with tea and spaghetti. Tea, I soon learn, is as essential to these people's lives as food and water. We drink it several times a day over the next few days. It is strong and sweet. It is made in little teapots cooked on a tiny charcoal stove that people sometimes vigorously swing through the air in half moons in attempts to get the coals hotter. The tea is served in shotglasses, and one is supposed to drink three shotglasses each time the tea is served. I wish I could remember the meaning of each of the three times. One is sweet like love. One is bitter like ... death? And one is like life. I can't remember exactly. In any case, it's a lot of tea!

I spend the afternoon drinking tea and talking to Dimoune and some other Wodaabe. Then, that night, I head over to join the festivities. Tonight I feel as though I am part of a Discovery channel documentary. The Wodaabe men dress up for their beauty contests (essentially, that is what this is) by painting their faces and weaving feathers and beads and cloth in their hair. They are known for the unique way they braid their hair. They wear noisemakers on their ankles. They dance and chant in a circle surrounded by a crowd of people.

I see a group of women dancing as well and go over to see if I can join their circle. But just as I get there, the women stop dancing. The women are also elaborately dressed. They, too, have a unique style. They wear three or four enormous but thin gold hoops in their ears that pull the lobes down. They wear beautiful jewelry. They have big poofy bangs in front and then wear the rest of their hair in braids. They wear a beaded hairpiece like a necklace that fits around their head with a pendant that hangs just down before the poofs of bangs. I greet some of the women in my poor Beninese Fulfuldie, and one of them reaches into her pocket and gives me one of these beaded headpieces. I am confused and think it is a necklace. I try to put it on, but, naturally, it doesn't fit over my head. Nor does it stay on my head. I thank them and put it in my pocket. They grab my hands and take me over to watch the men dance.

We stand just behind the men, who are the main attraction for the night. The women giggle and occasionnally touch one of the men's hair. One of them grabs my hand and makes me touch one of the men's hair. Later, through sign language, I learn that touching them is a way of complimenting them and telling them they are good-looking. Flirting, Wodaabe-style. The men continue to dance. We watch. Every once in a while some people will come over and want to meet me. I greet them and try to talk to them. It turns out that a lot of them understand some English. They are nomads, and some of their traveling has brought them to Nigeria. They are all so friendly and welcoming.

The men sing five different songs to celebrate different things. When they sing and dance well in unison, the men are happy. To show their happiness, they will sometimes dance/"march" into the circle two by two and then back out again rejoining their original spots. The circle grows and shrinks with the dances. If you are standing too close behind the men, you sometimes have to step back to avoid getting stepped on. If the dance is not going well, the circle will break and another one will form with men in a slightly different spot, maybe a few meters over.

I stand mesmerized by the dances, but I am also overwhelmed by the "conversations" I have with the Wodaabe. I am proud of my ability to greet them in a Fulfuldie they can recognize, and I learn a few more words of Wodaabe Fulfuldie.

The dancing doesn't last very late into the night. It all ends quite suddenly, actually. Before I know it, people are walking back to their tents. So, I do the same, grateful in some ways to rest after the long voyage. When I get back, I climb into a tent with Cristy and Kelley and try to fall asleep.

The morning brings more tea in a makeshift room created by cloth hung from the tree branches to create shade and thin mattresses covered by carpets spread on the ground. Some dancing happens in the morning, but I miss it because I am having tea with Dimoune and some other Wodaabe. I do not think this matters because I am under the impression that the festival will continue to the next day. Unfortunately, I am wrong, and not too long after the dancing, an exodus begins. People begin to pack up their belongs, climb onto camels and walk towards the south. I wander around and watch people. I stop some to take some pictures. I trade with a Wodaabe girl, my necklace for hers. Mine is an Agadez cross I have just bought in Agadez. Hers is like nothing I have ever seen before. It is beads, but the pendant that hangs at the end is like a bronze square with some pearly looking beads on top. I can find an Agadez cross again easily, but this is a rarity.

I wander into the nearby village. Not much is there. Just a few mud buildings and some shade hangars. I see few people. Some men sit in the shade drinking tea and chatting. An old woman, her face marked by wrinkles and sun-damaged skin, sits under a hangar with a little girl. She beckons me to enter. I greet her, and she asks me for something to eat (at least, that is what I gather based on her gestures). I don't have anything with me to offer, so I feign misunderstanding, thank her, and say goodbye, leaving her with her little grand daughter.

The afternoon brings more tea and a discussion of what to do. Dimoune has told us that another Wodaabe festival will be happening not too far away. We can go back to Ingall and then from there travel to the next festival. The restaurant folks offer us a free ride back in their truck. Dimoune decides to go with us. We pack up our stuff and cram in. The truck is huge, and it is packed. Some of us sit on top of mounds of stuff. Some of us, including me (for half of the voyage, anyway) sit on the railings holding on for dear life. Some goats are uncomfortably crammed in about a foot from where my feet are. One of them poops (or pees?) on a volunteer's bag on the way. Traveling in this direction, the dust is worse, and any part of us not covered by turban or clothing is absolutely filthy at the end of the day. Sand collects in such great quantities in the folds of our clothes, and I feel as though we are becoming a part of the desert.

Finally, we arrive in Ingall. We unload our stuff and sit in the shade of a wall trying to figure out what to do. Dimoune invites two other volunteers, Brian and Ginger, and myself to stay for free with him at his friend's house. The other volunteers stay for free with a friend of a friend, Jean the Mechanic. Dimoune takes us through Ingall to a house. Some beautiful little girls, one with light, brown skin and freckles all over her face, smile and giggle at us as we walk through the gates and into a large and busy courtyard.

Wodaabe occupy nearly every space of shade. We find an open spot, and Dimoune spreads out his mattress and blanket. Someone begins to prepare the tea, and we sit watching the activity around us. Some people are sitting on mats and carpets: the men preen themselves in their mirrors, the women nurse their babies or help the men undo and redo their braids. Some wash their laundry. One showers behind a wall, his soapy head visible. Some mill about fetching water or doing various other chores. Bright colored clothes begin to cover the low tree branches and shrubs like christmas ornaments.

We are waiting for our turn to wash the desert from our pores. I bring out my gift from the woman at the festival to show to Dimoune. He notices that the pendant is starting to become unfastened from the beads, and he suggests giving it to a nearby woman to repare. The woman takes the hair decoration, and she takes out some thread. Her nimble fingers manipulate the small beads and the pendant with such ease, tying miniscule knots. She works without smiling, and I give her one of my beaded bracelets from Ghana as a thank you. Finally, shower time has arrived. One by one Brian, Ginger, and I get clean. Brian and Ginger decide to pay a boy to do their laundry. I, cheapskate that I am, decide that I will just wash my turban myself, and I ask Dimoune how I can get a bucket and water to do this. He throws my turban on top of the pile and tells the boy to wash it (free of charge, I assume). Later, I am thankful that I only handed over my turban because all of our clothes and a few Wodaabes' clothes were stolen.

After we are clean, Dimoune says that there are too many people there for us to be able to sleep comfortably. He says that these are the people from his village and that more will be showing up later in the day. We gather together our things and walk through town to another house. There, we eat dinner with Dimoune and one of his brothers. It is a very egalitarian meal. One person takes a bite of the millet pate and sauce and then passes the spoon to his neighbor. Yes, even I did this, though I eat very little because there is meat in the sauce. Later, Ginger and I go over to check on the rest of our Peace Corps friends. They are staying in a large house with a running shower, fans, and tons of foam mattresses. Much nicer accomadations, but without the cultural flare. I start not to feel so good, and Ginger and I head back to go to sleep.

After we get back, I start to feel weaker and sicker. Dimoune and Brian have gone off into town, so it is just the two of us. Ginger is worried about me because we don't have any rehydration salts. We decide to go back over to the other house to sleep so that I can get some salts and some bread to eat. We spend that night there. The next day, after I eat a big meal in town and drink a lot of water and rehydration salts, I feel MUCH better. It seems as though I have just been dehydrated and maybe vitamin deficient from lack of food. Some of the others decide to take camel rides that day and trek out to the dinosaur "museum" in the desert. I am tired and decide to replenish my energy by lounging and sleeping under the shade hangar at the house where we were meant to stay the night before.

As I lay on the blanket covered mattress and rest my eyes, I listen to the Wodaabe men who sit chatting and drinking tea nearby. Different men come and go throughout the day. Sometimes they are quiet and resting. Sometimes they chat in soft voices. I never feel threatened or bothered as I might sometimes in Benin. I feel at ease with these men who, for the most part, let me be. Every once in a while, someone will inquire as to how I am feeling. Every once in a while, I will ask a question, and they will take time to answer. A woman and her child work around us, going in and out of the house or sitting by a cooking fire.

Later in the day, I feel rejuvenated enough to wander around the town and check out the market. I go with Brian, who has spent much of the early afternoon trying to track down his and Ginger's clothing and my turban. We meet some Wodaabe on the way to the market who invite us to their "palace." We follow them and enter another enormous courtyard, larger than the first one we saw. Wodaabe, again, crowd under every tree or building that offers shade. We squeeze into a space under one tree and sit with the Wodaabe there. Someone takes out his wares to sell, and we look at everything. Brian wants to buy a sword with a silver and leather-covered sheath, and they would like his watch. But the trade is not satisfactory for either, so it doesn't happen. The men are close to one another. They touch and throw their arms around one another like little boys, and I am reminded of the many differences between our cultures. They look at themselves in mirrors and fix each others braids. I remember beauty is something to be honored and nurtured in this culture as it is God's gift to his chosen people.

Eventually, Brian and I make our excuses and take our leave and head back to the market, which isn't really all that exciting. We check out some tailor stalls and then buy some cold water to bring back to Dimoune and friends at the house.

That night, I move back over to join Dimoune and Brian. Ginger stays with the others. Brian settles in his tent, and I lay down on the blanket covered mattress Dimoune has been kind enough to let me use for the night. He sleeps with his brothers a little ways away to make me feel comfortable. There is an almost full moon out tonight and not many stars, but it is beautiful all the same. I lay back and listen to some drums off in the distance as I fall asleep.

The next day, I decide to leave early rather than go on a search for another Wodaabe festival off in the middle of nowhere with the others. I am tired, and I am running out of money. Also, I am skeptical that the festival will be as easy to find as some say it is. (It later turns out that I am right. Those who seek out the festival certainly have an adventure, and they do see some interesting things. But their voyage is not an easy one, and at the end, I am thankful that I have decided not to join them.)

Erin, Dave, and I say goodbye and say our thank yous and go back to Agadez. Leeza, a Belgian girl, is crammed into the tro-tro bush taxi with us. In Agadez, we find Tess, a woman the other volunteers had stayed with on their one night in Agadez (I had stayed in a hotel with Cristy and Kelley). Tess agrees to let us sleep at her unfinished house/hotel. We meet up with Leeza and go visit the Sultan to see if we can go to the top of the minaret.

Once again, I take off my shoes and go in to see the Sultan. He remembers me, and he offers us drinks and cookies and peanuts like the time before. This time he explains how Sultan's are chosen. One of his aids brings out a giant family tree that shows the lineage of the Sultan. He brings out documents in English and French that talk about his family's history. Then, he sends someone to take us to the mosque.

Climbing to the top of the minaret is an adventure in itself. We must take off our shoes first. Then, we enter a dark, narrow, stairwell. Everything is mud-brick. We have to duck to fit in the tiny space, and I wonder how some of the more robust, portly tourists manage to fit inside. Bats are inside here, and I shriek as one swoops down and accidently hits my hand. We are stepping on bat poop, and I remember with dread our medical officer telling us how toxic it is. Finally, we arrive at the top. There is barely enough space for the three of us to stand. This is where a man would shout out his beautiful call to prayer for all of Agadez to hear. The cityscape is beautiful. We take photos from every angle before making the dreaded trip back down to the bottom.

As the sun is setting, we wonder around the old quarter. Then, we enter the Ski Shop. Someone has told us about the man who owns this shop, so we decide to check it out. The Ski Shop actually does have skis and snowboards, an unlikely thing to find in the desert. Some tourists rent them to take out to the dunes for a day to do dune skiing or snowboarding. Abdel Karim runs the ski shop, and he invites us in for tea and cheese (it is hard and reminds me of eating a fruit roll-up...I don't like it so much). We sit on his comfortable cushions and chat. Then we start to look at the jewelry and other items he has for sale. I have already been ripped off so many times, that I am wary of buying anything, but his prices are fair. I wish I had been to see him earlier. I select some silver rings and a necklace. He restrings the necklace for me, as the current string is old. We spend a considerable amount of time in his shop, and afterwards, he recommends a good restaurant and joins us there to eat. If anyone reading this plans to go to Agadez, please do your shopping with Abdel Karim at the Ski Shop!

Alas, the day is over, and the next morning, we must climb back into a bus that will take us down to Niamey. This time, though, the bus is air-conditioned!

In Niamey, I call up my old French friend from Colorado College Lynda. She lets me stay a night in her house and swim in her pool (!). We catch up on old times and promise to get together again soon. Then, I finally leave Niger behind. It is time to get back to work.

I left it with a fascination for the Wodaabe and the Tuareg. I left it with an appreciation for the comforts of Benin, such as being able to find water easily. But, I left Niger with a longing to return someday to explore it more in depth. I would love one day to go into the Tenere desert and the Air mountains, but who knows when that day will come, certainly not while I am in Peace Corps, as the treasures hidden there are off-limits to us as long as there is danger among the dunes.
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Comments

abene
abene on

sahel tea
I found your blog by doing a search for 'sahel' and
'tea' trying to recreate the tea I had while in the sahel -- reading parts of your blog was fun, and I noticed you said you wished you remembered what the tea stood for- you almost got it -- strong like friendship, sweet like love and good like life. :)
Take care of yourself, and its good to read about your adventures!

bath mate on

As always an excellent posting.The
way you write is awesome.Thanks. Adding more information will be more useful.

Bathmate

l;asdjfa;sdlkjf45431312 on

this is some awsome info cool.

suzyinbenin
suzyinbenin on

Thank you all very much. I haven't been monitoring this blog in quite a while, so I've missed these comments. I appreciate the compliments!

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