Tahoua

The hotel we’ve been booked into in Tahoua is seriously 3rd world. I can’t believe that Lonely Planet says that it costs 10000 CFA per night. It has no toilet seat, the power is intermittent, we are the only people staying here, except for Kone, our guide, and the shower has no water for the most part. Occasionally a dribble comes out. Need I even mention the physical appearance of the room — an off white box with worn out random pieces of furniture: two wire chairs, a squarish desk, a squarish bed. In the absence of electrical power, we’re sitting out in the parking lot along with 17 other individuals at least, who are for the most part not bothering us about anything (except that the second I wrote that, a one legged blind man on crutches introduced himself).

It’s pleasantly breezy and not hot, as it is evening.

Today was another travel day. We got out of the Grand Hotel in Niamey at about 8, and drove pretty much straight here to Tahoua. The only stops were the usual raft of checkpoints, at which Ahmed acts either furiously angry or playful or first angry and then playful. He invariably acts as though he knows the police there, which is encouraged by the cultural idiom of asking about the entire extended family whenever you say hello to anybody, and I think that, as a driver, he probably does know half of them. Certainly he knew the son of his cousin, who was specifically introduced to us as such, at one of the four or five unused customs stations on the Burkina-Niger border, in addition to the four or five ones that you are expected to stop at.

The route to Agadez runs very close to the Nigerian border for a long time, so there is even more checkpoint activity than usual. At least the police and army and Douane have jobs. Niger is seriously poor. I don’t know how its statistics compare with those of Burkina Faso and Mali, but in the first two countries we’ve been to (not counting England and France), we were made aware of a tremendous amount of economic activity, in the form, e.g., of tissue papers and candies thrust into the windows for sale at every stoplight and checkpoint. In Niger we stopped at a small village so that Kone and Ahmed could negotiate for some pieces of torn folded brown paper, probably pieces of cement bags, into which were placed freshly grilled pieces of sheep, omitting no part whatsoever, and hunks of the local onions, which are giant purple things, and a red tomato sauce and at least two different kinds of powder, one which was like paprika and the other like toasted cumin, but not exactly. There isn’t a lot of chili pepper used here. The one place we ate in Ougadougou that had a HabaƱero-like orange chili left whole in the chicken sauce — I got a little indigestion because it’s been so long since I’ve been to Rosita’s on Woodside Road in Redwood City. How quickly our bodies forget.

Anyway, the primary economic activity in that village today seemed to be begging. I don’t know how to give away money. Kone seems so good at it, he found a deserving old lady to give the remains of his sheep remains to after lunch, and he picked a legless boy out of a mob to give a couple of hundred CFA to and got it to him, too; I had set my eye on donating a hundred coin worn flat to a disk, and some change, to a boy with a clubfoot but as soon as I rolled down the window a crowd of vigorous teenybopper-aged, really you could only call them jocks, in the relative society of begging, the alpha-orphans, the ones who will end up working for NGO’s and at checkpoints if they can make it through the Hungry Season coming up — I couldn’t see my clubfoot any more, the crowd had closed in on him, and I rolled up my window in anger and to discourage the behavior.

I bet Ahmed doesn’t even try to analyze my moodiness the way I try to model his. I try to figure out what makes him wear his Tuareg black turban as opposed to his Seattle Supersonics baseball cap, too. The nearest I can imagine, is that it’s a marker of a transitional state. When he’s deeply in a city or deeply in Tuareg country, he wears his cap, unless it’s a sandstorm, which is what the turban is invented for. But in places where his identity as a Tuareg might be significant, he seems to favor his turban. That’s just a guess. It’s hard to mistake a Tuareg anyway, and he looks archetypically the archetype. Handsome like a Kennedy, too. Or the Herman’s Hermits guy.

The begging at the windows is the personal manifestation of a social commonplace. Basically, every piece of Real Property you see here, that is not made out of 1. mud or 2. straw, has a sign in front of it announcing that this is a Joint Project of the Government of Niger and 1. The European Union 2. Allemagne 3. USAID 4. CARE 5. WorldVision 6. some international association of Muslims who have donated mosques to almost every village we go through, and each has a sign on it declaring in very small print that it was built by these guys, and, a number. The numbers are four digit numbers and I have no reason to suppose they didn’t start at 1. 7. Belgique. 8. some Industrial World city which if you went there would have engagingly shuttered Solvang windows and no sand and no crippled beggars and everybody would be fat and playing with a gameboy and if the city is an American city, no clue where Niger is, or Africa is, or that they are the sister city of anybody or what a sister city is, and I sure don’t know what a sister city is 9. Not Italy. Why was the sign in the tomb in Istanbul warning you off climbing on the sarcophagus written only in Italian, anyway? 10. The Hunger Project (really) 11. France etc.

We also stopped to photograph a family of giraffes crossing the road just south of Niamey. We had been advised that they were in the area; Lonely Planet even mentions them and Ahmed had stopped to ask a couple of folks if they’d seen them. After giving up the search, because 9 AM is pretty late in the day for Giraffes to be about, we resumed full speed (80-95 kph is about what Ahmed’s catre-catre does) and were soon face to face with 5 of them, ambling along with their bad-animation gait.

Dinner was pasta and sauce on the terrasse of the restaurant “Chez Planet” in Tahoua. Slow service seems to be expected here. It can’t be an accident when you’re the only people in the restaurant and what you’re ordering is pasta. Even couscous doesn’t take that long. Meanwhile, other customers showed up. Ahmed knew them. He knows everybody in Niger, I swear. He was born in a town about 50 km from here. I try to imagine what childhood is like when the big city you go to on some special occasions is Tahoua.

Having a well connected driver is a good thing. We get waved past lots of checkpoints; and there are lots of checkpoints, on average at least one per town marked on the 1:4,000,000 Michelin West Africa map, and with all the talk about bandit rebel Tuaregs — Kone hints mysteriously that Ahmed was a revolutionary during that revolt, and whatever part that might play in the number of guys that want to be seen, by their well-dressed girlfriends, slapping our little exile chauffeur on the back — I imagine that if anyone tried to molest any of his Paying Customers, there would be Hell to pay.