Niger

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Tenere, Niger, January 2007. Les Maliens sont sensuels et charmants, les Nigériens austères et conservateurs. Nous avons connu (au moins) deux exceptions.

Michel, our new friend whose non-profit association covered both countries, had warned us: “Mali is sensual and charming, Niger austere and conservative”. Well, we noticed it right after crossing the border, our Niger co-passengers were downright unpleasant and untalkative, the guy next to us was constantly coughing without a word of excuse, the driver was positively gruff when my companion refused to let more people squeeze her against the window, had turned off the engine without a word, with a fierce expression on the face, indicating he would not budge till he had those extra passengers.

There were notable exceptions, Ibingui, an 18 year-old with a baby face, who prepared tomato-and-cucumber salad twice a day during an outing in the great Tenere desert. His uncle Houma had taken him along, officially as a cook, in practice to do any heavy duty task, for Ibingui was chubby but strong, his father had been fatally bitten by a venomous snake. “Tuareg customs have changed. Before, we were strong and hefty, now we travel by motorbike or 4X4, and watch TV”, Houma said. “And eat mayonnaise”, I added, for they splashed it all over the salad and on their bread. Houma used to never uncover his face, now he would do so occasionally but pull his turban back up whenever I took a picture. His I.D. read, “born about 1959”. It should have said, under Tribe, Mayo Tuaregs…

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Esretega, Arlit, Niger, January 2007. Les endroits spectaculaires ne manquaient ni dans le massif de l’Aïr, ni dans le désert du Ténéré, ni dans la vaste plaine rejoignant l’Algérie.

Each night we had spent in a special place, the last before the border was the most stunning, from far it looked like a village over the horizon, Houma was still driving in zig-zags, looking for a place to camp on this flat area with just shallow gullies and lonely bare trees, we reached the “houses” right at sunset, the mirage was a large plateau with tens of very oddly-shaped rocks, here a huge mushroom with a thin stem, there a middle-size rock making a balancing act on a large one, further, more mushrooms, a penis, a surrealist painter could not have done a better job, stunning colors on extraterrestrial figures, it even had a name, Esretega, from there on it was hyper-flat desert into Algeria, 200 km away.

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Ayorou, Niger, January 2007. Salamatu, une belle et studieuse apparition dans un grand centre animalier.

Instead of the promised vibrant animal market, we found Salamatu, a nice Peul (another name for Fulanis), rather she found me. I had sat on a stone by the main (dirt) road coming from the desert, trying to get some good shots of incoming animals and people, when she came and engaged a conversation, a novelty in these touristy areas where locals approach foreigners only to ask for money. First she stood and talked, then she sat in front of me. She didn’t mind my taking photographs of her, all the while she was busy chatting, holding open her blue-covered school notebook. In neat letters and with few orthographic errors she had reproduced whatever her teacher had told the class, history of the region, with sultans and invaders, even a theory on capitalism and imperialism. Salamatu also takes down notes from older, wise men, whatever stories she can get hold of, youth don’t have books, so they write them.She read a chapter in a studious voice while untying her red scarf, revealing thinly braided hair, I observed her as much as I listened. Sitting on the mud brick she had wrapped her long brown skirt around her thin legs, the 16 year old was a graceful sight in the middle of the great Sahara desert.

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Adrar Chiriet, Air, Niger, January 2007.  Crépuscule au pied d’une masse volcanique, parmi des arbres calligraphiques, avec l’Harmattan qui s’épuise au loin.

Ready to bivouac by imposing Adrar Chiriet, a dark, tall mound of volcanic rocks towering above the sea of sand. The Harmattan is blowing on the horizon, and Houma is standing guard among calligraphic trees. It is the poetic moment when only the campfire colors the universe.

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Anakom, Air, Niger, January 2007. Gravures anciennes, très anciennes même, paraît-il. Des girafes, mais aussi des antilopes, boeufs, éléphants, autruches, des troupeaux entiers parfois.

While our dysentery-stricken guide hid behind a dune, we discovered the rock carvings, second only to the stunning cave paintings (see Algeria). No way we could have found them on our own, let alone gotten there. Upon reaching the great Ténéré, Houma had taken us straight to Anakom, straight is an overstatement, we had to go up and down big dunes, dig out of the sand and push a couple of times the jeep, the mountain receded for a great while on the horizon, what looked close on the map was amazingly long to cover. We reached the rocks in the golden color of the late afternoon, the spare vegetation was a pretty sight, and we saw the millennia old carvings, antelopes, bulls, elephants, types of ostriches, and lots of giraffes, a whole flock of them, neatly designed, on one single rock. The evening too was special that day, we backtracked to Agamgam, saw from atop the hill the sun setting behind the A r Mountain, and heard the humming of the universe coming from deep inside the Ténéré, so clear at first we thought it was an incoming jeep or a truck, a cluster of trees were becoming black dots, the pink clouds shredded above the dark orange sand.

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Ayorou, Niger, January 2007. Des gens viennent du Mali, d’Algérie, du Burkina Faso, du Ghana, du Togo, du Benin, et du Nigeria pour acheter des zébus, des chèvres, des chameaux et les très prisés ânes.

This sub-Saharan Niger town , within 400 km of Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, is famous for its Sunday animal market — maybe, but this time at least, the herds were small and far apart, goats came in dozens, camels 2 or three at most, often ridden by a galloping Tuareg, the only bigger herds were the zebus which a man was counting at arrival and putting down in a notebook. And the donkeys, often standing by pair, facing each other, each resting its head on its partner.

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