A Swing Through Niger
“When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don’t just turn it off one day.” Chinua Achebe
My first West Africa land crossing was a trip! After driving from Sokoto, Nigeria, to a border town called Illela, I was told that since I had a passport, I will go through the official border. The remaining folks went a different way. Being the only one with a passport, I had to take a motorcycle to the “official” border that was about a mile away. I found that in addition to the cost of a passport, most local people avoid the border because of the outright extortion carried out by border agents. For instance, leaving Nigeria, I was stopped at a “yellow fever” checkpoint just to be asked for a “meningitis card” after realizing that I in fact had my yellow fever card. On the Niger side, I was asked to pay after my passport was stamped. When I asked why, the agent said it was for the signature. With my West African passport (ECOWAS), crossing the border anywhere in West Africa should have cost nothing. I was really saddened to see what local people go through on a daily basis. I braced myself for more of this for the next 2 months.
I cross the border into Birnin Konni, a small desert town in Niger. Arriving in shorts, with a bulky backpack and beard, the local folks were very suspicious and apprehensive. My contact in Konni, who was equally suspicious, recommended that I wear pants and shave my beard. After securing a hotel room, I did just that. Suddenly, I began to blend in and the suspicion turned into friendlier looks.
The following day, I toured Konni in a motorcycle with a local guide. I happened to be there on the weekly cattle market day. Fulani herdsmen flock to the market to sell goats, sheep and cows. This is the first market that I have come across in Africa that is entirely men.
Just on the other side, in the regular market, the Fulani women were selling dairy product.
I was told that a big number of Fulani people in Niger are in the bush with their cattle. I met a young fulani man in Konni who talked extensively about the illiteracy among the Fulani in Niger. “They are focused on their cattle and that’s all they do,” he told me with frustration. “We are not educated people and that’s the source of a lot of our problems”.
I told him about the educated Fulani people I met just on the other side of the border in Nigeria. He was very intrigued and I encouraged him to go visit the universities.
The “problems” he was referring to is the conflict between farmers and herdsmen in rural communities. While the basis of the conflict are the occupations, due to the ethnic divisions of occupation in this case, these conflict can quickly turn into ethnic conflicts. The Fulani who are mostly herders, moving around with their cattle and bypassing fields come into conflict with farmers. Unfortunately, these conflicts have led to deaths. I met an angry fulani man who recounted a story of an entire fulani village being burned down.
I left Konni hoping someone is engaging these communities to help de-escalate the conflicts.
From Konni, I took a bus going south to Niamey, Niger’s capital city. The brand new air-conditioned coach buses in Niger was a welcomed break from the Nigerian mini buses. The closest I have ever come to death was with a Nigerian driver cruising at ungodly speed to overtake another car and in the process, having to dodge an oncoming truck and a huge pothole. This happened more than once! The ride from Konni to Niamey was a great way to see small villages in the desert. I took some of my best pictures of the trip so far!
I planned to spend a couple of days in Niamey before heading to neighboring Burkina Faso. In Niamey, I met with a linguist who has taught Pulaar for almost 30 years.
He was insightful in explaining the evolution and flexibility of Pulaar. The language has evolved a lot over the years as Fulani live among other people and borrowed from other languages. The very thing that makes a nomadic people resilient and adaptable is also the same thing that contributes to the huge variations in the language from the Pulaar that I know from my native Guinea. Everywhere Fulani people are, they borrow local phrases, keep a couple of the words from the borrowed language and “Fulanize” the rest. To a Pulaar speaker from a different region, it is impossible to understand. It is amazing to watch it unfold in New York with first generation Fulani people “Fulanizing” english words which eventually become the only word to be used.
For all of their historical crimes in Africa, one French influence that I appreciate greatly is the bread! In Niamey, I went from bakery to bakery sampling pastries and catching up on my personal writing. I had to remind myself that I was just beginning the francophone tour!
Off to northern Burkina Faso!