A few months earlier, Mustafa had picked me up at the airport in Niamey, the capital of Niger. I didn’t like him much at first. He had a long nose and his brown, rotting teeth narrowed to a point at his lips. He looked at me askance. I thanked him for picking me up and he nodded curtly. We went to the Grand Hotel du Niger, and he waited while I checked in and dropped my bags off in a dim room with one small window and a single bed covered by a thick brown blanket. I joined him again and we went to the market to buy me a local cell phone and SIM. Men with brick-sized wads of bills flashed their offerings on street corners. We bought a cheap Nokia and left.
Niamey runs on the goodwill of foreign aid organizations. There’s an entire neighborhood where every building houses aid workers of some sort – United Nations, Unicef, World Health Organization. On and on they go. Their white SUVs, covered with radio antennas and stickers and spare tires, were everywhere. I had spent a lot of time in third world countries, and yet I had never seen so many of those trucks as I was seeing here.
“What do you think?” he asked, in French.
“Lot of help,” I said.
“We need it here,” said Mustafa, “Especially in the north, where I’m from.
“But you’re not getting it?”
He shook his head.
“You will see,” he said.
By most measurements,Niger is the poorest, most underdeveloped country in the world. It consistently ranks at the very bottom of most human development indices including child mortality, literacy, access to health care, poverty and access to clean water. No part of the country is well off, but the southern half, fertile, green and near the coast is wealthier and healthier. The northern half ofNigeris a vast plateau of sand and scrub that eventually becomes theSahara. And more so each year. Tens of thousands of acres of otherwise arable land succumb to the forces of desertification each year, forcing the residents who live there into increasingly uncomfortable relationships with each other, and with the land itself.
Mustafa was a Touareg from those desert lands. His ancestors were some of the first people to colonize the desert thousands of years ago, and they had been living there ever since. Touaregs could be found across the broad stretch of the Sahel, from Mauritania to Mali and north into Libya and east toward Nigeria. Nomads like them had never had an easy relationship with the governments of the new states in which they found themselves citizens. And those relationships had soured further in recent years as successive administrations like the one inNigeraccused them of conspiring with international terror networks like Al Qaeda, providing arms and succor to their fighters.
The Touaregs weren’t a docile people. They resisted colonization. They resisted settling. And many of them didn’t respond kindly to the immediate isolation that ensued when the government branded them as enemies of the state. To be fair, the government had its reasons. Some Touaregs had been fostering open rebellion for years. They had weapons and sometimes they used them. And some of them had expressed sympathies for Islamic preachers who advocated actions against the state. The Nigerois government had never done much for the Touaregs. And now they did even less. More than anything, the Touaregs needed water. Many of their old wells were drying up, even as their numbers were increasing. Without water, their herds of cattle, camel and sheep would starve. And if their herds starved, so would they. Access to clean water was the one thing that stood between survival and their eventual demise.
That afternoon Mustafa took me to have lunch with his father. We drove through downtown Niamey, its lazy congested traffic, its dry parks with dusty palm trees, until we found an open space with dry brown grass in the middle of which stood a canvas tent. There we found an old man lying comfortably against several large pillows. He had stretched one leg out fully and the other was half-cocked. He was resting on one elbow. He wore large dark imitation Ray-Ban sunglasses. He had a handsome, chiseled face, a prominent nose and, when he took off his glasses to meet me, a warm gaze. My feelings for Mustafa warmed in kind.
Mustafa’s father had lived most of his life in the desert. He had herded cattle, following the seasons on the plateaus. And then most of his cattle had died and he had been forced to abandon everything. He had come to Niameyand now he lived here, under this tent, in the middle of the city. He continued to wear his cheche, the indigo-colored Touareg head-scarf. It wasn’t clear what else he did, though. I didn’t ask and Mustafa didn’t say. More than anything, the old man reminded me of one of those sad-faced, dignified Indians from the grainy 19th century pictures, lost and cut off from his land and his customs. Instead of an American Civil War jacket with epaulets and a cavalry hat, however, the old man had his Ray-Bans and a cell phone which chirped now and again, and from which dangled a little key chain with a fuzzy animal of unidentifiable origin. I told the old man I wanted to see his desert, the land where there was no water. He nodded and smiled when Mustafa translated for me. Then he gestured for me to eat. He seemed to me like a showcase exhibit of what Mustafa wanted me to understand – that this is what would happen to him soon if the situation didn’t change, that he too would become a landless circus creature.
We needed a car. The north was eleven hours by road. That night Mustafa returned to the hotel with two other men. One was Ali, his cousin and best friend, a thicker version of Mustafa who had a goatee, thick lips and eyes that slanted heavily downward at the outer corners. The other was a city slicker with an imitation blue silk shirt which he wore half unbuttoned and glasses perched on his forehead. We sat at a table on the patio outside and began to haggle. The city slicker wanted $300 per day for the truck and wanted me to pay for gas.
I laughed and asked him what he had been smoking. He let go with a mean chuckle, but didn’t lower his price. We ordered drinks, orange juice and pineapple juice and the city slicker took out a smoke, offered me one, and then lit his own. He leaned back in his chair, told me prices were higher inWest Africaand that I should understand his own liability concerns. I was not a millionaire, I countered, I had masters who watched my budget and who would never accept such a high price for a rental car. Besides, I said, if you don’t lower your price, I will just look elsewhere. He said I would just find the same price. This time I let go with a mean chuckle. I puffed away at my cigarette and blew it slowly in his face. It was always so much easier to be an asshole when you were with other assholes, I thought.
Eventually we agreed on $150 a day and I would pay for gas. The city slicker left to go make the arrangements, and I was left alone with Mustafa and Ali. They sipped their drinks meekly. I noticed how small they both were. We began to talk. Ali and Mustafa were from the same village and had grown up together. They had come to Niamey for university, the first from both of their families to do so, and both had gotten work with one of the ubiquitous NGOs that worked in the capital, in this case a small outfit that specialized in improving access to water. But now they were mostly out of work. They didn’t often get a chance to return to their village in the north.
We left at 5 a.m the next morning. Within minutes we were out of the city and passing small, clean villages with whitewashed houses, tended paths and a few fruit trees scattered here and there. Between the villages the land was flat and brown and endless. Ali was driving. Mustafa was in the passenger seat. They chatted quietly. I lay down on the backseat and rested.
- Niger, 2009