“Is this your husband?” the old man asks, gesturing toward me as a distant fluorescent light reveals the hint of a smile on his face. It’s 4:30am at one of the outdoor bus stations in Agadez, where I’m waiting to depart for the long journey back to Niamey. We’re surrounded by a sea of travelers sleeping on mats or approaching one of the tea vendors next to us to get a quick jolt of caffeine.
My friend next to me laughs. This question comes up a lot. The man is the husband of one of her friends who had passed away, and he hadn’t recognized her in the darkness. “No, no, this is my friend who has been visiting,” she explains.
“Ah, I see. I had noticed that he wasn’t in the habit of wearing a tagelmust (turban),” the man continues. My heart sinks. I’ve arrived by night on the back of a kabou kabou, the motorcycle taxis used in Agadez, wearing long sleeves and a tagelmust to keep a low profile. It’s hard to do here, where groups of children tend to yell “anasara!” to greet me in the streets.
I’m nervous in this moment. Though I experienced no problems in Agadez, many people remain on edge with regard to foreigners. I’m shaken, too, by an encounter the previous evening with an antagonistic man who insisted that I confess to him that I was a soldier. I explained my real intentions, vaguely, but he seemed unsatisfied. There has just been an announcement this week that the U.S. would be opening a drone base in Agadez, complementing the existing one in Niamey; though I avoid bringing the subject up, I am certainly curious what locals think of it.
I can say, however, that the people I meet in Agadez are extremely encouraging about my interest in the local culture. Here, where tourism once constituted a major part of the economy, I sense exhaustion with the perennial questions about security that depress tourism.
View of the Grand Mosque of Agadez during a dust storm. I’m shooting from inside an artisan’s boutique, where we sip tea and discuss an American who taught English in Agadez during the 1970s. Riding by on the back of the kabou kabou is a man wearing a tagelmust.
* * *
After the city of Tahoua, the road to Agadez is a jumble of potholes and fragments of baked asphalt. The bus driver, in fact, relies on a dirt road that has been worn into place alongside the pavement, providing a smoother and safer alternative on which to continue along at high speeds. “All the money for the roads has been diverted to security,” a fellow passenger explains on the bus.
Niger road map. From http://www.intercarto.com/.
“The government claims there is decentralization,” another friend tells me later. Decentralization has been a political keyword in Niger for many years, but was a key condition for the end of the Tuareg rebellion in the early 1990s and further extended under pressure by the IMF and World Bank, which provided debt relief in exchange for market liberalization. In theory, it should place more power in the hands of local communities to make development decisions. “But,” my friend continues, “there is no decentralization. The state still controls everything.” The well-maintained highway between Niamey and Dogondoutchi, along the southern edges of Niger where most of the nation’s economic and political power remains, is a manifestation of this reality. There is a feeling among many Tuareg I meet that the state benefits heavily from the material and cultural resources of the north—the uranium in Arlit that has been a cornerstone of Niger’s economy, the cross of Agadez which is emblematic of Niger itself, the tourism industry which is centered in the north—while northern people receive little benefit. “The state profits, the French profit, and we are left with radiation,” I am told with such regularity that it might be something of a proverb here.
Tchoukou (Hausa) or takomért (Tamasheq): a sweet, chewy Tuareg cheese produced during the rainy season. I purchased this bag from one of the many vendors in Abalak who swarm the buses en route between Niamey and Agadez.
* * *
Beyond the observations of road conditions and the engaging discussions of Nigerien politics, riding to Agadez provides a 19-hour introduction to popular media in Niger. Seated near the front while en route from Niamey, I have a clear view of one of the bus company employees, a Tuareg teenager who fidgets with the stereo and TV systems into which he’s plugged his USB thumb drive. We watch bloody Bollywood action films dubbed in Hausa; we skip through an array of music. There is a healthy dose of dandali soyeya, the autotuned pop songs featured in Hausa-language films from northern Nigeria (which I’ll discuss more in another post); a track of what sounds like amplified njarka music (the West African fiddle played by Ali Farka Toure); the funky dance beats of Malian wassoulou. As we inch nearer Agadez, the selection begins to favor Tuareg guitar music, and by the time we pass Abalak the bus is a veritable Bombino sing-a-long ride. It’s hard for me to comprehend how strikingly similar this trip becomes to my own road trips across the desert terrains of the American Southwest.
The Grand Mosque illuminated by the strange light cast just after a duststorm. This is the iconic center of the town, which was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013.
* * *
On my way back to Niamey, I’m in a window seat again, crunched in with my backpack cradled on my knees, my shoulders smashed into glass on one side and my neighbor on the other. The space between the seats seems to have been perfectly designed to match the length of my femur, leaving no space for my kneecaps; whoever built the seats decided that knee-height was exactly the ideal place for a couple of screws needed to secure the seat cushions. Two seats over from me, a man reads from the Quran and discusses religious prohibitions with someone across the aisle from him. They carry on their conversation in Hausa too quickly for me to follow in detail. Between us is a young man who passes his time texting friends on his smart phone and watching music videos on his tablet computer. After a moment of boredom, he opens up a new game to play. It’s a game exclusively about smoking marijuana, and for the next hour he passes the time by rolling virtual joints on his touch screen and then lighting them with an on-screen lighter. The signature off-beat guitar rhythm of reggae seeps from his headphones.
Some of my roommates in Agadez. A neighbor and I joke about Gougaram, the brown lamb on the right: “Gougaram, le dejeuner de l’avenir.”
* * *
“Ah, look, there is a group of foreigners,” my companion tells me as we wait to board, several hours before dawn in Niamey. Something does seem out of place among these young men, but it takes me a minute before I realize that the most striking thing is that they are all wearing board shorts. In this Sahelian country, the dress code is fairly conservative; shorts are unusual.
I’m not the only foreigner on the bus, which is something easily forgotten in my many preoccupations during this trip. There is the tagelmust episode, and there is the long wait at a police checkpoint just outside Agadez, that lead me to ask if I’m just a hassle for the rest of the passengers. “It’s the Ghanaians,” someone explains to me when I begin to get anxious about the fact that the police have held my passport for at least twenty minutes. “They always have the most problems.” Nobody can explain the reason for this to me, but it seems accepted as common knowledge. Sure enough, my passport is eventually returned along with the passports of my companions.
Agadez is the last major hub for many migrants from throughout Africa as they prepare to cross the Sahara in search of work in Tripoli or Algiers, or continue across the Mediterranean toward Europe. It’s a perilous journey, and many of my fellow travelers from beyond Niger appear nervous. In my growing confidence with French and Hausa, I begin to forget how terrifying it can be to travel somewhere where you don’t speak any of the local languages. “That’s my car!” a Nigerian exclaims in English at the police checkpoint when he realizes he’s on the wrong bus; the other bus is just beginning to roll past the roadblock. The officer on our bus returns his passport, but I never see the man again nor do I see in the darkness beyond my window whether he is able to board the other bus again.
Lightning dances across the skyline in Agadez. Sleeping on the terrace of my friend’s house every night is one of the most magical experiences I remember having; when there isn’t a storm, the sky glitters with stars and the occasional meteor.
* * *
I finally sit down on the bus for my return trip to Niamey, peering out the window silently as I ponder the significance of the old man’s comment: not in the habit of wearing a tagelmust.
My concentration is broken when a woman sits down behind me and casually greets me in Hausa: “Buzu, ina kwana?” (Tuareg man, good morning, how was your night?)
“Lahiya lau,” I respond. It is well.