This is the first time I’ve been in Niger during the winter, and it’s in some ways a pleasant change. Steady harmattan winds blow cool(ish) air across the desert, reminiscent to me of the Santa Ana winds in Southern California, keeping temperatures in the brisk mid-80s to low-90s. It’s amusing to see many Nigeriens wearing jackets in the middle of the day, but I must admit that I’ve even felt a bit chilled on a few occasions since my arrival last week.
Given the relative comfort, this is the season when European tourists typically would opt to visit the Sahara. Tourism, once a particularly important industry for Tuareg living in northern Niger, has mostly collapsed due to conflicts in much of the Sahel that deter a lot of visitors. The skills needed for navigating the desert that made many Tuareg nomads well-suited for this line of work once served them during the rebellion in the 1990s (and at other times), and today many have turned to trafficking migrants who are trying to reach the Mediterranean, often by way of Agadez.
While much of the press about the migrant crises confronting the world right now is understandably focused on the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, thousands of Central Americans continue to seek refuge in the United States and countless more Africans cross the Mediterranean. In this latter case, Western media has reported widely on tragedies at sea, but many others perish on the perilous trans-Saharan journey that takes place before ever reaching the Mediterranean. (For exceptions, see articles published last year by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.) As much as there is a tendency to vilify the individuals profiting from smuggling people across the desert, it’s important not to lose sight of the economic conditions that limit their options; without wishing to downplay the exploitation that many traffickers commit, they also cannot be treated as somehow separate from the broader migrant crisis.
But back to tourism: many of the festival organizers I’ve met with continue to talk about drawing tourists to their festivals despite the general collapse of the industry. Festivals are not just for tourists; in many cases, they’re not even meant for tourists to begin with, but for locals to navigate social relations and form new bonds. In Niger, the government and NGOs increasingly rely on festivals as a useful means to access otherwise difficult-to-reach nomads to spread messages or extend vaccination campaigns for people and their livestock. One goal for my research here is to better understand why tourism remains on the minds of organizers. How does this shape their organization and their meaning for Nigeriens?
In all of this, there is much more to say about music. However, my stay so far has been focused on obtaining research clearance before I can dig in too much. More to come.