Having booked and paid for my return flight ticket to Dakar in Senegal, I now had a three day fascinating insight into African suburban life. Some of Alaghi's distant relatives owned a small shop just around the
corner from where we were staying and we were advised to leave our baggage with the friendly shop keeper for safety during the day. Leaving the considerable amount of valuable beads and artefacts we had collected on our 'epic
journey' through five countries .. plus everything else we possessed apart from our papers and money .. in the back of a shop, open to children and customers 24 hours a day, from an outsider's view, might appear a little risky.
Typical suburban life in Niamey and most African cities elsewhere involves
Cats, dogs and chickens scrounge amongst the rubbish as unofficial street cleaners. The ladies and young girls go about their daily repetitive tasks of shopping .. as only a few families have fridges to keep their foodstuffs fresh and most food does not last for more than a few hours in the heat .. queuing at standpipes to fetch water, grinding maize, cleaning rice, preparing and cooking meals on charcoal fires and because of the interminably dusty conditions, constantly hand-washing clothes and sweeping their houses and compounds with short palm frond brushes. All without any electrical power or modern day appliances that we in the 'Western World' take for granted.
It was too hot and we were still too travel weary to envisage any more bush trips, so we sat for hours chatting with the shop keeper, his family and neighbours and the stall holders on the Craft Market. Bead-wise, an occasional one or two beads would arrive, eagerly and tightly clutched in hot little hands, but really not of much historical interest. Alaghi at last retrieved his full passport and had it professionally laminated in plastic for protection from the elements. Well, 'professionally' done by a guy on a roadside stall, who simply covered the outside in 3 inch wide Sellotape. The local method !!
We discovered a local Lebanese owned restaurant by the name of La Cloche, close to the Craft Market and open all day until the early hours of the morning, when the open-sided upstairs restaurant turns into a discotheque. The food was good, the drinks were cool, the waitresses full of fun and .. apart from the night-time music being just a little too loud .. an excellent place to relax.
Constantly having to think and speak in French , whilst gaining a few additional phrases in Hausa , improved my language skills somewhat, but there were never any problems during conversations with the local people, all of whom were keen to talk, share and explain the ways of their lifestyles and ask me about life outside Africa.
Instead of returning with me, Alaghi had decided to wait a while longer for some outstanding credits to be paid from previous transactions the year before and then pursue his normal Hausa-type trading of goods from one country to the next on his return. So I gave him enough cash to pay for his transport back the way we had come, hearing him say that he hoped to be back in The Gambia in around ten days time. I later learnt that he stayed in Niger for another month and eventually arrived back to see his wife and family in The Gambia some three months later !! Many Africans are involved in this type of travelling and trading, which can be a long and arduous process. Incredible degrees of patience are involved in waiting for payments to be made for goods taken on credit months before. 'Excuses' of inability to pay are long and repetitive and often untrue, the debtor hoping that the trader will have to resume his travels and therefore extend the usually interest-free credit for yet another few months, or perhaps even forget about it all together !
Quite often these traders are illiterate and have to rely on others to make notes of debts for them or write down contact addresses and telephone numbers, later using other friends to help make the ..
sometimes international .. calls for them. However, the inability to read or write is no drawback when it comes to being fluent in ten or so quite different local tribal .. and five or six European .. languages,
knowing not only the trade and retail costs of a multitude of goods in each country, but also being able to recognise the various local currencies and work out exchange rate conversions in their heads.
Phenomenal memories for names and faces, they can usually tell you exactly in which place and which country you last met, which goods they sold you and for what price .. whether it was last week, a year, or
five years ago ! For me it creates the question of whether I would have the same incredible powers of memory and recall if I hadn't 'benefitted' from a good literary education ?
Saying hurried farewells to my friends, I rushed downstairs, through the metal detector arch, twice .. having forgotten to take all the coins out of my pockets the first time .. and on to passport control. The officials on duty seemed to have no concern that I was the last one and the plane would possibly be waiting for me .. and leisurely checked my papers. By the time I had arrived onto the tarmac, only three suitcases were awaiting identification and for some reason, mine was not amongst them !
With the thought of possible lost baggage, at least another three days in Niamey and probably missing my flight home to the UK if I didn't get this one, plus wearing heavier than normal clothes for the night time journey in Dakar and with the Niamey temperatures still in the 40s .. I was somewhat hot, a little worried and dripping with perspiration. A ground steward arrived and asked why I was just standing there and on explanation that my bags were missing, disappeared back into the airport. A few minutes later he reappeared with a tough-looking, dark uniformed Customs Officer who asked .. er, ordered me to accompany him to the Customs Office. Oh ****, I thought, now what ? ...... as bad memories of the Gestapo-like treatment I received at the 35 kilometre post in Conakry from similarly attired Officers, came flooding back !
Despite attempting a brave smile and friendly face, I must have looked like a South American smuggler caught with ten million dollar's worth of drugs. Literally dripping sweat on the floor of the Customs
Office in which lounged an enormous, black uniformed and really evil looking guy. Sitting on a chair with his knee-length, black leather-booted legs up on a bench next to an x-ray machine - and my travel
bag in front of him. "Open it," he ordered, with no smile and definitely no pleasantries.
A good journey, in good time and temperatures a lot easier than in Niger.
I arrived at my Gambian home in the mid-afternoon to a warm welcome and a stream of questions about our travels. After just over three weeks of almost constant travel, with a myriad of good memories of
new experiences in previously unknown countries and of the many new friends we had made, it was both a relief and a little difficult to settle down to familiar surroundings and normality.
It has taken me until now .. a year later .. to be able to finish this epic tale. The writing of which was sandwiched in between a very busy year for African Trade Beads and other voyages of interest and discovery in the Deserts of Mauritania and on the Island of Majorca, just for a change from Africa.