The Republic
of Niger
Currency

Farewell to Niamey and Niger

The Gambia
Currency

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. On such occasions amongst real African friends and relatives of one's travelling companion, there was nothing to worry about. Our bags we entrusted to them, were treated with care and attention by all these good people. The 'Old Pa' you can see in the picture outside the shop, was a fascinating character, not sure of exactly how old he was but very proud of having seen the first white tourists to arrive in Niamey.

Typical suburban life in Niamey and most African cities elsewhere involves many hours of sitting and talking, the traders waiting for customers and everyone doing everything at a snail's pace in the extreme temperatures. Camels .. which by law must be led rather than ridden, so the owner cannot see over the walls into the compounds .. cattle, sheep and goats wander along the streets, sometimes with their herdsmen, often on their own.
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 and 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 the modern day appliances that we in the 'Western World' take for granted and often without any electrical power.

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 ?

The evening of my departure arrived .. one of Alaghi's cousins offered to take me to the airport and as many people as the car would take crowded in to give me a superb and friendly send-off.
Niamey's Diori Hamani International Airport is a little on the sparse side as far as facilities are concerned, but pleasant enough with a few tourist souvenir-type shops and a snack bar upstairs. Check in was handled fairly quickly and I joined my friends in the snack bar for a final chat.
Sitting overlooking the tarmac, we could see the Royal Air Maroc plane land and the passengers disembark, but waited in vain to hear any tannoy announcements that it was ready for boarding. Passenger's suitcases were arranged in a long line on the tarmac, but still no announcements came.
It was only when a whole crowd of people suddenly walked out onto the tarmac, indicated which was their own baggage and boarded the plane, that I realised I should be amongst them. Oooops !

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.

Expecting to hear the plane taking off at any moment and / or having to try to 'negotiate' myself out of paying an extortionate demand for whatever reason he would think of, I was pleasantly surprised
.. a massive understatement .. when after investigating and identifying various items, including some metal artefacts, that he had not recognised on his x-ray machine screen, he half-smiled and wished me a pleasant journey. Phew !! The baggage search could have had something to do with me being the only European on the flight, especially with having unusually shaped items in my baggage .. and his demeanour was no doubt due to him having to work a night duty in cramped office conditions, in extremely high temperatures and in a heavy uniform. I was thankful I was not guilty of anything .. this giant of a man would not have been the best person to have upset !!

At last, I boarded the Royal Air Maroc plane which was blessedly cool, with wide and comfortable seats and very pretty air hostesses ;-)) Miraculously we started taxiing towards take off exactly on time .. about two minutes after I sat down. A short and perfectly smooth hour and a half flight to Bamako Airport, a twenty minute stop for passengers to disembark and new ones to join us and then another equally pleasant hour and a half to the Leopol Sedar Senghor International Airport in Dakar. Unlike in Bamako, this time on his home territory, Mr Bayo of
Odyssey Tours had personally made doubly sure that his driver was waiting to meet me at the airport and take me back to the Fana Hotel where a room was waiting for me.

Early next morning, No. 1 taxi-driver Tam, collected me and took me to the Taxi Garage in the centre of Dakar in time to get a seat in the 6 o'clock-ish, first car of the day to The Gambia.

Passing all the by now familiar sights on the road back to the Gambia, getting a puncture en route, enduring the predictable mock fight with the avaricious taxi drivers at the border, bumping and grinding along the pockmarked road to the Barra Ferry Terminal and crossing the River Gambia to Banjul, were all completed without any significantly unusual problems.
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.
Now, having been back in the UK for some time, it has evolved into being more of a fantastic .. almost dreamlike .. experience, one which I fully realise that I was so fortunate to have had.

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.
If you have been following this story from the start, I applaud your endurance and hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed remembering the events and sharing them with you.

Cheers

David