Columnists Features

Journey to tiny West African country

A VISIT to a foreign country for the first time always comes with high expectations, but anxiety immediately takes over once you reach your final destination.
This was no difference with my recent journey to one of the West African countries, Niger.
Weeks before my journey to the Nigerien capital, Niamey, I looked forward to learning about the new culture in this small country, but fear immediately gripped me on arrival at Diori Hamani International Airport.
The fear might have been triggered by reports I heard on one of the international news channels, indicating that the Islamic insurgent group Boko Haram had attacked one of the towns in Niger.
The fear got even worse at the presence of military personnel patrolling every road I passed through on my way to Sahel Hotel, which was going to be my ‘home’ for a week or so.
However, the reception I received at the hotel eased the fear, as the hotel staff were welcoming. It was through the same staff that I got to learn about the history of Niger.
One of the sad things I learnt about was the time when the country experienced severe drought. The drought of 1968-1975 devastated the country, leaving an estimated two million people starving.
My visit to Niger was work-related as I was in Niamey to cover the Zambia under-17 national soccer team, which was making a maiden appearance at the 11th Africa Junior Championship. The tournament was scheduled to run from February 15 to March 2.
The junior Chipolopolo, who were in Group A with hosts Niger, Guinea and Nigeria, were, however, eliminated in the first round.
Zambia lost the first game 1-0 to Guinea, but beat Niger 2-1 before going down to Nigeria 3-1.
During my short stay in Niger, I found time in my busy schedule to learn about the country, though language barrier was a major hindrance to getting vital information as the people in this part of the world speak French.
I was quick to greet the locals in French but immediately shield away when challenged with bigger words.
Niger is a landlocked country with 17 million people, of which 99 percent are Muslims.
The country has nine regions with the capital, Niamey, being the most populous.
Unlike Zambia, Niger has massive street vending at every corner. Some vendors have even found it convenient to trade in front of major commercial banks.
Apart from vending, one cannot walk for five minutes in the town centre without seeing a camel or donkey pulling a cart full of dry grass. Most of the donkeys have metal covers on their mouths to prevent them from chewing the grass, which is on high demand.
What touched me the most about Niger is the fact that close to 100 people die every year during the hot season, which starts in March and ends in August.
During this season, temperatures rise as high as 48 degrees Celsius, making it difficult for many people to endure the heat.
Niger is one of the hottest countries on the continent. It has the Sahara Desert in the north, the Sahel to the south of the desert, and Chad in the south-west.
Adamu Ibrahim, who was Team Zambia liaison officer, said the heat forces the local people to shift near River Niger for cooling off.
Mr Ibrahim said people spend the whole day in and out of water after which they return to their respective homes in the evening.
For those who cannot make it to the river, a special tea mixed with ginger and lemon is of great help, but only to those with money. One cup of tea costs CF10 (about K12).
Mr Ibrahim said the tea, which is taken very hot, helps to cool the body, a thing I found strange until I tasted it.
At first, I was a bit reluctant considering the temperature, which had hit 32 degrees Celsius, but what could I have done? After all, they say ‘When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
The tea apparently became a daily drink among Team Zambia officials, especially delegation leader Lee Kawanu, who was always on the look-out for the sales man, each time the team went for training.  In short, this tea is irresistible.
Apart from helping in cooling the body, the tea is equally good medication for influenza.
“Most people here do not buy medication for flu because the tea is of much help. Only one cup is enough to clear it all,” Mr Ibrahim said.
And on my return flight from Niamey to Zambia via Addis Ababa on an Ethiopian Airline aircraft, I became a ‘tutor’ for two Nigerien women, who had boarded a plane for the first time in their lives.
My new-found friends, one in her mid-30s and the other in her 50s, who could only speak their native language, were travelling to Saudi Arabia. The flight from Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa took five-hours.
Naturally, it’s only right to greet people who sit next to you, and this is exactly what I did to my two neighbours. But to my surprise, the two only smiled at me, even when I made an effort to greet them in French.
I was forced to repeat the greetings when I took my seat, but again they just looked at me.
At this point, I knew I would not have it easy having a conversation with the two women. As I fastened the seat belt, my two ‘friends’ stared at me, obviously with many questions running through their minds.
After making myself comfortable, I assisted the two women to fasten their seat belts, as the plane was about to take off. Seven minutes before take-off, the eldest of the two women asked a question which I could not understand.
Luckily, the lady who sat behind us knew a bit of English and she ‘mediated’ between us. She told me that the elderly woman  was asking me whether the plane had already taken off or not, sending the four of us into laughter.
The encounter with the two women reminded me of a Bible verse, Esther 4:14, which says: “For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows if you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

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