Updated: Sep 8, 2020
When I returned from Pakistan, everything that happened there after was a whirlwind. I could barely process it all, and quite frankly, I never even stopped at all to grieve properly for all the events that would unravel next. And so, the day that I actually stopped and allowed myself to feel it all was half-way into February when I made the decision to get back on the road again. I felt it all as if the emotions had been bottled away for years and finally then just decided to explode into a million pieces.
Truthfully, I have been doing what I have done best for the past while – running away. I ran away for a while unsure of myself and what it was I needed to do next in life. And to this day, quite frankly, I am still in some ways running. I think there is a part of me that knows that I can start over. But it is a matter of when I will find the courage to actually make leaps that make sense to me.
For the time being, I am back in Africa. I will be in Africa for the next two somewhat odd months, travelling through Niger, Central African Republic, the Congos and Rwanda. My heart is not fully in it, but I will try to live in the moment because that is all I can do. I set out on a mission last fall to find purpose in travel for all my mental health struggles and issues. I still think it is possible to find actual transformative answers in a world that is not my own. And, I am going to lean into that thought ideology again.
Now, let's talk about Niger.
Almost every time I have flown into West Africa the last while I have been pretty disoriented. Flying into Niamey was no exception. I leave the plane feeling incredibly groggy, with the realization that I have to get my mind and façade in order to process and comprehend some level of French and explain that I do not have an actual visa. I booked a flight into Niger last minute and coordinated a landing visa so that I would not have to deal with paperwork on the fly at home. This becomes a bit of a skittish process because I am ultimately left to travel around the country with just a visa receipt and a photocopy of my passport.
The airport appears fairly modern having just been built in 2019. Coming out of the plane, there are doctors on-site to check through yellow fever vaccination records, still a prevalent issue across Africa generally. Border control is fairly straight-forward even with the aforementioned landing visa. I notice a lot of foreigners coming in on my flight, but most of them head for the diplomatic visa area. Unfortunately, tourism is still fractured in this part of the world due to ongoing civil and extremist conflict around the borders.
I leave almost immediately the next day for Agadez. I arrive in town literally just in time to catch Friday prayers from the terrace of my guesthouse. I have never seen lines and lines of people praying in rows strewn along the streets like this before. Apparently, when the mosque becomes filled, the remaining people will pray outside. This number is amplified by the fact that people will come in from neighbouring villages to attend the ceremony in the Grand Mosque. After spending so much time in the Middle East and several other Islamic-predominant areas in Africa last year, I have gotten used to prayer call. It feels kind of soothing and familiar to hear it blaring again in the streets. My emotions are on high this day, but I numb myself long enough to soak in the prayers and subsequently explore the city.
Agadez is this large, sprawling ancient historical Saharan desert city, with an unparalleled people watching scene and vibrant culture spilling out literally everywhere. The house complexes look like mazes especially from above arriving on the plane, and the intricacy of the city is accentuated by its olden free-form clay architecture. The Grand Mosque in the centre of the historic old town is the tallest clay-mud brick structure in the world. I climb the very narrow and tight insides of the structure afterwards, where the top overlooks all of Agadez. I get lost in the view with the wind rushing around me. I swear I just stare at people walking around below for an hour.
Both Agadez and Niamey feel very clean in comparison to other cities and villages I have visited in both Mali and Chad, though this would change as I move deeper into the rural areas. According to the 2019 UN Human Development Index, Niger is still relatively one of the poorest developing countries in the world. Amongst various challenges, the country experiences drought which affects its agricultural practices; overpopulation from refugees and safe sexual practices; and just lack of educational and healthcare infrastructures. Malaria is prevalent in the country - and still, across the continent- and while hospital access is available, medicine is very expensive to acquire.
Agadez was actually a major transit town for West African refugees migrating through Libya to Europe, but that slowed with the war in Libya. Migrants have returned, and some settled here adding to the overpopulation. There is an American military presence in the area to monitor extremist activity in the Sahel region, a lot of which has taken hold of Burkina Faso right now. Boko Haram is generally operating though mostly near the borders. When I travel closer to Maradi, near the Nigerian border, a number of locals tell me that the group has often kidnapped villagers just west of the city. Because of this, border crossings have become tighter, and economic trade has slowed down.
Agadez saw a lot of violence in the early 2000s due to the Tuareg civil rebellion, which also affected parts of neighbouring Mali, but that violence has since diminished and the city is considered generally safe now. I feel safe walking around during the day, but I am told repeatedly by everybody not to walk around at night. But, this is more so because of petty crime and banditry rather than terrorism.
Walking through the city – and subsequently passing through many villages during my cross-country travels, I observe extreme poverty. Children follow me with bowls constantly trying to beg for food and money. Some children would be leading blind women, and so I would hear ghostly pleas from both a child and a woman. Every once in a while, a generous sandwich maker would throw a couple of baguettes onto the street, and you would see children diving for the bread. I too would give up some leftover sandwiches, and some of the bigger kids would almost knock me over just to grab them ahead of the little ones. The whole scene of course generally makes me feel uneasy. I know this is the reality of developing countries, but it's still intense to observe and experience. I know though that I have to be careful when giving money or food because if I give to one child, thirty more will come.
There is a much larger income divide here than in Niamey. I am told that the richest wealth in the country comes from Agadez, but all that investment flows into the capital – Niamey. The economics in Agadez remains staggering, and many people are unemployed. NGOs in the region are not entirely focussed on Agadez itself, but instead to the inflow of refugees coming from Libya and Sudan. I come across a smaller refugee camp situated right by one of the Quranic schools I arrange to visit, and it is disheartening to walk through the decrepit tented areas, a lot of which is inhabited by large groups of women and children.
Generally, when I travel, I ask a lot of questions, and I try to experience communities beyond the historical sites that comprise the regular tourism infrastructure. This might mean visiting schools, local businesses, and aid organizations - essentially, whatever I can gain access to through blind communication or connections. Sometimes, locals will think I am a journalist. But, I end up telling them I am more a storyteller. I want to hear their stories and learn about their country as much as possible, so that I can share these facts and stories with my communities back at home. With Niger, this was no different.
Niger is landlocked by several countries, including both Mali and Chad which I visited last year. Throughout my travels, I experience similarities and interconnection across all three countries The country has a population of 21 million approximately, 3 million of which is based in the capital Niamey. There are 8 tribes, and 8 general dialects. The largest tribes are the Hausa, followed by the Zarma, Tuareg, Fulani, Kanuri, Tubu, Diffa Arabs, and Gurma. Of the regions I visit, I meet mostly the Tuareg - in Zinder, the Gurma - in Agadez, the Hausa - in Dosso and Niamey, and the Birni Konni in Matamey and Birni Konni. The educated will also learn English, French and sometimes Arabic. The country is predominantly Sunni Muslim, but I am told that there is general harmony between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the small population of Christians and Animists.
Public primary schooling all the way up to university is free. Private schooling I am told is where the better teachers are employed, and technically is not too expensive for middle-income families. Education rates still suffer in villages, but the idea of education and progression is not lost on the new generations. More and more children are going to school, but this still needs general encouragement and push from village teachers. The older generation is generally apathetic about education in rural areas and will want the girls especially to stay at home and help with labour. I am told by one Chief actually that children are kept at home because their parents are afraid that boys will be drawn into religious fanaticism or delinquency, and girls will be influenced into prostitution. Prostitution is illegal in Niger, but I am told there is still a large sex worker industry prevalent especially around the bigger cities. The Chiefs across the country apparently have been collectively working on an initiative to educate parents away from these thinking patterns, and to push harder for education support.
I end up visiting some community projects that help me put the challenges Niger faces into more perspective. One of the challenges is conflict over water as a resource. The building of wells in each village has been decentralized in order to resolve the conflict. Wells are attached to solar panels, which act as a heat-driven cleaning agent for the water coming in from the bush. Despite the prevalence of water resources, the country still contends with drought and this affects agricultural practices. I meet with a women’s group that has been focussed on using solar energy to dry-preserve local produce in the case of drought. The dried produce can be boiled for regular cooking and lasts up to half a year. Otherwise, in the past, people would have had to rely on expensive imports from Nigeria to fill the produce gap. This group however still faces the challenge of finding a regular ‘marketplace’ for their goods. When there is no drought, people would much rather rely on freshly grown produce.
I also meet with a small women's handicrafts collective in Agadez. I speak with its founder, Madame Touwa. She established the community group 10 years ago, in order to provide solidarity and work opportunities for women in the community. She tells me that "girls are going to school, but often will stop their education once they get married". This is a problem that the girls in rural villages will face. In the bigger cities like Niamey, girls can access higher education, and do not necessarily stop their education or pursuing a career once they get married. Very often, an urban woman will be a third or fourth wife and still be able to broker her own apartment and an equalized amount of child support. Per Sharia traditions, every wife is treated equally.
Similar to the agricultural project, these small associations face the same challenge of connecting customers to their product. I want to take the time to think through these problems as I have read of small Western businesses that are linked to African-manufactured products for social cause. I think there are models in existence out there that could help economies like Niger; models used in more established economies with infrastructure to the West, like Kenya for example. But, at the same time, I know independently that I am not the right person to solve these problems; and so more important for me is to take this information back to my world and distill whatever I have experienced for further discussion. I did find that I may have instilled this sense of hope to these groups though my visitations. A number of them tell me that they have never had a foreign visitor pass through before, except through interactions with NGOs. I feel a little bit uneasy because I do not want to give them the hope that I can solve all their problems. But, at the same time, I do want to think through the challenges they are facing.
Zinder is different from Agadez. It feels a bit more dishevelled despite being a bigger city with traffic lights and lined sidewalks. The buildings look like French colonial architecture versus the clay mazes. There are rolling black-outs especially in the morning and afternoon, so I try to make the most of my days in the natural sunlight. The people are super friendly, and perhaps even a bit more friendly than in Agadez. Everyone waves and smiles at me curiously especially when I explore the old town by myself. This area feels a bit more conservative to me as I observe more women wearing full-face covers. I noted a few women in Agadez covering their face, but this appeared more visible in Zinder.
The largest Sultanate resides in Zinder. To my understanding, the Sultan acts like a religious Chief to a particular region. The President is still the highest decision-maker in the country, but the Sultans and Chiefs can raise their local issues before the government. I meet a number of Sultans and Chiefs throughout my journey. I soon realize later that it is considered almost a formality for a foreign guest to make time to meet with a particular Sultan or Chief.
I continue on my women’s journey and visit some more female-lead businesses and organizations in Zinder. Madame Kaoura runs Maison de la Femme – a sewing school for younger women. She and the other madams believe strongly in empowerment, and just want to give younger women the opportunity to learn a trade, and see life beyond just getting married and having children. The organization is not well-funded at all, and 8 to 10 girls will share one sewing machine between them. When a machine is in use, the other girls will knit or cut material.
The teachers – essentially the madams themselves – earn very little; just about 2500 CFA or 4 euro per month. This is supplementary to them as a housewife though, and so any extra income is important. I spend the whole morning with them just talking about their challenges, looking at their processes, and spending time with the girls.They too note that tourists do not really pass through, and they are extremely happy that I stopped by. I make a note to myself to search even harder for more women’s associations in Bangui and Brazzaville when I hop over to Central African Republic and Rep Congo.
In the afternoon, I visit a production kitchen that makes cookies unique to Zinder called Alkaki. Alkaki is a Hausa tribe traditional wheat and milk cookie which kind of looks like a French Madelaine, but tastes like a dense syrupy honey cake with a hardened outer shell. The Madame who founded the business 30 years ago started out with just a handful of women by her side. Now, she employs almost 60 women from all around the region.
I end up in Kantche spending time with a Hausa Chief – Tountouma Abdoul-Kadre Amadou Issaka, and his members of court. This Chief is the main leader of 326 villages. He is the 36th Chief of this region and has been in power since 2007. He is 40 years old, pretty dashing, but alas, married with 4 wives and 14 children. Chiefs are generally elected internally by the sons of a family and is not based on age. Most often, the kindest son with the most interpersonal skills will be elected to order. There are 260 main Chiefs across the country, and they will meet regularly to discuss issues with the President. We talk for awhile about his region’s traditions and then about challenges the region faces.
He tells me that I am visiting at an odd time.. It would have been better if I had visited during one of the Islamic festivals – Eid Al Fitr for the fasting feast, Tabaski for the sacrificing of sheep, or their biggest festival, Mawlid. He explains that Mawlid is the most interesting for certain traditions. More specifically, during this festival, court members will try to exhibit bravery through racing their horses. Young boys will engage in this ceremony where they will demonstrate that they are resistant against a sword’s tip. There will also be drumming ceremonies and many other celebrations. He encourages me to come back. He comments that tourists do not come through anymore because of dangers in the north and around the borders, which have driven tourism away from Niger in general. He believes I am journalist initially and is pretty surprised when I tell him I am just a visitor interested in learning about the country.
The Chief is proud of his community. He says there is peace and the people are happy. I ask about the education and healthcare infrastructure. There are between 1 to 3 primary and secondary schools in each village. Education can then be continued at the university level in one of the bigger cities – Zinder or Niamey. There is a sanctuary hospital in the main village. Otherwise, villagers will need to travel to one of the bigger cities with more hospital resources. Generally, villagers will rely on traditional forms of medicine versus Western healthcare practices. Medicine after all is expensive to acquire. The expectancy in these areas is around 64. One of his members of court laughs and explains "that they die young, but they die happy," so I get the sense that there is fulfillment in the community. This of course is coming from the court and not from the people themselves. I know the people struggle just based on my visits to the women’s associations from the days prior.
At this point, my journey is almost over. I visit some more incredibly picturesque small villages and within them, a serious of spiritual and breathtaking mosques. I continue to also interact with some pretty kind and gentle villagers, who seem nothing but curious by my presence. I spend time walking through these villages slowly with my camera and just a general view of curiousness, and I think by the end of the trip I actually start feeling a greater sense of calm and serenity. I was feeling a lot of anxiety going into the trip, especially after everything that had happened over the past year. By the end of my journey with Niger, I feet a little bit at peace despite still not knowing what exactly would be next.
Honestly, there are many challenges for someone with serious mental health struggles to overcome when it comes to travelling. There are a number of environmental changes – lack of proper diet, dehydration, lack of sleep, culture shock, and just outright loneliness – that can aggravate depression and suicidal ideations. I myself have not found the perfect formula yet to getting through these obstacles. At the end of the day, I just fight my way through, and in a way, that is a bit redeeming because it shows I still have a little bit of resilience left in me. I try to remember to be logical. And, when I am feeling chronically depressed and hopeless, I try to focus in on anything that is one good thing that will keep me strong for just one more day.
My one good thing this time was that I wanted to continue learning about Niger, despite feeling down and completely out of it. After all, I have given myself this opportunity to live my life. So, I just have to somehow hold on.
I think, most importantly for me, and not even necessarily within the context of just travelling, is to let go. I need to let go, so maybe I can finally make decisions that will allow me to accept failure and valleys more gracefully. I have to give myself time to actually grieve all the pain I have experienced, to pick myself up, and to find my own way. And it does not matter if I do it tomorrow, in one week, in six months, in one year. This is my life, and if I so choose to live it, I get the choice of living it on my own terms within my own time span – my own view of seconds, minutes, hours, days, years.
I know that with this journey, I grew an appreciation and love for Niger. I wished though that my heart was more into the experience. I wanted so much to feel this experience to the core, but I felt held back by the grief I was feeling entering into this trip in the first place. I was depressed. I do hope though that I can come back when I have found my place in this world. It is a truly special place, and It deserves my full heart, spirit and mind. But for right now, I am going to try my hardest to be optimistic. I will get there somehow.
One day, I will hopefully get there.