Desert Sunsets

By Ronald B. Duber

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 2, March 1997 (pp. 80-83).

Copyright © 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

... Niamey is remarkable for its magnificent ... sunsets which impart a wealth of brilliant colors over the river water and the buildings which hug its edge... --Robert S. Kane's Africa A to Z
A fine thing to do is to sit on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Niamey and watch the sun go down. The air is parched, but on the patio deck of the Grand Hotel you can drench your throat in cold Bier Niger and, if you order a little kabob of grilled meat and dip each piece into the powdered spice that is served with it, you may find yourself drinking more Bier Niger than you had intended. This will be no problem if you have booked a room at the Grand, so be sure to do so if you are traveling in these parts.

The River Niger flows through Niamey from north to south, right to left as you observe it from where you are drinking and eating. The River Niger is a mighty force, mightier late in the year when it is swollen and churning after seasonal rains. The island you can see from the deck of the Grand Hotel in November is no island at all in May, only the eastern bank of the river.

About twenty-five miles north of Niamey, near the small, east-bank town of Boubon, there is another island, one that remains an island the year through. If you want to visit and see a bit of the Niger River up close, a man in Boubon will guard your car for a price while others show you about in a flat-bottomed boat. The guard is not engaging in extortion, only seeing to it that you adhere to local business practices.

The Niger's water is brown with silt and fast and bumpy where it is shallow. Your tour guides will show you where the last hippopotamus or the last crocodile around here was taken. They will steer you along shoals where women and children are bathing and washing clothes, and to other places where young men harvest the wild rice that grows there. With luck you might see great numbers of birds you always thought were rare, but you will need no luck to hear them. A constant sonorous tone drifts from reedy banks and spreads out over the water with an occasional cluck or chirp or whistle or shriek echoing down the river.

Eventually, your guides will land you on the island you have circled and you will teeter ashore on planks laid over a high-water marsh. On the island is a resort operated by a local fellow who will take good care of you and tell you about his days at Michigan State University. His resort is shady and neat with a covered deck as the main dining area and a sparkling swimming pool beside it. There are mud-walled huts with thatched roofs that are spruce and tidy enough for anyone. But even on a weekend, the place has few guests. The owner may complain that not enough people know about his spot in the river. You might suggest that he make a pact with the big hotels in Niamey in which he might somehow compensate them for sending business his way, but in the end his are idle complaints.

The island resort has so little business because there are few tourists anywhere in Niger. The great majority of travelers come for business and have no interest in enjoying the place. If business forces you to Niamey, you will almost certainly have a room at the Sofitel Gaweye, and you will spend as much air-conditioned time there as possible. The Gaweye is impressive if you are accustomed to executive accommodations. The pool, meeting halls, dining rooms, and grounds are maintained in grand style. The views from the guest rooms are impressive, and downstairs the creamy chocolate mousse is served slightly chilled in portions of sufficient magnitude to stupefy any aficionado.

The waiters and other employees at the Gaweye will not engage in any conversation not directed at serving you and may even be seen to bow occasionally. Their concern for you is dignified and professional. The Gaweye is on the river north of the Grand Hotel and it rests on a low river bank. The Grand has the plum spot, up on a bluff, and waiters there will laugh and joke with the people they are serving. The bellmen at the Grand will consider your happiness their personal concern. Your pleasure will guarantee compensation so they worry over you, and you appreciate their attention the way they will appreciate your gratitude. It is a genial game. The food at the Grand is fine and reflects local culinary traditions. The food at the Gaweye is spectacular and blends French expressionism with American realism.

Niamey is an airy city with broad, open spaces between buildings except along the few streets of the city center. The streets are heavy, red sand, though some of the main boulevards are macadam. There are good shade trees all around, and many varieties not much higher than the one- and two-story painted stucco buildings. Only a few blocks from Avenue Coulbaly, the city's main axis, you find vegetable gardens the size of small farms. These are fragrant, green places in the seared air and dazzling light of sub-Saharan Africa and are spread near the several creeks that course through the city and drain into the Niger River. Along the creeks you may also find outdoor pottery factories with huge piles of variously shaped and colored urns and jugs.

Away from downtown you see few autos, fewer pedestrians. Niamey residences are concentrated in large projects of low-slung, stucco homes around the city's periphery, communities unto themselves with little markets, health clinics, and schools.

A score of big buildings, banks, government ministries, and the like stand alone, scattered and separated. With enormous mosaic designs and sweeping roof lines, they tend toward the stunning modern. In few places in West Africa are such buildings so numerous. There is money here, no matter what else there may not be. These buildings and the full guest registers at the pricier hotels come courtesy of uranium. Up north, in Arlit, the stuff is squeezed from Sahara rock and sold all over the world. Lately, with growing skepticism about the wisdom of converting oil-dependent nations into nuclear-dependent ones, a buyer's market for uranium has developed and Niger's treasury is empty. The most intemperately conceived mega-structures funded by the uranium boom are the indoor and outdoor athletic palaces north of town. They use the latest in design techniques and could, with a few lesser structures that might come with a new upturn in uranium demand, form the basis for some future Olympics convocation. It is a dream you might hear more than once.

Near the multi-colored edifice that houses Congress sprawls the national museum. The place has the look of a park and includes a small zoo as well as the various scattered buildings which house the smartly displayed artifacts. The buildings are mostly white stucco boxes of Sudanese design, and each specializes in a different science. The most interesting are those devoted to history, paleontology, and uranium processing.

Nothing more than a fancy canopy covers the renowned "Tree of Tenere." This was the last surviving tree of an ancient forest now buried under waves of sand. This tree stood alone for generations, a wonder to rare passersby, the only tree for hundreds of miles. Signs explain that a drunken truck-driver somehow veered off the road just there, in all that expanse, where stood this solitary reminder of past arboreal splendor, and snapped it off its roots for all time. Sentimentalists trekked out there, picked up the woody corpse, and set it up in this honored place in the national museum. Looking at it in death is like examining the bones of some long-gone saint, preserved under glass in a Christian reliquary.

You will find Niamey's great market worth a visit. It is at the northern end of Avenue Coulibaly, an easy stroll from downtown. The old market burned down a few years ago, and its replacement is designed for maximum utility and cleanliness. Meat, bread, and produce are organized under a towering central ceiling and surrounded by permanent open-air stalls selling anything you might desire. The hat section carries a bewildering array of headgear, and you can get a good deal on a Hausa hat.

You will repair to the Grand Hotel from time to time. The heat gets at you, and the Grand has a small pool right there on the verandah above the River Niger. Once there you will find it difficult to leave. The Bier Niger is always cold, and the grilled, seasoned meat washes down easily while you gaze out at the bridge carrying traffic to and from Niamey. There are teams of heavily laden camels, and watching them cross in the distance and the red sun setting beyond are things to hold you.

No matter how hot it becomes, you will certainly visit Niamey's Grand Mosque. It is a huge structure of distinctly Arabic design with soaring minarets, glistening domes, fabulous marbled porticos, and intricately carved woodwork. Outside it is creamy yellow and shining green. Inside are burnished marble, soaring filigreed ceilings, and rich eastern carpets illuminated by an extraordinary chandelier. There are anterooms for various purposes, but your tour will be a brief one even if you donate a substantial sum to Allah's house. An outsider is fortunate just to see the two main halls. Construction of the Grand Mosque was funded by Libya, though sensitive hosts will probably tell you the money came from Morocco so as not to stimulate Western resen tment.

If you visit the mosque around midday, and if you look around carefully, you might encounter the caretaker's daughter. A curious, almond-skinned sprite of about ten, she communicates with sylvan expressions and eyes that sparkle like the woven silver and gold threads in her ankle-length robe. If no adults are around, she will find one for you. She lives in a tiny house on the grounds of the mosque. You may find yourself thinking about her uncommon existence there and wondering about her future. But in the end you wave good-bye as she twirls carelessly on bare feet before the great sanctuary that is her family's work.

Much of Naimey is direct and simple, though the whole is vague and elusive. Retrospection can help clarify such sentiment, and there is no better place to initiate this process than on the terrace of the Grand Hotel. The windblown dust beyond the palms of the River Niger, beyond the ridge over the western bank, turns the sun into a fat, glowing orange that transfixes you. The camels are led as they have always been led. With the darkening of the eastern sky, billows of bats take to the air, darting about over the river, filling the color-streaked sky with their own swirling celebration of life. Sitting there, you may smile at the recollection of other African bats you have seen and other places where your pulse has throbbed with the heartbeat of West Africa.

You have another Bier Niger and sigh at leaving. But you know you can return, and if you don't, it will still be good knowing this is here.

Ronald B. Duber's article "Under the Smoky Skies of Bamako" was recently published in the travel section of The New York Times. "Desert Sunsets" is the second in a series of essays on his travels in West Africa.

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