Niamey: from dromedary to giraffe

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A few grains of sand whipped up by the wind welcomed me an hour after my arrival at Niamey airport. And now I’m back, my skin impregnated with children’s gazes, with images of ambling dromedaries, images of yellow and green of mangos that are a treat just to look at. And to crown it all, an animal called giraffe, in real life, whose path I crossed in a reserve. My memory is deeply marked by the story caught between two words, the story of a stone that renders justice…
In this country, drought is not a word. It is part of daily life. It dictates the tone and local colour. Life revolves around it. It is time that does not pass even in the rainy season. And the rains swept the skies then. But Niamey’s roads do not wallow in the bed of muddy water as they do by the sea where the humidity of the air and the dampness of the forest combine their efforts to make the sky weep for nights and suns. Here, the wind-dried land is hungry and thirsty. In a flash, it swallows up all the sky’s water that had such a difficult time trying to beat a path through the dusty clouds suspended between the sky and the earth. Sometimes, the sun beams don’t even bother to go round. They beat straight down on the heads of the people who live in this bare land. Which is why a pause in the shade of a neem or a cailcedra, the town’s most majestic trees, maintains all its wisdom.
Here the midday shadow that traces its form in the street is worth all the gold in the world piled up in one spot.
I wonder how a dromedary sees the world. Every morning I see those in Niamey heading into town from my window. They cross the bridge. The pass in front of the Museum of Mankind, and of animals, plants, minerals. This Museum houses the souls and spirits of the living. As the animals and the birds that live here can well testify, the lions, hyenas, hippos, and parrots giving this open space a permanent air of festivity. Every day, the dromedaries head past the Museum gates and I bet that they’d like to visit these blue and white coated buildings with finely decorated walls. This Museum also houses craftsmen: weavers, jewelry makers, tanners, sculptors, potters…
It is in this setting that the writing workshop took place. I can remember the dozen pairs of eyes that scrutinized my every move on the first day. The title of the text to be written together speaks realms about their vision of the world: « through children’s eyes ». These young people were between twenty and thirty years old. Some had participated in Boubacar Boris Diop and Hélène Bezençon’s writing workshop in Bamako in October 97. They were proud of having been published in the collection that had just come out in Dakar: « Saison d’amour et de colère » (Season of Love and of Anger). They believed in writing. They had dropped their usual occupations to be there, every day, for hours. They had come to make peace with their own convictions. They wanted to speak not about any old thing, but about what matters: war, the militarization of the planet, love and death, the loneliness of the wretched. What has to be demanded: peace, meetings, friendship. To see the world through their own eyes, and to laugh or to cry about it.
The youngest person in the group, a physics student, dramatized the writing workshop. He wrote about how the it nearly ended in disaster after an explosion. Everyone present played their own role, including the animals who kept us company all day long. Another told the story of a thief who was afraid of a doll. There was also a story about a megalomaniac soldier, another about the king of a coffin, one about a fiance who has to save his compromised honour, an archaeologist lost in the desert, a young groom who dies without saying goodbye to his beloved… And also the collective text « through children’s eyes » which proved that imagination is paramount here. But where are the publishers in this country?
The evening debate on publishing was enough to sicken more than one author. Money and profitability rule the publishing world. But the writers, firm in their convictions, are not wrong…. ever!
I remember the warmth of people’s gazes in the town’s high school. Curiosity is one of life’s lessons for these young people. I bumped into one of my former students who had become a philosophy teacher….
I also remember the poetry conference at the University. Who would have believed it? A large audience had gathered in the amphitheatre. I was amazed. Here, people seek the meaning of poetry. Poetry is not some kind of obligatory recital, but the primordial word, the essential word, that speaks of life and death, love and solitude. And the reading debate at the Franco-Nigerien Cultural Centre. I can still see Antoinette Tidjani emptying her large bag full of books. All kinds of reading matter can stimulate a reader, as she proceeded to prove with concrete examples. As the public’s eyes grew wider and wider, wondering what is meant by pleasure reading. And as Boubacar Boris Diop next to her half smiled, getting ready to make a joke that could have well ruined the proof by examples.
In the meantime, in the town, aged dromedaries followed the course of their destiny. I met them one afternoon, near to the Oumarou Ganda Cultural Centre, walking along in line, a man leading them to the slaughterhouse. Branded. Numbered from 7 to 77.
Then one Sunday, we set out on the road to Nigeria. Here the trees are few and far between. We went from one remarkable animal to another: from dromedary to giraffe. Kilometres separate the two giants. The road was straight and the horizon flat. Laterite soil, ochre land, huts and villages. Granaries on stilts. The odd termite mound here and there. The « gao » bears witness to the story of the region. This tree lives at odds with the seasons, losing its leaves in the rainy season and turning green, as if to mock the drought, during the dry season. The driver taking us in the animal footsteps told us the story of the stone that talks and denounces criminals. The story sparked my imagination. I don’t know what forms other stories inspired by the stone will take in my mind.
Here, the children have understood that the road to the giraffes is a gold mine. They dig up holes in the road. And spend their time filling them with sand. In the hope that passersby, noticing this altruistic labour, will throw them some coins. We reached a crossroads. A sign read « Come and see us, we are the last giraffes in West Africa. We live about one hundred kilometres from Niamey on the way to Dosso. (the rest of the text was written in red)… if you want to see us, take a guide. Tariff: 5000 F ».
Standing up in the back of an open jeep, we turned off to the left with our guide. The guide become a true driver, leading us through scattered bushes or barren land. We spotted the giraffes. We left the jeep behind, walking the rest of the way. Majestic animal. God has carved its face like a bronze statue. He has given it an athlete’s body tattooed with browns. The animal is so peaceful that we would do well to take a few lessons in calmness from it. This serenity that it gives off, through its eyes, all around it.
On the way back to Niamey, silence reigned in the car. The animal helped us meditate and to see our own weaknesses better. But the humans who live here spend their lives struggling. Against the drought. Against time. I spotted the bed of the River Niger and I understood the harshness of the fight for water. When the driver told us the story of this neighbourhood near the airport, I understood how difficult it is just to find a roof. The man in the street had to struggle against politicians to be allowed to build on the plot of land they live on today with their goats and sheep. Yes, here, domestic animals are a real treasure and are kept close at hand. The rest, like the electricity, which is mainly supplied by neighbouring Nigeria, is sheer luxury… As are the mangos, the juiciest of which are imported from Burkina Faso…

///Article N° : 5315


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