We arrived in the middle of the afternoon in Zinder, after flying for about 100 minutes over hardscrabble lands. I could see the neat squares and rectangles below indicating someone was cultivating something. Given the environment, the sand, the scrubs and the rocks, it made one admire the resilience and adaptability of human beings; not an easy existence.

The airport in Zinder made me think of the atmosphere painted by V.S. Naipaul in his book A Bend in the River – sleepy, dusty and old.

We were about 16 people on the plane and for a moment the tiny airport livened up. Inside the hall were rows of plastic bucket chairs, originally bright orange but now faded and speckled from time and use. I remember those from airports closer to my home when I was young(er).  The ceiling is held up by a few enormously tall pillars – as if a second floor was planned but never executed. Four large baggage scales took up a considerable amount of real estate. Why four? I wondered. My co-traveler told me they were for the various airlines. Like who flies here, other than the UNHAS plane that took us? Well, there is Niger Airways, and then some others I had never heard of.

I weighed myself on one of the scales. I have been trying to increase my activity level and reduce my unnecessary food intake and it seems it worked.

The airport is outside the city, literally in the middle of the vast Sahelian band that stretches from Mauritania to Somalia/Ethiopia. A few long horn cows were drinking at a puddle on the side of the road, bull carts went by with wood piled high. All the women were wrapped up in polyester or nylon head to feet coverings – pretty close to burkas, except for the covering of the face. When it is 50 degrees Celsius here these coverings must be very unpleasant, but then again, as I had seen from the air during my flight, people can adapt to just about everything, even living in an oven wrapped in polyester.

Driving into town I read the ubiquitous signs that tell the traveler who ‘does good’ here: there were signs about a Good Governance project, another, rather rusted, about ‘Opening Markets for silvo-pastoral products,’ another for ‘Increasing Knowledge for Development,’ and on and on. Some signs were fancy and new, others old, rusted and crooked, probably from projects that have long since ended – as removing the signs is probably not on the ‘close out’ list. The development industry is omnipresent, like in any other beautiful or godforsaken place on the globe. Does it help? I have my doubts that they make much of a difference for those who are supposed to be helped – but it helps me and my family, among others.

Then the stretch became ‘government alley’ with all the regional representations of the government: finance, primature, justice, rural development, agriculture, etc.

We dropped our bags off at the Villa Mourna where we will stay for the next three nights. It is a small guesthouse with 3 inside rooms (for the VIPs like me) and a few rooms outside which, according to my compagnon, one would not want because of the insects that fly in and out. Luckily I was given one of the VIP rooms. For 65 dollars a night (a steal here) I was assigned a small square of a room with weird decorations, a dorm size fridge that doesn’t close, a large creaky bed, a small dorm size desk, a fancy flat TV and a fairly new airco that worked very well. Here the ambient temperature is the same as my body temperature, fine for being but not so great for doing. I slept very well even though the electricity goes out regularly but the guesthouse has ‘un groupe electrogene.’

One of our team grew up here and disappeared at the end of the day to visit family and friends. I joined the program manager who is from Algeria. Earlier in the day we had ordered one of my favorite Senegalese dishes that can be had all over West Africa, Poulet Yassa, chicken in a lemon-onion sauce. It was promptly served at 7PM on the small covered porch of the guesthouse, under the watchful eye of a large flickering TV.  The program featured a documentary about Palestinian Beer (‘Make beer not war’) that was being showcased, and visibly enjoyed by hundreds at an Oktoberfest somewhere in the Middle East. Imagine that!

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