Posts Tagged 'Niamey'

Easy as pie

The nice Air France people at the Niamey airport shifted me one class up from the back of the bus to the mini B-class that the French call Premium Class. It is not B-class but it is nice enough, with slightly more space than the cramped coach seats.

I sat next a man from Texas who was on his way home.  He has a job with a USG contractor that has him on a rotation of two months in Niger and one month home. He was a pilot but he didn’t fly in an aircraft. This made me conclude that he was a drone pilot. He did not respond enthusiastically to my curious questioning and so I stopped.

From the size of the enormous US embassy that is being constructed out of unassailable materials on the banks of the Niger River, I gathered that the American Government is not planning to leave Niger any time soon. The Saudis, the French, the Algerians, the Malians and the Chinese, in a kind of Embassy armed concrete race, are also building, expanding or reinforcing their enormous fortresses, on prime real estate spots in the same area.  Being a construction company with influence and access must be a goldmine.

The four American servicemen who died here – widely reported in the international media here, but apparently not in the US – and the subsequent spats between Kelly, Trump and McCain, have put Niger and our operations on the map.  For Americans, awakened to this news, over a week after it happened,  what the men were doing there in that far away spot, was apparently a surprise. It is hard to imagine that the Head of the Armed Services Committee knew less than the guy downstairs selling souvenirs in the hotel’s lobby.

I had a feeling that my Premium Classe neighbor was not too keen on talking and so I stopped asking questions. We each pulled our eye shades down and went to sleep, it was after midnight anyways.

I slept a few hours. The flight is short and one ends up missing a night no matter what one does. That I was tired became clear when I couldn’t find my passport and boarding pass after spending a few hours in the AF lounge. As it turned out I had left both in the shower. At least I knew I had them when I entered the shower. I got a lecture from the stern looking lady at the desk when she handed me my passport – as if I didn’t know that I should keep my passport with me at all time. I felt a bit sheepish, looking at my toes during the lecture.

I had used the last of my four international upgrades that Delta hands to its very frequent flyers. This made the final leg of the trip very pleasant. I finished my audiobook on Seeds, caught up on coaching class homework, read a bit (Sue Monk), and tackled a 1024 piece puzzle on my iPad.

Delta now lets its passengers use a text app, like WhatsApp or Viber, during the flight for free. I was able to chat with Axel while in the air. I was also able to announce my arrival to the US Customs and Border Patrol using the handy Mobile Passport App, also from the air. It took less than 5 minutes from getting off the plane into the arms of Axel. Boston’s Logan Airport is the best and only airport in the world where arrival is easy as pie.

Time to go

On the way back to Niamey we met a father and daughter; the daughter supports a school in Zinder, for boys and girls from various villages in the region. We had flown out with them and then saw them at the hospital. We had learned from the hospital director that they were related to a late French president, bearing his name. We had fun using our smartphones to figure out their precise relationship with the late president. A few searches on the internet and we knew who they were; in fact we knew a lot more about them then they could have imagined. We checked out the family tree, and then pictures until we figured out their precise relationship with the late president. And then we went over to meet them and had a nice conversation in the waiting room, and then in the plane, sitting next to each other. We learned about the school and how they had set it up, keeping girls from getting engaged at the age of 12, staying in school, the negotiations…and then the pride when the first batch got their Bac. I thought of Razia Jan.

The networking immediately had its effects: they needed a physical therapist for one of the girls in their school and my colleague was able to connect them to a PT in Niamey. It helps to be extraverts and have done one’s research.  And then at the airport, we meet again, waiting for the plane to Paris. We would be sharing our third plane ride in a week.

I went for a very long swim which was both cleansing and meditative after our trip home from Zinder. The flight is not long (2 hours) but with all the waiting it takes a good part of the day; and there is always the sand, the dust. I ordered a large plate with fruit. Our diet at the guesthouse in Zinder had gotten a bit stale after three days: tough and stringy chicken – served the same way no matter what we ordered from the limited menu, and only cabbage, onions and a few carrots under the heading of ‘vegetables.’  We were never served fruit, even though I did see giant papayas in the market. There are few products that are grown locally such as watermelon, melon, papaya and giant pumpkins, cabbage, onions, potatoes but not a whole lot more. Pineapple, bananas, oranges, apples, grapes are all imported, either from the coastal countries south of Niger, South Africa or Morocco.

Every morning we were served a greasy 3-egg omelet with onions, and then there was Nescafe. That too had gotten a bit stale. After my swim I splurged and ordered the pricey Nespression as it is called here.

In the evening my friend from long ago picked me up and, once again, took me to the restaurant that doesn’t serve African meals. It was the security that made her decide not to go local. People here are worried about what is happening in Mali; as if to justify their worries, another attack took place this morning a little to the west of Niamey, again, near the Malian border – Niger’s Wild West.

On Saturday I called the one person I had missed seeing at our reunion in the basement of the stadium with the team that had reactivated the center in Zinder. When we started the leadership program they had picked that as their ‘project’ – it was inactive despite salaries being paid – but no patients.

She brought me to her home that was heavily guarded. Her husband is the minister of finance and she is third highest in another ministry; I was moving around in high circles – yet she was quite down to earth. I met two of her 6 children and learned she was widowed when the last one was born. She had remarried many years later and now has a guard in front of her house. She too is afraid of what is happening in Mali, and told me ‘when Mali has a cold we sneeze here in Niger.’ She too was unnerved by the attack this morning. I promptly received one alert (level 3) and then another with a level 4 alert.

It is strange that suddenly Niger is on America’s map. People now know there are soldiers here who die because there are many very bad people hiding in the Sahara, where there are no borders and lots of weapons. I guess it is time to go.

Last phase

The last phase of my three-center trip is a visit to a newly re-activated rehab center in Zinder. This re-activating was the leadership project of a group of people during a Senior Leadership program that we conducted with Yale University. The purpose of this program was to strengthen the ability of various actors in the disability sector to work together, across societal divides towards a shared goal. The Niger team consisted of a Paralympics champion in a wheelchair, an older and well known activist who had nearly completely lost his sight, a young woman heading an NGO advocating for the rights of people with disabilities, and two women from the upper strata of Nigerien society in high level government positions, and married to people in power.

After about 9 months the team succeeded in re-activating the center that consisted primarily of four walls, a roof and people who received a monthly salary, without any services being provided. Now there are service providers and patients – not many, but at least a few people near Zinder with (primarily) missing limbs don’t have to travel anymore for 14 hours on a bus to get help in Niamey; big small victories, at least for some.

The original plan was for us to travel on Monday, as a team (two from ICRC and myself) to Zinder. This city is about 1000 km to the east from Niamey in a more or less straight line. For security reasons we are not allowed to travel by road, which would have lasted about 14 hours. We fly with the UN Humanitarian Assistance planes, the kind that ferried us from Dubai to Kabul before commercial airlines began flying that lucrative route.

There is no regular schedule and confirmations and tickets are obtained the day before departure. On Friday we learned there was no plane for us on Monday. Later we learned that the pilot had malaria, so probably good that we didn’t fly. But it did disturb our plans, as I am nearing my departure date of 10/21.

We tried to conduct the session we would have held face to face via WhatsApp, and, when that didn’t work, by phone using one of the rare landlines.  With a tiny center, a four person team that has little understanding of organizational development and all the accompanying management and efficiency terminology, I concluded quickly that this wasn’t going to work by remote. The tools we use are already somewhat compromised in their use as I observed in Mali: full participation and insightful discussion of management systems, scoring their performance with candor and courage is a nice ideal – the reality dictates otherwise. Here with people just getting through the workday, the idea had clearly not landed. We had to go there.

Luckily, before the end of Monday we got our tickets and were told to be at the airport at 11AM. Sometimes one has to celebrate small victories. I went for a very long swim, had my brochettes and chatted on Skype with an old friend.


Most nights, after my swim, I sit at one of the four or five tables that are put out next to the pool. I don’t know why they remove the tables and chairs every night as there is no rain – they are all put under a little straw hut, and then dragged out again the next day.

I usually sit there by myself. Sometimes a smoker or two sit at one of the other tables; then I move upwind (there is always a breeze from the river). The poolside restaurant is supposed to be open from 6PM to 7PM for mini brochettes (3 small pieces of kebab with a delicious mystery powder that resembles the stuff I remember from Afghanistan in the 70s, when Axel and I lived on those as we traveled around the country – tea and kebabs).

I don’t know why they can’t continue serving those brochettes after 7PM, since the BBQ remains open much longer. It seems that they just don’t cut small pieces anymore. Once I arrived after 7PM and was served a brochette with four enormous chunks of meat on it. They were so big that I was able to squeeze three dinners out of it by have the remainder of my meal packed up in foil and storing it  in my room in my little college dorm fridge.

And so I learned to be there before 7PM and after 6PM. Even at 6:15 they are rarely ready. Sometimes the tables are set up but no chairs. One evening I stood by my table for about 5 minutes, just wondering whether they’d notice and give me a chair. I finally asked but got a response that I’d expect from a teenager being pressed into service against his will. Sometimes I am jealous of my colleagues who get to travel to Asia under the same contract. Most hotel staff in Asia understand the idea of ‘service.’  This cannot be assumed here.

I always order a plate of ‘petits legumes’ with my 2 mini-brochettes. The first week this plate consisted of winter squash, a vegetable that is a mix of cucumber and summer squash and looks like a small spaghetti squash, carrots and peas. I could tell the peas (small vegetables indeed) came from a can, and they tended to dominate. But the carrots and squash were fresh and tasty.

Last week the chef must have stopped buying vegetables, and the peas started to take over. Tonight a whole can of mushy peas was dumped on my plate and I protested. I refused to pay and told them for a four star hotel ‘de luxe’ as advertised, they should be able to do better than that.

(OK, let me vent a bit). They should also be able to fix their credit card machine which didn’t work at my hotel in Bamako and didn’t work here. This I had not expected since this hotel caters mostly to conference visitors from all over the region. I had made an assumption. All sorts of signs had fed my assumption: a notice that said “we add an extra 3% on bills paid with a credit card” and the many large logos of Visa, Maestro and Masters stuck willy-nilly to surfaces around the reception desk and the glass case that protects the cashier from greedy fingers. Maybe they could have put an X through those logos and statements? I suggested, or a sign to their ‘aimable clientele’ that the machine didn’t work right now (or never). This morning I learned that the machine has been picked up for repair. But it wasn’t there fault. The connections go, apparently, through Dakar. It’s those Senegalese again.

When one of the two ATMs in the lobby didn’t work and the other refused to honor my card, I panicked, how was I going to come up with 1250 dollars in cash before nightfall? A few calls with Axel, and chats with my credit card providers, and a mad dash around town from one out of service ATM to another, I finally managed to scrape the cash together using several credit cards. This led to Citibank calling Axel assuming the transactions were fraudulent and that they’d block my card. Somehow the fact that I just chatted with a Citibank person, and that I had registered my travels to Bamako and Niamey on their website, didn’t seem to have registered with the folks looking out for fraud (all pieces outsourced no doubt). Some people think Niger is the same as Nigeria and they are doubly alert. But the bill is paid, and whether I can get more cash another day with the card remains to be seen, but that is a worry for tomorrow.


This morning I went to see the hippos. The young man who sells knickknacks and souvenirs in the hotel lobby had proposed an outing last weekend but I had too much to do. I also thought the initial cost of the two hour ride (160 dollars) was a little steep. Since he has not been able to sell me any of his wares (I tried to explain that I had many of the things he sells and was actually divesting them), I said I would be willing to go see the hippos if he dropped his price. This he did instantly, by 50%.  We negotiated a little more and for a price I still though rather steep, I agreed.

We walked some ways to get to the waterfront, through a narrow slippery path, to a half-submerged pirogue, that took me through a field of water hyacinths to the larger pirogue I paid for. I suggested that next time he makes sure that the little boat was at least bailed out. I figured with the money I paid I could insist on better service, at least for people following after me.

I arrived at the edge of the river where at least 10 men were washing clothes, their arms and upper bodies covered in suds. They would not let me take a picture unless I paid. I didn’t. I indicated surprise that men were washing clothes. As it turned out they are commercial washermen from Mali.  They collect the clothes, wash them in the murky waters of the Niger, then put them out to dry on the dusty and dirty sidewalks near the hotel. In the afternoon they collect them, bring them home, iron and deliver to their customers. Like any other profession, once it becomes lucrative, men take over. As far as I know the women I see washing clothes along the river do it for free.

The large motorized pirogue, all 30 feet of it, was all for me – with my guide sitting in the front, to explain to me what I was seeing, and two boatmen in the back, handling the outboard. The middle section of the boat was covered with an awning, and with mattresses on the bottom, but I could see those were already soaked. The boat was rather leaky, held together with wire and struts, tape and gum. The outboard stopped about half an hour into the ride upstream; after about 15 minutes of hammering and cleaning of plugs, the motor started again and we pursued our trip.

We did see a small group of hippos where my guide expected them. They stuck their heads above water to check us out. We went a little further upstream but found no other and turned around. By then the hippos had moved fast upstream and we landed in the middle of them, with one right underneath. I am glad I didn’t realize it until we felt the bump, but by then we had passed them and neither the hippo nor the motor was hurt.

Cleanliness and the Queen of Sheba

There are very few chances to go for a serious walk (nor do I desire) with temperatures that reach 104F in mid afternoon.  In order to get in at least a few thousand steps a day I avoid the elevator. It is not working all that well anyways and people wait for a long time. I am usually down faster by foot, taking the 50 or so steps up or down to my fourth floor room each time I go somewhere, for breakfast, for lunch, for swimming or out.

The hotel does not seem to expect its clients to take the stairs – they are hidden behind an ill closing door with a piece of paper taped to it that says ‘emergency exit.’ Clearly, no one expects this to ever be used for that purpose, and if it would be, no one would mind the mess.

The stairs are covered with dark brown ‘moquette;’ a filthy looking floor covering that has not been cleaned in a long time. Staff use this way of connecting between floors to bring food up for room service, or laundry down to be washed, and anything else. I don’t think they are allowed to use the guest elevator and there doesn’t seem to be a freight or staff elevator.

The people who use the stairs have been dropping things like wrappers, beer cans, pieces of paper, parts of equipment, and whatnot for a long time. The filth bothered me, mostly because it is not necessary – there are sweepers and even vacuum cleaners in the hotel. How much effort would it take? I finally decided to say something to the reception desk staff.

That evening when I came back from a visit I noticed a man with a vacuum cleaner on the stairway. There are no receptacles on the stairways (a clue). He had to plug in the long cord in a receptacle in the hallway of the guestrooms. Even the designers of this building obviously didn’t think a receptacle for a vacuum cleaner was needed on the stairways (vacuum cleaners did exist when this hotel was built in the late 80s).

This morning, I walked down immaculate steps, all 50 of them. It made me smile – such a difference to be in a place that is cared for. I told everyone I met on the stairs how happy I was about the clean stairs. They smiled politely but I suspect they probably wondered why that was such a big deal for me.

This hotel is full of things that are like that – neglected and dirty, yet no one seems to notice. I was imagining a walk through with a new owner and pointing out the things I would change (rip up rather), and the list was endless: broken or chipped doors, mildewed walls and floor coverings, cigarette burns on tables, bird poop, paint spots and mildew on the lawn chairs, broken cabinets, paint spots from working without drop cloths, broken faucets, missing toilet seats, missing ceiling tiles, patched up electrical cords, being rerouted across windows or simply dangling, dirty walls, the list goes on and on.

Someone was trying to clean the turquoise outdoor wall this morning, up to the 2nd floor (the brush handle extension didn’t go up further) but it was too late for a simple scrub – it needs a very strong power washer and a new coat of paint. I wondered whether the cleaning was inspired by my request. It was kind of sad to see the good man try but neither he nor I saw much of a difference between the washed and unwashed sections.

On the front of the hotels 4 stars are still showing but one is on its way down and the ‘l’ of the word hotel is gone. If this is a four star hotel I am the Queen of Sheba.

Memory Lane

This visit to Niamey is a trip down Memory Lane. Last week I met someone I had not seen for decades and who I had in one of my classes at CESAG in Dakar in the early 90s. Today it was someone else. We calculated we had not seen each other for about 24 years because she was pregnant at the time and the one in her belly is now 24 and studying in France.

We talked and talked over lunch, having to pause once in a while to eat. So much had happened in our lives. The best thing (to both of us) was becoming grandmothers. We exchanged pictures –our grandchildren are about the same age.

Our careers had taken very different paths – I remained at MSH all these years, somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, while she had been minister of Population, Women’s Affairs and Social Protection; a tough political job from which it took some time to recover. She considers herself a technical (public health) person, not a politician, but at the ministerial level you have to play the game. She did that reluctantly and is glad it is now in the past.  Since then she has retired.

It is quite common here to find people younger than myself who are retired. The societies here still consider people over 60 old. Maybe that has something to do with life expectancies – although certainly not the life expectancies of the elites – they share European or American expectations for longevity.

Obligatory retirement at 55 or 60 means that people can be put out to pasture for several decades. This is one of the bigger contradictions I have found in a country (and on a continent) where everyone always complains about ‘not having enough human resources.’ The other contradiction is the African ingenuity for making do with things, inventing new uses for discarded materials, but not able to make this add up to significant economic capital.

We schemed a bit during our lunch about what we could cook up that would be win-win-win proposals – but this will take more watering and fertilizer. We promised to see each other before my departure next week.

December 2018
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