The least developed country in the world

Sitting on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Niamey looking out across the Niger River, it was hard to believe I was in Niger, bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index – life expectancy 48, under-five mortality 28%, female literacy 11%, etc, etc. Admittedly the hotel rooms were a bit shabby, there seemed to be no hot water, the room safe was broken, and the whole place was infested with mosquitoes… But nevertheless the life of an international NGO worker felt rather more comfortable than seemed decent as I sat on this wonderful terrace with this amazing view.

I could see an island in the middle of the river, comprising a few rice paddies, some scattered palm trees and lots of big white water-lilies. Men and women were working in the rice paddies, standing knee-deep in water, and at the far end of the island others were washing clothes in the river and laying them out along the sloping sides of the bridge to dry in the sun. A couple of long wooden boats swept past in the current, the river at its fullest in this season – perhaps even more so than usual given the heavy rains this year. & the terrace was full of butterflies. It was quite idyllic.

Later in the day I ventured out to see the town and the museum – and this was when I was confronted by the real Niger. I have seen plenty of poverty before – in India, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere in West Africa – but this was different. There was a desperation in many of the faces that I have not seen before.

A man approached me to try to sell me one of the guinea fowl he was holding by their feet. I declined, explaining that my hotel manager would not be too impressed to see a guinea fowl running around my hotel room – the sort of response that normally seems to get a smile. But this man’s needs were too great, I guess. “So give me a present – I KNOW you have money” was his reply, and it was clear that he was desperate to find some way to get some money from me.

So many people seemed to be barefoot, and as many again had broken shoes, flapping uselessly about as they shuffled along in the dust. Some people had even less. I saw quite a young woman wearing only a dirty cloth wrapped around from her waist to her knees – her breasts as well as her feet bare (this in a strongly Muslim country!) and her body so thick with dust that her black skin looked grey. I suppose it doesn’t help that the Harmattan has started (the wind that blows in from the Sahara Desert, almost blotting out the sun as it is laden with so many tiny particles of sand), but the place looks bleak, wretched and deeply impoverished.

Street Riots??

Those expecting me to describe the reality of living amongst riots, etc (if you've seen the BBC news website today) will be sadly disappointed.

We received an email this morning warning us not to go into town because of demonstrations turning violent. Then later the update said the demonstrators were rather nearer to us, and that we all had to go home for our own safety.

Well I had far too much work to do to be able to go home, and in any case from my third floor office window there was no evidence of riots - no columns of smoke rising from the city, no sounds of distant shouting. Dakar is far too peaceful for that sort of thing - everyone is far too busy here trying to make a living.

& I knew that if I was not in the office, I would have been far too tempted to go prowling the streets with my camera looking for riots...

So I stayed put, and at 20:00 have just finished my work for the day. & if I'm honest, I'm quite annoyed (having seen evidence on the BBC that there actually WERE riots) that I didn't go out hunting them with my camera. Sorry!

For those who are interested, it seems from talking to people here that it was not just the clearance of street vendors' stalls that provoked the trouble (as per the BBC), but general unrest about the high and rising cost of living. Bread went up by 17.5% this month, following on from rises in the price of electricity, rice and other staples. Life here is tough.

World Toilet Day

I have nothing to say on here currently as work seems to have entirely taken over my life...

But I thought I would share my observation that yesterday was apparently World Toilet Day, which has the aim "to increase awareness of everyone's right to a better toilet environment". Fluffy seat covers? Scented candles? Gold-plated toilet roll holders?

No, I think we all know what it means (and I see that my own NGO has helped families build 183,000 toilets in the last four years), but I still can't believe they have an international 'day' for it!

R 'n R in Benin

No, not rock 'n roll, not rest 'n recuperation either - but Rooney 'n Ronaldo! After a ridiculously busy week in Benin (still working in my hotel room at 4am one night) I had a Saturday at leisure to enjoy myself, and I managed to find a venue showing the football. Or at least some of it, between blank screens when the generator (or perhaps the satellite?) cut out from time-to-time. Or when I was not being distracted by the adverts running across the screen for matches to be shown later in the day. Everton -v- Bigminham? Middlesbrough -v- Hotspurs? But great as always to watch a game in a room crowded with hundreds of fans.

Back in Dakar now I have also made further attempts to watch the beautiful game, as a very kind man answered my plea for help on the Senegal network of facebook. First he took me to his friend's house to watch a Man Utd Champions League match. All was looking promising until half-an-hour before the game, when the lights went out. A power cut. As he had a laptop I asked him if he had tried Sopcast? We downloaded it and found the United game. Just a tiny screen, and quite a fuzzy picture (Senegal internet speeds are not great) but better than nothing. Until his battery gave out at half time.

Today we tried again - the Premiership game against Blackburn was supposed to be on. But the Canal operators in Senegal had decided not to buy coverage, so all we were faced with was a blank screen. Unfortunately I think I am coming to accept that it is one interest I will have to put to one side whilst I am in Senegal.

Back to Benin - a lovely country, from the little I had time to see. Poor, of course, but without all the hustlers of Dakar, and with some truly great tourist sites. The stilt village on Lake Ganvie is in fact rather a tourist trap, but is no less pretty for it. A whole village built in a shallow lake (originally sited there for safety during one of the old tribal wars), all the houses on stilts, and each family with a number of pirogues to travel in. Even with a cloudy sky it was lovely, helped too by the jewel-coloured little malachite kingfishers flitting around the dock.

I also managed to visit the voodoo Python Temple in Ouidah. I don't know why pythons are quite so important in the voodoo religion, but in this temple there were about fifty of them, stretched out lazily in their 'house' apart from those being brought out for us tourists to drape around our necks. They are let out at 5pm each day, so that they can make their way into another little house where food is put out for them. There is however nothing to stop them leaving the compound at that point, which some have been known to do. The guide said villagers are not afraid if they find one in their house as this is supposed to be a good omen. & in this continent where everyone seems to be absolutely terrified of snakes (I suppose with good reason) that is saying something.

Afterwards, whilst I was queueing to get into Cotonou airport for my flight home, I was approached by a very attractive and well-dressed young woman asking me if I would mind carrying a small bag back for her. Of course I declined, but it reminded me of stories I was told earlier in Togo (next-door to Benin) - of the attractive well-dressed women you see hanging around the airport being part of the drugs trade, either waiting to collect an assignment or waiting to offload one onto a naive passenger. I did wonder if there was something rather more proactive I should have done, like accepting the bag and then handing it to a policeman for its contents to be checked, but if it was drugs then it is quite possible that the police are in on the deal, and that handing over the bag would get one into all sorts of trouble.

Now I am back in Senegal, where the weather has changed in my absence. The wind only blows from two directions into coastal Senegal - either from the south-west, where it picks up moisture from the Atlantic bringing summer rain and humidity, or from the north, where it picks up dust from the Sahara making the rest of the year dusty and hazy. So now the humidity has gone and it is cool enough to sleep at night but we once again have dust everywhere. A plague of insects has also appeared, some quite nice (millions of white butterflies everywhere), some less so (ants over everything, and crickets getting into the house and chirping loudly all night).