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.