Niger

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Introduction to Niger

It's the landscape that makes an impression in Niger. There's black volcanic mountains towering over green oases, cascading waterfalls, desert cities with wide tree-lined boulevards, camels, and the dramatic, if lonely, beauty of the desert.

The landscape is almost matched by its inhabitants. It's a country of aristocratic desert nomads, skilled artisans, silversmiths with magical powers, and a race of tall, lithe, people so physically beautiful that even the men enter beauty contests.

Despite its end of the world otherness, Niger is a country perpetually on the brink of ruin. There was a brief moment in the late 1970s, after the discovery of uranium, when the country glowed with economic good health but after the bottom fell out of the market, it reverted to its hand to mouth existence. The desert, for all its beauty, is swallowing large chunks of the country at the rate of knots, there are ongoing and often bloody skirmishes between the government and Tuareg rebels, and the country is still recovering from the devastating Sahel droughts of the early 1970s.

Caution

Protestors in Niamey have demanded a government response to growing hunger as a result of drought and spartan crop yields. This follows similar protests in early March regarding tax hikes which ended in street violence and looting. Travellers are warned to be cautious in the capital, to avoid crowds and to stay informed of further developments.

Full country name: Republic of Niger

Area: 1.26 million sq km

Population: 11 million

Capital City: Niamey (pop 666,000)

People: Hausa (55%), Songhai-Zarma (22%), Peul-Fulani (10%), Tuareg (8%), Beri Beri or Kanour (4.3%)

Language: French, Hausa, Fulah, Tamashek

Religion: Muslim (80%), remainder indigenous beliefs and Christians

Government: republic

GDP: US$6.3 billion

GDP per capita: US$670

Annual Growth: 4.5%

Inflation: 3%

Major Industries: uranium mining, brickworks, textiles, food processing, chemicals

Major Trading Partners: France, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, China, Belgium-Luxembourg

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Traveler Facts

Visas: Visas are required by everyone except nationals of some West African countries. There are few Niger embassies around the world so getting a visa requires careful planning, but they can be obtained in a limited number of West African countries.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +1

Dialling Code: 227

Electricity: 220V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

The Cure Salé is one of the brightest and biggest celebrations in West Africa. It occurs just before the rains come, and is a hurly-burly of socialising and catching up, as herders meet around the salt pans of Ingal and rest and wait for the blessed rain. One of the highlights of the Cure Salé is the gerewol festival held by the nomadic Wodaabé tribe; a race of tall, lithe, physically beautiful people, with elegant, feminine features...and that's just the men! In fact it's the Wodaabé men who participate in a male beauty contest that lasts for hours, and which involves hours of pre-concert preening, dancing, and face-pulling, for the benefit of the female judges. The gerewol takes place in September.

The other large festival celebrates National Festival Day, in mid-April, with a week of dancing, wrestling, and camel racing. If you're in Niger at the beginning of August, check out Republic Day at Dosso. There's a famous cavalry parade with both riders and horses decked out in all their colourful finery. In the city of Agadez, during the Islamic celebrations of Tabaski, the Tuareg whoop it up with one of their favourite pastimes; camel racing. The cavalcade is a mad harem-scarem dash on camel, through the narrow crowded streets of the town, to the square in front of the Sultan's palace.

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Best time to Visit

Niger is uncomfortable pretty much all year round, but the best time to go is in the cooler months between November and February. You might get a bit of sand in the face from the dusty Harmattan winds in November, but it's not totally unbearable. It's also the best time to visit Parc W, Niger's game reserve, which closes during the wet season. If you find yourself there a little earlier, in the month of September, you can catch the Cure Salée.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: West African CFA franc

Meals

Budget: US$1-2

Mid-range: US$2-6

High: US$6-10

Deluxe: US$10+

Lodging

Budget: US$4-9

Mid-range: US$9-30

High: US$30-50

Deluxe: US$50+

If you stay at camping grounds, or cheap and nasty hostels, and eat at stalls from around the market, you can get by on as little as US$10 a day. Going slightly more upmarket, getting rooms in a good location with air conditioning and dining at sit down restaurants will cost you about US$30 a day. Rooms at one of the modern chain hotels, or grand old colonial-style establishments, and eating French dishes at ritzy restaurants will set you back US$100 a day.

Niger's unit of currency is the West African franc, which is tied to the euro. Banks in the capital city of Niamey will change travellers cheques without too much fuss (although substantial commissions are likely), but once you get out into the countryside changing travellers cheques can get tricky. Changing cash is not so much of a problem for those out of the way places, particularly if it's euros, but they can charge like wounded bulls for the privilege. Cash advances on Visa and Mastercard are only possible at the larger banks in Niamey, and credit cards are next to useless everywhere else except 1st class hotels.

As in most West African countries, the rank and file need not worry too much about tipping, but wealthier patrons, and those staying at better class hotels, are expected to reach into their pockets. A tip of 10% is expected in restaurants (but check the bill to make sure that it hasn't been included), and about the same for taxis other than share-taxis.

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Attractions

Niamey

Niamey has grown in leaps and bounds over the few decades, and has a number of modern government buildings, streetlights, and tarred roads, all courtesy of the uranium-funded boom of the 1970s. But despite its modern veneer the city still has an African ambience and charm.

As the city cools down at night it's easy to sit and shoot the breeze with someone, have a meal and a drink, and gaze at the stars overhead. As with everywhere else in the desert this is when you'll most appreciate being there. The Grand Marché is one of the best in West Africa.

Agadez

With its wide sandy streets and Sudanese architecture, Agadez is one of the more interesting towns in Niger, and is one of those strange towns that ebb and flow on the tide of history. In medieval times it was a flourishing city at the edge of the desert.

It overflowed with camel trains, caravanserai, slave traders, and gold transporters. By the mid-19th century Agadez looked all but doomed, but since then the population skyrocketed twice - with the discovery of uranium, and again when drought drove thousands of dispossessed people here in the 1970s.

Parc W

The Parc National du W, or Parc W for short, is one of the better game parks in West Africa, with a wide range of carnivores including lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and jackals. There's also the other wild animals that the carnivores prey on - the antelopes, duiker, baboons, and birds.

Then there are the ones even the lions might think twice about before taking on - the elephants and crocodiles. The park is in the dry savannahs of the south; the best time to go is at the end of the dry season (March to May) when the animals congregate around the water holes.

The South

Stretching in an arc a little over 200km (124mi) long is a string of southern towns that are all worth visiting. Dosso (named for the Djerma spirit, Do-Do) is an important Islamic citadel. It is home to the Djermakoye, the most important Djerma religious leader.

The Djermakoye's Sudanese-style compound can be only be visited with special permission. Today the town itself is a crossroads town, with roads to Benin and western Nigeria, but it still plays a role in the nation's life - Dosso hosts the celebrations for Republic Day.

Zinder

Zinder, once capital of Niger and an important 19th century stop on the Agadez-Kano route, is still Miger's second town. In its heyday, it was host to the opulent splendour of the Sarkee of Zinder and his harem, and the brutality and savagery of the slave trade, the latter financing the former.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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