Turbaned men late at night around a bed of coals, telling age-old jokes to muted laughter, waiting for the tea to boil... Seductive female voices raised to the beat of an old wooden drum, calling their men to "ride, ride like the wind, just for me..." Soft feminine curves of sand, raised up and sculpted by the wind's ceaseless breath... Starlit Saharan skies... Villages where little that matters has changed for centuries... Where no matter how little you have, a guest is welcome to it...
This is the Sahel. Life on the edge of the Sahara - the biggest, most beautiful desert in the world. Land of drought and hardship and bad politics. Land of mystery and romance and shadowy heroism. This is Niger, home of the legendary Tuareg, who take their identity, in spirit if not by heredity, from the ancient Berber and Bedouin tribes of North Africa and the colorful Wodaabe sect of the Fulani people.
I've recently returned from a ten-day journey to Niger, where I participated in one of the most unusual and impressive promotional tours ever devised by a national tourism agency. In order to understand the truly unique nature of this tour and of tourism in Niger, it's necessary to be aware of some of the social, political, and cultural history of that country and its northern nomadic people.
During the 1970s and early '80s the pastoral, nomadic Tuareg and Fulani of the Sahara and Sahel regions of North Africa suffered greatly from devastating droughts which decimated their herds and drove them into increased competition with each other and with more sedentary farmers. Many fled to cities and to other countries such as Libya and Algeria in order to survive. This situation, coupled with an historical disdain for national boundaries and a general feeling of being treated as second-class citizens, led many Tuareg to return to their ancestral lands in Niger and Mali in 1990. After a difficult period for both the Tuareg and the government, the Tuareg people are beginning to take their rightful place as one of Niger's most influential ethnic groups.
Part of that influence included the installation of Rhissa ag Boula, the former leader of the Front de Liberation de l'Air et l'Azaouak (FLAA), as the minister of Tourism. To understand why this is such an important post for the Tuareg, it is important to grasp to some degree the historical and cultural factors which shape their society's world view.
The Tuareg's nomadic past has created a fiercely independent people, proud of their culture and values, and determined to resist the influences of Western culture, Islam, Christianity, or neighboring ethnic groups. As Sidi Mohamed Ilies told me last week, " We do not believe in owning land. The land was there before even we came and will be here long after we leave - how can we possess it? But, in today's world it's as if the earth were being rolled up like a mat by those in positions of power, and those of us who do not have a good hold on it will be shaken off and lose our connection with that land. We must find a way to keep our way of life, which includes the ability to roam free, without restraint; and to keep our customs and values. Many of us feel that, by embracing and gaining some control over tourism in our lands, we can hold on to our way of life."
In order to promote its new vision, the Ministry of Tourism, under the leadership of Mr. Boula, recently organized an "Eductour Desert," inviting foreign tour operators, travel agents, and both foreign and Nigerien journalists on a week-long educational tour of the country. From our arrival in Niamey to our departure, and in spite of a rather overly ambitious schedule, the tour was very well organized and executed. This was especially impressive for those of us who had traveled before in Africa, where lack of infrastructure and a different sense of time often make travel and event organization an exercise in frustration.
On the first day of the Eductour, we went to Koure, about 40 kilometers from Niamey, the capital, to see the last remaining herd of giraffes in West Africa. Through an education program in local villages, people have come to understand that the giraffes offer much more in the way of sustainable livelihood as a tourist attraction than they do as food. Outside of a fee for a local guide, a contribution to local development projects, and a small shop of locally-made crafts, tourists who come to see the giraffes have little impact on the lives of local residents and giraffes alike.
Another ecotourism project is the reintroduction and protection of the ostrich, oryx, and addax into the Air and Tenere regions of northern Niger. This project is being spearheaded by the World Conservation Union or Union Mondiale pour la Nature (UICN), with funding from several international NGOs, including the World Bank. The UICN is working in collaboration with the Ministries of Environment and Tourism to organize and educate tour operators and both sedentary and nomadic people of the region and enlist their help in the preservation of the Air/Tenere Reserve. They are planning to reintroduce ostriches, addax, and oryx to their former habitat.
According to Mr. MAMADOU Mamane, national representative for the UICN, "People are beginning to understand the role that these animals can play in attracting tourists and the role that appropriate tourism can play in improving their quality of life."
A third potential ecotourism site in Niger is the Parc W, about three hours south of Niamey. Home to elephants, monkeys, baboons, warthogs, Cape buffalo, derby eland, waterbuck, gazelle, storks, and many other bird and animal species, Parc W is not yet managed in a culturally or ecologically sustainable manner. Fortunately, Mr. Boula is planning to begin to include local communities in developing a new management program for the park which will be designed with the welfare of both animals and local people in mind
On the second day of the Eductour, we flew to Agadez, and travelled by 4X4s to InGall for the opening ceremony of the Tuareg Cure Salee. The Cure Salee is actually celebrated by both the Tuareg and Fulani people as a sort of homecoming after their migrations far to the south during the dry season. They gather near InGall because of the rich salt deposits there, to rest, fatten their animals, give them the "salt cure," and enjoy each other's company through music, dancing, and frequently, camel racing. The Fulani manifestation of the Cure Salee is called the Gerewol and includes male "beauty pageants," where the young men adorn themselves with jewelry and makeup to accentuate the Fulani ideals of beauty - long slender bodies, bright white teeth and eyes, and straight hair. Standing in a circle, singing a chant/song, and swaying to the music, the men seek to impress the onlooking young women and be chosen, sometimes for the night, sometimes for life. These celebrations are part of an extensive and complex system of social codes and rituals which are remarkably similar among nomadic peoples worldwide.
The remaining four days of our Eductour took us on a magical circuit of the Air Mountains and the Tenere Desert. The only human inhabitants of this region are Tuareg pastoralists, living much as they have for centuries. In the mountains are the villages where some of the people have created beautiful gardens and fields through irrigation from wells and springs. Other Tuareg continue their nomadic life, herding goats, camels, and cattle and transporting goods by camel caravan. The Tenere Desert is often mentioned as the most beautiful part of the Sahara - its sculpted dunes and mountain background create vistas which define the word serenity. The Tenere by starlight is unforgettable... For introspection, for contemplation, for understanding what self-sufficiency really means, this region of northern Niger has no equal.
When I asked Mr. Boula how his Ministry planned to cope with increased numbers of tourists if they were successful in promoting Niger as a destination, he replied, "First, for myself, I'm not in favor of mass tourism. We are selling Niger, its tourist attractions, to gain foreign exchange, but also we are trying to develop a tourism that preserves and saves this treasure. Therefore we can't permit ourselves to open up the country to just any sort of tourism. We must control what we do; we know that this richness must be preserved; it's a scientific treasure. The Air Mountains and the Tenere Desert are world treasures, human treasures: we don't have the right, we whose soil it is, to destroy it for tourists who don't respect this richness. Therefore we are promoting a controlled tourism so that these treasures are preserved.
A handsome, charming man with a shy, almost boyish smile and a wry sense of humor, Mr. Boula is adamant about the role of tourism in Niger and especially for his people. He is especially concerned about ensuring that tourism in Niger be a positive force, bringing in much-needed foreign exchange but having minimal impact on indigenous cultures in the country. He is informed about the adverse effects mass tourism has brought upon other cultures and environments, such as in Nepal and Kenya, and he senses deeply his responsibility in preventing this from happening in Niger. "We are not interested in mass (mainstream) tourism," says Mr. Boula, "and don't believe that Niger is suited for it. I am committed to making tourism sustainable and non-degrading for the environment and local cultures.
According to VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas, a London-based volunteer aid organization), "Tourism has the potential to be an engine of change in the developing world. If more money spent by tourists remained with local people in holiday destinations, this would directly reduce poverty by giving people the income they need for basic health care, education, and food." If tourism is to be "sustainable" it must be used, not just to make a profit and give tourists a relaxing two week holiday, but to help communities move from poverty to prosperity. In Niger, the second poorest country in the world and one of the most interesting and beautiful, sustainable tourism could make all the difference.