This past October, Niger Republic came to new prominence in international news when five Nigeriens, four Americans, and twenty-one militants were killed in an attack in a village named Tongo-Tongo near the Malian border. Most of the Nigerien friends I spoke with had no idea where Tongo-Tongo was and neither did I. However, this singular event had come to define how the international media, especially in the United States, would remember Niger in 2017. Several friends from the US wrote to ask about how my family was doing in light of what was happening in Niger (or as I corrected what they perceived to be happening in Niger, a vast country, more than twice the size of France, larger than Texas and California combined). I have purposefully refrained from writing on this particular issue for various reasons, for now.
The stories we hear about “far away” places shape our perception and in turn how we choose to engage with these “far away” places. This, along with stories of migrants crossing via Agadez, has somewhat painted a single story of an otherwise vibrant country with diverse communities defying limits to recreate a new reality. Because I believe tragedies alone should not define any single place, here are 10 other reasons why Niger should have made the headlines but of course did not.
1. The Cissé Laboratory
A Nigerien scientist, Professor Ibrahim Cisse, holds a major laboratory at the Massachusetts Institue of Technology (yes MIT) and is its Principal Investigator. The Cisse Lab started in January 2014. Prof. Cisse has since received several recognitions including the 2014 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award… and a presidential visit!
The opening page of the Cisse Lab reads “Welcome to the physics of life… at the molecular detail. We use physical techniques to capture highly dynamic – weak or transient – biological interactions, with single molecule sensitivity in living cells. We seek to understand the general principles by which emergent phenomena from these elusive interactions may help regulate genome function.” The research group has researching coming from several countries including Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and the U.S.
An international gathering for start-ups of the Sahel region held in February 2017 brought together African youth from seven countries with the hope to create an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs. SahelInnov was organised by Cipmen, an incubator for small and medium enterprises. A young Nigerien inventor presented “Tele-Irrigation” which would allow farmers to control the supply of water to their plants from their cellphones. This technology uses solar energy and in a context where drought could be recurrent, this present a remarkable step-forward towards sustainable farming. If well-tapped into, I believe this technology could disrupt in the manner MPesa (Kenya) changed the way people share (and receive) money via mobil transfers.
3. A flourishing cinematographic industry
This year has seen the cinematographic industry shine for its ingenuity and the pertinence of the films and documentaries made by a new breed of Nigerien filmmakers. I would cite “L’Arbre sans fruit” (“The Fruitless Tree“) by Aicha El Hadj Macky. This autobiographic documentary touches on the sensitive issue of infertility and motherhood in a country where a married woman’s worth is often measured by her ability to procreate. This documentary has won international recognition including the award for the best documentary at the Africa Movie Academy Award in Lagos and at the Mashariki African Film Festival in Kigali. Other documentaries and films (non-exhaustive) contributing to the vibrancy of the industry in Niger are: “Le Mil de la Mort” by Jaloud Zaino Tangui coming out this December and “Solaire made in Africa” by Malam Saguirou which traces the life and contribution of Niger’s foremost scientist and pioneer of solar energy research, Abdou Moumouni Dioffo.
Mali has announced 6 billions CFA Francs fund to boost the cinematographic industry. With the bourgeoning cinematographic industry in Niger, a similar investment would be a serious push to a promising sector of which Niger had been a pioneer in the past with filmmakers such as Oumarou Ganda, Damoure Zika, Zalika Souley, and Rahmatou Keita among many others.
4. Research hub in the heart of Niamey: LASDEL
During my PhD fieldwork this year I was housed at LASDEL (LASDEL: Laboratoire d’Etudes et de Recherche sur les Dynamiques Sociales et le Développement Local) a regional research centre with offices in Niger and Benin. In light of surging global interest on the Sahel region, LASDEL welcomes a plethora of researchers from universities worldwide seeking to do research in Niger. It has a small but rich library and is a vibrant intellectual space which hosts regular conversations on some of the most salient issues facing Africa. LASDEL’s summer school sessions often bring researchers from all over the continent. This space is one of the hidden gems in Niger’s capital and houses some brilliant minds including Professor Tidjani Alou, former Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Law at Abdou Moumouni Dioffo University.
5. Niamey, fashion capital of the Sahel
Against the backdrop of a certain “westernisation” of everyday wear in most African capitals, Niamey is home to some stylists who are shaping the national but also international fashion scene. A young woman, Hadiza Maiga, has started a yearly festival of fashion entitled Hadyline Creation which celebrates Nigerien cultures and creativity. Niger has nine main ethnic groups each of which has a recognisable identity. In the footsteps of internationally renowned Nigerien stylist, Alphadi who created FIMA (“Festival International de la Mode Africaine”) which brings on the same platform young stylist such as Samira Ben Ousmane as well as more seasoned ones such as Jean Paul Gaultier.
6. Taekwondo and the Alfaga Factor
Issoufou Abdoul Razack Alfaga ended a 45-year old “medal-drought” by bringing Niger its second Olympic Games after Issaka Dabore in 1972! Alfaga is also the reigning world champion in his category – he won gold in his category (>87 kilos) this year at the world Taekwondo Championships in South Korea. Needless to say, many Nigerien boys and girls dusted off their Taekwondo gears to head to training centres across the country. His journey and victory have truly brought the country together. I was in the crowd (outside the Stade General) when he returned with the Olympic Medal – I was standing with an elderly woman on her way to Goudel after selling food in Katako market and her daughter, a boy who usually begs by the side of Grand Marche, a young man dressed for the occasion, a woman with strong amber perfume and a light shiny veil who was upset the road was blocked (so she was stuck with us), and a massive crowd where notions of class, gender, age did not seem to exist as everyone (or most) was just there to welcome a national hero. Most importantly, Alfaga is an example of what could happen when young talented Africans get the opportunity to hone their talents, home or abroad…. they shine.
7. Bringing Africa together to erasing Africa’s Borders with CFTA
Niger’s President has been designated by his peers to lead the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) to fruition. This is a major development – Mayaki notes, a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) estimates that, with the CFTA, intra-African trade would be 52% higher in 2022 than it was in 2010. Current stats show that interAfrican trade remains low when compared with trade between Africa and the European Union and Asia. The latest African Economic Outlook 2017 found that trade between Africa and the rest of the world has expanded four-fold in two decades with the E.U. as Africa’s top trade partner (accounting for 30% of Africa’s global trade in 2015 down from 40% in 2000). If current trends remain, Asia will soon overtake the E.U. as Africa’s top trading partner – already at the country level, China and India are respectively the first and second largest trading partner of the continent (see report for more info). The CFTA, if well-implemented, will erase borders between African countries and hopefully improve inter/intraAfrican trade. My Fulani cousins have long understood that Africa’s prosperity resides in opening borders to allow free movements of people and goods.
8. Niger’s vibrant youth
Niger is the country with the highest fertility rates in the world. According to the latest estimate, a Nigerien woman has on average 7.3 children. Such a spectacular population growth rate certainly presents serious challenges given the high dependency ratio (which measures the pressure on those typically in the labour force). However, what this also means is that Niger could tap into this youth to rip the benefits of demographic dividend as the age structure of the population changes. Some of Niger’s youth have used their talent to tackle environmental issues in the likes of Mariama Mamane with Jacigreen, redefine architecture in the likes of Mariama Kamara with United4Design, create a university (ADU, African Development University) dedicated to prepare young people to lead the development of their nations in the likes of Kader Kaneye, or get PhD with flying honours in the likes of Fadji Maina who was awarded the Kepler prize for the best thesis in science & tech at the University of Strasbourg in France. Niger’s s future is so bright… and we, its youth, will write a new chapter in Africa’s success stories.
9. Vibrant cultural festivals from Niamey to Iferouane, Agadez to Ingall
The SAFEM (Salon international de l’Artisanat pour la Femme) just closed its doors in Niamey. It is a yearly gathering where close to 1,500 artisans, mostly women, from around 35 countries showcase (and sell) their products. My mother who is a community organiser at heart never misses the SAFEM and below are some of the photos she has shared. The SAFEM celebrates the best of Africa’s women’s craftsmanship, talent and creativity.
Other notable festivals across Niger are the Cure Salee where Fulani and Touareg herders meet to share information, trade and reinforce links, Bianou a 835-year old festival that celebrates unity among Touareg, or the festival of “cousinage a plaisanterie” (“joking-cousins”) which basically binds every ethnic group to another and gives me permission to tease Fulanis, Bagobiris and Kanuris alike with the expectation that there will be no hard feelings. Niger is rich because of all these manifestation of “zumunci” (i.e. brotherhood/sisterhood/familyhood) that, in a way, preserve social cohesion even in turbulent times.
10…… What would you add?