Op-Ed: Travels in a troubled region – A tourist in Muslim Africa

By Mercedes Sayagues 2 February 2015

Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Lamu, Niger – this is a troubled time for much of Africa’s Muslim countries. Veteran foreign correspondent MERCEDES SAYAGUES draws on her own travels through the region to examine why they’re in such turmoil.

I have always enjoyed travelling in Muslim Africa, from the warm Indian Ocean to the dusty Sahel. And, as a woman travelling alone, I felt safe and received much kindness, honesty and hospitality.

In a market or a street festival, I hang around the women and the elders: the women feed me yummy food and the elders chase away annoying kids and stubborn hustlers. The most annoying were the beach boys of Zanzibar and Dakar, but I learned to brush them off by inventing a jealous husband. Très jaloux.

But lately, sadly, one by one, countries and cities I love are becoming unsafe for travellers: Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Lamu, Malindi, and now Niger.

Just four months ago I was teaching in Niger. After the course ended at 5pm, I walked 300m to the Niger River, boarded a pirogue and sailed to see the sunset. One evening it rained and we waited, huddled under the canvas roof, hippos staring at us. This means me and Sani, le piroguier, whose soul is twinned with the river and who knows all the birds, plants and fish, or me and his two teenage sons.

I chuckled at the sight of the white embassy mansions perched on the falaise, by order of shifting importance: France, United States, Libya and Argelia. We waved at the big pirogues carrying cantaloupes to Benin.

I never felt unsafe as we drifted lazily up and down the river, returning at night, city lights shimmering on the placid waters. I felt safe in Torodi market, the only white foreigner among a sea of Touaregs, Hausa and Peuhls, good-humouredly allowing me to take their photos, pleasant denizens of the country at the bottom of the United Nations development index.

In January Niger erupted in post-Charlie riots that left ten dead and 45 churches burnt.

A mix of local and regional politics is stirring fanatics: the opposition trying to score points against President Mahamadou Issoufou (who had joined the epic Charlie manif in Paris); radical reflux from troubled neighbours (Nigeria, Chad, Libya, Mali and Burkina Faso); and growing wahhabi influence bankrolled by Saudi Arabia.

Add the “pillow effect” of anti-Muslim conflict: squash one corner (Gaza, CAR) and reap trouble elsewhere (Paris, Baga, Zinger, Sanaa).

Toss in angry refugees from nearby Central African Republic’s genocidal conflict, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been disposessed, expelled or killed by Christian militias under the watchful eye of peacekeepers.

It’s an explosive cocktail and it burnt in Niamey and Zinder.

Pleasant postcards

Until recently, the Sahel welcomed tourists. Once, in Mali, on the unpredictable plane to Timbuktu, I chatted to the man seated next to me. He turned out to be president of the tourism operators and he was going, along with the Minister of Culture, to the first festival of Dogon culture.

OMG. I adore anything Dogon. He invited me to come along. I switched plans, disembarked in Mopti and joined the VIP group of dignitaries. A fleet of 4×4 took us to a village by the escarpment. The festival was awesome. A French anthropologist told me he had never seen so much Dogon cultural stuff together.

My new friend made arrangements for me to stay the night. At dusk, the VIP caravan of 4x4s headed back towards Mopti. They left me in the outskirts of a mud village with two bottles of water, a handshake and the reassuring words: Someone will come for you.

It was getting dark. I was getting uneasy.

Eventually, two smiling men appeared and grabbed my rucksack and sleeping bag. They did not speak French. I had to trust their smiles.

We walked through the village to Ibrahim’s home, where I got a mat on the rooftop and slept under the stars. I stayed for a week, riding on Ibrahim’s motorbike and walking across the Dogon escarpment.

Ibrahim’s home had no locks, padlocks or closets, but my passport, money and credit cards were safe. He dreamed of building a proper guesthouse.

I have many such stories: strangers who shared a meal in their homes in Moroni and in Zanzibar, who invited me to weddings in Lamu and Harar, who gave me the right change when I was overpaying, who made me feel safe, respected and welcome.

In waithood

When Niger erupted I was reading Bill Bryson’s entertaining African Diary. In 2002, he visited a ten-year-old camp in Kenya for Somali refugees. It had 28,000 students but only 897 desks and one textbook for every 20 students.

Bryson chats with an aid worker: “But the kids have no future”.

“I know,” he said sadly. “I know.”

But these kids have a future and it’s not good. They can board a dodgy boat overloaded with people and dreams on the Mediterranean. They can become jihadists building a demented, hateful order in a disordered world.

But mostly, they live in waithood.

This is a very useful concept. Mozambican anthropologist Alcinda Honwana did not invent it but uses it insightfully in her book about youth in Mozambique, Senegal, Tunisia and South Africa.

Honwana explains that many young Africans are living in waithood, a prolonged period of suspension between childhood and adulthood.

“Youth transitions to adulthood have become so uncertain that a growing number of youth must improvise livelihoods and conduct their personal relations outside of dominant economic and familial frameworks. They suffer economic and social pressures and pervasive political marginalisation.

Political instability, bad governance, and failed neoliberal social and economic policies have exacerbated longstanding societal problems. Many are unable to attain the prerequisites of full adulthood and take their place as fully-fledged members of society. “

Their daily frustration in waithood hardens into repressed anger that turns, for some, into flight or fight, the boat, the street demo or the AK-47 and the panga.

Ironically, the fewer tourists arriving in Niger or Mali, the worse the prospects of leaving waithood.

In the markets of Niamey I sensed the desperation of sandal cobblers, weavers and leather pouf makers, whose sales have plummeted along with tourist arrivals since the coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, Ebola in Guinea, war in northern Nigeria, and last week’s kidnapping of two female aid workers in CAR.

Would I go alone in a pirogue again? Would I wait in a Dogon village as night falls? Has Ibrahim’s guesthouse and his dreams prospered? I am not sure.

But I am sure that unless young men can see a way out of waithood, fanatics will have no shortage of recruits. DM

Read more:

  • Alcinda Honwana: The Time of Youth: work, social change and politics in Africa.

Photo: Dogon men perform the traditional mask dance in the village of Begnemato in Dogon country, Mali 30 April 2007. The Dogon people of Mali are one of Africa’s oldest and most complex tribes with their traditions and customs well preserved and practiced today as they were thousands of years ago. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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