WARNING: Areas near the Mali border are essentially lawless, and travel near the border is STRONGLY discouraged. Several western tourists have been kidnapped in recent years and at least two (a Frenchman & Briton) have been executed by al Qaeda after being kidnapped near the Mali-Niger border. Agadez is the center of the ongoing Tuareg rebellion (as of June 2009) and travel to the city and surrounding region is dangerous and discouraged.
Much of Niger is experiencing a severe food shortage that may get worse before September harvests and then continue into 2011.
Niger (pronounced: nee-ZHAIR) is an arid, landlocked country of the Sahel with a population of 12 million. It is bordered by Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Chad and Libya. Niger is a former French colony which was granted independence in 1960. The land is mostly desert plains and dunes, with rolling savanna in the southeast.
Not until 1993, 35 years after independence from France, did Niger hold its first free and open elections. A 1995 peace accord ended a five-year Tuareg insurgency in the north. Coups in 1996 and 1999 were followed by the creation of a National Reconciliation Council that effected a transition to civilian rule by December 1999. In 2009, a coup d'état toppled the elected government, and Niger is currently controlled by a military junta.
Niger's economy centers on subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, reexport trade, and increasingly less on uranium, because of declining world demand. The 50% devaluation of the West African franc in January 1994 boosted exports of livestock, cowpeas, onions, and the products of Niger's small cotton industry. The government relies on bilateral and multilateral aid — which was suspended following the April 1999 coup d'etat — for operating expenses and public investment. In 2000-01, the World Bank approved a structural adjustment loan of $105 million to help support fiscal reforms. However, reforms could prove difficult given the government's bleak financial situation. The IMF approved a $73 million poverty reduction and growth facility for Niger in 2000 and announced $115 million in debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Niger is the second poorest country in the world.
A visa is required for US citizens. Only a one year, multiple entry visa is available, for US$100. You need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, proof of a round-trip airfare purchase, & a bank statement certifying that you have $500 in your account.
Two international airports: in Niamey and Agadez.
There are a few private companies and one mission aviation group (SIMAir) that do charter flights from Niamey in small planes.
Travelers can get to Niger overland by roads from Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria. Some adventurous souls still cross the Sahara from the north (Algeria), but that area is not secure.
There are no railways in Niger.
Of the 10,000 km of highways over 2000 km is paved and efforts are being made to improve some of the sections that have previously been in repair. One can travel from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso all the way to Diffa, near Lake Chad on roads in decent to tolerable condition. The road from Niamey to "Park W" in the south is paved. The Zinder-Agadez route is being repaved after being in severe disrepair for years. The Birni Nkonni-Agadez-Arlit road is in poor shape.
The country has 27 airports/landing strips, 9 of which with paved runways.
From mid-December to March the Niger River is navigable for about 300 km, from Niamey to Gaya on the Benin border.
Taxis in Niamey run either 200 francs if the distance isn't too long, or 400 francs for going almost across the city. At the airport in Niamey though they have a monopoly and the lowest you'll get a taxi for is 3,000 francs, and that's if you haggle a lot. However, if you walk south from the airport you'll hit a main road and for 100 to 150F you can get a ride from a beat up van to the Grand Marche (Main Market), luggage included.
The Nigerien government has recently set up a bus service along the major routes of the country. While taking cars is exciting and interesting, they are dangerous, extremely hot, and more expensive. Plus, they are forced to pull over after midnight due to banditry. Because these cars often only leave in the evening, it can take several days to travel a relatively short distance. The large buses are brand new Mercedes buses and they carry a soldier at night so they may drive all night long. In addition, due to their large size, they can skim over potholes that would destroy the smaller vans.
There is almost no possibility to rent a car in usual sense, although in 2005 a Hertz franchise came to Niamey and rents Toyota RAV4s. Also you can rent full-size cat-cat (4x4 SUV from French: quatre-quatre) with a driver/guide, but in most cases you will have to arrange with companies that organise expeditions.
French is the lingua franca nationwide and Niger's "official" language for government, it is a second language for nearly all the population and is spoken with varying degrees of fluency. Nearly all travellers should be able to get by using French. There are eight "national" languages which are maternal languages of Nigeriens in various regions of the country. Hausa is the most spoken regional language; nearly 50% of all Nigeriens speak Hausa as their mother tongue, primarily in the south central and southeast of the country. Zarma is the second most spoken language with 2 million speakers (accounting for 25% of Nigeriens) in the southwest of the country. Tamajeq, the language of the Tuareg peoples, is spoken by nearly 10% of Nigeriens in the Saharan north of the country.
The official language in Niger is French, though very few people speak it outside Niamey, and even there do not expect a high level conversation with the traders at the markets. The local languages include Djerma (spoken mainly in Niamey and the bordering Tillaberi and Dosso regions), Hausa, Fulfulde and Tamashek (spoken by Tuaregs in north), and Kanuri (spoken by Beri Beri). English is of no use outside American cultural center and few big hotels of Niamey. However, you will find English-speakers in border towns along the Nigerian border, such as Birni N Konni and Maradi. These people are usually from Nigeria to the south and in general want something from you. As friendly as they may be, always listen to a professional guide over anyone that speaks some English.
If you learn about 20 phrases in a local language, you will gain respect in a heartbeat. Simply greeting people in their local tongue will make your trip there smoother than you would have ever thought possible.
Top essential Zarma/Djerma phrases:
Top essential Hausa phrases:
Some Arabic words are also common:
Nigerien artisanal specialties include:
See the Niamey section and the Balleyara section for sample prices of these goods and where to find them.
The currency used in Niger is the CFA Franc (FCFA — XOF) — pronounced "say-fah". $1 = 464 FCFA (as of January 2010).
ATMs — Mastercard/ Maestro withdrawals are available at Banque Atlantique in Niamey.
Credit cards are almost never accepted anywhere.
American dollars and other foreign currency are not accepted as currency, only to exchange into local money via a bank or black market. Exception: near the border of Nigeria, Nigerian currency naifa is accepted.
Bargaining and haggling is essential and expected. It's best to have a low price and a maximum price in mind before entering into a negotiation. If the price is higher than you want, just say thanks and walk away: if you were offering a fair price you will be called back. If you were offering too low a price, you won't be called back, but you can always go back later and offer more.
Local, traditional food includes:
Availability varies widely by region, but visitors may wish to try the following delicious specialties, usually available as street food:
Less exotic but also tasty:
Careful of the salads — usually not ok for western travelers even in the city.
Keep in mind that drinking alcohol is generally forbidden in Muslim culture, so take extra care to keep drunken inappropriate behavior behind closed doors and out of the public eye.
The national beer is called, appropriately, Biere Niger. The only other locally produced beer is a franchise of the French West-African Flag brewery. While taste is in the eye of the beerholder, Biere Niger is decent. Both are brewed in the same tank from the same ingredients with the slightest variation on how much reconstituted malt they put in each batch. All other beer, boxed wine, and hard liquor is imported.
In rare pockets of the capital you can find millet beer homebrew, brewed by Burkinabe immigrants. This is drunk out of calabash gourd bowls. Some compare the taste to a dry, unsweetened cider. See the Niamey section for directions.
Locally-made non-alcoholic drinks are delicious. Safety depends on the water quality: generally ok in the capital and NOT ok in rural areas. They are sold either sold by women out of their houses (ask around), by young girls from trays on their heads, or by young boys pushing around coolers. These drinks include:
To drink, you bite the corner off of the bag.
Patience. If you haven't learned it before you went to Niger, you probably will.
Volunteering would be your best bet here, as many people in the rural areas have been hit by drought.
Niger is politically unstable and therefore lawlessness is widespread. The latest coup d'etat in early 2010 increased the unstable situation and every traveller should follow independent news closely and stay in contact with their embassy. Also Al-Qaeda is present in Niger and kidnapped and killed tourists, so it is essential to know the off-limit regions and avoid them
In the region north of Agadez, there have been many carjackings, kidnappings and robberies in the past sixteen or so years. The problem continues to this day, and tourists should consider the area essentially lawless. You should not venture beyond Agadez even if you have a guide and a 4WD vehicle unless you seriously know what you are doing. The roads past this point are of terrible quality and banditti are abundant.
Avoid driving late at night in a private vehicle. Occasionally armed robbers will operate near the town of Galmi (central Niger) and around Dosso-Doutchi (in western Niger), as well as on the road to Gao, Mali in the Tillabery region. Normally, there are police checkpoints on the main highways which limit criminal activities during the day.
The main annoyances you are likely to meet are young boys shouting "Anasara," which means 'foreigner' in most local languages, derived from the Arabic word. You will also be asked for a 'cadeau' pretty much every time you see a person outside your hotel. The word is French for 'gift,' and it is best to remember not to perpetuate the misery this word causes to foreigners working in the country.
In Niamey the safety level is better. If you stay away from markets after dark and use taxis and are EXTRA careful to avoid where the streets cross ravines, you shouldn't run into any problems. In markets there is risk of pickpockets or handbag straps being cut but you are more likely to lose money by haggling poorly and in French.
Carrying a backpack and camera, looking like a tourist, and especially being white, will definitely draw some unwanted attention. Most of the attention is from people who try to get your money legally, either by selling you a toothbrush or by begging, but there are always few less honest people.
The Centers for Disease Control is an excellent resource for authoritative advice on health issues for travelers to Niger.
Drink lots and lots of water while in Niger because the dry heat will dehydrate you and you won't realize it. It is the best preventative step you can take. Bottled water or water sealed in a bag (called pure-wata) is available in most of the cities but in a pinch, city tap water is well-chlorinated (this is according to one traveler; another American who lived in Niger for two years says never drink unfiltered water anywhere! — that includes ice!). Be particularly wary of well water, stream water, and rural water.
Be sure to replenish your salts as well as liquids.
Wear loose conservative clothes, big hats, and lots of sunscreen. If in doubt, wear what the locals wear.
Malaria, including encephaletic malaria, is a problem, and is chloroquine resistant in Niger . Take your prophylaxes, use heavy-duty insect repellent (DEET is best, though nasty), and consider carrying a mosquito net to sleep under.
Giardia and amoebic dysentery are common. Be wary of any roadside food, unless you buy it hot off the grill. Even items fried in oil could make you sick if the oil has been heavily used and is old. Best to avoid salads and uncooked veggies. Also, never drink unfiltered water (including ice).
Schistosomiasis is present in most water bodies in Niger, so travelers should avoid going in the water everywhere — except chlorinated swimming pools .
In case you were unable to stay healthy, the Clinique Pasteur (situated in front of the Lycée Fontaine) has clean facilities, sterile needles, and competent, sympathetic doctors. The Clinique Gamkalley and many other clinics are around, however, you may need to watch out for dirty needles, over-prescription and aggressive staff.
Visitors are treated as kings in Niger (there is a Koranic proverb to that effect), so be careful not to abuse the hospitality you will be shown. For the most part, try to accept all the small tokens and gestures (cokes, tea, small gifts, etc.) that are offered to you during your time in Niger. It really isn't good to refuse too much and don't think "these people are too poor to give me these things". That is offensive as taking good care of guests is a point of honor and gives people great pleasure. Don't comment out loud when you see poverty or things in disrepair and please don't remind Nigeriens about how poor their country is.
Dress conservatively, which means no shorts, no skirts above the knees, and no tank tops. For women, dressing revealingly can be seen as very offensive, even in Niamey. Also, dress nicely, as clothes determine how well you are treated back.
Avoid drunken behavior, since alcohol is prohibited in the Muslim religion and greatly frowned-upon in Niger.
Always ask people, especially camel drivers, market sellers, and the elderly, before taking a photograph. Many Nigeriens still find it offensive.
Slavery is still relatively common in the central areas, away from the towns. You can generally spot slaves by the unadorned, solid ankle bracelets on both feet, which look like manacles and may well serve that purpose. Unless you feel particularly brave, discussion of the subject with either victims or perpetrators is probably best avoided.
See the Friends of Niger website for discussion boards where you can ask questions before you go to Niger and maybe get some Nigeriens or others to fill you in.