Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Peter Espeut | Of camels, hippos and giraffes

Published:Friday | September 14, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Niamey, the capital city of the Republic of Niger (where I have been attending a conference), is located in the Sahel, the semi-arid area south of the Sahara Desert. The Niger River (the third-largest in Africa after the Nile and the Congo) is the pride of the city.

A Chinese construction company has built two spanking new bridges over the river connecting the two parts of the metropolis, and there is a grand Chinese-built overpass/underpass that assists traffic flow (sounds familiar?).

The ethnic mix of this immediately sub-Saharan nation reflects its history of being invaded, over the centuries, from all directions, including from the north by Arab and Tuareg forces, and ultimately by the French.

Niger's rigid caste system stratifies the society into aristocrats, free people, and some casted occupational groups (like griots, butchers and jewellers). In addition, there is a disadvantaged group referred to as les captifs (the captives) or les esclaves (the slaves). This caste system is superimposed over the ethnic mix.

The ancestors of 'the captives' were once in a legal relationship of bondage with the aristocrats, having become prisoners of war in various conflicts (the words 'slavery' and 'serfdom' come to mind, but neither adequately explains the type of servitude). Down to the present day, members of the 'captives' caste are often abused physically and sexually, and their labour is still exploited by the aristocrats, who nevertheless have very constrained obligations of patronage.

In Niger, slavery was only criminalised in 2003, yet a 2005 study found that more than 800,000 people were still enslaved. My host, Professor Mahaman Tidjani Alou, a political scientist, is chairman of a government task force to implement in Niger the resolutions of the Special United Nations Rapporteur on Contemporary Slavery, and he has a difficult job, for slavery is part of Nigerien culture. But he is making some progress. [His wife, Professor Antoinette Tidjani Alou, nÈe Titus, is an Alpha girl from Waterhouse. You may remember her two interviews with Ian Boyne in 2016].

 

INCREASING RESISTANCE

 

No matter the education or wealth of the member of the 'captive' caste, it will be a battle to escape this low and denigrated status. Marriage is normally within one's caste, and there is little possibility of social mobility. Recently, there has been increasing resistance to this system.

The Niger River is a habitat for hippopotamuses, which may be observed from its banks. A group of us conference participants were driven an hour from the city to observe the only herd of giraffes in West Africa in the wild. We saw more than 40 majestic photogenic creatures.

On my first night in Niamey, my hosts took me to dinner, where I had sautÈed camel in cream sauce. I highly recommend it! One evening after the meeting, they served Mechui (of North African origin), a whole pig slowly roasted - tender and juicy; you use your right hand to easily tear off your portion: delicious!

Jamaica's former colonisers introduced trees like the baobab (monkey tamarind; Alpha Academy had a big one by the old McCauley Hall) and moringa, but did not bring along the recipes for their use. In Niger, baobab fruit is sold on the street, and is used to make candy and a cooling drink. Stewed moringa leaves mixed with peanut butter and seasoned with peppers makes a widely appreciated salad called kopto, which tastes quite nice. I took a pass on the fried grasshoppers, but I am told they are delicious and crunchy.

Like in Jamaica, there were more sellers than buyers on the streets, but - and I looked carefully - I saw not even one child barefoot, shirtless, or in a merino. Many women wear the hijab, or a veil, and all the others were well covered. No spaghetti straps, halter tops, visible cleavage or bare midriffs! Niger is a country with modest people. Many may be poor, but they are proud Africans.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.