Maiduguri!

Maiduguri city slogans:

  • 2007 – Home of Peace
  • 2012 – Home of Pieces (unofficial)

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I have been trying to visit Maiduguri, a regional capital tucked away in the northeast corner of Nigeria, for years. Despite spending much of the past five years focusing on the area for work, a plethora of canceled trips and failed visa attempts meant I still hadn’t been on the ground by 2017. So when I found out I would be traveling to Nigeria for a conference (finally!), I figured I had to give it my best shot to visit the country’s northeast corner as well.

Prior to that though, I had to get a visa at the Nigerian Embassy in Addis Ababa. That is a whole story in itself, and one best relayed orally. If you still care about anything by the time you finish reading this post, demand this of me the next time I annoy you with my presence.

There are surprisingly a few different airlines that operate near-daily flights to Maiduguri from the Nigerian capital of Abuja (where my conference was) these days. This was not the case just a few years ago, as the city was the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis, forcing the airport’s closure. In fact, Maiduguri is largely considered to be the “birthplace” of this nefarious movement, which made visiting all the more intriguing.

While the violence still rages in the countryside, security has increased drastically in the city, meaning that those days when the airport was closed are long (and hopefully permanently) gone. It is now its routine for foreigners, largely operating within a humanitarian or security context, to make the trip (i.e. Maiduguri as the next hot spring break destination, as I was promised by no one but which I can truly emphasize the “hot” aspect of, is still just a few years off).

As soon as I landed I immediately felt a wave of dry heat (another emphasis on both dry and heat). The rainy season hadn’t quite yet begun, and the daily temperature hovered in the low 100s. But it felt comfortable. There is something about the Sahel – a section of the world equal parts dusty, dry, and scorching – that has a certain allure. It is inexplicable when explained in such non-alluring terms, but in one sense I felt like I was back in Burkina Faso, producing a wave of calm and reminding myself that one day I would like to spend 27+ years living in this climate (to which Christine does not realize she has signed up to). In fact, given that it had been cold and raining for nearly a week straight in Addis when I left, the chance of pace was much welcomed!

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Maiduguri it is!

Alas, I was still a little nervous going in. I had heard of some people having issues getting into the city. There is a special procedure for all foreign nationals flying to Maiduguri, despite still being a part of Nigeria and technically no need for special permission. It is still under a state of emergency though, and the seat of a veritable war against militant Islamists. So I can understand the extra security, though it seems the screening of foreigners is more to keep a track on who is doing what, rather than any procedure to enhance our, or the city’s, safety.

Fortunately, a local colleague happened to be on the same flight as me and I had enough documentation – that combination allowed me to pass through with ease. In fact, the security guys were quite the joksters – when I explained myself and my mission to one of the guys, the head security guy (in a wheelchair – not sure if this was due to any recent conflict incident) offered to take me right to Sambisa Forest, the headquarters of the Boko Haram movement! Something tells me he’s made joke that to an unsuspecting foreigner visiting his city for the first time before (needless to say as intrigued as I was, I did not take him up on his offer).

Another reason I really wanted to visit the city is that over the past five years I have focused on the Lake Chad Basin professionally, and thus have worked with a number of contacts from Maiduguri, that I had never met in person. With some, I even chatted via Skype on a weekly basis for years (only rarely did they claim to be a deposed prince who just needed my credit card number to assert his rightful place on a vast, gold-filled throne). So part of the allure of finally visiting Maiduguri was to meet these contacts and see them in their element.

One friend in particular was very excited that I was coming. I had let him know shortly before, and as soon as I got to my hotel, I gave him a call. He said he was on his way – I wondered if I would even recognize him. I had seen so many photos over the years, but seeing someone in person for the first time is a different story. Luckily the hotel parking lot was quite empty when he showed up, so it was fairly obvious who was who (that did not stop me from pretending I was Big Bird for a while, just to see if Snuffleupagus happened to be lurking around).

I also thought it might be a bit awkward to meet and spend much of the next four days together, as the extent of our relationship previously had centered around twenty-minute increments of Skype conversations. I was fairly pleased to know, however, that our virtual conversational skills quickly translated to real world interactions, and the typical awkwardness that characterizes all my human interactions was present at a lower than usual level.

In any case, Richard took me out into the city, and I was finally exploring Maiduguri for the first time, after years of anticipation. We passed by all these areas I had read about and Richard had take pictures for us. For example, the notable city gate was upon us as soon as we exited the hotel. There was a sense of accomplishment in some ways – I always knew when I was sitting in the dregs of Crystal City writing report after report on specific neighborhoods of Maiduguri with Richard’s help, that one day I would get out there and actually see these sights for myself. I was just shocked that I had been right (that rarely occurs), and this day had actually arrived.

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City gates!

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Shehu (traditional ruler) palace

A quick background on Maiduguri – as mentioned, it’s the birthplace of the ravenous terrorist organization, Boko Haram. For a few years around 2011 to 2013, the city was essentially off limits for foreigners, as Boko Haram militants held sway in many neighborhoods. The movement wound up fleeing for the countryside in mid-2013, in large part thanks to the emergence of civilian vigilante actors opposed to their presence. Since then a relative calm has returned to the city, in turn allowing foreigners to start frequenting it. Maiduguri has become the hub of both the continued operations against Boko Haram, but also the response to a massive humanitarian disaster ongoing in the region, due to people fleeing from Boko Haram’s predatory presence in the countryside. Nonetheless, while the city is more peaceful than before, Boko Haram retains a sort of fascination/obsession with it, and consistently attempts to intimidate it, often through the form of young and likely coerced suicide bombers. Many of them are intercepted on the city’s outskirts resulting in few to no civilian casualties, but penetrations do occur, ensuring that while it feels like and is more or less a safe city, security is never far from anyone’s mind.

Nonetheless, my four days there were without incident, and it really did feel like a normal city – as safe and secure as anywhere else where temperatures rise to the 120s. Richard was a gracious host, introducing me to his friends and family as if we were old friends (given that we really were, just of the Internet variety – but hey, that’s how most of America meets their parents for the first time these days, isn’t it?).

While we toured much of the city, one thing that surprised me most was how good the food was! It is a bit ironic, given that the region is facing an impending famine, but non-displaced Maiduguri residents seem to have adequate supplies, and some of those supplies are in fact quite delicious!

While visiting a cattle market near the outskirts of the city, we picked up some suya, or essentially grilled meat with some onions and a dry pepper rub to dip in. It was so durn good that I didn’t even realize it, but I talked about it essentially non-stop to such a degree that Richard insisted we go back the next day just to shut me up, despite it being a 30-minute drive one way (and if you’re asking why we visited a cattle market given I was not in the business of purchasing some stock to take back to Addis, well I’ll tell you. One way Boko Haram funds itself is by stealing cattle in rural areas and then giving them to complacent middlemen who in turn sell them in local cattle markets for a lower price & split the profits – this particular cattle market was even shut down back back in 2016 for hot minute, to prevent this practice. Nonetheless, no such nefarious activity was apparent, but I may have been distracted by the prospect of all this cattle transforming into delicious mountains upon delicious mountains of suya – in case you are wondering, no I have never had a single vegetarian tendency in my life!).

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pre-suya cattle . . .

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suya in preparation

Richard’s sister also insisted we come over to his family’s house for lunch one day. She had prepared a chicken dish with a peanut sauce, along with a yam-type side dish. To complement the meal I bought the drinks, which consisted of chapman, or a local punch-type soda. The meal was delicious, perhaps even rivaling the suya vendors. I ate until I couldn’t eat anymore, then I ate some more. Having a sumptuous home-cooked meal in Maiduguri was never part of what I had dared to envision during my daydreams of visiting the city, but it made me feel quite welcome, and dare I say invoked a desire to extend this trip to an indefinite duration.

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a delicious meal

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meeting the whole family

While we were not eating, we also checked out a few of the necessary voyeur terrorist tourism-type sites, such as the area where Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusuf used to preach (his mosque and house have since been razed, but some of the buildings nearby still have bullet holes from the 2009 uprising that pit his group against the government), and Gwange neighborhood (one of the poorer areas of the city, that I frequently saw pop up in the news circa 2011-12 as the site of near daily violence).

 

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area of the city in which Muhammad Yusuf used to preach

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site of the former mosque

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continued scars

Other visited institutions of the city also used to be the site of significant violence, but have since recovered. Monday Market, the central market in Maiduguri, suffered from multiple Boko Haram attacks, but you wouldn’t be able to tell today as we walked around a large central market not unlike any other in West Africa. It also seemed to have plenty of food available, in contrast to the dire situation faced by many in this part of the country.

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kicking it in Monday Market

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grains available

On that note, we also visited a few IDP camps, to get a sense of the situation faced by many. There was a distinct difference among the camps we visited in terms of official response and more makeshift settlements, but it was also clear a number of international NGOs had heeded the call and were present. A few of the IDPs recounted their horrific tales of having to flee their home villages due to Boko Haram violence, and their desire to return as soon as they can to continue with their lives. A long-line of brightly dressed women waiting for a food handout along the side of the road as we left the camp, directly contrasted to the seeming normality we had seen in the market.

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Dwellings in IDP camp I

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Dwellings in IDP Camp II

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food line

The University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID) is another Maiduguri institution, and despite Boko Haram’s abhorrence of Western-style education, was largely was spared during even the height of the conflict. It is located, however, on the southeastern edge of the city and encompasses a large campus which is not all fenced off, thus making it an easy and recent target of Boko Haram violence. It was the university Richard and most of his family & friends had attended, so we went to visit there as well. Security was a little tight and I had to explain myself to gain entrance – despite the presence of security personnel around the city, nowhere else were we stopped. We eventually got in through the first gate, after convincing the guards that a bearded Pakistani who studies terrorism and at times gets mistakenly placed on no-fly lists, was of little threat to them.

But once inside, we went to where Richard and his friends typically hang out. It was a couple of benches underneath a tree along a heavily trafficked sidewalk, next to some stores and other guys selling snacks. In other words, the perfect place to be seen, but also relax and see. We ate some watermelon and talked with his friends for a while. The whole experience was so normal, it was almost surreal for me to imagine that all these guys had basically lived through a war. The setting could’ve taken place on any college campus anywhere in the world, and I had to keep reminding myself I was indeed in Maiduguri (although the uproar that ensued once I explained I didn’t want kids probably would be more replicated at a place like Bob Jones University, rather than the ones I attended).

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hanging at the university

In fact, Richard’s whole life seemed so much more normal than I had envisioned. He lived by himself in a one-bedroom apartment, drove a car, hung out with his friends, watched downloaded movies on his tv, went on dates with his girlfriend, and generally led a life typical of a mid-20s young male. Of course, the electricity in his house was out at least half the month, he struggled to find steady work, and had to dodge the occasional suicide bomber. But, aside from that . . .

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Richard in his pad

One of the other areas we visited was the Sanda Kyarimi Park Zoo. The zoo had apparently stayed opened throughout the conflict, though it may have seen some better days. A collection of animals, namely elephants, ostriches, and alligators, highlighted its presence, but it served as a sort of success story, a part of the city that refused to cower in the presence of militancy, and survived throughout (the animals themselves had refused Boko Haram’s incessant recruitment attempts). A sort of symbol of the city’s resilience. At the same time, however, it appeared the animals served as a secondary purpose, with the primary one being of an area for young couples to spend time together, with only a leering ostrich to judge them. Another stark reminder that the perverse ideology of Boko Haram, despite its stranglehold on this city for some time, clearly does not represent the entirety of the population. An obvious fact, but one that is nice to see visible signs of at times.

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spying on couples

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some more creeping

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he’s definitely creeping too

Finally, perhaps my other favorite event was when a massive sandstorm preceded a rainstorm, darkening the sky almost immediately. The storms in the Sahel, while less frequent than the daily affliction of rain in Addis between June to September, are simply more dramatic. Despite barely being able to keep my eyes open to all the dust circling around, I cherished the experience.

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and the sky darkens

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All in all, the trip to Maiduguri was a success, not least of all given that no security incidents occurred (despite some scares in the weeks after). The security risk to the city was palpable – there is a nightly curfew, the civilian vigilantes set up their checkpoints in the early evening, there are posters of wanted militants around the city, and regular convoys of military officers and armory go by. But at the same time, Maiduguri is as normal a city as elsewhere in the Sahel/West Africa region, and life for most of its residents goes on. The Boko Haram crisis has clearly had an effect – for example there are none of the motos that are ubiquitous elsewhere in West Africa as they were banned since Boko Haram easily used them as a getaway for hit and run assassinations – rather these have been replaced with the less escapable three-wheeled tuk-tuks. Examples like that abound of the effects the Boko Haram crisis has had on the city, not least to speak of the devastated countryside. And while much of Borno state is suffering and the IDPs in Maiduguri as well, it is easy to feel a sense of normalcy in the city and forget about the issues surrounding it.

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youth vigilantes sign

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Anti-Boko Haram army poster

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(poorly shot) movement of security personnel

At any rate, I had accomplished a key personal and professional goal in finally setting foot in a city I had read so much about, and meeting the contacts I had worked so much with. Nonetheless, the trip was short, in fact too short – four days was certainly enough to check off the box, but it just added another item to the list – which is to return soon and for a lengthier duration!

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next time I’ll make this hat work!

 

 

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Burkina – The Return

I had always kind of wanted to return to Sideradougou, the village in southwest Burkina Faso where I had spent my Peace Corps service, but had never found myself back in West Africa or seriously pursuing the idea. Many other volunteers I knew had gone back in the intervening years, but the prohibitive cost of flights from the US combined with limited vacation days and an entire world to explore made the prospect look daunting. Once Christine and I moved to next door Benin for her work, however, my hand was forced – I had clearly run out of useful excuses and resolved to make a trip as soon as I could.

Given the paucity of flight connections within West Africa, air travel was nearly as expensive as if I was coming from Europe (one of the more reasonable itineraries had me flying from Benin to Morocco for a 20+ hour layover, just fly back down to Burkina), thus the whole thing would have to be done overland. That meant about 30 hours with four different transport changes, but hey at least that helped set the tone as I felt like a poor Peace Corps Volunteer again (or also made me wonder how I had progressed so little during the past 3,179 days since leaving village).

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la route

Other than the logistics of actually getting there, the other main issue was that I had fallen out of contact with everyone in my village during the past nine years. People’s cell phones numbers changed, while I moved around my fair bit as well. Prior to my arrival I tried to send a note via the taxi brousse system (literally having someone give a piece of paper to a driver plying the route to my village, who would then give it to someone there so they could locate the intended recipient – or if the driver was less inclined, he would just throw it out the window as he passed the town). While that may have been a somewhat effective means previously, the cell phone revolution appears to have killed off such obsolete forms of communication, and my message floundered in the dust unanswered.

Thus I was going in blind, just how I don’t really like it. It was my village after all though, surely the life-size statute of myself that I had built,  my crowning achievement during service, still resplendently stood on the main road, no? Plus, how many other volunteers since had brought a two-year supply of bacos with them, only to force feed it to the masses? My village must remember me, and this wouldn’t be awkward at all.

I more or less planned to just show up unannounced. While this seemed like a great idea at first – just surprise the whole village I figured, they’ll be thrilled! – I became increasingly nervous the further into the 30-hour journey I became. Maybe just showing up was not be the right way to go – maybe no one would remember me (which would have severe and lasting repercussions for my fragile psyche), maybe they would be angry I hadn’t come back with gold bullion bars from the streets of l’Amerique as I had promised, maybe the foreign volunteers in the village after me would’ve commanded such a strong cult of personality to erase any memory of my time there from the pages of village history (i.e. tearing down the statue), or perhaps everyone would just really remember how much I smelled and agonize over the thought of such odors returning to the village. A combination of such dynamics were likely to transpire I figure, but I was in too deep to turn back now.

Thus, as much as I had wanted to spend the night, I was hesitant about showing up after so long already, and searching for a place to stay would have been an added complication, so I resolved to just visit for the day this time. It would be nearly impossible to pull off such a feat and have meaningful time there via taxi brousse as well, so I rented a car & driver for the day in the nearby town of Banfora, representative of my newfound status as a ‘baller’ (aka anyone who is not a Peace Corps volunteer).

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Arriving in style

Thus at 10:00am on May 31st, 2016 I pulled into Sideradougou like it was 2006 all over again. Expect that upon arrival, I had no idea what to do. The driver of the car I had rented already thought I was a bit strange for wanting to go to Sidera for the day, despite my explanations. He was also primarily concerned by what he was going to do all day there. But I guess he figured that out quickly, as once getting there he essentially kicked me out of the car and said he’d see me at 4:00pm. Six hours in Sidera – what had I done??

My basic plan essentially involved all of the following – just start walking down the main road and hope someone (i.e. anyone) recognized me. It was a bit of an arrogant strategy, but lord knows how many names and faces I had forgotten over the intervening nine years. Even more arrogantly, I hadn’t even bothered to look through my extensive photo collection circa 2005-07 for a crash course of key figures in Sideradougou societal circles prior to arrival. At any rate, here I was now – not much more to do really.

I started walking and instantly a wave of trepidation came over me. Each passing second that no one called out my name only reinforced my recently formulated preconceived concerns that this was an utterly harebrained plan, and I was going to spend the next six hours in a valley of depression significantly deeper than any Larium-induced psychosis over the fact that the village I had poured my soul into for two years no longer maintained a reciprocal status with me.

I kept walking and began to wonder also – what if no one recognized me now? My face contained a few more hairs and my belly a few more pounds – I was likely the opposite of a shell of my former self. I probably should’ve shaved and dug up those scotch-taped, completely unaligned glasses I had worn throughout my service, along with a few of the rags I used as clothing and the tattered Redskins hat I never took off in two years – then people would recognize me. That must be it, nothing about the lack of impression that I give, simply a lack of recognition give my nine post-Sidera years of near bi-weekly hot showers. That must be it.

Finally, when I had given up all hope amongst the roller coaster of emotions I had experienced in my first 120 seconds back in village, some cried out almost incredulously “Omar? Omar???”

I was a made man! My plan had worked – I turned to see where the call was coming from and immediately recognized the face. Unfortunately I also immediately did not recognize the name, nor could formulate anything close. No matter, the man in question (who I will call Solo, as I later found that was indeed, and had always been, his name) was an old friend – perhaps not in my inner most circle which largely consisted of myself, a few of the talking lizards that lived on my walls, and my shortwave radio – but in the next tier. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my Sidera plan.

Solo was so surprised to see me – he looked essentially exactly the same, with a few additional gray hairs sprouting in his short hair. We chatted a bit, and then he offered to take me by my old house – I had hoped someone would be willing to sort of ‘chaperon’ me around at the beginning as I gathered my bearings again, so this worked out well. We went off on his moto (so liberating as this was technically not allowed during our Peace Corps service) and after getting off the main road I instantly remembered how to get there. Solo had warned me that no one was living there now, and the landlord has passed away and his son was re-doing the house, or something of the sort. Sure enough, the house was in a state of non-use and disrepair – the entire courtyard had been vacated long ago. I poked around a bit, trying to see if I could enter, but figured I wasn’t here to dwell on the past. Following that, Solo took me to see the house he is building now, and then to his place for an impromptu tea session.

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my old abode, in a state of non-use

 

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Tea time at Solo’s house – just like old times

Solo’s house in construction was actually just two ‘blocks’ down from my old house, on a road in which I remember there being basically nothing, save for an odd boutique perhaps. Now there were multiple boutiques and even a restaurant of sorts. Such developments count, as well developments – one of the main questions I had going in was how Sidera might be changing, and here was my first piece of real evidence.

I sat at Solo’s having tea for some time, happy to have a place to be. But then I realized that I really had only six hours in Sidera, as my driver was insistent on making the two-hour journey back on the dirt road to Banfora before nightfall. The short moto ride from the main road to Solo’s house had flooded back a wave of memories, and all of a sudden I felt I had to see everything. My mind instantly flipped from “what on earth am I going to do here for six hours,” to “oh my goodness, I only have six hours!”

Thus I wrapped up tea with Solo as quickly but politely as I could, still grateful that he happened to be on the main strip and recognized me right off the bat. I asked Solo to drop me off at Amara’s boutique, the place owned by one of my closest village friends. I was very nervous upon asking as it had been nine years and given the state of healthcare au village, I shouldn’t assume that everyone from 2007 was up and running (in fact on an incredible sad note, Solo had informed me right off the bat that my counterpart/one of closest friends in village had unfortunately passed away six years ago). Thankfully, Solo said Amara was doing well.

He dropped me off and I marched into Amara’s boutique as I had many an afternoons, as if nothing had changed. Amara’s jaw kind of dropped upon seeing me, and gasped something like “it is really you? I never thought we would meet again!”

I had always enjoyed hanging out at Amara’s boutique as I found him to be incredibly intelligent and well versed in current events, as he sat there and listed to RFI all day. We had great conversations about the world, and he taught me a lot about the local culture. His three-year old daughter at the time was also insane in a good way, and always excited when I came around, yelling various things in various non-French languages (I would typically write down my daily tasks for the day on my hand – not that there wasn’t paper, I just like the idea of ink seeping into my blood stream – anyways, she would always grab it instantly and pretend to read at a very high volume, shouting out pure gibberish).

Visiting Amara’s boutique was a primary motivation behind returning, and it was an incredibly touching moment. In some ways I felt ­­­­­­­­­­­disillusioned that his little boutique looked exactly as it had when I left – it was comforting in a way, but also meant that this brilliant and hardworking man was held back by a simple lack of opportunity predicated on the geographic chance of birth. On the other hand, Amara was doing quite well and had expanded his family by two, a clear sign of success in these parts. His previously rambunctious daughter was now a serene twelve year-old (but that mantle has been taken up by her new six-year old sister). I was nervous about expecting to recognize the kids I used to know, as they five-year olds would now be taller than me – but she had the same face of the little girl I had doted on.

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Amara’s boutique and daughter – at least one has grown significantly!

I spent the next three hours catching up with Amara on village developments, and other world events. As much as I didn’t want to, I tried to leave on multiple occasions given my time constraints, only to be drawn back in by hospitality demands that I be thoroughly well fed before my departure. At one point, I was surprised to see Amara’s other daughter holding up a set of battered playing cards – he said I had given them to the family when I left. I had no recollection of bequeathing these specific playing cards, but was happy they had endured, and reminded me how the littlest thing can have a lasting impact.

Finally around 3:15pm I left Amara’s house – I had no desire to, I could’ve spent all day there and been content. I cursed myself for not arranging to spend the night in Sidera somewhere, despite the practicality of the decision at the time. Next time, I’ll come and spend a few days I figured, and truly be able to have enough time to repeat all my experiences of nine years prior.

Amara had told me some Moringa plants I had started as part of a child malnutrition project were still being grown at the CSPS (local health center), and even being used. Solo himself had said “every time I see those plants, I think of Omar.” It wasn’t quite an imposing village statue of me, but it would do. I was even more surprised these were still standing than the playing cards, but figured I had to check it out. Time was of the essence, as the 4:00pm deadline to return was looming, so I quickly jotted off to the outskirts of town where the health center was located.

Unfortunately, while on my way, I passed by the local police station. The sight of a random bearded foreigner, running by himself with a backpack down the road in Sideradougou, where foreigners likely rarely ever run by themselves, ostensibly startled the officers hanging around outside the station. I was already cognizant of the changes in Burkina Faso due to the creeping threat of terrorism from northern Mali, punctuated by the January 2016 attacks in Ouagadougou. Identification checks along the roads were frequent now, at a rate unseen before. Nonetheless, while en brousse, I assumed this would stop.

No luck, as the officer began frantically whistling his whistle and waving for me to come over. I kind of ignored the first noises and friendly waved back as if to say hello, but his insistent nature informed me that it would be better to heed this request than to not. I approached nonchalantly but in a manner of feigned surprise to make it seem like it was routine for me to be here doing what I was doing, while he immediately asked for my identification. I took out my passport, and explained that I was just going to the CSPS to check on a project. I was a little curt, more than I ever should be with West African security officials, because time my time in Sidera was rapidly ticking down, and I had many other goals post-the CSPS Moringa run.

He handed me over to the police commissioner, and then I decided to expedite the process by explaining that I used to live here and had come back to visit right now. He poured over my passport and visa, and upon learning that this particular police commissioner had been installed here in 2010, I offered something presumptuously conceited to the effect of “well then, my ties to Sideradougou pre-date your own.” I stopped myself after that, and resolved to be a better detainee by chitchatting a bit about the village and how it’s changed. The commissioner seemed satisfied enough to let me continue on my regularly scheduled path after about 15 valuable minutes, and I immediately took off. Though I really couldn’t get too angry as they were just doing their job (and I looked suspicious enough to the point where I would’ve stopped myself).

I managed to make it to the CSPS and saw what I assumed were the plants (in reality, I had no idea). Luckily, as had been dominant theme of my plan throughout this village visit, an old friend popped up and confirmed that these were indeed the plants and they were being used. I had been a business volunteer, with grand designs to develop the local cotton-based economy into a thriving West African powerhouse, but I suppose I should still be happy if my lasting impact of two years of service is that little children were getting a bit more vitamins and nutrients than they used to.

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The Moringa trees still alive and kicking, to my surprise

I wanted to run up to the local high school to see if the world maps I had painted were still in effect, and just wander along the streets a bit more to take in other developments and hopefully run into some other old acquaintances, but it was already 4:15 by this point. My CSPS friend took me back to the center of town where my car was waiting, but luckily a few other friends had heard I was in town and gathered around to see me before I went off. Thus I was able to squeeze in a couple additional three-minute sessions aimed at catching up over the past nine years, and then left village with a high note. Of course, as soon as I entered the car to leave Sidera again for one last time, we drove six minutes to the outskirts of village and promptly broke down for an hour. But at least that allowed me to take in the experience I wasn’t ready to have end a bit more, even while the driver frantically worked to repair his vehicle in time so we wouldn’t have to travel at dark.

Overall, my nerves quickly subsided upon returning to village and it felt just like old times for a while. Though my time was short, I accomplished what I set out to do by finding out and catching up with a few old friends, reestablishing contact, and seeing how a near decade had changed or not changed things for a place as near and dear to me as anywhere else I’ve lived.

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Modibo – my old water guy who used to be constantly sick (often I was told by other villagers when I needed to find him as I had run out of water, not to bother as he would die that day), looking better than ever!

 

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This guy owned one of the bush taxis I used to travel on – I thought he was super old back then, but seems just the same now!

In some ways, Sideradougou had changed a lot – this biggest initiative being the advent of electricity about a year ago. I yearned for electricity during my time there, but eventually got every used to living without it, and as volunteers we always wondered how life might change if such modern amenities were introduced to our villages. The typical refrain is that it would help businesses (refrigerators, etc.) and households (nighttime lighting for kids to study), but in reality it might just mean more television watching and cell phone recharging. I can’t say I was able to determine the impact in the six short hours I was there, but it was telling that some residents, such as Amara who live one road removed from the main road, still hadn’t paid to have it installed just yet. Regardless, the introduction of a modern amenity considered standard in much of the rest of the world is a definite cause for celebration and a visible sign of progress – and considering when I arrived back in 2005 there was no cell phone reception or electricity, the introduction of both within a decade span I’d say is a decent indicator that things are overall trending upwards.

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electricity counter in action next to a latrine (perhaps indoor plumbing as a next step?)

In addition, Sidera had clearly grown. People talked of it more as a small town now, rather than a big village. I was quoted some population numbers I cannot recall, but signs of this were apparent throughout. Along with the increased number of stores and other businesses off the main road, the CSPS had actually been upgraded to a more regional health facility, replete with additional structures. I was told a number of new schools had also opened, both private and public. Two boulangeries (bakeries) had also opened in Sideradougou, and residents were clearly proud of the fact that they no longer had to import their baguettes. While I saw smart phones for sale as well, most people I interacted with still had most basic cellphones, though admittedly more advanced models than what I was used to carrying around stateside!

A gold mining project had also begun about 40km from Sidera, with some elements based in the town. In fact, on the ride to town we also saw independent prospectors, women digging through the dirt on the way into town. While it may be temporary as once the stores are exhausted the mining companies will leave, it does represent a new local industry, and makes me think I should’ve spent more time digging around in the dirt while I was there (more than my usual amount of course).

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gold prospecting – I could’ve been doing this for the past nine years

On the other hand, some things have definitely not changed, and may have even gotten worse. The dirt road from Banfora has gotten pretty bad, and the rainy season was just getting underway. The premature passing of my counterpart from ‘hypertension’ reveals the continued hazard of public health concerns considered much more easily treatable back home. And the numerous police checks underlie the overall increased risk of terrorism and spread of radical ideologies – something that was not an issue in the least in this region nine years ago.

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la route n’est pas bonne

Overall, the basic picture of the village and daily life is largely the same, with a few added amenities and hopefully some additional opportunities. Nine years is both a short and long time, but I kept finding myself wondering what Sideradougou will look like by the time Amara’s one-year old son is his age. There’s often a tendency to resort to a ‘nothing ever changes’ sort of attitude, but I can’t say that has been the case in Sideradougou, and hopefully will continue in that direction.

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Sideradougou village entrance, with electricity wires!

In this sense, despite all my nerves, the trip was a smashing success both from a personal standpoint and that of intellectual curiosity. The biggest added benefit, besides seeing many old friends doing well in their situations, was the reestablishment of contact so that I can confidently drop in from time to time when in the region. In some ways, I thought this visit might close that chapter of my life, as I would’ve gotten the village update I needed and been able to fully move on. But in reality, it did just the opposite and reminded what a unique experience I was lucky enough to participate in, and that the bonds developed and personal relations cultivated will continue to demand my presence from time to time – just hopefully the next visit will be sooner than nine years from now!

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Amara’s family has been growing – hopefully will be back soon to see check in again!

Venice is the Ganvie of Europe

About ten years ago when I visited Christine while she was still a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, she asked me what I wanted to do around the country, before quickly muttering something disparaging along the lines of “anything but Ganvie . . . it’s waaaay too touristy.” As one of the few world citizens without a deep knowledge of Beninese history and culture at the time, I had no idea what ‘a ganvie’ was, and generally accepted the stipulation that it was not on the table. However, after having learned later on of its fame and frequent reference as “the Venice of Africa,” I secretly harbored a desire to visit the floating village on Lake Nokoue. A village where the houses have been built on stilts in the middle of the water for centuries as a means to avoid enemies, less than an hour from Cotonou – who doesn’t want to see that? Aside from dismissive Peace Corps volunteers who actively disdain anyone who commits to Benin for less than two years at a time and contemptuously frown upon all others who pass in their midst, of course (note: I am as guilty of this as anyone as well, thus am qualified to write it). Nonetheless, given Christine’s initial reaction, I kept such desire hidden, lest I be lumped in with all the other ephemeral visitors.

For years I never told Christine about my desire to visit the village, fearful of her response – that is until she married me. Once that deed was done and she could use my childish aspirations as an excuse to forever depart no more, I broke the news. As luck would have it, a few years later she accepted a short-term position in Benin and I was to accompany her – this time there would be ‘a Ganvie!’

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No motos to get to this village

A few weeks in we got our chance during a belatedly announced national holiday in the middle of the week. With no other plans, Christine begrudgingly asked what I wanted to do, knowing all too well that response was “we’re going to Ganvie!” But given her own graduation from the Peace Corps ten years prior, and an abundance of world travels since then where we were the non-committal tourists who came, took photos, and absconded, Christine relented and we were allowed to play tourist.

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Us happy tourists along for the ride!

In fact, it could be the day we went there, or the fact that we just don’t care about anything anymore, but Ganvie was not as touristy as expected. Maybe this was also because this was all based on the ridiculous notion that anything in Benin could be “too” touristy, which thus meant other tourists would actually have to be present in this tiny country most outside West Africa do not believe even exists (I am still personally skeptical on that point myself).

Regardless, getting there is a breeze, and costs a grand total of $1 on public transport. A two-hour boat ride with the official association runs a bit more (at $10/person), but given that our boat did not appear to be teetering on the edge of destruction as most others plying the lake, it appeared to be good value. We opted for the optional guide, as we were full fledged tourists now, and went off. The two main pit stops the boat makes are designed to sell you items, but if you can ignore the desperate pleas for patronage (which we instantly did at each stop), the rest of the ride was through an active floating village. In fact, we only saw one other boat with tourists the whole time, though given the aforementioned low threshold of Beninese tourism, I could see how that could be classified as “too touristy.”

At any rate, Ganvie is an entire village built on stilts, dating back to the 1700s when the king of the Tofinu took his people into the water to avoid constant raids from enemies. The legend has it he transformed into some sort of animal, and then a few other mystical-type things happened, and then there was another round of such otherworldly developments, and then you had Ganvie. Or something like that as our tour guide explained, and I clearly closely listened.

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Ganvie as I always hoped and dreamed

The village itself it pretty interesting to see though, and not quite as “frozen in time” as one might expect. In fact, it has all the normal facets of a typical village, every building just so happens to be surrounded by water thus the roads are always flooded, even during the dry season. There were solar panels, a health center, a market, a mosque, and porches attached to many of the houses. We cruised down the two main “roads” which intersect at the local market in which the stalls are boat based. Unfortunately it was not market day, but other daily activities around the village we witnessed seemed fairly routine, just with a lot more fishing nets and boats present.

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Market during non-market day

In a way it actually might be a super touristy village, in that people are used to foreigners idling by in their boats, and thus the constant screams of “yovo, cadeau!,” (white person, present!) are somewhat muted (though really only somewhat). All in all, it’s a pretty interesting place to visit, though the comparisons to the grandeur of Venice might be just a bit of a stretch. For a unique experience just outside Cotonou though, and a chance to spend a half day on the water, well then it’s well worth pretending to be a tourist for that!

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Solar panels in force

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Even the mosque is on stilts!