Turning 25 Towards Zinder


After a month of hitchhiking across the Sahara (including the Sahel), arriving in the old trading town of Zinder seemed to signal the end of my long desert journey.

The last few days had been weird.

slamic patterned mud house zinder niger
Young girl outside an elaborately patterned mud-house in the Muslim Hausa town of old Zinder.

Saying ‘goodbye’ to the guys who gave me a ride over the roadless, 400km sandy expanse between Algeria and Niger in the southern Sahara, to part ways at Niamey as I headed west across the Sahel, alone.

Kebabs and storage vessels for sale at the Zinder Market in the old trading town of Southern Niger in 1991.
Kebabs and storage vessels for sale at the Zinder Market in the old trading town in Southern Niger.

Traveling to Zinder old town

I remember my 25th birthday, passing the entire day either on the side of the road waiting for the taxi to fill, or moving, and sitting squeezed between three people in the rear seat.

During this time waiting around for passengers, a bicycle-wheeled vendor cart passed with stereo blaring.

I liked the music and bought the cassette to play in my Sony Walkman.

It was a guy called Ali Farka Touré (a blues singer from Mali, who Ry Cooder later collaborated with on the album “Talking Timbuktu” in 1994).

muslim people of zinder old town in niger
Street scenes in Zinder old town.

The evening of my birthday was nothing special either.

The owner of the bare concrete room said, “Just remember to close the window before you go out, as the power will come on at dusk and that’ll attract insects into your room.”

Well, maybe I was too tired from the shared taxi trip and no food, and now wanting to go out for some roasted meat and the chance of beer to celebrate…

BUT something slipped.

When I returned I was STUNNED to open the door and see flocks – 100s of mad flying insects like moths or locus’s bouncing off the walls of my bare-bulb lit room.


I reckon I spent about 30 minutes trying to kill them all in a swirl of sarong flapping action that crashed them to the cement floor before shoveling them outside.

Sleep would’ve been impossible – without such mass murder.

children scenes in zinder old town in niger
Life in the Zinder old town. TOP RIGHT: Boy with a tablet of Koranic verses.

Earlier, it’d been a shared-taxi ride from Konni, waiting in the sparse shade of a spare parts shelter that served as a shop.

Under a metal-frame tarp, with a plastic chair on the dust of the street, the two of us sat, the owner and I, avoiding the heat.

Maradi was a chaotic city, but a place where you could watch the street all day without feeling bored.

Drinking Coke or Pepsi – it didn’t matter, as long as they were cold.

Eating snacks that resembled dry rat bait.

Talking to strangers who were endless and friendly.

Watching a young taxi driver spend hours washing, soaping, washing, scrubbing, polishing and caressing his car.

Not an inch of the chassis missed.

Hubs shone. The engine washed free of its grime and oil. Car radio antenna wiped, and the small Niger flag straightened. Thick set of wheels, dusty but now black again. The interior cleaned. Yes, the car was his girlfriend. Or maybe the asset to attract a future wife?

boys in doorway zinder old town niger
Boys were curious to see a foreigner in Zinder old town.

Wandering lost in Zinder

One afternoon, I was wandering the streets of outer Zinder when I crossed over a slight dirt hill, stepping over a strand of down-trodden barbed wire on route to what I thought was a historic tower.

But as everything came into view, I suddenly entered a village and women and kids smiled and greeted me from the doorways of their simple concrete houses before I realized my mistake.

young girl balances bowl on head in streets of zinder in niger

This was no ordinary village – but a military cantonment! – as I now clearly saw ahead gates and soldiers standing there. Oh, sh*t.

How do I explain that I’m just wandering around an army camp to those guys? A real problem, since I’d already been pulled from the streets of Algeria and accused of being a foreign spy by soldiers (and it happened again later in Lagos, Nigeria).

I decided I couldn’t just turn around and head back the way I’d come as I was now the center of attention on this dusty road, so I kept casually wandering towards the gates, smiling and saying “Hi” to all that caught my eye.

Including to the soldiers at the gate, who to my surprise, didn’t even stop and question me.

Streets of old Zinder looking at the grand mosque.

Travels in Niger – 1991

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