Not in the news
5 min read

Not in the news

Not in the news

I recently wrote about Ukraine and why things make it into the news. This week I'm going to focus on something that doesn't make it into the news. But it should.

I lived in Niamey for a couple of years. It's probably not a city you've thought much about, if at all. It certainly never placed in my top ten places to visit list but I ended up there nonetheless. Niamey is the capital of Niger, one of the poorest, driest countries in the world. But Niger also has among the friendliest, most open people I've ever met.

Now, I know that sounds very cliche, I usually tense up whenever people tell me 'how nice everybody is' in any given country. I've been to Bhutan, 'the happiest place on earth (TM)', and I can confirm that not all of them are happy. There are rumours that even in Bhutan, hangovers make you grumpy.

Niger was a surprise. In a country two-thirds covered by the Sahara, where a quarter of children are likely to die before their fifth birthday, I found people to be unusually positive under such circumstances. Or maybe it was because of the circumstances.

One such story that comes to mind was after I had taken a driving test. For the test, I had to start at the test centre and reverse all the way around a roundabout. I've no idea why that was in the test, but there we are. What made it a little more tense for me was the fact that around 50 people were standing in the middle of said roundabout watching, waiting for their turn. I could feel 100 eyes on me.

Where I was congratulated. 

Despite my terrible driving skills and phobia of tests, I managed to pass. A week or so later I was standing on a street outside a shop when suddenly a young man I'd never seen before came up to me. "Simon!" he said. "Congratulations on passing your test!".

"Errrr," was the only response I could muster. I'm not very good at thinking on my feet.

"I had a test the same day," he said, with a huge grin. "I saw you passed. Well done!" Then, after a big slap on my back and before I could say thanks, he was off.

I had a lot of such interactions when idling around the city.

Another time I was left confused when I received a text from a Nigerien I had recently met. "How are you?" said the message. Nothing more. "Fine thank you, you?", I responded, wondering why they didn't make use of the additional word count on offer. "Yes, have a good day." I'd then sit nervously wondering when they'd ask for something or share news. Turns out, they were just saying hello.

I had a lot of these short, positive interactions and I found I had to pack away my British cynicism and accept that if people reach out to say hi there isn't always an ask on the end of it. I saw that if you meet a family or a crowd of friends, you're expected to greet each person one by one, not just shoot out a wave and mumble 'hello' as I was trained to do.

Anyway, I'm telling you about this because last night I watched a documentary by the name of 'Tenere', set in the North of Niger. It's the perfect example of how tragic, moving stories happen each day but don't make the news.

Damn poverty

'Tenere' by Hasan Söylemez is the story of one man, Bachir, making a trip on a truck across the Sahara desert. Thousands of Africans undertake this trip, seeking work in Libya or perhaps to even find a passage to Europe. It's insanely risky, and death is all too common.

Bachir has already made the trip several times and acted as a wise guide to us and his fellow travellers in this documentary. Like the Nigerians I had met, he is always open, upbeat, and light-hearted. But he is also someone who has lived a life in the face of unthinkable poverty.

Living there, it was striking how normal it was to hear from people who had lost brothers and sisters, even children. To hear such stories was an almost daily occurrence.

The story of people like Bachir is known but seldom told. You may have heard the stories of Africans cramming onto trucks and lorries and travelling day and night through the sweltering desert, many of whom dream of finding the Northern coastline to find boats into Europe. But it's unlikely you've heard any of the individual stories, had a name put to a face. It's unlikely such stories made it anywhere near the front pages of newspapers.

In 'Tenere', we follow Bachir and a group of men travelling day and night atop an old lorry, surrounded by baggage, goats, and jerry cans of water. It's exhausting watching the trip, unimaginable how anyone can survive such a journey.

One day they drove for hours fearful that they’d never find the one well and tree for shade. Getting lost that day would mean death. When they finally made it, Bachir, laying in the shade making tea ("I'll always be ok if there's tea," he remarked earlier), jokes that he knew it was tough as they were all silent for the first time. The group laughs and spirits begin to lift.

Death looms at all times. The men hear of a van that has broken down somewhere out in the desert. The police go to search and, somehow in the endless kilometres of sand, locate the van built for five people somehow holding 25 or so. The faces of the travellers look haunted, knowing how close they were to dying out there.

Stories like this should be in news. Official estimates say at least two lives are lost on average each day, although the figure is likely much higher. It's a disgrace that poverty pushes so many people into taking such extreme risks. It's also a disgrace that it will never take centre stage in the news.

And Bachir knows it.

"We've been travelling through this desert for days, night and day. No one in the world is aware of us..." he says at the end, sitting on the sand with the lorry in the background. He's looking worn out, looking into the sand drawing shapes with his finger. For the first time since you saw him leave his family, cracks appear through his usually jovial demeanour.

"I shouldn't be doing this at my age," he says as he begins to cry. "Damn Poverty", he says shaking his head, hiding the tears behind his face.

"Damn poverty," he repeats.

And that is the story right there. A story of thousands of Africans like Bachir forced into doing this trip because there is no other option. Thousands dying, buried in the desert below a tire to mark their grave, families never to see them again.

It's a story that demands attention, but it's a story that gets none.

A kind of epilogue

I expect people don't often hear about Niger so I also want to add some light to this picture.

I was fortunate enough to see a young musician by the name of Bombino perform while living in Niamey. It was the first time I ever experienced Toureg desert blues' and it blew me away. The speed, the precise yet loose rhythm, the effortless, funky style. I adored it. So I wanted to share his music with you.

Since then he's gone on to tour the world and I can't tell you how fortunate I feel to have seen him perform in his home country and how happy I am for him.

You see, even in the most difficult corners of life, beautiful things can always be created. People always find a way.

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