Welcome to Niger, a fascinating corner of Africa waiting to be discovered. Strategically located in the heart of the continent, Niger invites you on a journey where the vast landscapes of the Sahara Desert meet the rich history of ancient cities.
In Niger, cultural diversity embraces travellers and every corner tells a story that will live on in the memory. Indeed, hospitality is the universal language of this unique destination, even though it is not without its difficulties in getting around.
General information on Niger
Niger is in Central Africa and borders seven countries: Algeria to the north, Libya to the east, Nigeria and Benin to the south, and Mali and Burkina Faso to the west.
A location that brings it more trouble than fortune, but at the same time makes it a terribly attractive destination for lovers of the Sahara desert and Sahelian populations.
Covering more than 1.2 million square kilometres, Niger has a population of approximately 24 million people. Most of it is concentrated in the south and west of the country, with large swathes of territory virtually empty.
The capital is Niamey, a vibrant city that offers a fascinating mix of modernity and tradition along the Niger River. A stone’s throw from the city are fishing villages that live alongside the hippopotamuses that inhabit this mythical river.
The dominant religion is Sunni Islam, although Sufi and Ismaili communities can be found, as well as some traditional African religions.
The official currency is the West African CFA franc.
Its climate is one of the harshest in the world. Rainfall has always been very low, but since climate change has taken hold on the planet, they suffer even more severely. Cyclical droughts are becoming more frequent and temperatures are rising year after year. Only the far south is somewhat spared from these circumstances as it is in the tropical area.
Economically, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is not that it has no natural wealth, as it has reserves of uranium, oil, gold, iron and other minerals. It is that those who extract them leave little or no economic benefit. This is, of course, the main reason for the presence of terrorist groups and the power struggles that have made life difficult for its people.
What to see in Niger
You may be wondering, what is there to see in Niger? What is there to see in Niger? Let’s start with a brief geographical introduction, then move on to the attractions we want to highlight.
Niger is divided into seven administrative regions and the ‘capital district’ of Niamey in the far southwest.
The largest region is Agadez, which includes much of the Nigerien Sahara with mythical places such as the Tenere: the dreaded desert within the desert that borders Algeria and Libya, is a Nature Reserve and holds great treasures such as the Aïr Mountains.
The Aïr is a volcanic massif that rises up in the middle of the Tenere. It is a beautiful landscape with its own unique climate, flora and fauna. Its highest peak is over 2,000 metres high and has been on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger since 1992.
Bilma oasis is another location in this great desert. Bilma was and still is a major landmark for caravans, smugglers and migrants heading to Libya in search of a better future. It is surrounded by a large erg or expanse of majestic dunes, and is the source of the salt that for many centuries was transported across the Sahara on camels. Today the Kalala salt mines are threatened by the encroachment of the desert, but there are still a few traders who make the journey as they have always done.
On the southern fringe of the country, bordering Nigeria and Chad, are the other departments that we consider to be of great interest to the traveller: Zinder and Maradi. Their eponymous capitals are superb cities that have sprung up in a savannah-like landscape, good for growing cereals and raising livestock.
The peoples or ethnic groups in Niger
Niger is home to a number of different ethnic groups. The Hausa dominate, making up about half the population, followed by the Zarma (about 20%), a largely farming people belonging to the Songhai.
The Hausa are a nation spread between Niger and northern Nigeria and are the largest ethnic group in Central Africa. Their glorious past ended with the arrival of colonial powers and the division of their territory, Hausa Country, in the early 20th century.
The rest of the population living in Niger is divided between the Fulani or Peul nomads:
The Fulani or Peul nomads, one of the ethnic groups that fascinate us most and with whom we have already had many encounters on our Kumakonda trips. This does not make them any less interesting to us, quite the contrary, because we learn something new every time.
The Tuareg: this mythical people, formerly known as “the blue men” because of the indigo tinge of their turbans, number around one million people in Niger. Their territories extend from the Aïr Mountains to the Azawad Basin, believed to be a tributary of the Niger River that has since disappeared. They can also be found in the markets of Agadez and Zinder.
The Kanuri: Niger has a small part of Lake Chad within its borders, hence the presence of these people on its territory. Many of Niger’s Kanuri have been severely punished by jihadism and have had to take refuge in Chad. We talk about the Kanuri in this blog article.
The Arabs and Tubu: these two ethnic groups are very important in Chad and some groups also live in Niger, especially in the centre and east of the country.
The cities of this Sahelian country
One of the great attractions of Niger, apart from the chance to encounter its many different peoples, are its historic towns.
Agadez, Zinder, Jamaa and Maradi are the most outstanding examples, although there are many more to be found along the way.
These are towns built of mud-brick in the Sudanese or Sahelian architectural style characteristic of the region. The result is the sight of large mud mosques, palaces and other majestic buildings with ornate façades.
These decorations are not gratuitous or simply aesthetic, but contain a whole symbolic and historical code. From the sacred to the social, the drawings ‘speak’ of names, dynasties and events of the past. They also serve to show the wealth and status of the owners. The use of more or less colour, on the other hand, reinforces the importance of the building in front of which we are standing.
The result is beautifully aesthetic cities where you can go crazy taking pictures. Moreover, it is not too difficult to get an audience with one of the sultans who still “reign” in their region. Encounters that take us back in time.
Cultures and traditions of Niger
Speaking of ceremonies, one aspect that we have found in Niger that has surprised us a lot is the survival of some ceremonies of an animist nature.
Rituals in southern Niger
The one that struck us the most is the Bori Ceremony of the Hausa Maguzawa, which we have told you more about in the article mentioned above.
The Hausa Maguzawa are a group within the Hausa who keep traditional medicine and spirit communication alive. Through trance and possession, they talk to their ancestors. All of this is done with spectacular aesthetics in terms of clothing and make-up.
Another impressive ceremony is the Tauri or Invincibles Dance, in which the men display their skill with swords and large knives or sabres.
Attending such rites is a unique opportunity to see a very interesting ancestral belief system, and on subsequent trips we will endeavour to delve as deeply as possible into it.
The Gerewol festival
The Gerewol festival in Niger should not go unmentioned.
This curious and eye-catching festival became known to the world through photographers and amateurs who came to Niger to photograph it. That was a few decades ago. Then the country was closed because of terrorist threats, and Chad replaced it some time later because the nomadic Fulani or Peul communities there also celebrate it.
While the Gerewol of Niger and Chad have many elements in common, as they are the same tradition and the same people, there are also differences that we want to know about. We know, for example, that Niger’s Gerewol brings together many more people, so the spectacle is guaranteed to be spectacular.
Niger’s Gerewol is held at the end of the summer but, like Chad’s, it has no fixed date. The chiefs of the different clans decide when and where it is held. To attend, it is essential to have a trusted contact who can confirm the dates and help us manage the community’s permits.
If you want to read more about the Gerewol, we invite you to read our article about the festival in Chad.
Be sure to check our programme of trips to Niger in the Travel section of this website, and ask us for information if you would like to join one of our expeditions.
On another front, some of the Hausa and the Zarma-Songhai ethnic group are farmers, and a very characteristic feature is the millet or sorghum barns that intermingle with their houses in Niger’s rural towns and cities.
Niger is the world’s second largest producer of millet or sorghum, second only to India. Production is traditional and organised by local communities.
Harvest is the peak of each season. It takes place in autumn and involves a process that lasts about 90 days. When it is over, there is a big feast where everyone eats and drinks at least three times a day, which is rare during the rest of the year. During these days, consumption focuses on the freshly harvested produce in the form of bread, porridge or fermented as beer.
We were fortunate enough to travel in Niger in November and saw how hundreds of women lined up in groups of 10 or 15 next to the millet piles, with the mission of “ventearlo” (separating the grain from the chaff).
The images are beautiful as they perform the movements in a kind of choreography, even though it is very hard work.
If you are not fortunate enough to travel there at harvest time, it is also very interesting to visit the villages to see the granaries. As we said, this is a very characteristic element that we have only seen, in quantity and quality, in this country.
Each village has hundreds of granaries where they store the year’s harvest, and their design is specific to the ethnic group that builds them.
Hausa granaries are shaped like a closed bell or sewing thimble, and are clad with adobe, which is a great natural insulator. In contrast, Zarma barns, known as “barma”, are made of thatch and are shaped like an open bell or inverted cone.
Security in Niger
Last but not least, we must talk about security in Niger.
Niger has been closed to travellers for many years. The presence of terrorist groups and other vicissitudes have prevented this.
In July 2023, moreover, there was a new coup d’état that resulted in the army seizing power. This has also sparked an unprecedented “Francophobia”. Under no circumstances is it advisable to speak French in public.
Despite all this, and after the first months of border closures and semi-blockade of the country, Niger seems to be relatively calm, especially in the areas bordering Nigeria and Chad (except for Lake Chad). That is why we have decided to travel through its lands, confirming that it is possible, as of November 2023.
In fact, we would like to highlight the kindness and hospitality of the people of Niger. With frank and open smiles, most of them accept to be photographed and always have a kind gesture for the stranger.
However, the government does not want to take any chances, so all foreigners are obliged to travel under police or military escort at all times. Depending on the area and the level of security, this escort is more or less numerous and armed, but no one is allowed to travel on their own, much less on public transport.
Admittedly, the issue of escorts is a big handicap for our pockets, as it has a high cost that leads us to have to increase the price of these trips. But we believe that it is worth it in exchange for getting to know this great country.
Who knows, maybe in the not too distant future the situation in Niger will be more normalised and we will be able to move around freely. In sha Allah.
Get ready to discover Niger, a treasure to be explored that will take your breath away and fill your heart with unforgettable memories!