If I were to say that this is the face of public transportation in Niger, it would be a joke. For some few rural folk, yes. For some, the number of camels one can park in one's garage makes a great deal of difference--the more, the merrier, you might say. Out in the country, where camels remain in vogue, a train of camels is money in the bank. (Just how many times in life does one get the opportunity to say a "train" of camels? Pardon me while I celebrate a bit.)
Let's try again. This is the face of public transportation in Niger.
Closer to the truth and not really a joke, although I can't help but smile to watch those guys up there and wonder how many might spill between, say, Niamey and Maduaoa. Seriously, travel the blue highways of Niger or Mali--there are no interstates--and spotting this kind of public transit won't be difficult. Gets the job done, I suppose, and ticket prices can't be outrageous.
I may be jaded by far too many years as a small college prof, so I'll admit to some prejudice here, specifically, that capital improvement projects which spend oodles of money on brick and mortar don't necessarily thrill me. Any number of times during my lifetime on campus, I couldn't help but groan when the college's big contributors would fork over major cash for buildings or clock towers or fancy gates, while faculty salaries didn't go up since the Dust Bowl. You know.
But roads in much of rural west Africa are nothing to write home about. I take that back--they are. It's what I'm doing right now. They are--I swear--infested with potholes and made totally torturous by speed bumps thou shalt not miss unless you really hate your rear axle.
Did I mention the seemingly random checkpoints, where some dude (seriously) has a frayed rope looped over the highway to stop you for no apparent reason? He looks in, nods and waves, then grabs the end of the jump rope and waves you through. Seriously. Here's just such a guy giving us passage. I'm serious. He's a cop. Sort of.
The only cop I've ever seen--not that I've spent my life looking--sporting a thong beneath orange pants. Seriously.
All of which makes any kind of travel through rural west Africa fascinating, although the restrooms leave a little to be desired (there are none).
Anyway, this jaded ex-prof with decidedly negative views toward capital improvements fell totally in love with a brand new railroad projected to run from Niamay, the capital of Niger, all the way to Benin. Cost?--1.3 billion. Seriously. It's a dream.
For miles and miles we drove right alongside endless construction--earth movers, stacked rails, yellow-vested workers by the score in hard hats. The task seemed gargantuan, a really beautiful dream, a project that is already changing the landscape. Seriously, Niger's new railroad project looked like a gorgeous promise in a region that some might say doesn't hold many.
Just to ride beside it was a gift, actually therapeutic--all those workers busy at it, the bush being shaped and graded, tracks being laid, materials set endlessly along the flattened path. Honestly, it was invigorating. Made me think of what America might have thought while watching Hoover Dam go up, watching Gutzon Borglum carve out the faces of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore. Made me want to build something myself, ourselves.
Seriously, I think I know how shallow putting faith in capital development can be. For years, I belly-ached. But this railroad project had me giddy.
Think of it this way--infrastructure isn't Niger's strength. The road-more-traveled should be the road-less-traveled. Landlocked, the country is totally reliant on lumbering semis to lug in goods and services, huge overburdened diesels (like the one above) that break down on those lonesome highways and then die right there, their mortal coils stripped into rusted hulks left to bleach in the hot sun. Not pretty.
That new railroad, part of a planned loop which eventually will connect Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire), Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), Niamey (Niger) and Coronou (Benin) via 2500 km of track, will enliven every sector of economic life in the region and offer mobility to its people. Just to be beside it felt like being a part of a dream.
But then, lots of things have been dreams in Africa. I suppose time will tell.
Meanwhile, right now this is the face of transportation in much of rural west Africa--mopeds with little engines that buzz, carrying, often as not, entire families--three and four people who somehow manage to hang on. Mopeds are everywhere, not just in the country, in the cities too, many of them Chinese, who are accomplished at flooding markets of all kinds.
But it was the new railroad that took my breath away. We hugged the project for miles, and when we left it behind, I felt abandoned.
Like I say, you got to love that brick-and-mortar.