Niamey - Treasures and Treasured Experiences
at the National Museum of Niger

The Republic of
Niger
Currency

The next morning we returned to the Craft Market, to be greeted by our new friends of the previous day and many more traders, all eagerly offering us exactly the same items, but now supposedly  in the hands of new owners ! But not a bead in sight !!

However, word of our arrival had reached the ears of the largest antique dealer in the area and after an hour of having to politely decline everything on offer for a second and third time, he arrived, introduced himself and whisked us off in his car to the outskirts of the city.

Stopping at a new and secure-looking compound in the suburbs, he unlocked a series of large padlocks, opened the doors and showed us his collection of treasures. It was the largest collection of genuine Saharan antiques I have ever seen in one place. It is totally impossible for me to describe them accurately, so as I was allowed to take some superb photographs, on the promise of preserving the anonymity of their whereabouts for security purposes .. I will let the pictures tell the story.

At first, I thought we had found a treasure-house of beads .. but on closer examination, all where either stone, shell or common types of early to mid 1900s Czech ovals. The stone beads were genuinely ancient and truly superb, but having already purchased a good selection of similar Stone bead strands in Mali, their considerable weight prevented me buying any more.

Shell and Czech beads I already had in abundance on my ATB Website, so despite being amazed by the incredible array of artefacts on offer, all I bought was an ancient metal spear tip ( see above ) as a 'souvenir' of my visit .. and with the promise of seeing some extra special beads .. we departed to our host's home.

Obviously being a wholesaler / retailer and having spent many years gathering both his collection and his knowledge, had proved profitable. At our host's large compound, in its lush garden surroundings, we were entertained to soft drinks and had a lovely array of ancient beads and stone points spread out before us on his patio table. Professing to know little about the beads which he had loosely mixed together in a selection of plastic bags .. but having the typically incredible African memory of exactly how much he had paid for them over many years .. he gave us fair prices which we could not argue with and required little bargaining. After considerable sorting, we did indeed find some extra special beads. Finding good examples of ancient 'Roman Eyes' and Medieval Islamic beads dating from 900 to 1500+ years old and some rare early 1800s Venetian beads, all of which had made their way to Niamey along the ancient trading routes, overland and via the River Niger.

His collection of stone points, again .. more of these in one place than I would have thought possible .. could be measured by the kilogram .. and plenty of kilograms at that ! Sadly very few were in first class condition because they had been thrown together

in large plastic carrier bags, but after a careful, time-consuming selection of the most perfect ones, we concluded our friendly dealings and were driven back to the city centre.

Keen that our visit to Niamey should be interesting and encompass as much of the locality as possible, our host asked if he could arrange a car to take us into the bush to attempt to see some giraffes on the following day. What a superb idea, naturally we agreed. To see giraffes, elephants or indeed any large four-legged wild animals in West Africa is becoming increasingly rare. Most of the countryside of North and West Africa has been decimated by the steady encroachment of the Sahel, leaving desert conditions, sparse scrub and little of the natural vegetation and habitats that they need for their survival. Too good an opportunity for us to miss.

By now it was around midday and very hot, so we decided to have a relaxing afternoon by paying a visit to Niamey's Musee National - The National Museum of Niger. Previous research had described it to be a 24 hectare park near the centre of the city featuring displays of the various Niger tribal cultures, including Djerma, Peul, Tuareg and Hausa, with their furniture, domestic objects and tools. Also to be seen are model houses, an artisan market, where you can view the skilled artists at work .. and a small zoo. Musical instruments, examples of national dress, prehistoric, ethnographic and indigenous mineral collections are on display in various pavilions, built and painted in the Housa ( Haoussa ) style.

 

Only a short walk from the Craft market, we found it easily and paid the very reasonable CFA 1000 entrance fee and another CFA 1000 for me to be allowed to take photographs. It was so hot, that we had to walk slowly around the animal enclosures, keeping under the shade of the trees whenever possible.  It was certainly not a large zoo, but all the animals we saw looked well fed, healthy and mostly in spacious areas.

The pavilions all seemed to be closed as we wandered amongst the assorted collections of mini villages, artisans and the displays of their work, which was on sale to us and the few other visitors we encountered. On asking if we could look in the pavilions, we found out that they did not open until 4.00 pm .. another two hours !! So we asked where we could get a drink and something to eat and we were told that it had long since closed down due to lack of business, but if we asked the small family clustered around a cool box under the trees near the old restaurant, we might get a drink.

Sure enough cold Cokes and Fantas were available and if we were prepared to wait half an hour or so, they would prepare some meat, chips and salad for us. The food eventually arrived, although no more than lukewarm it was tasty enough and welcome. Still another hour to wait before the opening of the pavilions with their artefact displays, so Alaghi decided he would rather see some of his business contacts in the city than wait .. and wandered off to try to make his fortune, leaving me to have an interesting chat with an American social anthropologist .. based in Niamey studying local pottery .. and his two Dutch student guests .. who were also resting in the shade !!

After a while, I had another walk around the zoo animal enclosures and found a small double roomed concrete pen, that I had not noticed before. It had a low roof, a dark interior and its barred window openings were covered in some very tatty wire mesh. Walking right up to the windows, I could see an evil-looking adult hyena skulking in the back corner of one side, dribbling saliva out of the corner of its mouth and looking as though it would rip your heart out without a second thought. In the adjacent cage was an enormous lioness .. lying on the floor looking thoroughly bored with life.

OK, I am English and English people talk to animals: "My word, you're a pretty lioness," says I, expecting her to possibly turn her head and give me the bored stare that most zoo animals have for the umpteenth visitor to peer at them that day. Without any hesitation, she got up, walked towards me and started purring and rubbing herself against the window bars, just like a domestic cat.
I honestly could not believe it .. she was so beautiful and so friendly towards me, a complete stranger and in the excitement of the moment, talking to her in English !! It was not long before I was stroking her behind her ears, tickling her under her chin and even rubbing the pads on her paws and stroking her stomach, when she stood up on her hinds legs against the bars .. at her full height, which was well over my six foot three inch frame. All the while she was 'purring her heart out' !!

I am not yet quite a complete idiot, so I didn't put my hand right into her cage, although I truly feel I would have been in no danger of being bitten, but I could easily use my fingers to stroke her through the gaps in the uneven fencing, that was covering the bars. This went on for about ten minutes, with both the lioness and the Toubab in a total harmony of delight. Suddenly a puppy-like whining noise started up from the pen next door, from .. would you believe it .. a jealous hyena ! Perhaps you might not believe me, but in total honesty .. within a few moments and at the same time, I was stroking a lioness with my left hand and a hyena with my right.

An absolutely magical moment..

On returning to the drinks people for another cool drink, I told them about my new animals friends, receiving looks of sheer astonishment and overhearing a few comments about crazy Toubabs whispered between them.

I just couldn't help myself and returned to my new four-legged friends to see if I could repeat the experience. A small group of local school children, on a tour of the museum, had collected and were standing in a group at a very safe distance away from the pen, 'oohing and aahing' at the dangerous animals within. You will have to try to imagine the looks on their faces, mouths open with their eyes bulging out like organ stops, when a Toubab calmly walked up to the pens and spoke to the animals, who both came up to to the bars for him to stroke them. It was so funny !!! And yes, I shamelessly played the scene for all it was worth; "Toubabs et les animaux dangereuse .. pas de problème, mes enfants"

You just had to be there to appreciate their reactions fully !!

A little later, whilst I was sitting having yet another cold drink, Alaghi returned. "Hey, Alaghi, I have some new friends, come and meet them." "Where are they?" he said, as we approached the pens. "In here, have a look," said I. On bending down and peering through the wire to see what was in the darkness, whether it was in Hausa or another tribal tongue, I know not .. but the cry of fear that he came out with, whilst leaping upwards and backwards some eight feet, was a new one to me.
Even when they came up to their new Toubab friend to be stroked, nothing on earth would persuade Alaghi to move a step closer !!

Despite all my travelling and wonderful experiences, the treasures I've seen and the people I've met on this and other trips, this totally unexpected affinity between 'man and beast' truly eclipses just about all of them. I would travel all the way back to Niamey just to repeat it.

National Museum
Avenue de la Mairie, Tue-Sun / Nov-Mar
9-12.00 & 3.30 - 6.00
April-Oct, 9.00 -12.00
& 4.00 - 6.30
Admission 1000 CFA

But a word of WARNING .. if you are lucky enough to visit the National Museum of Niger .. or any other zoo for that matter .. and find yourself close to a dangerous animal's cage, which is usually not allowed : NEVER EVER try the above with any of these animals. You could easily lose your hand or your life ....
and in Niamey, they might NOT be the same animals in residence.
As I should have done, speak to the keepers or a member of staff first.

The pavilions finally opened and we were treated to a fairly comprehensive display of Nigerienne culture, natural costumes, musical instruments and Neolithic stone artefacts. There are few tourist / visitor attractions in Niamey .. but the National Museum in the city centre, is well worth a visit.