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  our weeks of living in Ingal were enough for us to learn the necessary basics for our trip. Our funds were down to something less than 50 $; and so one early morning during what, according to the locals, was the hottest month of the year, we saddled our animals and tied up our belongings. Those, apart from the bag filled with books, consisted of a few pieces of clothing and some blankets, the goatskins filled with water and some modest provisions of rice, dried tomatoes and onions, powdered milk and the indispensable green tea and sugar. A small quantity of tobacco was included as well; because wherever we met some natives, invariably they'd first ask for sugar, tea and tobacco, and often money as well.  
our route from Ingal to Niamey
  e felt very sorry to leave Ahmed behind; he was one of the most congenial people we have met in West Africa. Yet the verdict of his uncle had been clear enough, so with heavy hearts we said goodbye to our young friend and set out into the desert in a south-western direction.  
  fter hardly half an hour of riding, the first of the bundles tied to one of the saddles tumbled down. To secure our abundant luggage so it would stay put until our next stop turned out to be a real art.  
  Every day at noon, the camels invariably needed to rest. They were accustomed to a midday pause and outright refused to continue when the sun was at its zenith. Accordingly, twice every day we had to occupy ourselves with the time consuming procedure of properly fixing up our bags and bundles. As mentioned earlier, a third camel solely for the luggage would have been convenient indeed; unfortunately, we didn't have the money for one.  
  he second day after leaving Ingal, we were met by a youth appearing from the direction we were traveling towards. He told us that the chief of a Tuareg tribe called Jllabakane at In Waggeur had heard of our coming and wanted us to spend the night there. We politely thanked the boy and explained that we had neither money nor gifts for his chief, and therefore couldn't accept the invitation.  
  The young man insisted we should accompany him. He assured us that nobody wanted anything from us, no presents were expected, the chief solely wanted to meet us and to offer us his and his tribe's hospitality, including food and a place to sleep, and fodder plus water for the camels. Considering it futile to further refuse, even knowing by now very well that people in this part of Africa weren't interested to meet strangers without the hope of some material gain, we gave in and followed the lad to his camp.  
  On our arrival there, we were duly greeted by the chief, a tall slender man maybe in his thirties. Again we explained that we had nothing to offer, and actually would be happy to continue on our way. To no avail; the chief too insisted that no presents were expected, and showed us the place we were to spend the night.  
  It turned out to be a very simple, tiny hut, four straw walls and a straw roof set upon sand, otherwise empty and barren. We later found out that this shack usually served to house passing tax collector and other government functionaries.  
tuareg camp
  Having unburdened our animals, we let the slave in charge of the tribe's camels lead them away. I actually mean slave, slavery wasn't abandoned yet in the Sahel region, and up to this day it still isn't. I remember once encountering a young lad on the road, and asking him, out of curiosity, about his ethnicity. Expecting him to tell us he was a Haussa or a Songhai, we were dumbfounded on when he answered us that he was a "captive", a slave!  
  fficially, slavery is of course prohibited in West African countries. From what I heard and read though, I know that whole families of slaves, having belonged to some well off masters that fed them and looked after all their basic needs for many generations, refused to leave the only way of life they were accustomed to. Where should they go, without any money at all, and without any knowledge of being responsible for their own survival in some of the poorest countries of the world?  
  Additionally, from talks with Tuareg people we learned that the dark-skinned members of the tribes originally used to be the slaves of the lighter-skinned ones; they probably still are treated accordingly.  
  (I saw a TV documentary a while ago about an organization in Niger that helps slaves to escape. Most of the shown cases were women who somehow found the courage to run away from their owners, though that usually meant leaving their children behind. With the help of said organization the children were freed and returned to their mothers. First thing shown was the story of a young slave woman from Tchin Tabbaraden, the precinct In Waggeur, where we spent those two days with the Tuareg tribe, belongs to.)  
  aving spread our saddle-blankets on the hut's sand floor we made ourselves comfortable. Soon the first natives, men mostly, appeared at the door opening, and, muttering a greeting, entered our hovel one after the other, until it was full to its limited capacity. We now were obliged to offer them tea, which was fine, as we still had enough tea and sugar to spare. With tea being ready came the usual demands for tobacco, which were met as well.  
preparing tea; Photo: postcard

he Tuareg drink tea at various times in the course of their day; and we also picked up the habit. A tiny kettle is stuffed to the brim with green tea leaves, a generous amount of sugar is added and water poured on. The concoction then is set on the fire to boil, and subsequently the first round of tiny glass cups are filled and distributed. This thick, dark green first brew is strong enough to give somebody not used to it a coronary, and despite the great quantity of sugar, tastes hellishly bitter. After pouring the tea, the leaves are left in the kettle, once more sugar and water are added and the mixture is put back on the fire to boil once more, making the second round slightly weaker than the first, but still unpleasantly strong and bitter.The third and fourth rounds were about palatable for me, so I usually bode my time.

  On our own, we used less tea leaves and consequently enjoyed a far milder brew.  
  vening set in, and our grumbling stomachs started to remind us that we hadn't eaten yet. As to the promised food, none was forthcoming, only a few twigs were supplied for us to build a small fire and cook our own, usual fare.  
  What happened next was yet to become a common part of our African experience: People started to tell us about their ills and diseases and to ask for medicines. We patiently explained over and over that we had no medical knowledge at all, a fact that seemingly neither impressed nor concerned anybody. The belief in the magic of the white man's power was unshakeable. Not until we handed out some pills we happened to have in our luggage, left over from X's hand injuries and some occurrence of diarrhea, were they content and left us to sleep.  
  oon after sunrise on the next morning, the chief appeared at our hut's entrance. He persuaded us not to leave yet, but to stay another day. Actually we'd have preferred to be off, but not wanting to insult our host, we acquiesced, thinking that at least the camels would enjoy the stay among a group of peers.  
  The entire day passed like the evening before: We sat rather bored in our bare hut, sharing our tea, tobacco and whatever pills we thought fitting with the frequent visitors from the tribe. In the afternoon the chief himself passed by, promising to come back next morning to give us directions for our onward journey.  
  Again, no food was offered to us on our second day. Not that we had a mind to deplete the tribe's food stocks; I only mention the issue because the young man who had extended the invitation to us back on the track had promised we'd of course be the chief's guests in that respect. And from experience we knew that those chiefs' tents were usually filled to the roof with the food rations that were actually meant for the tribe's needy.  
  aking early the following morning, we got up and packed our bags. Despite the Tuareg chief's insistence not to be expecting any present, we thought about handing him at least a small souvenir. In Algeria, a friendly fellow had presented each of us with a tiny conical basket with a pointed lid, its coils tightly wrapped with coloured threads thus generating a type of zig-zag pattern. Against our principles of not giving away something received as a gift, out of lack of any other suitable item we filled one of those boxes with dates and put it aside for the chief.  
  he slave boy who had led the camels away on the day of our arrival turned up with them in tow. Instead of graciously accepting our thanks, he demanded from us the outrageous sum of 500 CFA. I can't remember how much that would be nowadays, but for the time and place it was way too much. Our camels hadn't given him any extra work at all, they had just stood with the herd of the tribe. We were dumbstruck, thinking if a lowly slave dares ask that much of us, how much will the headman want?  
  In the middle of the ensuing argument with the camel boy, the chief made his appearance. Somewhat sheepishly we held out to him our box with the dates. Having understood that we refused to pay more than a few coins to the slave boy, he looked at his gift with disdain, grabbed it and, without a word of good bye, turned on his heel and made off.  
Even without the promised directions, we were relieved to get away from the camp and soon were back on our track again.
  t was to be the last time we slept in some village or camp during our journey, apart from the nights we spent at Tahoua, a small town about halfway to Niamey, and the stay at the hospitable Haussa village after having lost our way on the second leg of our journey.  
typical village with granaries along the road; photo:Galen R. Frysinger
  sually we managed to cover an average of about 25 kilometers a day. Letting the animals graze took up quite some time, it was hard enough for them to find something edible in the dried out environment, so they visibly got thinner with every passing day.  
  Not only the camels had a hard time though. I often remarked to my spouse that this trip was harder than working in Switzerland. We were occupied from dawn to late at night. It would have been easier with a few more people to share the chores. As it was, we enjoyed the trip but fell asleep totally exhausted every night.  
  The climate was fantastic, every day sunshine, a blue sky, and very dry air. As we were traveling during the hottest months of the year, we hardly ever needed to pee. I've read that in 1974 temperatures in Niger came up to 60°C in the shade. Dry as it was, we didn't sweat, at least not noticeably. At night I guess it must still have been around 45°C, otherwise I couldn't have slept without a cover. (I used to travel with an old 4 kg eiderdown in India, and while everybody else employed only the thinnest of fabrics as a protection against insects, I slept happily with my heavy cover up to my nose at 36°C or so.)  
Sahel rock formation; photo: web
  rientation was not much of a problem, often we just rode near the main tracks where the occasional lorry passed on its way from the north to Niamey, Niger's capital and our destination.  
Every morning we rose at dawn. To prepare tea, pack our bags and bundles and tie them to the saddles usually took about an hour; at least that's my guess, of course we didn't have a watch. Then we'd ride till near noon, when we'd start to look out for a resting place that afforded a minimum of shade, like some leave less trees or a big rock. After unloading, we went in search of twigs to feed our cooking fire while the hobbled animals roamed for some mouthfuls of dry grass or pursed their lips to eat the tender leaves growing between the long spines of the acacia trees.
acacia leaves: a preferred treat; photo:web

After building the fire, cooking and eating our rice with the inevitable sauce made of dried onions, garlic and dried tomatoes, it was time for another tea. Once the pleasant part of the rest being over, we had to do chores like cleaning pot and plates with the barest minimum of water, repairing our leather sandals or saddle belts, trying to figure out our position and the next water source on the map and while keeping an eye on the grazing animals.

Tuareg hobbling his mount; photo: web
  ven a hobbled camel is difficult to catch, and on our second day in the desert, we were thankful for the help of two passing Tuareg, who showed us a trick or two. With the days passing, we developed various strategies to catch our stubborn companions. The most promising one was to advance casually, whistling innocently without actually looking at the animals, and with a quick movement of the arm suddenly to grab the cord that was tied to their nose rings. The camels weren't fooled that easily, and our departure was often delayed due to their cunningly stepping aside with a mean little jump whenever we tried to get hold of the rope.  
  Having caught the animals and secured our belongings, we usually rode until the sun touched the horizon, when once more it was time to look out for a spot to rest and sleep. At night we had to tether the animals, otherwise we wouldn't have found them again next morning; even hobbled they could easily have covered a great distance while we were asleep.  
  The nights were magnificent. Using our saddle blankets fort pillows, we lay beneath a canopy of velvety bluish-black sky glimmering with thousands upon thousands of stars glittering like diamonds scattered by some mythological goddess. Frequent shooting stars streaking the sky enhanced the spectacle, I couldn't get enough watching a sight as beautiful as I had never before seen .  
  hen we were sitting near the fire drinking tea before turning in, big spiders, attracted by the light of the flames, would sometimes appear out of nowhere. Now if anything could have turned my otherwise fearless partner into a hysterical mess, it was those eight legged visitors. More than once X. even insisted on me peering up his trouser legs to check for intruders. Nearly collapsing with laughter, I abided, without ever finding anything.  
  Spider were not the only desert life we came across. One night we went to sleep beneath some shrub like small trees. We were just starting to doze off when our skin started to itch all over. Taking a close look we found dozens of ticks which had dropped from the branches of the bushes onto our bodies. As fast as possible we gathered our belongings, moved somewhere else and started to remove the bloodsuckers from our skin.  

Another evening, when we just had unloaded the animals, a small scorpion scurried about our chosen campground. Too tired to upload our baggage once more, we killed the poor critter, feeling rather guilty afterwards for having thus extinguished an innocent life.

  very once in a while, from a wayside ditch or out of a copse of thorny dry bushes, a nauseating smell would assail our noses. We soon knew that smell to announce the presence of some decomposing animal carcass lying near the track, usually that of a cow or a donkey.  
a victim of drought and disease; photo:web
  Never before nor afterwards have I ever smelled anything so vile. During the great drought of that time, 80 - 100% of all livestock in Niger's Sahel zone perished. In addition to the lack of water, some epidemic also took its toll on the animals; our guess was foot and mouth disease, but we didn't know for sure.  
  I vividly remember an encounter we had one morning with a Peulh herdsman coming from the opposite direction, guiding a few meager heads of cattle. The man eagerly asked if the region we came from was free of the disease; we had to crush his hope by telling him it was rampant in all the places we had passed through. We felt very sorry for the unfortunate fellow, but there was nothing we could do for him.  
Peulh herdsman; photo:web
  For thousands of nomads in the Sahel, their animals are their only possessions. Loosing those animals often means a life without a future, a life in abject poverty for them and their families.  

iding along complacently one afternoon, we noticed the sky starting to change its color from the customary light blue to a dirty yellow: We were to experience our first and only sandstorm! Not long, and a strong wind, loaded with fine grains of sand, blew into our faces. The kohl (kajal), the silver-black pounded antimony that we had applied to our eyes not solely for beauty's sake, but also because it is said to keep the dust out, didn't help at all. Within a very short time we couldn't see more than two or three meters ahead, and subsequently had to dismount.

Sahel sandstorm; photo: web
  With the world all around us reduced to nothing but sand and wind, what could we do but wrap some rags around our faces, huddle down and wait. As it was already late in the day and maybe two hours had passed without any change of weather conditions, we decided to make the best of the opportunity and turn in early. The camels would have to go without dinner; with visibility near zero there was no question of letting them roam in search of fodder. For fear of loosing our mounts we tied them to the saddles we were leaning on. The animals, not accustomed to sandstorms themselves, for once made no fuss, obediently sat down and rested alongside us.  
  Waking up early next morning beneath a clear blue sky, to our great astonishment we found that we had made camp only a few meters away from the tracks where every once in a while a truck passed. We were lucky we hadn't slept right on the trail, or we might have met an untimely end as road kill right in the middle of the Sahel desert!  
  aybe the greatest challenge on our trip was to find sufficient water for the camels to drink and to fill our leather skins. During summer's hottest months, camels need to drink regularly, at least every two or three days. The Michelin map showed all villages and water places on our way. But only too often, arriving at a spot marked on the map as a source of water, instead of bucolic scenes of village life we found nothing but the rests of a few straw huts abandoned years ago by people who had no chance to survive without water.  
goatskins filled with water; photo: web
  In the desert heat, the water in the goatskins tends to pretty much evaporate over the course of two or three days; so often what we had left was a thick blackish soup that we drank by way of covering our mouths with the ends of our scarves and slurping the liquid through that filter. As to the quality of that brew, no comment. Suffice to say, we once thoroughly shocked some village kids who watched us emptying the last dregs from our goatskins. On seeing the black stuff trickle from our skins, those urchins in a godforsaken tiny village at the end of the world stared with round eyed disbelief. One boy was bold enough to asked us in French if we really had been drinking that mess, while his friends shyly giggled.  
  The most remarkable source of drinking water I remember though was a muddy puddle occupied by half a dozen goats. The water was contaminated with hundreds of pellets of goat shit. We actually had no choice but to drink from that somewhat unwholesome liquid after filtering it through the usual piece of fabric, and to fill our water skins with it. It was the only water available.  
  Being rather resistant from several years of traveling, we didn't give much thought to such trifles as the purity of drinking water; we drank whatever the natives drank, and sometimes worse, without ever suffering from any adverse effects. During the entire trip we were in excellent health, possibly in part due to the sterile desert environment, where germs don't have much chance of survival. Small injuries to the skin healed immediately, without getting in the least inflamed or infected. Same with my mate's cut fingers, they had healed easily and quickly.  
  Whenever our water got scarce we had to ration it carefully to just a few sips every couple of hours. Under such circumstances, we usually felt much thirstier than we ever were with a still ample supply. The preoccupation with the coveted liquid even shaped my nightly dreams, made me continue longing for it in my deepest sleep and was the foremost thing on my mind upon waking  
Tuareg and Peulh herders at watering place
  sually village wells consisted of just a hole in the ground. We often came across people squatting on the rim of such a hole, waiting patiently to scoop up the tiny trickle of water gathering at its bottom. The greater our surprise when, one day right after our midday break, we came upon a place where dozens of herders with hundreds of heads of cattle were gathered around a deep well gushing up water brought from the depths of the desert by a powerful motor pump. After hundreds of kilometers without any decent water source, this was an incredible sight indeed.  
  It wasn't to be the only time we happened upon such a miraculous well, some time later we once more encountered one. We'd have loved to ask a thousand questions about those wells, like why there were not many more of them when thousands of people had to flee and animals perished due to the lack of water. As it was, at neither well did we find somebody who knew enough French to answer and explain.  
stopping at one of those miraculous wells
  The above photo shows how the camel's head had to be bent back prior to mounting. To the onlookers, the sight of a woman riding and handling a camel was strange enough to arouse their curiosity.  
  ven at places with abundant water, before we could let our animals slake their thirst and refill our water skins, we had to shed out the usual tea, sugar and tobacco, and some money as well. This had nothing to do with us being Europeans, actually we were usually thought to be Tuareg, and on closer inspection the guess was for Arabs.  
village mosque; photo:Galen R. Frysinger
  y their religion, muslims are required to offer water and whatever else is needed to passing travelers. West African Islam was shockingly different from what we were used to.  

Only once did we meet a group of men who obviously adhered to the teachings of the Qu'ran. Those hospitable people for a change didn't ask a thing of us, but offered us a delicious bowl of fresh camel's milk. A lively conversation ensued in a mixture of French, local expressions we had picked up and Arabic, of which the leader of the group, a bearded elder, knew from his Qu'ranic studies. Of course we were far from fluent in Arabic ourselves, but having previously spent maybe half a year or longer in Syria and Lebanon, spending our day with local friends who didn't know a word of any foreign language, we could at least communicate.

  Such encounters with kind strangers not interested in whatever presents we might, by some magic known only to whites, produce from our bags, but just content on meeting us and exchanging a few words, were rare indeed. During our stay in West Africa, they were so few I still remember about every single one a good thirty years later.  
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