Maradi is a city in Southern Niger.
The city of Maradi is the capital of a region by the same name in the Republic of Niger that occupies a small part of the southern border with Nigeria, directly north of the cities of Kano and Katsina. The city ("Maradi-ville," as people in Niger sometimes say) is large - the second- or third- largest in the country, depending on whose numbers you use. It is also one of Niger's most economically prosperous cities. The region of Maradi enjoys very fertile land, and the region is known for its peanuts, groundnuts, and livestock as well as the Nigerien staples of millet and sorghum. The city also benefits from factories producing cooking oil, plastic bags, and mattresses, and a strategic location along both the country's major east-west highway and along a primary road south to Nigeria. As a result, Maradi has an unusually robust economy for one of the world's poorest countries, and visitors can pick up on kind of a 'boom town' feel as they navigate the city's sprawling market district, stepping around trucks from a half-dozen West African countries and leaping to avoid the swarms of speeding motorcycles. If Maradi isn't Niger's New York, it certainly is Niger's Houston.
Unfortunately, Maradi's commercial and industrial identity makes it somewhat less of a draw for most tourists, and while there are many local attractions in both the city and the region that a traveler would find edifying, there are probably few who would view those attractions as being 'worth the trip' (8-10 hours by bus on rough roads from Niamey). Additionally, while international development agencies are prominent in Maradi as they are throughout Niger, the number of foreign aid workers based in the city is much smaller than in Niamey or Zinder, and the presence is far less detectable. As a result, foreigners may find the city far less easy to visit than places like Niamey, Agadez, or Zinder. This is not because the residents are unfriendly - they are, on the whole, cheerfully welcoming people are are delighted to chat with 'nassaru' (fair-skinned people, a word you will here often on your visit). The problem is more that the city has less of a tourist infrastructure than those named - you will find no 'guides' selling their services in Maradi, and you are far more likely to encounter service providers (especially in restaurants and taxicabs) that don't speak French. However, intrepid travelers (or even those who simply are stuck in town for a night) will find Maradi a lively and entirely pleasant place to visit.
Maradi is located on the National Route 1, the main highway between Niamey and the entire southeast of the country (including the cities of Birnin Konni, Zinder, and Diffa, and passing through every administrative region of the country except Agadez). It is also the transportation hub for the region. This makes Maradi as easy and straightforward to travel to as any city in Niger.
Maradi has a working airport, but the country's national airline has long since gone under. Most of the traffic to the airport is government or military (during recent joint Nigerien-US military exercises, the airport became quite lively indeed). If you have the contacts, the UN and some other development organizations operate aircraft that call from time to time in Maradi; you can sometimes buy a seat on one of those planes, though this varies from organization to organization and even from manager to manager, not to mention the flight's planned payload, so do not count on it. If you can swing it, you will have the much-envied experience of making the trip in the fastest, most comfortable way possible.
There is no access to Maradi by train. The closest railhead might be at Kano, Nigeria (about 180 km south)
Maradi is located at the intersection of National Route 1, Niger's principle southern highway, and National Route 9, which runs south from the city through the town of Madaroundfa and into Nigeria, headed for Kano. On National Route 1, a trip by well-maintained car might be about 8 hours from Niamey (depending on a number of factors including the time of year, the weather, and the current status of a massive highway maintenance project that was slowly chugging along in the regions of Tahoua and Dosso)and 2.5 hours from Zinder. N.R. 1 skirts the city to the north; the turn off is clearly marked in both directions (but is very poorly regulated; slow way down and watch for trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and donkey carts coming from all directions). This turn off will put you on the main street leading to the center of town. National Route 9 is more straightforward; you will arrive in the city from the south and find yourself right on the main street.
Car rental is possible, to this author's knowledge, in Niamey only. It is expensive. Cars can be hired with their drivers in most major cities, including Niamey and Maradi; the rent for the car is somewhat cheaper, though you're still on the hook for the gas as well a the driver's per diem and upkeep. As a general rule, the quality of car you can get will diminish the farther away from the capital you get. It is actually highly recommended to hire a driver along with the car anyway - traffic patterns are distinct in Niger (as they are in any foreign country), and the network of police and tax checkpoints can be very difficult to understand. Furthermore, you really don't want to be behind the wheel when you have an accident. Nigerien police officers are typically understanding but highly bureaucratic, so you can count on them to make sure every 't' is crossed and every 'i' is dotted on the reports, no matter how long it takes. Furthermore, the person you had the problem with will recognize you as a foreigner with money, and you can expect that they will show you no mercy in the legal process, no matter how obviously it was their fault.
All of Niger's major bus lines serve Maradi with one or two departures and one or two arrivals per day. The price for a ticket is about $20 to Niamey. These buses are reasonably fast, reliable, and punctual (at least in their departures from point of origin). They are less uncomfortable, and your ticket will buy you one seat, all your own, so it's the way to travel on a budget. That said, few of these buses have any amenities to speak of; with the rigid seats, the heat, the lack of suspension, and other indignities, the trip can still be brutal, and you can descend from the bus dehydrated, exhausted, and physically in pain on a bad day. Food can be purchased (and some deeply troubling bathrooms can be accessed) at a half-dozen major stations spaced somewhat regularly along the road; depending on factors like the weather and season, the trip to Niamey can take 8-11 hours. The same network of buses can get you directly to Dosso, Konni, and Zinder, among many smaller towns, and with a one-night stopover you can get to Tahoua, Agadez, Gaya, and Diffa. Many companies also offer international service to destinations including Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso. Seats are ticketed and they are first come / first serve; don't bet that you can turn up at the station just before the bus leaves and get your ticket. Your ticket also covers baggage; the company might ask you to pay for excess baggage, but normally that's beyond the scope of what a traveler will carry (the author never experienced a 'pay-a-fee-so-we-don't-'accidentally'-lose-your-baggage-scam' on his numerous bus trips in Niger, unlike other countries in the region). Do not expect any stowed luggage to be treated gently.
Bus lines with service to Maradi include SNTV (the national transport company) as well as Aïr Transport (that's 'ay-yeer', a name for the northern desert, not 'air' like the sky), Azawad, EHGM, RTV (aka "Rimbo Transport"), and Sonitrav. Bus companies come and go with some frequency, so check when you get there. In this author's experience, there isn't a whole lot to separate the various companies; their prices and schedules are basically the same. Rimbo (RTV) has gotten in trouble with the government for having a bad safety record, though every company has accidents from time to time (the good news, perversely, for a traveler is that the bus is likely the biggest thing on the road; in most Nigerien bus accidents you're better off on the bus than off it). SNTV has a couple of more modern buses with air conditioning, better suspension, and video players (though as those players are often used to play 20-year old kung fu movies and some truly appalling music videos, whether this is a blessing or a curse is open to debate). You are therefore totally sane in choosing your bus based on the convenience of the station. In Maradi, the buses are strung along the main street; EHGM is farther north, SNTV and Azawad are central, near the market, and RTV, Sonitrav, and Aïr are more southerly.
By bush taxi
Bush taxis are the central means of transportation for most of Niger, and Maradi is the bush taxi hub for the region. If you are traveling within the Maradi region or from Nigeria, this is often your only option; bush taxis arrive and depart several locations within the city for the rest of the region, with costs ranging from 200-1500 francs for within the region.
If you are traveling from other regions of Niger, it is an absolute fact that the buses are cheaper as well as having the fringe benefits of being faster, more comfortable, more reliable, and safer. If you are planning on turning your experiences traveling in Niger into a book and you want the most harrowing stories possible, than definitely try to make this trip by bush taxi. From Niamey, it can take up to 24 hours and is rumored to cost you as much as $30-$60 (no, this author has never cared to try it), with lengthy stopovers in several locations along the way, and an old guidebook may have said it best when they described the process as requiring a level of patience on par with Mohandas Gandhi. If you have halfway decent friends, they will certainly save you a seat at the bar for whenever you do get there.
If you are coming from Kano or Katsina, you will probably need to take a bush taxi; no Nigerien bus companies, at least, service Kano or any other city in Nigeria at the time of this writing. Expect it to take eight or ten hours, counting the border crossing (citizens of ECOWAS countries don't need papers to cross the border, but westerners will; don't count on your ride being willing to wait for you to go through the formalities, so make good and sure you have an understanding with the driver, or bring your bags with you). Costs and hazards are unknown; among other things, the border has been closed spontaneously and with no warning on at least a couple of occasions, and it is always closed after nightfall.
A seasonal river springs up in late May or early June to the south of the city and flows along until perhaps October, and in some remote places you can find dugout canoes being used as ferries. The author is aware of no regular service along the river in this way, nor of any attempts to market canoe rides to tourists. At any rate, this is not a realistic method to travel to the city.
Maradi is an easy city to get around in. The city center is very walkable, assuming you wish to brave the heat and the winding morass of unnamed streets. Few streets are named, and even when they are nobody knows them (and certainly not the house numbers on them). When you're taking a taxi or asking for directions, the convention is that you name a landmark near the place you're going to. Each driver's inventory of landmarks is a little different, and he may call the place you're headed something different (or in a different language) than what you or your guidebook think it's called. Most of them know the names of the cultural sites, the major government offices, the hotels, the markets and major stores, the bus stations, the popular bars and restaurants, and so on. If you are making advance arrangements to meet somebody, you might think to ask your party what they tell the taxi to get there. If you know where you're going and are communicating well, you can also give turn-by-turn directions (as you can once you've gotten to your closest landmark); be aware that this is a great loophole for a surprise fare increase (possibly an honest one) as the driver didn't know where he was headed in advance.
Taxis cruise the streets with some frequency during the day; they can become scarce after sunset, even during prime nightlife hours. There is no taxi company, and it's totally acceptable to ask a taxi driver for his cell phone number so that you can call for a pickup, or to pre-arrange a pickup time, if you're in a remote location or out late. The driver might ask for a small fee to do this, but many don't, especially if there's a group of you.
Like everywhere in Niger, taxis in Maradi are shared; legally, the driver may carry as many as four passengers who may have as many as different destinations. It's possible that you'll pick up as many as five or six, especially if some of them are children, but if it is really starting to cause a problem for you and you don't mind being thought of as the 'entitled white person,' you can speak up. To hail a taxi, stand on the side of the road and hold out your arm; most Nigeriens will hold it out level with the ground, let their hand hang off their wrist, and make a beckoning motion. An American style cab hail normally works as well. The driver will slow down; tell him where you are going and don't get in until he says it's OK. He may have other passengers, and your destination may not be in the direction you're going; this happens and it's nothing personal. Taxi rides in Niger are computed in terms of 'courses' - i.e. one course, two courses, etc. Each course costs 200 francs (about 40-50 cents). In Maradi, you will have to go from one end of the city to the other, or leave it entirely, to clear 'one course'. As in most cities, if the driver is going to charge you more, the etiquette is that he tells you when he's picking you up. If he springs it on you when the ride is over, you are within your rights to protest. His fare should also, legally, be a function of 200; that said, you'll often here a 300-franc fee quoted as a compromise with you; it's completely OK to agree to it.
In this author's experience, taxi drivers are more friendly, more honest, and less likely to try to take advantage of you in Maradi than in Niamey. Unlike in Niamey, you may reasonably assume that most drivers are giving you a fair price unless you know better.
If you need a little more excitement in your life (or are that desperate to save 10 cents), you can take a motorcycle-taxi (called a kabu-kabu). This can be fun, but it can just as easily be hair-rising. Many kabu-kabus in Maradi are 50cc Chinese motor scooters with only one seat on which you desperately cling in intimate contact with the driver as you whip through traffic. Professional kabu drivers have actual motorcycles with actual passenger space, but unlike in places like Zinder, the licenses in Maradi are not carefully supervised, and so you get lots of amateurs; worse, professionals aren't uniformed like they are in Zinder and so you can't always tell the difference. On the up-side, you are the only passenger, and so you go straight to your destination every time. Better yet, you can find a cluster of bored kabu-kabu drivers on every street corner, and you are almost sure to find one even at odd hours of the night when the taxis are all gone. A kabu-kabu ride starts at 150 francs; if you go any distance, that cost will increase more quickly and incrementally than a taxi, so the two are pretty much the same over intermediate distances and if you're going a long way the taxi is cheaper. The driver probably doesn't have a helmet, and certainly won't have one for you.
- The Grand Marché (Big Market) occupies a two-block area in the center of town; it's a walled-off area studded with gates, so you might not recognize it from the street. Unlike most markets, there is life at here every day of the week, but to really see the orchestrated chaos as the commerce spills out into the surrounding area in all its glory, you should go during the market days, Monday and Friday. The chief attraction of the market is probably the spectacle of the thing; it's the place the locals go to do their shopping, so you won't see much that you would want to buy (though you'll encounter lots of people who would be delighted to sell it to you). One good exception is a corner with a few merchants who sell traditional charms and magic remedies(ask somebody for magani or medicament traditionel); you can get several types of magic charms and traditional jewelry from them, not to mention miles and miles of beads. These are typically extremely cheap and are a great chance to practice your bargaining skills without being out a ton of money, although many of the merchants don't speak French. While you're there, also take a moment to note the collections of traditional medicines and remedies. If you're planning on brushing up on your sorcery, you can find among the piles of herbs and plants things like hedgehog quills, chameleon tails, and even dried monkey heads. They might make fantastic gag gifts, but be forewarned that they are more expensive than you'd guess and that you can legally bring almost none of it back into the US or most European countries.
- Palace. The traditional chief for the city of Maradi lives in an impressive palace on a huge plaza on the west side of the city. The palace is visually striking from the outside. The chief's palace is actually his family's private home and the place where he holds court, so it isn't explicitly open to tourists. However, rumor has it that he likes meeting foreigners, so you might be able to charm your way in to watch him hold court, or for a tour or a private audience. A gift (money, or a more traditional gift like kola nuts) might grease the wheels. Even if you get in, expect to be shown to a comfortable chair and be kept waiting for some time (this is likely even if you make an appointment); you should seriously consider finding somebody to give you a primer on the etiquette for encountering a Hausa traditional chief before you try to go.
- The Artisan's Center is in the north of the city, and is the workplace for a friendly collection of mostly Tuareg blacksmiths, jewelers, and leatherworkers, as well as a store that sells their wares. The selection at the store is less diverse than what is found elsewhere, perhaps because Maradi is neither a Tuareg city nor a place frequented by tourists, but the prices are more reasonable (although the arrangement where every artisan's wares are sold in the same store makes the prices far less negotiable than it might be elsewhere). The prices are certainly more reasonable than they are at the Guest House, the only other place in Maradi that the author is aware of where you can reliably buy pieces of world-famous Tuareg silver jewelry. If you're going to go, though, don't just go to buy stuff. Take the time to go around and watch the artisans working; a lot of their work is fascinating to watch, and they are a very friendly, talkative bunch. If you are invited in for tea, feel free to accept or decline; if you accept, be aware that you will be signing up for one of the strongest caffeine kicks you can get and that it is considered rude to leave before you've had three cups. While you're there, wander across the street and have a look at the Grande Mosque; it isn't the same spectacle as Niamey's or even Tibiri's (see below), but it's worth a visit.
- Haggle in the Market. Bargaining your way through a West African market can be a fantastically entertaining way to spend an afternoon, and if you're looking for a chance to get into the swing of things before you encounter the markets and tourist shops in Niamey or Zinder (where they have more things that you might actually want to buy, but conversely they are also absolutely trying to screw you) then go out for a dry run to buy a mango, a bolt of fabric, or a piece of minor jewelry in the Maradi market or in one of the specialty shops along the market's periphery. Prices here will be less, and the markup you get for bring a foreigner will also be less. Be friendly; bargaining is a social activity, and you'll want to start by asking after the merchant's health and family, just like any other polite conversation. Ask for a price on what you want; often, you'll be asked to pick out everything you want before you get a final quote (the more you buy, the less you'll be charged per item). For food, you can generally give a counter-offer of about 2/3 the quote; for things like textiles you might even try 1/2. Sometimes this will draw a flat-out refusal; in this case, in Niger it's OK to amend your offer; alternately, you might get a counter-offer from the merchant, and the process will continue. If you're trying to get that last discount, consider flattery ("Because you're a good friend!") or the phrase saboda gobe, a Hausa expression implying that you should get a good price because you'll come back tomorrow or recommend the merchant to your friends; your use of this phrase alone will delight many merchants. Unlike in many Asian or Middle Eastern cultures, bargaining in Niger with all but the most shameless of tourist traps should remain a friendly process; do not insult the merchant or his wares (unless the item is legitimately flawed; if you want it anyway, this justifies a discount) and if you sense that the merchant is become legitimately angry with you, then you're driving too hard. Remember that these people are very poor by any standard you relate to; if he puts you out ten extra cents, is it really that big a deal?
- Club Privé. Jump in the pool (the Club's main attraction; lots of expats just call the place 'the pool') or play a few sets of tennis (you may need your own equipment) on the court, or lift weights in the gym. You technically need to be a paying member to get in, but the owner, Mainassara, is a very nice guy who runs a business and normally you can persuade him to let you in, especially if you buy food, or sell you a day pass. You are very likely to meet both some wealthy Nigerien families and many of the aid workers and expats who live in Maradi, and it's a perfect place to cool down in one of Earth's hottest countries. The menu is expensive but it caters to foreigners, you also can get cold drinks and alcoholic beverages. Some days, in season, he'll even offer to sell you pomelos off the fruit tree in back. The Club is down a side road and past the city limits; either make arrangements to call a taxi, or be prepared to walk about a mile uphill before you reach a point where you'll find one. Incidentally, the 'water scorpions' you are likely to find sharing the pool with you are truly unsettling to look at, but they are not scorpions and they are harmless. If you still can't bear to be in the water with it and you don't have the nerve to touch it, the staff will fish it out for you; this is a daily occurrence.
- Party at the Mess. Originally, this was the dining room for a military base, hence the name. Now it's one of Maradi's best-known dance clubs, with both afrobeat and international pop and hip-hop selections and a reasonably diverse crowd of locals and expats. It is a little on the pricy side for a night out in Maradi, but is one of the closest things to a Western-style nightclub in a very conservative Muslim town. It is almost directly opposite the Club Privé, and carries with it many of the same transportation concerns. What's more, you're likely to be leaving the Mess in the dead of night on an unlit road through millet fields in which live animal hazards you've never heard of, and probably wearing sandals. Think it through now, while you're sober.
- Festivals. Check your calendar before you visit, or ask around. Niger has a variety of major festivals, and most are based off of the Muslim lunar calendar, and so their dates change. Ramadan, the month of fasting, can bring a general slowdown and some sluggishness to Maradi, but if you're lucky enough to be there for Eid, at the end of the month, then you must absolutely take a taxi out to Tibiri, 20 minutes away. Tibiri is the home of the Sarki, one of the most powerful men in traditional Hausa culture, and the plaza in front of his palace becomes the scene of an extravagant festival during Eid, where people come from hundreds of miles around to watch traditional musicians and the palace guard parade and perform pageants on horseback commemorating the king's triumphs over his enemies and celebrating the end of Ramadan. The city also features the region's most impressive mosque, where the prayers will be held in the morning. Likewise, the cuir salee (salted, or dried leather) festival, a traditional Fulani festival, occurs to the north of Dakoro in this region once a year; the festival features traditional wrestling and beauty pageants, among other things, and if you go you may rest assured that you are witnessing something that only a handful of Western eyes have ever seen.
- Chat with anybody and everybody you meet. Hausas, and Nigeriens in general, are incredibly talkative and very friendly. They love talking about themselves and will be happy to learn everything about you. If you take the time to sit and talk with some of the people you meet, you will have the chance to learn everything you ever wanted to know about life in Maradi and in Niger (not to mention about the weather this season, what your friend's grandfather did and is now famous for, and every member of your companion's family, including his one eligible child who you really should marry). If you are exceptionally friendly, you run the risk of being invited back to your companion's house for a lavish dinner and the chance to drink tea and talk into the late hours of the night, and to come out and see his field or his herd in the morning. Rejecting such an offer is difficult without creating hurt feelings, and frankly, establishing such a relationship is probably the best way to get advice on your visit, as well as creating a lasting friendship.
- Wander. Everyday life in a city like Maradi is like nothing you are likely to have seen before, and though you will certainly be noticed, you will not attract a crowd the way you might in some other cities or in the countryside. It is also very safe; there are no 'bad neighborhoods' in the way Westerners understand the concept, so you are unlikely to be at risk if you leave the beaten path. Especially, take a walk through the older quarters around the Chief's palace on the northwest side of the city; you'll get a real feel for an old African city, complete with some colonial-era houses and some very impressive mud houses, including two-story ones with improbable added features like balconies and glass windows.
- Follow nomads. If you are in the area as the rainy season is ending (in October), ask if the nomads are traveling south at the moment. If they are, consider wandering out to the main highway to see them. Many Fulani and Tuareg herders make the journey south through Maradi down to Nigeria, passing on a trail just to the north and west of the city. At the zenith of this migration, you can witness an incredible spectacle as family after family with thousands of goats, sheep, cattle, and camels pass that way, one after the other, more or less exactly as they have for hundreds have years.
- Hausa. It's not just an interesting language for which you might enjoy learning a few key phrases; it really will make your visit to Maradi much easier if you can find somebody to teach it to you. Learning vocabulary for money and commerce is helpful, as is learning some typical greetings. As in most of West Africa, it is impolite in Niger to get down to business without first asking at length about the health and well-being of your companion and his/her immediate family, their work, how the harvest is going, etc; being able to do this in Hausa will highly endear your to the people you meet, and you will find it working magical effects: Prices will go down, attempts to cheat you will diminish, helpfulness will increase, and rounds of drinks will suddenly disappear from the tab. It is not an understatement to say that learning some basic Hausa will fundamentally change your relationship with the town, and in an entirely positive way.
Maradi is a blue-collar city in one of Earth's least developed countries, so you probably won't find much work that will be worth your while unless you're some sort of Discovery Channel-type wanting to demonstrate to the world. Like most of the world's countries, you can find a huge market for people who want to learn English; you can find decent interest in Chinese and Arabic as well. The amount that any but the absolute wealthiest would be able to pay for the service, however, is very small. If you really, really need an income, your best bet may be to contact the NGOs in Maradi, especially if you have any international development experience or can demonstrate a technical skill. The rumors that getting NGO jobs is difficult are true, but they are primarily true if you get hired as a foreign national. Many NGOs would be very happy to have a Westerner walk in their doors on-site and ask for work at a competitive local salary, having already gotten there at his or her own expense. Even this tactic, however, is more likely to work out for you in Niamey or Zinder, so the best recommendation is probably not to travel to Maradi looking for work if you are a Westerner.
- Traditional Tuareg Handicrafts at the artisanal center. The Tuaregs (and also the Fulani) are internationally known for the quality of their silver and their leatherwork; the Center's store has a decent selection of highly distinctive silver or nickel rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings for both men and women. Ask about the Tuareg crosses; they are a common motif, and the story behind them is engaging. The leather briefcases and sandals are surprisingly sturdy, though rarely as comfortable or as practical as you would hope. If you want something truly specific (and have space in your luggage), consider a Tuareg camel saddle, sword, or wallet; these are all things you can spot the Tuaregs around you actually wearing and using in their everyday life, and they typically exemplify the skill and the aesthetic of both the leatherwork and the metalwork. If you're wondering, this author brought Tuareg swords through US customs in his checked bags on two different occasions; both times, the TSA searched the bags, but there were never problems.
- Kola nut. If you want to sample Niger's most distinctive vice, buy a kola nut. This famously caffeinated tree fruit was one of the early ingredients in Coca-Cola, and it's astoundingly bitter but has a kick that will cause you to never respect your morning coffee again. Kola nuts typically break apart quite naturally into cloves, and many Nigeriens that socially chew goro, as it's known, typically buy only one and share. Dare to eat a whole one only in the early morning, or before your trans-Atlantic flight. Unlike street food, kola nuts are not washed; take it with you and wash it carefully(ideally with a little bleach in the water) or at least peel it (not as foolproof) before you eat it. The flesh has an interesting tendency to turn orange when exposed to air. Kola nuts are a very traditional gift for invited guests at weddings and baptisms.
- Mortar and Pestle. Maradi (and particular the town of Guidan Roumdji, just to the northwest) are widely thought by the locals to sell the best-crafted mortars and pestles in Niger. Most of them are quite large, used by women and girls in the country to grind flour by hand and in industrial quantities all day (the deep thump-thump-thump of this activity is a constant ambient noise in villages; try it once and you'll develop an instant sympathy for them), but they sell smaller ones for crushing vegetables to make thick Nigerien sauces. If you can find a small one and you have the space in your bag, they are actually worth getting; they are infinitely smarter in their design than the European-style ones you find in stores, and your experience with making guacamole might be changed forever.
- Street Food - Try the street food. All day long - and especially in the morning, and around 3-5pm - you will witness ladies and the occasional gentleman manning grills, coffee shops, and little fire pits with woks full of bubbling oil along the roadside. Popular belief has it that this kind of street food is an absolutely foolproof way to come down with one of a variety of truly wretched illnesses, but this is not entirely true. In fact, if you buy your street food from the person actually making it (not from one of the folks wandering the street selling it off a platter on their head or a bucket on the ground, where the health concern is much fairer), it is likely to be one of the safest things you can eat, having traveled directly from a pot of boiling oil to your hands (so to speak) and eaten hot (mitigate your risk by getting them in a plastic bag instead of a bowl, or bringing your own). Certainly, it isn't as safe as what you'll eat in a tourist or hotel restaurant, but it's a reasonably safe bet, and Nigerien street food is actually quite tasty. In particular, try kossai - deep-fried fritters made from black-eyed peas and typically served with a spicy powder. This is a regional specialty from southeastern Niger. Other deep fried goodies include weyna (also called by its Zarma name, massa), which are cakes of fermented millet, and fanke, donuts served with sugar or a savory sauce. Typically, 200 or 250 francs of any of them will be a perfectly adequate light breakfast or snack. You can also try West African coffee - instant coffee made with sweetened, condensed milk for a tasty morning wakeup, and as you wander, you'll spot other treats (slow-roasted chickens, grilled meat skewers coated in peanut resin, and so on) that will make your mouth water. Some neighborhoods are particularly good for street food: try walking the main street from the market to the high school, visit the truck stop and the tax office on the main street on the south side of town, or go where the Peace Corps volunteers go, the block between the Ministry of Youth and Culture and the Regional Hospital.
- Roadside Restaurants - Your best option for tasty budget eating in Maradi is to look at the selection of unnamed roadside eateries that are essentially street-food vendors upgraded with a roof and a table or two. There is often a crowd out in the morning, where most serve bread and butter, fried egg sandwiches, coffee, and tea, although you can also get hot West African food such as rice and sauce or rice and beans. In the evening, your pickings get more plentiful; depending on the time of year, you might be surprised at what you can found at about 8 or 9 pm on the side of the road. Offerings may include roast chicken and mutton, grilled corn on the cob, french fries, and a dozen other options beyond traditional food such as tuwo (grain paste served in sauce) and rice and beans, which you can wash down with a cold coke or frozen juice drink. In this author's opinion, your absolute best bet in both the morning and evening is to look around the traffic circle near the Ministry of Youth and Culture (known locally as the MJC). In the morning, you can find a stall run by a charmingly humorless woman and her legion of employees where you can custom-design a delicious breakfast or early lunch from a dizzying array of bases, meats, and sauces. In the evening, look for the guy with the barbecue grill, or ask for the guy with the "systèmes" - monumentally unhealthy but deeply delicious potato-and-egg scrambles unlike any anywhere, where you can also get some of the best salads and potato salads in the city if you want to take the risk. Another decent option, especially in the morning, is the main street around the market; this will also allow a visit to Maradi's only european-style bakery in the Azawad station. Their croissants are a little doughy, but the sweet pastries are pretty tasty; your guess is as good as anybody's on the health hazard.
- Le Jardin - This bar is located just adjacent to the market and is a local favorite of Nigeriens and Peace Corps Volunteers, among others. It is worth a trip for a quintessentially African experience, a casual hours-long dinner in lounge chairs under the stars. It is also a cheap and hearty meal for the budget traveler. The drink ladies will make sure you get your first drink immediately (try an ice-cold Grand Flag; a variety of other local beers and soft drinks are also available, or get a shot of a cheap liquor if you don't mind the consequences in the morning) and then will forget about you; if you need them back, call "Madame!" as they walk past or do as many Nigeriens do and hiss loudly from across the place. The servers are charmingly unprofessional - one might be amusingly catty while the next will spontaneously break out dancing among the tables. Food comes from a variety of individual street food sellers that have set up shop at the bar's periphery. there's a couple of guys with a barbecue grill where you can get brochettes, skewers of steak or organ meat that go for 100 cfa (get 4 or 5 at least), or grilled chicken and guinea fowl for 2000 or 2500. A small restaurant style place in a building just off the main gate serves a variety of dishes including braised fish or steak (which are delicious) for 1000 and homemade french fries (made from scratch when you order them, a process which takes every bit as long as you might think and is completely worth the wait) for 600. Try getting a 'steak' and a plate of fries, pouring the one onto the other, and having a wonderful meal. A Togolese lady named Ramatou makes salad and potato salad (hors d'oeuvres, to a Nigerien) for 500 francs and 600 francs respectively at a table near the main entrance; she speaks serviceable English and is absolutely the most delightful person you will meet for several time zones in either direction. You also can get tuwo, a traditional Nigerien grain paste, at a table nearby, if you really want to. It isn't unusual to get pieces of your meal from several places; just remember that you need to pay each individually for what you buy. On your way out, you can peruse a selection of shoes and other consumer goods, shoot a game of pool on the warped pool table (the guys who frequent the place seem to know every bump and bulge by heart, so don't get talked into a bet), or try the video poker.
- Maquis le Resurrection - Occupying a street corner in a quiet part of town behind the Regional Hospital, 'The Ressurection' is a compact and often crowded bar/restaurant with a decent menu and acceptable service. Finding a seat can be a bit of a difficult prospect, especially if there's a soccer game on - the place has satellite TV and so the Barcalona faithful all seem to go there at game time. Like the Jardin, the beverage and foodservice sides are two different operations; sometimes you will get table service with the food, other times you have to hunt it down. The bar's refrigerators seem to have bad gaskets, so the beers are often served almost entirely caked in ice - on a hot day, this is actually a rather pleasant experience. The food selections are decent, with a couple of different French-style pounded steaks that are pretty tasty. The place also offers an American-style combination plate, where you get steak, fries, and peas on one plate for one price; if they're offering that, the value is pretty good and the meal is tasty. The kitchen there has a bad habit of being unexpectedly out of key ingredients.
- The Airport Bar - The Maradi airport may be essentially out of commission, but the airport bar is still a lively place to spend the evening. You can sit inside and listen to the pan-West African music (sometimes blasted at ear-splitting volume; add that to the experience of placing an order in a language that's foreign to both you and your server to find out how well your anger management classes are working), or you can sit outside and watch the goats graze on the runway. To eat, you can get the usual fare - steak and heart brochettes (the heart meat is actually worth a try, especially if they're out of steak as sometimes happens), fries, and so on. The Airport is a bit off the main drags through town, so this would be one of the places worth securing your return transportation for in advance.
- The Guest House, (+227) 20 410 754 - The restaurant at Maradi's best hotel has one of the pricier menus, but it is also traveler-friendly with many of your favorites from home served simply but hygienically in a clean, air-conditioned dining room. The pesto sauce and the French-style ham-and-cheese are both pretty good and to this author's knowledge, the Guest House serves the only pizza in the city. It is also possibly the only restaurant in the city with a wine list or import beer, brief as the selection may be. The staff are very friendly and speak French fluently; you'll likely enjoy your meal rubbing elbows with NGO workers from around the world.
- L'Auberge - The Auberge is probably the most expensive formal restaurant in town, hypothetically attached to a hotel (hypothetically, because the author can find nobody who will testify to having stayed there). The Auberge seats in a very agreeable outdoor garden; most of the tables are under well-built shade hangars, which is a plus during rainy season. The exorbitantly priced menu has a very extensive selection of West African and French cooking that is, generally, very well-made and tasty (though be prepared for them to be out of your first and second choice). The service is on the weak side; it takes far longer than even the relaxed African pace of dinner (which you may come to find quite agreeable) to get your meal, and good luck getting that second drink while you're waiting.
- Le Club Privé - The Club, as indicated, is a rec center patronized by foreigners and a few wealthy local families. Sit by the pool or up at the bar in a shady and secluded setting and enjoy Hausaland's best cheeseburger and a grilled ham-and-cheese that is much more familiar to an American palate than the French version, your only alternative, at the Guest House. Try the samosas if you want a pleasant surprise; they are surprisingly tasty and the French MSF workers seem to plow through them, though be prepared to eat yours with ketchup or mayonnaise. You may have one of the most diverse drink menus here as well; normally, restaurants get their drinks from national bottler, where you can get only Coke products, but the Club orders from Nigeria and so you can often get Pepsi and Seven-up, as well as some Nigerian labels, as well. The price tag is as hefty as anywhere you'll find in town, but to a homesick stomach, it is worth every franc.
- Hotel Jangorzo - The Jangorzo is supposed to have a restaurant as well.
Maradi is at the heart of a highly conservative, Muslim region of West Africa - so much so that their fellow Hausas across the border in Nigeria have instituted Sharia law in their communities. While the Hausa areas of Niger (as well as their countrymen) have resisted the urge to follow along, it wouldn't be a stretch to claim that you will meet almost nobody who will admit to you that they ever consume alcoholic beverages, and most of them are telling the truth. As a result, beer and wine are difficult to come by. However, the number of foreign nationals (as well as the more moderate bureaucrats and technical workers from the western part of the country) coupled with the Hausa entrepreneurial spirit (as strong as anywhere you'll find) means you can rest assured that when you're ready to relax with that beer, your desire can be fulfilled.
There is one liquor store in the city as of this writing that is run by a couple of agreeable gentlemen who claim to never touch their own product. It is in an unmarked, gray building with a colonnaded front walk opposite the northwest corner of the Grand Marché; facing the building, it's the door farthest to the left. Their hours are variable and unpredictable. A can or bottle of beer might be 600-700 francs ($1.25); a bottle of name-brand spirits costs about what it might in the states ($12-30). On most days, you will be able to find a couple of types of import beer, some cheap wine, and a few bottles of low-cost, hangover-inducing French spirits (Bony's, who has a line that includes gin, whiskey, and pastis among other things). You can often, but not always, often find a bottle or two of the labels you know; many of the shop's clients are foreigners, so they seem to try to keep inventory. Beefeater gin, Jack Daniel's, and Typhoon rum are common options. Braniger, the national bottler, also does sell beer, but they are the distributor for the country's restaurants: You need an account and must be willing to buy by the flat - one hopes you aren't that desperate.
In the early afternoon, your safest bets for a beer are the restaurant at the Guest House and a slightly more expensive (but highly agreeable) one poolside at the Club Privé. In the evening (read: after sunset prayers), the bars start to open at places like the Jardin (which also sells cheap spirits and liquor) and the Airport, followed by Maradi's clubs around 10 or 11.
Do not get completely smashed in public in Maradi unless you have your own way home (and, obviously, a driver). Many locals view drunkenness as negatively as they do drink, and this author has heard plenty of anecdotes where taxi drivers refused to carry somebody who seemed intoxicated. Nigeriens are often more indulgent of foreigners, but don't push your luck too far.
This may not be the normal sense of 'drink' in a guidebook, but as Niger is one of the world's hottest countries, it probably deserves a mention: Drink lots of fluids if you're out wandering. The street is lined with guys with refrigerators to help you meet this goal: you can get water that has historically been safe to drink in sealed and labeled plastic bags for a matter of cents (you take your health into your hands if you accept water or juice in an unmarked, tied-off bag instead; you'll save a few cents but it isn't worth it). You can also find a normal array of coke products, and a few stores stock pepsi products and some local sodas that are brought up from Nigeria. Strangely, if your drink came from Nigeria it will be cheaper, and the Nigerian sodas are much cheaper; try a 'Teem', it's like Sprite and quite tasty.
There are only a few hotels in Maradi, and none of what might be truly considered 'budget' hotels. Nigeriens are not avid travelers, as a general rule, and when they do travel, most make arrangements for accommodation with the family member, friend, agency, or co-worker that they are traveling to visit (tourism for the sake of tourism is a concept foreign to most Nigeriens; you are likely to be regarded with a touch of confusion or even interested surprise if you explain that this is what you're doing). For this reason, many of the aid and missionary organizations that work in Maradi have their own accommodations for their people when they are in town; if you happen to have a connection to such an organization, you might do well to inquire, although many of these agencies have fairly strict standards of use.
If you need a hotel, consider the following:
- The Guesthouse, (+227) 20 410 754 - most expensive and also nicest hotel in Maradi.
- Hotel Jangorzo, (+227) 20 410 140 - also pricy, but also nice.
Internet infrastructure has recently developed in Maradi to the point where cyber cafes have become a reasonable business option, though the connection is often slow (typically, they have multiple computers using single connections, so even places advertising a high-speed connection have this problem) and very few have generators, so they are at the mercy of Maradi's frequent power failures. Most of the cyber-cafes are around the market: A boy scout-style youth, GARKUWA, runs one a block west of the main gate of the market; there is another one on the market's west edge, and one on the south. The most prominent one is located in the Ecobank building on the market's southeast corner.
Public phones are available throughout the city; typically, they are located in shops with white-and-blue "Cabine Telephonique" signs (don't take "cabine" too literally; you're just as likely to find market stalls telephoniques or even coffee tables telephoniques) where an attendant charges you by the minute on a largely reliable land-line telephone. You also can occasionally find people who charge you to make calls on their cellular phones, though this is more common in villages.
If you need emergency services, they can be called to come to you, but you're far better off going to them if at all possible (summoning help is a slow process; fire trucks and ambulances may need gas before they can be sent out, and nobody knows the phone number for these agencies anyway as there is no 911 or 999 service). Taxi and moto-taxi drivers typically know the police station (which is just west down the street from the main gate of the market), the hospital (a landmark unto itself, probably .5 km southwest from the market) and the fire station (probably 2km south of the market). If you have serious injuries, most taxi drivers and private drivers are pretty charitable about getting you to help and securing payment after the fact, if at all.
Maradi is a highly safe city inhabited by friendly, helpful people and you can reasonably expect to get through your stay without experiencing anything worse than a scam or a petty theft. In particular, you will find Maradi to be a pleasant break from the tourist-targeting con artists that haunt the hotels and markets in places like Niamey and Agadez. Still, be smart: It is a city, and all kinds of people live there. Being an obvious foreigner (assuming you are) makes you less of a target than you are in several other Nigerien cities, but don't worsen your odds by wandering around alone, drunk, and conspicuously wealthy. Hide the 10,000 franc notes (or better, change them for denominations actually used on the street, if you can), keep your money in two or three places on your person, and be respectful of local culture.
Foreigners get flirted with all the time, and on-the-spot marriage proposals are fairly common and probably harmless. You should be polite and friendly (and you may reasonably assume that the proposal is largely humorous or facetious in its intent) , but don't do things to encourage it like dressing immodestly (men or women), or giving out your cell phone number or hotel room to people you just met on the street (and they will ask). The author has never heard of a woman being assaulted in Maradi, but that's a personal experience over two years of living there; don't take it as any kind of fact or assurance (and regardless, don't risk becoming the first).
A simmering Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country comes and goes; you can travel all through the south of the country and never know it was happening beyond maybe passing a convoy on the road. The rebellion has been connected to a bomb attack in Maradi, Tahoua, and Niamey in 2008, but that incident was a shocking and isolated incident. Similarly, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has been active in Niger in recent years. So far, incidents in Niger have almost exclusively occurred in the north and west of the country - there was a failed kidnapping attempt on US embassy workers in Tahoua, and a few tourists, aid workers, and diplomatic staff have been snatched, almost entirely in the Tillaberi region; at least one French hostage was recently killed. Maradi has never, to this author's knowledge, had such an incident. The situation, however, is dynamic, and you should seriously consider contacting your embassy or diplomatic service before arriving to get an update.
The biggest threats to your safety in Maradi are not human in nature. Stings from Maradi scorpions and spiders are not normally lethal, but they are painful, and even in the city center you might find a snake from time to time (Nigeriens hate them and will kill them upon finding one). Many of the streets get turned over to wild and semi-wild dogs late at night. The most dangerous animal in the city, however, is without doubt the mosquito. Your guidebook says that Maradi is an arid or semi-arid climate, but the city (more than most in Niger) is lousy with mosquitoes, and the Falciparium strain of malaria they carry is the most virulant and lethal in the world (not to mention less deadly but equally unpleasant illnesses such as dengue fever). During the rainy season (June-August) in particular, the numbers explode and turn the area into a buzzing, itchy purgatory on earth. Repellent helps, and at the Guest House, at least, your bed should have a mosquito net, but know that malaria is largely responsible for Niger's truly obscene child mortality rate and that several foreign aid workers each year stagger (or are carried) into local hospitals each year, where they die without ever regaining consciousness. If you're going to visit, follow what your guidebook is already telling you and get on a good malaria pill before you arrive.
It is a good idea to carry medical evacuation (medivac) coverage as part of your travel insurance.
Maradi can really be a full-blown sensory onslaught, and to a casual traveler there isn't much in the way of escape from it. Worse, it's a grueling ten hours to Niamey and several hours including a border crossing to Kano (to a foreign tourist, neither of which are the most relaxing of places themselves), so when you consider the sinking feeling that you're in over your head, you also come to realize how hard it's going to be to get out of Dodge. The best, and truest advice for a traveler to Maradi is that if you are easily overwhelmed or prone to paralyzing culture shock, this is probably not the place to visit.
That said, there is a decently-sized crowd of foreign nationals that calls Maradi home, including missionaries and aid workers from the United States, France, China, Lebanon, New Zealand, Japan, and elsewhere. As a whole, they are exceptionally compassionate, friendly, and welcoming, and some of them have lived full-time in Maradi for 15 or 20 years. If you are in desperate need of help (or just a place to hide from it all for a while), you can often bump in to some of these folks in the nicer grocery stores around the market, at the Guest House, or down by the pool. Many of these folks are extremely kind and gracious and are willing to help travelers in need, even if all you need is to hear your native language spoken for a little while.
You can stop over in Maradi for a short visit (or just a good night's rest) en route to or from Zinder or Diffa, or use Maradi as a jumping-off point to cross the border into Nigeria on your way to Katsina or Kano. There is supposed to be a Nigerien consulate in Kano; there is no consulate for Nigeria in Maradi, so you'll need to have any necessary documents before you arrive. It may or may not be possible to transit north towards Agadez from Maradi; if it is possible, the method will be neither straightforward nor pleasant (i.e. a series of bush taxis on desert tracks), so you're better off trying it in Zinder or, better yet, from Konni, where you can take the bus.