|Currency||West African CFA franc (XOF), interchangeable at par with the Central African CFA franc (XAF)|
|Population||16,274,738 (July 2012 estimate)|
|Electricity||220V/50Hz (A, B, C, D, E, & F plugs)|
|Time zone||West Africa Time (UTC+1)|
Niger (pronounced: nee-ZHAIR) is an arid, landlocked country of the Sahel with a population of 12 million. It is bordered by Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Chad and Libya. Niger is a former French colony which was granted independence in 1960. The land is mostly desert plains and dunes, with rolling savanna in the southeast.
Not until 1993, 35 years after independence from France, did Niger hold its first free and open elections. A 1995 peace accord ended a five-year Tuareg insurgency in the north. Coups in 1996 and 1999 were followed by the creation of a National Reconciliation Council that effected a transition to civilian rule by December 1999. In 2009, a coup d'état toppled the elected government, and Niger is currently controlled by a military junta.
Niger's economy centers on subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, reexport trade, and increasingly less on uranium, because of declining world demand. The 50% devaluation of the West African franc in January 1994 boosted exports of livestock, cowpeas, onions, and the products of Niger's small cotton industry. The government relies on bilateral and multilateral aid — which was suspended following the April 1999 coup d'état — for operating expenses and public investment. In 2000-01, the World Bank approved a structural adjustment loan of $105 million to help support fiscal reforms. However, reforms could prove difficult given the government's bleak financial situation. The IMF approved a $73 million poverty reduction and growth facility for Niger in 2000 and announced $115 million in debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Niger is the second poorest country in the world.
The Hausa (Zarma and Songhai) make up the largest ethnic groups of Niger.
Over 20% of Nigeriens are made up of nomadic and livestock raising tribes, including Fulani, Tuareg, Kanuri, Arabs and Toubou.
- Niamey — Capital & commercial center, possibly the least crowded/hectic capital in West Africa
- Agadez — A mecca of trade along trans-Saharan trade routes for over five centuries, home to a magnificent palace and several mosques and a gateway to the nearby Air Mountains
- Ayorou — Along picturesque section of the River Niger with one of Niger's best markets, and a starting point for river trips to Gaya
- Diffa — Peul town between shifting sand dunes and disappearing swampland which serves as the gateway to SE Niger & Lake Chad
- Dosso — has a small ethnic museum, colorful market and even more colorful chief's palace
- Maradi — Center of agriculture (especially peanuts), home to a colorful chief's palace, and near seasonal rivers/floodplains which have caused interesting land formations to the south
- Tahoua — Stop en route to Agadez
- Zinder — The cultural capital of Niger, this Peul-Hausa city has perhaps the most colorful craft markets (pottery & tanning are local specialties) as well as a noteworthy regional museum and sultan's palace
- W National Park — magnificent National Park, easiest accessed from Niamey
- Koure — See the last herd of giraffes in West Africa
- Balleyara Market — Two hours from Niamey, one of West Africa's largest animal markets, plus a colorful array of other traditional market and artisanal goods (Sundays)
- Ayorou — A river-side town three hours from Niamey with a colorful, laid-back Sunday market as well as pirougue tours to see the hippos and islands
- Boubon — Bar/restaurant and huts to rent nightly on an island in the Niger River
- Termit & Tin Toumma National Nature and Cultural Reserve — one of Africa's largest reserves (twice as large as Costa Rica), the park protects several animals (including the critically endangered addax, Dama gazelle, & desert cheetah), protects the nomadic culture, and features lots of scenic desert landscape. Established in 2012, it will take a few years for guides, ecotours, and facilities to become available.
A visa is required for US citizens. Only a one year, multiple entry visa is available, for US$100. You need a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, proof of a round-trip airfare purchase, & a bank statement certifying that you have $500 in your account.
- Niamey has regularly scheduled flights from Europe and West Africa.
- Air France is the only major carrier with direct flights from outside of Africa, but a regional airline, Point Air Niger flies weekly between France and Niamey.
- Royal Air Maroc has good connections via Casablanca.
- Charter flights from Paris and Marseille to Niamey and Agadez (Point Afrique airlines, see vols charters)
- Air Algerie offers flights to Niamey from Algiers.
- Afriqiyah flies via Tripoli.
There are a few private companies and one mission aviation group (SIMAir) that do charter flights from Niamey in small planes.
Travelers can get to Niger overland by roads from Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Nigeria. Some adventurous souls still cross the Sahara from the north (Algeria), but that area is not secure.
There are no railways in Niger.
Of the 10,000 km of highways over 2000 km is paved and efforts are being made to improve some of the sections that have previously been in repair. One can travel from Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso all the way to Diffa, near Lake Chad on roads in decent to tolerable condition. The road from Niamey to "Park W" in the south is paved. The Zinder-Agadez route is being repaved after being in severe disrepair for years. The Birni Nkonni-Agadez-Arlit road is in poor shape.
The country has 27 airports/landing strips, 9 of which with paved runways.
Taxis in Niamey run either 200 francs if the distance isn't too long, or 400 francs for going almost across the city. At the airport in Niamey though they have a monopoly and the lowest you'll get a taxi for is 3,000 francs, and that's if you haggle a lot. However, if you walk south from the airport you'll hit a main road and for 100 to 150F you can get a ride from a beat up van to the Grand Marche (Main Market), luggage included.
The Nigerien government has recently set up a bus service along the major routes of the country. While taking cars is exciting and interesting, they are dangerous, extremely hot, and more expensive. Plus, they are forced to pull over after midnight due to banditry. Because these cars often only leave in the evening, it can take several days to travel a relatively short distance. The large buses are brand new Mercedes buses and they carry a soldier at night so they may drive all night long. In addition, due to their large size, they can skim over potholes that would destroy the smaller vans.
Rent a car
There is almost no possibility to rent a car in usual sense, although in 2005 a Hertz franchise came to Niamey and rents Toyota RAV4s. Also you can rent full-size cat-cat (4x4 SUV from French: quatre-quatre) with a driver/guide, but in most cases you will have to arrange with companies that organise expeditions.
- Tidene Expeditions, BP 270 Agadez, +227 440568, fax: +227 440 578
French is the lingua franca nationwide and Niger's "official" language for government, it is a second language for nearly all the population and is spoken with varying degrees of fluency. Nearly all travellers should be able to get by using French. There are eight "national" languages which are maternal languages of Nigeriens in various regions of the country. Hausa is the most spoken regional language; nearly 50% of all Nigeriens speak Hausa as their mother tongue, primarily in the south central and southeast of the country. Zarma is the second most spoken language with 2 million speakers (accounting for 25% of Nigeriens) in the southwest of the country. Tamajeq, the language of the Tuareg peoples, is spoken by nearly 10% of Nigeriens in the Saharan north of the country.
- Aïr Mountains
- Ténéré Desert
- Parque Nacional Du W Du Niger
The West African CFA franc (XOF) is used by Niger and pronounced "say-eff-ah". It's also used by Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Senegal and Togo. While strictly a separate currency from the Central African CFA franc (XAF), the two currencies are used interchangeably at par throughout all CFA franc (XAF & XOF) using countries.
Both CFA francs are guaranteed by the French treasury and are pegged to the euro at €1 = XOF655.957.
MasterCard/Maestro withdrawals at ATMs are available at Banque Atlantique in Niamey.
Credit cards are almost never accepted anywhere.
US dollars and other foreign currency are not accepted in daily transactions, only to exchange into local money via a bank or black market. Exception: near the border of Nigeria, the devaluing Nigerian currency Naira is accepted.
Bargaining and haggling is essential and expected. It's best to have a low price and a maximum price in mind before entering into a negotiation. If the price is higher than you want, just say thanks and walk away: if you were offering a fair price you will be called back. If you were offering too low a price, you won't be called back, but you can always go back later and offer more.
Nigerien artisan specialities include:
- intricately imprinted leather boxes (ranging from small 5cm boxes to full-size trunks)
- other leather goods
- silver jewellery
- colourful hand-woven wedding blankets
- coloured straw mats (and here, we don't mean the plastic mats from China)
- fabric (only the Enitex brand is made in Niger, but there are many other kinds that are also good)
Local, traditional food includes:
- a dense millet porridge with an okra sauce, a pepper sauce, a tomato sauce, or a squash sauce on top, sometimes with veggies and a couple chunks of meat
- rice with the above sauces
- mushy macaroni pasta with an oily red sauce
- rice & beans
- corn cous-cous mixed with moringa leaves, black-eyed peas, and sauce (called dumbou in Djera/Zarma, and only available in Djerma/Zarma regions)
Availability varies widely by region, but visitors may wish to try the following delicious specialities, usually available as street food:
- dumbou (see above)
- kilishi: beef jerkey that comes in three flavours: regular, peanut-spiced, and hot-pepper-spiced
- masa: delicious sourdough pancakes eaten with a peanut/hot pepper/ginger spice mix or a brown sauce
- fari masa: fried dough balls served with either a squash/tomato salsa or sugar
- chichena: like fari masa above, but made from bean flour instead of wheat flour
- koudagou (Djerma/Zarma): fried sweet potato chunks with sauce
Less exotic but also tasty:
- brochettes — meat kabobs made from either beef, lamb, or goat
- omelet sandwiches
- mangoes: if in season, they are bigger and juicier than any available in the western world
- yoghurt: pasteurized, sweet, and available wherever there is a fridge
- fried fish sandwiches
- ground beef sandwiches
- plates of garlicky green beans or peas (usually in bars and restaurants)
Careful of the salads — usually not OK for western travellers even in the city.
- Drink plenty of filtered or bottled water. You will get dehydrated during your trip to Niger at one point. At times it can be hard to find bottled water, but ask for "Purewater" (pronounced pure-wata) that comes in sealed plastic bags for usually XOF25 (XOF50 in some hard-to-reach places). You will also need to replenish your salts more frequently than you are accustomed.
Keep in mind that drinking alcohol is generally forbidden in Muslim culture, so take extra care to keep drunken, inappropriate behaviour behind closed doors and out of the public eye.
The national beer is called, appropriately, Biere Niger. The only other locally produced beer is a franchise of the French West-African Flag brewery. While taste is in the eye of the beerholder, Biere Niger is decent. Both are brewed in the same tank from the same ingredients with the slightest variation on how much reconstituted malt they put in each batch. All other beer, boxed wine, and hard liquor is imported.
In rare pockets of the capital you can find millet beer homebrew, brewed by Burkinabe immigrants. This is drunk out of calabash gourd bowls. Some compare the taste to a dry, unsweetened cider. See the Niamey section for directions.
Locally-made non-alcoholic drinks are delicious. Safety depends on the water quality: generally OK in the capital and NOT OK in rural areas. They are either sold by women out of their houses (ask around), by young girls from trays on their heads, or by young boys pushing around coolers. These drinks include:
- lemu-hari: a sweet lemony-gingery drink
- bisap: a dark red kool-aid-type drink made from hibiscus leaves
- apollo: a thick, pinkish-brownish drink made from the baobab fruit
- degue: sweet yoghurt with small millet balls (like tapioca)
To drink, you bite the corner off the bag.
The official language in Niger is French, though very few people speak it outside Niamey, and even there do not expect a high level conversation with the traders at the markets. The local languages include Djerma (spoken mainly in Niamey and the bordering Tillaberi and Dosso regions), Hausa, Fulfulde and Tamashek (spoken by Tuaregs in north), and Kanuri (spoken by Beri Beri). English is of no use outside American cultural center and few big hotels of Niamey. However, you will find English-speakers in border towns along the Nigerian border, such as Birni N Konni and Maradi. These people are usually from Nigeria to the south and in general want something from you. As friendly as they may be, always listen to a professional guide over anyone that speaks some English.
If you learn about 20 phrases in a local language, you will gain respect in a heartbeat. Simply greeting people in their local tongue will make your trip there smoother than you would have ever thought possible.
Top essential Zarma/Djerma phrases:
- Fofo: hello
- Mate ni go? (mah-tay nee go?): How are you?
- Sah-mai (sawm-eye): Fine
- Mano...? Where is...?
- Ai ga ba... (Eye gah bah): I want...
- Wo-nae: That one
- Toe: OK.
- Ai (eye) MAH fah-ham: I don't understand.
- Ka-LA-tone-tone: Goodbye
Top essential Hausa phrases:
- Sannu: Hello
- Me sunanka : What is your name?
- Kana LA-hiya: How are you?
- LA-hiya LO: It's all good.
- Na GO-day: Thank you
- Sai ANjima: Goodbye
- Na GO-day, Na KO-shi: Thank you, I am full. (Polite response when offered food you are afraid to eat)
Some Arabic words are also common:
- salam-u-laikum, which roughly means, "peace be with you," and is used in Niger when you enter a house or greet someone
- al hamdallaye, which means to a Nigerien "Bless it, it's finished." It can also mean "no thank you." The latter can also get you out of having to sample possibly dirty food, or from eating at someone's home until your stomach explodes.
- In-shah-allah, which means "God willing." For example, "I'll come to visit your family in-shah-allah."
Patience. If you haven't learned it before you went to Niger, you probably will.
Volunteering would be your best bet here, as many people in the rural areas have been hit by drought.
Niger is politically unstable and therefore lawlessness is widespread. The latest coup d'état in early 2010 increased the unstable situation and every traveller should follow independent news closely and stay in contact with their embassy. Also Al-Qaeda and Boko Haram members are present in Niger and have kidnapped and killed tourists, so it is essential to know the off-limit regions and avoid them
In the region north of Agadez, there have been many carjackings, kidnappings and robberies in the past sixteen or so years. The problem continues to this day, and tourists should consider the area essentially lawless. You should not venture beyond Agadez even if you have a guide and a 4WD vehicle unless you seriously know what you are doing. The roads past this point are of terrible quality and banditti are abundant.
Avoid driving late at night in a private vehicle. Occasionally armed robbers will operate near the town of Galmi (central Niger) and around Dosso-Doutchi (in western Niger), as well as on the road to Gao, Mali in the Tillabery region. Normally, there are police checkpoints on the main highways which limit criminal activities during the day.
The main annoyances you are likely to meet are young boys shouting "Anasara," which means 'foreigner' in most local languages, derived from the Arabic word. You will also be asked for a 'cadeau' pretty much every time you see a person outside your hotel. The word is French for 'gift,' and it is best to remember not to perpetuate the misery this word causes to foreigners working in the country.
In Niamey the safety level is better. If you stay away from markets after dark and use taxis and are EXTRA careful to avoid where the streets cross ravines, you shouldn't run into any problems. In markets there is a risk of pickpockets or handbag straps being cut but you are more likely to lose money by haggling poorly and in French.
Carrying a backpack and camera, looking like a tourist, and especially being white, will definitely draw some unwanted attention. Most of the attention is from people who try to get your money legally, either by selling you a toothbrush or by begging, but there are always a few less honest people.
The Centers for Disease Control is an excellent resource for authoritative advice on health issues for travellers to Niger.
Drink lots and lots of water while in Niger because the dry heat will dehydrate you and you won't realize it. It is the best preventative step you can take. Bottled water or water sealed in a bag (called pure-wata) is available in most of the cities but in a pinch, city tap water is well-chlorinated (this is according to one traveller; another American who lived in Niger for two years says never drink unfiltered water anywhere! — that includes ice!). Be particularly wary of well water, stream water, and rural water.
Be sure to replenish your salts as well as liquids.
Wear loose conservative clothes, big hats, and lots of sunscreen. If in doubt, wear what the locals wear.
Malaria, including encephaletic malaria, is a problem, and is chloroquine resistant in Niger. Take your prophylaxes, use heavy-duty insect repellent (DEET is best, though nasty), and consider carrying a mosquito net to sleep under.
Giardia and amoebic dysentery are common. Be wary of any roadside food, unless you buy it hot off the grill. Even items fried in oil could make you sick if the oil has been heavily used and is old. Best to avoid salads and uncooked veggies. Also, never drink unfiltered water (including ice).
Schistosomiasis is present in most water bodies in Niger, so travellers should avoid going in the water everywhere — except chlorinated swimming pools.
In case you were unable to stay healthy, the Clinique Pasteur (situated in front of the Lycée Fontaine) has clean facilities, sterile needles, and competent, sympathetic doctors. The Clinique Gamkalley and many other clinics are around, however, you may need to watch out for dirty needles, over-prescription and aggressive staff.
Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Niger during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
Visitors are treated as kings in Niger (there is a Koranic proverb to that effect), so be careful not to abuse the hospitality you will be shown. For the most part, try to accept all the small tokens and gestures (cokes, tea, small gifts, etc.) that are offered to you during your time in Niger. It really isn't good to refuse too much and don't think "these people are too poor to give me these things". That is offensive as taking good care of guests is a point of honour and gives people great pleasure. Don't comment out loud when you see poverty or things in disrepair and please don't remind Nigeriens about how poor their country is.
Dress conservatively, which means no shorts, no skirts above the knees, and no tank tops. For women, dressing revealingly can be seen as very offensive, even in Niamey. Also, dress nicely, as clothes determine how well you are treated back.
Avoid drunken behaviour, since alcohol is prohibited in the Muslim religion and greatly frowned-upon in Niger.
Always ask people, especially camel drivers, market sellers, and the elderly, before taking a photograph. Many Nigeriens still find it offensive.
Slavery is still relatively common in the central areas, away from the towns. You can generally spot slaves by the unadorned, solid ankle bracelets on both feet, which look like manacles and may well serve that purpose. Unless you feel particularly brave, discussion of the subject with either victims or perpetrators is probably best avoided.
See the Friends of Niger website for discussion boards where you can ask questions before you go to Niger and maybe get some Nigeriens or others to fill you in.