Experiencing Niger

Sharing Lincoln Park Zoo magazine with peers

Here I am looking through an issue of Lincoln Park Zoo magazine with a student and staff member from the museum. The pictures in the magazine offered a great way to practice our English and French skills!

When you tell people you’re going to Africa the usual response is, “Wow, that’s great! Where are you going? South Africa? Tanzania? Kenya?” As I shared with my colleagues, friends and family that I wouldn’t be visiting any of those countries but instead was headed to Niger, the responses varied from, “Why?” to “Do you mean Nigeria?” to “Where is that?”

Americans don’t often think of Niger or other parts of northern Africa as ideal places to visit, especially in light of recent events in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and most recently, Nigeria. Admittedly, when I envisioned my first trip to Africa, Niger wasn’t my first thought. Yet, I reminded myself that Africa is comprised of 53 independent nations, each with its own rich history, culture and diverse populations. As we set out on our journey as part of the zoo's Community of Conservation project, I was determined to enjoy Niger as if this would be my first and perhaps only trip to Africa.

Although the desert climate of Niger can be harsh, we were lucky enough to visit this beautiful country in mid-January, with daily temperatures in the high 80s to low 90s. Sounds pretty good, right? As is often the case with warm-climate dwellers, our Nigerien counterparts typically wore many more layers of clothing than us to protect themselves against the “cold” January winds.

Dressed in layers for warm weather

This picture was taken during a boat ride on the Niger River. Notice how our guide is dressed. It was at least 85 degrees that day!

The cross-cultural language of Niger is French (Niger gained independence from France in 1960), and there are eight other native languages spoken throughout the country. A visit to a busy market place in the capital city of Niamey provided a dazzling linguistic experience.

Although I’m not fluent—not even close—I do speak a little French thanks to four years of instruction and an excellent teacher in high school. I was amazed at how quickly the language came back to me! Our Nigerien hosts were incredibly gracious and glad to have an opportunity to test their English skills as well. This mutual excitement and love of learning resulted in many lively and entertaining impromptu language lessons.

Our visit to Niger was complete with opportunities to explore important sites in the capital city of Niamey, including the National Museum Boubou Hama, the Oumarou Ganda Cultural Center, the American Cultural Center and the Grand Mosque (Islam is the predominant religion in the country). We browsed local markets, sampled Nigerien dishes and enjoyed native dance and musical performances.

Handmade pottery in Boubon market

This is some of the beautiful handmade pottery for sale at the market in Boubon.

A musician performs

A community member treats us to some traditional Nigerien music. The drum is made from a calabash gourd.

Niger is a truly remarkable place, and I hope to visit again one day. If Niger isn’t on your bucket list, I wholeheartedly recommend that you consider revising! 

Rachel Bergren

Rachel Bergren is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Education. Her trip—and the entire outreach project—is generously funded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad (MCAA) program.


Experiencing Niger in Community of Conservation.

Yes, Rachel it is true that when ever you talk about Niger out side of Africa, especially in U.S.A people start questioning you where is that. Their first thought would be Nigeria. I had this experience, for more than two years, while stutying in the US, at North Dakota State University in Fargo and at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Many times, I had to walk with the map of Niger in my phone to show to people that Niger is in West Africa and that it is different from Nigeria. In UIUC, at the Intensive English Institute (IEI) I was the only and first student from Niger to attend that institute, and at NDSU it was the same.
Thanks to the MCCA project "Community of Conservation", that helped our country to be visited and known by the LPZ team who would be our ambassadors to talk more about Niger, its people and culture.

Experiencing Niger and Chicago

Thanks for sharing your previous experiences in the U.S., Boubacar! Not surprisingly, I never had to explain to a single Nigerien where Chicago is located...no maps necessary! We even encountered a number of American cultural icons while visiting Niger, including images of President Barack Obama and major sports teams, like the Chicago Bulls! While it was nice to see a little bit of "home", it was an important and sobering reminder of the strong American influence in other parts of the world--the good and the bad. No doubt, the MCCA project and partnership between Lincoln Park Zoo and National Museum Boubou Hama has done much for both organizations and our communities in expanding our global understanding and appreciation of all that both cultures and countries have to offer. I'm particularly happy to have had the opportunity to share so many great Chicago traditions with my Nigerien friends, like the Chicago Cubs! And my smart phone is ready with apps and pics--at any moment--to show anyone who asks, just exactly where Niger is, what time of day it is in Niamey and all the wonderful things they should do and see when they visit Niger!

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