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.
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.
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 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.