The Niger River, Four Miracles

Dinner on the River

Jim and Jodi and I went for dinner at a stilt supported restaurant on an Island in the Niger River in downtown Niamey.  As the sun set in a fiery ball of heat in the heavy Harmattan triggered haze, we could feel the temperature drop several degrees as we boarded the outboard motor driven skiff that took as to the restaurant.  We sat on a deck, on wobbly and somewhat uncertain stilts and ate brochettes of Nile Perch and chicken, fresh roasted peanuts and popcorn with sugar. We drank tins of Perrier and bottled water. The meat was delicious and there aren’t many vegetables on offer – it would be a challenge to be a vegetarian here. 

A slight breeze comes up, we can see a cluster of men in about a KM away, near the water intakes for the city, revving motorcycles, cars and perhaps even a jet ski. It felt like a small town scene from a Lake in Michigan or Minnesota.  We can see the outlines of a new bridge being built by the Chinese – the Americans built the JFK bridge in 1970, about 2 KM behind us.

The river level changes quickly, going down several feet a day during the dry season, and is driven in some months by rainfall at its headwaters in Guinea, 2,000 KM away.  Irrigated land on either side of the river is very productive and it is inspiring to see farmers carefully tending plots of vegetables which look hyper green against the brownish red soil.

The Niger River is a puzzle: it runs 4,000 KM, headwaters close to the Atlantic Ocean in Guinea, heading Northeast straight into the Sahara Desert, then turns South swinging by Niamey then Southwest through Nigeria where it exits to the Atlantic Ocean in the Delta region of the country.  Geographers now think that its peculiar layout is due to the fact it is the product of the merging of two different river systems. It is the Third largest river in Africa (The Nile and the Congo are first and second) and carries much less sediment than the Nile due to the fact that its headwaters in Guinea are in ancient rock. The river loses a large amount of water when flowing through the Sahara due both to seepage and evaporation.

The Delta region of Nigeria has a reputation for lawlessness with kidnapping as a business proposition fairly common.  I have a business client that I visit there and am episodically accompanied by a guard with an AK 47 – I think he may be more of a danger than kidnapping itself, given the way he swings his weapon around.

European explorers did not connect the Delta they saw in Nigeria with the headwaters of a river that ran Northeast in Guinea to the desert.  The Scottish explorer Mungo Park (Great name!) traveled along the middle section of the River but it wasn’t until 1830 that Europeans figured out that the River runs in a large semi circle.

Niger River at Timbuktu

Timbuktu, which the river flows within 15 KM of in the Sahara Desert in present Day Mali, started out as a seasonal settlement supporting trade caravans that crossed the desert.  It became permanent in the 12th Century.

Timbuktu started out as a seasonal settlement and became a permanent early in the 12th century, flourishing on the trade of salt, gold, ivory and slaves.  In the 14th century it became a center of teaching and theology and part of the Malian empire, with a madrasa, a university and a healthy trade in books. After a shift in trading routes, including the opening of trade from Europe around the Southern tip of Africa to the Far East, Timbuktu’s fortunes declined and it has since then been a backwater.

Europeans treated the town with a sense of mystery; this was fuelled by historians’ writings, like those for Xanadu and Shangri La.  Over 100 popular songs – including ones by the Everly Brothers, Carley Rae Jepson and The Red Hot Chili Peppers reference the town. Guidebooks suggest that the significant effort to get there isn’t worth the trouble; it’s just another flyblown, dirt poor Wadi.

Four Miracles

Where’s the tap?

Spending time in Niger, a poor country (It comes dead last in the United Nations Human Development survey, out of 189 countries), I have meditated on four inventions (“Miracles”) that living the West we completely take for granted – at least I do.

The first is access to clean drinking water.  None of us living in the West think twice about running the tap and getting clean, potable water.  We may drink bottled water or may filter the water that we get from our taps, but this is largely for aesthetic or stylistic reasons and not a matter of life and death.  Spending a week with Jim and Jodi, and visiting water development sites here in Niger reminded me of how essential this access is.  About 790 MM people globally lack access to clean water and about 1.8 BN to sanitation, which affects the former. (As an aside, it is somewhat bizarre – and a feat of marketing – that one can make money bottling water in France, ship it to the U.S. to sell to consumers and make a profit.  But that is a topic for a separate blog post.)

Easier than using buckets

The second is the internal combustion engine (ICE), and mechanisation generally.  I completely take for granted the power that this invention has had in changing people’s lives, particularly in agriculture and construction.  Seeing folks in the developing world do things by hand or with animals – plow, weed, mix concrete, move things by cart – one realizes that the ICE has freed us from a lot of backbreaking toil.  Want to travel from San Francisco to Calgary to see family by stage coach or bullock cart? That’ll take a couple of weeks.  In a car its two days, and by plane  2 hours.  Sure the ICE pollutes (less than coal) and traffic jams are annoying but the benefits still far outweigh the costs.

The third is electrification.  We radically underestimate – take for granted really – the ability we have to plug an appliance or light into a socket and get consistent, reasonably priced power just about anywhere we live and work.  No so here: power outages are common, diesel produced power is expensive and folks’ work processes and productivity are heavily limited by the access to electricity.  940 MM people worldwide do not have access to electricity and many more do not have access to stable, reliable power.

He’s going places

The fourth is connectivity.  I use the word connectivity to apply to the Internet in all its glory, mobile devices, online everything.  As weird as it has made our lives at times (Don’t need to be watching a funny cat video on my smart phone in the middle of the Sahel), the Internet has radically eased communication.  Information is accessible immediately, no need to go to the library or take a class on understanding a process, making a repair, getting directions.  When we drove with our kids through Mexico 14 years ago, I purchased atlases which I carefully marked up and translated the Spanish in.  Four years ago when Jennifer and I drove there, we used Google Maps on our smart phones.  I took money out of our savings account using a dusty ATM on a main street in Niamey with no fees charged –  that is a miracle.  Do you remember travelers cheques?  How quaint!

Interestingly, of these four miracles, the final one, connectivity, is likely to spread the most quickly and change peoples lives the fastest.  India, behind China but growing more quickly, has 1.2 BN mobile phone users, 560 MM Internet subscribers and 294 MM social media users.  These are changing the subcontinent quickly.


  1. Enjoyed these last two blogs as much as all the others, Hugh.
    Hausa church, gardens beside the river as it rapidly recedes, the miracle of water from our taps any time…Grateful for so much.

  2. Marilyn Sharron says

    Thanks so much for all of the blogs you have done! It’s good to have you home safe – at least for the moment. I have learned so much about Africa that I didn’t know. Also, you have an awesome way with words that really tweaks my interest and gives me a real sense of being right there with you. And it is always to be reminded of all the blessings of our life like clean water, electricity etc. welcome back❤️

  3. Donna Friesen says

    Particularity grateful for connectivity in times of the COVID virus. Do you feel safe there Hugh?
    Hope so!!!

  4. You’ve obviously lifted the writing style of The Economist…..intelligent, insightful and just a little wry.

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