Niamey Nights | Rahmane Idrissa | Granta

Niamey Nights

Rahmane Idrissa

A night in 1968. Maria Callas, clad in a dark leather jacket – it must have been December – walks briskly across the tarmac at Niamey airport; next to her, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in attendance as a luggage porter, peers into the Sahelian night through dark glasses. The moment is captured in a shot by Philippe Koudjina, the Daho-Togolese photographer who chronicled the ‘Niamey by Night’ of the sixties with his camera. Callas and Pasolini, who were on an African location scouting tour for a film (Medea, ultimately shot in Syria and Turkey), were not the only European stars to show up in his photos. Johnny Hallyday had given two concerts at the Rex cinema, not far from Niamey’s Marché de Huit Heures, in early May. Koudjina catches him cavorting with a local yéyé in a nightclub – presumably Harry’s Club – and posing with a posse of young policemen on a hotel veranda. Salvatore Adamo also performed in the city, perhaps that same year. Koudjina, a regular at the partying of celebrities, photographed him as he boarded the plane. Koudjina’s camera also takes us to a ‘maquis’ bar where a plump woman plays the accordion surrounded by young people in front of a table cluttered with beer bottles; to nightclubs where there’s plenty of dancing the twist and flirting the night away; to night-time gardens where young revellers pose on motorcycles and bicycles, the girls in short dresses, the boys in tight pants. It was the era of the Double headscarf (in the shape of a tower), Chéri regarde mon dos dresses, Mon mari est capable motorcycles, Tête de nègre high heels. It was, above all, the age of yéyé music, which, until the turn of the century, left urban Nigeriens (and Malians and Voltaics) with a casual addiction to the cutesy-ironic, candy-sweet, innocent-while-being-naughty or naughty-while-being-innocent hits of the French charts of those days. They were the tune of the first modern generation in the Sahel. In their native land, these ditties were second fiddle to the real thing, Anglo-Saxon rock and pop music. Yéyé came from the ‘yeah, yeah’ that punctuated rock lyrics, its biggest star was ‘Johnny Hallyday’ (actual name: Jean-Philippe Smet) – but here, they represented a drastic shock to what was, in essence, an ancient-regime culture . . .

Yéyé culture, like hip-hop today, was mostly young people having fun, within the narrow limits of a society full of taboos and an economy of small means. They made use of a sparse material infrastructure: a handful of venues equipped with sound systems and suitably lavish electricity, a two-wheeler import company, a brewery, a few fashionable fabric and clothing shops (not stores), a couple of movie theatres that also served as concert halls (in Niamey, there were two of those, the Rex and the Vox). Nearly everyone was the scion of a farming or (more rarely) herding family that lived ‘back home’, a phrase that almost always referred to some far-off village or hamlet where people led what looked like imperturbably ancient lives. The sight of a gilded youth was something for the future. But if we go by relative proportion rather than quantity, the infrastructure was not as modest as it seems. In mid-sixties Niamey, it catered for a town of only about thirty or forty thousand people, many of whom would not dream of using any of it. For the few who did, it was more than enough. The youth sets involved connected in that way to the modern, zamani in local speech. They became actors and players in a historical escapade whose beginnings trailed back to a past that was still alive in their parents’ memories. Some had perhaps heard an old relative speak of the day when zamani first drifted into Niamey, then a cluster of large riverbank villages, in the shape of three metallic boats, one of which harboured, on the rear-deck, a bicycle called Suzanne, the first two-wheeler ever to show up in these parts, standing next to a phonograph. The convoy was helmed by Lt Émile Auguste Léon Hourst, the advance scout of French colonialism who was reconnoitring the Niger River. The boats glided past the villages, gleaming unnaturally under a fierce sun, on 5 April 1896, Easter Sunday. Reading about this moment in my studies, I imagined a wise person looking on from the shore and seeing a threat carried by a promise.

More than half a century later, in the sixties, the large villages had merged into a small town, filled with people who could be trade unionists and schoolchildren, cinephiles and even a few film-makers, Dahomean and Togolese immigrants (like Koudjina) and juveniles who had a blast to yéyé music or the sound of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, brought in by the immigrants, and where the funk of James Brown met Congo’s Soukous, Afrobeat inspirations and the ritual percussion of Voodoo. On certain evenings, the future Prince Consort of the Netherlands, then a German diplomat posted to Niger, could be seen dining with a future eminent Romanian intellectual (Neagu Djuvara, who died at 101, six years ago, in Bucharest) in a gargote in the old town. It was possible to develop a taste for things Indian, or the Mississippi blues (being a ‘bluesman’ was a thing). And there was a whole week in 1966 when one could spot Zalika Souley, maybe the first career actress in Black Africa (though her day job at the time was that of saleswoman at the town’s main store) gallivanting on set on horseback, in jeans and Stetson hat, playing the role of the cowgirl ‘Reine Christine’ in a Western spoof called Le Retour d’un aventurier.


Les voyageuses, 1960–1970
Courtesy of the Estate of Philippe Koudjina / Thomarts Gallery

The first time I heard of generations, they were likened to the loops of a ribbon. It was my very first history lesson. The teacher told us that history was ‘a ribbon that uncoils’, and that each coil was a generation. This idea of a ribbon that keeps uncoiling disturbed me. At that time, we were living in Tillabéri, a small riverside town in northwestern Niger, in a modern-style house – cement-built, Formica-furnished rooms and white-painted walls – in Bagdada, a neighbourhood that was the new part of town. Its exotic name – ‘Baghdad’ – revealed as much about its past as its location on a slope between two fields, the Camp des Gardes and the Camp des Fonctionnaires. All this topography was, in fact, history: tangled history. The lower part of the town on the riverbank, was, and still is, the old town, Tillabéri proper, whose core settlement is Gandatié (‘Low Foot’), home to the patriarchal residence of my paternal grandfather, a descendant of one of the town’s founders. Behind Gandatié, at just the point where the slope begins to make itself felt, one enters Zongo, the place reserved for the foreigners who were allowed to live in the town. A zongo was equivalent to the French faubourg, ‘the outer-borough’, and as in the towns of medieval Europe, it was separated from the bourg, ‘the borough’, by the fairground, the meeting place of natives and peregrines. My mother’s family lived there. They were people from the distant Mossi country – from the Volta River basin – who married into a Fulani family, Zongo dwellers themselves. Farther up the slope, you cross a dry creek bed and pass a church. When I was a child, it was in ruins, a house of bats, but the cross still stood above its doorless entrance, making our half-Islamic souls shiver. Then came Bagdada, which didn’t exist at the time this church was built, so that in its good days it had behind it only a vast wasteland that culminated in the plateau where the colonial power camped out, with its guards and functionaries, dominating the scene from these heights. The school was built just behind these demesnes, at the foot of a hill topped by a water tower which must have given the town its name (Tillabéri means ‘the great mound’).

My Tillabéri childhood presents the following facts:

There were mornings spent in a sunny, many-windowed classroom filled with the soft-dry fragrance of chalk, a globe on the teacher’s desk, a map of Africa on the wall. The reading lessons were about the daily life of a family somewhere in Africa, Mr and Mrs Boda, their three children René, Mina and Rémi, their dog Miro and their cat Miki. The history lessons were the stuff of romance and poetry, depicting the chance encounter in the woods of a stallion-riding princess and an elephant hunter that spawned the Mossi people, or the blaze of a thousand bundles of sticks – une flambée de mille fagots, in the evocative euphony of the French phrase – with which the king of Ghana illumined his capital every night. The songs we learned at the end of the day incited us to love school or hygiene. ‘Little Djibo’ was given candy, chewing gum and a bouquet of flowers when he knew his lessons, water was praised (Vive l’eau!) for making little kids ‘clean, wise and handsome’. (There were also French songs, which I always dreaded a bit because they thought nothing of conjuring for our brittle kiddy hearts – mine anyway – the abrupt demise of a heedless damsel or the unhappy life of a poor sailor.)


Le grand bolide, 1960–1970
Courtesy of the Estate of Philippe Koudjina / Thomarts Gallery


And then there were after-midday trips to Gandatié or Zongo, where it was the duty of us kids to carry the lunchtime meal to our grandfathers. This was a symbolic obligation, an offering that signalled that, although we lived in another part of town, we were still part of their homes. Depending on the day of the week, I went either to Zongo or to Gandatié, and laid the still-warm dish at the resident patriarch’s feet (they were unlikely to eat it, as other dishes, sent by other satellites, surrounded them; they were, in fact, food redistribution centres). My paternal grandfather was then sick from the illness that was to take his life within a year and, locked away in a twilight of suffering, he rarely knew who I was or why I was there. The visits to my maternal grandfather, on the other hand, were true events. They took place in the large shadows of the cob-built room, covered in thatch, that served as a vestibule or living room attached to his apartments. He often sent me inside the even gloomier apartments to fetch an object from among the odd and scary things he stored in the front chamber: skins from unknown animals, leather bags that hung on the wall and from which he would sometimes remove knots of cloth filled with powdery substances that he would ask me to lick off his finger; a whole heap of natural products: roots, horns, hooves, dried viscera and leaves, juices splashing around in calabash gourds, citrus fruits, kola nuts wrapped in the cool moisture of a wet jute sack. Sometimes he would take me in his arms and whisper in an unknown language – Mossi, I surmised – and addressing spirits, I was sure.

After the first history lesson, the teacher asked us to find out who our ancestors were up to the seventh generation. In the Songhay tradition, your ancestors are your father’s line, so I went to Gandatié, and one of my grandmothers briefed me expansively. I found the details incomprehensible, not because they weren’t clear enough, but because they were extremely clear. My grandmother told her stories with Balzacian precision, but they were about individuals and their relationships, and characters, and strange names (Songhay, not Arab-Muslim names), and the places, many new to me, where they had been, and events that, sometimes, involved spirits. These enchanted incidents were mentioned the way one would talk of a trip down the river or cows grazing in the fields. Banalities. I wrote down the names of my forefathers in a straight line back to Bagham, the colonist from Anzuru (a region some distance to the east) who took part in the founding of Tillabéri, and forgot the rest.


Woman playing an accordion in a courtyard
Courtesy of Estate of Depara / Revue Noire Paris

The Sahel has a dual history. The first is that of the old empires and kingdoms, and of the colonial encounter, a history full of sound and fury and firmly linear in its telling. Once the ribbon is in place, you can hang strings of dates and events, and say how this led to that, or, in what looks like a twist, how this killed that, a formula that works well for the colonial encounter. The second history is the subterranean one of generations, which accepts, with Proust, that our lives are ‘careless of chronology’. It’s not amenable to the science of history, but I imagine a specially crafted genre of novel-writing might do the trick of telling its stories.

I don’t know what philosophy of history guides teaching in Sahelian schools these days. In the eighties, it was still the philosophy of progress, hatched by those from the first modern generation who were in charge of the state. The idea, like in all modern nation-building projects, was to instil pride in the past and trust in the future. The Boda family in the reading textbook set an example for a future where we’d live the Western-style middle-class life, with pets in the living room and a pipe-smoking daddy who read the papers at breakfast; and the history textbook showed an African past full of great kings and glorious emperors. The contrasted glamours of feudalism and the bourgeoisie were offered for Janus-faced students. But did we really come from that past – and were we really heading to that future? As the eighties wore on, that question became more pressing, and along with it, the sense that my generation were orphans of progress.

The ebullience of Niamey, Ouagadougou or Bamako in the sixties was the result of states trying to harness their societies to the idea of progress. It was a Promethean moment, the time of the founding fathers who found the fire of modern knowledge in the schools of the colonizer and wanted to give it to those who lived at an orbicular distance from the capitals of modernity. They wanted them to have the strength to stand up and become equal to all modern souls. The idea behind the Boda family was not a servile imitation of the West, but parity with it, in a world unified by progressiveness, and in which to be different meant to be backward, a powerful slur of those days. In a book published in 1972, Le Retard de l’Afrique, Boubou Hama, one of the heralds of this evolutionary epic, assured his African contemporaries that their tardiness, the fact that they had lagged behind, was a sign that their modern epiphany would be all the more precious. Having started earlier and gone too far, Europe burnt its humanity in the Vulcanian fire of material progress; Africa the laggard would bring to the resulting anguish the adjuvant of a humanity preserved by the very retard for which it was pitied. The last would be first.



Couple, 1960–1970
Courtesy of the Estate of Philippe Koudjina / Fonds Loic Quentin


In the eighties, we entered an Epimethean age. Prometheus was the one with the philosophy of history. Epimetheus, his brother, was a pure pragmatist. In the Sahel, after the killer drought of the early seventies had crashed the vision of the first modern generation, it was time to go for broke. In Mali and Niger, juntas toppled a socialist (Mali) and a progressist (Niger) party and pledged to do rather than dream. Even Thomas Sankara, the dreamer who seized power in the Upper Volta a decade later and turned it into Burkina Faso, was a super-doer, someone who thought the patient evolutionary massaging of the previous generation (the key, for them, was mentality change, a slow-going affair) needed to be superseded by revolutionary rush and bustle (there was a bringing into line of recalcitrant mentalities, and a purge of the obdurate). But alacrity was soon dampened by austerity – the economic one, the one that means being ruled by debt. In serious times, one learns complicated words on television. I sensed that ‘conjuncture’, often uttered in televised presidential speeches in Niger in the mid-eighties, was something dismal – though I didn’t know what it meant. A decade later, it was one of the least complicated, cheeriest words in the maquis of Niamey, as a slang name for the local beer, La Girafe. Stranded on the shoals of the Washington Consensus, the Epimetheans had downsized the state and discharged and retired the public workforce in droves. Such circumstances beget gallows humor. The soothing tipsiness promised by La Girafe earned it the nickname of the dreaded ‘Conjuncture’ – fondly shorthanded as Conjonka.

The first political slogan I learned was probably the alliterative, Le PAS ne passera pas (‘SAP [Structural Adjustment Program] shall not pass’) – supplemented by Pas moins d’État, mieux d’État (‘Not less state, a better state’). In a world where globalization would have been political, protesters in those demonstrations would have marched on Washington’s 19th Street NW, not on a thoroughfare in Niamey where all they did was to disturb the street hawkers. But they did not march in Washington, and the SAP passed. What then followed was a kind of psychological dry spell, which all the Conjunctures in the world could not quench. The fall of ‘progress’ scrambled the map we had relied on since independence, and many felt lost. But even that did not last.


My generation was part of the last global text generation, the one that looked for its provender in printed books and magazines, not on a screen. In the early nineties, I noticed that the mats and stands of second-hand booksellers near Niamey’s High Market or at Dakar’s Colobane Market overflowed with Marxist-Leninist literature, not because they were in demand, but because obsolete stocks were being liquidated. The books were offloaded in bulk to beignet sellers, and if it was your thing, you could read a paragraph on Gattungswesen on the oil-stained bottom of the paper wrapping of your spiced up akara.



Johnny Hallyday arm wrestles with a Nigerien, Niamey, 1965–1970
Courtesy of the Estate of Philippe Koudjina / Revue Noire Paris


Many ‘comrades’ were now reading the productions of New Horizons, the US State Department’s response to Moscow’s Progress Publishers – the source of the Marxist-Leninist texts that were ubiquitous in the eighties. (I did read some of the offerings of the Progress Publishers, because they included novels and short stories and lots of Soviet sci-fi – a taste that confirmed to some of the comrades their suspicions about my ‘bourgeois tendencies’.) Now the Soviets were gone, the Americans suggested democracy and capitalism as a replacement for progress and socialism, and there was a ‘why not?’ reaction. Other books in Arabic script – something until then very uncommon in ‘normal’ life – began to appear on student bookshelves. In Dakar, where I spent most of the nineties, I once opened my door to another student who had knocked to inquire about something. I was dancing a little; there was music in my room. Days later a friend told me that my ‘behavior’ – the dancing and other things I didn’t suspect were of interest – was the subject of an hour-long meeting on the rooftop of the building that the state of Niger rented for Nigerien students in the city. While in the old days the comrades had accused me of being a bourgeois comprador – I was sixteen and mortified – it appeared I was now an unbeliever in the eyes of the brothers.

From the sixties to the eighties, the meta-historic map promised a modern future that might be bourgeois or Communist but would in any case be materially munificent – and humanised by a dose of Africa. In the nineties, the liberal-democratic billboards of the triumphant West briefly captured some imaginations, and an Islamist fast-track to the Caliphate (‘Islam is the Solution’ was a slogan of those days) pulled others, at least in Niger and Mali, much less in Burkina Faso. The spirit of my generation became a middle ground in which a fusion, or rather a confusion, of these conflicting maps was attempted, as if people were going to live in a place that would be at the same time France and Saudi Arabia, without the affluence of either. The lack of affluence favoured Islam: being poor did not prevent you from being a good Muslim; but to be like a Westerner, you needed material backup for the ‘pursuit of happiness’. Already in 1972, a Nigerien movie had satirised that as a pipe dream for most people in the Sahel. The main character of FVVA (an acronym for Femmes Voitures Villas Argent, i.e., ‘Women Cars Villas Money’) came to grief when he tried living the lavish life of the modern consumer on the means of what then passed for the middle class in his country. In the early nineties, a high-school philosophy teacher wrote a column for Haské, Niger’s first independent newspaper, where he explained his attraction to the Islamist project – a dereliction of duty, since philosophy teachers were supposed to be for liberalism what clerics were for Islam. ‘The Islamic revolution’ showed, he wrote, that ‘it is now possible to be a man without necessarily looking like a Westerner.’ And, he piled on, ‘many they are, the frustrated, the rejected candidates for Westernisation like you and me, who harbour a latent sympathy for the Islamist movement.’


The screen generation is not as easy to read. The fact that they do not read – at least not the way we read – means that they are inscrutable in a way that cannot be chalked up only to a proverbial generational divide. They are in some sense inscrutable to each other. Our text culture created a generational space that made debates possible, clashes inevitable and even sought after. The youth seem to fold themselves into their virtual and networked worlds. They lack a generational public space, or perhaps have no need for it, because the maps have become a maze and the absence of fixed references come with a kind of freedom from expectation which previous generations could not imagine. Much of this must be true for the screen generation the world over. The difference, in the Sahel, is the conditions in which they operate. In Niger, there was in the early sixties a radical progressist movement, Sawaba, that was crushed by its more moderately progressivist rivals of the Nigerien Progressive Party (everyone was progressive back then!) and became decades later the subject of a 900-page book by the Dutch historian Klaas van Walraven, The Yearning for Relief. Relief, not progress, was really what it was all about – relief from drudgery and power, relief to be oneself, and, to quote a Songhay text from Boubou Hama – a nemesis of Sawaba – relief to be able to be bere nda ni wono, ‘great with one’s own’. The younger generation of Sahelians still yearn for that relief, and they perhaps have a better chance to find it in the open maze, outside the doctrinaire maps of their elders.


Photography by Philippe Koudjina

Rahmane Idrissa

Rahmane Idrissa is a writer and researcher based at Leiden University’s Africa Studies Centre. He is the author of The Politics of Islam in the Sahel: Between Persuasion and Violence, and is currently working on a history of the Songhay Empire and a novel on the Sahel’s ‘generational seasons’.

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