"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
We arrived in Niamey (Niger) on a Tuesday in the middle of October, somewhere in the middle of the afternoon. As we exited the plane, the warm air came down on us like a blanket. For our 10-month-old son, this was his first taste of Africa. An old bus, somewhat needlessly, drove us the 20 or so meters from the steps of the plane to the arrival hall. After the usual waiting and formalities – a series of bottlenecks at airports anywhere on the globe – we were taken to the hotel that would be our home for the next month and a half or so.
This is my first visit to a Sahelian country in a long, long time and the amount of sand and dust was what impressed me first. We had to wait for a bit before leaving the airport as the President of Niger had just returned from a trip to Indonesia and Australia – basically the single road to downtown was blocked off while he gave his speech at the airport and his convoy got going. Passing by the single-track railway (literally built into the middle of the road to town) and train station that (reportedly) have never been used, we descended into town. By the side of the Niger river we arrived at the “Grand Hotel”.
The name is a bit of a mystery: from the terrace of the Grand Hotel you can see the “Hotel Gawaye”, which is clearly bigger… If the “grand” is a reference to its “grandeur” is more than a little bit presumptuous… The final possibility that I could think of is “grand” as in the older brother – which would be believable.
First of all, I acknowledge my position of privilege. In what is a very, very poor country, we had air conditioning, a toilet that which each flush probably uses more water than many locals do in a day, access to coffee that was the same price as the US $ 1.90 poverty line, and the food was abundant. Furthermore, the room was cleaned, laundry done, and every time there was a power cut the generator kicked in.
Nevertheless, the physical “tiredness” of the building and its infrastructure was incredible. Clearly, there is no depreciation fund nor regular investment in an asset that did generate revenue (rooms were basically EUR 100 and more). Staff, though overall friendly, clearly lacked training and guidance. Loud conversations – including at night and in public areas of the hotel- would constantly take place, staff would smoke in the hallways and sleep on the couches in front of the guest rooms. Cleaning did take place, but it was limited – clearly the tables in our room were not cleaned once in the six weeks, and the spaces in cupboards or under the beds were probably not cleaned in the past six years…
While we were at the hotel at several times VIP’s (heads of state or government) from different African countries stayed at the hotel. Nevertheless, there is competition… In addition to the Gawaye (which, to be honest, is just as exhausted as the Grand), the Chinese have recently built a hotel which clearly is currently the most luxurious in town and with the best service (though has a shitty view and no garden). With the AU Summit taking place in 2019, other hotels are also being built.
But the overall mystery of how a business ends up this way remains unclear to me. Is it the lack of competition? Is it corruption? Is it something linked to the French colonial period? Is it linked to Africa (or this part of Africa)?
Niamey, Niger, 18.12.2017
One would want the first blog entry to be brilliant. However, it is probably best to leave room for improvement. Taking the second approach, this introduction will be brief and mainly try to address the ‘why’ of this blog.
To begin with, some background. Having grown up in Africa, and worked for a long time in development cooperation ( on Africa and Asia and in global policy roles), I’ve been left with a lot of questions. These range from the practical (along the lines of, ‘what works and what does not’), the more philosophical / historical (along the lines of, ‘why is the world as it is’), but also personal and psychological (along the lines of, ‘what does all of this mean to me’).
Though I have written bits and pieces on and off, this has never been very structured. This site and blog is an attempt to improve on this. Also, the exercise of having run a website briefly in an earlier work position has given me a bit of appetite to explore a bit more the how and what of this. Finally, Duncan Green, a prominent development blogger (amongst other things) for Oxfam has given excellent overview of the more serious reasons to blog (and he has further interesting posts, including on blogging and development).
So here we go!
p.s., more on the website name, logo, and quote later…
Niamey, Niger, 03.11.2017