Country Focus: Niger
Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa
By Peter Chilson
Published by University of Georgia Press, 1999.
About the author: Chilson was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger from 1985 to 1987. He returned in 1992 as a journalist to gather information for a book that would become Riding the Demon. He continues to visit and write about West Africa, and in 2013 published the e-book We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches From the Lost Country of Mali.
Riding the Demon is an entertaining and eye-opening look at the perilous nature of road travel in Niger.
Bush taxis were the primary mode of motorized transportation in Niger during the 1990s. Rides were cheap and egalitarian but dangerous. Consider this: the bush taxi was usually a vehicle so decrepit that its parts were often tied into place with rope and/or patched with pieces of old Coke cans; impure, black market fuel was often packed in among baggage, ready to explode in case of an accident; drivers routinely tore along at speeds over 85 mph, regardless of road condition, weather, or likelihood of collision with human, beast or object; soldiers searched and detained travelers at numerous checkpoints; breakdowns were inevitable; and departure and arrival times depended solely on good fortune. This seat-of-your-pants method of travel both exhilarated and terrified author Peter Chilson. Chilson spent seven months in a 1978 Peugeot 504 driven by Issoufou Garba on Niger’s Route 1, which stretches east from Mali and west to Lake Chad. Issoufou, a middle-aged devout Muslim with no formal education, two wives, ten children and a fleet of three bush taxis, faced all of the trials of his line of work with a patience and self-possession admired by his American passenger.
Not only does he recount his adventures on the road with Issoufou, but Chilson also entertainingly relates the history and culture of all things related to the Nigerien road system and automobile travel. Chilson’s unique look into a country neglected by most writers deserves a larger readership.
Once in a while a crash illuminates the night in the bush, to the pleasure of the gods, when some poor driver hits a lightless vehicle, releasing the demons in the gasoline barrels. Charred remains line the road shoulder for the thirty-two miles from Takiéta east to the old provincial capital and market city of Zinder. Fresh flames of wrecks sometimes startle the dark night on Route 1, flashing bright stains on the air. Villagers comb the the wrecks for salvageable spare parts to sell—a hubcap, a fuel filter—the moment the metal cools.