In Niamey, capital of Niger, commerce is king. Driving down the road you see everything from shoe-shine boys to strobe lit storefronts selling jeans and polo shirts. But the entrepreneurs who captivate me the most are the people who carry their products through the neighborhoods, crisscrossing the city’s sandy roads in the hopes of capitalizing on Niamey’s mellow street life.
So, on this sunny day, armed with a brightly colored plastic mat and some coins, I wave at the guards sitting in front of my neighbors’ walled homes and take up a shady position by my gate. Sitting in the sand, I wait for Niamey to come to me.
09:45 Start. So far, all I see are black ants and a herd of mama goats with their babies scrounging for rubbish along the edges of the walls. The kids are all legs and their long ears flap against their faces when they race to catch up with their mothers. The mamas’ stomachs protrude unusually, probably from eating too many plastic bags, and their heavy udders make me shift uncomfortably.
10:03 A tall man comes loping along my street. In each hand, he carries a cluster of silver door handle sets, keys dangling from the locks. He looks at me as he passes and holds up the cluster in his left hand, eyebrows inquiring as to whether or not I’m interested. I shake my head and he continues on his way.
10:10 The tea guy shows up with his wooden box and wire basket of coals. I wave to him and he comes over, placing his things on the ground in front of me. I order a black tea with sugar. His box is stuffed with everything he needs including charcoal and a Mr. Clean bottle. After throwing the tea wrapper into the street, he lifts the dented kettle from its nest of coals and pours out the steaming water. He uses a tiny spoon to shovel sugar into the tea. I knock back the drink and hand him 50 CFA. He rinses the glass with water from the Mr. Clean bottle, picks up his gear, and continues on his way.
10:27 The Nigerien 7-11 comes bicycling down the road. The old man is dwarfed by the large pile of Nigerian candy bars, Craven cigarettes, and boxes of tea with Arabic lettering strapped together like a Rubik’s cube gone mad on the back of his bicycle. The wheels squeak as he rolls past, leaving a snake-like tread pattern in the soft sand.
10:40 I stand up with my back against the stucco wall and watch as a herd of longhorn Bororo cattle comes slowly down my street. The lyre-shaped horns of the bull in front sway from side to side as he places each foot over the tread pattern, erasing all proof of the 7-11 bicycle. An old man casually follows the herd, his cloudy eyes shaded by the straw hat on his head. He carries a wooden stick across his shoulders.
11:06 Unfortunately for the man with the flat wooden case, I am not in the market for shiny pastel hair beads, questionable Chinese beauty creams, or dangling gold and silver earrings made of plastic. He returns the case to his shoulder and continues down the street.
11:11 Not far behind the jewelry man is the shoe vendor. Sweat circles radiate from under the straps of his backpack bulging with shoes. He is holding bright white sneakers and Chaco knock-offs in both hands. The guards seem to know him; they shout hello.
After the shoe vendor, the street goes quiet, and I decide it’s time to stretch my legs and get started with my day. But, I know that Niamey will continue to make its rounds outside my gate until the heat brings on the afternoon torpor. Women with wide plastic buckets balanced on their heads will come by around lunchtime selling fried fish heads, sauces, and rice. Others will have water bottles full of ginger or bissap juice, perfect for the dry and dusty climate. And in the cooler light of dusk, the barber will make his rounds with his straight razor for shaving heads and scissors for cutting fingernails. He will be followed by the knife sharpener and the tailor who carry their tools of the trade on their shoulders, clanging scissors together to call out customers from behind their garden walls.