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According to statistics it is the poorest country in the world and the press continually paints a negative picture of the country not least in 2005 when you would have been forgiven for thinking that locusts had destroyed the country’s entire food supply. This begs the question should one go at all? In my view, taking your tourist dollar elsewhere is not the answer and indeed only exacerbates the problem. Moreover, you would be missing out as economic statistics do not take into account the friendliness of its people, in particular that of the Wodaabe, who number among the last nomads of Africa.

The landscape the Wodaabe inhabit is a harsh one: in central Niger, between the Sahara and the grasslands, lies an immense steppe, scattered with scrawny bushes and skeletal trees. For nine months of the year hardly a drop of rain falls. The days are torrid, the nights sometimes freezing cold. And the harmattan, the hot wind out of the desert, blows up relentlessly, filling the air with a sandy haze. Across this no-man's land the Wodaabe herd their cattle, migrating north in the rainy season and south again in the dry months and leaving no trace of their travels as they go.

I went in search of the Wodaabe with photographer Steve Bloom. After a relentless day’s driving we veered off the road and in the warmth of the late afternoon sun, we drove through rolling countryside of yellow and green grasses interspersed with acacia and wild dates. We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere and thus I was a little surprised when we suddenly stopped under a small nondescript acacia tree. My understanding had been that we were going to stay with a Wodaabe family for a couple of days in their camp. There was nobody or no camp within sight.

Somewhat bemused I got out of the 4x4 to stretch my tired and aching legs when a deep stentorian voice grunted a greeting behind me. I spun round. My jaw dropped in surprise. Standing in front of me was a giant of a man, many inches taller than my six foot two, with a most unusual yet eye-catching face. I was not sure what to expect but not a face like this. It felt unreal – I had never before seen such curious features and I was quite simply mesmerised. Indeed I felt as though I had been momentarily transported into a Ryder Haggard novel.

Less striking but more beautiful faces of softer features emerged from the bush. All were unusual, all captivating. I stared unashamedly at their bizarre beauty in particular at one (who I Iater learn is) called Youlandou (meaning ‘late’ i.e. that he was born late after a difficult birth). I want to use the word effeminate to describe his features but there is nothing unmanly about him, in fact, his sword and well honed physique suggest otherwise.

I was saved by the setting sun. The fading light masked their faces and mine in darkness, saving me from further embarrassment at my wide-eyed incredulity.

But in the dark I am equally amazed. This time my surprise is not visual but oral. A short distance away from us the men break into song. They are not singing for our benefit but their own enjoyment. No instruments, only their voices and the occasional rhythmic clapping. What is unexpected is the pitch of their voices. There is not the deep resonant bass of southern Africa but a higher contralto. They sing about universal topics: women and love. Young children scurry towards the singing and sit enthralled at the feet of the singers/dancers. I am amused by their lack of fear of the dark – my daughter would not be so brave – but then the Wodaabe children might well be equally fearful, mutatis mutandis, of the bright lights of our cities.

At dawn we rise to see the women - who are less compelling and who wear their hair bunched up into an Afro quiff as opposed to the men whose hair is plaited and hangs down the side of the face - milking cows, pounding millet, lighting fires, beginning the day’s work. Young boys take the livestock out to pasture. The men ready themselves for the dance.

With handheld mirrors they painstakingly apply their make up. They blacken lips, rouge cheeks, apply eyeliner

In the morning, as the heat of the day began to rise, I sat in the shade with some of the men. Tea boiled in a small blue enamel teapot over a small stove. “E-hey, e-hey,” there is much light-hearted banter, nodding of agreement and slapping of hands to reinforce a point. Voices are raised not in argument but playful good humour.

Youlandou pushes back the brim of his Fulani hat, adorned with ostrich feathers, to drink water from a small teapot. He scrubs his teeth with his index finger, spits, bares his teeth in front of a small handheld mirror, satisfied, he resumes his tea-making.

The tea boils and is poured from height into a small glass. It is first offered to me. It is sweet, refreshingly so. I nod my thanks.

Spending time with these friendly jovial people, I feel envious of Thesiger and his time with the Bedouin in the Arabian Sands. But then as another thorn pricks my feet I realise that I have become too accustomed to my creature comforts and soft in my ways. I haven’t the mental or physical toughness of Thesiger to live the hardy nomadic life for months; a few days with bottled water, a tent and gas stove is all that I can manage in such heat.

















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