On Friday afternoon I eventually persuaded myself to visit the Regional museum. But it was the buvette on its premises that really took my attention...
Long before I entered the nicely Hausa style decorated building that was called the Regional Museum, I felt I had to drink a cold beer first in the adjacent bar. It was still extremely hot at 4pm, but the main reason was the outstanding blues of BB King coming from the speakers that gifted me with an euphoric mood!
Some 8 men were drinking crazily. The most expensive imported beers (“Amsterdam”) and Whiskeys (J. Walker.), one after the other. One glass of imported whiskey cost the equivalent of 1,6 daily wage of an average worker. They approached me in English and so I assumed they were rich businessman from Nigeria when they invited me to sit with them. And of course it would have been very impolite to refuse all those delicacies I was offered.
And then they explained they were actually locals working for USAID! I was shocked! These little group of educated local people were spending sufficient money on drinks in one hour to supply some 80 meals to those in need, or to pay 20 good day wages to poor workers. And who was paying for all this?
Anyway, for me it was no fun anymore and I stood up to visit the poor museum. Zinder has big plans to establish a new huge Regional Museum, and I guess that until then (and that easily might be years) no efforts will be made to upkeep an interesting collection in the present building.
What you can see in the two small rooms are an example of traditional Hausa dress, a small collection of prehistoric tools found in the Sahara region, a display with goods from the French Colonial period and a collection of spears and other weapons. Along with a show-case with foreign banknotes, undoubtedly donated by visitors. I donated an old 10 Rouble note (with portrait of Lenin), that I just bought on the market from an old man.
No entrance fee, although the caretaker appreciates a small cadeau.
But the Grand Marché is especially charming because of the large numbers of local craftspeople that come to trade their decorated metal boxes, carved calabash bowls, clay jars, tanned leather works, woven baskets and whatsoever.
You see huge piles of almost garbage that people make useful things of on the spot. In small rooms youngsters repair electronics, make clothes, run barbershops and everything else you can imagine!
Just outside town, is the animal market which is worth a visit too. Hausa, Fulani and Tuareg tribes are all represented with their trade of goats, cows and camels. This market is bound to move to a site near the Grand Marche soon, if this word means anything in Africa ;-).
Thursday is the big market day, one of the largest in Niger and a must see because of its interesting mix of people and products.
You will find millet, (imported) rice and a reasonable selection of other durable farm products, and some oranges, but the main business in Zinder seems to be the imported manufactured goods and local crafts products, while illegal petrol is big business too.
Zinder is on the main route between the rich Arab World (i.e. Libya, Lebanon) and the relatively prosperous Nigeria. It’s here that the immensely loaded Mercedes trucks pass after crossing the Sahara for weeks as well as the colourful painted trucks from Kano, Nigeria.
You can visit the residence of the explorer Heinrich Barth who stayed in Zinder on his famous journey between Lake Chad and Timbuktu.
The German Heinrich Barth, one of the most successful Sahara explorers ever, spent more than 5 years in the Sahara regions, during 1850-1855.
By the end of November 1852 he had completed his mission from Tripoli to Lake Chad and started a new journey to Timbuktu. On 25 December 1852 he reached Zinder, where he resided until 30 January 1853.
Not much is known about his stay in Zinder and moreover the building is a ruin, but you will see the sign anyway on a walk in the Birni Quarter. His residence in Agadez on the other hand is now a small museum and is a much better place to see evidence of his journeys.
The second style of decoration you will see are the facades with embossed designs.
This is the more traditional method, that you don’t see anymore on more recently build houses. While the cellular design had been in hands of women, this relief design had once been the art of specialised guilds and therefore was more prestigious.
You can admire quite a lot of old and new houses in the Birni Quarter that are nicely decorated in typical Hausa style.
Many of the street facades of the rectangular shaped mud brick houses are decorated. You see two styles. The more “recent” is the cellular design. The wall surface is divided in cells, and women carve the patterns out in the clay. Sometimes these are coloured in. This decoration is still practised also on new houses.
The patterns are abstract (probably symbolic, but nobody could tell me their meaning), although I also saw some wall paintings with images of Bororo men, who are known for their beauty.
I found the residents of the Birni Quarter sincerely kind, polite and easily approachable much more so than those in comparable areas of tourist town Agadez.
I expected large numbers of children approaching me for “cadeau, cadeau” and yes, the countless children were asking a lot of attention, but surprisingly they didn’t beg (for other things than “photo”). Instead they took my hand and showed me around. Zinder sees few tourists; people here are traders and farmers, they don’t rely on tourism.
I am happy that I went to both Zinder and Agadez; the towns are both fascinating and have much in common but the atmosphere is very different!
Mustafa and I strolled around the fascinating Birni Quarter, a maze of narrow, sandy streets and mud brick houses, many of them decorated according to Hausa tradition.
No noisy cars here, but donkey carts and camel drivers that slow down the pace of life and contribute to the quiet and peaceful atmosphere.
This neighbourhood is near the Sultans Palace and is one of the oldest parts of town. Some houses date back from the times the caravan (slave-) trade route was still booming, around mid 19th century.
While he refused me inside the Grand Mosque, he allowed me to take a quick look around the much older and smaller Mosque in front of it, that is used during the rest of the week.
This fine mud brick Mosque dates from mid 19th century and has a fine white washed interior.
Before we said goodbye, he wheedled me into giving some small tips to various persons, ranging from the caretaker who guarded my shoes to the gardener.
I had to laugh inside, the whole excursion was still so full of amateurism that I actually enjoyed it a lot!
After the tour around the Palace, the Prince was now visibly fed up with me and refused me to show the new Grand Mosque at the opposite of the street, although we agreed upon it.
He told me I did not have any permission to climb the tall minaret as the caretaker was not around and the Sultan busy. Moreover, the new Grand Mosque was only open on Fridays. Don’t refrain from asking permission though, if you’re around, as the views should be really great!!
The entrance is marked by an enormous heavy wooden door, which is the latest victory of the (former) Sultan.
Some decennia ago, the door belonged to a residency of a Chief from a nearby village who apparently rebelled against the Sultans supremacy. To show him “who had the real power” the Sultans Guards captured the ancient door that formed the gate, after which hierarchy was restored…
We took a moto taxi and drove across the sandy streets to the Sultan’s residence. It was crowded on the square in front of the Palace, opposite the Grand Mosque.
Men in long clownish coloured dresses guarded the reddish clay structure build in 1852. The two storey building was definitely beautifully polished, and very stylish and delicate but otherwise it lacked some decoration and looked not extremely impressive for a Palace of such an important (former) State!
We were welcomed by a man who introduced himself as the Prince, also Head of Guards, and he offered me to show me around the Palace for a negotiable sum.
the next 9 "must sees"- tips include a virtual tour around the Sultan's Palace.
a ride on a moto taxis in Zinder cost around EUR 0,30 one way
We descended again to end the tour at the present day living quarters of the Sultan.
This area looked really well. Unfortunately the Sultan was just receiving important guests (yes, even more important than me…), so that it was not able to meet him personally. “Probably I bargained too hard”, I thought. But maybe he was really busy and are next travellers more lucky.
We climbed on the roof which offered superb views especially over the old town.
A conglomeration of mostly square red mud brick structures, here and there a tree. To the north good views on the main courtyard, and over the minarets of the Grand Mosque that tower high above the Palace Roof.
Upstairs are yet more rooms such as the Sultan’s former living quarters, the room where he received guests, and another where he used to meet delegations of his Court.
The rooms are empty so you need some imagination here. We traversed a system of gloomy corridors full of bats. The holes in the wall offered the Sultan and his family good views on the main courtyard, in case ceremonies or festivities took place.