When I was a kid, I didn’t know how to pronounce the name of this country. In fact, I was a little apprehensive to say it aloud since it looked close to an offensive word. But later on, I learned that it’s pronounced with the French pronunciation (nee-ZHER, not NYE-jer), and that it’s definitely not the same place as Nigeria.
Niger is named after the Niger River. In a local language, it was called Ni Ger (River Ger). It’s a common misconception (that I also believed) that Niger was named after the Latin name niger, the word for black in reference to the black skin of the people who lived there. (What a Eurocentric way of thinking.) And because its name is close to that of Nigeria, I also learned the differences between the adjective form: Nigerien refers to people and things from Niger; Nigerian refers to people and things from Nigeria.
This landlocked country is located in West Africa. It’s bordered by Algeria and Libya to the north, Chad to the east, Nigeria to the south, Benin and Burkina Faso to the southwest, and Mali to the west. Located between the Sahara in the north and the Sub-Saharan regions in the south, it’s the sixth largest country by area in Africa and 22nd in the world. The Niger River cuts through the far southwestern corner of the country and through the capital city of Niamey. Its desert area is hot and dry with sand dunes and desert plains while the areas around the river basin experience a tropical climate.
Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago, Niger wasn’t covered with desert. These areas were covered in fertile grasslands perfect for raising cattle and growing crops. But the Sahara Desert started creeping its way farther south about 7000 years ago. By about the 5th century BC, this area became part of the crossroads between African migration from the northwest and trans-African trade routes with Arab traders. This also brought along the introduction of Islam. Parts of Niger were included as part of several empires throughout the centuries: Songhai, Hausa, Mali, and Kanem-Bornu. During the 19th century, French explorers finally made their way to the lands of Niger. As they made their way across, they laid claim to the land and people based on European standards without a thought to the people who actually lived there. And the Nigeriens were not having it. Many revolted against the colonialism, but by 1922, they stopped resisting (as much) and became a French colony. In 1958, Niger became an autonomous state within the French community but gained its independence two years later. However, it started its independence as a one-party state and then spent most of the next 35 years toggling between military coups and a political stability.
The capital and largest city is Niamey (pronounced nya-MAY if you go with the French pronunciation, although many American English speakers pronounce it NEE-uh-may). The city was originally a small town and didn’t rise to prominence until the French decided to house a colonial post that eventually grew into its capital in 1926. Although it’s not centrally located, it’s the center of almost everything in the country: government, commerce, education, media, and transportation. There are several universities, museums, sports venues, markets, and many mosques.
Most people in Niger depend on subsistence farming and livestock as their main means of income. Agriculture is one of Niger’s primary economic drivers. However, desertification and droughts have had negative impacts on their crops in the past. The country also has some of the world’s largest deposits of uranium, but declines in demand has led to a weakened economy. On the upside of things, oil was discovered in the Tenere Desert back in the 1970s, but they never really had any serious production because some exploration tests showed there wasn’t enough to pursue. That idea was overturned a few years ago, and Niger produced its first barrels of oil back in 2011. Even so, Niger often depends on financial assistance and foreign aid from other countries.
Nearly 80% of Nigeriens are Muslim while the remaining 20% consist of a smaller Christian population. Of the Muslims in Niger, the majority are Sunni. There is a certain amount of crossover with indigenous animism, as is found in many countries in Africa. And actually the country has established a constitutional separation of church and state.
The official language of Niger is French, left over from its colonial days. As a multi-lingual country, French is often used as a lingua franca as well. It’s the official language of the government and is spoken as a second language for many of its residents who were fortunate enough to continue their education abroad. Niger has also declared ten national languages: Arabic, Buduma, Hausa, Kanuri, Tassawaq, Tebu, Tamasheq, Zarma/Songhai, Gourmanchéma, and Fulfulde.
Despite its arid landscape, the country has quite a biodiversity. Animals like the cheetah, a variety of gazelle, the oryz, West African lion, elephant, antelopes, and buffaloes are found throughout the country. The Niger River itself is home to 20 species of fish that aren’t found any place else on earth except in the Niger River. There have even been dinosaur bones found hidden away in areas uncovered in the Sahara Desert. I’ve already found my recipes for this country, and I’m looking forward to finding out what else is hidden away in this country.
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