We had just rounded a dusty corner in our evening walk through a neighborhood in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Reedy melodies from an alghaita oboe and an oblique flute drew us to a Hausa wedding celebration in front of a nearby clay-walled courtyard. We stayed back in the twilight while women took up a drum's beat in dance.
As we had already learned, this was one of those occasions of private life carried on in public view. Respectfully, we were not in the universally recognizable tourist garb of shorts and cameras, but neither could we be mistaken for members of the family. We faced the tourist's crisis of conscience: how to observe daily life without becoming a gawker.
The richness of West Africa solved the dilemma for us. Robed musicians wandered right in front of us, giving us a graceful way to concentrate on a foreground while taking in the whole scene.
As I found out that night in Niger, and repeatedly during a month-long trip through three other French-speaking countries - Ivory Coast, Upper Volta, and Senegal - there are wonders around every corner for a visitor to West Africa.
Activity rarely retreats behind walls here. A morning in Abidjan in Ivory Coast might begin with fresh croissants or a baguette bought right on the street and continue with a stroll through this city built around lagoons. For those having more adventurous tastes, throughout Ivory Coast women and children tending outdoor grills sell attiekem (cassava with grilled fish and pepper) and aloko (plantain fried in oil with spices).
One excursion a visitor may want to make is to a maquis,m one of the informal outdoor restaurants that serve local cooking and really come to life in the evening.
A visitor to West Africa wanting to get out of a high-rise city to see some of the country can take a bush taxi (taxi brousse)m. These vans or large cars carry about eight people, so the trip provides a wonderful chance to practice one's French and learn about the country en route. To take a bush taxi, go to the garem and find the section of vehicles heading for your desired destination. The trip begins when the driver has a full load.
Out the car window, or on a walk through a village, a visitor to Ivory Coast, for instance, is likely to see women pounding yams, cocoa drying in the sun, a weaver working at a loom, and - always - people walking with carefully balanced loads on their heads.
One of the most luxurious aspects of my trip occurred on a train journey from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, in Upper Volta. We booked a couchettem (sleeping compartment) on the Gazelle, one of the newest lines of RAN (Regie Abidjan-Niger)m. My companion and I had our own compartment, with air conditioning and a sink. You'll have to go to the station office to reserve a couchette, but for the fare of about $120 (Abidjan-Ouagadougou, round trip), the indulgence renders the trip a joy.
Along this route through Ivory Coast and Upper Volta, the landscape changes from forest to savanna. At every stop, a brisk business in provisioning is done through the train windows. Passengers buy roast chicken, boiled eggs, mangoes, avocados, bananas, even hammocks. On station platforms I saw goats being coaxed along and chickens in vine cages with cocks atop. There were surprises inside the train as well. While we were whizzing past mud and thatch settlements, a man from Upper Volta inquired about Walter Mondale's presidential campaign.
The granaries we saw in Upper Volta were, quite simply, cute. At the time we passed through, these earthen silos were getting new roofs of thatch, peaked so as to resemble a Senufo hat. Among the most moving sights along the journey were the foot trails that would come out of far dusty reaches to converge on a single well.
No such mere survival was ours at the RAN hotels, very near the stations. Operated by the train line, these lovely hotels were pleasantly accommodating. Our rate was even reduced when a delayed train shortened our planned night's stay.
Markets, museums . . . and bargaining
To many travelers, a large part of the lure of West Africa will be the markets, and two of the best are in Ouagadougou and Bobodioulasso, also in Upper Volta. Cookware and calabashes, blankets and Bint el Sudan talcum powder - in short, everything - are sold at market.
Shops and market stalls throughout West Africa sell beautiful cotton fabric in six-yard lengths, each known as a pagne.m One of my favorite designs, called Jealousy, shows guinea hens facing off. Other pagnesm honor everything from national leaders to soccer and wrestling (a very popular sport in Senegal and Niger).
A word here about bargaining. It is expected. Just keep a sense of liveliness and good cheer about the transaction. Once you start, you'll be expected to continue to agreement.
In Bobodioulasso we were guided through the old mosque by several eager boys. The building bears the typical ostrich egg on one pinnacle (to signal from afar that it is a mosque). But this one, according to our young guides, bears the distinction of having been visited in the 19th century by Samoury, a figure in regional history both admired for resisting French colonialism and deplored as a slaver. The view from the roof was marvelous, and our shoes werem waiting for us at the end, as the guides had assured us.
The national museum in Niamey is considered one of the best of its type in the world. All the kinds of housing found in Niger are there to be walked through. As soon as I stepped from the midday sun into a circle of cool in the various structures, I became convinced of how appropriate these types of architecture are. Other exhibits at the admission-free museum cover the agriculture, music, and styles of dress found among Niger's people. Throughout the museum grounds, artisans work cutting leather, tapping silver, or weaving. There is a museum shop.
Another museum worth a visit is the one in Dakar, Senegal, harking back to the time when this city was the colonial capital for all of French West Africa. Museum exhibits come from the whole region. Displays here provide an unusual chance to see masks in context, so the full look and perspective can be appreciated. Other exhibits show an African version of costume jewelry - straw painted to resemble gold. And there are genuine golden ornaments, regal in every glint.
An easy day trip from Dakar is to the island of Goree, departure point for slave ships through centuries. The boat trip takes about 45 minutes each way. On Goree, the one house preserved for public view is all but ruined by the curator's ponderous comments, which are affixed everywhere. But it is possible to look out to sea through the pink-walled portal and imagine the agony of walking a plank that leads only to a life of bondage. Contrary to the impression a visitor might get, it is not just that house that held slaves for shipment, but all buildings on the island. Goree, whose beauty belies the nightmare of its history, has several restaurants and a beach with wonderfully clear water.
After all I'd seen and done on this trip, it is the music of the kora,m a 21 -string harp, that stays with me most. Remembering the light, bright, intricate sound of this instrument evokes all the beauty and wonder that I felt in getting to know West Africa.