Niger is West Africa’s largest country, but remains one of the least developed on the continent. Much of the land consists of vast Sahara Desert and plateaus roamed by nomadic tribes. The northeastern and central areas have higher elevations, highlighted by the large mountain range of the Air Massif, which extends into north-central Niger. Peaks reach as high 6,000 feet above sea level. The only fertile region is the south in the steppe and savanna country where Lake Chad and the Niger River can be found. Most of the people in Niger live in this region of trees, shrubs, and farm land.
Niger’s main attraction is the ‘W’ National Park, which is located just outside Niamey. The park is home to abundant wildlife, including lions, leopards, elephants, cheetahs, hippos, caracals, aardvarks, warthogs, buffalos, hyenas, baboons, jackals, and innumerable bird species. The park is named ‘W’ because the Niger River meanders through it in the shape of a ‘W’. Visitors can view the wildlife while taking a canoe or motorboat ride along the river.
More wildlife can also be viewed high up in the Air Mountains. It was not known until rather recently that lions, giraffes, leopards and other safari animals could survive at such altitudes. Unfortunately, recent droughts have caused the animal population to dwindle significantly.
The other appeal of Niger is its oasis towns, which typically feature trading markets, old mosques, and sultanate palaces. Zinder, for example, has a Sultan’s Palace and mosque in its town center. Zinder’s mazes and alleyways present a picture of a typical Hausa town. Agadez is another beautiful oasis town decorated with mosque minarets. It is a thriving caravan trading center. You can buy various goods, including silver and leather crafts.
Also, take the time to visit Dosso if you get the chance. This 13th century town features a spectacular palace and a lively village square. It is often the host of Touareg festivals, parades, and ceremonies.
There are several ethnic groups in Niger, most of them are Muslim. The largest group is the Hausa, who make up 50% of the population. They are mostly farmers in the south. The second largest group is the Djerma-Songhai who are also farmers and reside in the southwest region along the Niger River. Both the Hausa and Djerma-Songhai grow peanuts, rice, millet, beans, and peas. The northern deserts, on the other hand, are less populated and run by the Arab Touaregs who are nomadic herders of goats, cattle, and sheep. Most of them live in the highlands of the north-central region.
The rural lifestyle of the people in Niger has preserved the artistic traditions of the various groups. Many of villages and towns feature open-air markets lined with stalls selling gold and silver jewelry made by local artisans. Other typical goods include chiseled pottery, decorated bowls, leather-treated musical instruments, and sculpted figurines. The work of Niger’s artisans has been widely praised even outside of Africa.
Niger dates back to Roman times when expeditions of that great empire penetrated into this region. In the 7th century, the Songhai Empire was founded along the Niger River and was based in Gao. For the next 1,000 years, the Songhai Empire was plagued by warfare between different tribes and groups vying for domination in the area.
In the 10th century, immigrants from East and North Africa conquered much of southern Niger and established small kingdoms known as Hausa city-states. The people thrived on farming and trading. The Fulani rebelled against the Hausa rulers in the early 19th century and conquered much of the territory, setting up their own kingdom. During this period, Europeans began appearing onto the scene. By the late 1890s, the French had begun occupying present-day Niger. They set up a colony in 1922.
In 1960, Niger was granted full independence. Since then, Niger has suffered through a number of military coups, insurgencies, and assassinations. The biggest issue facing the country in recent years is the serious food crisis that has affected more than 2.5 million people. Niger continues to depend heavily on international aid and relief.