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IFEROUANE (Niger) (AFP) – Dishes of spit-roasted lamb had been served and the sound of electrical guitars echoed throughout the pink Saharan dunes in direction of the Air Mountains.

“It is like enjoying at house,” mentioned musician Oumara Moctar.

The desert, he mentioned, “is the place we had been born, the place we grew up, and reminds us of the place we come from.”

One of many greatest cultural occasions within the Sahel area, the Aïr Competition returned final week, bringing the songs, dances and oral traditions of the nomadic Tuareg tradition to an viewers of hundreds — and a burst of hope for jihadist-scarred Niger.

The eagerly-awaited three-day occasion unfolded in Iferouane, an oasis sandwiched between desert and mountains 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) from the Nigerien capital Niamey.

Some 5,000 individuals, a lot of them native VIPs and some foreigners, changed the desert’s regular calm with a ballet of 4x4s whipping up plumes of mud.

After attending live shows and wonder pageants, festival-goers spent lengthy hours reclining on mats the place, in between rounds of tea, dialogue ranged from the deserves of Toyota pick-up vans to barely-concealed regionalism.

Oumara Moctar, also known as Bambino, performing at the Chiriet dunes northeast of Iferouane
Oumara Moctar, also called Bambino, performing on the Chiriet dunes northeast of Iferouane © Souleymane Ag Anara / AFP

“Tuareg tradition, in a nutshell,” smiled younger Iferouane resident Mohamed Bouhamid.

If not for the pervasive presence of troops to supply safety, this scene might have taken place some twenty years in the past.

The pageant, launched in 2001, final came about in 2020. In its prime, well-heeled European guests beat a path to Niger and neighbouring Mali, and males who are actually insurgent chiefs labored as vacationer guides.

An airline linked Paris on to Agadez in Niger and to Gao and Kidal in Mali. For a few years, the Paris-Dakar rally raced via the desert.

Recollections of this halcyon time persist immediately, regardless of the 2 jihadist insurgencies that beset Niger, and its continual poverty — it’s ranked the world’s poorest nation by the benchmark of the UN Human Deveopment Index.


After six French residents had been killed simply outdoors Niamey in 2020, France — beforehand the primary supply of vacationers — declared Niger a “purple zone” and advisable journey there be prevented.

For these wishing to go to the pageant in Iferouane, the French authorities advisable postponement.

The festival celebrates the culture of the Tuareg, a semi-nomadic people who have badly suffered in the Sahel's decade-long jihadist insurgency
The pageant celebrates the tradition of the Tuareg, a semi-nomadic individuals who have badly suffered within the Sahel’s decade-long jihadist insurgency © Souleymane Ag Anara / AFP

Deputy mayor Hamadi Yahaya denounced “these embassies” that “have sparked hysteria” regardless of the battle being greater than 1,000 kms away from Iferouane.

Along with the troops, dozens of Ishumars — a reputation given to former rebels — “have been deployed within the surrounding desert”, mentioned Rhissa Ag Boula, a insurgent chief who now serves as an adviser to Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum.

At close by Chiriet, the Ishumars’ vans bearing recognisable white flags remained at a discreet distance. They flanked a rowdy race between some 80 drivers dashing via the sand.

Rocco Rava, an Italian who manages a tour company referred to as Societe de Voyages Sahariens (SVS), had returned to the area for the primary time in 15 years.

He grew up within the regional capital Agadez the place he developed his tourism enterprise earlier than transferring to neighbouring Chad when the “turbulence” started in Niger.

Niger © / AFP

Tourism and machine weapons

“There’s a sturdy demand,” he mentioned, explaining he had come to Iferouane to take a look at the risk of bringing vacationers again.

However the state of affairs is paradoxical, he mentioned: “If it is actually safe, then vacationers ask us why we have to have a navy escort.”

Niger requires all Westerners travelling to the desert to be accompanied by an armed escort, for which they have to pay.

Individuals should settle for that the “earlier than” instances are over, mentioned the president of Iferouane’s artisan collective, Kader Hamadede, who has been making jewelry for 3 many years.

“The tourism we’ll have any further will all the time contain the navy, and I do not know if vacationers are inquisitive about that.”

Many native individuals had been downbeat about prospects for a greater life and a few noticed migration or working within the unlawful gold mines dotting the Sahara as their solely hope.

“There’s nothing extra to do right here,” mentioned 22-year-old Mohamed Bouamid, who hopes to make his fortune with a four-month stint within the gold enterprise.

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