Arriving in Niger was a wake up call. Its bewildering, very deprived and as a ‘blanc’ or white as I kept being referred to, I was a constant spectacle and a target for handouts or ‘cadeux’ everywhere I went. I had arranged to take a flight straight from the capital Niamey to Agadez but due to Boko Haram activity at the border with Nigeria all internal flights were cancelled, with no information if or whether they would start up again. So I had to hang around Niamey until I could figure out what to do.
Before I had left London I was given a contact in Niamey, who really came to my rescue in so many ways. Haba, a larger than life Tuareg lady married to a Frenchman who immediately took me under her wing, installed me at her house in the best part of town, put me in her bedroom, (much to my protests at invading her space) and took me around the city for two weeks, showing me the sights and most importantly introducing me to her old friend and colleague, jeweller Adam Zidia.
Adam Zidia a kindly, honest and twinkly Tuareg in his 60s runs a jewellers co operative in Agadez. Much to my great luck he was in Niamey. We all had many discussions at Habas lovely house about jewellery, designs, stones. We also admired her collection of jewellery largely made by a jeweller they called ‘Djaba’, spoken of in reverential terms and we discussed how I could translate my vision of making a small collection of my designs into reality.
After buying two kilos of pure silver from the capital, and despairing of their ever being flights, Adam and I took the public bus up to Agadez. (buy 2 seat tickets if you go this way, the seats are very cramped) Leaving Haba’s was my last goodbye to any kind of luxury living. It was an interminable journey, particularly when about 3/4s of the way there the road was covered in sand and the bus crawled along, hour after hour, past semi nomadic encampments and miles of scrubby bush. It took about 23 hours all in all. Yes... I DID say 23 hours.... Quite a few of which were filled with the hypnotic blues guitar songs of Tuareg band Tinariwen played on the someone's ghetto blaster. These were tracks I knew and loved and It felt very relaxing being close to the desert. I think I lapsed into a sort of dream state, which helped pass the time. Thankfully there was air conditioning on the bus and the weather hadn't got to 45 degrees yet as it would a month later.
We arrived in Agadez very late to a bus station where countless people were camped, dozing and eating waiting for the next bus out. Mohamed, my Tuareg friend from London who met me there, explained that these were people who were going or returning from the gold fields. This was my first inkling on how the city was transforming into a gold rush town.
Mohamed took me to my apartment (which he had described as ‘very nice’) this turned out to be a windowless pair of dusty rooms with rusty doors and locks that barely worked, three battered old chairs, a low peeling table (I didn’t realise at that time that tables and chairs were not actually used there) and a mattress on the dusty floor in the other room. The ‘bathroom’ well, lets not get into that! Just to say that it had never been cleaned, despite Mohamed swearing that the landlord had spent hours cleaning it. Oh and an ancient, very noisy fridge that sounded as if it was about to take off to the moon. This had been borrowed from Mohamed’s sister because I had specified I needed a fridge. I may have got cold drinks but at the expense of any peace at all.
I knew that my first mission next day was to find somewhere I could actually live for 2 months. But most importantly I wanted to find Djaba.
My first days were spent largely at Adams compound, where his two wives, several children and delightful grandchildren lived.
He has an atelier or workshop adjoining this compound. Basically a large one room sand brick structure with small anvils sticking out of the sand floor. This is how jewellers work, sitting on the ground on a plastic carpet with the anvil between their legs. Everybody sits on the ground all the time.
It is not seen as uncomfortable at all, but the most natural position in the world. Lounging about on carpets or blankets on the ground is the way you spend time with people. And its perfectly acceptable to doze off while visiting. But getting any privacy was another question…. I don’t think anyone spends any time alone. It is wonderful how all the generations hang out together. But I was always happy to scuttle off to my next, much better apartment for some down time. In Niger terms, this apartment was probably luxury. It was large, had several dusty rooms, furniture, a quiet fridge and had glass (ie selotaped up broken glass) doors leading onto a patio and a dusty garden with a large tree chock full of tiny little birds that rained poop on the patio. Dust was the main element one had to face all day, every day in Agadez. Even breathing was quite often problematic. I seemed to constantly have some respiratory malfunction or other as if suffering from a cold and cough. And when one night the locals decided to have a motorbike wheelie competition outside my apartment, kicking up more sand and dust, it was difficult to say the least.
I had made up a folder of pictures and designs of jewellery, particularly the various cross pendants and rings I wanted made so Adam and I agreed for me to go to the workshops of whom he had decided would make them to oversee the process and to tweak them as they were being made. Adam and I had agreed a price and I had handed him over, as he asked, everything up front. I did rather worry that this was foolish of me but after two weeks spending so much time with him, seeing that he was a man held in great respect in the jewellery industry and warming so much to him and his family. I felt I could trust him completely. In fact sometimes I called him dad. I was certainly cared for like a daughter.
Then suddenly Djaba turned up. And imperiously announced that he had retired from making jewellery, that he was not interested in making it anymore and that he was making plenty of money purifying gold. This was the business that was now taking over the whole town.
Oh dear. So I asked him to look at my designs and my stones anyway, and sitting under a makeshift awning in Adams compound he was soon engrossed in his great love. We talked jewellery until the sun went down.
He had several complaints about the way he had worked previously. I explained to him that the jewellers I wanted to make my things would be an important part of my business and that I wanted a fair trade with them and to have their stories and aspirations a part of my business. That I would promote him and not keep him hidden in the shadows, as he felt he had been formerly kept, and that it was time he was recognized for his skills and creativity. In his words he wanted to be raised up, not pushed down. And when he moved his hands up to illustrate the point I knew that we would get on. I agreed that this was how I would work with him, wanted to work with him and that I was thrilled that we could possibly have a partnership that could work for us both.
By nightfall, Djaba was talking about setting up his workshop in the main artisan centre in town. But he explained that it might take a little time as he wanted to paint it and put in a nice carpet and fan.
Little did I realise at this time, he also wanted to rent part of it out to Nigerian gold buyers, and that at times it would be hard to hear what he said over the hub bub of boisterous gold buying business.
But hey, at least I'd got my man. HERE is a website I put together for him. His work is stunning.