There are a handful of great, grand rivers in the world – the Yangtze, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Congo, the Yukon, the Danube.
Their flowing waters tell the stories of the continents through which they flow and the human transactions – peaceful, violent, mercantile, poetic – those rivers have stimulated and enabled.
I would put the Niger River, in that pantheon of great, grand rivers. Most African rivers confounded the colonial explorers who used those rivers to first understand, then exploit, the continent, but the Niger, Africa’s third longest, confounded even more. Its origins are in the rain forest highlands of Guinea, not far from the coast of West Africa, to which you’d expect it to flow.
But it actually flows northeast and away from the ocean, heading right for the foot of the Sahara Desert, in modern-day Mali, before angling southeasterly on its voyage through Niger and Nigeria before it expires at the Gulf of Guinea.
I have always imagined traveling a good length of the Niger. But it’s not very practical, unless you have a constitution of steel. I settled for a one-day pilgrimage to the river during a 10-day visit to the country of Mali in August of 2010. (My daughter was doing a research project in Mali’s capital, Bamako, a sprawling Third World city sharply defined by the Niger.)
That one day – strolling its banks, plying its brown tide in a poled pirogue (hand-made wooden canoe) and enjoying beer and pizza at a riverside café at sunset – was just enough time to take in and savor the mystique of this great river.
The many functions that the river serves for Malians will surprise, and may disturb, Westerners with an appetite for pristine rivers. People are doing their laundry just downstream from the guys digging sand out of the river to build cement blocks. And just upstream from that are people bathing in the river, next to a young herdsman cooling the heels of his cattle in the river.
But it’s the vitality of the Niger for the people living along its banks that makes it great. The Niger is lifeblood for this very dry part of the world. For hundreds of years it has been a connecting thread of culture and language and music for several empires in that part of Africa. Cell phones and buses have replaced its transport and communications functions, but modern Malians know how it defines their country.
They are river people, proud of the natural heritage the Niger River has given them.