Riding the Demon : On the Road in West Africa

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, July 05, 2001 - 8:03 am: Edit Post

Riding the Demon : On the Road in West Africa by Peter Chilson, RPCV

Riding the Demon : On the Road in West Africa by Peter Chilson, RPCV

Riding the Demon : On the Road in West Africa by Peter Chilson, RPCV

Riding the Demon : On the Road in West Africa by Peter Chilson

Reviews From Kirkus Reviews , February 1, 1999 The raw cultural, political, and economic vitality of West Africa is sought by newcomer Chilson upon Niger's lawless, hair-raising, fickle, murderousin a word, insaneroads. A freelance rural transportation network props up West Africa's economies. It is overburdened but vital, hideous and intimate, punishing, equalizing, indispensable. It is the bush taxi. Chilson, who spent a couple of Peace Corps years in Niger during the 1980s, returned in 1992 to tap into the bush taxi culture, one that endures in a nation of perpetual upheaval as a ``metaphor for Africa's fight for stability and prosperity.'' It is also the driver's chance to experience a dollop of freedom and power on roads that are seemingly alive and restless, potentially cruel and violent, and critical expressions of Niger's visceral and spiritual nexus. The cars are the ultimate beaters, little more than mechanical prayers, and the roads are deadly venues, a 100-mile-per-hour free-for-all, where passing on blind curves is a sport and a challenge, and predatory soldiers man roadblocks so common you can see the next from the last. It's not just fun and games though; for Chilson, the roads are ``bowls of human soup, microscope slides of society,'' that afford a glimpse into a world where misfortune is as often as not the work of demons, where out-of-body venturing and hallucinations are, if not common, elemental, and where powerful forces are ready to smite wrongdoers, a valuable containing force in a place gripped by male angst, venality, and religious fervor. Chilson's Virgil is road-savvy Issoufou, a bush cabbie with enough pride in his culture to invite Chilson to take a good look after he has opened doors otherwise locked to outsidersto marabouts, the contraband trade, a life lived sur la pointe. If Issoufou offered Chilson ``a buffet spread of a nation's economy and politics,'' Chilson in turns offers it to us, seen through the dark and scary glass of the road. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. See this review at Amazon.

Travel Advisory for Niger.

See a map of Niger from U. Penn. (large file)

Visit Peter's publisher, the University of Georgia Press.

An essayist and journalist, Peter Chilson spent five years in West Africa, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then as a freelance reporter, writing mainly for the Associated Press, and, finally, to research this book. His writings have appeared in The London Daily Telegraph, Audubon, West Africa Magazine, North American Review, Grand Tour, and other publications. He is an assistant professor of English at Washington State University and lives with his wife nearby in Moscow, Idaho.

About Riding the Demon

Niger has no railroads or doemestic airlines--its roads are its lifeline. For a year, Peter Chilson traveled this desert country by automibile, detouring occasionally into Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast, in order to tell the story of West African road culture. He crisscrossed the same roads again and again with bush taxi driver Issoufou Garba in order to learn one driver's story inside and out.

The road in Africa, says Chilson, is more than a direction or a path to take. Once you've booked passage and taken your seat, the road becomes the center of your life. Hurtling along at 80 miles an hour in a bush taxi equipped with bald tires, n o windows, and soometimes no doors, travelers realize that they've surrendered everything. The road is about blood and fear, and the ecstasy of arrival. On African roads, car wrecks are as common as mile markers, and the wreckage can stand in monument for months or years: a minimus upended against a tree, as if attempting escape; a charred truck overturned in a ditch.

Chilson uses the road not to reinforce the worn image of Africa's decay but to reveal how people endure political and economic chaos, poverty, and disease. The road has reflected the struggle for survival in Niger since the first automible arrived there at the turn of the century and it remains a useful metaphor for the fight for stability and prosperity across Africa. Contact Peter Chilson

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Niger; Special Interests - Writing



By Scott Webb on Monday, May 06, 2002 - 2:57 am: Edit Post

I read Peter's book while serving as the regional representative for Peace Corps with my wife in Zinder in the summer of 2000. The book had just arrived in country, I was probably the fifth PCV to read it. I couple of weeks later an autographed copy of the book made it to Zinder via Sue Rosenthal and Jen Burt. We had to get it to Issifou, the chauffer Peter travelled with. After reading the book I had been meaning to see if Issifou was still around, so I jumped at the chance to get the book to him.
In early 2000 a new bush taxi autogare had been built in Zinder, it's really nice with clean and organized market stalls, electricity, and lot's of good space for Taxi maintenance and organization. Each destination was clearly marked and a spacious waiting room existed for chauffers to catch some shut-eye. That's where I found Issifou. At the end of the book he was bitter and negative about continuing in his taxi-man work. The Issifou I met was really excited when I mentioned the anasara that travelled with him several years ago, he briefly thought I was Mr. Chilson. I gave him the book and told him who it was from, and that lot's of Americans know who he is.
I noted that he didn't understand me when I spoke to him in French, we conversed in Hausa.
To give an update- Issifou was proud to show me his new (to him) bus! He has a huge thirty seat bus that he'll probably cram 70 people into. If I remember correctly he now plies the Zinder-Tanout route, unlike the Zinder-Maradi route in the book.
He was very pleasant, mid thirtyish and healthy looking - not at all the haggard and intense man chilson seemed to paint in his book.
To sum it up- if anyone reads this, especially Peter Chilson- Issifou got the book. All the Niger PCVs read it while I was there, especially Zinder area PCVs. It was good to read the history part, and I'm always happy when someone pays attention to and draws attention to Niger, no matter the tone. People need to know about this amazing country.

By Anonymous (dialup92-blk1-apxnas-ppp.intelleqcom.net - on Sunday, June 04, 2006 - 3:34 pm: Edit Post

I served in the Peace Corps in Niger also. The Peace Corps was a nightmare of social togetherness. Our country leader was a female dike who was in a relationship with the head of a church group. I was assigned to a forest project that the church organization was dumping money into. That is how the graft problems is overcome. I was to report on how this money was spent. I did not have access to the account nor control over it. So I simply wrote a note each month and said workers were showing up and trees were being planted and all was well. It was expected that I would be the toy boy of this lady in charge of the church organization. I kept her on a long leash for my own protection.
She was the lover of our Peace Corps country leader.
The greatest medical problem when I was there in the 1980's among peace corps members was STD's. Sexually transmitted diseases. I came home clean because I was totally celibate during my time in Niger. Homosexual relations between incountry staff and new arrivals was obvious and not covered up. I was in trouble with the country staff because I took initiative several times to bring in peace corps people from the bush when they were very sick and needed hospitalization. Their calls to the Peace Corps headquarters in Niamey went unheaded beyond sending them instructions on what medicines to use out of there supply. No one went to check on them. I did and was told to never do that again. But I did and said that if a peace corps member was in trouble I would do something about it. Sexual advances of the local Nigerian men at some of the female peace corps members were NOT handled by the staff well. In fact they just wanted it to go away. My home became a regional type hostel for several female peace corps members who were being harassed. They did not feel safe any longer alone. They came and stayed in my home where they were safe. Everytime the peace corps threatened me with a trip home I just said, I'm ready. And when I get home I am going to camp on my congressman's door step. And, my ace in the hole. I had a friend who was a personal friend of Barbara Bush. A single call to her and my stories of the Niger Peace Corps were in her ear. The Peace Corps knew of this contact and feared it. I used it to my advantage for good purposes but did not use it for revenge. The peace corps of Niger was glad to see me go. However, I did manage to teach classes in English; a lecture class in chemistry to a prvate group [held in a private Nigerian home] because I was told not to do that....And I contributed to basic ecological information through field surveys of vegetation and mapping. I regret the day I encountered a huge pile of sacks of wheat all marked gift of American, gift of Canada, Gift of Australia...all marked NOT TO BE SOLD....all guarded by soldiers...and all being sold in the market in Niamey. I complained to the ambassador...and he told me to forget it and go join the party out at the swimming pool at his house and have another cold beer.... That was how US AID functioned. Along with the US AID pickups parked at the local Chief de Village's home compound for his personal use.
A large part of my work in Niger was confrontational with the Peace Corps and the US Aid program. I was not afraid of calling a spade a spade. I came home healthy and proud of having supported what was morally correct. And of having served the people of Niger.
I sign this with my african name given to me by the Fulani herdsmen of the village of Mali Pul.
Ms Boubakar

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