The uncomfortable truth about Moules Frites

Image yourself sitting on a platform build above the water, you have some laid back chairs to choose from, a picnic table to sit on for some dinner, a beer in your hand and a fantastic view along the Niger river with the sun setting. The only way to get there is by boat as it is located about 30 meters into the river. Magical, right? It gets even better, it organises Moules Frites nights with fries and mussels directly imported from Belgium as the owner is originally from Liège. Technically speaking it is not much different from importing prawns from Thailand to Europe, but we are talking here about Niger, a country which is classified by the United Nations as one of the poorest ones in the world. I had a wonderful night there, even without mussels, but there is always this strange after taste that lingers with a question: How come it still feels like I am practicing old style colonialism?

Another example, it is blazing hot, let’s say 38 Celsius minimum and up. You are dying for a dip in a pool and fortunately there is one in the backyard. You check if the guards are walking around in the garden or not, so you can make it with your towel wrapped around your body to the pool. A. You don’t want to offend the guards and their Muslim faith. B. Unless you are completely shameless it does feel strange to be the only one in bikini in a garden when no one else makes use of it. C. You are in the middle of the Sahel, and although the size of the pool is not Olympic the amount of water used for your dip makes it awkward as well. Then again you ignore all this, because it is really a wonderful sensation to jump into that pool.

Last one, again the heat is quite overwhelming inside and outside. Luckily inside you have air conditioning and fans, and the possibility of a cold shower. These things require either constant electricity or availability of running water. However electricity gets cut every now and then, but within seconds a rather noisy generator kicks into action and you can just go about your business again. In the meantime the guards sit outside with the noise, while you inside have a nicely ventilated room. Especially at night this is very much appreciated, otherwise you would be left in the dark after 6:30pm. Maybe a good reason to catch up on sleep and I love to sleep, but 6:30pm is even for me a bit early. Then again it makes me uncomfortable as well. A. Why on earth – in a country where the sun shines consistently for most of the year are there still generators? B. Plenty of people don’t even have electricity here. I think it is the first time in my life that I have seen just outside the capital that the electricity wires simply stop. The poles are there, but the tiny villages it passes also probably depend on the one or two generators and gaslights around.

I can appreciate each of the luxuries above, and fortunately I don’t always need airconditioning, as I get used to heat quite well, but I am always left with a feeling of guilt and wonder at the same time. How come you can find everything you need to lead a comfortable life – some would include there the 145 satellite channels I can choose from on our guesthouse flatscreen TV or cote d’or chocolate or a perfect pizza and fish carpaccio in a restaurant which looks like a little paradise – but the road in front of the house is not even paved –  I live along the beach back home, but I do not have to miss my beach walks as there are probably only 10 main roads in Niamey paved, the rest is truly the red sand. And this is the capital.

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I can reason from the perspective that there are now everywhere in the world ‘pockets of wealth’ by an elite that can lead the life they want anywhere they want, an elite that I am part of, but in countries like these the severity of this inequality is so obvious. It is heart breaking and in many ways mind boggling at the same time and while I am working for an organisation that works on these issues, I find it at times very difficult to see what my contribution is, besides the fact that I keep on telling we need to change, because the patterns of colonialism, neo-colonialism and capitalism have still not been broken and you only need to take a dip in the pool here how far off we are. Moreover, I wonder what my guards all think of this.

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