In Niger, the regions are ruled by kings called sultans.
The sultans are highly regarded, and are present at all important functions in the region.
The sultan is always accompanied by his entourage of bodyguards – old men in red and green jester outfits and ancient looking trumpets.
Last year the sultan of this region died, and it wasn’t until this week that a new sultan was elected.
The population of our village grew exponentially – masses came in from Nigeria (as the sultan’s region does not consider political borders, and he governs part of Nigeria) and the outskirts.
Amidst much fanfare the new king was elected – and yesterday we received notice that the entire Medecins Sans Frontiers expat team was expected at the sultan’s quarters to congratulate him. We were expected then, at the moment of the invitation – giving one barely time to consider such things as what does one wear to congratulate the newly crowned sultan? What is an appropriate gift for the newly crowned king?
We dressed as quickly as we could – our western “formal clothes” being nothing compared to the incredible ceremonial dress of here, and we went without gift as apparently the only suitable gift is a certain type of perfume.
One hundred and fifty bottles had been ordered in from Nigeria, and they had already all been bought to be given as gifts to the king – which leaves one to wonder what does a king do with more than a lifetime supply of perfume?
And oh the fanfare.
There were trumpet players, colourfully dressed musicians of all sorts, sword wielders, dancers, and hundreds of people. We were welcomed into the tent of the king for a few ceremonious words, and our manager was presented with some kola nuts which are good for a man’s virility … apparently this is what the king always gives as a gift (to increase his population).
We left the tent and moved towards the mass of thousands of people in a sandy field. This was definitely going against all security rules imposed upon us, but it seemed that kidnappings might be a cultural faux-pas during the crowning of a new king, so we proceeded, accompanied by the sultan’s bodyguards. There were a number of separate crowds, which would open up to proudly usher us to the front where we had a clear view.
The first “activity” we were witness to was whipping. There were a number of very scarred, strong-looking men standing in a line.
Scarification here is a tradition. People’s faces are typically scarred with lines in all directions, depicting where they come from. These men were scarred across their chests, and the scars were more like welts as opposed to the fine facial scarification done with knife precision.
Suddenly a man was standing just in front of me with a large whip, which he let loose, and strapped the first man in line.
The crowd, used to such a tradition, was more interested by our responses. I gave them the reaction they were waiting for – my face apparently gave away my incredible horror.
The whip had ripped opened the man’s skin, and all I saw was a large open pink area on his shining black chest.
The whipped man, seemingly quite used to this activity, did not even flinch – in fact he stood there and smiled. And as I had given such a good response, the next man in line quickly called to be whipped as well…
The next activity was “boxing”- I was worried about what this entailed.
When we arrived, there were a number of very strong looking men circling each other. Their hands were wrapped with fabric, which was then covered with the needles of local trees. After 10 minutes nothing had happened, and the sultan’s bodyguard that was touring us around explained it could take more than a day of circling before the boxing began. I asked the guard if people get injured in this activity.
“Worse than in the whipping,” he said. “Here they often die.”
This, combined with the fact the action might be days away, was enough information to leave that activity.
We passed more dancers and musicians on our way out.
Apparently that was only the first of many traditional visits we will have to pay during the next week. Thankfully some of our staff come from noble families and act as cultural translators for us to explain at least some of the protocols and expectations. But surprises always arrive.
Trish Newport is a Whitehorse nurse who works for Medecins Sans Frontiers/ Doctors Without Borders. The article was written between November 2010 and May 2011, during a mission in Niger.