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A blog by Paul Bettings

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Sandstorms in Niger


For most of the trip I sat in the back of an aging Land Cruiser and looked out the rear window as we weaved around massive potholes. For those of you who have driven in the standard white Land Cruiser that most organizations use in Africa you will know that the back, and I mean the very back where the seats are often sideways, is not the most comfortable space. However, I don’t mind it, and in this particular moment I enjoyed watching the road fly out backwards behind the car causing strange patterns in the sand that was blowing across the road.


Our security detail


Niger was dry, there was lot’s a sand – everywhere. My trip there coincided with rebel activity in the country that got quite close to the capital city, Niamey, where we were staying. Each day we had to travel out to the project area that was about 2 hours away, and because of this rebel activity we needed to be accompanied by a security team. And by security team, I mean a group of 6 military trained men in a technical, which is a Land Cruiser pick-up truck with a massive gun (cannon, anti-aircraft weapon of some sort?) on the back. They were intimidating, but they were very friendly. Whenever I am accompanied by a security team I feel the need to befriend them, not just because they are the ones who could save my life if things go awry, but also because most of their job is to just watch us from their truck, or sit on the outskirts of town and listen to radio chatter and I imagine that can get boring.



Now, let me be clear, when it comes to security in an area with rebel activity, I would say boring is better than whatever not-boring is. But, for the security team, I imagine that sitting around in the sweltering heat is not ideal.


A sandstorm coming our way


Myself and the videographer were capturing images outside of the car just after lunch and in the distance we saw people running, our security team starting yelling at us to get back to the car. I turned around and saw them covering the massive gun and putting on jackets and hoods, they were pointing behind them. My first thought was that rebels had entered the area, but the reality was less extreme but seemingly more ominous. A huge wall of dust was coming at us, I couldn’t see where this wall of dust ended or began and it seemed to be hundreds of metres high. This wall ebbed and flowed and bulged as it moved towards us, and it was moving fast. Where I currently stood, about 1km away, it was not yet windy, but I could feel the tension. Almost like everything was vibrating, waiting for this wall of dust to hit.




I didn’t have much time to think about my camera settings. I turned and took a photo of the security team with the dust storm in the background. They looked quite calm, just sitting on the truck, waiting. The locals rushed for cover for cover in their homes, others just put a headscarf over their head as they continued to walk. I moved back away from the vehicles and began to photograph the wall of dust. Just before it hit, I got one more capture of the security detail before I had to duck into my car and protect my camera.


Lessons from the Land Cruiser


The storm hit as I got in the car and closed the door behind me, the world outside became orange. I looked outside as the sand swirled around and I thought of all the people in these villages that couldn’t close a door to get away from the sand. For me this was an experience that would be burned in my memory, for most others it was an occurrence that reflected the harsh environment they lived in, it disrupted their lives and filled their homes and their food with sand.


I often wonder what became of the security team and think about what they may be doing now. I think about this when reflecting on many of the stories and photos I have chased across the globe. But, I guess the lesson I thought about in the Land Cruiser while the sandstorm enveloped me is just as relevant now (maybe more so) as it was then; it’s easy to close doors and escape the sandstorm that’s raging outside, it’s harder to push through the sandstorm and adapt to your surroundings.


It seems in this age of COVID, we are all adapting.


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