Last week, a presidential staff person helped me find out where to pay my water bill in Niamey. No joke. Well, I should specify that he’s a former member of the presidential staff – he’s now retired. You may be starting to think that I have lots of connections here and could get someone important to help me. Nope. I just found him sitting in the shade by the side of the road. It’s part of what I’m learning about how you get information and find places in West Africa. And the process involves more than a Google search – which means it is often far more…interesting.
“Googling” is a regular part of life in North America. I can remember the days, in my teenage years in the U.S., when people talked about the various search engines available online. For a little while, everyone had their own favorite. Then the multitude of options gradually diminished until “google” became a verb in the English language. Now, with privacy concerns in mind, I hear discussions about all the steps necessary to not use Google’s services (and thus allow them to use your data), as it can be difficult for some tech-loving Americans to not use Google! For me, as for many other Westerners, it’s just the normal way to find information; including finding directions to any new place I want to go.
But finding my way around with Google maps (usually via the app on my Android phone) has proven more difficult here. The road maps can still be helpful, but the data about my surroundings – names of stores, restaurants, streets, etc. – that Google can provide in the western world is just not there in the maps of most African cities. In Tacoma, WA, a lack of internet visibility is the death knell of a restaurant or store. There, if the consumer can’t find it through an online search, they’ll never bother to find it.* In Niamey, lack of internet visibility is normal. If a place has been identified on Google Maps, it’s usually either a government building or a business owned by foreigners.
Of course, in the U.S., it’s not just when you’re looking to go out and spend money that you use Google maps or a GPS. How often do people give each other directions to their houses now? In most of my exchanges, you just get the address. Then you punch it into your preferred electronic mapping /navigation service and you’ve got the directions. In Tacoma, if you’re lucky, you can click on “street view” and see the friend you’re going to visit waving at the camera, as they happened to be outside when the funny-looking little car went by. In Niamey, if you’re lucky, the house you’re going to has a house number posted somewhere(and it takes another stroke of luck to find a clearly posted street sign! But can you find the house by it’s address on Google Maps? No way.
Around here, then, it’s all about directions using landmarks. If what you’re looking for is close to a recognizable landmark, you give directions starting from that landmark. And if it’s not, a person who knows the way has to take you there for the first time, (then you have to remember the way the next time). When a repairman or delivery person comes to your house for the first time, it’s best to go meet them on the main road and show them the way to your house. When we were still freshly arrived but didn’t have our car yet, I called a refrigerator repairman and asked him to come to our house. I felt pretty embarrassed when I proved incapable of describing to him how to get to our house. In the end, he called the friend who had referred him to us, who was able to give him better directions over the phone, while I stood at the corner watching for his moto to come by.
But back to my ride with the guy from the presidential palace: I’ve discovered that, when you know the general neighborhood of the place you’re looking for but not the exact location, there’s a different kind of “Google” information service that can serve very well. If you’ll pardon an acronym, I’d say that the GOOGLE of Niamey is Groups Of Old Guys Lounging Everywhere. It works like this: when you get fairly close to the place you’re looking for, you look around for the nearest group of guys sitting under a tree or in the shade of a building, and you ask them where to find it. Assuming one of them speaks one of your languages, they’ll tell you which direction to go. You travel a little ways that direction, then you stop and ask another group. If you’re close to the destination, they can give you more detail or just point at it.
That’s how it happened last week, when I was trying to find the local office where I could pay my water bill. I knew the general location, so when I got close, I stopped and asked a group of guys. They sent me down the street, to where another group of guys pointed down an alley. I arrived at the not-at-all-well-marked office for the water company to find that they were closed for lunch break. I had parked my car parked in front of the first group of old guys, so when I went to get back in, they asked if I had found the water company. “Yes, but it was closed. I’ll come back in the afternoon.” One of them, who spoke French very well and a little bit of English, told me I could go to the post office to pay the bill instead. Since I didn’t know where it was, he climbed into my car to ride with me and show me the way. As we chatted on the way to the post office (which was better marked the water company, but still not in an obvious location), he told me that he has just retired from a government post working for the president of Niger.
At the post office, they informed us they were not yet taking payments for that month’s water bills, and I should come back in a week. Google could not have told me that, unfortunately. And only G.O.O.G.L.E. would dispatch a presidential staffer to help the no-name white foreigner go pay his water bill. As I said, it’s a less efficient system, but it certainly is an interesting one.
* With certain exceptions, of course, where a subculture or cult following keeps a business alive without internet presence.