Food options are limited in northern Niger, but one dietary staple is readily available just about everywhere I went in the vast, landlocked West African country.
From remote highway rest stops and to the footpaths in front of the ministries buildings in downtown Niamey, entire sides of lamb sit cooking for hours, fat crackling under meaty columns of smoke.
A diet of spiced cattle chunks isn’t without its thrills: Maybe it was a situational thing, but my guide and I bought a gloriously juicy haul of lamb from a cluster of wooden shacks off of a parched desert stretch of the Agadez-Arit road that was almost hallucination-like in its deliciousness.
But a week of the stuff is a lot to handle. When my guide and I got back to Niamey after a 16-hour drive I started hungrily scanning the cityscape for alternatives.
Within Niamey’s gridlocked tangle of cattle herds and two-wheelers, footpath mosques and meat smokers, the newly built Soluxe Hotel rose up from the chaos like an elaborate optical illusion, as if a computerised architectural model had been transposed into real life and then dropped into about the least expected place possible.
The clean modular façade, with giant neon Chinese characters crowning neat rows of square windows were like nothing else I had seen or would see in Niger, while its bare concrete entrance plaza set behind a heavily guarded security checkpoint made the complex appear all the more distant and mirage-like.
That’s where we’re going for dinner, I told my guide — half wondering if we would even be allowed in.
After a week up north, my state of mind was such that I was questioning whether the place even really existed up until the second we were waved into the parking lot.
Northern Niger is dusty, hot, poor, a desert that feels hopelessly distant from all those ambient comforts that life in America conditions you to stop actively thinking about or even noticing.
Meanwhile, Niamey has the traits of a fast-growing city in the developing world, some exhilarating, like the crushes of people from every social and geographic category of an enormous and diverse country, and some less so, like the traffic.
The Soluxe is an island. The lobby is sparkling marble, or at least a convincing substitute.
It’s vast and impersonal enough to feel quiet and empty no matter how many people are there, yet also designed with taste verging on elegance, with its unassuming crystal chandeliers and 20-foot tile blowup of a Chinese watercolor.
A plaque on the reception desk proudly announces that you’re inside of a five-star hotel, and I promptly reflected that yes, this place does appear to be one star superior to the nearby Hotel Gaweye, which is like someone’s overly lived-in idea of what a four-star hotel was supposed to look like in the 1970s.
The Soluxe had no faded carpets or puffy couches or uniformed huddles of itinerant airline crews — it didn’t have the Gaweye’s heavy atmosphere of jetlag and transience. The Soluxe is lifeless by comparison, characterised by an orderliness that feels defiantly foreign within the building’s broader environment.
This sense of separateness deepened when my guide and I reached a dining room whitened with crystalline lighting fixtures glaring off of clean tablecloths. We weren’t the only people in there, but isolating high-backed chairs gave off the illusion of being alone.
A Chinese woman seated us and handed us an iPad menu that included things like 25,000 CFA ($US42) bowls of abalone soup, and some sort of 85,000 CFA ($US147) crab dish.
The menu didn’t seem to indicate which dishes had pork in them — a bit tone-deaf in a country that’s 98% Muslim.
The food at the Soluxe was actually pretty good. The marinated tofu was spongy and its soy vinegar sauce a bit tasteless; the Szechuan cucumber, hot pepper oil, and peanut salad was definitely better though also a little bland.
The beef stew, on the other hand, had big chunks of gooified garlic, some unfamiliar but highly absorbent type of mushroom, and those Szechuan peppers that are scalding but also impossible to stop eating.
If you’d wandered into a place of the Soluxe’s quality in New York, you wouldn’t walk away disappointed.
After a week of lamb parts, the meal was every bit as wonderful and strange as its surroundings. The Soluxe dining room is not the best restaurant in Niamey — go to the Cote Jardin for West African-inflected French specialties (try the duck confit in bissap sauce) if you’re only in town for a single day. But it is certainly the weirdest.
The dining room was oppressively quiet, except for the eerie, dream-like echoes of a top 40 western pop soundtrack — interrupted at one point by a lounge-style French-language recording of “Happy Birthday.”
It was, from the looks of it, no one’s birthday. And a good, thing, too, since the Soluxe dining room would be a bad place to celebrate one: There was something abrasively generic about the setting — the blast of the air conditioning, the total lack of windows, the whispered conversations and the almost hospital-white walls.
You can hear the silverware clatter off of beautiful Soluxe-logo plates and hear the rustle of the thick Soluxe-logo napkins.
After a while, I started to kind of forget what city I was in, which is a remarkable accomplishment in a Niamey, a place with its own distinct and usually inescapable aura of vibrancy and chaos that the Soluxe had managed to totally block out.
Everything special about the city is absent there.
The thought occurred to me that the Soluxe might have been designed for a clientele that didn’t expect or even want to leave the hotel very often — for people who’d rather transact their business in the most familiar possible setting and limit their exposure to the heat and turmoil of the outside.
And it turns out that only a small part of the Soluxe compound is actually dedicated to the hotel — much of it consists of the Niger offices of the China National Petroleum Company and dormitories for the company’s workers.
The insularity might explain the high prices: You won’t feel ripped off by a $US42 bowl of soup if you don’t know how much soup is actually supposed to cost. Then again, if you’re ordering abalone soup in landlocked Niger, you’re either deeply homesick or somewhat incurious to begin with.
Incidentally, an entrée, two smaller dishes, and two sodas set me back 29,000 CFA, or $US50. It was the priciest meal I ate in Niger, but worth it under the circumstances.
It would be a mistake to read the Soluxe as some kind of manifestation of sinister Chinese intentions in Niger. Above all, it’s a hotel — and a good one, at that. What weary business traveller doesn’t want the best possible treatment in a stressful and unfamiliar place?
After dinner my guide and I wandered the grounds, peering into hallways decked with brilliant red oriental-pattern carpeting, ogling the high-end exercise room and clean-looking swimming pool and gaping at those 20-foot Chinese scroll things towering over the reception desk. The reception area even started to fill — my guide recognised a diplomat from a Middle Eastern country entering through the revolving doors as we were on our way out.
Still, the Soluxe experience highlights an important fact: There is only one five-star hotel in Niamey, and a Chinese company built it. I’d later learn that the hotel’s builder was given the land on the expectation that the entire parcel be dedicated to the hotel, rather than to the offices and company dorms that now occupy much of the site. A Chinese company had built a landmark the city could be proud of but had done so on decidedly its own terms.
The Chinese investment in countries like Niger has tremendous upside. In Niger alone, Chinese companies have dug hundreds of oil wells, built and operated an oil refinery (albeit not uneventfully), and constructed bridges and highway overpasses.
Niger is a promising consumer market for China, whose exports benefit from mindboggling economies of scale. Nigeriens are proud, even obsessive tea-drinkers. The country’s tea is almost entirely grown in China; Nigerien importers package it in boxes with local names and icons.
Outside Niamey, I bought a package of Chinese-imported breadsticks from a roadside seller. Even just a few years into large-scale Chinese investment, everything from Chinese luxury hotels to Chinese snack foods have arrived in Niger.
Chinese companies and people are going to be in Niger for a while, thanks in large part to the 1 billion barrels of oil in eastern Niger that Chinese enterprises are in the process of extracting, refining, and transporting. Oil revenue is the only realistic way for Niger to accelerate its development in a time when the country’s population will climb from a current 16 million to a projected 50 million by mid-century.
China will be one of the dominant players in the Nigerien economy, and by extension the country’s society and politics, for decades to come. Just a few years into the relationship, there’s little way of knowing what such intimate ties with a rising, autocratic superpower will really mean for an impoverished emerging democracy.
The Soluxe suggests a dissonance that may be difficult to bridge, regardless of how and whether the countries benefit from one another. The day after we ate at the Soluxe, I asked my guide, a Niamey resident, what he thought of the place.
“It was good,” he said, “but I don’t think the average person in Niger could afford to eat there.”
The vast majority Nigeriens will never set foot in the Soluxe. But the people of Niamey will at least be able to see it behind its wall and security cordon, beaming neon red Chinese characters and looking like nothing else in their city.
Armin Rosen reported from Niger on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.
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