Zinder

I really wanted to see this but missed it at the Take One Action film festival, so I was so glad to get another opportunity with Africa in Motion. It was well worth the watch.

In the city of Zinder in Niger, is the Kara Kara district, traditionally the home of lepers and pariahs, today it is an area known for its poverty and violence. Going beyond the headlines, this documentary follows the residents of Kara Kara, seeing their lives and their community from their perspective.

With sky-high youth unemployment, cut off from education, and no prospects, young men form gangs, or palais. There they hang out, shoot the shit with their friends and work out. And when I say work out, I mean work out. When everything costs money, working out is the only pastime that is free, and without a job to eat into your time, these guys are stacked. Like, lift a motorbike with your mates on it stacked.

This hypermasculinity compensates for any other societal measurement of success. But it is rare for toxicity not to accompany it, and the palais are no exception. Young men test themselves in street battles, and their bodies as scarred with the blades and makeshift weapons of hand-to-hand fighting. In turn, arrest and prison follows, and the cycle of oppression keeps on spinning.

After the arrest of three of his friends, Siniya Boy tries to find a better way, deciding to try and set up a security firm with the local lads. Given that they’re all young and built like tanks, it seems like a good idea. But when you are poor, every part of every step is difficult. Even sourcing the income for uniforms, clothes and boots, requires cash. So they take up work in a quarry, working by hand breaking rocks with a pick and sledgehammer. Honestly cannae watch, because you see him standing swinging that hammer, wearing flip-flops. Not a steel-toe boot among them, and you just tense up at every swing.

Bawa has already got out of the life. He states plainly that he just couldn’t live with the things he was did. He participated in the street violence, maiming others, and in gang rapes of local women. It is a life he wants to leave behind for good, although he says he is haunted by his memories. He now works as a taxi driver, providing for his family. He tries to do better for his community, and in some sort of amends, he tries to help the women of the red light district, encouraging trafficked children to return to their parents and working to get police attention to the murder of a sex worker.

But even Bawa is still part of the economy of the district that goes hand-in-hand with the gang life. Despite the fact Niger exports billions of dollars of oil every year, in Kara Kara in Zinder, there is a shortage of petrol. The price is too high for the residents, and it is regularly smuggled across the border from Nigeria and sold at half-price. Bawa fills his taxi on such stuff, at roadside stands run by palais members. Here we meet Ramasess.

Ramasess is a genderqueer smuggler who makes night runs to the border, dodging police patrols and customs agents. They have to support their mother and sisters. They describe themselves as hermaphrodite, but this seems less an indication of being intersex as it is an expression of trans non-binary identity. But this means they have the household cares from the female sphere as well as the responsibility accorded to the firstborn son. Ramasess says they wouldn’t be a smuggler if they had a better options. But the fact is it is steady paying work, and there is constant need for cheap petrol.

The thing Ramasess, Bawa, and Siniya Boy all have in common is the feeling that their reality is not acknowledged. That the cops and the border patrols, they all have no answer to the question, “What do you expect me to do?” Because the plans seems to be just starve. There is no employment paying a living wage for dignified work. In this district in this city in this country rich in oil, gold, and minerals, there seems to be no way open for folk to survive.

But this is not simply a bleak documentary on these bleak conditions. It is also an examination of the endless resourcefulness of a generation of young people finding a way to make a life, make a future for themselves. None of them are lying down, all of them are fighting. And as they turn themselves towards paths more beneficial to their community, that fight becomes a fiercer one for the future of Zinder.