It is hot. Sweat is running down your whole body. The electricity just went off in your block. And you hear the buzz of mosquitoes in your ear. It’s high time to get out of the house and to your favourite Maquis.
Providing relief in a harsh climate
I would say that, in general, outside your home, there is nowhere better to spend your time than in one of the many open air bars, the Maquis, with a cold Bière Niger and a plate of Brochettes, the tasty grilled meat skewers, or grilled fish.
That’s of course if you are in Niamey. Niamey is the capital of Niger, a country in the harsh Sahel, situated in the transition zone between the great Sahara desert and the rainforests of West Africa. Niamey lies on the banks of the river Niger, which gave the country its name, but only runs through a small part of it. Heat, dust, and, in the rainy season, heavy monsoon rains make for a tough climate to live in.
Ice cold beer and a seat outdoors with the hope that a slight breeze might cool the air is often the only solace you get during the hot season in Niamey. Thus, the Maquis are the natural meeting points to hang out with friends.
A social institution
The Maquis is a social institution. This is surprising since Niger is a very conservative Muslim country. But yet, cometh the night and the Maquis will be full of people, happily chatting over freezing cold beer with the music blasting from live bands or through speakers and screens showing football matches of the two favourite Nigerien teams – Barcelona and Real Madrid.
On the worn metal or plastic chairs of the open air bars behind high walls that shield from the judgemental eyes of the public, the social differences of the country’s rigid society vanish. Although the vast majority of patrons are men, even women can sit and drink alcohol or smoke.
A Nigerien friend of mine refused to go to bars close to where he lived for fear of being seen by a relative. Yet, he would reliably text me at 3 pm when I was still at work to ask me whether I could join him for a beer.
A prominent politician once told me that the country is run from the bars. This is where deals and pacts are made, big decisions taken. But at the next table, you will find some young students, writers, musicians, and actors enjoying their beer.
The shadowy sides of the Maquis
But the bars are not only frequented by people happily chatting over beers. Often, you will also see middle aged men sitting at tables alone, drinking beer, something they cannot openly do at home without facing judgement. Sometimes people would fall asleep on their tables drunk or stumble to other tables to ask for a beer.
Working in the Maquis is tough. The waitresses are almost never from Niger, but come from neighbouring countries in West Africa, having been dragged to Niamey by brothers or sisters who found work in the Sahelian capital. It’s a hostile environment in this cauldron of drunken male entitlement.
Waitresses receive dismal pay. Often they live off tips, typically from men, mostly with a family waiting at home, who think casual flirting is part and parcel of good service and who sometimes cross the line into sexual harassment.
A crucial ingredient in an evening at the Maquis is the beer. Of course, other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks can be had as well, but there is just something about the refreshing taste of beer that soft drinks cannot achieve.
The most widely consumed beer in Niger comes from the state brewery Braniger. At the equivalent of thirty to fifty Euro Cents for a small bottle, Bière Niger’s price is hard to beat. It comes in 0.3 or 0.5 liter bottles. The small version is called ‘Petite Soeur’, or ‘small sister’. Funnily, the big bottle is named after an economic term, ‘Conjoncture’, which translates loosely into the economic environment.
The Conjoncture got its name after its size was reduced from 0.7 to 0.5 liters in an effort to bring more funds into the state coffers and stimulate economic growth. Usually, the beer is good to drink, although it might taste a bit watery, as it clearly follows French styled beers.
However, the quality of the beer often depends on the season. As the hot season starts to get hotter, the beer sometimes comes out bad or becomes unpalatable. My suspicion is that this is due to storage in uncooled facilities at 45 degrees Celsius. An alternative theory circles around the many power outs in the hot season – sometimes lasting several days – that may turn the beer bad in the brewing process.
Other beers commonly sold are more consistent in their quality, but are sold at a higher price and have a reputation for hangovers. These are Heineken, as well as Flag and Castel, both produced by Castel beer from South Africa, African Legend, and sometimes the Turkish Efes. Guinness is also beloved by many throughout West Africa.
Aside from serving as watering holes for Niamey’s nightowls, Maquis also serve excellent grilled foods. The standard food item of every Maquis are brochettes, grilled meat skewers. The meat is usually beef of excellent quality.
In the arid climate of Niger, agriculture is primarily either rain fed plots of corn, millet, and rice, mostly grown in the south of the country or livestock herding, done by nomads or semi nomads.
The herds of cattle move south in the dry season from October to June and north during the short but heavy rainy season from July to September. The constantly roaming cattle produce meat of an impeccable quality. Thus, it is little wonder that for many people in Niamey, meat is a non-negotiable staple of their daily diet.
Brochettes can be prepared with different types of meat. The most common are filet and tongue. A favourite are brochettes with grilled liver and kidney. Personally, I prefer the meat, filet or tongue, over the innards.
Before being put on the grill, the Brochettes are marinated in a blend of spices. Once on the grill, it is important not to dry out the meat or to make it chewy. For me, the brochettes have to be juicy and tender but not raw inside.
On the side, you usually find a powdered spice mixture of chilli, cumin, and other fragrant spices to sprinkle over your skewers. If you don’t like chilli, you can complement your brochettes with mustard. Mostly, brochettes are eaten with fries dipped in mayonnaise.
Our favourite Maquis
Oxygène is a classic among the Nigerien and expats alike. The Maquis is situated on a terrace above the river, from where you have a beautiful view on the right bank as well as the two bridges that connect the two sides of Niamey.
At dusk, you have a beautiful view of the fishermen in their river boats, the pirogues, and sometimes even hippos.
The chef, Kadri, prepares excellent brochettes, that are tender and flavourful. A highlight of Oxygène are the fries, which are hand cut from whole potatoes and fried to perfection. The brochettes are consistently good and Oxgène’s open terrace offers fresh air on hot nights.
Generally, it takes a while for the food to come out of the kitchen. But that is forgiven once the cold Bière Nigers are popped open and the golden sun sinks into the wide river.
You can find Oxgène (google maps) at the end of the street that runs from the roundabout of the Grand Hôtel to the Hôtel Sahel. After the Hôtel Sahel, turn right into the parking lot that says “Piscine Olympique”. You can access Oxygène on the left end of the parking lot, where a foot path leads you around the swimming pool and onto Oxygène’s terrace.
2. Chateau I
The Maquis at Chateau I (chateau, meaning castle in French refers to chateau d’eau – a water tower) is primarily a brochette restaurant rather than a true Maquis. It is located on a street corner and, thus, in a public place. We are not even sure whether they serve beer.
But the brochettes are great at this restaurant. They are very juicy and spiced deliciously with a bit of chilli powder on the side. If you are just looking for a quick meal, you should definitely consider this Maquis. They also do takeout.
Although Tafadek also sports a restaurant, we admit that we never tried it. That is because Tadadek is the biggest and most lively Maquis of the city. For most people, Tafadek is more about music and excitement rather than peaceful lounging with friends. On weekends, the best musicians like the band Tal National play as the orchestra in Tafadek.
The parties can get wild with the orchestra playing for hours and do not stop until the morning. Whole party crews are wildly dancing on the stage and sometimes compete with each other. The crew members wear identical Batik outfits, so called “pagnes”.
The best time to visit Tafadek is past 11 pm on a weekend night. But be aware that parties can get a little heated at Tafadek. You can find Tafadek on the Boulevard Mali Béro past the intersection of the Great Mosque towards the Wadata market and bus terminal (google maps).
4. Porc au Four Place
The time to go to this Maquis is Sunday around noon. Although I never found out the name of it, we came here quite often during our last year in Niamey. Why, you ask? The secret of this Maquis is that they serve Porc au Four – delicious roast pork.
Nigeriens adhere overwhelmingly to Islam. While many still tend to enjoy their beer, during our two years in Niamey, we never met any Nigerien who ate pork. Consequently, this Maquis is mostly frequented by other African expats in Niamey – Burkinabés and Chadiens.
The pork is roasted to perfection in drawers in an oven. It is deliciously juicy with chunks of fat and pork rind mixed with the roast meat and onions on the platter. You pick the meat pieces with little toothpicks, dip the meat in a ground chilli peppers or mustard and enjoy the porky goodness. This is the only Maquis that serves porc au four and only on Sundays at noon.
The Maquis is on a side street across the Ecobank Headquarters towards the Rond Point Sixième. The porc au four is only served on Sundays around noon. Come early to secure the best chunks (google maps).
Niamey is the capital of the Republic of Niger, a country in West Africa. The best time to visit Niamey is from November to February during the cold, or Harmattan, season. Avoid March to July and September to November when temperatures are over 40 Degrees Celsius during the day.