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V. Ryndine—I Found God in Africa - Ch 6: Niamey, Niger

V. D. Ryndine
I found God in Africa:
Letters of a Russian Bush Surgeon

Illustrated by Evgeniy Perelygin

adaptation and editorial work

by Irene Connelly

Ch 1: Morning Prayers
- Published in my blog on 06.12.2018

Ch 2: A Journey Across the South of Africa With Dr. Ryndine
- Published in my blog on 06.12.2018
Ch 3: Swaziland and Good Fortune
Published in my blog on 14.12.2018
Ch 4: Taking Exams at the Medical Council of the South African Republic / Surviving Abroad
- Published in my blog on 14.12.2018
Ch 5: Flight 
- Published in my blog on 15.12.2018
Ch 6: Niamey, Niger
- Published in my blog on 15.12.2018

CHAPTER 6: Niamey, Niger

Niamey’s air was dry and scarily hot—about 118 in the shade! Even the thought of opening the car window made me feel as though I were suffocating.

My guide showed me to a flat which had no windows; only shades. I had sort-of inherited a dog, Bim, from the previous doctor. More like a fierce wolf twice reduced in size than a house pet, the dog was an inveterate racist, though he only threatened to attack: in fact, he had never bitten a living being. A perfect dog in this regard. Bim and I walked together along the river Niger, crossed it on a boat, and returned on foot across a bridge. The boatman always trembled with fear: “Monsieur, if your dog bit me, I would die right away.”

The locals invited me to a hotel bar called Terminus, about ten meters from my house, on the first day of my stay. The prostitutes I noticed in the bar were absolutely gorgeous, so I wrote a letter to Moscow: “The local prostitutes have the clever, and spiritual, facial expressions of a typical professor. I mean the expressions of some of our Russian professors—also prostitutes of some sort!”

There was a time back in the army when I could play dominoes for hours, and here in the Soviet embassy in Niger all of my compatriots, from the custodian to the ambassador himself, still wasted hours on this mind-numbing game.We also sang songs. (The ambassador’s favorite was “You Lied to Me,” a Ukrainian hit at the time.)

As a doctor with the embassy, I enjoyed more freedom of movement. I became familiar to the proprietors of Niamey’s shops, stalls, restaurants, and bars of the town to the point where I could have a snack or a drink and then hit the owner with a polite “Excuse me, I forgot my wallet at home and I’ll bring you the money tomorrow.”

Il n’y a pas de problem, Monsieur!” (It’s not a problem, sir!)

If, occasionally, I came across a pleasing golden accessory in a local jewelry store, I took it with the words “I’ll show it to my wife, okay?” I never heard any objections.

Once, a team of Russian footballers arrived for a visit. At the time, one gram of gold was worth one US dollar. I was asked to show the players around town, and I gave a tour of local jewelry workshops to one of the groups. We returned to the hotel, and suddenly another group of athletes showed great interest in exploring the jewelry shops. Off we went. We shopped around for some time.

Then, one shopkeeper said to me, “Monsieur, one of your people took a ring from my shop and didn’t pay.”

And then, another one: “The same happened to me.”

We rushed back to the footballers’ hotel, and I told the coach that his guys would have to apologize. “Tell the jewelers ’we thought that the demanded price included these rings,’ and then pay for the rings.”

We returned to the jewelry stores. A third shopkeeper ran up to me, saying, “Monsieur, some of my jewelry has gone missing!”

What the hell? I looked back at the athletes.

“Uh . . . ” they said.


“Doctor, please don’t tell the ambassador about this,” the coach asked politely.

“It’s too late, I’m afraid—everybody in town will know about it by tomorrow.”

“Send them to our recreation centre on the coast and keep them there until it’s time for their return flight,” said the ambassador.

There was a Ukrainian doctor working in Niamey, Polinkevitch by name. “Slava,” he said to me, “I met a kid who used to work in our embassy in Mali’s capital, Bamako. Want to hire him as your driver?”

The “kid” was a man named Mussa. Mussa was a diligent worker but didn’t have a wife. “Why are you still single?” I asked him.

“I don’t have enough money to buy a wife.”

“Just how much does a wife cost?”

“The same as a sack of rice.”

That worked out to about forty dollars, I figured. He was a genuinely hard-working guy . . . so I bought him a wife for forty dollars.

Along with the Polinkevitches, a young woman from Voronezh was sent by the Soviet Red Cross subsidiary to work in Niamey as a pediatrician. Mussa observed, “Doctor, sometimes French women sleep with black men, but never with gardeners. Your doctor sleeps with a gardener; it seems wrong to me.”

The doctor from Voronezh got pregnant.“Dear colleague,” I told her, “this is all for nothing. We can arrange everything quietly.” (I had a friendly relationship with a Polish surgeon who had terminated a pregnancy for an embassy employee.) Abortions were against the law in Islamic Niger, and she asked for a leave to go home. She didn’t return to Niamey from her trip.

The Grand Marché (“big market”) was a major source of entertainment for the staffs of all the embassies in Niamey. Everyone, even the diplomats’ wives—the only exceptions being the ambassadors’ and counselors’ wives—headed there to buy used goods sent from the US by the program "Useless Stuff for Poverty-Stricken Africa.” You could find something great for just a dollar per unit. Poles purchased and then mailed enormous batches of washed-out jeans to Poland as it was the hottest new trend in Europe!

I remember that all three of my kids wore nice wool sweaters from the Marché, not to mention the Indian blouses, shirts, and trousers we eagerly and understandably purchased, considering my “high” wages were around 500 convertible rubles (equivalent to about 650 US dollars) and the rest of the embassy’s non-diplomatic staff made even less. Our ambassador asked me to check the employees’ refrigerators. (“Our people are economizing on their health.”) I found out that the wives of embassy employees were buying the same pasta that I bought to feed my dog.

A shopping tour around a bazaar is a special form of entertainment. The Soviet women would ask me to haggle over the price of fruit and vegetables for them:

“How much for a bunch of radishes?” I asked on their behalf.

“Fifty francs.”

“Why the f—- does it cost fifty francs? Wasn’t it only forty last time? Slava, tell him to sell it to us for forty!”

I paid the disputed ten francs out of my own pocket.

The receptions at Niamey’s Soviet embassy were a lot of fun, thanks to large quantities of delicious food and strong drinks. (Soviet diplomats didn’t drink during these receptions, as they were on duty, but the moment the foreigners went home the Russians immediately made up for lost time.) The ambassador encouraged me to invite members of the local medical community—Polish doctors and a medical service colonel of the French army—just for the good of the cause. The Poles and the Frenchman were always eager to get roaring drunk for free. One Polish doctor got considerably loaded at a reception, but still wangled an invitation out of me to continue the party at my place, where he drank too much and passed out. One of my Nigerien next-door neighbors decided to pay a visit—I had invited him and his beautiful wife to come in do have a couple of drinks. The party came to a halt when we noticed a puddle that ran from beneath our Polish guest across the floor and towards the exit door and my neighbor’s wife burst into such laughter that she began to hiccup.

My wife and I were great friends with our Polish colleagues. When Marek Bronikovsky and his French wife Micheline came to visit us, I usually put a liter bottle of whiskey on the table as well as cigarettes and Perrier mineral water. My generosity was easily explained: all drinks and cigarettes that we bought were exempt from customs duties, which meant they were three times cheaper than those in the city’s shops. Neither my wife nor I drank much water, but Marek and Micheline left only after the bottle was empty. Reasonably often, at around 1 or 2 a.m. Marek would say, “Slava, let’s go to “Hi-Fi!”

Hi-Fi was the only nightclub in the city where we could dance. Usually, we went there in a car driven, mostly in autopilot mode, by Marek, but we always had to return on foot. I miss those safe, happy times.