“Are you sure my car will fit?” I said to the Burkinabé sitting next to me.
“Yes, yes,” he replied, as I turned off the main road onto a dirt track twisting into a neighborhood of flat-roofed mud houses. The labyrinth of alleyways opened onto a small square, where I parked under the shade of a neem tree.
From the outside, the bar looked like any other house fenced in with straw mats, but once I walked through its corrugated tin door, I realized this place was different.
Four black cauldrons bubbled over wood fires in the center of an open-air courtyard. The ground was littered with large pans, coals, and yellow calabash bowls. A stout, middle-aged woman with her hair tied up in a colorful kerchief presided over the scene. She was the brew master and proprietress of the chapalo bar, or cabaret as it’s known in West African French.
The clientele on this sleepy afternoon was a cross-section of Niamey. Beneath a straw mat canopy, students sat on benches made of recycled wood discussing a text in Zarma, a local Nigerien language. Cloudy-eyed old Burkinabé men conversed in a tonal language full of clicks, smoke from their cigarettes curling up their arms. A businessman in a tie read a French newspaper, and some housekeepers sat huddled together, their lively chatter punctuated by laughter. Some of the customers held calabash bowls, while others let theirs rest on handmade tripods of thin rebar kept near their feet.
From the brewer’s jovial daughter, sitting amidst a collection of paint buckets filled with the honey-brown beer, I ordered a calabash (150 CFA / $0.30 USD) for me and my friend and took a seat near the old men.
“Hey, anasara,” said one of them wearing an embroidered kufi cap, using the word for all non-Africans. “What are you doing here?” he asked, eyeing me with suspicion.
“I want to learn about chapalo,” I replied, raising my calabash and taking a sip. Despite being lukewarm, there was something refreshing about the punchy bite of the beverage, cloudy and full of millet sediment. With each sip, I became more accustomed to the mildly sour beer and began to feel a little woozy — whether from the heat, doubts about how sanitary those paint buckets were, or the alcohol content, I wasn’t really sure.
“Well, what do you think?” he responded.
“Not bad. It’s not like the beer I’m used to, but I think I like it.” Everyone started to laugh. The old man thumped his chest and said, “Drink chapalo, and you’ll be strong. No doctors.”
As we chatted under the canopy, neighborhood children ran in and out of the dappled shade, stealing sips here and there from customers who were generous enough to share what was in their bowl.
Several weeks later, I made my way back to the cabaret to buy another bottle of chapalo. It was close to sunset, and the alleyway — flanked on either side by single-storied mud buildings — had the flat, shadowless quality of an unlit street in the fading light.
I stepped into the courtyard and headed towards the canopy, where I saw the daughter still sitting amongst her paint buckets. She poured chapalo into a freshly rinsed calabash and handed it to a young man wearing tight jeans and aviators, despite the waning light.
The crowd looked nothing like the relaxed group of neighborhood residents I’d met the first time. Men, young and old, loitered under the canopy and spilled out into the courtyard where the embers of the chapalo fires glowed beneath the blackened bottoms of the cauldrons.
Pop music from Nigeria played on someone’s cell phone radio, the tinny sound floating above the unintelligible din of numerous conversations. No one talked to me, but they stared with a coldness that clearly told me to buy my chapalo and get out.
As the daughter filled my plastic bottle, a man with a fedora and gold chains came up to me and said in an icy voice, “This isn’t your kind of bar.” I looked into his eyes, wanting to reply, but sensed it was better not to engage him.
On my way out, I passed a group of men talking with a few young women in tight Western clothes — a stark contrast to the long, loose traditional outfits most women wear in Niamey. I remembered a Nigerien friend telling me that only prostitutes wear short skirts or tight pants.
In an attempt to mind my own business, I glanced at the ground as I left the cabaret. The street was littered with dozens of used condoms. Across from the bar was a mud brick building — the gaping darkness of its empty windows and door did not yield any lewd images to support my suspicions.
A month later, I learned from my Burkinabé friend that the cabaret and brothel across the street had been shut down. The pimp’s lackeys had mugged a customer late one night, which led to a police raid and discovery of the unlicensed chapalo brewery.
Although some people were arrested, the brew master and her daughter were not. With their paint buckets, cauldrons, and reputation as the best chapalo brewers in Niamey, they relocated to a different area of town, where they once again attract customers from every corner of this West African capital.
* Learn more about the travel journalism courses at MatadorU.