TOMBOLA NATIONAL Joel Neuberg July 15, 2011


The California Lottery is, of course, a tax on the poor (and foolish and desperate) to benefit the rich (and the would-be-richer), but the taxers in Cal and Texas could learn a lot from their counterparts in the Republic of Niger of the 1960s. The national lottery in Niger (Tombola National) had a simple system for raising revenue, selling all the tickets it prints, and assuring nationwide income from people who have even less hope of winning anything than their fellow gamblers in America.

In a week when Niger needed to get $100,000 into the Tombola coffers, the President handed 10,000 one-dollar tickets to each of ten cabinet ministers. The cabinet ministers hand 1,000 tickets to each of ten deputies; the deputies hand 100 tickets to each of ten county chiefs; the county chiefs hand 10 tickets to each of ten customs, border, or road security guards. The tickets are not returnable; only money can go back up the line. The guards are armed, the weapon of choice in the late 1960s was the .45 automatic, and one could never be sure how much, if any, the guards were allowed in terms of ammunition.

Traveling in Niger by bus, truck or bush taxi, citizens were subject to being stopped by an armed guard at seemingly random intervals (the boundaries between states, counties, agricultural cooperatives, villages, or perhaps just every 50 or 60 kilometers) and obliged to show an identity card and a Tombola ticket. I gained my knowledge of the Tombola setup one dark night near the end of 1968.

I had been working in Guecheme for over a year, and I was wondering if my work was worth anything at all. I was also wondering if I was ever again going to have the pleasure of sleeping with a woman. I decided I would visit Leslie Shore, a girl I had dated a few times in Berkeley, and who was living just over a thousand kilometers (and two countries) away near Lome, Togo. I told the folks in Guecheme I was off to visit a friend, and hopped in the back of a bush taxi headed south.

Drivers in Niger wanted “anasaru” (an Arabic origin term meaning Christian, but applied pretty much to any foreigner who looked like they could be a European) to ride up front in the canvas covered pickup trucks that served as taxis anywhere outside the capitol city. Partly, this was a show of respect, and partly this was a way to charge more from someone who had more, but the Peace Corps ethic was to blend in as much as possible with the people, so we insisted, whenever possible, in riding in the crowded back with the sweaty locals and their smaller livestock. It was near midnight, and I had ridden for less than three hours in a crowd of eighteen people, crushed between a nursing Fulani mother and a toothless old man who was trying to keep up a conversation with me while gumming kola (goro) nuts to keep awake.

When we reached the Dahomey (now Benin) border near Gaya, I was tempted to try my luck staying with W. W., but she had pretty definitely decided our relationship, after the briefest of passionate encounters, should return to the platonic. I was considering my options when a dounier reached in the back and asked to see everyone’s identity card and Tombola ticket. Each of the passengers passed their cards and tickets back. In the pitch dark, one couple managed a shuffle where they passed the same ticket back with separate identity cards. One guy bought a ticket. When it came to me, I handed over my Peace Corps lesser passé. The guard asked, in Hausa obviously spoken by a Djerma, to see my Tombola ticket. I responded, in Hausa apparently not obviously spoken by an American, that I did not need to buy a Tombola ticket.

I was surprised at the swiftness with which the guard, grabbing my shirt with only one hand, was able to extract me from the vehicle and slam me up against the wheel and slats of the truck while holding his .45 to my head. One of the passengers screamed: “Someone get a lantern!” while I tried to get enough air to gasp out an explanation of my diplomatic immunity from the lottery. A storm lantern appropriated from a nearby card game was held up to our faces, both of which were changing colors; mine as I could take a breath as his grip loosened and his draining of blood as he realized I was not a Nigerien. Apologies all around. He even bought me a beer and helped me onto the back of a peanut truck heading for Cotonou.

I sheltered under a goat from the rain in the back of the half-filled semi for eight hours before arriving in Contonou, where I swam fully clothed in the ocean to get the stink off. It was early evening when I surprised Leslie with my visit. She served me dinner, just dinner, and I slept on the floor. I was back in Guecheme less than 48 hours after I left. No one really noticed I’d been gone.

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.