Niger straddles the Sahel, the unforgiving boundary zone in north-central Africa where the greener climes of the south give way to sandy soil and stunted vegetation and then to the dry silence of the Sahara. At just about any time of the year, it can be a blazing furnace. But Niger is also a hotbed of fascinating traditional cultures—which seem to have little in common with each other.

The people of Niger are as colorful and diverse as the landscape is bleak. To the south, in the more verdant area along the Niger River, are the Hausa, who are farmers and merchants, and the Djerma and Songhai, who retain some of the royal traditions of ancient empire. To the north are the nomadic herders—primarily the Fulani and Tuaregs, some of whom are known as the Blue People because of their use of indigo dye. For the hardiest travelers, who don't mind the heat and inconveniences, Niger is one of the best places in Africa to encounter a variety of contrasting cultures.

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