The yellowcake road winds from the port city of Cotonou, Benin, deep into the radiant Sahara, slowly disintegrating along the way. By the time trucks reach the mining town of Arlit, where high-grade uranium ore is mined from open pits and then processed into yellowcake, there are more potholes than pavement. The French for potholes is “nests of chickens”; the potholes on the remotest leg of the yellowcake road are so cavernous that locals call them “nests of camels”. Trucks thud along over thorny, sandy Saharan plains at sluggish speeds to deliver dynamite to the mines and return back to the port charged with barrels of yellowcake. Arlit and its mining installations form a hard-to-protect island of industry in the oceanic desert, which was rebel-run territory as recently as five years back. Saharan jihadis have struck at it three times since 2010.
It took two days and twenty hours of driving to cross the 600 miles of dilapidated road between the mining town and Niger’s capital city of Niamey. I rode in a green, mid-1990’s Land Cruiser with a team of southern Nigerien television journalists dispatched to report on the abysmal conditions of working in the open-pit mines and to cover the annual Festival of the Aïr, which celebrates Tuareg culture and tradition. The journalists grew cagey as we penetrated deeper into the northern desert. Sadou, the cameraman, frightened us with tales of Tuareg rebels and evil marabouts. The path cut across dried riverbeds with inclined banks. “This is the most dangerous part,” Sadou would say. “This is where the rebels would always ATTACK!” Thwap, his hand five-finger snapped. The stereo clattered with autotuned Haoussa-language mp3s from Maradi and Zinder. One singer was gangsta rap-style threatening to assault any artist that ripped off his songs. “He caused many divorces,” Sadou said. “Married women would leap over the walls of their houses to come see him sing. That’s why the marabouts prayed for him to die young.” Yards from the road, Tuareg nomads drove donkeys saddled with water bags and paid us no notice.
The LandCruiser slammed along the pitted path, passing burnt and freshly laid automobile carcasses. The uranium road runs parallel to the power lines, a reminder that this is the only state infrastructure for hundreds of miles in either direction. There are mining company airplanes that shuttle in and out the Europeans. Everything else is brought or sent by truck, including the refined uranium ore known as yellowcake. We passed by a broken-down truck filled with dynamite, guarded by a pickup mounted with a 12-7 mitrailleuse and 8 gendarmes. Other trucks bring everything from mangos to camels to food staples from southern Niger—nothing much grows near Arlit beyond the scrub that feeds the nomads’ beasts. Trucks from northern Nigerian cities like Kano and Kaduna bring Chinese-made consumer goods, stacks of cheap plastic chairs spilling out the back, contents stitched together with ropes and net. Transportation of chemical products used in processing and refining uranium is so poor that they spill out onto the road. We saw several little hills of yellow powder that the journalists said was sulfur. A coolant called pyralin is often left lying about—any earth it touches becomes barren for at least fifty years.