marking time


As the COVID cases continue to rise, with an increasing proportion coming from community transmissions rather than through follow-up of contacts of known cases, the government has started shutting us back down again.  My walk to the swimming pool this morning was in vain, as it turns out that gyms, pools and beaches were all shut down by a government proclamation this weekend - likely to be for a three-month period 😭.

Bars and nightclubs have also been closed again.  I suppose I should be grateful that I went to a bar - my first time during 2020, I think - on Friday evening for an expat social do, and managed to strike up potential friendships (numbers exchanged) with a couple of people there.  Just in time, before it became pretty much impossible to go out and meet new people once again.  Also yesterday I visited someone I met at one of the same expat events a year or so ago, following increasing interaction on facebook, and got on well with his wife plus exchanged contact info with another guest.  So perhaps my social life will pick up even as the opportunities to go out diminish once more.

It's sad that it has come to this, as the government were dealing with this rather well, but they gave in to the various pressures to relax various parts of the restrictions they had put in place, with the inevitable results.  I don't know anyone here who has been infected, so the pandemic itself still all seems rather distant, but seeing what is going on elsewhere in the world we know we cannot be immune, and with the low level of testing here you have to ask what is the true extent of the problem.  The age profile of the country helps us, as does the hot, humid rainy season that we are now well into, but I can only see things getting worse.

So apart from my two outings this weekend, and my now curtailed weekly swim, I have continued to do nothing here but work, look out of the window at the sky (the photo above being one of many I have taken over this period), and enjoy mango season, now sadly coming to an end.

I know I mentioned in my last post that my department would be sharing news in early August of job cuts, but as yet they have not done so although the cuts will still go ahead.  It's unsettling - for me more than my colleagues as I am the only one in my department for whom losing my job would also mean losing my current home.  I guess it is on my side that my employer has decided to extend our organisational international travel ban until 31 December (out of concern over the safety of flying allied with an expressed duty of care to staff) as I would have a good argument that they could not fly me home before that date even had they wanted to end my contract in, say, October.  But I try to push the thoughts from my mind, as the world is so uncertain at the moment that I could not plan what to do next - where to go - even if I knew that I were to be amongst the victims.

and the pandemic drags on

Another month or more has passed since I last posted here, and really there is nothing to say.  Cases here continue to rise - although at nothing like the rates in the Americas - and even the President is currently in quarantine after one of his ministers fell sick with the virus, but life still goes on pretty much as normal.

Something like 95% of the population wear masks on the street, I would say, but we wear them on our chin, ready to pull up should we see a policeman (whilst they were never made compulsory on the street, there is still pressure to wear them) or should we go into any more crowded area.  The night-time curfew has been cut back so now covers only 23:00 - 05:00, and restaurants and bars have re-opened although still closing very early so that staff can get home by 23:00.

Last weekend I actually got out to see some live music, as a restaurant had organised a 'mini-festival' on their in-house stage.  I turned up at 15:00 to see Philip Monteiro play, followed by a few other bands, staying until they closed at 21:30.  I ate an over-priced meal (with a small glass of house wine costing the equivalent of $6.85!!) - but it was worth it just to get out of the apartment/supermarket bubble I've otherwise mostly been stuck in.

To my great joy, many private swimming pools have now re-opened, although with strict controls on the numbers allowed in at one time, and changing facilities not yet available.  So yesterday, with my reservation made a few days earlier, I turned up at the pool and got in the water for the longest swim I've ever had (just short of 60 lengths) as I just did not want to get out of the water.  I had discovered that I missed swimming enormously, and I've moved it to the top of my list of non-negotiables for my eventual retirement!

Of course I miss travelling too, although I've not had too much time to think about it as I have been working harder than ever.  Late nights, weekends ... but as there has been nothing much else to do, I haven't really minded.  Our borders are still closed to all except goods and evacuation/repatriation flights, and given the number of COVID cases coming in with the repatriations, I don't think the government will be in any hurry to open things up more.  Thankfully my employer announced that this year, international employees will be allowed to carry an additional 15 days of leave forward into next year, so I don't need to worry as yet about 'wasting' leave.

That's if I'm still here by then, as we have been hit by the economic slowdown as much as anyone else as a result of which our department has been told to downsize; we should know by early August who is to be cut.  In some ways I'm quite vulnerable, as I'm now the only expat left in my department, and you do have to wonder whether they will see the value of paying the costs of my being out in West Africa (my rent, medical insurance, annual flight home, etc) when I can't actually travel to any of the countries any more but am working online from my dining room table!  On the other hand, I'm one of the better performers and certainly the hardest working of the management team in my department.  A bit concerning, but there's nothing I can do to influence the decision so I just have to make the most of the mangoes - and the swimming pool! - whilst trying not to worry.

life goes on (nearly) as normal

I was just re-reading my last post, and reflecting that little has changed here.  We now have fifteen times the number of cases we had when I posted that in March, but still, less than 2,000 cases in a country of 17 million people is not too bad.  & recovery rates so far are high, and also quite fast, with the controversial hydroxychloroquine being the treatment used here (and I think in much of francophone Africa), in part probably because the French doctor who produced the study has strong links with Senegal having grown up here.

The mood of the population has certainly changed though.  On the few occasions when I go outside, I do not wear a mask until I arrive at a place where it is compulsory (to enter the supermarket, for example).  There seems no point to me in getting hot and uncomfortable behind a mask when I am simply walking along the street minding my own business, not touching anything or interacting with anyone.  But I am just about the only person left, at least in my part of town, who does not wear one in the street, and the silent peer pressure is starting to get to me!

I have not heard of any recent protests over the semi-lockdown we have, with everyone in the country seemingly on board with it.  The government has taken steps to support those in need, with food parcels delivered in the poorer parts of the city, and a month's free electricity to those using below a defined limit (I think this is meant to target the poor, but as a keen environmentalist who therefore tries to minimise her use of fossil fuels I also qualified!).  So it was quite surprising, and disappointing to many people, that the president just announced yesterday some loosening of the restrictions we have, in particular allowing churches and mosques to re-open.  One can only assume that he has bowed to pressure from the religious leaders (particularly as we are in the month of Ramadan when Muslims try particularly hard to be good), but it certainly will mean more contact between people, even if they enforce a one metre distance between attendees as I understand he is asking for.

I hope that having done well so far, the bulk of the Senegalese people will not change their behaviour as a result of this change, but my local colleague shared with me today that his countryfolk "lack discipline", so we shall see.

As for me, whilst sad about missing out on planned work trips and holidays, and worried about the prognosis for travel over the next few years (more restricted, more expensive...), I have coped fine with the situation.  You would think that working from home and mostly interacting only with the staff in the supermarket and the guard on my building's front door (apart from a few phone calls with my parents), I would be feeling lonely - starved of human contact! - but that hasn't been the case.  If anything, I feel better than I normally do in that respect, which I can only assume is because I know that during this period I am not missing out on a social scene since no-one else is going out either!

I've been for a few walks around locally, and on Saturday walked rather further in my totally incorrect assumption that we were shortly to face a tighter lockdown.  I ended up at Ouakam beach - a small beach used by fishermen to store their boats and land their catches - where I'd never been before.  I watched a couple of boats come ashore, landing their catches which included an octopus and two guitar rays.  As you might expect there were cats around the place, and being Senegal there were also sheep (they are everywhere), and one lone pelican who apparently has based himself there as he has some injury that prevents him from living a more normal pelican life.  In fact in most respects it was a regular Senegalese fishing village - except for the masks.

Senegal responding to the pandemic

Given the way things have developed, you won't be surprised to read that I didn't get back to Touba - indeed the Kazu Rajab was cancelled, along with all other religious pilgrimages for the next month, and indeed all gatherings of more than 50 people.  Which includes the gathering of the faithful at Friday prayers.

The power of the Mourides, which I mentioned in my previous post, came to the fore briefly as the government put in place measures to react to the pandemic.  A handful of imams ignored the ban on Friday prayers at the mosque (indeed one made a public pronouncement that matters of life and death are in the hands of God and not for man to try to interfere with!).  Video footage from Yoff, in the northern suburbs of Dakar, went viral - where the police went in to arrest the imam, and the faithful rioted (well, watching the footage, I'd say the bored, unemployed, young men rioted...) - but it was noticeable that no police dared to enter the Great Mosque in Touba, where prayers also went ahead.  Despite Touba being the place with the most cases in the country.

It was a delicate moment, I guess, but there were conversations behind-the-scenes, and the leading lights in the various brotherhoods here have now all endorsed the government's approach.  This was another moment when I felt quite proud of this country.

It will be fascinating to see how they deal with the coronavirus.  So far we have some 120 cases, nearly a quarter of which originated from one man - a "Modou-Modou", the term used here for Senegalese who emigrate to Europe, especially Italy, where the majority go.  He returned to visit his family in Touba, and seems to have been one of the super-spreaders, I think.  Poor guy was interviewed in hospital and said how embarrassed and ashamed he felt to have brought the virus in.  I'm not the only white resident of Senegal who feels a little relieved at this, so unlike in a couple of other countries in the region we are not (at the moment anyway) being targeted by angry locals as 'virus-carriers'.

The government here should have shut the airport earlier, as so many cases have been brought in, but they left it too late as we have already reached the stage of community transmissions (although only a handful as yet), meaning the virus has spread beyond the chain of known contacts.  So what does the government of country such as this do, at this stage?  They have banned large gatherings, they have shut schools, national parks, theatres, etc, they have drastically restricted the number of people allowed in a vehicle at one time so as to enforce social distancing there (and all bus passengers are supposed to wear one of those stupid masks!) - and they have introduced a night-time curfew, from 8pm until 5am.  Of course these measures will help, but the virus does not go to sleep during daylight hours when people are still out-and-about.

However, the consequences of a daytime lockdown are scary.  Many people here (I'm sure I read somewhere 60%) live from day-to-day, that is, they earn enough in a day to buy food for the next day - and that is all.  They have no savings, no cupboard full of stockpiled food, no access to credit, and there is no social welfare system - that's one of the main reasons the birthrate is so high, as your children are your insurance policy for when you get too old/infirm to go out each day hustling to earn money somehow.  So a lockdown means that either these people starve, or we get serious social unrest.  Plus any cutback in activity (including the current effective closure of restaurants, bars and the tourist trade) will result in more unemployment, more poverty and more childhood malnutrition.

Additionally, we have to consider that the poorer section of the population (the majority) live in cramped accommodation where it is not possible to maintain the required distancing.  Nor do they have easy access to clean water, and will not spend money on soaps and sanitising gels if they do not have enough to eat.  Thus the major elements of the public health measures recommended by the World Health Organisation - social distancing and hygiene - are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to implement here. 

& all this is to prevent the spread of a virus which mostly threatens older people, in a continent where only 6% of the population is over 65.

I have no idea what the answer is (and am not necessarily suggesting that we sacrifice a portion of those over-65s to save the rest), but if you can mentally distance yourself from the suffering of individuals and consider the bigger picture, it is a terrible, although fascinating, dilemma for the government.

the spiritual heart of Senegal

The ongoing panic over 'the virus' has even affected me out here in Senegal, as my employer has forbidden all except critical international travel.  Whilst wondering (as regional head of a department whose work necessarily involves international travel) what I am going to find for my staff to do over the next few months, and realising that my own life is about to get a lot more expensive as I suddenly have to fund my own food and drink, and use electricity, water and gas at home, now that I shall not be spending half of my time in hotels, it does at least give me some time to see the remaining corners of Senegal.  As ever, there was work I could have done on Sunday - but with time to do it on Monday, I was able to take the Sunday off.

I'd never been to Touba, Senegal's second city in terms of population but in terms of its influence on people's lives, its most important city.  It's not a tourist centre, and there is no paid accommodation available for visitors as any such places would apparently risk becoming centres for the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, both of which are banned in Touba.  But the Great Mosque of Touba, consecrated in 1887 by Sufi saint and founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, Amadou Bamba (who also has his tomb there) and subject to constant works to upgrade it, seemed to be something I should go and see.

Unlike many mosques, it is not one you can wander into on your own.  Even standing on the other side of one of the streets around the mosque you have to be properly dressed, so I was soon stopped as I had brought a scarf but had not realised that trousers on women are considered inappropriate.  But only a few yards further along the street I was stopped again, this time by someone in a guard's uniform, and as I explained that I was on my way to the junction to walk away from the mosque he countered that he had already pressed the call button on his phone and did I want to speak to one of the mosque guides, who would provide me with one of the organisation's sarongs before taking me in.  A well-organised place!

The guide appeared quickly, and I asked the price of a tour.  No price.  But an obligatory donation.  OK, well I'd come this far (183km, talking nearly three hours) so I agreed and got kitted up.  Once in the courtyard, he asked me how much I was going to donate.  I told him I had no idea ... as I didn't know whether the tour was going to last 5 minutes or 30, nor how interesting it would be.  He assured me we'd be a minimum 30 minutes but it could be much more if I wished, so I promised CFA10,000 (equivalent to $18) and clearly that was enough, as we actually spent more than two hours wandering around the place, watching the goings on, with him explaining something of the history and religion and me taking lots of photos.

The interior is beautiful, heavily decorated, some of it tiled but there is also a lot of stucco work, plus stained glass windows and generally a lot of light and space.  To be honest I've forgotten now how many people it holds, how many metres high are the minarets, and so on, but that information is probably out there in wikipedia anyway.

The mosque is at the centre of the Mouride brotherhood, which is the most powerful of the various sufi brotherhoods in this very devout country.  Sufism can perhaps be described as a mystical form of Islam, whose followers search for the union of their spirit with Allah in this life, not just in the next - not through the regular ways of orthodox Islam, but through ritual and meditative types of prayer - and in some sufi traditions such as the gnawa in Morocco, through music, or for the dervishes in Turkey and Sudan though their whirling 'dance'.  All of these aiming to take the followers away from the distractions of the material world.

Whilst it stresses the direct relationship between the believer and Allah (this being the distinguishing feature), it does also place a lot of emphasis on the spiritual guide (referred to in Senegal as a marabout), and these are handsomely rewarded for advising their followers, and are heavily involved in business as well as more spiritual matters.

Mouridism is only one of the sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, but the only one founded by a Senegalese, and the most dynamic and powerful due to a large extent to their belief in the sanctity of work and their historical connection with (one could say monopoly over) the production of groundnuts, a major export crop of Senegal.  They also control the transportation sector.  Whilst only some 40% of the population, they have a great deal of political clout, such that all politicians, even those who are not themselves Mourides, seek endorsement from the leader of the Mourides (the grand marabout or caliph) in Touba.

So it was a place I felt I had to visit, given its role in the country.

Perhaps I should have tried to visit during one of the pilgrimages, when several million people descend on the city to pray, but I'm not quite sure how that works as a non-believer.  My guide invited me to come back in a couple of weeks for the Kazu Rajab (the anniversary of the birth in 1945 of the second caliph of Touba), which happens to coincide this year with the date when Muslims commemorate the ascent of Mohamed to heaven.  Apparently there could be 3-4 million people there so it would be a great experience.  This being Senegal, however, my guide also managed to fit into the conversation how I am beautiful intelligent, charismatic ... and should be married to him.  So I think I might have to give the pilgrimage a miss ...

Not to mention that the government announced today 16 coronavirus cases in Touba.  Not being in an "at risk" group, I'm not particularly concerned about the virus, but perhaps it would not be the best time to be in close proximity to several million people!

at the African music festival in Zanzibar

Just got back from a trip to Zanzibar, timed to take in the Sauti za Busara festival of African music.  Some of the music was very good, although ironically my favourite was a Senegalese singer and her band (Mamy Kounaté - and she was also on the same flight back home and even on the same bus as me from Dakar airport into town!).  Some of the more local jazz/taarab/Swahili music was also very enjoyable, and if/when I move back to London I look forward to catching a performance of the Ghanaian/British ensemble Onipa, who were much better live than I'd expected from their online stuff.  The setting helped too, with the afternoon performances in a park in front of the Old Fort, and the evening performances inside the fort.

The organisers also support a carnival parade the day before the music festival starts, and I went along to the square where all the participants gathered and prepared, and then walked alongside them in the parade.  It started in a rather grim part of town, with dismal concrete tower blocks along the route and very few spectators, but the final part was through the narrow alleyways of the old city of Stone Tower, which was much more effective.  The participants were a varied lot, from a small troupe of acrobats, through stilt walkers, to a group of hijab-wearing young school girls.  The most impressive though were those dressed for the Kilua dance, which I know from my later visit to the slave museum in town was brought by slaves trafficked from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.  You can see one (with the white face paint and feather headdress) in this picture - and the concrete tower blocks behind.

Also in this picture is a banner, which includes the words 'Paza sauti'.  This is Swahili for 'Raise your voice', but was used during the festival specifically as a backdrop message against sexual harrassment.  They never made any attempt to explain this beyond the message on the banner and posters, but as the festival progressed I wondered whether it was related to the expected/desired behaviour during the festival itself.  I was hassled from start to finish.  Local men all wanted to be my 'friend', wanted to guide me through crowded parts of the festival site with their arm around my shoulder or waist, to high five after I confirmed that I was enjoying the music (then trying to keep their arm/hand in contact) - one even told me that he wanted me to be his wife.  It was exhaustting and infuriating and one evening I'd had so much of it that I walked out when there was still an hour of music to come.  At least at that time (around midnight) the little alleyways I had to negotiate to get back to my hostel were deserted - so no hassles from stallholders trying to sell me kangas / paintings / bags / woodcarvings.

Looking around me at the number of mixed race 'couples', with a young Zanzibari clinging to their temporary white partner, I was clearly in the minority in not wanting to participate in this aspect of the festival, so in that sense I could understand the amount of attention I was getting as an unaccompanied woman.  But I'm not some nubile young thing - I'm 57!!  So clearly the desire to couple up with a mzungu is not motivated (only) by physical desire, but presumably also by the hope of some financial gain.  So driven by the relative poverty of those in Zanzibar.

I pondered this on the walk back to my hostel, and went from feeling very annoyed by the local men, to feeling sad, and then frustrated (angry?) at the inequality in the world that drives such behaviour.  If a trader in the UK raised his prices when someone walked in wearing a kippah, he would rightly be accused of anti-semitism, but when Africans raise their prices at the sight of white skin they are not generally accused of racism.  Well, they are sometimes, but it doesn't stick as they come back with the observation that their pricing is just reflecting the reality that whites have more money.  & of course in most cases this is true.  Even white backpackers on a tight budget have more money than many (probably most) of the Africans they encounter on their trip.  Some of that is, of course, the result of the terrible governance within most of Africa (a recent Oxfam report noted that the top 1% of the continent's population owns more than the rest put together), but it was initiated, and is perpetuated, by the unfair terms of trade, etc imposed by the world's big institutions.  There's really nothing that a poor young Zanzibari man can do except to look for opportunities to grab a little bit for himself.

Also on the subject of money, this trip prompted me to wonder how much of it one has to have in order to feel comfortable spending it on things one doesn't really need.  I need to travel, so that is a non-negotiable, but to help me afford more travel, I do it when I can on the cheap.  So in Zanzibar I stayed in a six-bed dorm in a hostel, which cost me $10 a night.  Yes my room-mates and I came in and got up at different times, there were differing views on whether or not to use the air-conditioning, and of course you have to keep your luggage padlocked safely in a locker - but the beds were comfortable, the hostel seemed safe and clean, there was hot water in the showers, a hairdryer in the dorm, and wifi throughout.  There was also a small kitchen, with tea and sugar, and a small outdoor terrace - and other travellers, who I had some interesting conversations with (particularly an Iraqi man and a Ugandan woman) and I spent half a day walking around and visiting museums with one room-mate.

I compared this with the little corner of Stone Town where the luxury hotels are based - eg the Hyatt at $350 a night.  I went into a couple to check out their waterfront cafes, and couldn't help but wonder what it would take to get me to stay at such a place.  Of course they are more comfortable, with way more facilities - but how much money do you have to have saved to feel comfortable spending $350 a night instead of $10?  To spend $15 on your hotel breakfast when for $3 I crossed the street to the market each morning and bought a big juicy mango, passion fruit and sweet bananas  to make myself a delicious breakfast in the hostel kitchen for $1?

fighting corruption

Back from a two-week assignment in Sierra Leone, I finally have a few minutes to record the very last part of my holiday in Cote d'Ivoire, an encounter at the airport as I was on my way out of the country.

By the time of the encounter I suppose I was not in the best of spirits, having got to the airport to find that my flight was not listed on the departure board and finally, after lots of initially fruitless conversations with people, finding that it was delayed by several hours - enough for me to miss my once-a-day connecting flight in Ouagadougou.  More conversations followed, and eventually they were persuaded to re-book me onto a different flight, this one going directly to Dakar but requiring me to wait another three hours before I could even check in.  Thankfully I managed to grab one of the six seats in the pre-check-in part of the airport ... where I was grateful for my emergency muesli bar that I always travel with and the half-bottle of water that remained in my bag.

So, finally in the check-in queue, I was pulled aside by a man in military uniform to be asked what was inside the paper I was carrying.  I showed him that it was not a weapon, but just a wood-carving that I'd bought the previous day in one of the stalls next to the Grand Bassam museum.  He muttered something that I didn't catch about papers and left me to continue my check-in.  At that stage, zipping the rucksack straps into their cover, I put the wood-carving in too so that I didn't have to carry it as hand luggage and risk forgetting it on the plane.

But as I walked towards passport control, the same man appeared.  "Did you forget?" he asked, "Your papers!"  A bit confused, I showed him my 'papers' - airline ticket, boarding pass, passport ... but this wasn't what he was after.  "Your papers for the wood-carving!".  Of course I didn't have any 'papers' for a $20 wood-carving ... and so was told to accompany him to the office.  The office of the Department of Forests and Water, where a besuited gentleman was sitting behind his desk.  They started to talk to me about people smuggling artifacts out of the country, and how I had to have export papers for my little carving.

It was now clear that they were trying to extort money out of me.  I kept it friendly, laughingly telling them that my carving was not an 'artifact' but a cheap copy made in the workshop next to the museum, and that I knew 'artifacts' when I saw them, recounting a story from 1999 when a villager in Pays Dogon (Mali) tried to secretly sell me one of the village masks, how I felt a 'power' of some sort emanate from the mask, how I'd have loved it but it wasn't right to buy it, etc, etc.  & that the shop in Grand Bassam hadn't given me any papers so if these were really necessary then we would have to recall my luggage and take the carving out.  They smiled and said that was not necessary, that they would let me off this time, but in return did I have anything for them?  I tried to look confused and told them that I didn't.  So they tried to clarify their request, asking if I had any money from my home country - dollars or euros.  At that, I launched into another friendly tale about the pound, the euro, Brexit, etc ... but it didn't entirely derail them.  So I decided to tell them (very politely) how the UK has two laws that operate globally for British citizens, one being an anti-corruption law that prevents me from giving money to government officials if it is not in an official transaction with a receipt.  That I wasn't saying that this was corruption, but that it might look like it to someone else, and I didn't want to get into trouble...

At this point the soldier left and was replaced by a different soldier, and the besuited official said he could give me a document.  So he filled in an export form, on headed paper, listing my wood-carving, signed it, and handed it to me.  "So, the payment!" he demanded.  I looked at the form.  "I don't see any amount on here..."  "It's 5,000 francs" (not too much - equivalent to US$9 - but on principle I don't want to ever pay a bribe).  I explained that I could not see that written on the form anywhere, which was therefore not a receipt.  Exasperated, he said I should have got a receipt from the stall where I bought the carving.  "No, a receipt for the 5,000 francs" I explained.

"Madame, I cannot give you a receipt."

"Then I cannot give you money."

I looked at him and he just sat there, saying nothing.  So I got up and walked out of the room, fingers mentally crossed that he would not follow - which he didn't.

I had spent twenty minutes in that room.  In a situation where I know many would have felt compelled to pay.  I'm pleased that I have the experience (and, to an extent, the protection of my white skin) that enabled me to hold out, but so cross that these things happen.  Many Africans moan about their corrupt presidents, but that corruption goes right down through society, and if people pay up it will continue.  On my way into Sierra Leone I saw one man hand over money as he took back his passport from the official in passport control.  Just wish I could do more to stop it, that I could fight it rather than just resisting it on a personal level.