What I've learned in Africa

I failed miserably in the two learning targets I set myself when I arrived here - mastery of the French language (I get by but am by no means fluent) and competence at drumming (I've managed to fit in two lessons in over six years).  But I have learned a number of things, some about myself and some about Africa.

I learned that I'm not as emotionally self-sufficient as I'd always thought - that I need people.  My first couple of years were really quite lonely, until I worked out that the best response was not to try to toughen myself up so I could cope better but to go out and find friends.

I learned that I'm not a very compassionate person.  I care about injustice towards groups of people and want to do my bit to put that right, but I don't cry over the suffering of individuals nor do I give and share what I have in the way that Africans (and some Europeans/Americans) do.  I don't feel sympathy when I see someone begging, I just feel a need to try to change the system.  It's not a trait to be particularly proud of, but then again it is one that makes it easier to cope with a job like mine where you do witness a lot of suffering.

& I learned (or rather confirmed my suspicion) that I am physically suited to the environment here.  I love the heat - don't miss winters, or indeed seasons, at all - and my only illness during my time here was the bronchitis I picked up on a winter trip to the US and a touch of flu in my first month here.  Not only have I avoided malaria but I haven't even suffered one bout of diarrhoea in more than six years here!

As regards Africa and its people?  Well, I've learnt that it is a highly materialistic society and with conspicuous consumption preferred over savings or investment, that Africans of different shades of brown and black can be far more racist (towards eachother) than any whites I've ever met, that things will happen when they happen no matter how many times an impatient white person looks at their watch in irritation, and that when things appear to have gone wrong, there is always a solution, especially when Africans spot a white person in need.

I've learnt a lot about the huge importance of the obligations that come with the extended family system, and the way in which this system is a strong barrier against Africa developing on the same path that the West has.  On the one hand it works against people building up the kind of wealth necessary to build businesses, as the more one earns the greater the number of family members who come calling for help; I don't think I have any African colleagues who don't spend a significant proportion of their income supporting their extended family.  On the other hand this means that what we in the West would call corruption and nepotism (those with power using it to favour/benefit family and friends) are in Africa normal and acceptable forms of behaviour.  I'll never forget the dinner in Mali where I heard a government minister tell some friends that he was going to resign as he couldn't cope with the constant demands for money and jobs from his family and community.  Taken up to the next level - the tribe - this also explains in large part why Western-style democracy does not really work in Africa.

I learnt that every sub-Saharan African, whether Christian, Muslim, atheist or animist, believes in a spirit world. This world operates in parallel with the material world but with the ability to interfere in the latter for good or evil.  Typical manifestations of this belief include the protective amulets worn by many people and widespread accusations of witchcraft to explain what we would call bad luck.

Finally, I learned about a very important existential difference between the West and Africa - or, more accurately I suspect, between the West and rest of the world - in the way we look at a human being.  In the West we focus almost entirely on that person as an individual, with rights and choices that attach to him/her as an individual.  Here in Africa, that is not important.  A human being is not seen as an individual but in terms of their relationship to others.  So one is a mother, a sister, a chief, a Christian, a member of a certain tribe...

I recently spent a few days in an African household, where I was soon referred to as "aunty", the usual term for a respected (older) family friend; there was no way I would have been called by my name.  Birthdays are not celebrated here either.

Of course those relationships carry obligations and expectations (built up in the culture over many generations) which are considered far more important than anything the individual concerned might prefer were they to be given free choice.  It shows what a clash of cultures it is to try to impose individual human rights (eg the right of a child to go to school rather than to help with the family business, or the right of a man to live and sleep with another man rather than to marry a woman and to produce children) on societies where the happiness of the individual is considered far less important than the well-being of the community.  Particularly in a part of the world where it is believed that failing to maintain the traditons of the ancestors is likely to bring misfortune.

It's ironic really that one of the things many expats relish, myself included, is the freedom from expectations and obligations that we have through living outside of our own cultures.

Unless anything momentous happens in the next 48 hours that has to be reported here, this is my last post on louiseinsenegal.  Hopefully it won't be long until my first post on louiseinpanama.

The VERY last birds...and an African wolf

I couldn't let that cricket warbler get away, so I took one final trip back up to the dry and dusty Sahel region in the north of the country, armed with its call downloaded onto my iPod from the excellent website xeno-canto, to track it down.  The bush yielded some nice birds - fulvous babblers and speckle-fronted weavers - but the cricket warblers were still proving elusive.  So I got out my new toy - the downloaded call - and pressed Play.  Within only two seconds, there was a cricket warbler!!  It popped up onto the top of a bush, having been hiding in the shady interior I assume.  A fleeting view but enough for a positive identification.

Some other nice sightings of the weekend included some beautiful African pygmy geese, the rare Arabian bustard and a big party of vultures feeding on a freshly dead roadside donkey - see photo above.

There are not all that many mammals in Senegal, but I saw a number of jackals, and heard the interesting bit of information that recent DNA testing has shown these to be more closely related to the European wolf than to the jackals from southern Africa.  This photo I took there really does show a wolf-like animal.

A morning in church

Continuing in my quest to tie up all the loose ends before I go (birds, music, sights, etc) I took a very expensive taxi to some 50km outside of Dakar yesterday, to attend the 10am mass at the church in the Keur Moussa monastery.  I am not religious, but this mass is recommended to visitors as the service includes gregorian chants sung in the local language accompanied by the rhythm and music of the djembe, calabash and kora.

It was beautiful.  The church itself is a modern concrete structure, but its simplicity and design make it a welcoming place, with nice designs on the walls (see photo), and it was wonderfully cool in contrast to the heat outside.  I've always loved the smell of incense, and being a Catholic church there was plenty wafting around.  I didn't understand the service, and got a bit confused about when to stand/sit/kneel, but the music was lovely, gentle and relaxing but at the same time uplifting, and I bought three CDs in the monastery shop after the service.

The last few birds

I couldn't really leave Senegal without having seen a cricket warbler, an African swallow-tailed kite, or an African pygmy goose, so some serious bird-watching had to be squeezed in to my last few weeks in the country.

Some birds are easier to find than others, of course, and generally the ones I had still to see were the elusive ones.  So I was happy to persuade a British bird-watching company to let me join them for a few days of their Senegal trip, so that I could get to the hard-to-reach Trois Marigots area of northern Senegal.  In fact they were such a nice bunch of people that I was sad not to be able to stay with them for their entire ten days, but the three days were pretty satisfactory with great sightings of Savile's bustards, African pygmy geese, African scrub warbler and the rare Little grey woodpecker.

This last weekend it was time to hunt down the African swallow-tailed kite.  Until recently there was thought to be a total population of only 1,000 - 10,000 of this beautiful, nomadic bird (stretching right across the Sahel belt of Africa), but then in 2007 a roost of around 20,000 of them was discovered on a small island in the salt flats of central Senegal.  Peak numbers are there from December - February, before the birds begin to migrate further south to breed, but on 2 March there still seemed to be many thousands, some flying right over my head, so close to me that I couldn't use the binoculars.  The roost was shared with an even greater number of Lesser kestrels, and there were Peregrine falcons, Ospreys and Montagu's harriers around too so it was a real feast of raptors.

I don't have the right camera (or ability!) to photograph birds flying at speed, so cannot show you the kite, but here is a rather poor quality photo of another raptor - the Red-necked falcon - I am lucky enough to be able to watch this pair in their palm tree roost from my balcony every morning.

I had no luck with the cricket warbler but then they say it is always good to have a reason to return somewhere!

Carnival in Guinea Bissau

Uniquely in West Africa, Guinea Bissau follows the latin tradition of holding a carnival on the days leading up to Lent.  As a desperately poor country this clearly isn't the extravaganza of the one in Rio, but I had heard that the people make up in inventiveness what they lack in financial resources and so I used some of the precious time I have left in the region to fly down to Bissau for a long weekend to see the carnival parades.

What a good decision that was - I would recommend this carnival to anyone!  A riot of drumming and colour!

The parades started at 4pm on Monday, with each of nine districts of the capital putting on their own displays in a relay that lasted until well after dark at 7.30pm (a little sad for those parading last given the lack of street lighting in Bissau), with the same pattern the next day for the regional displays.  The basic format was the same for each district, first the dancers in costume, and then those sporting giant papier-mache masks, all accompanied by fast and frantic drumming.

The costumes varied enormously.  There were many troupes of near-naked women and girls, wearing just strings of shells and beads with a grass skirt or for some just a piece of snake skin hanging from the waist for modesty, their bodies gleaming with a yellowy sheen of palm oil.  I was very surprised at the amount of bare flesh on show for a region of the world where the female body - at least the lower half - is usually very well covered.  There were traditional fibre costumes and wooden masks, some of the locally made 'lapa' strip-woven cloth, and some more modern outfits such as army uniforms, the dancers carrying fake machine guns (remember this is a country whose politics is dominated by the army) and in one case handing over the guns, as part of their dance, to women wearing the white of peace - this latter was very popular with the crowd!

Other dances were focused on the need to stop female genital cutting and enforced early marriage.  Some included mock fights, or sharing the rice contained in a big calabash, and one involved two men walking around carrying a large live crocodile, its mouth tied shut with pink string.  Nobody near me in the crowd could explain the significance of that one.

The papier-mache masks were enormously varied and impressive, from tigers and dragons, pieces of fruit and vegetables, army chiefs and colonial administrators, fishing boats and - my favourite - a turtle mask, its poor 'wearer' having to crawl along on all fours around the carnival route.

The crowd were enjoying it all immensely, pressing forward into the road; every so often the police would hit out with big sticks to get them back into place.  Others were perched in the branches of trees to get a better view - and at one point a branch fell with the weight of the people there and a commotion ensued as an ambulance forced its way through the crowd to collect the injured.  But nothing could stop the party spirit.

It all reminded me, again, of what it is that makes me so enjoy my life here.  It is that Africa, unlike the West, has not yet lost its primitive side.  The rhythms are of night and day, and seasons (rather than of clocks and calendars) accompanied by the rhythms of the drums and the wonderfully expressive forms of African dance.  They bring both a feeling of being at peace with the environment and a joy in being alive.  Perhaps that is why most Africans, despite the pervasive poverty, are usually smiling.

Transferring to Panama

The trouble with working on a fixed term contract is that there comes a time when you have to move on.  My five-year contract in Senegal was extended to a sixth year, and then to a seventh, but seven is the maximum allowed and I am already several months into my seventh year, so when a suitable post was advertised in Panama (the same job that I do here but covering our Latin America region) I really had little choice but to apply.

I was successful, and within the next couple of months (I don't yet have a transfer date), I will be leaving my beloved West Africa.

Of course my new region will be full of delights.  New landscapes, new birds, new cultures, new music...  Many things that I should be so excited about.  & I guess that, in time, I will be excited about them.  But now all I can think about is how much I will miss Africa.  How much I love Africa.  How challenging and frustrating it can be, and how long it took me to find my place here but how happy I am now that I have found it.

Don't post comments about any of the delights of my new region or of the advantages of living in Panama, because I know all that, and at the moment it makes no difference.  That isn't to say you should be sad for me...  I am busy trying to see the last few corners of this region that remain unexplored (the Benin voodoo festival, and next month the Bissau carnival), to make the most of the little time that remains and to celebrate and be thankful for the wonderful years I have spent here.  I have been very lucky to have the opportunity to explore a region of the world that so few people know.

Ouidah voodoo festival

Every year on 10 January, Benin celebrates its national religion with a festival in the coastal town of Ouidah (a place also known for its slave-trading history).  I've never managed to schedule a work-related trip to Benin in January, so I bit the bullet this year and bought my own flights so as to visit this festival.

I've long wanted to experience a real voodoo ceremony, having read about the way people can supposedly become 'possessed' by spirits, but this is really a matter of luck, being in the right place at the right time.  A colleague has an aunt who carries out similar ceremonies here in Senegal, and I've pushed for an invitation, but the aunt says it would be too dangerous for me - that evil spirits might come up through the ground and enter my body, which would be a terrifying experience for me and could leave me permanently damaged - and so she will not allow me to attend one of her ceremonies.  Needless to say, I don't believe in evil spirits, so have no fear of any such ceremony going wrong in that way, but this isn't really an argument you can use here.

So the voodoo festival in Ouidah would have to do as second best.  & I feel I should be careful here in any case not to give the wrong impression of voodoo - the Hollywood impression of a set of dark and perhaps evil practices - as the religion is not based around trances and animal sacrifices, those play only a small part related to major problems or events in people's lives.  The day-to-day practice of voodoo is far more mundane.

I found no information about this festival on the internet other than the date, and even on a trip to Benin in December no-one could give me any information, so I turned up not really knowing what to expect - even whether I would find the festival!  I arrived in Ouidah late the evening before, found myself a hotel room, and asked the hotel manager what was going to happen.  There will be a big procession to the beach, he told me, and after the official ceremony, there would be "voodoo here, voodoo there, voodoo everywhere!", waving his hands about excitedly.  Voodoo is indeed everywhere in Ouidah (and in much of Benin and parts of neighbouring Togo), as it is the national religion.  You see little shrines next to houses, often sticky with the residue of earlier sacrifices (usually of beer or grain porridges, rather than animals), and various buildings with voodoo symbols painted on them (a rainbow, or a snake, for example).  But I didn't fly all this way, for a two-day visit, to see a fetish or a painted building.

On the day of the festival I followed my hunch - a sound of singing and clapping which I traced to its origin in the local chief's house.  In return for a $10 payment for a 'photo permit' I was allowed in, and watched the chief and his entourage prepare, then we left in a big chaotic procession towards the python temple, with all the chief's family and guests dressed in their ceremonial finery. 
Ouidah apparently means, in the local language, 'town of pythons' and the python is the most important local deity, so sacrifices had to be made there before the festival could start.  Two goats and two chickens were the victims, presumably fed to the pythons later.

Then we made our way the 4km to the beach (the chiefs in their 4x4s, me on the back of a motorbike taxi) for the festival.  This was a strange event, formal in some ways (the US Ambassador was there, and Benin TV were broadcasting it live), but as well as the speeches and displays of drumming and dancing from the main stage of the big square, there were more animal sacrifices performed away from the stage, and various private dances with frenetic drumming in corners (including those in the first photo above) - mostly far more interesting, and with a far more authentic feel, than that put on for the Ambassador and the TV.

Walking back into town after the formalities were over I passed another troupe of dancers heading towards the beach area - looking at the photos afterwards I had to ask myself why I hadn't followed them.  Bare breasts, grass skirts, ointment smeared over their bodies and the prospect of some wild dancing - I have to admit that as much as I want Africa to develop (clean water and education for all, but also further into the 21st century), it is this traditional, even 'primitive' side of the continent that really draws me in.

Revisiting this post to add a further comment, as my lack of articulacy in the last paragraph was bothering me.  What I was trying to reflect was the conflict I so often face between the sensational and the mundane, in terms of representing Africa in my blog.  Of course I am more attracted by exploring (and writing about) the sensational side, but at the same time I don't want to give the wrong impression of the continent.  Bare-breasted women in grass skirts dancing around blood-smeared fetishes to the beat of frenetic drumming is something I want to see and write about, and is a valid image of a part of Africa, but it no more represents the wider African continent (nor even the voodoo religion) than a burnt-out car on a Belfast street represents the wider UK.  & I thought it was important to come back and make this clear, because so much of what one reads about Africa relies on stereotypical images of the place as primitive, poor, corrupt, disease-ridden, etc - and whilst those images do represent a part of the truth, it is only a small part, and I don't want to contribute to an overall negative view of this continent that I love so much.