things move slowly

Things move slowly here.  I've asked so many times if I can view some houses or apartments, so as to find somewhere to live, and the answer is always the same (that they will contact the agent and get something set up for today), as is the result (nothing happens).

Maybe I shouldn't push it.  After all, for as long as I am in temporary accommodation, my employer pays for my bills, my food, my TV and internet subscription ... but clearly it wouldn't be right to collude in the delays for that reason.  Also, the apartment they have put me in is noisy, and has so little water pressure that I am required to shower out of a bucket most days.  So I keep asking.

I did view one apartment in the building I lived in for my last year here, but it was really dark and uninviting.  Finally last weekend, the day before I flew off to Bissau on my first assignment, I got two viewings.  The first a small, dingy place, with no kitchen to speak of, and in the middle of a building site.  The second, however, was much better - in a brand new building and with plenty of light - I said I'd take it.  Now back from Bissau it seems that nothing has moved forward, but the place is already furnished so should be ready to move into as soon as the paperwork has been signed.

With that worry off my mind, I decided to go out on Sunday, to go bird-watching.  Not so much for the birds, as the site has mainly waders in their non-breeding plumage (ie lots of brown and grey birds...), but to see if I could actually get there.  As ever, I try to avoid staying in a protected bubble, preferring to be part of the regular life - so public transport, not taxis.  I had stumbled upon a website that provides information on bus routes in Dakar, and was very proud of myself for travelling the 12km out to the suburbs on the number 46 bus and then finding my way into the Technopole site where the birds are.

It's a bit of wasteland really, with brackish water surrounded by mud, and with a cold wind blowing (I sell it well, I know...), and the birds are really skittish so it is hard to get close enough to even see what they are.

But the birds were there - gulls and terns and sandpipers and stilts, a small distant flock of Greater Flamingoes with a spoonbill hiding behind them, and this group of Pink-backed Pelicans.

As I was on my way out, trying to find a dry route back to the road, this Little Bee-eater flew in to welcome me back to Senegal:

back in Senegal

Going back to a place that you loved should be something you feel really positive about, right?  So this return to Dakar has been very strange, and it's been impossible to articulate the reasons why I have felt so conflicted and nervous about it.  There was a part of me that did want to come back, of course, but the other part of me has felt a strange foreboding, a sense that it wouldn't work.

But there was no other realistic option, so I am here.

& (sorry Mum - she will hate this, my starting one sentence with 'but', the next with 'and'!!) I've started to understand a little better the phrase "going back".  That "back" does not just refer to the geography, but also to time.  & no, you cannot go back in time.  On Saturday I wandered round to the road that was my home for my first five years here - to find that the little bungalow I'd lived in is no more, the land now occupied by a four-storey block of flats.  From there I went to the restaurant and live music venue Just4U to request a copy of their programme - to be faced by a building site.  Even the very few people I still know here (in the office) look older and tired - as I'm sure I must do too.

I am not saying that I am unhappy to be back, but I am not jumping for joy either.

It will take time to find my feet here, knowing that I can't just slip back into what was here before (I did check on the flat I lived in for my last year, but it is occupied).  It will take me a little time to leave behind Latin America too (no dried cranberries in the supermarket here, no 60mbps internet download speeds), especially on weekends like the one we've just had where I was glued to internet news sites reporting on the terrible goings-on in Nicaragua.

But it will come.  Slowly.  Yesterday I found a website listing events in Dakar - I'd just missed a wine-tasting on Friday evening and an Orchestra Baobab concert Saturday night.  So there will be places to go where I can meet people, and establish a new social life here and build a new set of memories.  I just have to be patient.

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.