Christmas in St. Louis

The office was closed for Christmas Day, which gave us a three-day weekend. A great opportunity to see something of the country, and as a bird-lover I could not resist the National Bird Reserve at Djoudj. Supposedly the third most important bird reserve in the world, it is a large area of fresh water which attracts hundreds of thousands of migratory birds during the winter season. Famous for it's enormous breeding-colony of pelicans, it is usually visited as a day-trip from St. Louis, another place I was keen to see.

Ex-pat colleagues recommended various reliable and reasonable taxi drivers for the journey to St. Louis. However I haven’t yet switched into living that way – and don’t know if I ever will. A taxi would cost ten times as much as a seat in a sept-place bush taxi, and would also insulate me from the country I am trying to be part of.

A sept-place is a Peugeot estate car, often in a pretty rickety state, which sets off on its journey when it has its full complement of seven passengers plus luggage. I took my place on the back seat of one waiting to depart. In another half-hour we filled the remaining places, whilst the amount of luggage and other cargo multiplied. Mostly this was sacks of unknown content, but I watched a sheep being bundled into one sack and tethered to the roof. Meanwhile the car was surrounded by a collection of vendors, offering watches, radios, mobile phones, bananas, biscuits, towels and socks – not all essential for a journey to St. Louis, surely?

Tip for travellers in Senegal – do not take the window seat in a sept-place during the period leading up to Tabaski. Sheep pee frequently and copiously, and the window seals rarely work. Thankfully this one’s rear end was on the opposite side of the vehicle to me.

St. Louis, a former capital of colonial Senegal, Gambia and Mauritania, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shabby and decaying – the ornate balconies have mostly fallen off the walls, and the wooden shutters have rotted away – it is still a beautiful and atmospheric place. I happily wandered around its sandy streets for half a day.

It sits on an island in the River Senegal, with a narrow peninsula separating the river from the ocean (the river joins the ocean just a few miles further south). On the peninsula is an amazing little fishing village. Rows of colourful painted fishing boats sat along the water’s edge, beside them a huge area where the catch was being descaled and beheaded (and presumably gutted) by beautifully dressed women, before being placed on rickety wooden tables, old oil drums and various other surfaces to be variously dried or smoked. & all around the ground was piled high with fish heads, fish scales and discarded fish, together with dead rats, plastic rubbish and pools of what looked like a mixture of fish blood and oil. Dark smoke was blowing over the entire scene from various small fires. Impossible, really, to describe the scene. At the same time both amazingly picturesque but also quite hellish.

& all the time, “donnez-moi de l’argent” or “donnez-moi du cadeau” from the children. I hate being asked for money like that, but seeing the poverty around made me feel some sympathy.

The trip to Djoudj was very different, away from all the noise and people and into an unspoiled natural environment. I saw various herons, ibises, spoonbills and cormorants, plus yellow-billed storks, fish eagles, an osprey, white-faced whistling ducks and – the highlight of the visit – an enormous breeding colony of pelicans, the scrawny, sooty-coloured youngsters standing out from their parents on the flat-topped rocks where the nests were, with lines of adult birds flying in formation low across the surface of the water. No flamingos or crowned cranes this time (will have to go back later in the season for those) but still a superb trip.

Settling in

Little by little, things are falling into place. I now have a bank account here, although it will be 42 days until I am given debit card and cheque book so I cannot actually use the account yet. I also have a mobile phone (because no matter how many times Vodafone assured me that my UK phone should work here, it didn't). &, best of all, my house is nearly ready for me to move in to.

One of the first things I did when I arrived here was to view two potential places to live that the office had found for me - a dark, dingy, ground floor apartment with barred windows looking onto a walled-in car park, and a sunny little bungalow in a quiet sandy street. It is a traditional old-style house, apparently not so common now, with the kitchen separate from the rest of the house - so requiring a walk through the small paved yard (with its lime and mango trees)to get to the kitchen. &, most importantly, less than five minutes' walk from the office!

I rather like the idea of a 'traditional' style house - my only real concern was the rather horrid blue-tiled floor to the main bedroom, but I'm sure I can learn to live with that! So I said yes to the bungalow, and the lease was signed soon after. Now it contains two beds, a three piece suite, a coffee table, a bookcase and a fridge. Soon to come is a cooker and washing machine, and mattresses, and hopefully some curtain rails so then I can go and buy some curtains (so the 24-hour patrolling guards can't look in the bedroom window at me!). They are optimistic that I can move in by the end of this week, though from the little experience I have of things here I would think that unlikely. But I shall keep my fingers crossed. I am fed up with hotel food and want my own home.

Of course once I have my own home I shall have to buy my own food, cleaning products, etc. So there is another voyage of discovery for me. I will also need to buy bed linen, crockery, kitchen equipment, and so on. All the expats here seem to buy their stuff in the expensive 'Score' supermarket, whilst the local staff buy in the markets. I am keen to shop in the markets but wonder how easy it will be in my faltering French (French for bathroom tiles cleaning solution, anyone?) and whether I will be charged anything like the prices the locals pay.

First impressions

Dakar is nothing at all like I had expected. My image of West Africa comes from two holidays: a total of nine weeks backpacking around Mali and Mauritania on a shoestring budget - sleeping on rooftops or sand dunes and showering out of buckets. In Dakar I have seen suburb after suburb of huge, gleaming white villas, an olympic-sized swimming pool, theatres, banks with marble frontages... I suppose on a backpacking holiday I might miss these things, and both Mali and Mauritania may have wealthy enclaves, but still I am amazed, having never realised that such a level of development existed in West Africa.

It is, however, all made a little more 'African' for me by the sheep. Tabaski (Eid-el-Adha) is coming soon, when each Muslim family will slaughter a sheep, commemorating the story of Abraham, who was on the verge of sacrificing his son to obey God's command when God interceded by substituting a sheep in the child's place. Outside my office is a fairly big road - a dual carriageway, with a wide strip of land between the two sides of the road, and smart buildings along the roadside. Under the trees in the central strip of land a few sheep started to appear, then more, and now they are there in their hundreds, being carefully fed and washed to bring them into peak condition for the great slaughter. Travelling around, it seems every bit of land now holds a small flock of sheep, and even on the roads the herdsmen are driving yet more sheep into the city. It will all look very empty and lifeless next week when they are gone.
My first ever attempt at a blog - photos to be added later when I buy a digital camera - but moving from the City of London to live and work in Dakar, Senegal seemed like a sufficiently momentous life-change to be worth recording (and my Mum, currently volunteering at an orphanage in Kenya, can get to see what I'm up to).

Arriving here Sunday night (3 December 2006) was completely unmoving; it was the 11th time I had been through an airport in 11 days, so felt pretty routine. Then we had a Regional Management Team meeting in a hotel for two days - again pretty routine. So Wednesday was in a sense my first day here, and some of the enormity of it hit at lunchtime when I ventured out of the office to try to find something to eat. Suddenly I was on my own in a hot, windy, sandy, African street, surrounded by people speaking Wolof and French (both equally incomprehensible to me at the moment!), and I realized that I am HERE. This is it. No flying back to my home in East London in a few days – this is home now. I still can’t articulate the emotions it brings up, as they are such a complex mixture, but fear and excitement are both in there somewhere.

On a more practical note, the house they have found for me is close to being ready, apparently (I will go and take a look tomorrow), and everyone is being friendly and welcoming. I’m not sure about the traditional ‘fish and rice bought from the street stall’ that I tried for lunch today – the ‘fish’ part seeming to me a mashed up mixture of fish bones and oily sauce (I’m sure I ate a couple of fish eyes in there, too), but I’m sure I’ll learn to love it in time.