Watching whimbrels eating crabs


With my friends Janette and Axel visiting me from Vienna, it was time to see a little more of Senegal. We took the ferry from Dakar to Ziguinchor in the southern Casamance region – a great introduction for my friends to Senegalese officialdom. I lost count of the number of times I had to show my passport to get onto the boat, but was still rather surprised to find that I had to hand it in as a deposit in return for a blanket for the first, overnight, part of the journey.

We opted for the middle priced ticket, which gave us beds in one of several 14-person dormitories with some rather grotty shared bathrooms. Pretty good value really (at £13 for residents) though I think it will be a nicer trip when the new boat starts operating in the spring. Next time I must remember to pack sandwiches.

It took some 15 hours to get to Ziguinchor, travelling down the coast of Senegal overnight and then turning, as the sun rose, along the Casamance River. On either side were mangroves, palm trees, baobabs and occasional fishing villages, and in the river and on its sandbanks were dolphins, flamingos, cormorants and terns. Ever since I arrived in Dakar people have been telling me that I need to travel to the countryside, and preferably to the Casamance, to see the real Senegal, and it was immediately obvious why.

We travelled in a quick loop round the key tourist spots of the lower Casamance – from Ziguinchor to Oussouye, Cap Skiring, and Isle de Karabane. Cap Skiring is a little different, with its massive white sandy beaches, its Club Med resort and a real tourist vibe, but elsewhere we were in little villages with cheap accommodation and friendly, welcoming people.

Despite the amount of travelling we did, it was a very relaxed trip. We seemed to spend a lot of time sitting over very long lunches, reading books, and watching birds. In Ziguinchor we watched whimbrels on the mudflats catching, washing and eating crabs, and the yellow-billed storks nesting in the trees. In Oussouye I watched a splendid sunbird (coloured iridescent copper, purple, blue and emerald) drinking from the bottles set up to collect palm sap, which ferments over the course of the day to form palm wine. From the pirogue in which we travelled to Isle de Karabane we watched spoonbills, ibises, pelicans, herons, ospreys and kingfishers, and on the island itself Janette and I cut short our dusk walk to watch little bee-eaters and bearded barbets in the trees - a pity I couldn’t get a decent photo of the barbets to show you their astonishing colours.

Yesterday it all came to an end (rather too quickly as I could have spent many more days on Isle de Karabane - see photo to the left) and I took a ‘sept-place’ taxi back to Dakar. Ten hours in a cramped car with stops only for the Gambia border crossings and the ferry across the River Gambia. Good preparation for tomorrow night when I start a 60-hour journey, via Paris, London and Bangkok, to Laos for my next short holiday

Festive Season

I had to come into the office today (to be online) as I just had to post something about yesterday evening. I am at long last on the British Embassy list of Dakar residents, and so was invited to an evening at 'The Residence' yesterday, for festive season mulled wine.

It was a good evening, I managed to make a couple of new friends (a girl working at Oxfam and a staff member from the Embassy) which will enlarge my social circle enormously! It was nothing like I expected, however - there weren't many guests, the ambassador himself was serving the mulled wine for part of the time, and he and his wife led us all in Christmas Carol singing, photocopied wordsheets handed round, accompanying music on a CD played on the laptop which didn't have enough volume for any of us to hear it. It was all wonderfully amateurish! Made me realise I have not sent any Christmas cards - and probably won't have time to now - sorry...

It will also be the Muslim festival of Tabaski here on 20 December, so the streets are starting to fill up with sheep, being fattened up for the grand slaughter. This is the current view outside my office.

A few days in Sierra Leone


I knew as we flew into Freetown that I was going to like Sierra Leone. The country seemed from the air to be a combination of tropical forest, rivers, and white sandy beaches, and then Freetown itself – unlike the flat capitals along the rest of this coast – seems to be a mass of colourful ramshackle buildings clinging to the sides of numerous very steep hills.

Lungi airport is the other side of a big river mouth from the city, so on arrival you are faced with a choice between a 45-minute ferry trip or a 7-minute flight in an old Russian military helicopter. The ferry has a bit of a reputation for being overcrowded and therefore unsafe, so despite the loss of a helicopter earlier this year (it crashed into the ground and burst into flames killing all 21 people on board) most people still recommend the flight.

Apparently they have no Operating Certificate – or alternatively the International Civil Aviation Authority had evaluated them a few weeks prior to the crash, and came up with a long list of things that needed to be fixed before they were safe to continue flying, but the helicopter company bribed officials shortly afterward to get permission to resume flying – depending on who you believe.

Sierra Leone is well-known for its corruption (one of the worst countries in the world), and it is certainly something that has made the operations of my own NGO very difficult here. But I took the helicopter, and as you are reading this you know that I made it across in one piece! It wasn’t my first time on a helicopter, as I took one in Australia to get from the mainland to Heron Island, but this was a rather different experience, with six or seven passengers seated along either side of its grey, military interior and the pilots in a cabin at the front. There were seatbelts but nobody told us to use them… along the side were portholes, several of them open, from where we had some lovely views of the coast. It was over all too quickly.

I wish I had longer here to actually see the place, and maybe to experience a little of the night life. There is laughter everywhere, and lots of music, and altogether it seems like a happy, fun place. Apparently the reaction for a lot of people, as the country recovers from a long and brutal civil war, is to party (although maybe not the double amputee begging at the airport). Next time I will stay for longer.

More on Niger

I sometimes feel guilty when I write something negative about a poor country. I’m supposed to be out here to help them and here I am publishing critical commentaries – reinforcing the stereotypes of poor, hopeless Africa. The people may be poor but they are also proud, so they don’t like foreigners focusing on their poverty. Hopefully I do also sometimes convey something of the vibrancy and the fascinating cultures of some of the places I visit.

The cultures that I would like to see in Niger are unfortunately some 1,000km away from the capital, and with the rebellion currently underway they are not in any case safe to visit. & unfortunately they are laying landmines so those areas may remain dangerous even when the conflict ends.

However I did manage to travel just a short distance north of Niamey on my first weekend here to spend a night at a little rural encampment next to the river. I love this river. It is so wide, and the waters flow so fast, yet the surface always seems calm and flat like a mirror so it always gives me a sense of rest and peace.

But I tore myself away from the yellow-headed bishops and pied kingfishers on the riverside to take advantage of a little tourist offering – an hour on a camel to the village of Boubon, a tour of the village, and a trip back along the river in a pirogue. I love riding camels, I find their rhythm very relaxing. The village is well-known for its pottery, and I spent a while watching a woman applying decorative patterns to a lovely big pot. She let me take her photo but unfortunately she didn’t have any of the wonderful facial family markings (tattoos and/or scars) that so many people still have in this region.

On the lovely relaxing journey back we saw a hippo.

What else? Well I also visited two museums – a tiny one in the town of Dosso, and the more famous one in Niamey. The latter had a surprisingly good fashion exhibition – a modern take on the traditional dress of Niger – and a detailed display on uranium mining which would probably have been fascinating had my French been a little better. Sadly the museum grounds also house a mini zoo. How people can imprison wild animals in tiny concrete cages is beyond me, and the sight of chimpanzees in cages smaller than my bathroom left me in tears.

But to get back to the positive note I was trying to maintain, I attach a photo here for the benefit of my Mum – not a great shot, but just to prove to her that I really am seeing kingfishers.

The least developed country in the world


Sitting on the terrace of the Grand Hotel in Niamey looking out across the Niger River, it was hard to believe I was in Niger, bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index – life expectancy 48, under-five mortality 28%, female literacy 11%, etc, etc. Admittedly the hotel rooms were a bit shabby, there seemed to be no hot water, the room safe was broken, and the whole place was infested with mosquitoes… But nevertheless the life of an international NGO worker felt rather more comfortable than seemed decent as I sat on this wonderful terrace with this amazing view.

I could see an island in the middle of the river, comprising a few rice paddies, some scattered palm trees and lots of big white water-lilies. Men and women were working in the rice paddies, standing knee-deep in water, and at the far end of the island others were washing clothes in the river and laying them out along the sloping sides of the bridge to dry in the sun. A couple of long wooden boats swept past in the current, the river at its fullest in this season – perhaps even more so than usual given the heavy rains this year. & the terrace was full of butterflies. It was quite idyllic.


Later in the day I ventured out to see the town and the museum – and this was when I was confronted by the real Niger. I have seen plenty of poverty before – in India, Nepal, Ethiopia, Sudan and elsewhere in West Africa – but this was different. There was a desperation in many of the faces that I have not seen before.

A man approached me to try to sell me one of the guinea fowl he was holding by their feet. I declined, explaining that my hotel manager would not be too impressed to see a guinea fowl running around my hotel room – the sort of response that normally seems to get a smile. But this man’s needs were too great, I guess. “So give me a present – I KNOW you have money” was his reply, and it was clear that he was desperate to find some way to get some money from me.

So many people seemed to be barefoot, and as many again had broken shoes, flapping uselessly about as they shuffled along in the dust. Some people had even less. I saw quite a young woman wearing only a dirty cloth wrapped around from her waist to her knees – her breasts as well as her feet bare (this in a strongly Muslim country!) and her body so thick with dust that her black skin looked grey. I suppose it doesn’t help that the Harmattan has started (the wind that blows in from the Sahara Desert, almost blotting out the sun as it is laden with so many tiny particles of sand), but the place looks bleak, wretched and deeply impoverished.

Street Riots??

Those expecting me to describe the reality of living amongst riots, etc (if you've seen the BBC news website today) will be sadly disappointed.

We received an email this morning warning us not to go into town because of demonstrations turning violent. Then later the update said the demonstrators were rather nearer to us, and that we all had to go home for our own safety.

Well I had far too much work to do to be able to go home, and in any case from my third floor office window there was no evidence of riots - no columns of smoke rising from the city, no sounds of distant shouting. Dakar is far too peaceful for that sort of thing - everyone is far too busy here trying to make a living.

& I knew that if I was not in the office, I would have been far too tempted to go prowling the streets with my camera looking for riots...

So I stayed put, and at 20:00 have just finished my work for the day. & if I'm honest, I'm quite annoyed (having seen evidence on the BBC that there actually WERE riots) that I didn't go out hunting them with my camera. Sorry!

For those who are interested, it seems from talking to people here that it was not just the clearance of street vendors' stalls that provoked the trouble (as per the BBC), but general unrest about the high and rising cost of living. Bread went up by 17.5% this month, following on from rises in the price of electricity, rice and other staples. Life here is tough.

World Toilet Day

I have nothing to say on here currently as work seems to have entirely taken over my life...

But I thought I would share my observation that yesterday was apparently World Toilet Day, which has the aim "to increase awareness of everyone's right to a better toilet environment". Fluffy seat covers? Scented candles? Gold-plated toilet roll holders?

No, I think we all know what it means (and I see that my own NGO has helped families build 183,000 toilets in the last four years), but I still can't believe they have an international 'day' for it!

R 'n R in Benin



No, not rock 'n roll, not rest 'n recuperation either - but Rooney 'n Ronaldo! After a ridiculously busy week in Benin (still working in my hotel room at 4am one night) I had a Saturday at leisure to enjoy myself, and I managed to find a venue showing the football. Or at least some of it, between blank screens when the generator (or perhaps the satellite?) cut out from time-to-time. Or when I was not being distracted by the adverts running across the screen for matches to be shown later in the day. Everton -v- Bigminham? Middlesbrough -v- Hotspurs? But great as always to watch a game in a room crowded with hundreds of fans.

Back in Dakar now I have also made further attempts to watch the beautiful game, as a very kind man answered my plea for help on the Senegal network of facebook. First he took me to his friend's house to watch a Man Utd Champions League match. All was looking promising until half-an-hour before the game, when the lights went out. A power cut. As he had a laptop I asked him if he had tried Sopcast? We downloaded it and found the United game. Just a tiny screen, and quite a fuzzy picture (Senegal internet speeds are not great) but better than nothing. Until his battery gave out at half time.

Today we tried again - the Premiership game against Blackburn was supposed to be on. But the Canal operators in Senegal had decided not to buy coverage, so all we were faced with was a blank screen. Unfortunately I think I am coming to accept that it is one interest I will have to put to one side whilst I am in Senegal.

Back to Benin - a lovely country, from the little I had time to see. Poor, of course, but without all the hustlers of Dakar, and with some truly great tourist sites. The stilt village on Lake Ganvie is in fact rather a tourist trap, but is no less pretty for it. A whole village built in a shallow lake (originally sited there for safety during one of the old tribal wars), all the houses on stilts, and each family with a number of pirogues to travel in. Even with a cloudy sky it was lovely, helped too by the jewel-coloured little malachite kingfishers flitting around the dock.

I also managed to visit the voodoo Python Temple in Ouidah. I don't know why pythons are quite so important in the voodoo religion, but in this temple there were about fifty of them, stretched out lazily in their 'house' apart from those being brought out for us tourists to drape around our necks. They are let out at 5pm each day, so that they can make their way into another little house where food is put out for them. There is however nothing to stop them leaving the compound at that point, which some have been known to do. The guide said villagers are not afraid if they find one in their house as this is supposed to be a good omen. & in this continent where everyone seems to be absolutely terrified of snakes (I suppose with good reason) that is saying something.

Afterwards, whilst I was queueing to get into Cotonou airport for my flight home, I was approached by a very attractive and well-dressed young woman asking me if I would mind carrying a small bag back for her. Of course I declined, but it reminded me of stories I was told earlier in Togo (next-door to Benin) - of the attractive well-dressed women you see hanging around the airport being part of the drugs trade, either waiting to collect an assignment or waiting to offload one onto a naive passenger. I did wonder if there was something rather more proactive I should have done, like accepting the bag and then handing it to a policeman for its contents to be checked, but if it was drugs then it is quite possible that the police are in on the deal, and that handing over the bag would get one into all sorts of trouble.

Now I am back in Senegal, where the weather has changed in my absence. The wind only blows from two directions into coastal Senegal - either from the south-west, where it picks up moisture from the Atlantic bringing summer rain and humidity, or from the north, where it picks up dust from the Sahara making the rest of the year dusty and hazy. So now the humidity has gone and it is cool enough to sleep at night but we once again have dust everywhere. A plague of insects has also appeared, some quite nice (millions of white butterflies everywhere), some less so (ants over everything, and crickets getting into the house and chirping loudly all night).

Shopping in the cold

Although I still have no idea what I will do with myself when my five year contract in Senegal is over, I am pretty sure I will not go back to live full-time in the UK. I’ve just had a week back there (for my OU exam, which went OK), and although it reminded me of how much I love London, I was cold the whole time, not just whilst outside walking in the streets but also in shops, in restaurants and even in friends’ houses. I always hated the cold, but now that my system has adjusted to living in a hot climate I find it almost unbearable – and this was just October, not the middle of winter.

It was, though, a wonderful opportunity to get a bit of culture. I saw my old friend Nuru Kane in concert in Reading (he was very surprised to hear that I am now living in his native Senegal!), and visited the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. The latter visit was in order to see the crack in the floor which I have heard so much about – it is impressive, and I love the symbolism of it. Apparently the artist often uses her work to represent her feelings about the dominance of the West over the developing world, and she feels that this dominance stemmed in part from the generation of power that underpinned the industrial revolution – so to put a giant crack in the floor of the turbine hall of a converted power station in the heart of London must be a wonderful feeling for her! I was impressed too by the Louise Bourgeois sculpture outside the gallery, although the symbolism of that (apparently giant maternal spiders represent the tensions she feels within her family) eluded me.


I also got to go shopping! I returned with eleven books, seven DVDs, lots of food (sun-dried tomatoes, biscuits, cheese, etc) and a load of stuff that is cheaper in the UK than in Senegal, ranging from a saucepan (less than $5!) to toothpaste.

Now that my OU studies are out of the way, I’m hoping I will actually have the time to read books and watch DVDs – as well as to go out and make some friends. I wouldn’t have missed the past year for the world, it has been such a marvellous opportunity, but it probably wouldn’t be accurate to say I’ve enjoyed it. It’s given me moments of pleasure, certainly, but I’ve just been too busy to really have had the leisure to enjoy it. I will be pretty busy over the next year too but without the added pressure of the study I think life will feel more relaxed.

The 26th day of Ramadan

For the last few weeks it has felt as though everything in Senegal is conspiring against my doing any revision at all for my OU exam next week.

October is the hottest month of the year here, and it really is SO hot. The BBC weather pages just show temperatures of around 35°C, and humidity of 50-60%, which is hot, yes, but not SO hot. It’s not just me though, everyone says it is hot. I went back to the house with a colleague the other day and when he left my maid Gloria explained why she had not appeared for a few minutes – it was so hot that she had been working with just her sarong tied round her waist, with nothing on top (as the women still do in the fields in Senegal but not so publicly in the towns), so had needed to run and hide in the garage and put some more clothes on before he saw her! & she is used to the heat here.

It is a strange feeling sitting at the table eating a meal while the sweat pours off your body – not just dripping off the end of your nose into your food but also running down your arms and legs. I’m trying to drink lots of water, but even if you stay healthy (which many don’t) you cannot avoid the tiredness that the humidity causes. I often wake up sweating in the night, too, and rarely feel as though I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

I do have air conditioning in a few rooms, but don’t like using it on environmental grounds. In any case we get power cuts all the time, both long cuts but also lots of short ones – for seconds only – and if I leave my air conditioning unit plugged in when I go to bed I get woken by it beeping every time the electricity comes back on. But last week it got so hot that I tried putting on the air conditioning in my lounge. Only to find that it just blows the warm air around but doesn’t reduce its temperature at all. & as it doesn’t face the seating area even that doesn’t help.

So on Friday I bought a big fan. But this is Senegal. By Saturday lunchtime it was no longer working.

Then Sunday lunchtime my electricity went off, the loose connection responsible only being repaired today (Wednesday). I know that the children in Guinea where we work go to the airport at night to study, as it is the only place where they can guarantee light, so I shouldn’t complain, really.

On Sunday it was illness, however, rather than heat or lack of light, that stopped my plans. I woke feeling fine but as soon as I tried to move I felt as though the room was spinning and lurching around me – like the worst roller-coaster ride you can imagine. I laid flat again and the feeling went away, but every time I moved my head it came back. It took over an hour just to slowly manoeuvre myself out of bed. It lasted all day and was really unpleasant, but left me with just a minor headache the next morning. I looked it up on the internet worried that I had some horrible tropical disease, but discovered I had been suffering from Benign Positional Vertigo. Apparently it can happen to anyone for no apparent reason, and indeed most people get an episode of it at least once in their life. I just hope it never recurs.

Finally (no, I still have a few days left here, something else can go wrong…) I went to bed last night hoping it would be cool enough to give me a good night’s sleep, only to be awakened by megaphones outside blasting out some very loud and very unmelodic Islamic singing. This was loud enough to drown out conversation, so I got up (in the dark – electricity not yet reconnected at that stage), threw on some clothes and went outside to investigate. I asked my guard what was happening. “C’est la Karem” (it’s the fast – Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month). “But it was the fast yesterday and there was no noise in the night?” “C’est le 26th jour de la Karem”. Ah, of course, the 26th day of Ramadan.

It was clear I was going to get no more of an explanation, but also no more sleep in my house that night, as some neighbours had erected a canopy across the street, and affixed speakers and megaphones all around it, and from the number of dressed up people who were arriving this was going to be a long affair. I looked at my watch and it was 12:50, so I went back indoors, collected my yoga mat (I always knew it would come in useful one day) and a pillow and the keys to my office. Sneaking round the back way – not wanting to offend my neighbours in their devotions – I made my way through crowds of people out on the streets, all dressed up, to get to my office, where I let myself in and slept fitfully on the floor until it got light and I could return home to wash.

Colleagues tell me that the 26th day (or night) of Ramadan is when the Koran was revealed. For Muslims it is therefore the most auspicious night of the year to pray, and many do so in large public gatherings such as that organised by my neighbour. It is probable that the religious singing outside my house would have continued until the call to prayer from the mosques took over at 5:30 this morning.

The OU provide a form for students to complete if something has happened to reduce their exam performance, but somehow I don’t think the 26th day of Ramadan will be on the list of allowable mitigating circumstances.

Scary moments

It’s funny how different people are frightened by different things. I’m not in the least afraid of snakes (so was very disappointed to find out that one had slithered through my courtyard whilst I was away in Mali), nor of enclosed spaces, nor of travelling to strange places. However I am scared of spiders, and also of public speaking (or public singing, public cooking – indeed anything where people are watching me and perhaps judging me).

This past week I faced both. The first was on Tuesday evening, when I walked down my hall in the half-light, then reached for the switch for the bathroom. The switch felt odd, but it only registered quite how odd when the light came on and I realised I had put my finger directly onto the legs of a spider which had been sitting on the light switch. Thankfully not an enormous hairy one, nor one in the mood to bite me (apparently all spiders bite), but it still gave me a bit of a fright.

An hour or so later I had a phone call – from my boss in Lisbon, to say that he had missed his connection and so would email me the presentation I would have to give on his behalf to the regional conference the next day. I think it says something about the number of challenges I have faced since I took this job that this one didn’t even keep me awake that night.

It helped considerably that everyone knew that I had only been asked to cover at the last minute, and so they weren’t expecting me to be perfect. But really, it wasn’t too bad. The audience was some 25-strong, comprising the country director of all twelve countries in our West Africa Region, plus the Regional Director and his deputy and various invited guests from East Africa and our UK headquarters. I went quite quickly through the presentation then took a long question-and-answer session. If I had been faced with this a couple of years ago I would quite possibly have resigned rather than go through with it, but I’m quite a different person now.

I think it is partly the continuing set of new circumstances and new challenges I am facing, such that facing challenges has now become a normal part of my day-to-day life. To deal with that I have had to stop worrying. Basically I do what I can to make the situation better, but then just think about the present until the challenging situation actually arrives, at which point I simply do my best. I know that sounds fine in theory but impossible in practice, but in fact it has not been too difficult.

It is also partly the different environment here. In the City it did feel to an extent as though everyone was competing with eachother, so if you did have to give a presentation you could imagine that everyone was watching out for your mistakes, and that any questions they asked would be simply to make them look good for asking a clever question (even better if it was such a clever question that the presenter couldn’t answer it…). Here I am in a much more supportive environment, where it doesn’t feel as though anyone is looking to criticise, in fact they could almost have been willing me on to do a good job.

I didn't take this job in order to face challenges (in fact if I'd known how challenging it would be I may have turned it down). But now I'm in this situation I'm enjoying it, and definitely feeling a stronger person for it. Sometimes it really is worth making those big changes in life, no matter how scary they seem.

More on the status thing

To continue the thread of yesterday’s post, I have been having a lot of conversations with my colleagues here about money and status, and the effect those have on daily life.

It seems that the job I have given them has raised their status quite considerably, but with that has come equally raised obligations to their family and friends – the number of whom rises in line with their perceived wealth. Overseas travel is the key, not only demonstrating their new social position but bringing with it the expectation from all around that they will return each time laden with gifts for everyone. Apparently in the past there was even an allowance paid to those travelling on business to cover this expense!

One colleague told me that since he started travelling in this job he has been approached by several family members with requests for money, motorbikes, etc. I look back and remember various Africans I have known asking me at some point for money, my reaction always being great sadness that someone I had thought of as a friend had turned out not to be a friend at all, but to be only after my money. But now I realise that I completely misunderstood the situation. It is the African way. If you have money (or power), not only do you spend it conspicuously but you also share some of it out with those around you.

It’s not a tradition which helps Africa very much, I don’t think. It means, for example, that those poor souls who risk their lives to get to Europe, spend the money they have earned, when they return, partly on a big house (demonstrating their wealth) and partly on hand-outs to family and friends (sharing it out). But rarely if ever on starting a business (thereby creating jobs and helping in the development of their country).

It also means that those reaching a position of power are obliged to share some of the benefits of that power with their family, friends and community. What we in the West would see as an abuse of position, even as corruption. As a colleague explained, someone getting a position in government who did not use his position to benefit his community would probably never be able to return to live in that community in the future. Hence the tribalism in African politics – ‘democracy’ does not mean the opportunity to vote for someone whose ideas you support, but for someone who can direct some benefit towards your village/tribe/ethnic group.

I know some of my colleagues find it surprising and hard to understand when they are denied the use of a company vehicle and driver for a weekend family wedding. They don’t see anything wrong with it, as that is the way African society works. I can see their point of view, and I can see why the Western approach might seem hard-hearted and cold. However I can also see the similarity between that and the use of junior government posts for a minister’s family and friends, and how much easier it is to prevent any such behaviour rather than to try to draw a line somewhere along the spectrum.

I remember when I first moved to Dakar how one colleague would sometimes invite me to join him for lunch in the office. We have a scheme where you can pay a monthly amount to eat lunch for that month, which I don’t take part in because I am not there often enough to get value-for-money. But I accepted the colleague’s invitation a couple of times, until I realised that he was not paying anything for me to eat there – he was offering me a lunch that was not his to give me. Still, nine months later, I have not managed to get him to understand why I no longer accept his invitations.


I’ve thought further about this post, however, since I began to write it. About the fact that I would definitely take the opportunity to visit a diamond mine should I visit my new friend’s country (see yesterday’s post), but that by doing so I would of course be encouraging (and benefiting from) exactly the sort of behaviour I have been criticising here.

Life is complicated sometimes!

Status

My life here really is SO strange. I have just finished lunch (guinea fowl with a bottle of Bergerac) with a government minister from a southern African country, and this evening I will be dining with him, another minister and an ambassador from another African country.

How did that come about? Well, really, from the fact that I am a white female. The female part of that answer I think is universal, but the other part perhaps requires elaboration. In their way, Africans are actually far more conscious of skin colour than most white people are. They are also far more concerned by one’s status in society – and the general assumption that white people are educated and wealthy means we automatically slot into the upper echelons of society.

Hence at breakfast this morning I was not that surprised when the man who spoke to me from a nearby table (“excusez-moi madame, vous êtes allemande?”) turned out to be a government minister. But he was charming and interesting, so I agreed to meet him for lunch. He tried to persuade me to visit his country and promised me that if I did he would introduce me to all sorts of appropriate people who could show me around (and when I cheekily asked if it would be possible to visit a diamond mine I was assured that it would be arranged…). Maybe next summer?

The Africa I am most interested in is the Africa that exists for the vast majority of its population – poor, rural Africa, with its traditional animist beliefs, masked dances, music, etc. But in Africa one cannot really choose which section of society to associate with. That comes automatically with one’s perceived status, which these days derives from one’s apparent wealth. Success (and therefore happiness) is measured in terms of material wealth; everyone strives to make more money and to spend that money conspicuously so as to demonstrate their success to everyone around.

There seems to be no resentment of wealth in others, merely a determination to get there oneself. Earlier this week I sat in on a TV recording of a music show, with griots (praise-singers) from around West Africa and an audience of women in the most amazing shiny, glittery boubous, high heels and over-the-top gold jewellery. The type of outfit that to me seems quite obscene in a poor West African country (some of those jewels could feed an entire village for a year). & as is the done thing at such events, several members of the audience went on stage and showered money at the singers. Sometimes a single large denomination note placed into the hand, sometimes a whole wad of smaller denomination notes thrown one-by-one into the air in time with the music. There is even a verb to describe the ostentatious giving-away of money in this way – “faroter” – which I think originates from the Ivory Coast where it is applied more often to the nouveau riche like footballers and pop-stars who apparently sometimes throw money into the air around them whilst dancing at night-clubs.

& the poor here don’t resent such behaviour. They just want to be in the position to behave like that themselves. They cannot begin to understand why anyone who could afford to take a taxi, for example, would choose to use public transport. Or why someone who could afford an embroidered shirt might feel more comfortable in an old T-shirt. Hence they struggle somewhat to deal with foreigners like me. Last week, for example, I spent a day visiting several of our development projects in small Malian villages. I was hoping that lunch might be a freshly-cooked lump of goat at a roadside stall, but of course that was not considered suitable for someone of my status so I was driven instead for nearly an hour to the nearest town so that I could eat chicken and chips in a proper restaurant.

It affects everything you do. Try to sit down with everyone else on an old bench in a village (or with my friends in the Medina in Dakar) and immediately someone will rush forward with a chair. Try to join in the attempt to move something dusty and someone will run to get you a cloth. I remember a holiday in Ethiopia several years back, when every time I got on a bus I was moved to the window seat at the front. I’ve previously put such things down purely to hospitality but now I realise that it is far more complex than that; the same level of hospitality is not given to everyone. It is nice but at the same time it can frustrate any attempts to join in with the local people – and for someone not used to it it can be rather embarrassing.

But I can’t deny that it does present opportunities that one would not get in the West, such as today’s lunch.

Youssou N'dour

Finally I got to see Youssou N’dour in concert in Senegal, in fact I managed to see him twice in one evening. I’m not actually a great fan, never keen on high male voices, but he is hugely popular with the Senegalese, and I’d read so many times how much better he is in concert than on record, especially when playing to his home fans, so this was high on my list of things to do in Senegal.

He has his own club, Thiossane, not far from where I live, where he plays when he is in town. But he never seems to be in town, so when I heard on Sunday that he was playing a special acoustic set at ‘Just 4 U’ that evening, I knew I had to go, despite the outrageously high ($42) ticket price and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be getting to bed until the early hours of Monday morning.

Strangely, however, as I walked to the club several hours early to claim my reserved place, I could hear Youssou N’dour singing, and sure enough as I walked past a sports ground complex, I could see inside a stage with musicians on. As the concert was already well in progress entry was now free (in other words those manning the gate had now gone inside to watch the concert…) so I went in. This was Youssou in his element, I suppose, playing to an audience of urban youth (back-to-front baseball caps, baggy low-rise trousers, etc) who were singing along and dancing to the galloping mbalax beat in that uniquely Senegalese way – all bendy legs and thrusting groins – hilarious to watch and nearly impossible to copy.

I enjoyed it, but wasn’t yet converted. For that surely I needed the intimacy of the forthcoming acoustic performance at Just 4 U, from my allocated table less than 5 metres from the stage, although given the ticket price there was a risk that the very select audience would be made up just of those who could pay rather than his true fans.

I’m still not converted. He came on stage looking like a middle-aged bank manager, with his short hair, glasses and ordinary clothes, and for me the performance did nothing to inspire. Thankfully it was enlivened by a previously unannounced ‘special guest’ – Baaba Maal, a man with oodles of charisma who for me made the evening worthwhile. Although not from a griot (praise-singer) family, Baaba appeared to be singing the praises of Youssou N’dour in the traditional griot style, which went down very well with the audience. Mansour Seck also had a guest slot.

The other high point though was watching the hangers-on – a coterie of self-important men in big shiny bou-bous, high-fiving eachother and beaming at the audience with puffed-up pride when Youssou raised his hand to acknowledge them at one point. In fact the whole event seemed to degenerate into a kind of self-congratulatory love-in as various people got up on stage to jam with the band and sing Youssou’s praises whilst others ostentatiously pressed money into his hand. Unfortunately I think some parallels can probably be drawn between the behaviour of the audience at this event and the behaviour of the ruling elites in Africa generally…

Parrots

It has been a difficult, tiring and frustrating few weeks. Not Senegal, but my job – working hard to complete things within the deadlines only to find colleagues have not done the same. So next week I go off for an assignment in Mali, having to use work programmes that are only half complete, as compared to the lucky colleague in Bolivia who can rely on my work programme which I finished, not just within the deadline, but a week early so as to give colleagues the opportunity to review it and suggest improvements (not that any of them bothered).

I know, I vowed not to talk about work on here, but it’s been hard to think about much else recently.

However, my spirits have been kept from falling too low by the Senegalese wildlife.

Every morning I am woken by a village indigobird – a little glossy blue-black bird with a broad white bill and coral-coloured legs. He comes to the security grill over my bedroom window and chirps at his reflection (the bedrooms have reflective glass to deter prying guards), then when he gets no response he hops onto the window-sill and pecks at the glass. Usually he comes just after 7am, then roughly every half-hour during the first part of the morning.

A couple of times recently he has been joined by a variable sunbird – a tiny, delicate little thing with a lemon-coloured belly and an iridescent blue-green head and purple bib. They can’t see me through the glass so I can put my nose right up to the window to watch them. What a pity I don’t have the right kind of camera lens to photograph something that close!

Yesterday a different kind of wildlife caught my attention – a spider. I detest spiders, but this was only a little one, with a stripy body, and it was clearly stalking a fly – a bluebottle, larger than the spider. I stopped to watch, as the spider slowly crept closer. Then when it got to about three inches away, it suddenly jumped onto the fly, and after a bit of a tussle proceeded to drag the fly away, presumably to eat later. Apparently some spiders inject a poison into their prey to paralyse them, so that they stay immobile (and fresh!) until the spider is ready to eat. A shame that such fascinating creatures should repulse me so much.

Then this afternoon, at work, I went into the kitchen to get a drink only to see three Senegal Parrots clinging to the security grill on the window. The photo to the left isn’t one of mine, but I searched the net to find one to put here so as to show how beautiful these birds are. I must have stood motionless in that kitchen for ten minutes just staring at them, hardly able to believe that they were there.

Moments like this remind me how lucky I am to be living in Africa.

Football à la Senegalaise

I’ve come to realise that I’m at my most frustrated here when I try to do English things, and at my happiest when I do Senegalese things. One example of this is cooking. I spent a recent evening going through my recipe books trying to find something I could cook for people here, but virtually every recipe I have includes ingredients I can’t get (mushrooms, lamb, salmon, peaches, spinach). Or they involve using the grill, and I am still waiting for the part that will make my grill work, only eight months after the cooker was purchased. Far better to just eat mangoes.

Another example is watching football. I would like to be able to break my addiction to Manchester United for a few years, but with the gorgeous, talented Cristiano Ronaldo playing for the team I keep getting drawn back in. I have investigated purchasing my own satellite dish and decoder so as to tune into the South African channel, DStv, which shows all the English games – but just the set-up cost is over $1,000, before you even think about your monthly subscription.

So last week I tried one of the ‘free English premiership football on-line’ websites: a one-off fee of $15 and I could watch as much football (and news, and films) as I liked on my laptop anywhere in the world. There had to be a catch at that price, but it seemed worth a try.

The catch is that it doesn’t work. I signed up just before a game, and spent the whole of the first half downloading various bits of software (no doubt full of spyware and adware, but thankfully work have reasonable firewalls on our machines). Then I spent most of the second half trying to connect to the channel it was supposed to be on, finally getting the message ‘channel currently off-line’.

So this Sunday I trekked into town, to my friends in the Medina with their communal satellite connection. But the advertised Manchester derby wasn’t being shown, and no-one quite knew why. I have since discovered (thank you BBC website) that the contract for Africa has been awarded to a different broadcaster this year, a company broadcasting in just four countries in East Africa. So the hundreds of millions of us who live in the other 44 (?) African countries have to go without. That doesn’t seem like great marketing by the FA, but I suppose there is so little money here that they’re not all that interested in us.

Anyway, with no football to watch on the TV my friends invited me to go and see a live match with them. I was in for a very interesting, enjoyable and Senegalese afternoon!

A few blocks away we came to the Stade Ibramar Diop, where a game between two Dakar suburbs was scheduled for the afternoon. We quickly bought our tickets, but then had to join the queue to get into the stadium. I must admit I didn’t know Africans could queue, so this was quite an experience. It wasn’t anything like an English queue, but more a long human snake – everyone single file pressed up against the person in front, arms forward holding the waist of the person two ahead to maintain your position as the snake seemingly writhed from side to side. Wish I could post a picture but it didn't seem a sensible place to get out a camera.

As we got near the front, the policemen there decided there was too much pushing, so they waded in with the batons flying, and we all scattered pretty quickly. But my friends (all the time looking after me very diligently) pushed me back in as the queue reformed and then we were through, into the stadium.

The next stage was to get into a section of the stand, and my friends pushed me up the steps towards the first entrance. Here we faced a different type of uniformed officer, this time using their belts to keep back the crowd. Again my friends pushed me forward, seeming to think that the officers wouldn’t hit a white woman. I guess they were right, but all the time I was waiting for the officials to tell me to ‘get back immediately’ in Wolof, which I don’t understand a word of…

Inside the stand, I waited for my friends, when suddenly a crowd of people came in, and I just managed to avoid being pushed down a flight of stairs. I clung to the rail for safety, until my friends urged me forward again, and we let the momentum of the crowd draw us into the stand where we found a place to sit. Not like an English stadium, with numbered seats, but like the continental grounds (such as the Nou Camp and the San Siro) with tiered rows of concrete you can squeeze many fans onto.

I would like to say I enjoyed watching the game. But to be honest I couldn’t concentrate on it at all. Behind us in the stand was a massed band of drummers, that kept up a series of complex rhythms throughout the afternoon, accompanied by various chants/songs, and I felt far more as though I were at a concert than a football match. I asked if it didn’t distract the players, but was told it was normal and that it inspired them to play better. It certainly made for a superb atmosphere!

Finally it came to an end and we left the stadium with rather more ease than we had entered it. Then a group of shouting men rushed down the street, and people turned to watch as it seemed as though a fight was about to break out. One man appeared to have got himself cornered until he picked up a piece of rock and threw it at the surrounding crowd, which then parted for his escape. My friends told me people often get a bit fired up after a game and it wasn’t unusual for the police to fire tear gas into the crowds. Perhaps I should have been grateful after all that the match ended as a 0-0 draw.

Rat's revenge

Well I thought my rats-in-the-roof story was over. The decay process seems to have finished (the stain is drying out and the smell has gone) and I only have to wait now for the painters to cover up the evidence.

But then Saturday morning I got up to find the floors of the house covered with maggots, probably some 100-200 of them. I eventually traced them to a tiny hole in the ceiling quite close to the stain. They were wriggling through the hole, one after another, and dropping onto my hall floor ready to go off and explore the house. I watched them wriggling through for quite a while, horrified yet somehow fascinated. Thank goodness that hole was not above my bed…

Gloria helped me clear them up, and we put a bucket under the hole to catch the new ones, but I still kept finding more maggots as the day went on, appearing from behind various bits of furniture. You know what it’s like when you know there is (or may be) something in the room, that every time you move your head you seem to catch movement out of the corner of your eye – well it was like that, only nine times out of ten it was movement, and was a maggot wriggling stealthily along the skirting board.

Now we have got rid of them all, I think. Though I suppose it is inevitable that some will have found a safe hiding place, so I will suffer a plague of flies one day this week when they all mature.

On a brighter note, the start of the rains has been accompanied by huge numbers of big, beautiful butterflies which flit around the plants in my courtyard all day.

Oh, and I have five jars of home-made mango jam in my fridge: chopped up mangoes with some sugar and a squeeze of lemon, all boiled up in a pan for 15-20 minutes until the mixture reaches the consistency of jam. Easy, and delicious!

A death in the house

Oh, do I feel bad right now.

I reported my rat problem to work. They were dismissive at first, assuring me it was only cats, but when I brought someone round to hear the squeaking they agreed that I had rats.

However, rather than spend money on ‘dératisation’ (the French language can be great sometimes!) they decided to deal with the problem themselves. The roof was inspected and three entry holes found, and these were blocked with pieces of foam, which I was told should do the trick.

Over the weekend, however, I could still hear plenty of movement above my head; it seemed they had broken their way through the foam and got back into the roof. We would need dératisation after all. Work was busy today and I forgot to raise the issue. But when I got home my maid was waiting for me, to tell me the bad news. On the ceiling, along the join between two panels (just inside the largest of the blocked entry holes), was a foot-long reddish brown stain, and despite having had all the doors and windows open all afternoon, there was a foul smell of decaying flesh in the house.

The openings into the roof were still blocked, and some poor creature(s) had spent three days trapped in a hot roof without water, slowly dying of thirst. I had only wanted to deny the rats their play-space, so that their noise wouldn’t keep me awake at night, but in fact I had indirectly caused dreadful suffering and slow death.

It is at times like this when I envy those with a religious faith. How I wish I had someone I could apologise to for this, to whom I could somehow make amends and then be forgiven.

But as I sit out in my courtyard straining to write this by the dying evening light (we only get electricity for some 6 hours a day now, and never in the evenings) I am being bitten to pieces. If I have just caught malaria it will be no more than I deserve.

Bats and rats

I must say I was happy to get back here from England (even though I sit writing this by candlelight as we suffer yet another powercut). This time it wasn’t so much the excessive consumerism that bothered me, as it was last time, but the excessive drinking.

The Africans I have met drink very little alcohol, in some cases because they are Moslems, in some cases because they are Catholics (which I admit I don’t understand – isn’t drinking wine an intrinsic part of the Catholic mass?), and in other cases because they are just not part of a culture where alcohol is a big part of life. I admit that I enjoyed all that I drank in the UK (thank you Howard for sharing your last bottle of 1966 Chateau Talbot!), although I suffered for it a few times having lost some of my tolerance. However I was embarrassed, in front of my colleagues from Africa and other foreign parts, at how big a part alcohol plays in our culture – it seems to be a vital part of everyday life in the UK now. I was also embarrassed when we walked past people hanging round outside the bars and clubs at night, clearly the worse for drink. I’ve never seen that in Africa.


I came home to Dakar to find a fridge bursting with mangoes, and no matter how fast I eat them (two with my morning yoghurt, two for lunch, one stir-fried with my dinner…) their number continues to grow. At least ten fall into my courtyard every day – in fact, right on cue, I just heard another crash to the ground outside. They are also attracting big fruit bats to the trees, which squabble over them noisily, and a number of birds, but there are more than enough for us all to share. If anyone reading this knows how to make mango chutney/mango jam/dried mango pieces the advice will be appreciated!

Once the rains come, apparently the mango season will end. The clouds seem to get thicker, and greyer, and more oppressive, every day, but so far the only rain has been a couple of short-lived storms in the night. (just heard another mango – must go out collecting if the lights come back on) The heat is building, not so much through high temperatures but through high humidity, and hopefully some rain will clear the air a little. (oh, another mango….) I do have air conditioning in my house, but I know how environmentally damaging it is so even when there is electricity I am trying to get used to the heat. After all, not that many Senegalese can afford air conditioning in their homes but they still manage to sleep, and to function during the day.

Oh, and now I can hear a scratching above my head – which means the animals in my roof have woken up for their night-time games. For six months I have fondly imagined them to be cats (or rather less fondly when they keep me awake…), but yesterday I heard a kind of rasping squeaking noise, definitely not the sound of a cat, and I fear that they may actually be rats. Whatever they are, something in the roof above the corner of my study is attractive to them, and they constantly scratch at it. The ceilings are metal, so they could not scratch a hole (could they?), but nevertheless I now have in my head a rather alarming image of a whole extended family of rats falling into the room. Time to sign off and shut the door behind me, I think!

Summer school

The past week has been about as far from ‘Louise in Senegal’ as you can get, but a week at an Open University summer school is so far removed from normal life that it has to be worth describing here.

Several people seem to think these weeks must consist of a continual orgy, whilst my friend Garry asked me if it would be full of ‘sandal-wearing beardy-weirdies’. The answer to those questions is no, but the second does have an element of truth.

Some of the students do not really have the capacity, confidence or the social skills to attend a regular university (the 45-year-old man still living with his parents, those with physical disabilities or mental illnesses), others are mulling a mid-life career change (the taxi driver wanting to teach science, the accountant with vague ideas about wanting to save the environment…), many are finally catching up with the further education they missed due to early marriage and motherhood, and others are keeping their minds active in retirement. Increasingly now, they are joined by younger people who have realised that getting their degree from the OU allows them the opportunity to get work experience at the same time and to avoid the enormous debts of other students.

The varied backgrounds, and the lack of experience of formal learning of some, can make for great group discussions as people bring a totally different perspective to things with some off-the-wall (but by no means stupid) responses to questions. The tutors are equally varied; I spent part of yesterday evening in a quite surreal voluntary session on Evolution, where a real life mad professor rambled on about Darwin’s wife and house, and anteaters (wish I could remember quite how he got on to that subject!) and hardly mentioned evolution at all. He finally listed the four principles which drive evolution, which, if I’ve remembered them correctly are
• limited resources (insufficient for all individuals to be able to survive)
• competition between individuals for those resources
• variability in the characteristics of different individuals meaning that some are more able to adapt and survive
• heritability of some of those characteristics
When he finished, someone sitting near me (I admit it – a sandal-wearing beardy-weirdy) put his hand up to ask “What about ants?”

Actually it was not a bad question (as of course ants do not compete, nor often have variable characteristics, but work together as a team to support the queen and her offspring) but by this time most of us were struggling to suppress our giggles so the room erupted into a series of snorts and splutters as most of us tried desperately to maintain some semblence of being mature adults.

Actually many students regress during these summer schools to their late teens anyway, staying up until the early hours drinking cheap beer in the student bar with a bunch of almost-strangers. I have to admit I have been really boring this time, avoiding all of that socialising as I still remember how exhausted I was by the end of my previous summer school. Indeed I am typing this whilst my fellow students are living it up at the final night student disco.

Bankers

I returned from Guinea Bissua to find some bank statements had finally arrived from my Senegalese bank - from the past three months. There were all sorts of strange charges on there, and as I had decided to investigate getting a local credit card, I thought a trip to the bank was in order.

First, the charges. 'AGIOS' is a quarterly charge ($4), payable apparently for the privilege of having a bank account.

'Frais compact douze electron' is a monthly charge ($7), payable for having a cash withdrawal card. I pointed out that they had been charging me this since January, whilst I only had the card from the end of April, but apparently the card had been sitting in the bank for a few months before they gave it to me so I had to pay.

'Frais abonnement Sogeb@se' is a monthly charge ($5) for internet banking. I pointed out that I do not have internet banking, but it turns out that I have to pay for it anyway. So I asked them to set it up, and signed a form for receipt of a sealed envelope. When I got back to my office and opened it there was a form inside saying 'welcome to internet banking - please go to your branch to collect your password'.

Finally, I asked about a credit card. I knew by this time that the charges would be enormous but had suffered enough with carrying large wads of cash around West Africa to pay hotel bills (two thefts so far - one from a hotel safe). But even so I was unprepared for the response. In order to open a credit card I would need to deposit $10,000 into an account, which would remain blocked (and pay no interest) for as long as I have the card. I declined the offer.

Tonight I fly back to the UK, and I just hope that during my couple of weeks there I do not hear any complaints about the way British banks treat their customers.

Three weeks in Guinea Bissau

Guinea Bissau didn’t feel like Africa. The capital, Bissau, was like a part of Portugal, full of low level villas with red-tiled roofs. Except that I can’t imagine such a run-down town anywhere in Europe. The second city, Bafatà, was similar but even more run-down, seemingly two-thirds of the way towards becoming a ghost town. More than half of the buildings were empty, and in this hot, damp climate the deterioration sets in fast, with black mould growing up the walls and vegetation colonising any holes. The roads had more potholes than tarmac, and a couple of petrol pumps had rusted away to stumps.

I’m hoping someone from UNESCO will turn up here soon to give them World Heritage status, or that a far-sighted millionaire will buy a few blocks and do them up, because they are beautiful towns. Bafatà, especially, could attract so many tourists. Not just with the delapidated Portuguese colonial houses but also the deserted outdoor swimming pool with its terraces overlooking the river, the old statues of both Guinean and Portuguese heroes (now surrounded by goats and pigs snuffling around in the weeds) and the river itself next to the empty market-place, now with the occasional fisherman in a traditional pirogue but formerly serving a sizeable trading port, apparently,

In the countryside the Portuguese influence was not apparent, but here I felt I could have been in Belize, seeing mile after mile of cashew trees. Off the coast is the Bijagos Archipelago, some 80 islands of white sand beaches and palm trees, where I saw flamingos on the sand banks between them although unfortunately not the dolphins, manatees and saltwater hippos that live in the water. One day this will be as developed as the Caribbean is now. Only the villages were obviously African, with their traditional mud-walled houses roofed with dried palm leaves.

I hope someone discovers Guinea Bissau soon and starts off its development into a tourist haven, because their economy needs something. 88% of the population live on less than $1 a day. Most people are illiterate. Under-five mortality is over 20%.

It would be unfair to blame the Portuguese, but it cannot help that when the country got its independence in 1974 only 2% of the population were literate and there was already a substantial national debt. Then the 1998 civil war frightened off the few foreigners who had invested there, and since then the government’s lack of money has meant an inability to invest in anything, or even to pay many civil servants, such as teachers, who responded by going on strike a few years ago with the result that there was no school at all for a whole year. How does a government raise money when no-one earns enough to pay any tax?

I’m not surprised when I see poverty in the Sahelian countries; having holidayed in Mauritania, Mali, Sudan and Djibouti I am used to seeing hardship in the harsh, bare environments of the desert fringes. But Guinea Bissau is so lush and green – certainly at this time of year the trees are dripping with cashew fruit and mangoes – and I have eaten so many prawns and oysters, that it does feel in some ways like a land of plenty. But the population are so uneducated that they really have no idea as to what to do in order to move forward. I saw a small mill (for grinding grains) that had been constructed for one community, but after only a couple of years it was covered in dust and harbouring a wasp nest, the villagers looking at us in despair but seemingly unable to grasp the concept of maintenance despite extensive training. & I was told that there was once a project to provide solar panels for a few villages, but within a short time someone had dismantled them so as to sell the copper wiring inside.

One thing I did not see any sign of was the drugs trade, but apparently Guinea Bissau is turning into a major conduit for drugs travelling from South America to Europe, its offshore islands impossible to police for a state with no resources. & now there are suggestions that at least some of the police/army/government are involved. There have been two seizures of drugs in the past year, each with a street value of more than 10% of Guinea Bissau’s GDP, but the drugs from the most recent seizure mysteriously vanished.

A bigger problem, perhaps, is a legal drug – cashew wine. At this time of year you can smell the fermenting cashew fruit as you travel through the villages, and I do wonder whether this contributes to the lack of progress in the country? I can’t help but compare it to Belize, where the fruit is made into delicious juice or jam, adding an additional income to that the farmers make from selling the nuts. I did ask whether it was possible to get cashew jam but was told the Guinea Bissauans ‘don’t know how to make it’. But then again there is no-one in the country, apart from a handful of expats and government ministers, who would have the money to buy it, so why bother?

Overall though an attractive and laid-back place that I enjoyed visiting. With great beetles.
 

Time out in Toubakouta


I decided that the few days’ rest I was due from work could be well spent amongst the mangrove creeks of the Siné-Saloum delta, a few hours south of Dakar. My guide-book recommended Keur Bamboung, a little campement on the Isle de Sipo run by an association of villagers as part of their management of the Protected Marine Area of which it is part. A bit more expensive than the backpacker haunts I am used to staying at, but justifiable as all profits go towards the running of the Marine Area, including patrols by local former fisherman to ensure that no-one fishes there.

The area operates above all as a safe haven for young fish, which can hide from predators amongst the roots of the mangrove trees. Fish stocks in Senegal are now dangerously low (fishing being the country’s number one economic activity following big price falls for agricultural products), such that there are few adult fish left and so the fishermen are now catching the young, before they have even reached sexual maturity and thus before they can reproduce. The Marine Protected Area was established in 2003, after a couple of years spent familiarising local communities with the problems and the need for this protection. Already a couple of dozen species which had been fished out have reappeared, the mangroves are flourishing (now villagers understand how important it is not to cut them down) and the salinity of the water in the creeks is reducing (thanks to the mangroves which take in salt through their roots).

Thus I didn’t get the seafood feast I would have liked – but in every other way (including the food) my stay there was wonderful.

I was the only tourist there, this being the low season, so I had the full-time attention of one of the camp guides. I suppose this did have its down-side (listening to him tell me repeatedly, ‘from his heart’ how much he loved me and how he would wait – for decades if necessary – until I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be with him) but he was a good guide. The scenery is actually quite varied, so our walks took us through savannah, mud-flats, forest, and on one memorable walk, knee-deep in water through some of the narrow creeks between the mangroves.

We saw warthogs, monkeys, a mongoose, plus – and this sample of the birds I saw is specially for Nick, to whom it should mean something – blue breasted kingfishers, Western grey plantain-eaters, Senegal thick-knees, yellow-crowned gonoleks, a cardinal woodpecker, double-spurred francolins, green wood-hoopoes and Bruce’s green pigeons (or yellow-bellied fruit pigeons if working from an old bird book). But it certainly isn’t necessary to be a bird-lover to have fun there. I also swam in the lagoon in front of the campement, took out a canoe for a while one morning, and slept like a log for four nights as there is only the lights from the stars and the occasional cry of a hyena to keep you awake.

Some of the stories the guide told me were interesting too. He pointed out a baobab tree covered with fruit. This is normally eaten (or made into a juice), but this particular baobab was the home of bad spirits so nobody would go near it. I asked how the people knew that the bad spirits resided in that particular tree, and was told it was because sometimes at night the tree glowed. Apparently bad spirits often live in trees – and sometimes when people sheltered under a big tree during thunderstorms they would be killed – burnt by the spirits.

Whilst not wanting to argue with someone’s beliefs, I had to explain that lightning always strikes the tallest thing around, and so sheltering under the biggest tree was dangerous. I mentioned the lightning conductors found on tall buildings. The guide was fascinated, saying he had seen the antenna on tall building but never knew their purpose. Unfortunately he took this give-and-take of information between us as a further sign that we were meant for eachother.


I also paid a bit extra one day to take a trip to the Isle aux Oiseaux. This was a couple of hours away in a launch, past pelicans, cormorants, ospreys and flamingos, and accompanied for a short time by a school of dolphins. To me it was an incredible place, although probably only one for the bird-lovers. It is a pretty flat island, covered with a succulent plant some 3-4 inches tall, with a few mangroves on one side and sandy beaches all around. It is also the nesting ground for thousands of gulls and terns, and this is the nesting season.

To my surprise, my guide took me right across the island, through the middle of the nesting ground. We stepped carefully to avoid treading on any of the nests or the young chicks, while an angry mob of adult birds wheeled around our heads screaming at us. I did feel a bit strange being there – worried that our presence might disturb the birds, especially when the guide picked up a few of the chicks so that I could take a closer look – but he was a guide so I suppose it must have been okay. I was also a bit worried some of the adults might actually attack us, especially as the caspian terns had wicked-looking beaks, but they didn’t – again, I suppose the guide knew what he was doing.

The power of the fetish?

I was feeling quite smug to have left Togo when I did, when I was told this afternoon that the office generator there packed up last weekend and that they have had no electricity all week. But then I got home to find I have no electricity either. Apparently it went off this morning and no-one knows when it will come back on. I’m sitting here drafting this using my laptop’s battery, with a candle beside me.

We have reached ‘power cut season’, apparently. I’m wondering now how well-sealed my freezer is. If I wake up tomorrow to find the electricity back on, how will I know whether my fresh prawns, fish fillets and ice cream stayed frozen, or thawed out and then re-froze? & just how dangerous are re-frozen prawns?


Well, to continue the story, the electricity is back on. I checked on the ice-cream, to find a thick frozen layer had appeared under the ice-cream at the bottom of the tub, which on investigation seems to be most of the flavour from out of the ice-cream. Oh well, every cloud has a silver lining: if it’s no longer good enough to serve to visitors I shall just have to eat it all up myself – and it will go quite well with the huge mound of mangoes I have from my trees!

Some bookshelves have arrived at the house, so I spent a few happy hours unpacking three boxes full of books – just in time, it turned out, for the front room to be looking at its best so far for a visit from the owner of the house, with an architect in tow. They had come to inspect the widening crack that I asked, two months ago, to be dealt with.

After a lot of scraping and prodding, we found out that the front part of the house is not properly built, the crack (and other smaller ones) being caused by the walls splitting apart under the weight of the roof. As this will eventually cause the front of the house to collapse, the owner agreed that it would have to be fixed – a week’s solid building work (I guess that means two weeks…) with attendant dust and disruption. Apparently I will have to pack up and move everything from the front room while they do the work. Just as well I still have the book boxes, I suppose. The architect said he suspected there were no foundations either, but as the house is only single storey that’s apparently not an enormous problem.

But it left me wondering – does the identification and rectification of this fault with the house mean that my fetish is doing its stuff??

Home again

My maid asked me if it was nice to be ‘home’ after a month away. Is this home? A team-member in Togo was missing his wife and daughters and looking forward to getting back to them. But I can’t say there was that much here for me to rush back to. & given the amount of travelling I will have to do in this job I wonder if I will ever spend enough time here for it to really become a home.

What makes a home anyway? For many people it is family, but with no husband or children, and having never lived near either of my parents, that has never been a factor for me. Having your own things around you? Well, yes, in the past that seemed important, but here, living in a house provided by my employer, with furniture provided by my employer, it is less of an issue. & many of those personal things (my books, for example) are still in boxes anyway as I do not yet have a full complement of furniture. I don’t feel attached enough to the place to want to spend lots of money on beautiful expensive curtains, etc – not only would it be wasted against the basic furniture but it seems pointless when I am away so much.

Also, the lack of privacy makes it feel less like a real home. Already since I have been back this week the joiner has been in to take back the coffee table he made me (the wood wasn’t ready and it has warped badly since he delivered it a week or so ago), a handyman has been in to work out how to repair the door lock that has broken, a colleague has been in to supervise the joiner and handyman, and of course my maid and guards are a permanent fixture.

Maybe a home depends to some extent – in a wider way – of being in a place where you have friends? I don’t really have any here yet, not real friends. Partly that is because of the language difficulties, partly because I’m away a lot, but partly because of the way the men behave.

I’ve never had that many women friends, not because I don’t like women – I do – but just because in my life (City job, football fan, no children, etc) I didn’t meet many women. The same applies here, but whereas in the UK it was quite easy to establish platonic relationships with men (well, maybe not easy, but certainly possible), here it seems harder. I’ve thought a couple of friendships were starting up, but all too soon (in one instance within a few hours) the text messages arrive telling me how he misses me, how he can’t sleep for thinking about me, how he loves me… So irritating when they don’t yet really know anything about me and clearly have no basis whatsoever from which to spout such rubbish. Is it just the exoticism of a woman with different coloured skin that they find so appealing? I try not to think that they may somehow think I offer money, or at least a more comfortable lifestyle. But I haven’t yet learnt how to get beyond that barrier (or where to go to meet women) and until I do I think friendships will remain only as those old ones maintained over the internet.

Do I sound sad? I’m not, just reflective. A product, perhaps, of sitting here alone rather than being out having fun with friends!

One of the things I found time to do in Togo was to buy some African fabric and visit a tailor recommended by the office, and as a result I now have a very West African style outfit – a long, fitted skirt and top in a bright green, blue and yellow print. Everyone in our office dresses up in their best traditional robes on Fridays (ostensibly because it’s the day they visit the mosque, but I’m sure many of them don’t go anywhere near the mosque). I’ve been asked a couple of times where are my ‘Friday clothes’, so today I decided to try out my new African outfit.

Surprisingly I felt quite comfortable in it, not at all like I was on the way to a fancy dress party, as I had expected. But in any case it would have been worth it. My colleagues were thrilled, and even a couple of strangers in the street gave me the thumbs up. I can’t see myself wearing it everyday, as it is quite hot, and the long skirt would make it difficult if not impossible to climb into some of the vehicles used for public transport here. But I definitely have to find myself a tailor in Dakar, and get a few more outfits made for Fridays.

I also brought back a small stone fetish, bought in the Fetish Market in Lomé, that will supposedly protect my house against thieves and damage. We had a little ceremony with the fetish priest when I bought it – nothing terribly exotic, just repeating my name out loud and clapping my hands together when told – and I have to either put a cigarette into its mouth or two drops of alcohol onto its head once a year to ensure that it continues to protect me.


I placed it on the bookshelf and put two drops of lemon-flavoured vodka on its head (I hope it likes vodka). Later when Gloria (my Catholic maid) was around I thought I had better say something, as I anticipated her disapproval. I started to explain that I had bought something from Togo that she might have noticed and she interrupted, “Oui, le fetiche!” – she said it was a really good thing that I had it as it was important to protect the house, and this was the traditional African way. Apparently the bit of bamboo in my courtyard has similar protective qualities.

To go to Togo

Silly title, but irresistible.

Lomé may be a capital city, but it does a good impression of a sprawling urban village. Admittedly there are a few large banks and ministries, plus a 37-storey 1970’s hotel, but it mostly comprises single storey buildings and it still has a relaxed vibe.

A lack of investment for decades means the railway system has shut down, industries have collapsed and basic services no longer operate. Driving round at night, most of the city is either dark or lit by candles, as ageing generating equipment means the country can produce only 10% of its electricity needs, and the previous solution of buying power from Ghana has not been working for the last six months as Ghana's hydroelectric dams are nearly empty and so not even producing enough for the Ghanaians. We arrived on the Sunday, and it was Thursday before we had a few hours of electricity other than that from the hotel or office generator. Telecommunications are also poor (it took me half-an-hour to get a telephone connection to Dakar), and water supplies seem to come and go; some days in the office we were flushing the toilet from rainwater collected in buckets.

72% of the population live on less than $1 a day. & unlike most countries with such high needs, there is very little aid. The EU withdrew all aid many years ago, followed soon after by the World Bank, because of the lack of democracy and concerns about human rights. Very few NGOs operate here either, putting a lot of pressure on my own organisation to meet the needs of the communities where we work.

Gnassingbe Eyadema had been president for 38 years until his death in 2005. He was succeeded by his son, who initially imposed even further restrictions on the freedoms of the Togolese. Increasingly violent protests led him to relent, however, and negotiations have started with the EU to restart aid, although this depends upon a number of conditions being met. Parliamentary elections scheduled for next month should help considerably, but with only a third of births registered, there is no reliable population data on which to base an electoral roll, so there is some doubt amongst those I spoke to as to whether elections are possible at this time. But there is still some hope that things will get better.

Things that should be simple all seem difficult here. Our attempts one evening to get a taxi to a restaurant led initially to a situation typical in African cities, where a taxi driver claims to know where your destination is but then drives around aimlessly, pausing every so often to ask people, unsuccessfully, for directions. Of course no taxi driver wants to turn down a fare, but eventually ours had to accept that he had no idea where our restaurant was, and that it didn’t help when we gave him the address as he didn’t know any of the street names either. So we paid him and got out to look for another taxi.

None had heard of the restaurant nor the street it was in, so we decided in the next one to give directions from the map in my guide book. This, however, resulted in our taking one turning rather late, and suddenly a policeman was standing in our path pointing his gun straight at the driver. After a very slow few seconds we stopped. The policeman, still pointing his gun at the driver, approached, and started shouting at him. We didn’t really understand what was being said, although at one point, spotting his audience of foreigners in the car, the policeman asked us if it was a good thing to drive straight towards a policeman. “Non, c’est pas bon”, we chorused, repeatedly, as he basked in the attention. Whilst our driver searched around for his papers the policeman decided to chat to the two blondes in the back seat. He soon realised that we were not native French speakers, and he tried out, “Good evening, how are you?”, and when we answered him in English he laughed delightedly and suddenly the tension was broken. Our driver was taken away for a short time but returned smiling – we could only assume the ‘fine’ was smaller than he had feared – and we continued on our way. The restaurant turned out to be a boarded-up shell, that looked as though it had closed down many years ago.

I visited some of the countryside around Lomé, including a 6am pirogue trip on Lac Togo to see the fisherman, and that was where I first encountered the signs of voodoo – a ‘sacred forest’ beside the lake and fetishes outside several of the houses in the Togoville village, old chicken feathers and palm oil evidencing recent ceremonial sacrifices. Whilst many Togolese now follow Islam or Christianity, the traditional animist beliefs have not died.

So back in Lomé I found a spare hour to visit the Akodessewa Fetish Market, supposedly the biggest in West Africa. A fetish is any object imbued with some of the sacred power of the voodoo spirits. Fetishers, with their special spiritual powers, are intermediaries between the spirits and the people, and can use their powers to create fetishes, often used by believers as medicines or protective talismans. The market was full of stalls displaying the ingredients used by the fetishers, and behind them the little rooms where they make their diagnoses (the picture actually shows me holding a dead snake, but perhaps a dog's head would have been more visible in the photo...).

The ingredients on show were all from animals: dead snakes, bats, owls and chameleons; porcupine quills; hippopotamus and elephant bones; and decaying dried heads of monkeys, chimpanzees, crocodiles, vultures, big cats, etc. They assured me that they didn’t kill any animals but merely collected up dead ones. I wonder. Apparently the remains can be ground up to use in various potions. The smell wasn’t too bad but it was quite an astonishing sight. Cat and horse lovers shouldn’t look at the photos at some of the ingredients on display below if you are easily upset.

A week in Accra

I've been in Ghana for a week interviewing candidates for my department (only to be told yesterday that they've cut my budget so I can't offer a job to any of them...)

Tuesday was a public holiday. I worked for most of the day on training programmes for staff I now won't be able to recruit (okay you get the picture - I'm rather unhappy about this), but then took a wonder along the street from the hotel, to the old British colonial sector, Jamestown. It was such a lively place - very poor, but the poverty hasn't stopped a number of people buying enormous sets of speakers, which were blasting out reggae and rap to people who were actually dancing in the street.

I noticed a sign advertising the Champion's League game to be shown on TV Wednesday evening and thought it would be a great place to watch it. Two weeks ago I watched the first leg with my friends in the Medina district of Dakar, with some 150 of us crammed into a tiny space creating an absolutely superb atmosphere. But I thought I had better check with colleagues here as to whether it was safe to go there at night. Particularly as there would be very little light around given the power cuts here (lack of rainfall meaning the hydroelectric dams are mostly inoperative and electricity is now rationed, even in the capital, to every other day). How sad to be told that there was no way I could go there safely after dark. That there was a high likelihood of being mugged, and that if I carried no valuables I could be physically harmed in retaliation for having nothing of value to those trying to mug me.

Tomorrow I travel to Togo, where I will be for three weeks. I will probably not be able to post anything here, as there are real connectivity problems in that country right now. The only internet provider, Togo Telecom, currently has only 2MB of bandwidth for the whole of Togo!

So, in the absence of anything particularly interesting to say, this seems like a good opportunity to show a little of my home in Dakar - the courtyard and the kitchen.

Being blonde

Oh my goodness. The day I had dreaded arrived at last – the day my roots needed doing.

I’ve had my hair highlighted blonde since I was 17. In many ways I would love to go natural, as I dislike looking artificial in other ways; I never wear make-up, rarely wear jewellery, and prefer simple clothes. So over the last few years my hairdresser in the UK had listened to the repeated phrase “not too blonde, please”, and gradually – so gradually that you didn’t notice it – my hair was getting darker. I’m not sure that I would ever have ditched the highlights completely, as I was accustomed to being a blonde, and it’s true, blondes are treated differently. But as someone who tans easily, and had reached middle age, I had an intense fear of ending up looking like Donatella Versace. My hairdresser had responded brilliantly – dear Tony, who has done my hair for more than twenty years.

But Tony was no ordinary colourist - he had risen over those twenty years to be head of colour for Vidal Sassoon UK.

So I knew I was in for some disappointment over here. In fact, I nearly chickened out of getting it done at all this time around – although it was three months since it was last done, my hair looked ok, a combination I suppose of the gradually darkening highlights and the effect of the sun on the roots. I could have waited until my conference in the UK in July and gone back to Tony. But I knew there would come a time when I would need to have it done here, and I had spotted a clean, modern place, with a French woman doing hair colour, so decided to bite the bullet.

Oh dear.

I have managed not to cry so far since it was done. I tell myself that the Senegalese don’t understand ‘natural’ anyway. Their women straighten, lengthen, colour, tease, braid and goodness-knows-what-else their hair. They glue on artificial nails, wear exotically coloured robes, layer on the gold jewellery, and totter around on glittery, jewel-encrusted high-heeled shoes. So they will probably think my pale apricot-coloured hair looks great.

I suppose this isn’t a tale of ‘louiseinsenegal’ as it could easily have happened in a suburb of London. But when she asked if I wanted the roots done the same colour, it was easier to just say ‘oui’ than to try to find the French words to explain that I wanted them the same colour as the hair next to them, ie with little silvery-blonde streaks. But even without the language differences she must have known that I didn’t want horizontal blonde stripes above my ears? When she spotted me examining them with a concerned look, she immediately offered to cover them up – but I made the assumption that the stuff she was applying was a darker colour, whereas in fact it was more bleach, so now I have two completely bleached-out areas at my temples, which in a bad light look like bald patches. & goodness knows what it will look like once the roots start to grow through.

To be fair, she knocked $20 off the price as she knew I wasn’t happy, and she told me it will be better next time as now she understands what I want. But I think much of tomorrow will be spent seeking out hats or scarves (or perhaps a wig??), and poor Tony is going to have a hell of a repair job on his hands when I go back to the UK for a conference in July…

To cheer myself up, here's a photo (from Kenya) of another African bird with funny hair.