Nearing the end of my time back in the UK. Not sure if I was lucky or unlucky to catch the first cold weather of this winter - I hate the cold, but a light coating of snow looked so pretty (and gave me the chance to try out my new digital camera!).

Being back has given me a chance to buy some of the things I have been struggling to find in Dakar. However I was surprised at how overwhelming I found the amount of choice available in the shops here. I've only been away from it for six weeks (although I was never a great fan of shopping), but already it seems slightly obscene that there is just so much here; in Dakar I couldn't find a single quilt to fit a king-size bed, here in the UK there seem to be millions. Maybe one day the world's resources will be spread rather more fairly and there will be limited choice in both locations.

Moral dilemmas

As I am now in the UK for ten days of courses and meetings, I will not have much cause to write about my life in Senegal. However it does give me time for reflection. Time to think about life there and how it compares to life in the UK.

One difference I have been thinking about is the practice of employing maids. I was offered recommendations for maids from the first day I arrived, and finally gave in earlier this month and took over the services of a maid (Gloria) from a colleague who was departing Senegal. It didn’t come easily for me, something I could never have imagined myself doing and something I feel quite embarrassed about. No criticisms meant of friends who have maids, cleaners, etc, but it just isn’t me. It doesn’t fit in with my beliefs – those connotations of superiority and upper or upper middle class attitudes that I’d prefer to avoid (too posh to clean up my own mess?).

But here the attitudes are completely different. Everyone who can afford to have a maid does so, and indeed would be seen very negatively if they didn’t, the presumption being that they were too mean to pay for one. It is seen as an important way of sharing wealth – the ability to provide a job for another person (and probably supporting an extended family network on the wages). The other day I noticed the office guard, who cannot be at all well paid, sitting there whilst someone even less well-paid cleaned his shoes. There is just a different attitude here.

&, I must admit, I have appreciated the cleaning she has done. At this time of the year the harmattan wind blows in from the Sahara depositing a fine dust over everything. Not only does it almost blot out the Sun on bad days, and get in your eyes and nose, but it gets into the house under the doors and through the mosquito netting and very quickly everything is covered with it. You can sweep and dust one day and within 24 hours the place is dustier than my London flat would have been if left for months. Goodness knows how bad the place could get if I went off on a business trip for three weeks.

I also have concerns over my ability to be a good environmental citizen now I am in Dakar – for various reasons, but Gloria is one of them. She came on Saturday, as she was busy with her previous employer on Friday, so I got to see some of her work. I was surprised to see her scrubbing vigorously not only at the lounge floor (which I know she last cleaned only three days ago) but also at the flagstones in my yard. I don’t know for sure that the water she was using was hot, nor do I know which cleaning product caused the bubbles on its surface, but I know for sure that damage was being done to the environment.

Even if my French were up to explaining why I would like her to minimise her use of electricity, water and chemicals, I don’t know that the explanation would cross the cultural barrier. Gloria thinks that her job is to provide me with a sparkling clean house, and she is clearly proud of her work, which I must admit she does well. How can I tell her that I would rather have a few smears on the floor if that would reduce my contribution to global warming?

& if she did understand what I meant, how would she reconcile that to the number of flights I need to take to do my job??

I think I have convinced myself that I can live with the flying. On the one hand (unlike going on holiday), if I weren’t doing this job someone else would be, so I’m not adding to the total miles being flown. & on the other hand, I may, over time, be in a position to influence the amount of consideration given to the environmental impact of the development projects undertaken in my region (and maybe even globally?) – something which probably would not be done by someone else in my job. Or at least I will try, although I have to show that I can do the job in hand before I start extending it into new areas.

Exploring the nightlife

I didn't plan to have a late night this weekend, but when I went to bed Saturday night it was quickly clear that I had no hope of getting to sleep, as somewhere nearby was a very loud party.

I was pretty sure that Orchestra Baobab would be playing at Just4U, and had seen a sign earlier in the day that suggested that Cheikh Lo would be playing at Pen'Art (though it said 'ce soir' and at 10am that could well have been left over from the previous day), and as both were walkable from home thought now would be an excellent time to try one of them out. I really had no idea whether or not this part of Dakar was safe to wander around in at night, but there was a big bright moon so at least I wouldn't be in danger of tripping over, which would probably be the biggest risk on a dark night. It appears that each property is responsible for its own pavement area, which means the quality, style, cleanliness, even the existence, of paving varies every few yards. Some properties don't bother so there may be just sand, or piles of rubble, whereas others make a real effort and lay coloured mosaics and plant trees (though strangely in the working class Medina there seem to be regular, well-mainained pavements - perhaps the authorities are responsible there). It means that you have to constantly watch where you are stepping, and with the only artificial light coming from shop signs it would make walking around on a dark night quite difficult.

But back to the nightlife. As it is cold enough at this time of year to need a cardigan (or similar) once the sun goes down, I thought I would go to Just4U as this is outside (Pen'Art is indoors, and I didn't fancy dancing with my cardigan tied round my waist all night...). US$6 for entry, and US$2 for a coke, didn't seem a bad price to watch Orchestra Baobab live, whom I would happily have paid an awful lot more to see play live on one of their rare trips to London. The venue is an outdoor 'garden' with a small stage, chairs grouped around tables, two bars and I think a kitchen somewhere as I saw food being taken past. I noticed how many white people were there - probably more than I had seen up until then in the whole of Dakar, although still just about in a minority. I was talking to a Senegalese man later in the evening, who said he only went there very rarely, as it was so expensive - I guess that partly explains the racial mix.

I had enjoyed listening to my Pirates' Choice CD by Orchestra Baobab, and they played many songs from that. But extended, and in some cases made more Senegalese, for example by extended mbalax-style drumming, or in one case by a man from the audience who joined them on stage to add some griot-style singing to one track. Some people got up to dance, including a middle-aged man in black tie, a drunken man in a billowing blue boubou (the traditional Senegalese outfit), a woman in a glittery backless floor-length gown, and various other people in jeans. Such a great mixture! It was an excellent evening overall, and I will certainly go there again. Just such a shame that the Senegalese start their nights out so late; Orchestra Baobab came on stage about 1am and I got home at 4am. Not something I would do every weekend! (& the party near my house was still going when I got home...)

New Year Emotions

I didn't know whether to entitle this post 'malaria test', 'moving into my new house', 'tabaski' or 'new year', as all four titles would be relevant to this past weekend.

First came the high temperature, with aching joints in my neck and shoulders, slight headache and the overall weakness that comes with a temperature. My instinct would have been to stay in bed and let it pass, but of course in the tropics I know that such symptoms have to be taken seriously, and with one colleague already down with malaria I knew the risks. So a doctor was summoned, who asked the obvious questions and checked my temperature, blood pressure, etc, and referred me to the clinic for a blood test - a positive would mean malaria and a negative probably flu.

The clinic was clean and efficient (or at least it was clean until I was sick all over it) and within an hour I had my result - negative. I have to admit to being slightly disappointed! Not only because malaria would have been rather more exciting and glamorous than flu, but also because it would have justified calling out a doctor and having colleagues fussing all over me, which I now feel rather embarrassed about if all I was suffering from was flu. But in any case, I took the prescribed tablets and ampoules and was better within a couple of days.

During my illness, however, the time came to move into my new home. Very exciting, although a holiday weekend was perhaps not the best time to suddenly find myself alone in a very sparsely furnished house with no food in it. However I set about trying to making myself at home there. & now it has at least a little furniture in it I can see why I have been thinking of it as 'little'. The kitchen is not big enough for cooker, fridge and washing machine, so the fridge is in the dining room (and the dining table they have given me is too big so will have to go back). The spare bedroom which I am currently sleeping in looks to me to be too small to house a wardrobe as well as the bed, though we shall have to measure up. The only sizeable rooms are the bathroom and the lounge, but being east facing and with its only window looking onto a wall, the lounge is really dark and so I have not felt tempted to spend any time in there as yet. But colleagues tell me that as the hotter weather comes I shall be grateful for it.

To be honest it doesn't feel at all like a home as yet, but once I get some more furniture in, and when my stuff arrives from the UK - particularly my music! - it will have a bit more life and hopefully start to feel like mine. What I don't like much at the moment is the lack of privacy one gets from having a guard. The first time I used the kitchen I suddenly heard someone at the door - it was the guard, checking up as he had noticed the door ajar. & with my windows all at ground level and curtains only in the bedroom I was very aware of being visible to the guard as I wandered around in the evening. Worst of all though, is the fear that I may not be able to sunbathe in my own yard! Clearly the all-over tan will have to go, but I'm not even sure that I would be comfortable in a bikini in front of my uniformed guard. Will have to get advice from colleagues on that one!

On New Year's Eve I went out wandering and searching for food - and my goodness, what prices! US$6 for a lettuce!!? But we are out of season now for home-grown produce, and everything imported is expensive because of the duty. Still, I found a few tomatoes, onions, baguettes, etc, and even treated myself to a bottle of Senegalese wine, though had to drink it out of a mug as I haven't yet bought any glasses.

In my wanderings, I had just gone into the outskirts of the Medina (the big, old, working-class heart of the city) when I saw a blackboard, down a little alleyway, on which was written a few of the previous day's English Premiership football fixtures. I went down the alleyway to see what this meant, and blundered straight into an extended family Tabaski celebration - sheep heads and feet all over the place, women washing up and the men sitting around watching them (some things are the same all over the world...). I was immediately ushered in and offered a big plate of meat, and when I finally left a few hours later it was with the promise that I would be back the next day to watch the New Year's Premiership football on their family TV.

I had, I admit, been feeling a little lonely in my house up until then. Here I was alone in Africa, still not sure if I had done the right thing by taking this job and coming here, and with no-one to talk it over with. & I do find - always have - that when I feel a little below par in Africa I suddenly notice the poverty - no, not the poverty, actually it's the squalor of the place - and that brings me down even further, to a level below the way I ever feel in other parts of the world. But having gone low, it takes very little to bring me right back up again, and so it was here, my new-found friends putting a smile on my face and a spring in my step as I went home.

& so on New Year's Day (after an early night, still feeling tired after my dose of flu) I returned, and ate lunch and watched TV in the Medina. The TV was stood on an old crate on the sand, with a sheet of corrugated iron held up overhead to give shade, and a couple of wooden benches set up for the audience of assorted family and friends. Various wires and cables from the TV disappeared up above, one of which must have connected to the satellite dish on the roof, as the football was being shown on a South African TV channel (with English commentary!). Around us the family's children played and two tethered sheep munched on whatever bits of rubbish they could find.

I saw into a couple of rooms there, and they were TINY. Typically one wall was solid concrete and the other three were made from wooden boards; there was a bed taking up 90% of the space and a couple of bits of other furniture squeezed between the bed and the walls. I did use the toilet at one stage and this was of course just a hole in the ground in a screened off area. I guess there was a kitchen somewhere, although the preparation of the food and washing up afterwards all took place in big bowls out on the sand, beside the TV.

Lunch was a big communal metal bowl filled with rice and mutton, cooked in a tomato and chilli sauce - a little spicy for me, but quite nice. All day the men made Senegalese tea on a little burner, and I was also given cold bissap (a bright red sweet drink made from the hibiscus plant). Apart from the result (a draw against a team ravaged by injuries) I had a great day, and I suspect I will be back there on a regular basis. My only slight worry was whether I will be expected to invite any of them back to my place one day - the gulf between the size and quality of our homes is so enormous that I really don't want them to see where I live.