Making a house into a home

I was very excited to receive a phone call on Monday to tell me my stuff from the UK was ready to be delivered to me the next day. Tuesday morning I wandered around my little house, impatiently waiting for the lorry to arrive although also half resigned to the likelihood that it wouldn’t come at all. But it did come, and there were all my boxes, with a treasure trove of long-awaited contents.

Well, apart from the things I really shouldn’t have brought. Thick winter duvet? A guidebook of walks around London?? But also amongst it were my mini-hifi and my CDs, my photo albums, my books, a change of clothes at last, an easy-to-use corkscrew and my hammock. Bliss!

& later in the week the carpenter delivered a set of bookshelves and some kitchen cupboards, so there were even places to put some of the stuff, although most of the CDs and books still remain in their boxes. The hammock has had plenty of use already, as its delivery has coincided with a welcome clearing of the cloud cover and consequent rise in the daytime temperature from 23°C to 32°C. The corkscrew has also had some use…

In fact this afternoon I sat with a dainty little plate of spicy salami and a glass of shiraz as I watched the Tottenham v Bolton game on TV, feeling very civilised! I’ve started to feel a little more like my house is also my home, and therefore somewhere I should have some pride in. I finally found some material I like which they are to use to recover the horrible old sofa set I was given – a sunny yellow colour with little tortoise motifs in black, cream and rust. It looks very African and hopefully the bright colour will lift the room a little. I have vague ideas of large tribal wood-carvings and traditional cloths hanging on the walls, but all that will take some time as I have to wait until I visit the appropriate countries. I know you can buy Malian Bogolan cloth in Dakar but at several times the Malian price and anyway, I’d rather buy it in Mali. Must be careful not to get too acquisitive/materialistic about this though!

The channel showing the football is part of a free trial period I have been given for the local digital cable package. But we are one month into the two month trial and so far only two of the forty-odd channels actually work. The others come and go, with a few minutes of something watchable before the screen freezes or the picture deteriorates into dozens of little coloured squares. We have bought a longer aerial, and the technician has been three times so far to try to sort things out, but with no success. During the week I tried to wire up my video player that arrived with my shipment, but found that the digital cable company technician had used the video socket for one of his cables. I tried to trace the cable into the nest of wires that now sits behind the TV, only to find that it disappeared into a roll of sticky tape with two other cables, and that the single cable that came out the other side then went into a little box with lots of loose wires protruding from one side… At that point I gave up for fear of electrocuting myself.

Unfortunately though that is fairly typical of the way things (don’t) work here. Quality of workmanship is very low. A lovely man called Toumani is making much of my furniture (cheaper than buying it ready-made), having come recommended by several colleagues for the quality of his work. Yet now I have put a few things into the kitchen cabinets the door catches don’t work, as the weight of a few mugs and jars has pulled the hinges out of alignment. & one of the drawers in my dressing table won’t open. & one of the wardrobe doors has started to stick (sorry Mum – I know you don’t like me starting sentences with ‘and’).

The $20 chopping board I bought when I first moved into my house has already split in two. Most of the doors in the house don’t quite fit – in fact the back door ends so far above the floor that a mouse came in through the gap under it last week.

Even when you do find something nice and of reasonable quality, the service levels can disappoint. Last week I found three lamps I liked, and asked the shop to set them aside (and watched them do so) whilst I went into work to get approval for the purchase from my employer, who has to pay for them. The lamps were delivered Saturday morning, but one had the wrong base and another the wrong lampshade, so I had to spend time and money taking a taxi back to the shop with the lamps to exchange them for the ones I had ordered. & sure enough when I got to the shop there were the proper parts sat by the service desk. Apparently they had sent different ones because they thought I’d prefer them!!

I also have to get used to the digital clock on my mini-hifi constantly flashing “SU 00:00” at me, as the electricity cuts out for a few minutes at least a couple of times every day and I’ve given up re-setting it. Just as well I didn’t bother packing my electronic clock-radio!

It was election day in Senegal today and we were strongly advised by the head of our office to stay indoors in case of trouble. We have also been given the day off tomorrow, again in case of trouble. Certainly passions are running high, and I can hear lots of noise on the streets. It is hard to imagine Senegal suffering the sort of problems so many other African countries have, but I am aware that the current president’s private residence is only around the corner so I have taken heed of the warning, even though I would love to be out there investigating what is going in.

Generally the run-up to the election has had a bit of a party atmosphere, with the various groups of supporters wearing their candidates’ colours and making lots of noise – rather like groups of football supporters. There was a big fight between rival supporters earlier in the week, with several serious injuries, but in a country where alcohol is not much in evidence things don’t usually blow up into anything serious.

From what I can gather the incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, has a good chance of staying in power. His supporters point to all the improvements he has made such as the new roads, street lights and improved health facilities. But many people seem to blame the government for rises in the prices of a lot of basic goods such as rice, bread and gas, and some of Wade’s opponents claim they will lower such prices if they gain power. Many also feel that Wade, somewhere in his eighties, is too old to govern. Strangely it does not seem that the 60% unemployment rate is a factor in this election.

It is nice to see that the Senegalese take their right to vote so seriously. The voting process is very slow, but the TV news has shown voters patiently queuing for hours. Gloria told me the voting stations have a long table with fifteen piles of card, one pile for each candidate (all men...). Each card shows the photo and name of one candidate. The voter walks alongside the table and picks up one card from all fifteen piles, and then takes those cards into a private room. There they put the card for the candidate of their choice into an envelope, and throw the other fourteen cards into a bin. Such a waste of trees and ink, but I suppose it makes the process more accessible for the illiterate. The envelope is then taken back into the main room and deposited into a transparent sealed ballot box. The voter signs a register (if they are able to) and places their thumb onto a pad of dye, to prevent them from trying to vote a second time. But I have little doubt that whoever comes second will still complain of electoral fraud, that seems to be de rigueur these days.

The results will be announced on Friday, but with fifteen candidates I would have thought it unlikely that any one will get the 50%+ they need to win, so we will probably have to have another round of voting between the two who get the most votes this time. I wonder if the office manager will give us another day off?

Travels around Ghana

I have just returned from a week working in Ghana. Our country office is in Accra, which is where I started my week, but it turned out that most of the expenditure I was interested in was in our northern-most program area, in the Upper West district on the Burkina Faso border. As a result I spent much of the week in a Land Cruiser, travelling some 1,823km in total. The upside was that I saw so much of Ghana, from south to north, rainforest to savannah. The downside that my morning pick-ups from the various hotels have ranged between 5am and 8am. Plus we worked all day Saturday, the one day I had originally hoped to spend sight-seeing, and most days didn't finish until 9pm. Technically I should get three days off work to compensate for the weekend working and travel, etc, but I have so much to do that I doubt I can manage one day.

But it was a great opportunity to see Ghana. Particularly in the Upper West district, where I was taken to see irrigation projects and to speak to community members involved in the projects. It is a beautiful part of the country, but has rain for only three months of the year and virtually no sources of water for the rest of the time, so there is serious malnutrition, and seasonal migration, during the dry season. Our irrigation projects there are aimed at providing a water source to their communities throughout the year, which should provide food security and reduce migration. The results were clear to see – well into the dry season, the irrigated areas were green and full of crops, and the water outlets were surrounded by women collecting water for cooking and washing. I asked whether the water storage was likely to provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and was told that fish were being introduced into the water basins to prey on the mosquito larvae, and would also act as a further source of protein for the communities.
Another problem that had to be addressed was that crocodiles (of which we saw three) like to dig holes into mud banks, so the dam walls had to be faced with large stones to prevent them doing so. These sort of projects are very complicated – and I do wonder whether all of the environmental (and social?) implications are understood – but certainly in the short term the effects are very positive.

But the Ghana I saw was not just a land of poverty. The Senegalese are proud of Dakar’s prominence within West Africa – they see it as the capital of the region – but I find it hard to track down many of the things I need or want here, and was surprised to see them all on sale in the markets of Ghana. If there had been any time available to shop I would be carrying home avocados, digestive biscuits, porridge oats, an electric toothbrush, a CD rack…

I enjoyed flying via the Ivory Coast, too, which looked beautiful from the air. Around Abidjan it was lush and green, with lots of rivers or lagoons. There were also some wonderful palm tree plantations, with palms laid out in neat rows – looking from the air like fields of green stars.

I also took the opportunity to join the Air Ivoire frequent flyer scheme. I don’t have the opportunity to collect airmiles the way my colleagues do in regions served by better-known airlines, but thought I should sign up to what I can. With the starter card I get a newsletter, but if I do enough flights to move up to Ivory level, I will be entitled to “a privileged welcome at the Air Ivoire offices and reservations”. I can’t wait.


A pretty unexciting week has given me more time to reflect on the differences between life here and life in the UK.

One big difference concerns personal space. In terms of physical space, there is very little when you are with Senegalese people. Yesterday I visited my friends in the Medina to watch some TV – the Tottenham v Man Utd game followed by some traditional Senegalese wrestling. The women and children watched the wrestling indoors, whilst the men and I watched the football from benches outside. When it ended I went and joined the wrestling audience. I found a space on the bed and lounged with the others, and soon one of the hostesses was leaning against me, whilst one of the children rested her hand on my shin – both totally unconsciously, with no apology or acknowledgement as we would give in the UK.

When any Senegalese crosses a road with you they will take your arm or your hand; yesterday Gloria (my maid) walked with me to a shop she had recommended, and we seemed to spend most of the journey holding hands or in some way in physical contact. I rather like it, but it is very different from the way the British behave!

The same applies to the wider physical space of your home, it seems. On Monday while I was at work the carpenter delivered a dressing table to my bedroom. Tuesday someone else delivered a spare gas canister. Wednesday it was a delivery of air-conditioning units, on Thursday at 9pm a colleague appeared at my door with a TV technician to try to sort out my TV reception, and when I came home to get some lunch on Friday there was a carpenter repairing a crack in my front door. & of course all the time there is a guard at my gate, to whom I never really know how much to engage in conversation when he lets me in or out. I don’t usually want to have a conversation with my guard about where I am going or when I might be back, but I also don’t want to be rude, and I recognise that an eight-hour shift sitting at someone’s gate must be pretty boring and a few minutes’ conversation will be welcomed.

& of course there is Gloria, my maid. When I agreed to engage her I told her she should come two or three times a week, as she saw necessary. But she turns up nearly every day. Saturday morning I returned from buying some vegetables to find her already at work in the kitchen. She had already done four days this week, so I expressed some surprise at seeing her there on a Saturday. She told me the man might come again about my aerial, so she needed to be there to watch him and make sure he didn’t steal anything.

She also gave me a long lecture about the relationship between a maid and her employer. How it is her job, not mine, to buy vegetables. Her job, also, to wash the dishes, and to make my bed. She asked me to make a list each week of all the meals I will want, so she can work out what ingredients are needed and do the appropriate shopping (she gets very agitated about the fact that so many Senegalese charge higher prices to whites) – also if I tell her what time I want to eat then she will ensure the meal is ready at the appropriate time. Apparently I should be contented in the knowledge that she will look after my house and household needs in every way. & - a little strange this – if I will be around on a Saturday but have no specific work for her to do, I should call her and she will come and take me on walks to show me different parts of Dakar!

I’m still musing on how to respond. In some ways it would be lovely to be looked after in every way like that. My job is looking like it will be more and more demanding in the near future, plus I start French lessons next week and my Open University course materials have just appeared. But I treasure my freedom, my independence. I have for many years had to repress a shudder when friends have to phone home to tell a partner they will be late, or worse, have to turn down a last minute invitation because dinner will be waiting on the table. I love the freedom to do what I like, where I like, when I like – to not be answerable to anyone. But if I have to leave a list on a Monday morning of what I will want to eat on Thursday evening and at what time, I will have lost a lot of that freedom. & can you imagine if I had a man to stay overnight? My guard would know, my maid would know – enough to put anyone off!

I told my maid that her hard work, her high standards of cleanliness and her desire to look after me reminded me a lot of my mother – and suddenly I was enveloped in a big, long, hug. I think I shall have to play this one very carefully…