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.