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.


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.