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!


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 ĂȘtes 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…


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.