Shopping in the cold

Although I still have no idea what I will do with myself when my five year contract in Senegal is over, I am pretty sure I will not go back to live full-time in the UK. I’ve just had a week back there (for my OU exam, which went OK), and although it reminded me of how much I love London, I was cold the whole time, not just whilst outside walking in the streets but also in shops, in restaurants and even in friends’ houses. I always hated the cold, but now that my system has adjusted to living in a hot climate I find it almost unbearable – and this was just October, not the middle of winter.

It was, though, a wonderful opportunity to get a bit of culture. I saw my old friend Nuru Kane in concert in Reading (he was very surprised to hear that I am now living in his native Senegal!), and visited the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. The latter visit was in order to see the crack in the floor which I have heard so much about – it is impressive, and I love the symbolism of it. Apparently the artist often uses her work to represent her feelings about the dominance of the West over the developing world, and she feels that this dominance stemmed in part from the generation of power that underpinned the industrial revolution – so to put a giant crack in the floor of the turbine hall of a converted power station in the heart of London must be a wonderful feeling for her! I was impressed too by the Louise Bourgeois sculpture outside the gallery, although the symbolism of that (apparently giant maternal spiders represent the tensions she feels within her family) eluded me.

I also got to go shopping! I returned with eleven books, seven DVDs, lots of food (sun-dried tomatoes, biscuits, cheese, etc) and a load of stuff that is cheaper in the UK than in Senegal, ranging from a saucepan (less than $5!) to toothpaste.

Now that my OU studies are out of the way, I’m hoping I will actually have the time to read books and watch DVDs – as well as to go out and make some friends. I wouldn’t have missed the past year for the world, it has been such a marvellous opportunity, but it probably wouldn’t be accurate to say I’ve enjoyed it. It’s given me moments of pleasure, certainly, but I’ve just been too busy to really have had the leisure to enjoy it. I will be pretty busy over the next year too but without the added pressure of the study I think life will feel more relaxed.

The 26th day of Ramadan

For the last few weeks it has felt as though everything in Senegal is conspiring against my doing any revision at all for my OU exam next week.

October is the hottest month of the year here, and it really is SO hot. The BBC weather pages just show temperatures of around 35°C, and humidity of 50-60%, which is hot, yes, but not SO hot. It’s not just me though, everyone says it is hot. I went back to the house with a colleague the other day and when he left my maid Gloria explained why she had not appeared for a few minutes – it was so hot that she had been working with just her sarong tied round her waist, with nothing on top (as the women still do in the fields in Senegal but not so publicly in the towns), so had needed to run and hide in the garage and put some more clothes on before he saw her! & she is used to the heat here.

It is a strange feeling sitting at the table eating a meal while the sweat pours off your body – not just dripping off the end of your nose into your food but also running down your arms and legs. I’m trying to drink lots of water, but even if you stay healthy (which many don’t) you cannot avoid the tiredness that the humidity causes. I often wake up sweating in the night, too, and rarely feel as though I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

I do have air conditioning in a few rooms, but don’t like using it on environmental grounds. In any case we get power cuts all the time, both long cuts but also lots of short ones – for seconds only – and if I leave my air conditioning unit plugged in when I go to bed I get woken by it beeping every time the electricity comes back on. But last week it got so hot that I tried putting on the air conditioning in my lounge. Only to find that it just blows the warm air around but doesn’t reduce its temperature at all. & as it doesn’t face the seating area even that doesn’t help.

So on Friday I bought a big fan. But this is Senegal. By Saturday lunchtime it was no longer working.

Then Sunday lunchtime my electricity went off, the loose connection responsible only being repaired today (Wednesday). I know that the children in Guinea where we work go to the airport at night to study, as it is the only place where they can guarantee light, so I shouldn’t complain, really.

On Sunday it was illness, however, rather than heat or lack of light, that stopped my plans. I woke feeling fine but as soon as I tried to move I felt as though the room was spinning and lurching around me – like the worst roller-coaster ride you can imagine. I laid flat again and the feeling went away, but every time I moved my head it came back. It took over an hour just to slowly manoeuvre myself out of bed. It lasted all day and was really unpleasant, but left me with just a minor headache the next morning. I looked it up on the internet worried that I had some horrible tropical disease, but discovered I had been suffering from Benign Positional Vertigo. Apparently it can happen to anyone for no apparent reason, and indeed most people get an episode of it at least once in their life. I just hope it never recurs.

Finally (no, I still have a few days left here, something else can go wrong…) I went to bed last night hoping it would be cool enough to give me a good night’s sleep, only to be awakened by megaphones outside blasting out some very loud and very unmelodic Islamic singing. This was loud enough to drown out conversation, so I got up (in the dark – electricity not yet reconnected at that stage), threw on some clothes and went outside to investigate. I asked my guard what was happening. “C’est la Karem” (it’s the fast – Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month). “But it was the fast yesterday and there was no noise in the night?” “C’est le 26th jour de la Karem”. Ah, of course, the 26th day of Ramadan.

It was clear I was going to get no more of an explanation, but also no more sleep in my house that night, as some neighbours had erected a canopy across the street, and affixed speakers and megaphones all around it, and from the number of dressed up people who were arriving this was going to be a long affair. I looked at my watch and it was 12:50, so I went back indoors, collected my yoga mat (I always knew it would come in useful one day) and a pillow and the keys to my office. Sneaking round the back way – not wanting to offend my neighbours in their devotions – I made my way through crowds of people out on the streets, all dressed up, to get to my office, where I let myself in and slept fitfully on the floor until it got light and I could return home to wash.

Colleagues tell me that the 26th day (or night) of Ramadan is when the Koran was revealed. For Muslims it is therefore the most auspicious night of the year to pray, and many do so in large public gatherings such as that organised by my neighbour. It is probable that the religious singing outside my house would have continued until the call to prayer from the mosques took over at 5:30 this morning.

The OU provide a form for students to complete if something has happened to reduce their exam performance, but somehow I don’t think the 26th day of Ramadan will be on the list of allowable mitigating circumstances.