Happy holidays

Just back from a week in Niamey, uneventful except that the increasingly poor service of Air Senegal has left me feeling as though I haven’t slept all week. The journey there was delayed by eight hours (meaning I arrived at 4am), and the journey back by one and a half hours. Then on arrival back in Dakar at 1:30 this morning I had to wait another one and half hours until the luggage appeared. The excuse given seemed to relate to the arrival of another flight around the same time, although no other luggage arrived whilst we were waiting for ours.

Tomorrow morning I fly to Cape Verde for a two week holiday (much of which might be spent sleeping!), so the blog will be a little quiet.

Someone commented that I seem to get an awful lot of holiday, so I thought I had better explain how this has arisen.

The organisation I work for allows us to take a day’s compensatory leave for every weekend day we spend travelling or working overseas and every public holiday we miss through travel, plus one day for any trip of two weeks or more. It is very generous, although in practice (as it has to be taken within one month of the trip) it is often hard to take it given pressure of work. However this year my travels around Rwanda, Ghana and Guinea Bissau, plus the odd day of other trips, were all taken from compensatory leave.

This is a picture of a Senegal parrot, taken through my office window a couple of weeks ago:

Merry Christmas to everyone, by the way, and best wishes for 2009!

The spectacular Fouta Djalon

It was obvious that if I were to see any more of Guinea than its taxi stations, I would have to find a different way of travelling. The obvious solution was the "deplacement": charter of an entire taxi. It entailed paying the fare for each place in the vehicle - and even a regular-sized taxi (a normal car) will squeeze in six passengers.

So my money started to go six times as fast, and I finally started to see Guinea.

The first site of real interest was the Case de Palabre in Dalaba. This was constructed to hold certain ceremonies on Guinea's independence 50 years ago. It is built in traditional style (with baked mud) but elaborately decorated on the floor and walls with designs representing the 12 Fula chiefs who were present at the Independence ceremony. Apparently the ceiling had been equally spectacular, made of woven bamboo, but this collapsed a few years ago and has now been replaced with corrugated iron.

Indeed the whole building is crumbling away, as the current regime in Guinea has no interest in funding its maintenance. This is a real tragedy. Africa has very few buildings of historical significance (if one ignores the colonial legacy), and this one is also very beautiful. I shall do what I can (emails to UN, embassies) to try to pressure someone to get it preserved!

I also spent a few days walking in the hills around Dalaba, a pretty area but quite bizarrely featuring groves of pine trees - relics of a French colonial experiment 100 years ago. The scenery was nice and the villages were pretty.

From there I travelled into the heart of the Fouta Djalon, where a guide by the name of Hassan Bah is famous for leading visitors on spectacular treks near the village of Doucki. At first I did wonder if I had made the right decision, as the taxi drove further and further away from civilisation along a rough track up into nowhere. It was a harsh landscape (sometimes the track just bumped along over bare rock), made worse by the local custom of burning off any vegetation left after the rainy season, and I couldn't imagine - even if this guide was around - where one could even sleep or eat, let alone walk.

The taxi driver kept muttering about how far it was, but eventually we saw a little sign saying Doucki, and an even barer track led off to the left. As we arrived someone took my rucksack from me and motioned for me to sit in a wicker chair. Ten minutes later lunch arrived, and a man told me in English that a room was being made up for me and Hassan Bah would be along in a few minutes! He arrived, told me I must be dusty from my trip and that we would therfore go on a nice walk to a waterfall in the afternoon where I could clean up.

In fact we visited a couple of waterfalls, and a whole lot more. It turned out that not so far away from the road, on either side, were cliffs where the land dropped down into spectacular valleys. Also, less obvious, there were little pockets of vegetation here and there, some turning out to be tiny patches of jungle complete with lianas and monkeys, (and one with a grey eagle owl which flew onto a branch nearby, until it was finally chased away by two red-bellied paradise flycatchers), and there were great rock formations all around, including a wonderful slot canyon. The whole area was completely stunning - a truly wild and unspoilt place - and I spent a great couple of days hiking around it. I'm not sure what more to say about it to do it justice, so have attached rather a few more photos than normal. It was hard to photograph because of the strong sun and the haze from burning of vegetation, but hopefully these give some indication of the beauty and variety of the scenery there.
I also saw a big fat black scorpion near my feet whilst eating dinner, but I guess you all know what those look like!

Waiting for a ride

After finishing my work in Guinea, I took a few days to travel around the country, to see the Fouta Djalon region that people rate so highly. But I had forgotten how difficult it is to travel in this part of Africa, and my itinerary began to look way too optimistic.

On the first day I tried to get to the bus/taxi station early, to get the journey to Kankan, and from there to Dabola, over as quickly as possible. However no-one at my hotel was around, and my bill had to be prepared by hand, so I was late leaving. Then after a half-hour’s walk I finally got to the station a little after 7:30. The early taxi was already full and preparing to depart, and I was the first person in the queue for the next one. For those who have not travelled in this region I should explain that taxis (old Peugeots) usually operate on a fixed route basis, and the driver will not depart until all possible places have been filled. This means two (occasionally three) in the front passenger seat and four in the row behind, and lots of luggage on the roof.

If I have no fixed timetable I am quite good at dealing with this type of situation now. I know that I should choose a seat and put something (a cheap item of clothing) on it to save it, and then go and find a place in the shade to wait. There is no point asking what time the taxi will leave, no point in repeatedly looking at your watch – you just have to be patient.

I don’t tend to get out a book at such times as that would take me away from the place I am trying to experience. Instead I just sit and watch the life around: the women manning little stalls selling coffee, bread, oranges; the wandering salesmen with armfuls of men’s shirts, towels, steering wheel covers, fake perfumes, or whatever else they bought at the market earlier in the morning, hoping to make a small margin from those without the time or energy to go to the market; small children selling tissues, sweets and toothpaste; the occasional blind beggar with an obligatory small child to lead them around while they sing their prayers for alms; and assorted unemployed youths and women with babies on their backs passing through or hanging around. It is very entertaining, particularly if you enjoy looking at the women’s clothes and hairstyles.

Eventually there is movement in the taxi. My little rucksack on the roof is shoved aside to make room for big 50kg sacks of rice and bunches of plantains being loaded. The driver revs the engine and we start to get in. It is a tight fit as we all squeeze up, some of the women having to accommodate babies as well as more bunches of plantains and other packages.

Then the driver gets out and wanders off, followed soon after by most of the passengers. It was just one of those mysterious false starts that happen every so often, that I have never really understood. But it is at least usually the start of the departure process; usually we are gone within the next hour.

About an hour later we do set off. I squeeze my knees back into place and wedge my shirt against a sharp pointy bit in the seat back, to get as comfortable as possible. We back out of our parking place and go around the corner – where we stop. I think we may be getting some air put into the tyres. A couple of passengers wander off again. I get out to stretch my legs (one foot was already going numb), then jump back in quickly as the driver revs the engine and we go again. This time we drive back to our original parking place...

To cut a very long story short, we finally left at 13:00, and a journey that I had been advised should take three hours took six, so by the time I got to the first destination on my schedule it was already dark and therefore too late to actually see the place.

The next morning I was at the station by 6:00, as advised, by the driver didn’t even arrive until 7:00 and we did not reach our full complement of passengers until 11:00. We then had an hour of mechanical work on the car – and the second destination on my schedule went the same way as the first…

Exploring the Bijagos

I had forgotten what a lovely country Guinea Bissau is. After the hustle, bustle and hassle of Dakar, Bissau is a haven – like a little backwater village, where you can walk along nearly empty streets and no-one bothers you.

This time I went much further beyond the sleepy capital, and spent a week exploring some of the islands offshore. There are more than 80 islands in the Bijagos archipelago, some inhabited and cultivated, some sacred and left wild, and others designated as national parks. I visited six of them, in a hired boat with three other foreigners plus a captain and his mate.

We started on the island of Quere, a tiny dot too small to figure on the maps. It took around seven minutes to walk from one end to the other! A lovely white beach, blue-cheeked bee-eaters wheeling around catching dragonflies and butterflies, and a comfortable lodge serving delicious freshly caught fish (we saw them being pulled from the sea!) – two nights there was not really enough, but there were more islands to visit.

Next was Orango. This is part of one of two national parks in the archipelago, protected because it is home to the only population of hippos in the world which are adapted to tolerate seawater. We duly organised a trip to see the hippos, unfortunately not in the sea this time but in their more usual haunt, deep in a swamp in the middle of the island. It was a bit of an adventure to get there, wading thigh-deep through the mangrove creeks, walking through head-high grass which released itchy seeds onto your skin, then back into water when we got to the swamp.

Suddenly they were there, snorting noisily in front of us, and the guide told us to climb quickly into the trees as they didn’t like people on their territory. I climbed awkwardly into a tree, to find it home to a number of biting ants, and I peered through the leaves at the occasional hippo head being raised out of the water. Eventually we got down and walked back, one member of our group finding a leech on her ankle as she came out of the water, and all of us with ant bites to go with the mosquito bites we already had.

On the way back to our boat we were taken on a long detour, into another swampy area, where we were told we may see crocodiles. I must say I was quite pleased that we didn’t, given that we were in their water! We did, however, see lots of birds – sacred ibis, herons, spoonbills, geese, etc.

After Orango we journeyed to the furthest island in the entire archipelago, in the other national park, this one primarily designed to protect nesting turtles. Poilao is sacred to the Bijagans; no Bijagan women are allowed there, no permanent construction is allowed, and no visiting men are allowed to shed any blood of any creature. For this reason, perhaps, the turtles come there in their thousands – 30,000 laying their eggs there each year.

We were near the end of the season, but still saw six or seven adult females on the beach, laying their eggs and then dragging themselves across the sand and rocks back to the sea. It looks like such hard work for them, but I suppose it is at least over in a couple of hours, unlike the 24 hours + that so many human females go through!

We also saw some of the young hatching. It can take them 3-4 days to climb through the sand out of the nest, and then they face the dangerous journey across the beach to the sea – a lot safer when tourists are there watching as this keeps the predators away.

In addition to the turtles, we saw another impressive creature on Poilao – a great bittern! This type of bird, normally found hiding in reeds, has never before been recorded in Guinea Bissau according to my bird book, so goodness knows what it was doing there. But due to their habit of freezing, rather than running or flying away, when danger is near, it was very easy to get a close look so there was no doubt as to its identity.

By this stage there were no hotels, so we camped on the sand near the beach, eating tinned sardines and rice that we had brought with us, and washing in seawater.

This was followed by another night under canvas (this time with freshly caught fish for dinner!), at the neighbouring island of Meio. Meio is also in the national park, and so is also uninhabited – and was the most beautiful of all the places we visited. I wanted to stay another night (or maybe another week). But the decision was made to move on – so far each island had been more beautiful than the last – and we made our way to Canhabaque.

This was indeed beautiful, with a white sandy beach that seemed to go on for ever, but unfortunately we could not find anywhere suitable to camp, so we moved on to Bubaque. Here there was a great site for camping, but at low tide the beach became an endless series of mudflats, and a number of sting rays lurking in the shallows put me off my swim even when I made it across the mud to the water. It was still lovely to sleep out for another night though, and I was sad to be going back to civilisation the next day (a day earlier than planned as the legislative elections due on our last day were for some reason accompanied by a travel curfew).

So we waved goodbye to our boat and its crew, shook the sand from our tents, and climbed aboard the public ferry back to the mainland. We realised how chilled out we had become in our week away when the boat got stuck on a sandbank half-an-hour outside Bissau. We didn’t worry, we didn’t complain, we just ordered another glass of wine from the bar and danced to the drums being played by some of the other passengers for the four hours it took for the water to rise and float us free.

Mum in Mombasa

A meeting in Nairobi was a wonderful opportunity to sneak in a quick visit to my Mum in her new home near Mombasa.

She and Chapati married in April, but I hadn't seen them since last year, nor had I seen the house they had built and moved into a few months ago.

I could only manage a short visit, but that was enough to see how happy they are. Isn't it wonderful that someone who reached retirement age thinking that all the good bits of her life were well behind her can, two years later, be blissfully happy in a completely new life. Living in a new country, with a new man (a kind, gentle - and good-looking - young man at that), she has found her little corner of paradise.

Visit to Vienna

Whilst the saga of the suitcase was still ongoing, I managed a quick trip to Europe. The UK was mostly administrative (dentist, vaccinations, bank, letting agent, etc) although I did get to visit my Dad and his family on the Isle of Wight for a couple of days. After I had arranged the dates (and ordered train tickets) for that trip my current favourite musicians, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, decided to announce a concert in London for one of the days I was away. Of course I was not going to cancel a visit to my Dad for a concert, but it was hugely frustrating as I have been trying and failing for two years now to see them play live. However, I was to get my reward as they played in Dakar last week (and were excellent – worth the wait!).

I also had a four-day holiday in Vienna, to visit my friends Janette and Axel. This was my first time in Vienna, and I was very impressed. There is so much interesting architecture, both old and new, classical and modern, as well as a lot of greenery around the outskirts of the city. I spent a lot of time walking – from sites as varied as palaces to vineyards – and also spent an evening at the ballet (a superb performance of Onegin) which was such a treat as there is no such ‘high-end’ culture here in West Africa. I even put on some mascara and lipstick for the occasion, something I haven’t done since I moved out to Senegal!

My favourite sites in Vienna had to be the Hundertwasser buildings. This is a photo of a waste incineration plant he designed. I’m not generally into bright colours, but this just works so well – and his residential buildings are wonderfully curvy and organic, not dissimilar to some of Gaudi’s designs.

Back in Dakar the hot humid weather continues. Everyone is on a short fuse, as shown by the behaviour of the mobs who attacked some of the state electricity company’s offices a couple of weeks ago. The power cuts get worse and worse, not just that they are frequent but also because they are so unpredictable. When the power goes you never know whether it will be off for hours or whether it will be back on again in five minutes – and if it does come back on it could just as likely go again ten minutes later. A day after those attacks the national football team could only draw at home to The Gambia, thus failing to qualify for the next round of some competition – and the result again was a rampaging mob, this time destroying the offices of the national football federation and throwing rocks at passers-by. I will be glad when the winds change, bringing dry weather in off the desert – that should ease tensions a little.

My suitcase, battered but home

Thankfully the contents appear to be intact.

Another luggage update...

My suitcase has just, more than a month after going missing, been located (again) - it is still in Conakry! Only apparently it is now damaged, partially crushed by some airport machinery.

I have been told it will be on the Air Senegal flight tonight to Dakar, which means I will need to go to the airport tomorrow (yet again) to see if it has arrived. Air Senegal have confirmed that the damage was their fault and they will offer some compensation. What I don't yet know is whether the case still has any contents left...

Still no luggage

Just to say that I still don't have my luggage, if you were wondering. According to colleagues in Guinea, it was sent from Conakry to Dakar on Saturday. But I spent two hours in Dakar airport yesterday morning, and it definitely isn't here. & in two hours I am off to London, so will have to decide whether to spend time trying to find replacements there for things that may turn up again in a few weeks' time.

Whatever I decide is bound to be wrong.

More on queueing

Chaos at the airport this morning!

We were double the usual number for the Air Ivoire flight VU 821, as half of us had been booked on yesterday's cancelled flight. So when someone walked along the length of the queue with luggage tags, and told everyone very clearly exactly what information to write on them, it was clear to me that not all of the luggage - and perhaps not all of the people - were going to get on the plane.

The luggage wasn't a problem for me of course, as I don't have any... however I really needed to get on the flight myself.

I realised then that small groups of people were starting to leave their place in the queue and make their way towards somewhere at the front. I alerted the man next to me, who bustled off to investigate. Soon half the queue had gone to 'investigate', voices were raised, and the whole place descended into chaos as it became clear that people with 'friends' in the airport were queue-jumping.

Sensing problems, Air Ivoire opened a couple of counters, and whilst everyone else continued to shout at eachother I went quietly to the desk and checked in.

None of us were in a good mood by this stage. The previous day we had arrived at the airport at 05:00, but it wasn't until 10:00 that they finally admitted to us that the flight was cancelled due to a technical problem with the plane.

Then they had bussed us to various hotels. Mine was the 'Hotel Barcelone", complete with FC Barcelona sheets on the beds, and bathroom taps in the shape of a bird, the water spouting from the beak. However the room was hot and sticky, with no air conditioning, no window, a TV that didn't work, no electricity in my bathroom (meaning no hot water), lots of mosquitoes, and a cockroach in my bed. To cap it all, after a restless night being bitten by all the mozzies (my insect repellant being in my suitcase somewhere in West Africa but not here...), I braced myself for a cold shower only to find no water at all in the morning.

I was one of the lucky ones today who made it onto the plane. So I got to Abidjan. At that point, the 90% of us on the plane who had missed yesterday's onward connection needed to make new arrangements at the transit desk. Cue another session of pushing, shoving, cajoling and sneaking, in what ended up as an almighty scrum. Whilst I somehow got to the front in quite good time, the pressure of all those shouting people, thrusting their documents under the noses of the Air Ivoire staff, meant that quite a few mistakes were made. I suffered from one of them, as a result of which I am writing this from a hotel in Abidjan, awaiting another opportunity tomorrow afternoon to continue my journey to Ouagadougou.

The more I see of Africa the more attached I become to the British art of queueing. In fact I would go as far as to say that an orderly queue represents the height of civilisation, demonstrating respect both for rules and for fellow human beings. Unfortunately Africa has yet to develop these qualities.

The scourge of corruption

Corruption is a big issue in Cameroon, and just about everyone I met there complained to me about it. Unfortunately though, it has become so entrenched in ordinary life that even those who complain about it are part of the corrupt system.

Whilst I was enjoying my hedgehog in the hotel restaurant the waiter came along to chat. He raised the usual complaints against corruption but then remembered his job and asked if I was enjoying my meal. He asked if hedgehog was also protected in my country.


Yes, apparently I was half-way through eating a protected animal. Horrified, I asked how come I had been served it – was this a farmed hedgehog?

No, it wasn’t. Apparently the hotel sourced their protected animals from hunters in local villages, but it was ‘no problem’, since this was a government-owned hotel so no-one would dare complain.

Everyone, including those who complain about the corruption, will always take any opportunity they can find to ‘beat the system’, as is clearly apparent, in almost all African countries, in the attitude to queuing. A queue is seen as an open invitation to show your strength/power/initiative. Some just brazenly walk to the front, usually either the big women with their voluminous boubous billowing behind them, or the ‘big’ men with their self-important briefcases and designer sunglasses. More commonly people sidle alongside the queue, striking up a random conversation with a stranger near the front, or they just hang around until they can somehow blend into the line.

Even after two years out here I still object strongly to such antics, and no-one jumps in front of me! I use my elbows, I complain loudly, I shuffle along two inches behind the person in front leaving no space for intruders – anything, in fact, to protect my place in the line. Not that it helps, of course, as usually they just go further ahead and push in front of someone more accommodating, but it is a principle that I will not let go. What has surprised me though is that I am usually the only person objecting to such behaviour. To me there is little hope of stopping corruption whilst Africans continue to accept, even admire, such petty rule-breaking.

One guy here in Cameroon told me a great story about corruption. A neighbour of his was travelling east to visit his daughter. She had met a man and fallen in love, and she wanted her father to meet her new man, and perhaps give his permission for the couple to marry. Even in a modern family where the daughters are allowed to move away from home for work, the most important achievement for women is a good marriage and the production of heirs, so the neighbour was trying to hide his excitement and pride – and relief – at this turn of events.

He set off on the long journey, taking with him a bundle of plantains and a big healthy cockerel – the former he feared he may lose on the road, but he was hoping to present both for his daughter to cook a celebratory meal. He was also, like all travellers, carrying a collection of small change. At the various roadblocks he handed over this small change, and then as he had half expected he was asked to submit the plantains for inspection. He handed them over.

At that point the cockerel cried out, and the young man inspecting the plantains looked up with interest. He would have to inspect the cockerel too. This was too much for the father-in-law-to-be, who protested and said it was a gift for his daughter and her young man, that they were to be married and he couldn’t go empty-handed. The ‘negotiations’ went on for quite some time, but it became clear that the cockerel would have to be handed over too.

Sad, angry and rather embarrassed, the neighbour arrived rather later than hoped at his daughter’s home. He apologised profusely for arriving empty-handed and they both lamented their country’s sad decline into the mire of corruption. The prospective son-in-law was also late, but finally they heard a motorbike horn hooting outside the gate, and he drove in.

He had a big smile on his face; he had had a successful day at work. On the back of his bike was a bundle of plantains and a big healthy cockerel…

Still waiting for the luggage

Well nearly a week has gone by since my suitcase went missing, and once again I phoned the lost luggage office in Abidjan today to ask for news. The response was that they had not found the case and I should try phoning again in a week. I asked whether it was still in Conakry and if so what was the problem, and was told they have no idea if it is in Conakry, they do not even have any phone numbers for anyone in Conakry... Clearly they are simply sitting there in Abidjan (probably still playing computer games as they were last week) waiting for my case to turn up. & as the case has a luggage tag with the destination Conakry there is of course no reason why it should ever turn up in Abidjan.

In despair I have emailed a couple of colleagues in my Dakar office to see if they can make any more progress than I am. I can just envisage my case sitting lonely and dusty in a corner of Conakry airport, by now emptied of all desirable contents. Oh maybe I should not be so negative but the response I have been getting does not encourage hope.

I have purchased the very bare necessities to keep me going (toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo, comb and four cheap Tshirts off the market). No-one here knows that I am still wearing the same socks and underwear but I probably cannot continue with them for another ten days until I go home!

I'm trying to forget about it and focus on my work here but my mind keeps going back to what is in my suitcase. If the case is never found I can do without the fleece and replace the insect repellant, but most of my clothes will not be replaceable, not even the lovely airforce blue linen shirt from Hobbs, nor the bikini from a sale in Brussels airport, both bought in June. In fact most of my clothes are not easily replaceable as they were bought in the UK and such things are not available in Dakar.

I do have a trip back to the UK at the end of this month, but I fear I won't know by that stage whether or not the case is lost, even though some things (such as my Rough Guide to West Africa) will have to be replaced then as I cannot be without one on my travels. It will be frustrating to spend some £20 on a new one if the old one turns up a few days later. But that will be my last time in Europe until next March so I may have to go ahead and shell out on replacements just in case. With very little likelihood, of course, that the cost of any of this loss will be reimbursed.

Meanwhile I suppose I should say that the region of Cameroon that I am in (the Grasslands) is beautiful, and like my last visit to this country the food is 'interesting'. Hedgehog for Sunday's dinner, and yam with lumps of cow skin for lunch today. The cow skin did at least take my mind off my luggage for a while...

Luggage in the sky

During the period since my last work trip I have spent quite a few hours trying to establish

(a) if it is true that my organisation do not have insurance to cover loss of luggage by international staff (it is)

(b) what I am supposed to do, in that case, if my luggage goes missing (claim against the airline/any personal policies)

(c) what if Air Ivoire/Air Burkina/Slok Air choose not to reimburse me, or if my luggage is stolen from say the back of a taxi (prevail upon the mercy of our HR department)

(d) whether our HR department will pay up (possibly but generally not)

(e) if I can buy a personal policy from any of the UK insurers (no, because I am not UK resident)

Such insurance seems unknown in Senegal, so I set off for the airport this morning clutching my luggage a little more tightly than usual.

At check-in I was asked if I really wanted to be checked through to Douala (Cameroon), or whether I wouldn't prefer to collect my luggage from Air Senegal in Abidjan and then check in again there for the onward leg to Douala with Air Ivoire, as I was less likely to have problems with my luggage this way. Of course I accepted her advice and checked myself through only as far as Abidjan.

So in Abidjan I went to collect my case, ready to go and check in again, and watched the luggage go round and round the carousel. You know how it is, that you eventually just know that your luggage isn't coming? Well it was only at that stage that I took a proper look at the little luggage tag they had stuck to my ticket, and noticed that it said V7 720; I had been on flight V7 740.

Well it turned out that V7 720 was the flight to Guinea Conakry. Of all places. Last time I went there I opened my case when I got to the hotel to find it had already been opened and rifled through en route, though thankfully on that occasion nothing was missing.

So I have filled in all the necessary forms (I now know the French for purple...) and have been told that it should at some stage be forwarded to Douala. I hope so, as I don't want to find out whether or not Air Senegal, or HR, will reimburse me for the loss (I think I already know the answer). Unfortunately however tomorrow morning I am due to leave Douala for the hill town of Bamenda, six hours drive to the north. Colleagues have told me that it is wet and cold at this time of year, so I had packed jumpers, a fleece and a kagool - all now presumably sitting in Conakry. I also need to wash my hair, and clean my teeth, and would rather like to be able to use deodorant tomorrow morning.

I will keep you posted as to whether it arrives, and when.

Frustrations of the season

This is definitely the worst time of the year to be in Dakar, probably why most people go on holiday at this time. It's not just the rain, but the associated power cuts, and the mosquitoes and ants that are everywhere.

Then you become just a little frazzled, finding yourself with rather less patience than usual to deal with the usual frustrations of life here.

In a much earlier post I wrote a little about my frustrations with the Senegalese banking system, and they continue. My chequebook was nearly finished, and having not received a new one I tore out the little 'demand de chequiers' page, filled it in, and found an envelope; only to realise that there was no address anywhere in the chequebook nor on my bank statements. So I made my way to the bank one Saturday. Of course it was closed, but I had expected to deposit my form through their letter box. Silly girl! Of course there are no letter boxes in Senegal, as there are no postmen to deliver letters (instead you rent a postbox at the post office), so I gave my form to the security guard to deliver for me.

Eight months later, having heard nothing, I finally discovered that Senegalese banks do not mail chequebooks - you have to go to the bank to sign for their receipt. So I sneaked out of work and visited the bank. I queued until it was my turn to go to the counter, to be told that chequebooks were dealt with in an office round the corner. I waited again. It seemed they had long since lost or thrown away the form I had delivered, but they found me a new one and I filled it in. It would take five working days to get a chequebook, so I would have to come back again (more taxi fares) to collect it and sign for receipt.

I went back this afternoon. The bank was shut; it is Ramadan (the Muslim fasting period) when apparently the banks keep different hours. Tomorrow I am travelling again. I begin to wonder whether I will ever get this new chequebook, and reflect that it is the little complications like this - things that are so much easier and quicker to achieve in a developed country - that can make life here so very frustrating.

Spirit in the Sky

We are deep into the rainy season and it rains at least once most days now. Apparently this is most unusual, and everyone is talking about it. Being English, of course I am used to rain - but not to some of the rain we get here.

Last night I was woken by another thunderstorm. But this one didn't stop, and eventually I got up to stare at it out of the window. For at least an hour and half the lightening flashed, some of it appearing as jagged streaks, but mostly the whole sky just lit up, as if someone was playing with a giant light switch, turning it off and on over and over again. & the thunder was continuous, rumbling around and around overhead but occasionally also coming as deafening crashes, or as a great tearing sound as if the sky was being ripped apart.

It was all quite magnificent, and from the safety of my little house I really enjoyed the spectacle. But then I thought about how I might feel if I were walking along an unlit path between villages in the countryside, and suddenly I understood so clearly how so many of the villagers still believe that the natural world (their world) is inhabited by spirits.

A holiday in Peru

My holiday effectively started in Spain, where I had ten hours in transit – enough to take the metro into Madrid and take a tour of the Royal Palace followed by a leisurely paella with several glasses of sangria.

The miserable weather in Lima was a bit of a shock. This is the garúa, the effect of the cold air coming in from the Pacific forming clouds over the coastal strip and getting trapped there by the Andes. They stay for nine months of the year, during which time Lima is cold, grey and damp.

Thankfully that was only an overnight stop, after which I travelled south to Paracas National Park for a bit of flamingo-watching and a trip out to the Ballestas Islands. These pinnacles of rock sticking out of the ocean, with their great arches and caves carved out by the waves, are bare of vegetation but covered in birds. Inca terns, three species of cormorant and tens of thousands of Peruvian boobies perch on cliff ledges whilst Humbolt penguins and sea lions lumber about on the rocks below. It is one of those places where mankind has still not taken over from nature.

Also in this region are the famous Nazca Lines, carved out of the desert in pre-Inca times for who-knows-what reason. I took a flight over them in a little aircraft, whose pilot was enjoying banking left and right so all on board could see them clearly – I saw at least one passenger escape afterwards looking decidedly green!

The next stop was the Amazon region, with several days at some comfortable though fairly basic lodges (candlelight only) in Tambopata. Whilst I saw hundreds of amazing birds, a bird-eating spider, a beautiful tree frog, a scorpion, capybara, caiman and six species of monkeys, the highlight was the clay-lick on the banks of the river. This is an exposed stretch of clay on the river bank where birds, mostly parrots, parrokeets and macaws, come each day to eat clay. It is believed that the clay binds with toxins from their fruit diet and thus is vital for their health – presumably the toxins existing only in fruits in this region as it is not known for parrots in other parts of the world (not even in Central America) to indulge in this behaviour.

We had to get there early so as not to disturb the birds – which meant being in place on the opposite river bank by around 6am. Then gradually the parrots started to arrive in the nearby trees. The birds are nervous at the lick, as they are more exposed to predators than normal, so whilst they squawk loudly at this big social gathering they also get frightened easily and take to the sky and fly around until they feel safe enough to land again. Finally the bravest make the journey from the trees to the clay, and the real spectacle begins as hundreds of colourful birds converge on the bright red clay. We counted three species of parakeet, five species of parrot, and finally six species of macaw. This is a photo of just one of the blue-and-yellow macaws at the lick – try to imagine the noise and colour of several hundred (thousand?) such birds!

After Tambopata was another kind of jungle – the cloud forest of Manu – steep-sided hills often swathed in cloud (though thankfully not for much of my visit) where the trees are dripping with mosses and lichens. Again there were monkeys and beautiful birds – more trogons and tanagers, plus a golden-headed quetzal, a highland motmot, a blue-banded toucanet, a lyre-tailed nightjar, an umbrellabird and the bizarre cock-of-the-rocks. The cock-of-the-rock is the national bird of Peru, though there has been some pressure to change it because it is sometimes considered a joke bird. It is pigeon-sized, bright orange coloured with dark wings and tail, with tiny little pale eyes and a large round orange crest which juts forward to the end of its bill. The males gather together everyday in a ‘lek’, which is a display-ground for impressing females. There they produce various croaks and grunts, and jump about with their wings spread and their heads down, so that they look at you over the top of their crests. In other words they look totally ridiculous.

Unfortunately they like to display under the trees where it was too dark for my little point-and-shoot camera, but if the guide remembers to send me a decent photo (as promised) I will add it in here later. I shouldn’t forget to mention another great bird, one I should have got a photo of if I had not always been so captivated by it that I forgot to try – the booted racket-tail. This is a tiny little green hummingbird, with two very long tail feathers that appear to have been stripped of the feathery bits until flaring out again at the end, and with chestnut coloured tufts of fur over their legs like little fluffy legwarmers. Gorgeous little things.

After the jungle I went to the beautiful town of Cuzco – what an amazing place and how I wish I had been able to spend more time there, to just wander about taking in the architecture, browsing in the art galleries and trying out a selection of the restaurants. As it was, however, I did at least manage to try both alpaca and guinea pig. The former was pretty uninteresting and the latter surprisingly nice, though with rather too many fiddly little bones.

Finally came the highlight of the trip, I think – a visit to Machu Picchu. It is one of those wonders of the world that does not disappoint. The ruins themselves are quite interesting, but it is the setting that is most impressive. It is perched on top of a steep-sided mountain, surrounded by jagged near-vertical peaks and with snow-covered mountains further back. &, well, I don't know what else to say about it as you have all seen the pictures so many times - but here's another in case you have forgotten.

The Epley Manoeuvre

This has been a fairly unpleasant week as I woke up Monday morning with a nasty bout of vertigo. For you lucky people who have never suffered from it, the slightest movement of the head seems to cause the whole room to dip and spin horribly until the head is returned to its resting position, and if you try to fight against it and move anyway (for example to get out of bed to get to a toilet) the sensation causes you to vomit. I suppose it is like sea-sickness. Apparently it is caused by little calcium carbonate crystals in the ear breaking loose and floating off to the wrong place and thereby giving your brain the wrong spatial and positional messages.

This is the fourth time now, in four years, that I have woken up feeling like this. Only this time it was different in that it was still there, although in a milder form, the next morning. & the next, and the next. So I have spent this morning on the internet. I vaguely knew that there is some technique you can be taught to manipulate the head in such a way as to get the crystals back into the right place, but my UK doctor had refused to show me how last year as he would have had to induce a vertigo attack in order to do so. I didn’t fancy trying to explain it all to a doctor here, having no idea how to translate Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (the proper name) into French, so decided to find out how on the internet.

& there they were on YouTube, lots of nice little videos of people demonstrating the Epley Manoeuvre. So I shut my office door, cleared off a table, borrowed a towel from the bathroom to support my neck, got onto the table and started turning my head and body as instructed. I’ve done it once so far and already feel a little better, and will be so relieved when I perfect the technique (apparently it takes a little practice to get really good at it) as I was so worried about waking up with this one day at the wrong time and place (eg with a flight to catch).

Thank goodness for the internet. I’ve also used it this morning to book a flight and pay a tax bill as well as my daily check on the world news. What did expats like myself used to do without it?

Yet more about food

This time last year I was so overwhelmed by mangoes that I was prompted to investigate how to make mango jam. This year, however there have not been nearly so many. Now I know why.

This was taken at nearly 19:00h when the light had started to fade, hence the graininess of the photo, but in fact several of these rose-ringed parakeets now seem to spend most of their day in my mango tree. They squawk extremely loudly, they drop bits of mango all over the ground, and they don't leave enough for me - but I'm not complaining. It is a pleasure to see them there!

It does mean though that I have to walk around the edge of my courtyard, avoiding the area under the mango tree, as currently around four partially eaten mangos crash down onto the ground every day.

I have just discovered a new place to go in Dakar. An urban park, visited by Senegalese mostly for its zoo, but also containing a lake and a large area of swampy woodland all around the edge of the lake. It is full of pelicans, cormorants, herons and kingfishers, and I also saw hornbills and vultures, and a large monitor lizard running through the undergrowth and into the water. I have been there a couple of times now, and this weekend I decided to explore the area near it. The map showed a beach nearby with a picture of a fishing boat, and sure enough when I eventually found a little alleyway heading down to the beach, I started to smell fish.

Several fishing boats had just come in, and the catch was being distributed to the traders at the little fish market there. Suddenly a group of boys rushed in my direction with something large carried above their heads. It was a swordfish! I moved out of their way and found a Senegalese lady grabbing my hand and pulling me along behind them. She was, she told me, Madame Ndiaye (aka Mama Seck), and although she spoke only Wolof it was clear that she was a fish seller and she had identified me as a likely customer.

We followed the fish down another alleyway, where it was slapped onto a big wooden log. A man waiting there cut off the fins, scraped away all the scales with a sickle, gutted and beheaded it. He shook his head when he saw I had taken my camera out, so I smiled and put it back in my bag - but fortunately by then had already sneaked one quick shot.

I had absolutely no idea how much fresh swordfish would cost, so I offered around £5, and he cut off an enormous chunk of fish. Madame Ndiaye took it over to what must have been her stall, and chopped it into pieces for me. So I now have seven swordfish steaks to work out how to cook!

More about food

After my trip to Cameroon I had to go to the UK for a week, for a conference. We were in the south coast town of Hythe, where I had never been before – a pretty little place with a historic canal (known as the Royal Military Canal, built at the start of the nineteenth century as a defence against Napoleon) and a very windy seafront. We had blue skies and sunshine for the whole week, and I thought it must have given a very good impression of England to my international colleagues.

Not that any of them said anything. Perhaps I am too polite – or just too cowardly – but I never really criticise the countries I am visiting to my hosts, in fact I usually go out of my way to find something good to say. For example I can’t honestly say that I really like the food much in West Africa. Some of it is nice, but overall the impression is of endless meals of rice served with gristly bits of meat and bone, with any flavour obliterated by too much chilli, pepper or salt. But I would never say that if asked. I might go as far as to admit that they don’t eat enough vegetables for my liking – but I would either find some aspect I like or I would be non-committal rather than criticising it.

However observing my African colleagues in the hotel dining room, and at a very nice fish restaurant, there was no such restraint. They turned their noses up, they laughed in disbelief that we could eat ‘such stuff’, they smothered everything with salt, or they just left it uneaten and asked if there was any way they could have some chips, or some ice cream. “You mean the Queen of England eats this?” one of them asked me, about a very nice salmon fishcake.

I was amused though also annoyed, and embarrassed for the poor restaurant staff. Then I wondered whether it is better to tell the truth as they do – perhaps I am just being patronising by always trying to avoid criticising anything from their culture?

Talking of food, I added on a day to the week there so as to have time for some shopping, and the most important part was the trip to Sainsburys. I had heard much about the terrible price rises so was curious to see whether they matched those here in Senegal. In fact I saw no evidence of them at all. Sainsburys Basics pasta was still 19p a packet, the same price as it was when I left the country 18 months ago, whilst here the same size packet has risen from 35p to nearly 90p during that period. I tried to avoid the dairy products as I knew I couldn’t transport them, which is too frustrating when the prices in Senegal are enough to make you cry. £1.78 for a litre of milk!

Still, I was able to fit a couple of packets of pasta in my case, and somehow I also successfully carried back a whole punnet of nectarines and another of wonderfully tasty organic cherry tomatoes. Needless to say, I didn’t share any of it with my African colleagues on my return!


What on earth was I thinking about when I wrote the last sentence of my previous post? That's really not the way I look at life at all! I much prefer to live in the present - the Daoist way, I think - so that a moment spent sitting on a wall with the sun on my arms and the breeze in my hair is enjoyed, rather than spoilt by regretting what I didn't do the day before, or worrying about what might happen the day after. So if in the future I cannot remember my African experiences, what does it matter, provided I have enjoyed them while I am here!

Here, by the way, is currently Cameroon. We are based in Yaounde, but I also had the opportunity to visit some of the communities we work with in the east of the country. This meant a long drive through the lush, green forest, spectacularly offset by the dark red soil. Most of the roads are unsurfaced so they are dark red, and the houses are made of a framework of sticks, with mud stuck onto them so they are red too. It really is a beautiful part of the country, particularly now during the rainy season when the colours are at their brightest. I did see lots of logging trucks too though, with tree trunks piled high on them, which was rather upsetting.

I had to visit some of the pygmy communities we work with, which I had been looking forward to for some time. However they were not what I expected. Many of the Africans I meet in the communities are short - often no taller than me - I assume because of poor childhood nutrition, and I was surprised to find that the pygmies I met were no smaller than this. I have to admit to being a little disappointed...

My other experiences here have been about food. I had been told that bushmeat is a big part of the cuisine here and so had hoped to get to try something a little different.

The picture shows a cooking pot full of chunks of boa constrictor. It was nice - nicer than the porcupine, but not as nice as the monitor lizard, the gazelle, the monkey or the pangolin. None of these are protected, by the way, except the pangolin, and in Cameroon that is farmed so as far as I know I was not helping with the destruction of the environment. & I don't (as yet) seem to have picked up any nasty disease from the monkey meat.

Why am I here?

Once again I have been too busy to write anything here. I’ve been getting on and off of planes, unpacking and repacking my suitcase, working evenings and weekends, and suddenly we are approaching the middle of June. But I thought I had better set aside a few minutes this afternoon (a Sunday, and I’m working in my hotel room) just to let everyone know I am still OK out here.

I did manage to catch the final league games of the English Premiership season, in a windowless, airless “video club” down a little alleyway in Monrovia, where both the Chelsea and Man Utd games were projected onto a wall for the several hundred fans packed in there. Then ten days later I was in Accra for the Champions League final, watching in a hotel bar with a number of Ghanaians mostly supporting Chelsea (or, more accurately, Essien) as my team took the double.

I also managed to visit the National Museum in Ouagadougou, which, although not yet finished, was very impressive, with a well set out collection of masks and an interesting display of archaeological findings from the north of the country. Now I am in Cameroon, where I tried to fit in a couple of museum visits yesterday. However the National Museum is currently a building site, and the private Afhemi Museum, which supposedly contains 2,000 items including tribal artefacts up to 900 years old, was frustratingly elusive. I could not find an address, only the name of the district it is in, but no-one in that district seems to have heard of it. Emails to the address given on the internet bounce back, and the phone numbers I have tracked down are out of service. So it was back to work…

One of the things I had to do during this time was to draw up the work schedule for me and my team for the next year. I have a new recruit starting on 1 July, and another on 1 October, and once they are trained I will finally have a full team. Theoretically, this could mean less work for me – well, less work to do, and more work to manage, I suppose. Much of the management will be better done on location rather than by email, as two of my team will be new, but it means my trips will be shorter. This will give me the chance to take some of the leave I have stacked up (which I will lose if it’s not taken soon), as well as to benefit from some of the public holidays. So what do I do with that time?

When I moved out here, and started this blog, I imagined that during my five years here I would really get an understanding of life in Africa, or at least in Senegal. However I soon realised that the only understanding available to me (if I want it) is of life as an ex-pat in Africa. The rest I am just looking in at from the outside, which only gives me part of the story. I am too different from the Africans – not just in skin colour, though that is the biggest factor, but also in not being married with children, not being part of a big extended family, not being religious, and in having an outlook on life that can only arise from growing up in a wealthy, stable country with a decent social security system. The focus on getting money here, and on conspicuous consumption when you succeed, is an attitude I will never share. I was reminded of it again this morning when I went down to breakfast – in comfortable trousers and Tshirt and a pair of flip flops – and was surrounded by Cameroonian women in gorgeous dresses, high heels and heavy make-up.

So my aim has changed, to one of experiencing as much as I can of the region while I am here – seeing the countryside, eating the food, listening to the music, etc – really just being a tourist but with greater access because of my job. Not such a bad thing I suppose. Which means that my schedule for the next year is jam-packed again, but this time through using my days off and weekends to the full in seeing as much of the countries in the region as I possibly can. Which means that when I do get to spend any time in Dakar, I will be as busy as I have been over the past year. But I promise to find time to keep writing this. After all, if I don't write down what I've done I might forget, and then what's the point?

The remnants of war

It’s been quite a while since I wrote anything, I know. I’ve had a few days in Lisbon in a meeting (lovely place – with a great Oceanarium), and a bit of time in Dakar when I did nothing worth writing about. I thought I had made a new friend there, someone who invited me to stay at his place down the coast for a weekend, but he behaved much like other Dakarois I have met; Saturday evening we went out to eat, and he spent the entire evening on his mobile, then Sunday he invited friends round and they spent the whole day talking to eachother in Wolof. Not a friendship I shall be pursuing.

But the next day I flew to Liberia, for a two-week assignment in Monrovia. As usual, I read up a little on the history before my trip, and what a fascinating history it is! 300 black families from the US set up the independent republic in 1847. Despite their own descent from slaves, they considered ethnic Liberians to be inferior, fit only for exploitation. In fact as recently as 1931 an international commission found organised slavery in Liberia.

In 1980 the descendants of these settler families were overthrown from power, the indigenous population (95% of the country) rejoiced, and the semi-literate Samuel Doe took power. During the 1980s the economy was the worst performing in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, as real incomes fell by half and unemployment shot up, and there were a series of rebellions, often involving child soldiers high on alcohol or drugs. Some of his soldiers believed that by eating bits of a great soldier’s body could take on some of his greatness, and the leader of a failed coup was apparently cut up and eaten in public.

Finally Doe was overthrown by a rebel group led by Prince Johnson. He was captured, stripped to his underpants and interrogated, and when he didn’t give the right answers, Johnson ordered one of his soldiers to cut off one of Doe’s ears, which Johnson promptly ate in front of him. Our Finance Manager in Liberia currently lives next door to Johnson (now a senator), who has told him that the story of the ear is not true. However a video he took of the whole thing has apparently been seen by many people all around West Africa.

Johnson’s forces only really held Monrovia so fighting continued between his troops and those of Charles Taylor. Both sides indulged in cannibalism, and one group of men fought naked in the belief that this protected them against bullets. During the mid-1990s. No, really, I’m not making all this up…

West African peacekeeping forces also got involved in the mess, while infrastructure was destroyed, women were raped en masse, and half of the country’s population fled their homes. Eventually, after 14 years of civil war, a peace accord was signed and implemented. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected president (narrowly beating former World Footballer of the Year, George Weah), 18,000 UN peace-keepers were brought in and the trial of Charles Taylor for war crimes began in The Hague.

A year later, this was where I was headed. Displaced people are returning home and the peace-keepers are still in place, but unemployment is at 85% so armed robbery is common. We were told not to leave the hotel (surrounded by high walls and razor wire) after dark. A WHO survey across the country showed that 75% of women have been raped, mostly gang-raped. Indeed rape was only made a crime in 1993. Everywhere there are posters telling readers where to go if they are raped, how to report crime, and exorting them to give up their weapons and live in peace.

In one of the areas where we have started work the baseline survey shows that there is one toilet per 5,200 inhabitants and one textbook per 27 pupils. I also read that there are only 26 pharmacists in the whole country, all of which are in the capital. Indeed I was warned before I came here that I would have to bring with me any medicines that I might need, such as malaria treatment, as there are virtually none available in the country.

The signs of the war are all around, with plenty of ruined buildings, others covered in bullet holes. There are plenty of amputees around too. But the people are all very friendly and there are no outward signs of the mental traumas they must all have gone through. Everywhere there are UN blue-berets and land-cruisers, as well as dozens of vehicles marked with the logos of the 58 international NGOs who are here trying to help. The Chinese are here too, rebuilding the roads, and the Lebanese opening hotels and restaurants for all the aid workers and hopefully in the future lots of international businessmen. It’s quite a strange place, a bit unreal.

The countryside, meanwhile, is pretty empty. Lots of greenery but very few villages. Not for long, though, as Liberia currently has the highest rate of population growth in the world. I suppose that’s what you do when a long and brutal war has finally ended.

The Gold Coast

I had a spare week between a meeting in Accra and an assignment in Lomé (three hours’ drive away), so rather than flying back to Dakar in-between, I decided to take some of the compensatory leave I was due (for weekend working and travelling) and spend the time seeing the coast of Ghana.

It is rainy season, and I spent my first evening sitting in a beach-side restaurant watching the most impressive lightning show I have ever seen. It lasted for well over an hour, with jagged streaks zig-zagging down to the water and arcing across the sky between the clouds. It is also lobster season – three halves of grilled lobster with chips for $10…

I had started my trip three hours east of Accra at Cape Coast. This was the British capital of the then Gold Coast for 211 years, until it was moved to Accra in 1876. The castle where the British were based is now a museum. You can visit the former slave dungeons, the tunnel from the dungeons to the “door of no return”, and the cell where misbehaving slaves were thrown – and left, without food, water or light, to die.

Thankfully the guide made no attempt to blame slavery on the Europeans. In fact he gave a very balanced account of the history, referring to slavery as business between two parties, balancing supply (the African middlemen) and demand (the Europeans). When I saw on the news that same day that an escaped slave in Niger was taking her government to court for not implementing laws to outlaw the practice, I even felt some pride in my country’s history as the first to ban slavery.

Whilst in Cape Coast I also did a side trip to Kakum National Park, to experience the famous walkway slung between trees, high up in the forest canopy. It was nice, though more notable for the multitude of insects than anything else. & I don’t mean beautiful, or interesting, insects – just the type that buzz around your ears and keep flying into your eyes.

The journey there though was a slice of real Ghana. My taxi driver had a sticker on his dashboard, reading “I am covered with the blood of Jesus” – the type of slogan that is very common in this highly religious country. He initially turned his radio to some cheerful ‘hi-life’ music, but then re-tuned it, and “Good morning Jesus, good morning love” blasted out. Worse, he then decided to join in, loudly and tunelessly. Everywhere you go there are churches, and people soon ask you about the extent of your religious beliefs. I don’t know whether they were more shocked by my atheism or my childlessness…

Elmina, just along the coast, had an even prettier castle, overlooked by a fort. The castle was built in 1482 by the Portuguese – and Christopher Columbus visited it before he discovered the Americas! The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the coast of West Africa, and soon established themselves in the Gold Coast. In fact the Ghanaians couldn’t keep up with the demand of the Portuguese for gold, so between 1485 and 1540 the latter imported some 12,000 slaves, purchased in Benin and sold to Ghanaian and Malian gold merchants to help with work such as porterage. Eventually, with the colonisation in South America, the US and the Caribbean, more labour was needed to work in the plantations established in those places and so the intercontinental slave trade began.

I had a real stroke of luck during my week, meeting up with an English couple who have purchased a 25-year lease on the 17th century Fort Metal Cross in Dixcove. They invited me to stay – thankfully not in one of the dank old slave dungeons, but in a room upstairs where the soldiers used to stay. It was fantastic, with the sound of the waves breaking onto the rocks below, and a cautious walk along the unlit ramparts in the night to find my way to the steps down to the bathroom. Not to mention the luxuries of a hot shower and a full English breakfast!

I later visited the forts at Axim and Beyin too, and took a trip to a stilt village built over the side of a lagoon. I also watched plenty of fishermen hauling in their nets, and mending them between trips, though sadly I also saw a group of them hacking away at an enormous turtle they had just caught. They cut off the limbs first, while the turtle waved its head from side to side - I hope just in some sort of post-death reflex, but I fear the poor thing was still alive and no doubt in a lot of pain. Travelling in Africa can be quite difficult for a nature-lover, as you do see quite a lot of cruelty to animals, as well as a general lack of respect for the environment (people defecating on beautiful beaches, and throwing empty plastic bags into the bushes).

Generally though it was a most relaxing week, and I finally felt that I had beaten that cold/temperature/sore throat that had been hanging around me for so long.

The Land of a Thousand Hills

Of course Rwanda is not only full of reminders of the genocide. It is also "the land of a thousand hills" - and of chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. I was lucky to be able to take a few days off after my work to explore the country.

Nyungwe Forest is the largest surviving patch of montane forest in Africa, home to 14 species of primate and 283 species of birds. I took three guided walks (the only way to visit) and saw several of each. It did feel a little surreal creeping through primary rainforest, dripping with mosses and giant tree ferns, in search of the Ruwenzori turaco (like some kind of intrepid naturalist), but the forest was beautiful, and we did indeed see the turaco plus several other beautiful and/or rare species of bird.

I suppose to a real twitcher the Grauer's rush warbler was the most thrilling sighting, found only in that region and amongst the rarest birds in Africa, but in fact it was a rather boring little brown thing, and I was much more excited by the commoner but beautiful bar-tailed trogon, with its blue chest, red belly, green back and wings and long black and white barred tail.

Also beautiful (I'm using that word too much, but it does apply rather a lot in Rwanda) was a troop of Angolan colobus monkeys - and I also saw blue monkeys and mountain monkeys during my searches for birds. I decided not to spend $50 on a chimp-tracking walk, as this could be up to eight hours of difficult walking/climbing/scrambling up and down steep and slippery mountainsides as the troop moves around so much. After all, I had the gorillas to look forward to in the Volcanoes National Park!

This park is a chain of five or six volcanoes, on the border with DR Congo and Uganda. Some 320 of the world's remaining 700 mountain gorillas live on the Rwandan side, and for $500 you can climb up with a guide and a couple of armed guards (protecting against poachers who kill the females and steal their babies for private zoos) to track one of the family groups and spend an hour with them.

I chose to track the Susa group - the biggest with 39 members but also usually the hardest to reach. Being low season, I did not have to fight for the privilege of tracking this group, which is often the most sought after, in fact there were only three of us doing the trek which was good news.

After an hour's drive we started our walk, which began with an hour or so up a steep-sided hill through farmers' fields. We were already at 2,600m (more than 3,000m by the time we reached the forest), and soon my heart was thudding and my leg muscles were screaming for oxygen. Thankfully there was no pressure to go quickly. When we got to the bamboo forest the slope lessened, but then we were faced with a new obstacle - stinging nettles! Vicious stinging nettles, powerful enough to sting through trekking trousers, and so many of them that they could not be avoided. However, we soon forgot about our stings as we heard crashing sounds nearby - the gorillas!!

My heart was thudding again, but this time with excitement. A lifelong ambition about to be realised. It's hard to convey the feelings I had when we actually saw the gorillas. They are ENORMOUS, and powerful, yet so gentle (and covered with the longest, softest-looking fur) and clearly no danger to us whatsoever.

Our briefing had told us that we had to maintain a seven metre distance between us and them, but this rule does not seem to be strictly observed, at least not by the gorillas. The youngsters played around us, climbing trees and crashing down amongst the group, whilst the indulgent parents looked on, not interrupting their long meal (they eat some 30kg of vegetation each day) or their grooming. It looked like an easy, lazy existence, though I was surprised to see a couple of the young males beating their chests, King Kong style - yes, they really do that!

There were four enormous silverbacks, a number of younger males, many females and quite a few youngsters. The guide later told us that we had seen 37 of the 39 gorillas in the Susa group - 5% of the total population of this endangered species!

Our hour in their presence passed far too quickly.

In Memoriam

The legacy of the 1994 genocide still hangs heavy over Rwanda. 800,000 people killed in a 100 day frenzy of slaughter - I suppose you can't forget that overnight.

I was warned when I arrived not to ask people whether they are Hutu or Tutsi - they are all Rwandans now, with ethnic differences supposedly in the past. Indeed the Rwandans generally only talk about "one side" and "the other side", avoiding the use of those tribal names, but nevertheless they talk about the genocide a lot more than I expected.

Wouldn't you want to move on, and bury something like that in your history? But you turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper in Rwanda and it is all about the trials (escaped killers gradually being extradited back to Rwanda as they are discovered) and the process of reconciliation. Drive through the countryside and you see the prisoners (mostly the genocidaires, who were given up to 25 years in jail depending on the the level of their involvement) doing community work in their pink uniforms. Even when I went to a small village as part of my work, one of the villagers pointed out the church, to tell me how many people were killed in there during the genocide (including his sister).

Indeed most towns seem to have genocide memorials - no-one is allowed to forget, even if it were possible to forget such horror.

I visited the National Memorial in Kigali. An incredibly well-presented display - narrative, photos, video testimony - takes you through the really quite unbelievable story, and small pictures on the walls of the central gallery commemorate some of the victims. At the end is the section which my guidebook warned would really hit home. It sounds overly sentimental, manipulative even, but yes, it did hit home. Several interconnected rooms display life-size photos of cute little Rwandan children - the last photos taken of them alive. Beneath are a few simple biographical details, for example:

Favourite food: chocolate and chips
Best friend: his big sister
Died: smashed against a tree

I left in tears.

Murambi, on the other hand, is a very different kind of memorial. A former technical college on a hill near Gikongoro, it became a place of refuge for Tutsis in the early days of the genocide, some 50,000 gathering there from the region. Once there, however, the supplies of electricity, water and food were cut, and one night in April the Interahamwe came. Within two days most were dead, apart from those who escaped to a nearby church - and they were followed and killed the next day.

Four people survived, one of whom, Emmanuel, now works at the memorial showing round visitors, repeating that he lost his wife, children, everyone. "All finished" he kept saying, mournfully.

I knew what was on display, but nevertheless I gasped when he unlocked the first of many classrooms and I saw the dried, mummified remains of some of the men, women and children killed there. They put lime powder on the bodies which has preserved them (although also bleached them white), and bodies lie there in the positions in which they died.

You can see the machete cuts in the heads, broken legs and ankles, but worst is the physical positions of some of them - cowering with arms trying to protect their heads, with screams frozen on their faces... It really is quite horrific.

Then when I thought I'd seen the worst, they led me outside to show where the French military had planted their flag during Operation Turquoise. This was the episode when France decided "something had to be done". By this time the genocide was almost over, as most Tutsis still in Rwanda were already dead, and those who had been living outside Rwanda (exiled to Uganda during previous ethnic violence), together with a few moderate Hutus, had returned in the form of an invading army (the RPF) which had already reached the capital and was looking close to taking the whole country. The French had already funded, armed and helped train the extremist Hutu Interahamwe militias, but now seeing the advance of the English-speaking Tutsis they decided to intervene, to protect their interests (the French language) in the region.

Operation Turquoise established a French-controlled buffer zone between the RPF and the retreating Hutus, supposedly to protect the latter from revenge. The effect was that the genocidaires escaped to DR Congo, from where they continued to launch attacks into Rwanda for some years after the war.

Emmanuel showed me where the Turquoise soldiers used to play volleyball - next to what had been an open mass grave full of victims of the massacre. He was not a fan of the French. Indeed few in Rwanda are (the irony being that English is now taking over from French as the country's main foreign language), and last year the president (who was head of the RPF when it invaded and ended the genocide) told the French to close their embassy and leave after they accused him of bearing responsibility for the genocide.


I had to do a separate entry on Conakry as it is so different from the Guinea I saw in the forest region.

I went out of my hotel to search (in vain) for somewhere showing the Newcastle v Man Utd match, found myself immediately in the middle of what seemed to be just a sprawling slum. The buildings mostly single-storied (and low enough for anyone taller than me to probably need to stoop to enter), crumbling, with patched-up corrugated iron roofs – and swarming with people. Everywhere there are people, playing football, cooking, eating, washing, laying out their laundry on a spare patch of wall (or road). It was as if I had somehow walked into the inside of people’s homes.

Later I found out why. So many people inhabit most of the houses that they occupy them on a rotational basis: while one goes outside into the street to wash and cook, the next takes his turn to sleep in the bed. The effect is that people mostly live in the streets. So walking about, as a foreigner, is very odd, giving the feeling that you are intruding into people’s private lives just by being there – although I felt no hostility.

I also stumbled upon a little “sub-slum”, it seemed, for the disabled. It was outside a big building with railings out front, and there was so much stuff slung over the railings that at first I thought I was in some sort of market. But as I tried to work out what was for sale I realised that I was looking at people’s bedrooms. Mattresses, pillows, towels, etc – with the usual washing and cooking equipment piled on the pavement in front.

I also noticed quite a few wheelchairs and crutches around, and then realised that the people lounging on the mats, and those moving around, weren’t quite ‘normal’. They were shuffling, and limping, and the wrong size and shape, with limbs missing, or twisted and withered. All of this was out of the corners of my eyes – I so wanted to LOOK. But I knew that if I did I would have to pay, and there were just too many people there to start handing out money, no matter how shocking their circumstances.

One part of the city is different – that is where you find the presidential palace, the government ministries and the cathedral. Not an area of obvious wealth (I never found the quarter that houses the government ministers and their families and friends, whom stories suggest have an awful lot of money), but one devoid of life. No one lives on these streets, the army would soon stop that, with the result that it feels like a ghost town.

As with the rest of the city, everything is crumbling and mouldy, and scattered with bits of rubble and litter, but with no people to give it life it has the air of being abandoned. A couple of parked cars – typically rusty and decrepit – look as though they have sat there for years.

It is only when I get out my camera and take a photograph that another human being appears – some sort of security guard, who claims to be a policeman and asks me if I have a photography permit. I laugh and tell him they’re not necessary any more, that Guinea is a more free country now, and I offer my hand in greeting. He relents, and tells me he will let me go “because you are a woman”, before moving on to the more usual subject of whether I am married and whether he can visit me in my hotel. I tell him I am flying home to Dakar that evening, where my husband will be waiting for me, but that I will pass along this street to say hello next time I am in Conakry…

Guinea Forestière

Lots of ups and downs in Guinea (though no teapot trees as yet).

The ups?

- Driving through the few remaining patches of primary tropical forest, the type where mankind has not shaped or even altered the landscape, where you feel very much like an insignificant visitor to a powerful natural world.
- A weekend spent with a local community in their village – eating, drinking, sleeping and washing the way the villagers do, and experiencing their wonderful hospitality.

- Getting to watch the Man Utd - Arsenal FA Cup game (which my team won embarrassingly easily) despite being in a town with seemingly no facilities at all.

The downs?

- ‘Showering’ from the bucket of cold water left outside my hotel room in the mornings.

- Tripping over on the way back from work one evening (no pavements, no streetlights, no moonlight – and my torch left in the hotel).

- My second bout of ‘Guinea belly’, at the same time as a heavy cold, a mild temperature, a headache, and lots of work to get through.

– The Harmattan. Yes I know I’ve written about this before, but I’ve not experienced it quite like this: blotting out the landscape in a white haze, burning your throat, constricting your breathing as if something had been wrapped too tightly around your ribs, and with a constant taste of dust in the mouth.

- Sir Alex deciding to rest Ronaldo the one time I get to see a match.

Lying on my bed in Gueckedou, looking up at the low energy light bulb dangling from a few wires at the end of the broken fluorescent light casing (hotel generator switched on for a few hours), and listening to the rain hammering down on the corrugated iron roof above, I had another of those “what on earth am I doing here?” moments. They come every so often, as I find myself shaking my head in wonder or disbelief at some of the strange places or surreal situations I find myself in these days. (I had another during the eight-hour drive between Kissidougou and Conakry, when the driver changed the music from Guinean griots to Barry White singing “My first, my last, my everything”)

We used to have our main Guinea office in Gueckedou, until rebels (mostly child soldiers) came across the border from Sierra Leone in 2000 and started killing people. The Guinean army responded by dropping bombs on the town and many of the buildings were destroyed (and many people killed). The shells of those buildings are mostly still there, as the owners could not afford to repair or rebuild them, and the town has grown up again around them.

Now I am in N’Zerekore, in another strange place. Although some 14 hours’ drive from the capital Conakry (during the three months of the dry season – sometimes inaccessible during the rains), and in fact closer to the capitals of Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Mali than to the capital of Guinea, this town boasts a ‘luxury’ hotel. I say ‘luxury’ because it is still nicely designed, and modern, and clean, and amazingly it still has a functioning swimming pool. However the new Chinese management team seem determined to wring as much profit as they can from the place so many of the rooms no longer have running water, the generator is only on for a few hours a day, television sets have been removed from the rooms to save on repair costs and the advertised satellite TV (for the one – 12” – TV available to guests in the bar) now refers only to the dish on the roof as the subscription to the satellite channels has been cancelled.

The restaurant menu boasts such temptations as guacamole, spaghetti in a cream and mushroom sauce, and bottles of red wine, but in fact none of these things are available so it is back to chicken or beef with rice or chips and a bottle of water to wash it down.

Strange to think that this country has gold, diamonds and one third of the world’s aluminium ore, yet has no telephone lines (and very poor mobile connectivity), no mains electricity and no public water supply in most of the country. Soon it will have no surfaced roads either, as a lack of maintenance (and poor standards of construction as most of the funds are siphoned off through corruption) means that the rains are washing away the surface to reveal the hard red lateritic soil beneath. You really do feel a long way away from the developed world here.

The other ‘down’ I suppose was my visit to Mount Nimba. This mountain, on the border with the Ivory Coast, is a World Heritage Biosphere Reserve, set up to conserve its wildlife – the chimpanzees, but more importantly a protected species, the ‘crapeau geant’. That is French for giant toad, but in fact the creature in question is a small frog – unique, according to the locals, because the females breast-feed their young. I’m not sure that I actually believe this, but I was certainly keen to see the birds and the chimps, so was very pleased when the office here managed to arrange transport for me.

However when we got to the park entrance on the Sunday morning, the guards on duty would not let us in. Apparently access to the park is now closed by order of the Societe des Mines de Fer de Guinea – an iron-ore mining company that has just started operations inside the park. So much for conservation.

Above is a photo of an amulet, from a collection at the Kissidougou museum, worn by one of the rebels in 2000 - some cream-coloured cloth with some bits of wool stuck on. Many of the rebels believed that wearing amulets like this would protect them against bullets.

Getting around

My goodness, this job is so demanding. Every time I think I have got some tasks out of the way and might be able to relax and have a weekend to myself, more tasks appear. So much for seeing Senegal, all I usually see when I am here is the insides of my house and office and the streets between (which aren't many as I have a five minute walk between the two).

But I thought I would take five minutes out from work and just write a quick post about the transport here, as I spent much of last week using it as I travelled to and from our regional conference. Like so many of the day-to-day things here, it differs so much from that in the more developed parts of the world.

For those like me without a car, there are two choices: taxi or public transport. The latter contains too complicated a mix to try to describe here (numerous different sized vehicles, all with different names), but one of the commonest is the Ndiaga Ndiaye. This is a big old white Mercedes van, with seats squashed into the back to hold some 30 people. Typically they are bashed and dented, rusty, have holes in the floor, cracked windscreens... But they work, and they are cheap.

They can be slightly confusing for the foreigner like me though. Firstly you have to work out whether one is going in your direction. There is always a young boy - the driver's assistant - hanging off the back shouting out the destination, but rather in the style of a London newspaper-seller, that is whatever he is saying is completely incomprehensible to someone who hasn't lived there for years.

Sometimes the journey is uneventful, but it is quite common for the vehicle to make several unscheduled stops as the driver goes to buy a newspaper or something. Last week on the way home from our conference one evening we pulled into the side of the road and stopped, and the driver got out. After a while the passengers started tutting, and gradually getting out. I asked someone if we were at the end of the line, and he said that the driver had gone home to get his driving license. So I got out, and waited with the others beside the road. Soon another Ndiaga Ndiaye came along and stopped, and all the passengers got out and squeezed into our, driverless, vehicle. We got into theirs and set off. You soon learn to just shrug and accept such mysteries.

Taxis are of course more expensive, especially for people like me who are no good at bargaining (in any case whites usually have to pay more as we are assumed to have more money). You first stop your taxi (easy, if you are white, as taxis constantly slow down beside you), describe to the driver where you want to go and confirm that he knows how to get you there (you usually have to direct them if you are not going to a major landmark), and then name your price. Of course it helps if you have taken the route before as you start to get to know the expected price. Even so, sometimes they can still confuse you; last week I told one driver my destination, followed by "2,500" (CFA francs) - he countered with "2,000".

The taxis - painted yellow and black to identify them - are in varying condition. Occasionally you get lucky, but mostly they are old and battered, dirty inside, with cracked windscreens and nearly always with their window-winders missing. Sometimes the windows themselves are missing at the sides. The drivers don't go AWOL but they certainly don't always go where you expect. Roads are merely a guide. Pavements are also there to be driven on, as is anything else that takes you around a traffic jam rather than onto the end of it. Last week a taxi driver drove me straight across the middle of a roundabout, presumably just because it was quicker than following all the other cars around the outside.

Thankfully there is so much traffic in Dakar that speeds are kept low, so the inevitable accidents usually just add a few more dents to the vehicles.

I may go quiet for a few weeks now, as I am off to deepest Guinea for a three week assignment - not sure how good the connectivity is there. A locally-produced guide to the region says it is known for the cultivation of coffee, cocoa and teapots, so I shall keep look-out for teapot trees, try to post a photo of one on the blog...