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.