Christmas Visitor

I was very happy to learn that a friend had decided to come out to visit me for a week, even though it involved a little rearrangement of my existing calendar. He was due to arrive late on the evening of Saturday 19 December, leaving late on Saturday 26, and his initial suggestion that we hire a car seemed a good indicator that he was keen to get out and about and see something of the country.

I spent a fair amount of time poring over my guide books, trying to work out what would be a suitable programme for a one week visit – a programme that would satisfy my demand to see new bits of the country as well as ensuring that my visitor Robbo would have a good time. I was conscious that even in London he preferred the comfort of his car to the unpredictability of public transport (not just the delays but also the fellow travellers with whom you might not have chosen to share your ride), but with car hire working out far too expensive here there remained the choice of only public transport or privately chartered taxis, the latter costing around ten times as much as the former. I decided we would use a mixture of the two – private taxis for short trips (eg around Dakar) and shared taxis (public transport) for long-distance trips, but even here we could buy three places for the two of us, to give us more space and comfort. Travelling this way would still allow us enough time to get to St. Louis (the 350-year-old former capital, now a wonderfully crumbling and atmospheric World Heritage Site), and from there onto a few old towns and villages along the River Senegal which would be new territory for me.

Things didn’t start well when I received a text on the Saturday morning to say that his flight was going to be delayed by as much as four hours. He seemed satisfied that his connecting flight was to be held, but it would still mean arriving at 02:00. It got worse, however, as his flight was delayed further, ultimately by seven hours (due to snow at Gatwick), and he missed his connection in Tripoli. He didn’t have a visa for Libya so was forced to spend the night in the airport, and his luggage was nowhere to be seen. He phoned me Sunday morning to tell me the next flight from Tripoli to Dakar was not until Monday evening.

On Monday I received another message: there was in fact no flight that day so he would be forced to spend yet another night in Tripoli.

Well, to cut the story a little shorter, he finally got out of Dakar airport at 01:30 on Wednesday morning, and without his luggage. I had a few spare large Tshirts that might see him through the week , but then he listed for me the goodies he had packed in his case for me – mince pies, Christmas cake, cheese, champagne, porridge oats, magazines…

Of course the itinerary I had planned had gone out of the window. I suggested a couple of shorter alternatives, and he opted for a quick trip to St. Louis – travel there Wednesday, enjoy Thursday and Friday morning there, then back to Dakar on the Friday afternoon for a day in Dakar (including Goree Island) before he flew back home. (Right is a picture of a colonial mansion in St. Louis, by the way, not my house, as one reader thought)

Things didn’t go quite so well. The environment I take for granted here in Africa was of course very new to my friend, and not all that welcome at times. On the way up to St. Louis we got stuck in traffic leaving Dakar, so the whole journey took, apparently, some five hours (generally I don’t look at my watch on such days as there doesn’t seem much point when I can’t influence things, but he is used to London efficiency so was monitoring the time). He didn’t like the flies which surrounded us most of the time, particularly when we were trying to eat. He didn’t like the slow, haphazard service we received in most restaurants and bars. Most of all he didn’t like the reaction of our taxi driver on the journey back to Dakar, when a valve broke in the radiator and we were left under a roadside tree whilst the driver stood in the road waiting for “something or someone” to come along to solve the problem.

He expected planning, organisation, initiative – and West Africa, generally, is not like that. I think I’ve mentioned before the “Insh’Allah” attitude; everything is decided by Allah so there is no point trying to make things happen yourself, you are better just waiting for Allah to send down a solution. It is frustrating, but to some extent you get used to it (you have to, as you cannot change it), and in many cases it seems to sort-of work. In this case another car came along with two spaces, and we were put in it – in fact it was a more comfortable car, and the driver took us right to my suburb, a five-minute walk from my house, rather than to the chaotic and dirty main transport hub in town.

I was pretty happy, and sharing with my friend my delight that we had been taken right home like that, when he pointed out that the journey had taken us six hours, and we had effectively ‘lost’ Christmas Day. I hadn’t seen it as lost, as we had been chatting away during the journey (hadn’t he said that his main reason for coming was to see me?), but I am used to the discomforts of travelling in Africa and can fairly easily shut them out. Of course I have to remember that someone who arrived here less than three days earlier (and who rarely uses public transport even in London) would not find it so easy.

Still, there were plenty of good bits, and we were both very happy to have seen eachother. Probably the best of all was the few hours spent at my favourite eating place in Dakar – a casual place with plastic chairs on a floor of seashells, where you can watch the Atlantic waves meet at Africa’s most westerly point whilst you linger over plates full of freshly caught cockles and mussels. We watched the sun set there on Christmas Day and I think it might even have made up for the journey back from St. Louis!

Also that day we got a message to say that some delayed bags had arrived in Dakar – we went to check and there was his case. Only 24 hours left for him to use the clothes, etc, packed there, but 24 hours was enough for him to unload all the goodies he had brought me, and I sit here typing this now with a mince pie and a half-read Independent by my side. Bliss. Thank you Robbo, and next time I promise no journey of more than three hours unless it is in a private, air-conditioned vehicle!

Silent Winter

With the help of my maid, Gloria, I’ve been battling white fly for more than a year. Tiny little things, they lay their eggs on plants, and the larvae eat the sap from the leaves and stems, drip sap all over the ground beneath, and kill the plants they are feeding from. I’ve replaced dead plants, I’ve paid passing itinerant plant-sprayers, and most of all Gloria and I have spent countless hours with a bucket of soapy water, washing the eggs and larvae off the leaves. But the problem just gets worse.

Some time ago, after I had bought new bougainvillea plants to replace the dead ones, one of my guards (a former gardening assistant at the American Embassy) suggested I buy Lannate that he could treat the plants with. Not knowing what this was or where I could buy it I sort of nodded, and did nothing about it. But last month I found myself walking past a gardening supplies shop, so I went in to ask if they had anything to counter white fly. “Lannate!” cried the assistant, triumphantly, “it’s the only thing that works”. So I bought a packet.

Back home, unwrapping it, I found the back of packet covered with safety warnings. Strong stuff, this Lannate. So I told my maid about the danger, set aside a bucket for mixing the produce which could be thrown away afterwards, and left her money to buy protective face mask, gloves, etc. I told the guard who said he would do the first application that week.

I flew off to Guinea Bissau for work. Back home the next Saturday afternoon, it was clear that Gloria had not been in for a day or so, as there were dead leaves and dust all around, and no milk waiting for me in the fridge. Then I heard a key turn in my door, and a faint voice called my name. Gloria stumbled into my hallway, and asked if she could sit down. In fact she immediately laid down on her side, holding her ribcage as if in pain – clearly she was not at all well.

She had come to bring my milk (and to sweep the leaves but of course I told her not to bother), but told me how ill she had become after my guard applied the Lannate. She had bought mask and gloves for him, but followed him round a metre behind as he sprayed, and having not bought a mask for herself she was breathing in large quantities of this poisonous pesticide. She had not eaten for the three days since the application, was vomiting every time she took a drink, had dreadful pains in her middle somewhere, headaches, double vision, a shortness of breath, aching muscles, cold, clammy skin…

I instructed her to go to the hospital and promised to pay the costs. Then the next morning I flew to Ghana for my next work assignment.

I got back three weeks later. Gloria had slowly got better (although without any hospital assistance), the white fly larvae seem to have gone – and there is no longer any birdsong in my courtyard. I mentioned this silence to her and she said that after the second application of the Lannate she had removed six dead birds from inside the courtyard. Oh, what have I done?


No, not a Senegalese swear word, but a family of rare African birds. More of them later.

I’ve taken advantage of a couple of recent opportunities to fit in a bit of bird/nature-watching. Firstly, a public holiday falling on a Monday in Senegal gave me a long weekend. A part of me just wanted to laze around, but always fearful that my contract here may end with corners of the region still unexplored, I decided to squeeze in a long weekend in The Gambia.

This meant a very early start – out of the house by 5:30 on the Saturday morning so as to get out of Dakar before the traffic jams built up. It seemed to work well as I was in The Gambia, and south of the river, by 2pm – only 40km away from my destination and a late afternoon/early evening stroll was in sight. However east-west traffic in central Gambia is not that frequent on Saturdays, apparently, and by the time I got to Tendaba Camp it was after 8pm and dark. I could almost have walked there in the time, and I reflected that it would have been worth the cost of hiring a private taxi instead of waiting for the public shared bush taxi if only I had known what a long wait was in store.

But anyway, I was still in time to organise a boat trip in the Baobolong Wetland Reserve for the next morning, which had been the main aim of the weekend. So the next morning I set off at 7:30 with a guide in a little wooden pirogue, crossing the wide, flat River Gambia for the little creeks of the Wetlands.

Even before we had crossed the river, two black crowned cranes had flown overhead, and the whole morning was full of birds. Although as is often the case with such bird-watching trips, it would have been worth it simply for the beauty of the scenery. I’m a water-lover anyway, whether wild, crashing ocean waves or still, calm lakes and creeks, and these creeks had the added bonus of primeval-looking vegetation (ferns, palms and the ghostly white remains of drowned trees) accompanied by a cacophony of bird sounds, including the plaintive cries of the beautiful blue-breasted kingfishers which were all around.
For some reason I didn’t end up with a photo of those – I think I was too caught up in just watching them to think of trying to take photos – but I did get one of a grey-headed kingfisher.

The second opportunity to get out into the wilds came in Ghana. Another public holiday and a few days of leave added on to a business trip there enabled me to organise a tour with a Ghanaian guide and driver, so as to get to some places off the beaten track. We spent most of the time walking through various forests, including a second visit to the canopy walkway in the Kakum Forest. I went there during my week in Ghana last year, but this time my guide was able to negotiate early morning entry which, combined with the use of his telescope, enabled me to get much more out of the visit than I did last year. Lots of birds as well as a small troop of beautiful spot-nosed monkeys.

It’s a pity I cannot show you here the beauty and magnificence of the violet turaco, the African emerald cuckoo or the black-casqued hornbill, but I think it is worth describing the trek to see one particular bird – the yellow-headed picathartes – as there are serious birdwatchers who go to Ghana specifically to see this bizarre creature, and the experience of tracking it down was a highlight of the trip.

This bird is about the size of a chicken, but very slender and with strong legs which it uses to bound between the ground and low branches in the forests where it lives. The underparts are white, and the back, wings and tail a very dark grey, but the head is the strange part – bare of feathers and coloured yellow, with a large raised black patch behind each eye rather like a big black mole. They live deep in the forests of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and were recently discovered to also live in this south-western part of Ghana. Although found only in inaccessible places, they build their mud nests on the sides of over-hanging rocks, and return to the nests every evening to sleep, so once the nesting site of a colony has been located the birds are relatively easy to see.

I say ‘relatively’ because getting to the interior of a forest in West Africa is never all that easy…

In Ghana one of the nesting colonies has been “opened to the public”: an arrangement set up with the local village that guides from the village will show people to the site for a fixed fee, which goes to the village development fund as an incentive for the village to preserve the forest. The other nesting sites are known only to the Ghana Wildlife Society. We drove to the village – itself a long journey down a bumpy dirt track for about an hour. There we located a guide, and I was reminded of the ‘rules’ – that once we got the site we were to make ourselves comfortable so as to wait, silent and motionless, until the birds came home for the night. Usually at about 16:30 but it could be a bit earlier so we had to be in place well before.

We had a 45-minute walk to get there. This started along a track through the farmers’ ‘fields’ of cocoa, banana, cassava, etc (where the forest has been cleared), but quickly took us into the forest itself where the path wound slowly upwards between the trees and vines. The last part was very steep, and I wanted to grab hold of those vines to help haul myself up, and had to keep remembering to check each one first for ants, thorns, etc.

Finally we were there, a rocky outcrop within the forest with a number of mud nests on the side, and we settled down on the rock, just a couple of metres away from the nests, to wait. It was just after 16:00.

16:15. My bottom had started to go numb and sweat tickled maddeningly as it trickled down my cleavage, but I couldn’t move – the birds could be here at any minute. The forest buzzed and hummed around us.

16:25. The minutes were ticking by very slowly.

16:32. What if they didn’t come? If they all decided to spend the night round a friend’s nest?

16:40. Starting to get seriously worried, when suddenly a shadow jumped into a nearby branch – and another – here they were!! Then the village guide’s mobile phone rang…

Ten minutes or so later, thankfully, the birds returned, lurking around the nesting area as they tried to figure out what to do. Clearly they couldn’t get to their nests with us sitting beside them, but they seemed surprisingly unafraid of us as long as we were careful not to make any sudden noises or movements. However we didn’t want to disturb the birds too much, so left once the guide was satisfied that I’d had a good view of them.

This was a special part of this trip of course, as these birds are so rare and so strange that you do feel privileged to get to see them. I also really enjoyed just being immersed in nature – on one day we spent six hours walking along a path in a forest and whilst we saw lots of birds, some squirrels and two snakes, we saw only one other person – but still I am wondering whether to try to see the other member of this bird family, the red-headed picathartes, when I go to Cameroon early next year.


It was nice, and very surprising, to find that Senegalese TV was showing the Chelsea v Man Utd match on Sunday (although the refereeing decisions left me fuming so perhaps I would have been better off not seeing it).

This is more typical of the TV fare on offer, noted one evening last week:

Various mid-level Senegalese notables making speeches, watched by rows of women sat in plastic chairs wearing big colourful shiny boubous and too much make-up and jewellery, trying to look interested. In Wolof (the main local language).

A group of about 12 women in shiny, voluminous, multi-coloured boubous, in front of some palm trees, singing and dancing to some nice plinky-plonky Malian-sounding music. In some local language.

Three women in (yes, you guessed) shiny, voluminous, multi-coloured boubous, artfully lounging in big leather armchairs, smiling and waving their arms around gently, whilst a similarly dressed woman in more jewellery shuffled around the room singing (in a local language). Oh, then cut to the same women, in different boubous, swaying to the same music in front of a backdrop of mud huts.

Soap opera from Latin America (Mexico?) dubbed into French.

TV5 Monde
Unclear, but involved an African family in a cheap, echoing set of a modern house, speaking French. Seemed to be some sort of soap opera.

Top-half view of a man in a shiny purple boubou, in front of a plain blue background, eyes closed, singing/wailing in some local language.

Walf TV
African man in quite nice shiny boubou singing what sounded like a North African (Moroccan?) song, with three women behind him in boubous and veils swaying to the music.

You can see why I don't watch TV very often!

However having just arrived in Guinea Bissau I am faced with even stranger TV since this is part of the tiny Lusophone community, that is the former Portuguese colonies. At breakfast this morning they were showing “Bom Dia Africa” with activities taking place in a dry dusty environment that clearly wasn’t Guinea Bissau, which is lush and green. Turned out to be an Angolan TV channel, which then moved on to a programme set in a swimming pool, with lots of bare flesh on show including Brazilian-style thong bikinis. Most bizarre to be watching that from conservative, largely Muslim West Africa, where the showing of any flesh between the waist and the knee is pretty much taboo for local women (at the beach I’ve seen local women go in the water fully clothed). Once again though I am reminded of how much I like Guinea Bissau. It has something of Brazil about it not just in the rhythms of the music and movement of the people but also in the relaxed atmosphere of the place.

Insects and other nasty things

The rainy season brings out the insects. Not just the mosquitoes, although those are certainly plentiful at the moment, but other things too. This morning I found a centipede on the wall in my hall (OK, not an insect, I know). Thankfully I found out recently, during my Kenya holiday, that these things have a bite/sting so painful that grown men can roll around on the floor screaming in agony, so it was very quickly squashed.

Last weekend I found this nasty-looking insect building its little mud nest in my kitchen (little nests that rapidly grow to enormous nests). I called my maid, Gloria, over and asked her to deal with it, and she smashed the nest into pieces. Before she threw them away however I asked to take a look, wondering if there had been anything inside the little mud tunnels. & this was what I saw.

Ten dead spiders, at least! Plus what I guess was the insect larvae, just under the lime green spider in the front of the picture. I wondered then, given my dislike of spiders, whether I was doing the right thing by discouraging it from nesting in my house. But it did look as though it could give a nasty sting, as I said to Gloria. She replied that they are completely harmless. I felt momentarily guilty, but then again I really wouldn’t feel comfortable with an insect like that hovering around me, despite its wonderful spider-removing capacity.

Flooding in Dakar

I got home to Dakar to find torrential rain, with thunderstorms several times a day and water rushing down the streets like mini rivers. Thankfully I live in a well-drained area, so apart from the water coming through a leak in the roof, I’m not in too much danger.

But out in the northern suburbs I think close to a million people are affected in one way or another by flooding – and the President has decided to prolong his holiday in France. Mind you, there wouldn’t really be much he could do if he came back. I did a bit of research on this area earlier in the year because I had to do an Open University assignment related to flooding. This is roughly what I found.

Running through the middle of the big northern suburbs of Pikine and Guediawaye where the biggest problems are is the Niayes valley, a low-lying area of dunes and basins where the water table is in places only a couple of metres below the surface. It is effectively a dried-out river bed.

It used to be predominantly a market-gardening area, supplying Dakar with its fruit and vegetables, but with droughts hitting livelihoods in the rural areas, and unsightly shanty towns being cleared from the centre of Dakar, the population grew rapidly in the 1970s and ‘80s. It evolved from a series of villages to a vast urban sprawl of over a million inhabitants (some three-quarters of whom didn’t even acquire a building permit for their houses - there is not much respect for laws here, especially when they are expensive to comply with and when the government does not have the power to enforce them). The government’s 1967 Dakar Urban Plan banned construction in wetland zones such as this, because of the risk of flooding (the droughts were not going to last forever), but this was not properly enforced either.

But all the time the flood risk was worsening. Due to the ‘informal’ nature of the settlement, there were no drainage channels built in. There were no sanitation facilities, and household waste was dumped in the streets, blocking natural drainage channels so there would be nowhere for rainwater to go. So when the rains returned – in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008 and again this year – thousands of homes were flooded as well as schools and market-places. Some had families elsewhere to look after them, but many had to stay, moving upstairs if they were lucky enough to have one, and building makeshift flood defences out of sand and rubbish. The water table is now so high that even if you pump out the water, more just comes up out of the ground.

In 2008 the government responded to the emergency by directing $650,000 towards pumping water out of submerged neighbourhoods, the International Federation of the Red Cross delivered emergency supplies to families sheltering in schools, and other NGOs such as Islamic Relief delivered food parcels. However the emergency money ran out in a matter of just days, after which the pumps sat idle because there were no funds to buy fuel for them.

In Senegal, very few householders buy insurance. Many don’t know such cover exists, and those that do are unlikely to take it up, given the level of poverty. There is also a pervasive sense of fatalism, encapsulated by the often heard “Insh’allah” meaning “if God wills it”. This particular interpretation of Islam leads the residents to do far less than one might expect to help mitigate the flood risk. No one makes any attempt to clean up the rubbish, for example, that all agree is part of the problem.

What about local government? Well a regional flood management commission was set up, and in 2005 undertook to construct (and then maintain) flood protection and sanitation facilities, at a cost of $8.2m, and to procure equipment such as pumps, at a cost of some $30,000. By August 2008 the only progress was the purchase and installation of a number of pumps. In reality, pumping out floodwater is more or less all the local authorities can afford.

At national government level, an ambitious plan was drawn up following the 2005 floods to build new accommodation for the relocation of 4,000 affected families – the ones with legal land title and building permits. Plan Jaxaay was to cost the government $104 million. But they don’t have the money either. Part of the financing was diverted from a budget originally intended to fund elections (which therefore had to be postponed in the face of substantial opposition), but when officials tried to draw down the funds they found that these had already been spent on something else. A year later when the floods came again, only empty fields marked the Plan Jaxaay site. I’ve heard that only around 1,500 families have been moved so far, and that this year part of that site was flooded too.

So why do people still live there? Well, most of them have no choice. No-one will buy the houses in view of the flooding and the lack of legal papers, and few have the financial means to start over again. Besides, their friends and family are there – it is their home.

I visited Pikine in April this year, and went to a couple of houses, getting to one across a trail of sandbags laid through the green, foul-smelling, mosquito-infested floodwaters that still remained six months after the flooding of October 2008. It is not a pretty place. Even before the floodwaters added to the mess, it was a mixture of cement block houses and piles of rubbish. But of course our Western appreciation of pretty views and nice green space is one borne out of relative luxury. Here the environment is seen as a source of resources to be exploited in the pursuit of survival. And Pikine is cheap - $15 a month to rent a single room, compared with $50+ anywhere else. So people still come, and still build. And pray that “if God wills it” the floods will not return next year.

The holiday bit

Although my trip to Kenya was really about volunteer work, there were short bursts of holiday in there too. For example the drive to the inland community went through Tsavo West National Park (where I saw giraffes, kudus, elephants and an ostrich), and I spent a weekend visiting Shimba Hills National Park (where I saw buffalo, sable antelope, and more giraffes, as well as a pair of African wood owls). A late afternoon visit to a lodge in Tsavo West also added more elephants, hippos, crocodiles and a zebra to the list.

There’s not much to say about it really, as you all know what elephants, hippos, etc look like, but an excuse to post a couple of photos here (and a nice yellow-billed stork at the end).

I also got to see my Mum, of course, spending a weekend with her when the rest of the volunteers were off getting drunk together. In fact they seemed to spend a lot of their time getting drunk, and swearing, and falling about laughing about farting. Are all young people like that nowadays?? They were nice people, but showed no respect at all for the sensitivities of those around them (Kenyans generally being polite, respectful, well-mannered people who I’m certain will have been horrified by such behaviour) and at times I actually felt embarrassed to be with them.

Finally my five weeks were over however, and GVI drove me to Mombasa airport. I arrived many hours before my flight but decided it wasn’t worth paying $30 to transfer to an earlier one.

Big mistake! Waiting in the departure lounge an hour before scheduled take-off, I was approached by an airline representative to be told the flight had been delayed by three hours to 11pm. Which would mean arriving in Nairobi after midnight. Conscious of the city’s reputation, I asked her if it wasn’t dangerous for me to take a taxi to my hotel at such an hour. She told me it was dangerous, so I asked her what I should do. “Pray” she said.

Finally on the plane, I relayed this conversation to the man sitting next to me. He immediately offered to transfer some credit to my phone so that I could contact my hotel and/or a taxi company, but then also offered to give me a lift to my hotel. I decided that he was lower risk than a random taxi at that time of night, and sure enough he (in fact his driver) took me to my hotel. I didn’t even need the phone credit (which he would not accept payment for). It was very typical Africa – things appear to have gone wrong and you are feeling miserable about it, then something good turns up, usually due to the kindness of African people.

More community work

I had a second week of community work, this time in a village in the dry, dusty interior near Tsavo West. Former poachers, the community of Mahandakini had been persuaded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals that there were better ways of making a living than hunting giraffes to sell as bushmeat, and GVI was trying to help them develop other ways of making a living.

The community already grow cotton, but as raw cotton prices are so low, they don't really make money from it. GVI (through its volunteers) is trying to raise money to buy spinning machines for the village, and is teaching them to make cotton products to sell to tourist lodges and perhaps to export to "fair trade" shops in the UK. We were there to teach them how to turn woven cotton into cushion covers, as well as advising on the suitability of different designs using locally available natural dyes.

So I found myself measuring, cutting and pinning up cotton, trying to explain how to calculate the amount of material to allow for the overlap (the bit where the cushion goes in) and other things I had known nothing about until this week. I also watched the women turn tree bark into a natural dye (here they are straining the dye through a plastic tea-strainer on the left), and fold and tie the cotton before dying it so as to produce patterns on the material. I hadn't much looked forward to this as I didn't see how I could contribute anything useful, but in fact with some preparation it went well and I enjoyed it. The sample finished product that we managed to prepare during the week was of a surprisingly high quality.

Living conditions there were basic, as we slept in our sleeping bags on the concrete floor of a disused building, cooked over a fire, and got to "wash" only once in the week when we visited a natural spring and all jumped in for a swim.

By the end of the week we (and all of our clothes and sleeping bags) were brown from the dust. I actually found myself looking forward to a "shower" from a bucket of seawater back at base!

Forest and Community work

Continuing with my volunteer stint in Kenya, I moved over to Shimoni peninsula for a week of work in the forest. The focus was to collect data on the resident Angolan black and white colobus monkeys, but a lot of time was also spent collecting data on the habitat, including on other mammals, on butterflies and birds, and on the vegetation.

We spent long hours walking along transects in the forest – under hanging branches and vines, over fallen logs, and through thorny bushes – and I loved every minute of it, despite the collection of cuts and bruises I accumulated. We saw quite a few colobus as well as Sykes monkeys and olive baboons, bushbabies, tiny suni antelopes, a giant pouched rat, and a few birds.

The best bit was never knowing what you might see next (compared to the marine work where it was dolphins and more dolphins…). The worst bit was seeing the frightening rate of deforestation, as every day we saw or heard people cutting down trees, and one day saw an enormous, newly constructed charcoal pit – illegal, but there is no-one with the resources to enforce the rules.

We also spent a week in Shimoni doing community work. This was supposed to involve teaching English, but as school had not restarted we were allocated to painting a school classroom instead. I have no artistic abilities, but was so relieved to get out of the teaching, having been dreading the thought of standing up in front of a room full of children, that I was happy to be asked to paint pictures to illustrate the numbers 3 – 7!

The marine environment

is not for me. I had a great couple of weeks assisting with the marine research done by GVI in Kenya – watching (and collecting data on) bottlenose and humpback dolphins, humpback whales and hawksbill turtles. But even here, 4° off the equator, the wind can be cold. Especially when it is raining, and you have just got out of the sea following a 400 metre snorkel as part of the turtle survey. It was as I sat there shivering, clinging on to the edge of the boat as we tossed about on the swell, that it briefly crossed my mind that I would prefer to be, at that moment, sitting in an office working on some report.

I’m just not cut out for this kind of life. You have to have good balance to deal with a constantly moving boat and strong arms to lug all the heavy equipment about, as well as being able to cope with the cold rather better than I do. An earlier dream I had of finding some kind of work in this field has well and truly gone!

I could, however, happily base myself somewhere with a view like the one we had from our camp

Two sides of Bangkok

Depressed by the volume of traffic, prostitutes and hawkers near my hotel, I was determined to search for some nicer bits of Bangkok at the weekend. I love water, so I started by walking to the klong (canal) nearest to the hotel, where I took a water taxi the whole of its length. Suddenly a different world appeared, as behind the shiny new tower blocks are rickety old wooden houses and shacks, mostly covered with a veritable forest of pot plants, where cats prowl, women are busy cooking and washing, and the men laze around in hammocks watching the world go by.

The water is dirty, and smelly, of course, and the water taxis have plastic “curtains” at the sides to protect the passengers from splashes – so it isn’t the best tourist transport, but nevertheless it is miles better than the traffic jams out on the roads.

Not that I’m complaining about any of it. The choice of restaurants near my hotel in Sukhumvit was superb, with Italian, Japanese – even a Manchester United Restaurant and Bar! But everywhere you look there are these couples – older, unattractive white man (receding hairline, beer belly, etc) with a beautiful, slim young Thai girl on his arm – that really bother me.

Why? I don’t disapprove of prostitution, so it’s not that. But I think that those who indulge in prostitution should have the grace to be slightly embarrassed about it, and so to keep it quiet. Here, however the men look like the cat that got the cream, so proud of their ‘conquest’. But surely they must realise that everyone knows they couldn’t attract a girl like that in a million years unless they were paying her? The girls seem to have no shame either.

But anyway, away from that Bangkok has some nice, interesting areas. After my canal trip I went to visit Wat Pho, to see the enormous reclining Buddha as well as all the hundreds of other buddhas in side temples dotted around the complex. There were surprisingly few tourists there (perhaps tricked by the many men in the area who tell you, “It’s closed today, but I can arrange for you to do a good shopping trip instead…”) and the place had a very relaxing atmosphere. I spent three hours there. Although I have to admit that even there the other side of Bangkok intruded briefly. Walking down a little lane between side temples, I looked to my right when I heard someone gasp, and was surprised to see a Thai man standing there masturbating. Not quite the respect for Buddha that you expect inside the grounds of the country’s major Buddhist temple!

Wanting to see more of the water afterwards I took a one-hour tour on a longtail boat of the Thonburi area of the city – a labyrinth of canals lined with wooden houses perched on stilts above the water and a level of peace and tranquillity that couldn’t be imagined from the busy streets.

On Sunday a colleague took me to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. It is enormous, selling everything from camping gear and Buddha statues to orchids and puppies. We wandered its lanes for several hours and I bought Tshirts, sandals and a dress. I resisted the Buddha statues but gazed longingly at a giant painting of a magnolia tree in bloom on strips of old wood. It was the size of one wall of a room, and I could just imagine it looking spectacular on the wall of one of those enormous old London warehouse flats.

But this trip was over far too soon (eight days in total), and I am drafting this whilst waiting for my connecting flight in Nairobi airport. A nine hour flight which will get me back home to Dakar this evening, before I have to turn around again 24 hours later to fly all the way back here again…

Transit in Nairobi

Just a quick business trip to Thailand, but it’s not the easiest place to get to from Dakar. First a nine-hour overnight flight to Nairobi, then 16 hours in transit in Nairobi, followed by another nine-hour overnight flight to get to Bangkok.

What to do with 16 hours in Nairobi? It’s not a bad airport, with a transit lounge for Kenya Airways passengers, but really 16 hours is too long to spend in an airport.

So I bought myself a transit visa and with my cabin baggage checked through to Bangkok I was able to get the bus into town, and from there a matatu to the Nairobi National Park. I wasn’t going to go into the Park itself, at $50 just for entrance (for foreigners), and at least as much again to hire a car and driver as you are not allowed to walk there. However there is a board-walk along the periphery of the park, with some orphaned and rescued animals on display as well as the possibility of seeing birds, monkeys etc – and this at only $20 entrance.

& I wasn’t disappointed. With Sykes monkeys (I think) in the trees, stunning little purple grenadiers flitting about, and a pair of giant kingfishers easily visible not too far from the path – a bird I have long wanted to see.

It was a good day, although Dakar-Bangkok is still not a journey I would recommend.

Trouble with the staff

One of my guards told me he wanted to have a word with me before I went on my next trip. He was particularly keen to track me down, even sending me a text at work to be sure that I would be home that evening.

I hoped he wouldn’t ask for another loan. He already owes me money, and although he is always very good at paying me back, this one has been outstanding a little longer than usual. He’s recently been bringing me the odd ‘gift’ – a fresh mango here, something planted in the garden there – I think in lieu of interest as he knows he should have repaid me by now. I guess times are tough, as security guards don’t earn all that much. & I didn’t think this was going to be a repayment, as for that there was no need to ask to speak to me, he could just hand me the money.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I answered the door to his knock on Friday evening. I did not want to lend him more money until he repaid the previous loan, but also did not relish the prospect of saying “no” to him, as he has been with me since I first moved into my house and is the sweetest, gentlest, most helpful of men.

I invited him in to sit down, and he started by telling me that he hoped what he was going to say would not upset me, that he knew he was risking his job by what he was about to say, but that he could not keep quiet for any longer. I told him to go ahead and tell me whatever it was.

“I’ve fallen in love with you” he said.

Well! That was the LAST thing I expected, and I really didn’t know what to say. He is a lovely person, who would treat a woman really well (the type who would never look at another woman again in his life) – as I said above, a really sweet, gentle and kind man. Reminds me of my Mum’s new husband, in fact.

But not what I would be looking for, even were I looking for a man at all! I really didn’t know what to say to him (nor how to talk about this sort of thing in French…) so had to just tell him I was not interested in him but that I was not upset by what he had told me and that his job was safe. Apparently he has been hiding this feeling for some six months now, and the fact that I was about to be away from Dakar for seven weeks meant he just had to tell me how he felt. He wants me to ‘think about it’ while I am away.

How do you tell someone, gently, that there is absolutely no chance on earth that you will ever get together with them, in a way that is final but does not hurt their feelings?


Senegal’s national sport, even more popular than football, is wrestling. There is Senegalese wrestling on TV nearly every night of the week, and that is only from the stadia around the country; there are countless smaller arenas and village squares where young men wrestle each other to the ground.

I’ve watched it on TV many times and determined that I had to see it in real life. The actual wrestling bout (a mixture of wrestling, judo, and - at the higher levels where they progress to ‘wrestling with boxing’ - also the odd punch) usually takes just a few minutes but the preparation takes an hour or more with the participants strutting about in little loin cloths with various bits of leather and rope entwined about themselves to hold their gris gris – leather pouches containing protective amulets. Traditionally these would be bits of ground up animal or vegetable matter invested with various powers, but those rejecting animism for Islam might now replace the chicken bone with a Moslem prayer (perhaps coated in ground-up chicken bone just in case…). Their spiritual guide will also have prepared various liquid potions for them, which they bring in plastic bottles to drink, pour all over their bodies or sprinkle over the arena before the fight.

All the time there will be relentless drumming (from an official troupe but also by people in the crowd), and a praise singer calling out the virtues of the fighters. Meanwhile the TV cameramen prowl around, and journalists from various newspapers trail the wrestlers with their cameras and microphones – and really the whole thing seems like that characteristically African organised chaos that I love so much about this place.

Finally this weekend I got to go to a real live wrestling contest in a stadium in the middle of Dakar (sat between the treasurer of the national wrestling federation and the father of the favourite to win the cup so inevitably I was also featured several times on the TV, as I discovered at work the next day…). It was everything I had seen on TV only louder and more confusing, with the ‘sand pit’ in the middle where the fight takes place, a group of drummers and singers up one end, two TV commentators talking away constantly (how I wish I understood the Wolof language), journalists milling about everywhere, the various wrestlers (for the four different fights) preparing themselves and of course the crowd getting worked up. This appears to show some sort of blood-letting as part of the preparations:

I enjoyed it so much that my hosts took me on with them to a second competition, not in a stadium this time but a local arena in a suburb of Dakar. Here there was the same drumming and praise singing, but some thirty plus wrestlers strutting about, whilst two or three wrestling bouts were usually taking place, each with its own referee, in various parts of the sand pit. All this built up to a grand finale for which the winner not only got $2,000 but also the opportunity to move up to the ‘wrestling with boxing’ in a proper stadium with bigger prize money.

A spectator at this second venue explained to me that there are four requirements for a successful fighter: physical power, intelligence, serenity and effective mystical charms (the gris gris and potions). I asked whether the charms weren’t just a show to psyche out the opposition, and was assured that they were real, that they work, and that without them a fighter has no chance – indeed without them to counter the power of his opponent’s charms he may find himself powerless to even move once the fight starts. & I must say in the sultry heat of the rainy season, with the hypnotic drumming going on and on, and semi-naked wrestlers pouring these strange-coloured liquids over themselves, it was almost possible to believe in them.

Certainly when I thought about the headlining fight at the first venue, it was hard to comprehend how the fat guy (below) beat his opponent (with the usual impressive fighter physique) without some kind of supernatural help.

Sun worshipping

Apparently a statistical analysis showed that there really is a greater likelihood of rain at the weekend than during the working week. This analysis was done in the UK, but I can confirm that it applies here in Senegal too.

All last week I looked out of the window at the sun, waiting for Sunday (no work, no guards and no maid) when I planned to lie there sweating out litres of fluid – as it is now the humid time of year – in the pursuit of that permanent suntan. Sunday came, at last. I opened the curtains, only to see dark grey clouds, and within a couple of hours the rain started, and continued throughout the day.

On Monday, of course, the sky was blue again and the sun back out.

This is the third weekend out of four when my sunbathing has been scuppered by the weather, during which time we have had only one wet weekday. I know it is protecting my skin from further ageing (and how I’ve aged since I’ve been living in Senegal!) but I feel so much better when I’m brown.

Falling apart

As a break from the usual routine of getting on and off planes, I have had the luxury of a whole month in Senegal.

"Great!" I thought, "I'll finally have time to get to see some Senegalese wrestling, to spend a day with my maid shopping for ingredients and learning how to turn them into the national dish, Thie-bou-dienne (an upmarket fish-and-rice-and vegetable concoction), to go to the gym, to go to the market and buy some African fabrics to get some clothes made..." But no, my employers managed to find two extra projects for me to work on so I have shuttled between home and the office and had time for very little else.

So what I had hoped would be a really upbeat post about some of the great experiences of living in Dakar is not to be. Instead it is yet another sigh of frustration about the fact that everything here always BREAKS or FALLS APART.

For the last week my water heater has been heating away, night and day, acting like a giant radiator (which is not what you need when the average daily temperature now is around 36°C), but I have been too busy to get anyone in to fix it. Gradually though the wall next to the heater warmed up, the floor tiles beneath it warmed up, and finally the plant on the other side of the wall withered and died - so I knew that I would have to call someone today. But I was just too late. I went into the bathroom this morning to find it was not heating - and there was no hot water - and when I went to check that the power switch was on, I found the switch had melted...

Then this afternoon as I walked the hundred metres between offices I thought my shoes felt strange. I examined them when I got in, to find that the heels (of both) had come unstuck from the soles - I doubt I will make it home tonight before they fall off completely.

Oh, and if as the normal falling apart isn't good enough, the ants try to make it worse. They keep erupting into the house through little holes in the cement between the floor tiles. As soon as I pour boiling water down one and cover it with polyfilla they must start digging away again from their nest in the foundations, and sure enough another little hole appears somewhere else and up they come. Thankfully these are not the biting kind of ants, but I still don't like being woken up by one trying to get in my ear, as I was this morning.


At the end of a hectic few weeks of back-to-back assignments I was left with a weekend in Sierra Leone while waiting for the first flight home on Monday afternoon.

There are plenty of national parks in Sierra Leone that I would love to visit, but the absence of any real infrastructure in the country makes it impossible for just a weekend. The previous weekend I had been driven from Monrovia to Freetown – an eight-hour journey, partly on a narrow, pot-holed dirt track carved through the Gola Forest – and this the main road between the neighbouring capital cities!

So I opted instead for a simple local trip, to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the hills above Freetown. This is just a twenty minute drive away, although I then had a twenty minute walk on the end of it as my taxi driver refused to drive me right up to the sanctuary gates in case we encountered any animals, as he was afraid...

When I arrived I joined the daily afternoon tour of the facilities, from the quarantine areas for newly rescued chimps, the isolation areas for those recovering from vaccination, the play areas for the younger ones still being introduced to eachother, and finally the areas of natural forest where the established groups roam. It is illegal to hunt chimpanzees in Sierra Leone, or to keep them as pets, but the Tacugama centre is still kept busy. There must be easily 100 animals there. The ultimate aim is to reintroduce the groups to the wild, though I’m not sure whether or not they have yet been able to do this with any groups.

I was staying in a lodge hidden away in the trees – tiny kitchen, and bathroom, as you entered, then up some very steep steps to a bedroom and surrounding balcony, complete with hammock, in the tree canopy. Electricity was supposedly solar powered, but the light it provided was so dim that I still needed my torch just to walk across the room. Perhaps there were too many trees shading the solar panels? So it was dark in the lodge by 7pm. I was tired, having worked until 4am that morning to complete our report, so I went to bed and slept soundly for twelve hours. How wonderful!

Sunday was spent walking. There are several marked trails in the area, and I followed one 7km round trip through a couple of tiny villages to a small waterfall, and one through the forest to a small dam. There was nothing spectacular to see, but it was all very pleasant – and I saw a stunning shining-blue kingfisher, although none of the rare white-necked picathartes that are known to nest in the area.

Again I slept like a log, good preparation for the usual tiring journey home.


I have for many weeks been intending to post something about the local elections which took place in Senegal in March. These were for city mayors, and were preceded for several weeks by floats for the candidates driving around the cities. The floats blare out loud music and are usually surrounded by people in party T-shirts who look too young to vote – I’m not really sure what they achieve but they cost the candidates lots of money.

One of the candidates for the biggest seat of all – mayor of Dakar – was Karim Wade, the son of the country’s president Abdoulaye Wade. The president has been trying to set up his son as his successor for quite some time, placing him into a series of plum jobs at which he never quite seems to succeed, and the Senegalese media are not impressed. This, however, was his chance to demonstrate his support from the people.

He lost.

As did the president’s party in big towns up and down the country. The president said that the people had spoken and he was listening. “A triumph for democracy in Africa”, I thought.

Then this weekend I heard the latest news. Karim has been appointed as a senior minister (a cabinet member) in the government – Minister of State for International Cooperation, Urban and Regional Planning, Air Transport and Infrastructure – the largest ministry in Senegal since independence. Oh dear.

Mexican pigs

I have just received the third Alert Notice of the day from various parts of my NGO, giving me advice about swine flu. I so want to reply to our head office in the UK, to point out to them that the vast majority of our employees live, work and travel in a different world from them.

Apparently if I develop flu-like symptoms I am supposed to go to my doctor. Well I have news for them. Living where I do I would always visit the doctor if I developed such symptoms, because of the likelihood that it would be malaria - a disease that kills thousands on a daily basis, unlike swine flu which has so far killed less than 100 people.

There. Got that out of my system.

Southern Benin

Whilst the north has its national parks and the Betammaribe and Peul cultures, the south has the remnants of colonialism, old kingdoms and slavery, villages built on stilts around a lagoon, and the voodoo culture.

The old capital of the former Dan-Homey kingdom, Abomey is a great place to start. Early in the seventeenth century, Gangnihessou established this kingdom. A succession of kings followed, each one building a new palace, until they were finally defeated by the French at the end of nineteenth century. Two of these palaces still remain intact, and vestiges of the others (decaying bits of old mud walls) can be found around town. Those that remain now have UNESCO World Heritage site status and have been turned into a museum, with several quite interesting exhibits such as one of the old king’s thrones (an elaborate wooden stool resting on four human skulls) and the outfit that used to be worn by the Amazones (an elite troop of female warriors).

Also in the region are a large number of subterranean dwellings (excavated by the local people as a way of hiding from intruders and then re-emerging behind enemy lines), the private palaces of the former kings (mostly in the course of being restored, with the help of various NGOs), and lots of evidence of the voodoo religion.

One village near Abomey is populated by the descendants of those who used to carry out all the voodoo ceremonies for the kings, including those before important events such as going into battle. I visited a priest at his home.

By the front gate were two fetishes, both connected with the spirit Legba – the most powerful of the spirits, and always depicted with a big erect penis as apparently virility is the most important power in the protection of homes and communities. Legba can somehow tell if a visitor is coming with bad intentions, and will signal this to the inhabitants.

Inside were many more fetishes, each representing some different spirit. All have to be nourished on a daily basis (with a small offering of maize meal, for example), but if special favours are asked then rather greater offerings are required in return. In the past this could even extend to human sacrifices, but a decision was made some sixty years ago to substitute humans with bulls. Apparently the human victims were obtained from the ranks of prisoners of war, but as there is now peace within Benin there are no longer any prisoners of war available. More common is the sacrifice of chickens. Usually only the blood and certain innards go to the fetish though, the rest of the animal being eaten by those involved in the ceremony. I forgot to ask what used to happen to the bodies of the human sacrifices.

I watched as the priest did his rounds of the fetishes, sprinkling water on each first to ‘wake them up’ (in keeping with the traditional offering of water to a newly arrived guest) and then mumbling incantations at them as he swung a calabash instrument around (partly filled with something so as to make a sound – rather like maracas). He did various other strange things too, at one point holding a horn on his head whilst chanting. I was not only allowed to watch but even to take photos – provided (i) that I showed respect (eg taking off my shoes before visiting the shrine of the earth spirit, where your feet should be in contact with the earth), and (ii) that I promised to send prints of the photos back to the priest.

Voodoo seems to have a pretty poor reputation in the West, I suppose in part because of the human sacrifices, but at least in the Benin context it seems pretty harmless, and to me makes no more or less sense than any other religion. The guide who facilitated my visit told me he was a Catholic, but that of course he still took part in the voodoo ceremonies as it was local culture. I asked how he reconciled the two, and his answer was that it was all the same god, whether the all-powerful Catholic god or one of his manifestations as one of the voodoo spirits. It reminded me of a holiday in Mexico many years ago when I visited a Catholic church in Chiapas where chicken sacrifices are actually done inside the church, somehow having been incorporated into Catholicism by the local people.

I guess this chicken standing next to Legba has not yet had the local culture explained to it.

I suppose in this ‘tour guide’ to southern Benin I should also mention the official capital of Porto Novo, a crumbling little town with some nice museums. Have I managed to persuade you to visit Benin yet? It is an amazing country, one of my favourites in the region.

Northern Benin

When I think of wildlife it isn’t usually West Africa that comes to mind. However as these pictures show, there are interesting pockets of wildlife remaining in this region.

They were taken in the Parc de Pendjari, a large reserve in the far north of Benin. In just one night’s stay (a late evening visit to a waterhole and a rather more leisurely drive the next morning) I saw hippos, crocodiles, buffaloes, elephants, a lion, baboons, two species of monkey and lots of different species of antelope and gazelle. Not to mention a fair few birds including the beautiful scarlet and turquoise coloured carmine bee-eater.

The journey there took me through the Atacora mountains, a region inhabited by the Betammaribe people. They are known for their unique style of house – a kind of mud fortress, inside which they can keep their animals, their grains and themselves, hiding themselves in there away from the world in times of danger. This style was apparently developed during the time of slave raids from the neighbouring Dahomey people. I visited one (paying a small fee for the privilege) – very cosy although how they stand doing their cooking on a wood fire inside the house I don’t know, the smoke made my eyes smart and I had to escape that room quickly. It partly explains the high number of children in the region who suffer respiratory illnesses.

Until the 1970s these people lived a very traditional lifestyle, with little contact with the outside world. Then they got a blast of publicity in France, by someone who thought they had discovered the ‘real unspoilt Africa’, one result of which was that the authorities pressured them to at least put some clothes on … it seems that they felt some shame at the fact that there were near naked tribesmen living in the country. I can’t see why, personally, as many of these people are living a lifestyle which is far more in tune with their environment than the western lifestyles they are now expected to emulate.

I wonder if they will in time also pressure the people to stop applying the tribal markings that are so prevalent in this country. Outside of the capital, nearly everyone you meet has some kind of scarification on their face, which identifies their tribal origins. I also saw some interesting tattoos. In the north the women from the Peul tribe have lots of little tattoos all over their faces (as well as some fairly distinctive jewellery), and later in the central region I saw an old lady with various lines and dots tattooed over her chest, stomach and back – apparently something to do with her status within the voodoo religion.

Along the Petite Cote

As I have had some unanticipated time in Senegal I have been able to give myself a long weekend to see a little of Senegal’s “Petite Côte”. The white sand beaches, mostly undeveloped, stretch for some 130km south of Dakar, and last weekend I travelled down to the furthest point. This took eight hours on public transport (partly the queues to leave Dakar and partly the unsurfaced roads), but by the time I arrived I felt as though I was a million miles away from the capital. Outside of Dakar, Senegal is a beautiful country.

I stayed in a nice lodge in Palmarin for two nights, from where I wondered around the nearby fishing village of Djifer, took a pirogue trip amongst the mangrove creeks, and sat on a horse whilst it walked along the beach for an hour or so (during which time my guide and I saw one other person, a local fisherman).

I then travelled up the coast to Mbodiene, a small undeveloped village but with a couple of lodges on its outskirts, nicely positioned on the edge of a coastal lagoon. I was one of three people staying there, along with the owners, a family of three eagle owls that live in one of the baobab trees on the property and a chameleon that lives in the bougainvillia. The prophet’s birthday was being celebrated that night, in typical Senegalese fashion with singing and drumming so I was glad we were quite a distance from the village as I did manage some sleep.

It was not meant to be a serious bird-watching weekend, but of course knowing how prolific Senegal’s birdlife is I did take my binoculars and bird book. There was other wildlife too – I saw a hyena, a jackal, two monitor lizards, the chameleon and an unidentified snake, but also such a great number of birds that I felt compelled to list them. For those without a serious interest in birds, look away now!

Purple heron
Grey heron
Goliath heron
Pink-backed pelican
Great white pelican
European spoonbill
Common ringed plover
Ruddy turnstone
Spurwinged lapwing
Little stint
Bar-tailed godwit
Senegal thick knee
Fish eagle
Great egret
Cattle egret
Western reef egret
Pied kingfisher
Black-winged stilt
Beautiful sunbird
Variable sunbird
Abyssinian roller
Little bee-eater
Northern crombec
Yellow-crowned gonolek
Northern grey-headed sparrow
House sparrow
African grey hornbill
Red-billed hornbill
Long-tailed cormorant
Caspian tern
Royal tern
Gull-billed tern
Grey-headed gull
Crowned lark
Yellow wagtail
White wagtail
Village weaver
White-billed buffalo weaver
Long-tailed glossy starling
Namaqua dove
Laughing dove
Red-chested swallow
African palm swift
Tawny-flanked prinia
Black scrub robin
Reed warbler
Senegal coucal
Verreaux’s eagle owl
Red-billed quelea
Black-rumped waxbill
Pied crow
Green wood hoopoe
Grey woodpecker
Double-spurred francolin
Hooded vulture

+ a nightjar (unidentified species) and more waders and gulls than those listed.

Saturday in Casablanca

I was feeling quite sorry for myself last week. My organisation is anticipating falls in revenue and so is already instigating cost-cutting measures. Out of that I have lost my forthcoming assignment in the UK (so cancel the hairdressers, the dinners with friends...) as well as my much-looked-forward-to assignment in East Timor due for May.

On the face of it those sound sensible, I know, but the exercise wasn't done in a transparent way, so when I see that a colleague from our South America region still has his UK assignment in place (surely his flight back must be more expensive than mine?) I do not feel very happy about losing mine. Also when some of the other changes I have been told to make to my plans for my region involve increasing costs, possibly by enough to have paid for my flight to East Timor...

I know I vowed not to write about work on here, but it really has been a depressing week.

However on Saturday as I was stuck in transit for 13 hours on the way back home from Cameroon, I thought once again about how many good bits there still are to the travel. My transit was in Casablanca, a city I had never visited before, so I took a train from the airport into the city and wondered around the souk and the Hassan II Mosque, and had a lovely lunch of grilled sardines with some local wine. The sky was blue and although cold, the sun was shining - and really the Hassan II Mosque is one of the most amazing buildings I have seen. Too big to really photograph, but the above gives some idea of the style, and here is a picture of some of the decor at one of the side entrances.

Scary Africans

You know those stories about the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia – the child soldiers wearing outlandish clothes and women’s wigs, brandishing AK47s whilst high on drugs? Well this man was wondering around at the festival in Segou (see previous post) – and I couldn’t help imagining how frightening it would be to see him manning a checkpoint in the middle of a crazy civil war somewhere…

Festival sur le Niger

Over the weekend prior to my assignment in Mali there was a cultural festival in Segou. I had signed up to this some months ago, filling in the forms on the website indicating my intention to attend the festival, take the free bus there from the capital, stay for three nights in the home of a local family and take a tour to a couple of local villages on the Sunday morning.

The free bus was an hour late, and the Sunday morning tour started two hours late, but otherwise everything worked like clockwork. When we arrived in Segou there was my name on the various lists, and when I had paid for my €100 festival ticket there was the man from my host family with his moped ready to take me back to his house.

In fact the whole festival was well-organised, with a big stage beside the river for the main musical acts with standing and seating areas for the audience arranged up the riverbank, a number of smaller stages for other performances, an art gallery, cafes and restaurants within the grounds and a whole host of market stalls set up just outside the entrances to get the tourists to part with their money.

Thankfully most of the visitors were local, as a dual pricing structure (€5 for Malians) ensured that it was affordable for all. & as Mali is such a culturally rich country, with so many traditions still intact, watching the audience was a part of the pleasure. These old men are dressed in the traditional hunter's outfits.
I suppose the main draw for many was the music, with well-known Malians such as Bassekou Kouyate, Vieux Farka and Oumou Sangare on the bill, as well as invited guests such as the Amazons de Guinée and a dreadful Senegalese woman called Coumba Gawwlo Seck who was very popular with all the youngsters. However this festival also showcases Mali’s still vibrant tradition of mask dances, and there were troupes of Dogon stilt dancers as well as a fantastic performance of Bozo masks/puppets.

The Bozo tribe are fishermen and their mask traditions are water-based. So from the riverbank we watched as various enormous masks (known as puppets) appeared in the water to menace a man seated on a platform who I guess was a chief, as an attendant stood beside him with a spear. First a giant fish swam towards him, but was captured by a fisherman. Then an enormous pelican-like bird came along, and finally a long-haired woman, who hid her giant pink face behind her big pink arms and cautiously approached the chief, who eventually persuaded her to accept a basket of tomatoes, to which all the locals cheered and the supporting singers and drummers did their stuff. Maybe next year they should produce a festival brochure to interpret the performances for ignorant foreigners like me.

On Sunday morning I took my trip to visit some local villages, chosen by the organisers for their significance at the heart of the old Malian empire, but rewarding for me just for their beauty. The traditional mud architecture of this region is astoundingly beautiful, but also functional as it remains cool in the hot weather. It is a shame that many people seem to equate development with concrete, but as a nation Mali is aware, and proud, of its rich history and traditions so hopefully more efforts will be made to preserve them.
We saw in the village of Segoukoro not just a beautiful old (17th century) mosque built of mud (see left) but also a rather stylish newer one, using a modern take on the old mud-building techniques, offset with a lovely old carved door.

Actually in Senegal

Very unusually, I have spent a whole three weeks in Dakar. Three weeks of ‘normal’ life, going to the same office every day, finding time for visits to the supermarket… Quite mundane, but in a way a nice change.

Within that context, in fact, the visit to the supermarket was a big event, as it is a big new supermarket, with lots of imported food, so there was a bit of a buzz amongst ex-pats about this exciting new development.

It was, indeed, impressive. But in fact I mostly window-shopped, admiring the products but gawping in disbelief at the prices. I don’t miss taramasalata so badly that I would pay £3 for a tub the size of a small yoghurt! Nice to know it is there if you want it though, I suppose.

More basic foodstuffs have been more of an issue for the bulk of the population during the last month. The government announced a number of price reductions in some basic goods – rice, cooking gas, bread, etc. However this was not as generous as it seemed, as they did not offer to fund those price cuts. So the bakeries, finding that they were expected to reduce the price of bread by around 15% whilst the price of the ingredients (basically flour) remained unchanged, went on strike. We had no bread for four days. But the government didn’t back down so the bakers went back to work and reduced their prices – funding it by reducing the amount of flour going into the bread. So a baguette is now 15% cheaper, but also 15% smaller.

A tour of the islands of Cape Verde

A three-hour delay was not the best start to the holiday, but then they offered each of us a free drink, and when finally the flight was called there was no rushing and pushing to be at the front of the queue. This attitude was to be typical of the laid-back, friendly Cape Verdians I met throughout my trip.

Santo Antao

First stop was a night in Mindelo, the capital of Sao Vicente. A pretty place, but with nothing obvious to see or do, and I was happy to take the ferry across to Santo Antao the next morning. This island is filled with steep, craggy mountains – really beautiful when you can see them, though much of the time the top halves seem to be covered in cloud. I did plenty of walking, up and down very steep mountain paths, for many hours, and although all the paths are cobbled and well-maintained I still discovered quite how unfit I am.

I also had the pleasure of an invitation to a Christmas eve dinner, just from a stranger sat next to me in a minibus, as he could not let a visitor to Cape Verde be alone at Christmas! The food was nothing to get excited about, but it was very nice to be with a typical extended Cape Verdian family for this celebration. One back visiting from France, one over from another island, an old couple down from their remote home up in the mountains. Luckily enough of them spoke English or French for it to be a very enjoyable evening.


This island is universally acknowledged to be barren and windswept. Photos of the tourist resort of Santa Maria make it look quite attractive, with clear blue skies, pretty pastel buildings and smiling Cape Verdians. The reality, at least during my visit, was grey clouds, grey concrete shells of half-built hotels and apartments, and harassed-looking tourists being pursued by immigrant Senegalese street traders. I found it quite dismal. Expensive too (€10 for a plate of pasta in cheese sauce with a glass of water?), and an early morning walk around town revealed several people sleeping in doorways under cardboard, and lots of mangy dogs.

So I escaped the town quickly and took a bus up to the capital and from there to Pedra do Lume, to see the old salt pans. The island of Sal has only salt, rock, sand and wind, and was only colonised for its salt production. Even that has now lost its value and the saltpans fell into disuse in 1985.

But you can still poke around the decaying old machinery that used to transport the salt (25 tonnes an hour at its height) from an old crater to the waiting ships. & the saltpans are still there, some blue, some solid with dirty, white salt and others a deep pink colour as the salt forms around the edges. It was worth seeing for the desolate atmosphere of the place.

From there I walked back - a five hour walk across the island, past rubbish tips and the odd turtle carcass, and through the still-operating saltpans behind Santa Maria. Perhaps when the sun is out this place is more inspiring, but whilst I was there it was too cold and windy to even think about lying on the beach.


My next destination was very different. A volcanic island centred around an old crater, half covered with jagged black lumps of lava, and with steam still coming from one of the newer cones. It is a forbidding place, some of the lava fields looking like the end of the world has arrived. The last eruption, in 1995, saw a village destroyed, but the people there refuse to be relocated outside of the crater. They have rebuilt their houses nearby, dug little depressions in the areas of black cinder where they plant tomatoes and vines, and their local musicians get together every evening in a corner of a local convenience store to play the traditional music of the island. It is a strong community.

A welcoming one, too. I was sitting in the corridor of my guest house early on New Year's Eve when someone arrived looking for me. It had been noticed that I was there alone, so someone had been sent to invite me to join a family for the evening.

Like the family I spent Christmas Eve with, this was an extended grouping of loosely related people (I think I may now count as a cousin...), some of them back from overseas to visit their family. One of the traditions of the islands is the "morna", a form of poetry or song which is usually translated as something like "longing". It reflects the longing of emigrant Cape Verdians for their homeland, and the longing of those left behind for their loved ones. I heard it first hand that evening, as Mauricio, back on only his fourth visit from the US (where he lived with an American wife), told us of his love for Fogo, how this little village was the best place in the world he could celebrate the New Year. & it was Mauricio who persuaded the musicians amongst the group to go and get their instruments, so they could accompany him as he sang of his longing for a life in Cape Verde. Like most Cape Verdians, however, that longing is not so strong as to tempt him away from a more materially rewarding life elsewhere...

As well as tramping about over the lava, and up into the 1995 volcanic crater, I also found a guide to take me on a visit into one of the lava tubes discovered on the island. This was not the easiest visit - you can see my guide standing by the steel cable guide-rope near the entrance to the tube (by which time we had already climbed down a steel cable ladder down into the entrance), but if you follow the guide-rope back you will see how steeply the third section of it descends into the tube, and there is no path beneath it, just jagged lumps of lava. By the time I came out my hands and the seat of my trousers were covered with little cuts and rough spots, and I later met someone who had ripped a foot-long hole in his trousers in this tube!


My final destination was Santiago, the largest island of the archipelago. Whilst it doesn't have one single spectacular feature like some of the other islands, it has impressive mountains, some ruins remaining from the initial colonisation of the islands 500 years ago, a few pretty little beaches, and the culture in the country's capital city, Praia.

Whilst there I paid a visit to a property development site which I had been reading about beforehand on the internet. The site will have three residential developments and six hotels, and will offer swimming pools, fitness and yoga classes, tennis courts and a cricket pitch, art classes, a cookery school, a diving club, etc, etc. This is the view I would have from my balcony if I were to buy an apartment there: Unfortunately I would not only have to find the money to buy the apartment, but also to support myself whilst living there and pay for the use of all those lovely facilities. But it's nice to dream!