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 GuinĂ©e 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.