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.