I remember watching thunderstorms in the UK when I was young, and counting how many seconds elapsed between a flash of lightning and the clap of thunder that followed, to work out how many miles away the storm was. Here you can’t do that. I laid in bed in the early hours of this morning as a thunderstorm passed through, but the lightning was flickering constantly, and the thunder rolled and rumbled and crashed without a break for a good twenty minutes. Just a pity that I am in a bungalow with a ten foot high wall around it – how I would have loved to have watched that storm from a fifth floor window.

Before I came here to live I had the idea from somewhere that a storm would somehow “clear the air” leaving it cool and fresh. However what actually happens is that as soon as the sun comes back out and its rays hit the water lying on the ground, that water is evaporated back upwards, with the effect that you are in a steambath for the next few hours. & so it was today, so I gave in and put on the air conditioning, shutting up all the windows and doors to keep in the cool air.

During the storm last night I nearly jumped out of bed with fright as there was an enormously loud clattering, crashing sound from within the bedroom. At first I could only think that the house had been struck by lightning, but in fact it turned out that my curtain pole and curtains had fallen off the wall. They’ve been there three years so in fact this is about par for the course. There are two equally likely causes: bad workmanship (put up by the same highly recommended joiner who made my coffee table with its cracks and bowed legs that developed as the wood dried out after delivery), or rough treatment by my maid.

Gloria, my maid, is probably little different from other women here, to be fair. She’s certainly not the only Senegalese woman I have seen trying to remove dust from a table top by flicking a tea towel at it – which not only allows the dust to fall back onto the table but also risks breaking any nearby ornaments. A while back she broke my newly purchased metal sieve by whacking it against a cockroach (which no doubt trotted away unharmed). She also doesn’t really ‘see’ things in the way I do – books are taken out to be dusted and put back on the shelf upside down (no, she can’t read the English writing on the cover but she can see if a picture is upside-down), and an Indian miniature which I bought on a holiday in Rajasthan, hand-painted on camel bone, now has smudged paint where she has clearly picked it up with wet fingers.

Last week she presented me with one of my favourite shirts with a tear across the shoulder. I try not to be bothered when she damages things, to tell her not to worry, that ‘accidents happen’, because I know how bad she feels about it. But this time she could see I was upset, especially as it was the second shirt she had torn through her rough handwashing in just a few months. She offered to take it to a tailor for repair and I let her do so. I have a washing machine, and I’ve told her so many times that I prefer things washed in there, but like most Senegalese women she doesn’t think machines get things really clean, also she can’t bear to let dirty washing accumulate until there’s enough for a machine load, so she continues to ignore my pleas and washes everything by hand.

I suppose I should put my foot down and instruct her to use the machine rather than pleading with her, but I’ll never be comfortable treating a maid like a servant, the way the Africans here do. So she continues to run my house the way she wants to.

But to end on a positive note, I am happy to report that the power cuts I wrote about last month have reduced substantially.

African Renaissance

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get to August 2010 without writing about the African Renaissance. This is the name given by the President, Abdoulaye Wade, to the giant statue (apparently higher than the Eiffel Tower) that now looms over the northern suburbs of Dakar. The official opening awaits the completion of the interior (museum in the base and restaurant in the summit) but in the meantime no-one can ignore its presence, not least because of the controversy surrounding it.

The £18m cost has of course been criticised by many living in a country where basic needs like electricity, clean water, health and education have not yet been met. However there are rumours that it was financed by a donation from a businessman grateful that the government had sold him some land at an enormous undervalue.

It was constructed by North Koreans, which might explain the kind of Stalinist feel to it. It seems rather odd that the woman is showing so much leg and breast, in a traditional Muslim society where such displays of flesh, particularly the leg, are totally unacceptable. Local imams have voiced their disapproval.

Local artists have questioned why there was no Senegalese (or at least African) artist involved. The design came from a Hungarian student, the story being that the President ran a competition a few years back, on the internet, for a design for an African statue, with a prize of a few thousand dollars on offer. Neither the competition itself, nor the winning entry, were well publicised. However the winner was never paid his prize money, as a result of which he has never signed the document waiving his rights from any use of his design nor the requirement to maintain confidentiality. All rather unfortunate for M. Wade who has claimed the right to 35% of all takings from entry to the statue on the basis that “I am the designer, the one who conceived it”.

Of course the Senegalese are unhappy about this, but as with other unfairnesses in their lives, they seem to have accepted it. Perhaps this attitude explains why Senegal, alone in the region, has never experienced a coup.

So what is the point of the statue and why ‘African Renaissance’? Apparently M. Wade sees it as a money-making tourist attraction (for Senegal as well as for his retirement fund…), and as representing the hopes and aspirations of the younger generation. In that case I think it is rather unfortunate that it is pointing, not inland towards the great continent of Africa, but across the Atlantic Ocean towards the USA.