A regular Sunday

I realise I should do more posts about my everyday life, or there is a danger that my readers think I spend my whole time looking at Bissauan islands, Chadian deserts and Congolese rivers… Some of you probably also think I live in a big villa with a swimming pool, which is equally far from the truth.

In fact I work pretty hard. I’m drafting this on a Sunday afternoon and have already done three hours of work today. So OK, as today is probably a fairly typical non-travelling Sunday, I will share it with you.

As usual I woke early, as the first call to prayer comes before 6am. The nearest mosque is a few blocks away, but they all broadcast their prayers pretty loudly and can’t really be escaped if you live in town. I could also hear my guard saying his prayers outside the window, and then just after 7am I heard him lock the gate behind him as he finished his shift; I persuaded the office long ago that I can do without daytime guards at the weekend.

Unable to go back to sleep I got up and showered and dressed. Trousers as usual, as some protection against stray mosquitoes in the house. Breakfast was porridge with a chopped up banana stirred in. Porridge brought back from my last trip to the UK – oats are not grown at this latitude so they are imported and therefore expensive here, also they are not part of the typical French diet and so a bit hard to track down. A banana because it’s about the only affordable fruit here that goes with porridge. In summer/autumn I get very nostalgic about the plums/peaches/nectarines/berries of the UK – they are sometimes available here, but expensive and always disappointing. I think they pick them before they are ripe in order to get them here undamaged, as they never seem to have any flavour – I’ve given up wasting money on them.

I had a glass of fruit juice with it too. Another thing that is not that easy to buy here, as the Senegalese tend to like sugar added to their fruit juice – even those labelled as ‘100% natural’ often have sugar lurking in them.

After three hours or so of work, I noticed it was after midday, which is when the sun comes round to the little enclosed area beside my house. Most Sundays I lie in the sun, sometimes for a couple of hours until the shade moves round, but often the heat drives me back indoors first. Even today, with a strong gusty wind, there was only an occasional light breeze that made it around the corner to my little suntrap.
But the rest of my garden/yard is overlooked, and it wouldn’t be acceptable in this conservative Moslem country to lie out in a bikini in view of the neighbours, so I have to make do with this airless bit of concrete between the washing machine and the guards’ toilet.

I listened to my iPod while I was out there – on the old stuff today, starting with Donna Summer, then Elvis Costello and finally a bit of the Doors. I mostly listen to African music (I have an enormous collection of it) but wanted a change today.

Lunch was a jam sandwich! Sometimes I have a salad, but often make do with the quick and easy sandwich. Not an English-style sandwich though – here the bread comes in baguettes, and the jam was made from mangoes that had fallen from my trees more quickly than I could eat them.

After doing nothing much for an hour or so while my lunch went down I went for a swim at the Olympic Pool. It’s ten minutes’ walk from my house, and only a $4 entrance fee, so a great amenity to live near, although being olympic-sized the water can get quite cool (too cold for me) as we get into the Senegalese ‘winter’. Today it was still warm enough, just an initial gasp as I got in. The wind made the water quite choppy, and probably was the reason why there were only seven of us there: me, two American women, three Chinese men and a Frenchman. The Senegalese stop going once the water temperature falls below about 30°C.

I did twenty lengths, then stood in the sun (and wind) for a few minutes to dry off before putting clothes back on over my bikini – the changing rooms are badly lit and smell of urine – and wandering home feeling virtuous!

Another hour’s work, then some personal ‘admin’: editing a few photos, adding a couple of CDs to my iTunes library, and now drafting this post. Dinner will be a mix of onion, garlic, cumin, tomatoes, pumpkin and rice, all stewed up together, with a few stoned black olives thrown in. I don’t eat meat at home, and rarely even eat fish, as there tend to be so few vegetables or salads available when I’m travelling that I usually come home with a craving for them. There’s an element of laziness in there too, as I find vegetable dishes (or at least the type I eat) generally quicker and easier to cook than meat. I may have a glass of sangria with it – they sell it by the litre carton here and it’s easier to store than wine, which sometimes goes off in the heat.

Finally I’ll either listen to the BBC World Service or read a chapter or two of a book – probably the one I’ve started on my Kindle, as with the little reading light I have in the cover I find it more convenient than a physical book, easier to find a comfortable perch somewhere (whether in bed or lying on the settee) without worrying about getting enough light to read by.

You will have noticed the solitude. I spoke to the cashier at the pool, and said good evening to my guard when he turned up at 7pm, but otherwise saw no-one all day. & that is how I like my Sundays.

The Chadian desert

Our guide had focussed our attention on the chance of seeing the Saharan nile crocodile in the pool at the end of our two hour scramble through the gorge - a pretty special sighting as there are only 7 or 8 of this specialised type of nile crocodile left alive in the world, now confined to this small pool.

However after seeing one of the crocs I turned my head to look down the gorge to my left, and found myself almost speechless as I gazed on one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen in my life. We were at the Guelta d'Archeï in Chad, one of the very few places in the whole of the Ennedi Massif (a region of eroded sandstone mountains covering an area the size of Switzerland) where there is a guaranteed year-round supply of water. In this year of low rainfall for Chad, it meant that camel owners came from far and wide to water their animals and as I looked down the Guelta from a ledge high in the mountain-side I could see and hear some 120 camels happily splashing about in the water.

I was with a party of 11 other tourists in this difficult and little-visited country. I say 'difficult' in terms of permits, etc, but also in terms of the lack of infrastructure. Only a few hundred kilometres of the 3,300 we covered in our trip were paved; mostly we were driving through sand, stone and rocks. When we made it to one of the few small towns there was virtually nothing to buy, so our breakfasts consisted of rock-hard dried up bread with jam, with milk powder in the tea or coffee. We were camping so toilets were open-air behind bushes or rocks (or on occasion just sufficiently far from the rest of the group for some privacy), and our daily ablutions were from one small bowl of water.

But lying on my mattress at night looking up at all the stars, listening to the eerie sound of the jackals calling, felt very special even when the wind was blowing desert dust and sand into my sleeping bag.

As well as the stunning Guelta d'Archeï we saw many other wonderful desert vistas (eroded pillars, camel trains on the dunes, etc) and the region is famous for its many rock arches as well as it's 3,000-year-old cave paintings of horses, camels, people and cattle, which seemed to be everywhere.

Encounters with people were difficult, as the nomadic Tubu tribe do not like visitors. When we went to look at a salt pan we were approached by three Tubu men with knives in their hands - they were only checking up on why we were there but it is the usual way in which they approach strangers. We were repeatedly warned, though, that they can be quick to use their knives, particularly if they see that they are being photographed.

We saw a surprising amount of wildlife, ranging from an amazing Saharan spiny-tailed lizard to my favourite, the beautiful little fennec foxes, as well as patas monkeys, baboons, dorcas gazelles, jackals, a sand viper and all kinds of impressive-looking insects. We saw quite a number of birds too, including nubian bustards, various storks and the national bird of Chad, the black crowned crane.

But that view down the Guelta d'Archeï, with the sound of all those bellowing camels echoing around the gorge, is one of those that I tried to burn into my brain, so I can close my eyes and imagine it again whenever I find myself in a stressful situation. I would say it is in the top three views that I have seen in the whole world.

The land that time forgot

From the excitement and adventure of the Congo, my next trip was so different: the peace and tranquility of Guinea Bissau. One of my favourite countries, I always try to take the opportunity to add on a little personal time after business trips here.

This time it was just a long weekend, but that was enough to visit the island of Bolama. To get there I had to take a “canoa” – one of the traditional wooden boats that transport people and goods between the islands – some 30m long, and I’d guess about 150 of us passengers. Pretty packed, but not dangerously so, and to my surprise on the way there they handed out life jackets, although admittedly only enough for about half the people on board. The trip was very pleasant as I’d found space to sit on the side of the boat so I spent a relaxing three hours watching the sea, the pelicans and the mangroves.

The town of Bolama was the capital of Guinea Bissau from 1879 to 1941. Consequently it has quite a few grand old colonial buildings as well as such luxuries as pavements, street lights, parks and even a public swimming pool. Except that the buildings have lost their roofs and have trees growing out of the walls, the street lights don’t work, many of the streets have long since disappeared beneath the bush and even those that remain are now rutted dirt tracks, the parks are overgrown and of course the swimming pool is empty. The place is dripping with atmosphere but really is fighting a losing battle with nature, as there is no money to maintain anything there. In fact a local told me that when the president visited the island a few years ago, some money was found to buy fuel for the electricity generating station and all the street lights came on – it must have been quite a sight.

Very few of the old buildings are locked or boarded up, so you can wander around them at will. I went inside the old colonnaded town hall and the tiled floors are largely undamaged although covered in bird and bat droppings, but the shutters are hanging off, most of the windows are broken and in a couple of places you can see the sky through the holes in the ceiling and roof. Piles of broken tiles lie on the back veranda. I find it very strange that the town isn’t UNESCO listed and protected from further damage. If I had the money I would love to buy and restore one of the old buildings, set up a little museum of the history (photos of Bolama as it was in its heyday, something about the Portuguese slave trade, maybe also something on the local religion as I saw a fetish outside one house so clearly the traditional beliefs have not been totally eclipsed by Catholicism), perhaps with a little café attached (I saw oranges and mangoes on sale, but there is nowhere to buy a fruit juice). It wouldn’t make money but would provide a job or two for the locals, and maybe generate a little more pride in the history so that in time it would be possible to organise a group of volunteers to clear the bush away from one of the parks…

I don’t know how many tourists visit Bolama. As we are at the tail end of the rains it is not yet the tourist season, and I was the only foreigner in town. The only proper hotel (also with a restaurant attached) was still closed but thankfully the budget accommodation – mattress and bucket shower in the cement block rooms – was open so I was able to stay there. Eating meant buying something (bread and a tin of sardines) from the small market as there were no restaurants open, although with the help of some locals and a torch I did find one bar on the edge of the town that was cooking up chunks of goat meat for my first evening.

The island apparently has three rather good beaches – white sand, coconut palms and clear turquoise water – but all are many kilometres away from the town so I opted instead just to go out walking. A long trail goes along the spine of the 22km-long island, and I walked for many hours passing just two hamlets, an empty school (with two barn owls roosting inside!), and just a handful of local people passing on bicycles or motorbikes. The locals mostly leave you in peace, especially when your Portuguese is limited to “good day” and “fine thank you”, although an irritating minority of those who can speak some English or French are hard to shake off. Four different men told me they loved me within the space of one day despite my assurances that I was happily married. That was though the only negative aspect to my stay there. I continue to wonder what can be done to publicise this country as a tourist destination as it really is a wonderful place – and the people badly need the revenue.

Last post on the Congo

I think I could keep on doing more and more posts on the Congo, I just enjoyed my time in that country so much. However I will limit myself to this one further post, writing not about my adventures but about the (admittedly few) ‘sights’ there were to see on my trip.

Firstly, in Mbandaka, is the rock and plaque marking the equator. Well, more accurately a rock with a flat surface where there was once a plaque (since stolen by someone to cover a hole in their roof?), and a sign, now graffitied, marking “Here passes the equator line, Equator town 1883, near the geographic equator 0.18°”. In other words, someone once thought the equator passed through there (probably H M Stanley); now with more sophisticated equipment we know that it is in fact a few kilometres away, but the sign remains. As does an official sat nearby, checking IDs and demanding money from any visitors. So – where else but in the Congo – you pay a corrupt official to allow you to take a photo of a graffitied sign marking a spot that isn’t actually on the equator at all…

The second ‘sight’ was in Lisala, the birthplace of former president Mobutu. The commemorative plaque in the main square gives not his original name (Joseph Désiré Mobutu) but the name he awarded himself: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. This apparently means something like ‘the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. I don’t know about the fire, but he certainly left in his wake a country depleted of all the assets left to them at independence (working electricity and water supplies, industries, etc). More interestingly, there was still the shell of a house of his in this town. Looted of anything of value when Mobutu fell (apart from the marble that rebels couldn’t remove), you could still see that the house would have been lovely in its day, with lots of open terraces and balconies and a wonderful setting on a hill overlooking the river. Now it is used as a makeshift school, but I hope one day someone can restore its grandeur and turn it into a hotel.

Finally, I had a bonus at the end of my trip, as the enforced delay in waiting for rearranged international flights gave me the opportunity to visit the bonobo sanctuary outside Kinshasa, which rescues and rehabilitates orphaned bonobos. Bonobos (sometimes known as pigmy chimps) are man’s closest relative. Watching one female breast-feeding and playing with her baby, the veins and wrinkles clearly visible on her hairless arms, only the face reminded you that she was not a human being. According to the information posted they are the only animals besides humans to kiss using their tongues, although I have to admit I didn't see any of them kissing. They are interesting animals though and I spent an enjoyable few hours at the sanctuary.

The babies are much hairier but very cute.
As you can see, apart from the great river itself, there are not actually that many tourist sights in the Congo. Tourists are extremely rare, and in most villages we visited the people did not understand what we meant when we said we were tourists. "Why have you come here?" To see the country. "Yes, but why? What do you want here? Have you come for our diamonds?" was not atypical. One day we wanted permission to walk around in the forest behind a village, so asked the chief's permission as is customary. As he could not comprehend the concept of tourism our guide ended up telling him that we were kind of ambassadors for our countries - that we wanted to see whether the Congo was now a safe place to invest in. We got permission for our walk, but were accompanied by a party of village elders (so no chance of my stopping to look at birds) and I felt quite guilty that they thought our visit might lead to some kind of investment.

Notwithstanding that local people didn't understand the purpose of our visit, and that they nearly all asked us for donations (food, money, clothes - or in one case a man asked me for my watch), they were friendly and welcoming. & they are truly poor. For those in paid employment, $360 a year is a typical salary (for example for a junior teacher or civil servant), whilst it costs $120 a year to send one child to school. So I suppose their asking these visitors in their nice clothes, with their cameras, and their generator on their obviously comfortable boat, for a handout of some kind is not unreasonable. Not that many of them even knew what a camera was.

Further into the heart of darkness

By midnight on 30 August I was supposed to be back home asleep in Dakar, but in fact I was sat on a blue plastic chair wedged into a wooden pirogue, motoring up the River Congo from Lisala to Bumba. We’d woken up on the Sunday to hear that our flight back to Kinshasa had been cancelled. I wasn’t too pleased as this meant missing my subsequent flights, Kinshasa-Nairobi and Nairobi-Dakar, but of course there was nothing at all I could do. There was no flight due the next day, either, but it seemed that there would be one on the Tuesday. We heard from the airline that there would be enough people for it to run, the director of Lisala airport confirmed it was on his flight plan, and the travel agency sold us tickets. So we contacted Kinshasa and confirmed amended dates for the international flights.

So on the Tuesday morning I packed up my stuff ready and went in to breakfast – only to be told that the airline had decided that morning to use the plane to fly somewhere else instead, somewhere with more waiting passengers so they could make more money.

But there was a solution. The next day there was a cargo flight due to go to Kinshasa from the town of Bumba, only 120km upriver from Lisala. So the guide negotiated the hire of another engine, we packed our stuff into the pirogue, and set off for Bumba (with the guide’s poor wife by now suffering from a bout of malaria). It was a long ride, and unnerving to travel in a pirogue in a dark, moonless night, but eventually at 1:30 the next morning we arrived in Bumba – cold, hungry and tired. Miraculously there were no officials in sight but it took over an hour to find a hotel in the dark, and we finally got to bed after 3am, hoping that this time the flight would materialise.

It did, and what an experience! An old Russian Antonov plane with Russian pilots, packed with assorted cargo: a 4WD car, a set of plastic chairs, sacks of maize and cassava, bunches of plantains, a frightened pig, a goat, and crates and baskets containing at least 100 very noisy grey parrots! Plus six passengers wedged between it all.

So we finally got back to Kinshasa, then spent a frustrating day in and out of airline company offices and internet cafés trying to rearrange our international flights. The day was livened up a little though by a peaceful march of people demanding more transparency in the registrations for November’s presidential election, followed by riot police firing tear gas (it is the opposition apparently wanting more transparency), stones thrown at the police and more tear gas. Several passers-by ran into the internet café to escape, with their eyes red and streaming from the tear gas, but inside we felt only a slight prickle for a moment or two, thankfully.

& finally, $320 down, I had rearranged flights to get me home from Kinshasa, with just enough time to go out for a beer and fried termites to celebrate.

Travelling through the Congo

It all started when Hewa Bora airlines crashed on landing in Kisangani in July, so were grounded by the authorities. Or was is when Filair crashed in Bandundu last year, the plane unbalanced when all the passengers rushed to the front supposedly to avoid a crocodile that had escaped from someone’s bag? Either way, the result was a shortage of domestic flights within the DRC, meaning that neither passenger nor cargo flights were now guaranteed to operate even when scheduled and confirmed.

So the spare engine for our boat the “Go Congo” was stuck in Kinshasa for lack of a cargo flight to get it to where it was needed, and we started our trip along the river with just the one 55hp engine.

It should have been enough. But on our third day we encountered a boat in trouble – a tug towing four barges packed with people and cargo was floating out of control in the middle of the river with its engine broken down. There was only limited help we could give as the boat was probably eight times our size, but left in the river like that it would have been at the mercy of the current until it eventually hit a sandbank, where it could have been stuck for months until the river levels rise during the rainy season. By this time many passengers would have run out of food and money and might even have died – that is the way things are in the Congo.

So we came up alongside and pushed them, slowly, to the riverbank. At least that way they could moor and people could get off to hunt meat or seek alternative means of getting somewhere.

But it was a good deed we came to regret as our own engine was damaged by the strain, and packed up completely the next afternoon. & we had no spare. Thankfully with our smaller boat it was not too difficult for some passing fishermen in their pirogues to tow us to the bank (for a fee, of course). But then what were we to do?

Well the first thing was to deal with the officials. So far we had encountered various officials (soldiers, marines, police, civil guards, immigration, customs, intelligence…) at every village we had pulled in to. They were drawn to us – a boat with three white people on it – like moths to a flame. Often drunk, their sole intent was to extort money out of us. Thankfully the guide, a Belgian who has lived in the Congo for 18 years, knew how to deal with them – when to crack jokes, when to shout and argue and when to get them a round of beers – and he always managed to get the payment down to a reasonable level.

We hadn’t been moored for long when some naval officers found us. These guys were not drunk, but it turned out they had been using gunpowder (removing it from their bullets and snorting it) to get high. So the Aussie and I quietly ignored them whilst the guide began the ‘negotiations’. They are not dangerous (so we were told) if you are white and reasonably confident, as they know we are more likely than the locals to make official complaints about any abuse, but it can still be a bit hair-raising to those of us not used to the situation.

By the evening there were seven armed officers roaming the boat, and at times the negotiations turned into a shouting match between them and the guide, but eventually he got them down from their initial $300 demand to a more reasonable $12 plus dinner, and all in return for their agreeing to guard our boat from bandits during the night.

Meanwhile negotiations with another visitor to the boat had got us the loan of a 15hp engine, enough for us to take our pirogue (attached to the back of our boat) to the nearby town of Mankanza where there was a good chance of being able to hire two 25hp engines to power the boat. Mankanza was some 3-4 hours away, they told us. So we set off around nine the next morning. Around 2pm it began raining so we took shelter in a village. How far was it to Mankanza, we asked? They all agreed that it was 40km away, but as estimates of when we might arrive ranged from 1pm (?) to 10pm, we pressed them further. Then it transpired that Mankanza was not 40km away from where we were, but 40km away from somewhere else. Of course. 40km from the village of Bolombo, which we might expect to arrive at by around 5pm.

Amazingly we did indeed arrive at 5pm, having negotiated en route in a village the loan of one 25hp engine. We set up our tents in the village and had some dinner (fish, cassava and greens) whilst the owner of the 15hp engine and one of our crew set off back to the boat with the 25hp engine – they were to catch us up in Mankanza the next day.

We had a nice stay in the village (despite all the rats in the toilet), and with a lift from a village pirogue, arrived in Mankanza the next day, around midday. Our boat didn’t arrive that day, however, nor the next day. One aspect of life in the Congo is the lack of any means of communication, with no mobile phone coverage and of course no internet (and indeed no electricity to power phones or computers in any case), so we could only sit and wait.

But on the third day they came. We were told that they had been held up because naval officers had stopped them on the way back to our boat, demanding money to buy twenty crates of beer (they knew they had come from our boat so assumed they must have money on them). When they did not get what they wanted they held a gun to our crew member’s head, forced him to crouch down and whipped him across his back. He was quite a timid character and our guide explained that this can happen to Congolese who do not stand up to the officials. Quite shocking that people should have to take such treatment!

We had managed to hire a second 25hp engine in Mankanza, so once another round of ‘negotiations’ was concluded with all concerned, we were on our way. It was now Wednesday afternoon and we still had 220km to do to get to our destination, Lisala, by Saturday evening as we were flying out of there back to Kinshasa on the Sunday.

It was nice to be back on the big boat again, with space to walk around, a toilet and bucket shower on the back, and a more reliable source of cold beer for my fellow traveller. It was also a good vantage point from which to observe the life of the local people, as they raced their pirogues up to our boat to try to sell us fresh fish/dried fish/bananas/beetle larvae/tree squirrels/dried monkeys/small crocodiles - or in one case a sitatunga (large antelope) they had just killed while out hunting with their dogs. We bought and ate their fish, bananas and even beetle larvae but refused the bushmeat as it is now illegal to eat it following pressure on the Congo to put an end to hunting of its wildlife (and I must say I saw no wildlife on this trip other than birds and squirrels).

Our progress, without the big engine, was slow, even though we slept on the boat to save the time of setting up camp in a village each night. Concerned about getting to Lisala in time for our flight we even kept going right through the night on the Friday, but we were still 120km away on Saturday morning so we transferred our luggage to the faster little pirogue and set off at speed – finally arriving around 8pm for a night in the Catholic Mission before our flight the next morning.

From Mombasa to Kinshasa

I spent a few days in Kenya visiting my Mum, taking her and her husband Chapati to dinner to celebrate her 70th birthday. Yes, 70th!! She doesn’t look it, doesn’t act it and says she doesn’t feel it. Maybe perpetual youth is one of the benefits that comes from being with a younger man…

They still seem as happy as ever together, and although the money is tight and Mum has had malaria now eight times, she would not be anywhere else.

Our few days together were quickly over though, and I flew on to Kinshasa, and from there to the town of Mbandaka a further 700km up the River Congo, for the start of a holiday in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was more excited than I’ve been about a holiday for a long time, as I have wanted to travel on this river for years. Originally I expected to take one of the public barges between Kinshasa and Kisangani, but given their irregularity and their propensity to break down or get stuck on sandbanks for weeks/months, it was something I was never able to arrange. Then I spotted this organised trip on a traditional-style Congolese longboat, ten days cruising between Mbandaka and Lisala (the middle third of the river between Kinshasa and Kisangani), camping in small villages and fishing camps on the banks each night, and decided this was the way to do it.

To my surprise there was only one other tourist on the trip, a laid-back Australian guy, and with us were the owner/guide, his wife the cook, his son and the crew. We settled in, ordered a beer and sat back to watch the life on the river.

Cruising in the Arctic Circle

Perhaps it was a reaction to over four years living and working in a hot climate that made me finally book that trip to the Svalbard Archipelago that had been on my “To do one day” list for so long. The Archipelago, part of Norway but hundreds of kilometres away from its mainland, is better known to some people by the name of its main island, Spitsbergen. Formerly dominated by coal-mining, and before that by whaling, it now makes most of its money from tourism, from people like me going to see the polar bears before they’re all gone. 2,400 of them living in the Archipelago at present!

The walruses were also an attraction, as were the reindeer and a small but interesting variety of birds. So I booked myself onto a cruise – triple share, to keep the costs down - and begged and borrowed a collection of warm winter clothes from friends and acquaintances in London.

The first shock though, before I’d even registered the cold, was the 24-hour daylight. Of course I knew to expect it – in theory – but I was still not prepared to arrive at my hotel to check in for the first night at 1:30am with the sun shining! It continued to surprise me and other guests on the ship for the whole cruise, as we sat round talking in the bar, or watching for seals and whales from the bridge, only to be reminded by someone that it was already well after midnight and that breakfast, as usual, was at 7:30. It’s rather nice but does take some discipline to ensure you get to bed at a reasonable hour!

In fact the light was the main thing I enjoyed about the tour. Many afternoons there was a kind of ‘sunset’ period, when there were orange, pink and purple tinges to the sky, and the sunlight often seemed more silver than its usual golden colour – more like a strong moonlight. Perhaps it was all the water and ice that made it look like that, and perhaps more noticeable to me than those from more northerly latitudes as it was such a contrast to the strong, bright African sun. But it was really beautiful.

One of the first wildlife sightings was of a big pod of beluga whales, all around our little zodiacs. These whales are totally white – very strange. Apparently when the whalers started visiting the area a few hundred years ago there were so many whales there that they had to force the ship through them the same way they would through ice! Almost impossible to believe that now, when there are so few whales left there. & what was diplomatically left unsaid by the guides was that Norway still allows whaling today – as evidenced by the whale on the menu in the Radisson Hotel on the island.

Later the same day, just as we were setting out on a walk to search for some tundra birds, came the call to get back to the zodiacs – QUICKLY – as a polar bear had been spotted. It was a couple of kilometres away, but by the time we had got our life jackets on and were all in the zodiacs the bear was half way towards us. They can run faster than humans but even when apparently just ambling along they actually cover distances surprisingly quickly.

The bear made its way towards the beach we had been on, as we cruised along in the zodiacs, cameras snapping away. Having missed the chance of lunch there, it stepped into the sea and swam – again quite quickly – at least a kilometre across a channel between two islands. We now understood why we always had to be accompanied by someone with a gun!

We had two more polar bear sightings during the week, another lone male and also a female with two cubs. Despite their dangerous reputation, they are of course very attractive animals. I’m still trying to decide which of my 48 polar bear photos I can delete…

I think most people’s next favourite animal, mine included, was the walrus. They are actually quite unpleasant when on land – fat and ungainly, constantly scratching themselves, and absolutely foul-smelling – but when they drag themselves into the water they are suddenly transformed into powerful, agile and even graceful creatures.

We also saw seals (ringed, bearded and hooded – and for those still up at 3am a large group of harp seals), and reindeer, though sadly no arctic fox. Our planned trip to the base of some cliffs of nesting birds where foxes often patrol was thwarted by a load of pack ice which our ship couldn’t break through. The birds were nice too, including puffins, the beautiful sabine’s gull and a red-throated diver on its nest. Back on the island the day the cruise ended three of us also managed to see ptarmigan.

Some of the passengers on the ship were quite interesting too. The sixth best twitcher in the world (8,383 species of birds seen including his first ever little auk on this trip), a world traveller with only eight countries still left to visit, and one man rich enough to take a family of six on the trip and to drink champagne with dinners on several days – I googled his name when I got back to find he is in the Sunday Times Rich List and worth some $300m! & thankfully my room mate (only one, luckily, as the triple share would have been horribly cramped with three people) was nice enough.

For those interested, the cruise took us almost to 81°N, which I think is some 5-600km from the North Pole. One afternoon we all landed on the sea ice somewhere north of the 80° line and drank a celebratory hot chocolate with Baileys! As for the weather, well we had a couple of cold days, particularly when that icy wind was blowing, although with three layers of clothes on my legs and six layers on my upper body I didn’t find it too bad. The main problem was how to keep nose and cheeks warm. We also had some fairly warm days - 12°C on one day!

My overriding memory of it all though is that wonderful silvery light.

(borrowed a colleague's laptop - seems the problems with the photos is specific to my laptop)

A few weeks in England 2

I don't know exactly why blogger (google) would not let me attach a photo to my post on my few weeks in England, nor can I attach it (or any other photo) to this separate post. I get the following error message (following on from the Internet Explorer message that it cannot display the required web page):

"BlogID: required field must not be blank"

Which field? Any techie readers out there who can help me?

A few weeks in England

As ever, a trip back to the UK stirred very mixed feelings.

A conference, a training workshop and visits to family and friends over a period of several weeks has meant that I have got to many different parts of the country. I had some lovely walks along the white cliffs of Dover and the undercliff on the Isle of Wight, amongst the colleges of Oxford and deep into the Yorkshire dales. It reminded me how beautiful the country is, though also how cold and wet it can be even in the heart of summer.

I had less time than I would have liked to enjoy the culture – I managed a superb concert at the Barbican (Konono No. 1 and Kasai Allstars in a “Congotronics v Rockers” evening) but didn’t manage the Afghanistan treasures exhibition at the British Museum, Viva Riva at the cinema or Richard III at the Old Vic. Shopping was also curtailed, this time by a lack of space to carry any purchases home, although I did find room for a Kindle and the time to load on over 100 free books (from The Iliad and Zen Buddhism to A Tale of Two Cities and The Communist Manifesto).

I was struck this time by the effects of the recession. Several well-known names went under whilst I was here (including Habitat and Jane Norman), Oddbins had already gone, and others such as Thorntons and HMV seem to be struggling. There were less people out shopping, and those who were out must be spending less judging by the predominance of Primark bags. & in a way I can’t quite explain, the place seemed quite shabby. Shabby morals (the News International phone hacking scandal following on from last year’s revelations on MPs’ expenses), shabby manners (too many people pushing their way onto the tube while others were still trying to get off) and lots of things of low quality. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the megabus turned up 45 minutes late and had a toilet that didn’t flush given the £2.50 return fare from London to Leeds.

& worst of all, so many of the British population seem to be addicted to their mobile phones, frantically tapping away into them and oblivious to the real world around them.

I say all of this with the personal backdrop of wondering where I am going to go next, when my contract in Senegal ends, and where I am going to end up settling down. I love London in so many ways, and of course it is easier administratively to live in your own country than overseas, and so whenever I come “home” I have that question in the back of my mind as to whether or not I could live here again. I continue to miss London’s amazing cultural output, and I’m sure I will always feel a core of Britishness (a pride in our history and our inventiveness as a people) but apart from that there is less and less that draws me back. The problem may come down to whether I can find anywhere else to take its place.

A regular Sunday

I had a little telling off recently from one of my readers, reminding me that bloggers are not supposed to just go quiet, not posting for over a month, leaving their readers wondering what has happened to them. The trouble is, when you get to your fifth year of living and travelling in the same places there is far less to write about. Things that once seemed strange become routine, and none of you want to read about the routine parts of my life, do you?

But as there has been nothing interesting happening over the last month or so I will oblige my readers by telling you about last Sunday.

I woke up in a hotel room in Monrovia. I got up, showered and dressed, with the CNN news on in the background, and finished packing my stuff into my suitcase, then went down to breakfast. This hotel has a little open terrace attached to its restaurant, so unusually no need to take a cardigan to protect me from the air conditioning. I collected a bowl of papaya and mango, a yoghurt and some rolls with butter and jam and sat down out on the terrace. Ignoring the foreground buildings, there was a nice view – a few trees, a small lagoon and beyond that a sandy ridge and then the ocean. I thought sadly how I’d not had time to walk down there, the usual story when I’m away on these visits. I’d been working during all the daylight hours all week (plus a few late nights), with just a couple of hours off the previous afternoon but at that time there was a major storm, with thunder and lightning and heavy rain. The rainy season has already started in Liberia and we’d had many impressive storms during the week.

Breakfast over, I took my suitcase down to reception to check out, five minutes before the driver was due to collect me for the long drive to the airport. But someone had changed the password on the hotel computer, so the receptionists couldn’t get into the system to retrieve my bill. I waited whilst they made several phone calls in an attempt to track down the password, as several more guests came down to check out. Meanwhile no driver had appeared from my organisation, but I overheard a couple of other guests asking if the hotel-airport shuttle bus was on its way, so I slid my case over next to theirs – one problem solved!

Finally, half an hour later, the receptionists got our bills printed, we all paid and I got into the bus (apologising to the other occupants who’d had the foresight to pay their bills the night before).

Check in at the airport was uneventful, the flight was on time (which makes a nice change), and we arrived in Accra at around 12:30. Kotoka International Airport in Accra is not set up for transit passengers, but I already knew where to stand and wait for the man who deals with transit passengers. Normally the first step is for him to laboriously write all our details into a big register, before ushering us past passport control to collect our luggage, but today there was one man with only twenty minutes to make his connection, so we were all taken with him straight through a side door and along innumerable passageways to finally arrive in the departure hall, where the man at the Emirates check-in desk confirmed that his flight was already closed. At this point the rest of us pointed out that none of us yet had our luggage. “Do you know the way back to the luggage hall – the regular way?” we were asked.

Yes, we did – outside, across the road, down the slip road into the car park, under the tunnel and into the arrivals area. Surprisingly only one person stopped us to ask why we were going through customs, etc in the wrong direction, and so we collected our luggage and made the same journey back to the departure hall.

By this time it was after 1pm, but the Nigeria Airways check-in didn’t open until 6pm so there were still five hours to kill, with no lounge to wait in and no real point in spending money going into Accra as I had my luggage to deal with. Besides, I didn’t have a valid Ghanaian visa, so strictly shouldn’t be leaving the airport although there was nothing in practice, apart from my luggage, to stop me doing so.

So I found myself a seat and settled down to wait. I had a book with me, and had sat near a TV showing Super Sport 3 (one advantage this airport has above others in the region), so managed to entertain myself reading the book from cover to cover and watching a repeat of Gary Neville’s testimonial match from the previous week.

Eventually it got to 6pm, so I went through the check-in process. First to customs who took a quick look in my case before putting their chalk marks on it, then to the weighing machine where I collected my little hand-written slip of paper showing that I had one suitcase weighing 9kg, and finally to the check-in desk. Where I was told there was something wrong with my ticket so I would have to go to the Nigeria Airways office to get it sorted out. I did so, back to check in, then up the stairs to passport control.

Here when I got near the front of the queue my passport and boarding pass was examined to ensure I had all I needed to pass to one of the desks. I explained that I didn’t have an exit form because I was in transit. “What time did you get here?” the official asked me. I told him, and to my surprise he asked to see my visa. I explained that I didn’t have a visa, that I hadn’t left the airport but had been in transit there all day. He got quite cross with me and told me that a transit visa was needed by anyone with more than five hours between their flights – but that he would let me off this time.

(I checked later and he was right, I should have had a transit visa)

Of course as I went through the x-ray bit they called me over to search my bag – thoroughly too. Apparently an old lipstick at the bottom looked suspicious on the x-ray machine.

Through all of the formalities, I went to the small bar to get something to eat and drink, and as I sat there I looked down at my boarding pass for the first time. It said that my destination was Banjul, not Dakar, and my heart sank for a moment – but fortunately my luggage tag said Dakar. I knew my ticket was for Dakar (the next stop after Banjul) so I figured that the check-in clerk had probably just written Banjul by mistake, but in any case, once I was on the flight, no-one would realise I was supposed to get off in Banjul…

Nobody said anything at Banjul, and I finally got out of the airport in Dakar at 1.30am, brushed off the hustlers trying to sell me phone cards or change money, and argued over the price of a taxi. I got home at about 2am and went quickly to bed knowing that I had to be up again in six hours to go to the office.

So now you see how some parts of my life out here can be pretty uninteresting!

The morning after

Checked out the damage in the hotel lobby this morning - not much of it, but it seems that the soldiers did fire shots inside the lobby:

Also thinking how lucky I am that they didn't smash my little camera, as this is what they did to the CCTV camera at reception:

Anyway, you'll be pleased to hear that I'm off to the airport now, out of harm's way.

Soldiers that loot hotels in the night

I posted the last blog rather too soon. Just a few minutes later I heard gunfire. I looked out the window but saw nothing, but then it came again, really loud this time. I assumed they must be in the street outside the front of the hotel, so I grabbed my camera and raced for the stairs, thinking that I might get a sneaky photo through the front doors of the hotel, or perhaps through the window of the bar. I was on the phone as I went down, as a colleague had called me to ask if I had heard the shots.

As I got to the lobby, I realised there was no-one there (maybe the staff were out the front of the hotel watching what was going on?), but I saw a spent cartridge on the floor which looked like a good souvenir. I picked it up, then as I stood back up a soldier came out of the hotel's office! I ran back towards the stairs, crying out to my colleague on the phone that they had come into the hotel, but of course the soldier had seen and heard me and came charging after me. It didn't seem like a good idea to run from a fit young soldier carrying a machine gun so I stopped, put my hands up and turned towards him. He grabbed the camera, and I initially resisted but then realised that was also not a good idea so I let him take it but asked, begged, him to please give it back.

He beckoned me to follow him then when we got back to the lobby he said "Wait!". I stood there, waiting, until a different soldier came in and I explained that I was waiting to get my camera back from his colleague - that it had little value to them but much to me. He motioned towards the chairs so I went and sat down, and continued to wait while the soldiers ransacked the office area and the till area in the adjoining bar. One of them saw I was watching and snapped at me to look away. My heart was thudding and it occurred to me to give up on the camera and quietly leave when they were not watching and make my way back to the stairs, but that wasn't without risk and I had the feeling they were not going to hurt me so I waited.

Eventually - well, it probably wasn't long but it felt like an age - I sensed the soldiers walking up behind me. I wasn't sure if I was allowed to turn round to them at this stage, so started to turn slowly, but then realised that one of them was holding the camera towards me. I took it, smiled and thanked them, and walked away slowly, back to my room, heart still pounding.

Well I wanted adventure but perhaps that was just a little too close for comfort!

Soldiers that pass in the night

Soldiers in the Presidential Guard mutinied here in Ouagadougou last night. In the centre of town I think the gunfire was heard early on, but at my hotel out in the distant suburbs it wasn’t until one in the morning when the noise woke me. I got up and went to the window, and there driving slowly along the street beside the hotel was a 4x4 army pick-up with soldiers in the back firing their guns repeatedly into the air.

Two weeks earlier there had been trouble in the capital, so I guessed the grievances had resurfaced and things had sparked off in the night. But the soldiers drove off and the sound of their gunfire faded away. I opened the window and leaned out to see if there was anything else going on, but there was nothing other than a fairly strong smell of what I guess must have been gunpowder. So I went back to bed.

Then in the morning, waiting and waiting for the office car to turn up at the hotel, I asked someone at reception what was going on. “No problem, Madame, don’t worry, all is calm” was the only response I could get. Impossible to get across that I wasn’t in the slightest bit worried (except at being late to a meeting), I just wanted to know what was going on. Eventually I got hold of a colleague to find that the office was closed (and the meeting was off) as it was deemed too dangerous for people to travel. She had heard lots of gunfire and spent most of the night on the floor of her hotel room in case soldiers fired at the hotel windows!

I turned my phone on and there was a missed call from the security officer. When I got through to him he told me about gunfire throughout the night, the president having fled the capital and soldiers looting shops and stealing cars in the centre of town. We were to stay in the hotel until further notice.

It all sounded very exciting, but in fact has been very dreary. Our hotel is far out of town, and there is no action here at all. Wouldn’t you expect to hear more gunfire, people rushing about and lots and lots of sirens as emergency vehicles speed past? Well there’s nothing. Just silence, broken by the odd local trundling past the hotel on their bicycle – like being out in the streets in the UK on Christmas Day, only it’s in the mid-40s centigrade here.

So I shall go to bed tonight with my camera left out just in case … probably unable to sleep through fear of missing something, when in fact nothing whatsoever will happen. & meanwhile wondering what on earth to do about the report we were supposed to finish today (after three weeks’ work) in collaboration with the country team, knowing that my team all fly home tomorrow.

A day in Rabat

Getting around West Africa is a pain. After my last assignment in Guinea, a colleague had to return to his home in Burkina Faso. Look up Conakry and Ouagadougou on a map – they are not far apart. But to fly from one to the other? The best route available was Conakry (Guinea) – Bamako (Mali) – Abidjan (Ivory Coast) – Lome (Togo) – Niamey (Niger) – Ouagadougou (Burkina). A week later I had to fly from Dakar to Yaoundé in Cameroon. My trip wasn’t as complicated, but I had to choose between an overnight flight to Nairobi, that is from the far west coast of the continent to the far east coast, and from there back to Yaoundé, or an early morning flight to Casablanca, an 11-hour wait and then a night flight arriving at Yaoundé at 04:30 in the morning. I chose the latter, it being slightly cheaper.

This had the advantage however that the 11-hour wait in Casablanca enabled me to leave the airport and get on the train to Rabat, the Moroccan capital. A two-hour train ride away, but well worth it.

Rabat is a wonderful city. I started my whirlwind tour at the oldest part, the Roman ruins at the site of Chellah, where there are also remains of an Islamic minaret and necropolis from many centuries later, all surrounded by a thick, turreted wall. Another attraction there is the collection of white stork nests in the trees and on the tops of the minaret and other ruins.
It is mating season right now, and there was a constant soundtrack of clacking bills of the mating stork couples. I saw them do this whilst in the act of mating, but also noticed that when a stork returned to its partner at the nest, both would throw their heads right back and make this clacking sound.

From Chellah I wandered through the immaculate administrative quarter of the city to Tour Hassan. This is the stump of a minaret – intended to have been the tallest in the world but never finished as Yacoub al-Mansour died in 1199 before completing it. The adjacent mosque was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake but the minaret stump remains, together with a forest of ruined columns and a beautiful marble mausoleum alongside it for Mohammed V.

From there through the old souk, rushing a bit as time was moving on but I had to stop to eat, some delicious fresh sardines with aubergine and tasty bread, followed by some juice and mint tea in a café beside the river, from where I could gaze at the fortifications of the old kasbah. I’d intended to visit the Andalusian gardens and the museum inside the royal palace, but in the end just had time for a quick ten minute walk around the streets of the kasbah, all painted blue and white and immaculately maintained, before rushing back to the train station for the two hour ride back to the airport.

You often hear stories of hassle in Morocco (although I must say I don’t remember much of that from a holiday there 15 years ago) but there was none at all in Rabat. Just smiles and a few officials saying “welcome to Morocco”. I have to hope that this rather inconvenient route is still the cheapest when I go back to Cameroon next year, as want to go back for another day in Rabat.

Street protests

It never felt very likely that the unrest in the Arab countries would spread to sub-Saharan Africa, although I’ve heard many wishing for it. However the authorities are clearly nervous.

There are to be a number of demonstrations here in Dakar tomorrow, one to mark the 11th anniversary of the election of the current president, and others by various opposition groups, but demonstrations are not that unusual here. However, I was surprised to see on TV the other night a broadcast, like an advert, clearly addressing those planning to attend the demonstrations. “Stop violence” it started, with pictures of peaceful demonstrators behind the message. Then it went on to demand respect for the law, protection of the country’s stability and the need to keep the peace, ending finally with a demand to “Say no to violence”. The whole thing lasted for at least two minutes.

It’s true that there are many problems facing people here in addition to the ongoing issues that go with underdevelopment. As in the rest of the world, food prices keep rising - I guess this is the issue hurting people most at present. Unemployment is very high, particularly in the capital. & adding to the frustrations are the power cuts. We are used to having a couple of months with sporadic power cuts during the rainy season, but now we have power only around 50% of the day and this has been going on since last summer. It started with the purchase by the national electricity company of some dodgy fuel which damaged the generating plant, but subsequent audits have revealed delapidated machinery resulting from years of inadequate maintenance, plus a financial structure which means they are losing some $300,000 per day (as the electricity costs more to generate than they are selling it for – and it would not be a good time to put the price up!). No-one really knows when the issues will be resolved.

However, the Senegalese do not suffer from the political and social repression of many Arab countries. There is a free (and very vocal) press here, there is a real democracy, which the next elections due in 2012. & there is free association – people have the right to march, to demonstrate. Unfortunately though when the people are frustrated and angry, as they are now, demonstrations that start off peacefully can turn a bit nasty. We’ve had plenty of tires burnt in previous marches (why do people burn tires?), windows smashed, and even recently a bus was burnt in a protest about the energy situation (why a bus? how does that hurt the electricity company?). The police often get out the tear gas.

So whilst I don’t fear a full-scale revolt a la Libya, I think I may be staying indoors tomorrow.

Update since I drafted this last night: an email from the British Embassy warning us to avoid crowds and demonstrations because of potential violence.

After the five years

I know that some of you are aware that my time out here - the five year contract that seemed like forever - is due to finish in less than six months. So I thought I should let you know that we have just agreed to extend my contract here for a further year. Another year after that might also be possible but seven years is the maximum time they allow in one location.

In the meantime though if colleagues in Panama or Nairobi should decide to move on, I would certainly apply for the vacancy. I have enjoyed living and travelling here, and would miss the region dreadfully if I moved, but at the same time I would like to see some new countries and cultures, so South America or East Africa would be good. & I do have to think of my future - another five year contract would be nice!

But anyway, for now I am due to remain here in Senegal until the end of August 2012, which at least gives me a bit of stability in the short term. More time in which to think about what I am going to do in the longer term. In some ways, a couple of years backpacking sounds very tempting ... but I'm a bit worried about what happens afterwards.

Suggestions/comments on a postcard please!

Reading Graham Greene

I’ve been reading Greene’s “Journey Without Maps” as a companion to my current trip. He travelled from Freetown to Kailahun (in Sierra Leone) and across the border at Foya to Liberia, from there into Guinea and finally back into Liberia and down to the coast. For most of the four-week trip he was trekking through the forest with a retinue of porters.

He writes of the villages and the forest, of the rats and cockroaches in the former and the ants and boredom in the latter. He writes about the "devils" and the secret societies, but above all about the feeling of being a European in Africa. About the fear and the exhilaration that come, at the same time, from the absence of the European culture. Of the feeling I know so well that the heat, the unavoidable presence of the natural world, above all perhaps the rhythms (both in the sense of the natural rhythms of day and night, of sleeping and waking, but also of the rhythm of the drums) somehow bring us back to our origins. Of the supernatural that seems to be everywhere in Africa, the belief in witches and devils and good and bad spirits that you cannot get away from.

& I felt as though I was experiencing so much of the same, some 80 years later. I had travelled from Freetown to the Gola Forest on the borders of Liberia, to trek for three days in the forest, with porters carrying my tent and luggage. After the forest came a journey to Kailahun, and from there across the border at Foya into Liberia, and up into Guinea.

We had passed a masked devil parading through a village as we drove towards the forest, on his way with his attendants towards an initiation ceremony. & as I read about the rats running round at night in Greene's hut, I thought of the rat I discovered in my bedroom in Dakar last month (I turned my bedside light on to see what was making a noise and found myself staring at a rat), and like Greene I had felt somehow safe from it when I tucked my mosquito net in around me. I even found myself, as we drove past a steep-sided rocky hill in Guinea, being told by my guide the same tale that Greene had been told when he visited a high waterfall in Liberia - the tale of how humans used to be sacrificed there until the day when the person being sacrificed, as they were being pushed off the top, grabbed hold of the robe of the chief standing beside them and pulled the chief to his death too.

Of course Greene's situation was very different from mine. He had never been to Africa before yet set off on foot into the heart of a region where there was hardly any hint of European civilisation or culture to be found. I had the benefit of guide books and maps, and did the first part (the time off in the forest) with a well-known local guide and the second part (the journey up-country into Guinea) in a nice 4x4 with a driver from my NGO.

Times have changed too - I did not have to go and give presents to a chief every time we drove through a village. But the feeling of Africa to a European, at least to this one, remains the same. Whether "Heart of Darkness" or "Journey without Maps" it is still to travel to the origins of mankind, to the place where we come closest to our roots in the natural world. It is what I love about Africa.

River No 2 Beach

My colleague got up earlier than the rest of us and walked along the beach to the spot where the fishermen come in. He examined the catch and chose three plump fish which he purchased for our lunch, before he joined us on the little terrace for breakfast: fresh mango, scrambled eggs and toast with coffee.

Then two of us decided to take the boat trip up the river. The boat was moored where the river joins the beach, where it twists and turns through the white sand, watched by herons and flocks of royal terns resting on the sandbars. We stepped gingerly into the boat, and the boatman started to row us upstream, firmly and rhythmically, the paddle first one side of the boat then the other, so we glided smoothly through the water. The white sand quickly gave way to mangroves, and the terns were replaced by blue-cheeked bee-eaters hunting insects over the river.

It didn’t take all that long (not as long as I would have liked) for us to reach the waterfall. Or rather, the jumble of rocks that separates the fresh water river from the salty tidal lower reaches. Only for a few months, during the height of the rainy season, is it a true waterfall.
But we moored the boat and scrambled up the rocks, to the deep, clear pool at the top. A giant monitor lizard that had been sunning itself lumbered off into the forest, and we were keeping our eyes peeled for the monkeys that sometimes go to that area to fish, apparently using their tails as bait. We saw a couple eventually, on the way back, but they were not, unfortunately, fishing.

As soon as I could after we got back to the mouth of the river I was in the water. The tide was going out which meant that the river water was flowing quickly towards the sea. I floated on the surface, with the current pulling me along, around a couple of meanders and into the slightly turbulent bit where the water is so shallow that it bubbles around between the sandy humps on the bottom, turning me 360° before I continued my journey towards the sea. Finally I stood up (the water only up to my knees) and waded out and up the bank so as to go back for another go.

I know I've written about this place before (Beaches and Islands, 8/4/10), but it is good enough to write about twice. There really are not many things in life that beat drifting down River No. 2 in Sierra Leone, between the white sand banks, with the waves breaking onto the beach in one direction and the lush green jungle-covered hills in the other.

A vibrant music scene

One of the attractions of West Africa for me is the music. It is true that many of the best musicians can be seen frequently in London, but still there is something to be said for seeing them perform on their home turf, with a crowd that understands the words and the sentiments behind those words.

In December when I was in Mali I saw Djelimady Tounkara put on a great performance at the French Cultural Centre, but I was particularly looking forward to getting back to Dakar for the Third Global Black Arts Festival. The music part of the schedule looked fantastic with well known black artists from around the world coming to do free shows in Dakar. However it must be said that the organisation (or the schedule writing) left something to be desired as few evenings delivered exactly what they promised.

First I went to see Angelique Kidjo – to be faced with some mediocre band from Martinique. With, bizarrely, Angelique Kidjo dancing at the side of the stage. Perhaps she’d lost her voice? There was no explanation, either from the compère or on the website. After that I’d planned to attend an evening of Gnawa music with Orchestre National de Barbes, until I rechecked the schedule before going and found the latter group had disappeared from it.

I faced a dilemma then with Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita scheduled for 29 December and King Sunny Ade for the 30th. All big names that I really wanted to see, but they fell in the middle of a two-week period when I had planned to be in the Gambia. Was it worth returning to Dakar for concerts that were just as likely to not happen?

Well I decided to take the chance that at least one of them would play and travelled back to Dakar on the 29th for Tiken Jah Fakoly and Salif Keita.

I got to the square early (twenty minutes before the scheduled 19:00 start) to get a good place at the front. Around 20:15 the compère appeared; “tonight we are going to welcome Youssou N’Dour … and Tiken Jah Fakoly!” he announced. I was disappointed, not just by the absence of Salif Keita but also by the addition of Youssou N’Dour to the bill. I don’t like his voice and had no interest in standing through two hours of him on stage, but worse, I know how popular he is with the Senegalese and feared how many people might turn up as word got out.

Sure enough, more and more people came, and the square got more and more packed in with people. I was being pulled to and fro by the crowd, and could also feel myself being pushed gradually forward towards the railings. I didn’t feel totally safe there, so decided to move further back. Meanwhile the compère appeared again, to remind us that we were waiting for Youssou N’Dour and Tiken Jah Fakoly – and for Salif Keita! Great news!

Finally, at 21:15, Youssou N’Dour came on. The crowd continued to build up as he sang, and I realised I was now a lone female amongst pushing, shoving Senegalese men of mostly six foot plus. I felt less and less comfortable, it was getting hot and hard to breathe, and I’d felt a couple of attempts to grope me. I tried to get out of the crowd but couldn’t push my way through – and the next thing I knew I was being half led and half carried out by someone, having apparently fainted. The kind man behind me who’d caught me as I fell, pushed his way through the crowd for me (getting abuse from some people) and also got me some water when we got out.

I found a place to sit and recover, and bought a chicken sandwich for energy – I realised that having been travelling all the day back from the Gambia I had not eaten since breakfast, no wonder I hadn't had the strength to push through the crowd.

Finally Tiken Jah Fakoly came on, and I went back into the crowd – but only to the edge, just close enough to get a view of the stage. He was superb, made it worth the effort to be there. He finished at 2am (so I’d been on my feet there for seven hours!), and there was no sign of Salif Keita afterwards – and, as with Angelique Kidjo, no explanation from anyone as to why not.

So the next night I gathered my strength – relieved to be assured by people that it was only the presence of Youssou N’Dour who could draw the enormous crowd of the night before.

The compère appeared. “Tonight”, he said, “we will welcome Idrissa Diop, 2 Faces and Vivian N’Dour!”. So no King Sunny Ade, which was very disappointing although hardly a surprise. But I was there, I had a good place at the front, so I decided to stay. Idrissa Diop wasn’t bad, but 2 Faces was awful, although clearly adored by the screaming girls around me. If you can’t sing, just keep shouting “I love you Senegal” and the crowd will be happy, it seems.

But then a big surprise – Salif Keita! I don’t like all of his recorded music but had heard he is great live, and he was. Finally then the highlight for many Senegalese that evening, Vivian N’Dour, who actually put on a superb show although I’m not a great fan of mbalax. But I still couldn’t help wondering whatever had happened to King Sunny Ade.