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!