Mud marvels in Mali

It was a great feeling - one of exhilaration - as the 5am bus pulled away from the dark little side-street in central Bamako to start the 580km trip north-east to Djenne.

I first visited Djenne 13 years ago, and I wasn't going to let coups, rebellions or ill-informed foreign office advice stop me from going back.  I'd checked and double-checked and Djenne is safe.  But with much of Mali currently so unsafe there are no tourists coming, and with the embassies advising against all travel to Mali even the business travellers are leaving as quickly as they can - so I knew that I would have Djenne all to myself.

& so it proved.  Djenne is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an ancient city on the trans-Saharan trade route almost entirely built of mud, and with the largest mud structure in the world (its mosque), so tourism has been an important source of income.  But with the kidnappings in Timbuktu last year it pretty much dried up, and then with the coup this March it stopped completely.  So all those who make their money from tourism - those who run and work in hotels and restaurants, who make or sell masks, statues, jewellery and bogolan cloth, those working as guides (and their extended families) - all have suffered.  This meant, rather embarrassingly, that I was treated as some kind of messiah, with little old ladies coming and taking my hands and praising god that there was a white person in Djenne, finally.

I hope I didn't raise any false hopes (please, readers, go to Djenne, and spend money there!) but it was nice to feel so welcome and wonderful to wander the streets and visit a couple of nearby villages without seeing another tourist.  The need for tourist $ also meant I was allowed inside the famous mosque, nornally off-limits to tourists (although to be honest the interior turned out to be far less impressive than the exterior).

Djenne is a truly beautiful place, one of my favourite towns/cities in the world.  Buildings are built with banco (mud mixed with millet straw) in traditional styles maintained by a strict guild of masons, and are regularly replastered to counter rain damage.  Located in the Niger inland delta, the surrounding land is a floodplain, underwater for several months of the year.  During my visit the water had only partly receded, so the town was effectively an island reachable only by crossing a bridge or taking a ride in a pirogue.

Sunday is one of the quiet days when I was able to wander the little backstreets enjoying the architecture.  Monday, on the other hand, is the day of the weekly market, with thousands of people arriving from the surrounding villages to bring fish, vegetables and bundles of firewood for sale.  It is a typical colourful African market - of which, of course, I have seen dozens - but looking out from the town at all the traders crossing the floodwater in little wooden pirogues was certainly worthwhile.

In the afternoon I escaped the market crowds by taking a guide to visit two nearby villages, one inhabited by the Bozo (fishermen) and accessible only by boat, the other with a mixture of different tribes in different sections, each with their own small mud mosque.

Then, unfortunately, the long and tiring bus ride back to Bamako.  It should take about 10 hours, but in a particularly old bus, and with a driver who seemed cdetermined to stop to pick up as many passengers (and their chickens) as possible, it took us 18 hours.  But for Djenne, it was worth it.

A birthday break

How do you celebrate a major birthday in my position? Ten years ago, and ten years before that, it was through travel to special new parts of the world. Somehow that didn’t seem so appropriate this year – not that there aren’t still many countries I would really love to go to, but travel is now a normal part of my life so it wouldn’t have marked this birthday out as special.

I thought about gathering my local friends together for a big dinner in Dakar, but ruled that out quickly as it would have meant telling them why, thus making me the centre of attention for the evening, which I would hate. I thought too about a few days’ luxury in a top hotel somewhere like Venice, but really that would be more enjoyable as part of a couple.

Then I remembered what I had read about an eco-lodge called the Collines de Niassam in Senegal, some 150km down the coast from Dakar near the villages of Palmarin. I’d been to Palmarin before, and loved the area. Just getting there involves an hour or more of driving across bare, open salt flats, with little to see except bare earth, water, sky and birds. It’s a bleak yet majestic landscape. The lodge offers a little bit of luxury amongst this bleakness, but in a development that blends in with the landscape rather than shutting it out.

So I booked myself for a couple of nights into one of their four wooden huts built on stilts above a lagoon. There are activities on offer, and I went on an evening drive in a horse and cart to watch hyenas gather before their evening hunt, but otherwise I just relaxed. A colleague had brought me an English Sunday newspaper the week before, which I had saved, but I spent a lot of time just sitting in a deck chair gazing at the lagoon – at the herons, gulls, avocets and pelicans that were a constant presence outside my room. I also went walking in the bush – yes, more birds, but also the physical pleasure of just walking, knowing I was in a reserve and so would not encounter demands for presents from snivelling children, nor their parents trying to sell me necklaces or poor quality carvings. In fact I didn’t see anyone during either of my two long (2-3 hour) walks, just hornbills, bee-eaters, kingfishers, parrots and francolins. On the drive to the hyenas I also saw flamingos and jackals.

The food was great too. Set meals with no choice whatsoever, but I was perfectly happy with dishes such as pumpkin and prawn soup and grouper fillet flambéed in tamarind sauce. I didn’t drink much but their Cape Verdean rum cocktails were also pretty good!

Mission (just about) accomplished

I was tired when I got home from Cambodia (via Istanbul), and the last thing I really wanted to hear was that my staff were having problems in Niger and I needed to join them as soon as possible in order to rescue the mission.

It turned out that none of the planning had been done as one team member had been confined to bed with a painful attack of gout.  The other team member had arrived in Niger late after her flight was delayed by ten hours, and also stressed from her experience on the flight.  Stopped at Bamako for some passengers to leave and others to join the flight, she suddenly realised her laptop was missing.  In her distress she managed to persuade the crew to let her briefly disembark to chase after the departing passengers, and finding them still in the terminal she announced that her laptop was missing and she wanted everyone to open their bags.  A man who'd been sitting near her (and trying unsuccessfully to chat her up for much of the flight) came forward and handed it over.  He'd thought it belonged to another woman who'd got off the flight, blah, blah, blah...

Perhaps her immune system was down after the stresses of her journey, as she then fell sick with malaria and spent the next five days in bed.

So they needed me to join them much earlier than intended so as to take on some of the work.  I ran around changing my flight, getting an additional few days' visa, etc (all made more difficult by the fact that all of my admin and logistics colleagues were away on a training course), and flew out to join them on the Saturday evening.  Due to full hotels we were all staying in different places, so they had agreed to bring a big pile of files to me on the Sunday as preparatory reading for my intended two days out in the field visiting projects, but the taxi drivers were all on strike so I had to sit there twiddling my thumbs until an office driver got to me on the Monday morning.  Laden down with the files we drove the 160km to the Dosso field office, and after the day's work I spent the evening, until midnight, on my reading.  There was little else to do in any case as the hotel restaurant was closed and with no street lighting and no torch I was restricted to a beer from the hotel bar for my dinner.

The next morning I was therefore quite hungry and could hardly believe it when told that the restaurant was still closed, with the chef not expected in for another couple of hours.  So I wandered out into the street, searching for somewhere selling food.  As Dosso is a kind of crossroads for travellers (mostly truckers) going from Niger to Benin or Nigeria, I quickly found somewhere.  No menu, just a chunk of baguette served with hot white beans, a dollop of mayonnaise and a glug of oil, but it was nicer than it sounds and a bargain at only 40¢.

Once in the office, I gave them the list of projects I wanted to visit so that they could make the necessary arrangements.  They came back looking concerned.  There had been a kidnapping of six NGO staff on the Sunday night, so apparently meetings had been held the previous day between security officers of the NGOS and the UN agencies, and the decision had been made to stop all field visits.  I was also told that there was to be no movement between the country office and the field offices, so I had to stay put.  With two policemen guarding my room that night!

I have to say that I felt it was all a huge overreaction; the kidnap had taken place 650km away, and as the kidnappers now had six hostages to deal with I thought it unlikely that they would be on the hunt for more.  Besides, this wasn't the first kidnapping of NGO staff in Niger over the past few years.  But I am not an expert on security matters, and obviously had to do what I was told in the circumstances.

Overreaction or not, it meant I couldn't carry out the work that was my reason for going to Dosso, so the next day they agreed to transport me back to Niamey.

Thankfully the other half of our planned project vists had been done a couple of days earlier so we were still able to draw some conclusions from our trip and produce a final report.

Time to go home, and although our homes are in different places the first leg of the journey, Niamey - Ouagadougou, was the same for all three so we travelled together to the airport early on the Wednesday morning.  This trip hadn't done with us yet though, as we found that the aeroplane had not arrived the previous evening, and with no other flights departing Niamey that day we could not be re-routed.  So we were sent back to the hotel to wait.  A chance to phone my Mum, to take a dip in the pool, it wasn't all bad, but at the same time I really had been away for long enough and was keen to get home.  Friday was a public holiday so I had a long weekend to look forward to.

Eventually, late afternoon, we got the call to go back to the airport; the plane had finally arrived.  At check-in I was asked whether I wanted to collect my luggage in Ouagadougou or check it through to Dakar.  I pointed out that as I had missed the midday connection with the Dakar flight it was a bit difficult to answer without more information on the rearranged connection.  At this they looked a little confused - it turned out they hadn't thought about that so I hadn't been booked on to any new connecting flight.

After more than an hour waiting for information, I was told that unfortunately the next flight from Ouaga to Dakar was not until Friday lunchtime and so I would have to spend two nights in transit in Ouagadougou.  I was not pleased but of course there was nothing I could do.  In fact I was nearly removed from the Friday flight as I refused point blank to pay $50 for a transit visa, arguing that it was the airline's fault and so they would have to pay.  Fine in theory but all the airline's staff were off enjoying the public holiday...  But I made the flight and finally collapsed into bed at home on Friday night.

Getting things done in Africa is rarely easy but this trip had managed to really pack in the challenges.

Transit in Turkey

I wasn't going to write any more about Istanbul.  I was only there, in total, for five days, and have already posted on the dervishes and the carpet sellers.  Besides, most readers will have been there, so what insights can I glean in five days that you don't already have?

But Istanbul is such a great place!  & as I go through sorting out the photos they were calling me to write one last post on the place.  Just a quick one.

Five days was plenty of time to visit the obvious tourist sights - the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Yerebatan cistern, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and the Spice Market.  The most stunning of these is certainly the Aya Sophia, built in AD537 as a cathedral, converted to a mosque in 1453, and then to a museum in 1935, it is said to have changed the history of architecture.  For nearly a thousand years it was the world's largest cathedral, and certainly the size of the building is still impressive.

But a few hours wandering around it, prying into all the little corners and looking up at what remains of the painted ceilings, is tremendously rewarding.  It has been restored, and added to, many times over the centuries and is stuffed full of marble pillars, intricate ironwork, golden mosaics, calligraphy, and even some blue tiled decorations hidden under an archway.

The Bosphorus cruise was a little disappointing, though might have scored more highly in better weather - but was probably just about worth it for the delicious stuffed mussels and fresh sardines at the lunchtime stop.  Continuing on the food line, the Spice Market was great for filling those little corners of my case with delicacies I can't get at home - apple and cinnamon tea, local sheep's cheese, and a half-kilo of delicious dried cranberries.

The other highlight was a trip to the exquisite little Chora Church, now the Kariye Museum.  It is full of golden mosaics dating from the early 1400s, as well as some reasonably well-preserved frescoes, and is well worth the effort of finding it.  In any case the locals are helpful - when my intended route was blocked by redevelopment a local man insisted on giving me a lift there, which was typical of the kind way I was treated by everyone I met there.  Unfortunately no more trips to Asia are in the pipeline but I certainly would not complain about another day in transit in Istanbul!

Monkeying around

Despite not getting to Angkor Wat, Cambodia ended up offering me a few good experiences.  On the last Friday evening I went out for a bit of culture.  Not the classical dance, unfortunately, which is hard to find in the capital, but a performance by an arts group of what they called 'Hanuman and the big drum'.  There were actually two very big drums, two quite big drums, and a number of smaller drums and gongs.  Not to mention a few other traditional instruments (not sure what they are called, but the Cambodian equivalents of the West African balafon and njarka).  The drumming was excellent, and was accompanied at one point by some very good male dancers.

The best part for me though was the reference to Hanuman (the monkey god).  We were making our way back to our seats after the interval when some 'monkeys' came through the audience area to investigate the empty stage.  These were the male dancers but this time wearing sky blue ceramic monkey masks, and displaying all the mannerisms of monkeys in the way they moved, scratched, etc.  There was just something about their behaviour, and in those masks, that made all of us in the audience smile, then giggle, and then laugh out loud, and I really did go back to the hotel with a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

Then on my last Saturday morning, just before heading home, I tried out a completely different activity, with a visit to the Phnom Penh shooting range.  You can try your hand at everything from AK47s to a Rocket Propelled Grenade (although the latter costs $350).  I went for the revolver and the Ruger sniper rifle.  The revolver was difficult - the recoil was strong and tilted the gun upwards even before the bullet had left, so all my shots flew well over my target's head.

But I was much better with the rifle.  As you can see I didn't manage to hit the actual target (it looks as though I was aiming for his gun instead!), but nine of my ten shots would have killed my target man, and the tenth probably broken his shoulder, which isn't bad for a first attempt.

(Not a) holiday in Cambodia

It was a nice surprise to get sent on an assignment to Cambodia, even if it was in the middle of their monsoon.  We have two main field offices in the country, one in Kampong Cham and the other in Siem Reap - and at the latter some of the projects we are funding are in communities that live right within the area of the Angkor Wat ruins.  I saw the ruins on a holiday in 1998 when I spent a whole week based in Siem Reap, but I was very hopeful of a trip back there.

But it wasn't to be.  My colleague got to go to Siem Reap whilst I was assigned to Kampong Cham.  I did my research to see if there would be anything to visit at the weekend, but luck didn't seem to be on my side; the pagoda with the resident python is inaccessible during the monsoon, and the 100-year-old wooden temple was closed following the collapse of a beam in May.  So on the Saturday morning I just went for a walk, to take a better look at an area we'd driven through on the way to visit projects in the week.  I estimated that it was at least 5km away, so took a motorbike taxi there (swerving to avoid a snake in the road on the way!) and walked back.

Cambodia must be the wettest country I have ever been to.  Full of rivers, lakes, flooded rice fields, puddles - and of course the rain, which fell in torrents throughout my stay.  But fortunately we had a few dry hours during my morning outing, so I was able to get a picture of the wonderful local fishing nets without ruining yet another camera.

Then another, quite unexpected, opportunity to experience something new came on the drive back to Phnom Penh, when we passed some stalls selling local food.  Deep-fried spiders!!

I bought one to try, then was asked if I wanted to see a live one.  Well how could I resist!  Here it is on my arm:

More impressive than it probably looks as I'm actually terrified of spiders.

Carpet sellers

Istanbul's carpet salesmen are legendary.  But when you know you are likely to be moving to work in a different continent within the next six months (where home could be any style of house or apartment in who-knows-what style and colour scheme) - or, if not, that you may be off back-packing round the world whilst deciding what to do next - then the temptation to buy an expensive carpet is pretty easily resisted.

So on my initial transit through Istanbul (on the way to Kyrgyzstan) I let myself be led into a carpet shop to have a look at what they had to offer.  "Just looking".  I was shown carpet after carpet - from Turkey, from India, from Afghanistan, in wool, in yak hair and in silk, and in every colour under the sun.  But sadly I gleaned very little information on carpets, as the salesman was more keen to impress on me how big a discount he would give me if I would go somewhere with him in his car so that he could "show me how he loved me"(!).  No thank you.

However in Uzbekistan, in a carpet-making workshop in the old city of Khiva, I saw a collection of silk carpets and totally fell in love with one.  If only I had somewhere settled to put it, and a spare $2,000...

Back in transit in Istanbul again, thinking no more about carpets (other than the lingering regrets over not being able to buy the one in Khiva), I was walking through a park when I found myself in conversation with a friendly Australian woman, who told me she was in Istanbul for a few months doing some jewellery design.  We chatted a little, and she pointed out a few interesting historical things that we were walking past (that I would otherwise have missed), and then she asked if I'd like to see her jewellery.  Well it seemed a little rude to say no.  But would you believe it, her jewellery was on display in the front part of a carpet shop ... and when she invited me to sit down for a glass of apple tea it was in the carpet showroom.

Whilst I had had no idea that undercover carpet sellers were now roaming the parks disguised as friendly Australians, I have to say that the man in the shop (the Australian rapidly disappeared - presumably to hunt down more victims) was very informative, and totally agreed, when I explained my situation, that now was not the time for me to buy a carpet.

Having listened to his explanations of single -v- double knots, and the significance of the number of knots per inch, I finally asked him about prices.  A very nice wool carpet, about the same size as "my" silk one in Khiva, was worth 1,600, he said.  I told him about the carpet I had fallen in love with and he expressed total disbelief at the price - showed me a much smaller silk one in his collection priced at $11,000...  He wondered if mine might have been made of cheap Chinese silk although even then it couldn't be that cheap (in fact all the silk used in the Khiva workshop is grown in Uzbekistan).  I began to wonder if my guide had mis-translated 20 into 2, or if perhaps I had missed the bargain of a lifetime...

Whirling Dervishes

On both the way to and from my holiday in Central Asia I had a day and a half in transit in Istanbul. This was a great opportunity to finally see the whirling dervishes in action, and I booked myself an online ticket to a Mevlevi Sema ceremony at the Hodja Paşa Cultural Centre, a 550-year-old converted hammam.

To the Mevlevi order, everything in the universe revolves - from electrons round an atom, to the blood in our bodies, to the planets around the sun.  The whirling of the dervishes - which they refer to as revolving - reflects this and is a way of casting off bad habits and becoming one with God.

The dervishes enter wearing long, black cloaks, and beige felt hats which resemble a foot-high fez; these hats represents tombstones for the ego, which is shed (or dies temporarily) during the ceremony.  After many bows, and the removal of their cloaks, they slowly start to revolve.  Initially their arms are crossed with the their hands on their shoulders, but as they begin to revolve, their arms gradually loosen and open, ultmately held up in the air as they turn.  This revolving, at 1-2 revolutions per second, goes on for some forty minutes in total, although with some brief pauses as the ceremony has a number of stages.  Any ordinary mortals would be dizzy to the point of nausea but these guys are apparently experiencing an "intoxication of the soul", and so suffer no such worldly discomforts.

To my surprise there is no joy shown on the dervishes' faces, which remain expressionless throughout.

Although performed for tourists in this location (in fact the Mevlevi order is still outlawed in Turkey and licenced to 'perform' only for tourists), it is still really a devotional ceremony, and so we were told not only not to take photos but not to applaud either.  I found it quite moving but then I have always enjoyed the mystical side of religion, from the incense of the Ethiopian and Greek orthodox churches to the trance music of the Moroccan Gnaoua.  In fact the two things I most want to experience during my remaining time in West Africa are a Lebu exorcism (Senegal) and a voodoo ceremony (Benin).  Both are unlikely, unfortunately.

But in Istanbul on my second transit coming back from my holiday I found another venue with a Mevlani Sema ceremony, not in such an atmospheric venue but one where photos were allowed.

The Silk Road

Aside from my close encounter with a golden eagle, my ten days in Kyrgyzstan involved a lot of walking in the mountains and a lot of layers of clothing as I tried to keep warm at night. The tour mostly involved sleeping in yurts set up on bleak hillsides or in remote valleys. Yurts have been used by the indigenous nomads for many centuries, and the thick layers of felt that cover them do keep out the worst of the cold, but with my relatively skinny frame I needed to wear all the clothes I had packed at the same time to stay warm in the evenings before I burrowed under the layers of blankets they provided for us.

We experienced other aspects of local culture too, from the food (warming meals with lots of meat and fat) and drink (a mildly fermented mare’s milk which tasted of sheep’s cheese), to the famous horsemanship skills. The latter included leaning from their saddles and picking a small (golf-ball-sized) object off the ground as they galloped past – not always successfully but this skill comes from a game using a decapitated goat which, to be fair, is rather larger than a golf ball. Horses are an integral part of the life of the nomads in Kyrgyzstan and on our walks we came across several young boys on horseback driving flocks of sheep and goats around the mountain-sides.

We also saw the ancient (restored) caravanserai of Tash Rabat, an atmospheric stone building in the middle of a remote valley – our first introduction to the Silk Route.

From Kyrgyzstan we travelled to Uzbekistan, only next-door but so very different. We went from green mountains to dry, flat desert, and from moveable felt yurts to solid ancient monuments.

The name Samarkand evoked for me the same kind of exotic image as Zanzibar and Timbuktu; an almost mythical place.  & it didn't disappoint.  Mosques, mausoleums and madrassas, all magnificently restored with their dazzling blue tiles, competed for my attention with the stories of the famous men who had passed through here: Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane...  the Shah -e- Zindar (street of the dead) was especially impressive, full of intricately tiled mausoleums still being visited by pilgrims.

After Samarkand we visited Bokhara - more mosques and madrassas, but somehow on a smaller, more human scale.  This was a very relaxed place where I felt I could just wander about, or stop in one of its many cafes for a green tea, or even sit on a bench and read my book.  I was working my way through Hopkirk's "The Great Game" - to learn more about the history of the region - and this was brought to life in Bokhara when I visited the 'bug pit' where British officers Connolly and Stoddard were held by the khan for many months before being executed in the square outside the Ark.

There were some good shopping opportunities here too, with the old madrassas and market domes filled with stalls selling ceramics, carpets, miniature paintings, silk scarves and wonderful embroidered jackets that would unfortunately be totally unsuitable for the hot climate of Dakar.

In Bokhara I said goodbye to the rest of the group, and continued further west.  A long day's drive through the Kyzyl Kum desert, crossing the great Oxus River, took me to Khiva.  Although the wall is older, most of the buildings within the old city here date on the from the 19th century, but the effect is of somewhere much more ancient.  My hotel was actually in one of the old (or not so old) madrassas, with a wonderful minaret forming a part of it - see photo.

An interesting practice here was to build tombs on the sloping sides of the city wall.  This meant that the body could not be buried in the ground but had to be laid in the tomb itself, and I was quite surprised when looking into one crumbling old tomb, as I climbed up the wall, to see what appeared very much to be a human thigh-bone, amongst other fragments of broken bone!

As with the other Silk Road cities, I was surprised to see virtually no other Western tourists.  I was told that this was because most prefer to avoid the August heat and that their numbers would rise in September.  There were plenty of local tourists though, and strangely I was as much of an attraction for them as the monuments, many wanting to be photographed with me.  Then on my final day in the country - in a museum in Tashkent - I was even interviewed for Uzbekistan television, asked my views on Tashkent ceramics (on which I'm a great expert, as you can imagine) and the local way of serving green tea.

If you're interested, the latter involves only filling the bowl half-full, so when the guest asks for more the host gets the pleasure of serving them a second time.

The eagle hunters of Kyrgyzstan

The art of hunting using eagles was introduced into Kyrgyzstan from Mongolia during the time of Genghis Khan. Today there are some fifty men left who continue the tradition, including Talgarbek who came to demonstrate the art with his nine-year-old golden eagle, Tumara.

We were outside the traditional hunting season, as the birds moult in summer and so are left to rest apart from short displays for tourists. In the winter, however, Talgarbek may take his eagle out into the mountains for several days at a time on hunting expeditions. There, her job is to follow her natural instinct and hunt, and his job is to keep an eye on where she is and follow her so as to get a share of the prey. Both animal skins and meat may then be sold to nomads he passes on his route. When “at home” he feeds her (around 600g of fresh meat, usually rabbit) only every second day, as she will not hunt if she is not hungry.

For the display, it is possible to see her kill a live rabbit, but we had been warned that this can be upsetting. Apparently they are tame rabbits brought up by the hunter and his family; the eagle will not hunt/kill when she is hooded and cannot therefore see her prey properly and the rabbits are used to her presence. On a previous display the guide said the rabbit had not even realised it was supposed to run away and so just sat there as the eagle landed until the bird started pecking at it. Not quite the same as seeing an eagle coming down and grabbing a rabbit in its talons and tearing it to pieces, which might be a spectacle worth seeing (given that the eagle has to eat…). So for us he used a fox fur, pulled along the ground by a rope, as the prey. The eagle, left unhooded and free on a rock a little up the mountainside, quickly spotted the fur and swooped down onto it, at which point the hunter ran up, fed her some alternative food (presumably the rabbit!) and removed the fur.

We were each allowed to hold her, by wearing the thick leather glove which she sits on, and when I asked if I could stroke her I was told that was fine. Although she was hooded at the time, it was still quite a thrill to hold such an impressive bird.

Tumara was taken from her nest in a difficult operation requiring climbing ropes, when her flight feathers were just sprouting. At this stage the parents fly off to hunt for several hours at a time, and the young are sufficiently developed to be taken away. There were two young in the nest, a male and female, and Talgarbek chose the female explaining to us that they are easier to train, being less aggressive.

The hunter spends several hours a day with the bird and comes to be seen as the surrogate parent. Indeed that relationship works both ways, as Talgarbek says he will miss her dreadfully when he finally lets her go – that it will be like a daughter leaving home to get married – but that he will have to free her in order to give her the opportunity to find a mate and live out her adult years as a free bird. He will probably keep her until she is about twenty, which will leave her some thirty years of freedom.

Drumming and dance

Today I am really wishing that I were one of those super-talented writers who can convey colour, rhythm, movement and passion just through words. Or that I could have taken some video to attach to describe yesterday evening.

I was walking home from a visit to my tailor, and could hear drumming. Extremely fast, staccato, poly-rhythmic drumming (done using sticks rather than with the hands), galloping to a crescendo at the end of each ‘song’ when all the drummers came together for the final “krak kraks”. I’ve heard this type of drumming before, but never tracked down the source as it echoes off the buildings, seemingly coming from one direction and then another depending on where you stand – and always, certainly, from some hidden private courtyard.

But this time I walked right past the source. The gate was slightly open and two women were peering through. I looked too – and it wasn’t more than a minute before a woman inside spotted the white face and so invited me in.

There was a group of four men drumming and a semi-circle of some forty women, dressed as only women from this part of the world can: long, floating layers of chiffon and satin in vibrant red, gold, purple, turquoise… They were seated, but every now and then one or two would stand up and go to the centre to dance. I knew I had been invited so that I could ‘perform’ for the women at some stage but also that it would be worth the embarrassment in order to watch the spectacle.

I’d heard of these women-only get-togethers where the women dance in a very sexy way, but could not have imagined the reality. The dancing is very vigorous, with some jumping and throwing the arms about, but mostly based around exaggerated shaking of the bottom and thrusting of the hips, whilst one hand holds up the fabric of the dress/skirts at the front – in many cases right up to crotch level. It was amazing to watch. There was even one veiled woman there, who kept her scarf covering her hair whilst she lifted her skirts above her knees and shook her stuff.

There was also call and response between the chief drummer and his troupe, clearly the drummed ‘songs’ had stories to them, but unfortunately all in Wolof so as usual I had not a clue about what was going on. Except that the evening was clearly about the women being able to display their sexuality to the full in the safe environment of a group of like-minded women.

I’m sure I looked very unsexy when I was dragged into the centre to dance – and I certainly didn’t lift up the front of my skirt (although I was glad to be wearing a bright yellow and black flowery skirt rather than my usual drab beige trousers)! Whilst up there a woman who’d done plenty of dancing quietly explained to me that she was the griotte and (traditional history and praise singer) and the drummers were her griots. I therefore had to make a financial offering to them – but CFA1,000 ($2) was enough, the same amount that I noticed other dancers were giving.

Eventually I made my quiet escape. I had hoped to find out more about the dance from colleagues, but all I could get is that it is called ‘taneuber’ – and is a version of the much better-known sabar dance that is performed in public by both men and women.

Net-hunting with pygmies

The highlight of my holiday in the Central African Republic was not the wildlife, as I had expected, but a morning spent with the Ba'Aka.  This pygmy tribe are indigenous to the rainforest, still mostly living as hunter-gatherers in a lifestyle that will have hardly changed over thousands of years.  They are believed to be amongst the closest people, genetically, to the original humans.

They really are very small, many with front teeth chiselled to points (which they consider beautiful), and with intricate little tattoos all over their faces.  Thye seem very innocent, almost childlike in their behaviour, which we saw clearly during our morning together.

We accompanied them net-hunting: me, another tourist, a guide, and an interesting American man (Louis Sarno) who has lived with them for the past 27 years.  There were around 15 Ba'Aka going out on the hunt - men and women together as this like most tasks are shared equally - carrying their long, fibre nets, machetes and a couple of spears, and all quite excited as they enjoy the hunt.

We followed them into the forest (as I constantly ducked to avoid branches and vines I could see the evolutionary advantage of their short stature) and they quickly set up the nets, hooking them up to the vegetation so as to form a long, metre-high barrier which curved round almost into a circle.  Then, inside the nets, they began to beat the vegetation with sticks, calling out with traditional cries, to flush out any animals into the nets.

The first attempt was unsuccessful but on the second go they caught two blue duiker (tiny blue-grey coloured antelope), which would be shared out traditionally according to each person's role - who flushed it out, whose net it ran into, who killed it, etc.

On the way out of the forest someone spotted some fruit ripening high up in the canopy, and before I could even switch my camera on one of the Ba'Aka had climbed maybe 30 metres up a tree trunk resembling a narrow telegraph pole, with no branches or anything to hold on to for support except for the trunk itself ... amazing.

After the hunt the Ba'Aka piled into the backs of our vehicles.  Elated, they were like an excited bunch of schoolkids in the back of the school bus on a field trip!  They started singing and clapping - traditional songs, polyphonic and mostly just sounds rather than words, but occasionally with some high-pitched chattering sounds like a monkey's alarm call (apparently representing the spirits).  It was a magical experience being with them as they sang (not for we tourists but for themselves, to express their joy after a successful hunt), like being transported into another world.

Sadly though it is a world which might not continue.  The American explained how Bantu poachers have entered the forest, with guns, killing animals in large numbers to sell to the bushmeat trade in the cities of the region.  Ba'Aka net-hunting is sustainable as they only take what they need to eat and as their population density is very low (average 1 person per square kilometre) the impact is also low.  Hunting large numbers of duiker and monkeys, with guns, is not sustainable and wildlife numbers have crashed.  He told a sad story of how he went out with an older Ba'Aka man to be shown the way they hunt monkeys - with bows and poisoned arrows - but that the man couldn't demonstrate his skills as they didn't find any monkeys. Later back on the road they met a Bantu man with a gun, carrying a sack full of dead monkeys.

Indeed in the course of my week in the forest I saw only a troop of de Brazza's monkeys, a few balck-and-white colobus, and two solitary putty-nosed; apparently a couple of decades ago there would have been monkeys everywhere.

Wildlife watching in the CAR

A week’s holiday in the Central African Republic may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but I’d spotted a trip going deep into the rainforest, based at the wonderful Sangha Lodge, and decided that a week there might offer some great wildlife encounters.

The most famous wildlife there are the lowland gorillas. Three of us went to see them, with local trackers, on the first day and after not much more than an hour of walking through the forest (sometimes ankle deep through little sandy streams) our trackers found one of the two habituated families: a silverback, his females and a number of juveniles.

It takes around seven years to habituate the gorillas to human presence, and even then the encounter is not as interactive as the encounters with their cousins the mountain gorillas. They turned their backs on us a lot, and were very mobile so we had to keep moving to follow them around. This kept the trackers busy locating them; it’s amazing how easily such enormous creatures can just vanish into the bush!

The other wildlife spectacle that this part of the world is known for is the gathering of animals in the forest clearings known as ‘baïs’. The formation of these clearings is linked to geology, their being doleritic intrusions in the surrounding granite, and as they tend to be quite low-lying so the streams that run through many spread out into marshy areas. They are maintained and further developed by the elephants who come to dig in the mud for the many minerals (calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, manganese and phosphorus) and also eat the clay itself to help rid themselves of the tannins and alkaloids contained in the leaves they eat in the forest.

I spent two days at Dzangha Baï and at any one time there were between twenty and forty elephants, plus visits from forest buffalo (very different from their savannah counterparts), sitatunga and a number of birds – on the second morning I was greeted by a cacophony of squeals and squawks from several hundred grey parrots in the trees surrounding the baï. Some days you can also see giant forest hogs, and bongos, but I wasn’t lucky with those.

The main attraction though is the elephants, and being mating season they were particularly interesting to watch, with various cranky males trying to assert their dominance over the others.

We also encountered one of these cranky bull elephants on the way to the baï on the second morning. The walk from the nearest road goes through forest but also through another much smaller baï with a 300m-long knee-high stream running through it which has to be waded through. Some elephants like this baï and so the tracker always goes ahead, to bang his machete on the water and generally make as much noise as possible to scare off any elephants in the path. On the first day this approach had worked, but on the second day the noise just aggravated the elephant, who charged at us. The guide turned and ran which we took as signal to do the same!!

The elephant gained on us (running through knee-high water is not easy but elephants run much faster than humans in any case) but thankfully didn’t want to catch us, just to make us run away. We finally got to the baï by a different, longer route, through even deeper water.

The birdlife was great too. I managed finally to see a flufftail, specifically a white-spotted one – an elusive little bird I’ve wanted to see for a long time, this one a bright orange on the upper half of its body and black with white spots on the lower half.
The bird star though was the red-necked picathartes, the only relative of the yellow-headed picathartes that I posted on in December 2009. We made two attempts to see this bird at a nesting site beside a waterfall in the forest; on the second attempt I got a sighting although not a great one, but it had got too dark to see anything much so we picked our way back down the path.
Then, on a hunch, the guide shone his torch on an old nest we’d seen earlier, that we’d thought was abandoned – and there sat on the nest was our
picathartes! Mesmerised by the torchlight it just sat there staring at us so I was even able to get a photo (in which you can't see the red neck - but it's behind the blue head...).

Time out in Grand Popo

I have been too busy for some time to post anything to the blog, but having planned to draft something on last week's trip to the UK I found the following, drafted last December but for some reason never posted (with apologies if a photo is inserted in a random place - blogger tells me I've added it but it doesn't show up in the draft):

After a period of pretty hard work I took a long weekend to rest at the village of Grand Popo in Benin. Formerly a grand colonial town, apparently, the majority of the ‘grand’ stuff has long since been swallowed up by the sea, with not even the spire of the old church now visible above the crashing waves. What is left now is a typical African fishing village squashed between the sea and a web of mangrove creeks, but leading to it a 4km-long road lined with little guest-houses, bars, art galleries and the like.

I followed a recommendation to stay at the grandest of the guest houses, in some restored old buildings next to the sea, although by the final day I was taking my meals in the cheaper places down the road. I slept a lot, walked a bit, took a drumming lesson, and also a couple of excursions around the locality (a pirogue trip among the mangroves and a walk around a village full of voodoo fetishes).

On the latter I was taken into a house to be shown two turtles in a sadly small tank, but also two old rice sacks now full of sand and, apparently, turtle eggs which had been rescued before poachers could steal them to eat. However when I took a closer look at the sand, I saw that there was a baby turtle on top and several parts of other baby turtles emerging from the sand! The guide asked if I minded helping, and basically set me to work digging out all the turtles while he went off to fill some big basins with sea water. It took a long time but by the end we had several basins containing some 120-odd baby turtles swimming about in the water (besides ten or so that had not survived.

Apparently they would be released into the sea that evening. I’m not sure if this is the best way to conserve turtles (isn’t the process of digging their way out of the sand an important part of their development? & a way of their ‘learning’ where they come from so that the females will know where to come back when they need to lay eggs of their own?) but at least the will is there.

I also ended up in a fascinating conversation with one of the hotel waiters. He was a part-time musician (I had already bought a CD of his!) and very knowledgeable on the history of African rhythms.

I learnt that (according to him at least) salsa originates from Benin – from the slaves of the Beninois Agossa family taken to Cuba. There the women beat out the rhythm on metal gongs to help their men to get through the work in the sugar plantations. The word salsa is apparently a corruption of Agossa.

The metal gong in the story is a commonly used instrument in West African traditional ceremonies, although only in Benin is it a part of regular music. He told me it originated in Benin a long time ago, when a group of women needed a way to stop their king from carrying out a public execution. They commissioned a blacksmith to make a metal gong in shape of a breast, so that they could present it to the king as a symbol of the strength of their feelings against the execution. How could he who was suckled at his mother’s breast, put to death another man, also suckled at his mother’s breast? So they each had a gong made in the shape of one of their breasts, beat the gongs loudly to get the attention of the king and presented them to him with their pleas. The man was saved and the gong became a regular part of ceremonial life.

Unfortunately, with the tendency to go bra-less and have lots of children, I can confirm that many African women do indeed have breasts the shape of the gong.

The safety of the head of state

Departure delayed.

Not the words you want to see when transiting Nairobi airport in the early hours of the morning. But apparently it was National Day in Cameroon and when we finally left Nairobi, seven hours later, a fellow traveller explained that the airspace (and indeed the country's roads) is always closed during the parades that mark Cameroon's National Day - to protect against a coup d'etat whilst the president is occupied with the celebrations.

Driving through Yaounde I could see all the flags around the place, and scores of women in matching dresses adorned with the president's image (provided free-of-charge by his party, apparently) making their way home. I finally got to the hotel at around 15:00, and pinned around the walls and in my room was a notice, roughly translated as:

"The holiday of 20 May remains a prvileged moment in the life of the country and corresponds to the national holiday. On this occasion parades are organised and the head of state, the President of the Republic, comes out. In order to preserve the safety of the head of state, you are asked to please observe the following:

1) do not open the window of your room
2) do not go to the window to look out
3) do not open the curtains

These measures take effect at six o'clock in the morning, and the lifting of these restrictions will be around 14:30."

Paul Biya has been president for some 28 years now, I believe. What it is to be so loved by your people.

Bees in the baobab

The Bedik people came to south-east Senegal from Mali in the thirteenth century. They now number around 8,000 people, living in and around seven villages in the hills of this remote corner of Senegal. I came to spend a few days in the ‘capital’ of the Bedik country, the village of Iwol.

Bees are an important part of the history of Iwol. When Alpha Yahya attacked them from his base in Guinea to convert them to Islam, they fled into the surrounding hills, hiding in the caves. But realising that they could not defeat Yahya and his army, they offered their 12 fittest young men as a sacrifice to the village’s guardian spirit so that the village could be saved. The spirit accepted this offering and sent a swarm of bees to attack Yahya’s soldiers. The stings were so bad that they all fell down dead on the spot (only Yahya himself survived), and the Bedik got their village back.

At one side of the village is an old, gnarled baobab tree, some 23m in circumference. This sprouted, many centuries ago, over the burial place of some members of the Camara family – which somehow makes it sacred. As the bees now nest in it I suppose it is doubly sacred.

A nice by-product of this is the honey, which the Bedik add to palm wine to make a delicious mead drink.

Whilst many of the Bedik are now Catholic, they are at the same time still animist – having decided, apparently, to maintain this alongside their Catholicism so as not to lose their traditions. An important part of those traditions is the annual initiation ceremony by which the boys of this and nearby villages come of age. Whilst the whole initiation takes some five months, much of it taking place out in the sacred forest, it begins with a public ceremony in the village and it was this I had come to see.

It starts with the presentation by each boy of a cockerel to the village spirit. The cockerel is slaughtered, cut open, and the colour of the inside of its testicles checked – a healthy white and the boy may be initiated, but if this is black then further consultations with the spirits are required. In the worst case it may be decided that it would be bad luck for the boy to be initiated and he has to come back again the next year. Thankfully this possibly traumatic experience (for the boy) is rare, and this year all 18 boys were able to continue.

The cockerel is plucked and cooked over the coals, then skewered with a big stick that is placed in the roof of the initiate’s home, to mark his location. Then the masks appear from the hills – men from the village in a mask costume made from raffia and leaves – carrying big sticks and hunting for the boys. They find the huts with the chickens and try to take the boys, but the villagers are prepared and protect the boys whilst fighting back against the masks with their own big sticks. It is all quite chaotic and it seems some people do end up with some big bruises, but everyone involved sported big grins – it is obviously an event that the villagers really enjoy!

Over the following few days one can hear occasional drumming and shrieking coming from a specially built little hut in the middle of the village, and the boys emerge from time to time to parade around. Their appearance is suggestive of girls at this point, with an elaborate hairdo and earrings, and they stamp their feet rhythmically as they move, so a bunch of iron hooks dangling on their backs jangle loudly. I didn’t get the whole of the story behind these parades, but the boys move as if exhausted, and have one or two villagers who support each of them – although occasionally the boys throw off that support and try to make a run for the church at the top of one hill, from where the girls are watching the ceremony. They are always caught and pulled back before they get there, however.

This goes on for some four days but everyone told me I should stay as the ceremony ends with a massive celebratory dance which the whole village attends in their best attire. This dance was supposed to start Tuesday afternoon and go on all day Wednesday, but on Tuesday nothing happened (my guide told me it was because the women had work to do, both the regular work such as the long walk to the well to collect water but also the preparation of food to give to those organising the initiation). On Wednesday the atmosphere was a little different, and there was plenty of millet beer being drunk all around. So much millet beer though that the final dance never happened. I was disappointed, but had to remind myself that it was a part of the village life, and that it was this real village life (rather than dances put on for tourists) that I had come to see. Perhaps if they were better at organising things they would not still be living in a picturesque village without a water supply, holding traditional animist ceremonies, and the women would no longer be wearing porcupine quills through their noses.

Living in the light

It rained on Wednesday. Now I realise that this won’t sound particularly momentous to those of you living in rainy London, but this is Dakar. We don’t have winter and summer, we have a rainy season and a dry season and right now we are in the dry season. In the dry season it doesn’t rain. It is usually hot and sunny with blue skies, though sometimes the harmattan blows in from the Sahara desert and a white haze of dust hangs over the city, but it doesn’t rain.

So when I woke on Wednesday morning I thought I must be dreaming when I heard rain sounds – thought it was some strange trick, perhaps the leaves of the mango tree tapping against the roof in the wind – but then I heard thunder and knew it was for real. & it was the day I was moving house.

With my northern European background I groaned inwardly at the rain, thinking about all my books, clothes and CDs getting wet as the removal men carried the boxes out to the lorry. But in a semi-desert country like Senegal such unseasonal rain is considered good luck, especially for new ventures, and this portentous rainstorm was even mentioned on the evening news. Locals associated it with the presidency of the newly elected Macky Sall, but I knew better – it was for me, for my move to the new apartment.

& so far it seems to have worked. My only loss on the move was one small glass. But more importantly I now live in a beautiful apartment. It has two bedrooms and one open plan lounge/diner/kitchen, with both the latter room and the master bedroom having large French windows opening on to the enormous south-west facing balcony with its sea view (OK, the sea is behind the rooftops and a big road, but I can still see it and its cooling breezes still reach my balcony). The contrast with the old house I moved out of could not be greater as this place is flooded with light – and I realise now how I suffered from the dark, gloomy interior of the house, built in the typical African way to face north and so avoid as much as possible of the sun.

I didn’t set foot outside the apartment block for the whole weekend as I couldn’t bear to leave it. Just a trip downstairs to the shared swimming pool, which I had all to myself.

The place does have its faults (otherwise it wouldn’t be within the budget of an NGO), but the planes flying overhead in the night have not woken me once. There is no generator, only little machines that keep the lights on during power cuts – but not the fridges, the hairdryers or the cookers. So far we haven’t had any power cuts but I’m sure they’ll come once we move into the hot and steamy rainy season. But I don’t think I’ll care because I am truly in love with this apartment. I don't know at the moment how long I have left in Senegal (as a management restructuring of my department is looming) but in a way that is making me treasure each day there even more.

Culture shock

For the first time in my 5+ years in this job, I was asked to do some work at one of our fundraising offices in the developed world – our US office, which is split between Washington DC and Warwick Rhode Island – for a three-week trip.

I had hoped to get a weekend day or two to get out and see something, particularly in Washington, but it wasn’t to be. Too much work, combined with back-to-back heavy colds, coughing and associated temperature and chest pains (it seems I’ve had bronchitis), meant no time out at all. Daytime in the office, evenings and weekends in the hotel room either working or lying in bed feeling sorry for myself.

But from my sick bed I ended up watching quite a lot of the domestic US version of CNN, and was surprised by the insight it gave me into American culture, certainly more than I would have got from visiting the African Art Museum at the Smithsonian…

Campaigning for leadership of the Republican Party (or the GOP as they seem to call it now) was well underway. There were televised debates between the candidates, interviews and various analyses by TV pundits.

Until this trip I had always thought that the UK and the US were pretty similar culturally, with a few exceptions (their gun culture and antagonism towards the welfare state). But it turns out that there is a whole chunk of their population whose beliefs and attitudes are a universe away from ours. Or maybe a couple of centuries away would be a better way of describing it.

Rick Santorum, one of the Republican nominees, does not believe in evolution, in climate change, in gay marriage, in abortion, in contraception (he has seven children), and even derides college education as being “for snobs” and dangerous as many who begin college life as Christians apparently leave as non-believers. Can you imagine someone like that getting anywhere near a position of power in the UK? I’d say his views are closer to those of the Taliban than to those of the average British citizen, yet he is a serious contender for Republican Party presidential candidate.

TV adverts backed up this strange world view. They alternated between medical adverts (for erectile dysfunction tablets and catheters, mainly – surely your doctor should be prescribing such things for those who need them?), legal adverts for those who had used medical products that now turned out to have dangerous side effects (yes, go to your doctor for prescriptions in the first place), and adverts by lobby groups, mostly for the drilling and use of more oil.

There was also one advert for a factory full of machines that not only make cars but also fix themselves when they go wrong (I suppose if you don’t believe in a welfare state then you won’t care about unemployment), and another advert for “Christian Mingle”, where single Christians can meet eachother. To talk about a world free of homosexuality, contraception and higher education, perhaps?

Just for balance, I should say that the colleagues I met there seemed nothing like those portrayed by the TV, but still, I felt a long way from home.

Hostile Environment Training

My new boss felt quite strongly that our department had not received the security training that we need to operate safely in the various places we visit in our work, so decided that we should all attend a three-day hostile environment and first aid training course.

The East and West Africa teams decided to hold ours in Kenya following a regional meeting there, so I packed old clothes as instructed and early last Wednesday was waiting with colleagues in Nairobi for transport to a ranch somewhere south of the city. We had the itinerary - but it did not really prepare us for the three days of gunfire, explosions, rebel checkpoints and moaning accident victims needing first aid that was ahead of us.

Unfortunately, when faced with face-painted, bandana'd rebels in camouflage gear touting AK47s and an empty gin bottle at an unexpected checkpoint on the road you cannot start taking photos - so I can't show you quite how realistic the role-play situations were. But I now know far more about how to react to gunfire (whether from a pistol or an assault rifle), to kidnappers, to rioting crowds and to checkpoints, not to mention having received a well-needed refresher on emergency first aid (CPR, bleeding wounds, etc).

An added bonus was the location of the course, so a mock evacuation under rebel fire was done with a herd of zebra on the airstrip and an ostrich wandering about just behind us. Not the kind of distractions I would face in West Africa, but I remembered my UK-based colleagues doing the same course somewhere in southern England (wind, rain - sleet, perhaps? certainy no zebras...) and was grateful to be living in Africa!

I returned from the course to a week-long meeting with fellow managers in Nairobi. Staying at an Israeli-owned hotel and wondering if the recent UK government warnings about terrorist threats in Nairobi would be realised - would I get to practice my new skills? But no, all went off safely, thankfully.

While there, however, I had several interruptions by phone and email from Senegal. Alerts. Both the Embassy and the office warning me about the growing tensions in Senegal in view of (a) repeated protests about rising fuel prices and (b) the forthcoming election. The Embassy told me I need to keep a "grab bag" ready containing such items as ID and travel documents, cash, clothes, medicines, torch, etc, and have enough food and water at home to survive on for 4 days should the protests escalate. Then an email followed from the office telling me to keep enough for 7+ days. & to keep my mobile phone on at all times, and my radio tuned in. Then another email, telling me that the Dakar office was closing for the afternoon for security reasons (planned demonstrations likely to turn violent) and advising vigilence over the weekend.

I fly home tomorrow and wonder if I shall get to put any of my new skills into practice. Almost certainly not, but I am glad that we covered crowd situations in the training - not that I will be going out of my way to get into the thick of the action, in fact I shall be doing my best to avoid it - but I do feel better prepared after the course. Between now and the 26 February election there is certain to be plenty of trouble, and as my house is near the University, the private house of the president and the headquarters of his party, there is a reasonable chance of trouble near home. Indeed I recently found out that some of what I have assumed to be firework noises was in fact the sound of stun grenades being thrown in my little suburb to disperse protestors.

Senegal is the only country in West Africa not to have experienced a coup in the 50 years since its independence, it has a free (and vocal) press, and it has already had two peaceful transfers of power from one president to another. But the incumbent president has followed recent African tradition by seeking a third term in office even though the constitution restricts him to two, and I've heard that one of the main opposition candidates is planning to allege electoral fraud should Wade get back in... It will be a sad day for West Africa if the situation in Senegal deteriorates into the sort of violence we've seen elsewhere in the continent.

The Bou El Mogdad

Every second Saturday an old ship moored in St Louis fills up with passengers, and starts a six-day cruise up the River Senegal to Podor. A couple of years ago I looked up enviously at the passengers sitting around the wood-panelled bar listening to a jazz band playing on the deck, and decided that one day I would take that cruise.

So this year, on Christmas Eve, I joined some thirty other people on board the Bou el Mogdad in St Louis. I’d gone for the basic cabin, so no en-suite bathroom, but it was comfortable and well-appointed, and I changed into the smartest clothes I had packed ready for a special dinner, as the French have their main Christmas celebration on the evening of the 24th. It didn’t disappoint: a free cocktail to start, followed by foie gras and then a plate full of langoustine and giant prawns…

Most of the other passengers were, as I’d expected, tourists from France, but there were also a few Germans and a Pole who all spoke good English, so thankfully I didn’t have to spend the whole week struggling to make myself understood in French.

It was a leisurely week. There are not too many tourist sites in this part of the country, but there were excursions to the Djoudj bird sanctuary with its enormous colony of nesting pelicans, to the sugar refinery at Richard Toll, to a couple of traditional villages and to the old fort at Podor. Much of the time we just sat around on the boat reading, chatting, drinking, looking out at the passing scenery – Senegal on one bank, Mauritania on the other – and trying to find shelter from the cold wind blowing off the desert to the north (I think this cruise would be better outside of the cold months of December and January).

After disembarking in Podor the other passengers went back to St Louis but I had decided to carry on, to see what I could of this little-visited corner of Senegal before going back to work in the New Year. Luckily one of the other passengers – the Polish guy – wanted to do the same, so I had company.

We started off touring the Ile a Morphil, a long windswept peninsula in the River Senegal once full of elephants but now noted for a number of old Sudanic style mosques and the remnants of a village destroyed by a sudden flood 15-odd years ago. From there we continued to Matam, and finally on to Bakel with its wonderful old French fort on a rocky promontory overlooking the river.

The plan was then to return to Dakar, but we managed only the first stage to Ouro Sogui before we were stopped in our tracks by a national transport strike.

Ouro Sogui is a small crossroads town some 890km from Dakar, with a couple of small hotels, a couple of petrol stations, and not much else. But so far from the capital and tourist centres, the local people are friendly and hospitable, and we were soon offered a place to wait in a local house. We spent a relaxed few hours there starting with a big shared tiep-bou-djen lunch (the rice, fish and vegetable mix which is generally considered to be the national dish of Senegal), followed by a few glasses of delicious Mauritanian-style mint tea, and then a reading of the cowrie shells by the old next-door-neighbour. The shells are thrown, together with a token monetary donation, and the initiated can read in them something of your situation and future. Apparently.

In my case, the man 'reading' the shells wanted to say something about my son, but when I explained that I don’t have one he told me that I will have – and a daughter too. When he found out that I also don’t have any cattle, or any goats, he was quite surprised and told me that I should get some as they would bring me happiness. I’m not sure that my landlady would be so keen on that idea... He also read in the shells that I had recently seen a big snake. When I recalled that I had seen a small snake in Chad in October he beamed with satisfaction – “see how the cowries can see everything!” Unfortunately they could not see when the strike would end.

Back at our hotel, having declined the offer of a room for the night (my travel companion not being too keen on their outside village-style toilet) we were told that there was a rumour the strike would end at 8am the next day. So we set our alarms and were up and packed ready the next morning, but there was nothing again except for horses and carts.

Finally, however, a man told our hotel manager that a van driver was going to Richard Toll (halfway to Dakar) and was prepared to take us for a – reasonable – fee. We jumped in and seven squashed hours later, during which he had managed to kill both a pigeon and a dog on the road, we arrived in Richard Toll. Just in time for a pizza and a couple of martinis in the roadside fast-food restaurant, then a night’s sleep before getting up to a fully-functional transport system the next morning. & finally, around 8pm the next evening, I was home.