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.