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.