Tuesday, 11 August 2009


Well I'm back in the loveable mess that is Dakar, which on return feels strangely like home , and I'm anticipating some arrivals on Thursday night. Got a little time now to update those interested on my recent travels south, continuing from where I left off in the last post.

Right after that post I went for another little walk around Ziguonchor and came across a lovely, quiet little garden with a cathedral in it. A snapped a few pics as the moon came up which can't really capture the effecting peacefulness of that little corner, but anyway.......

The next day, after catching this recurrent morning view of any African traveller........ I was off to Guinea-Bissau. I arrived in the capital, Bissau, only to be thwarted in my ambition to reach the country's archipelago the same day by unfavourable boat timetabling. Not having a backup plan, I went for a sit down in the nearest open sided cafe, which I soon discovered was actually a bar with quite a few drunk sailor-looking types in it. This was a strange sensation as I'd come directly from Senegal, where bars must be sought out, and where there is certainly no obvious drunkenness. The combination of this surprise, and my lack of plan all made ordering a beer the obvious choice. So, with my beer (pleasantly, also priced for sailors), I sat down to survey Bissau.
It wasn't long until I was loudly beckoned from across the bar by a round, moustached Portuguese man, who on seeing another white guy insisted that I sit with him. Naturally I couldn't refuse and joined him, soon discovering that, despite it being 12.30, he'd already had two bottles of white wine and having done so couldn't decide whether he wanted to eat his peanuts or spit them all over his shirt. He was comical and very interesting actually, having lived there through eighteen years of revolution, coup and counter coup, in one of the poorest countries in Africa. Giddily excited by this fast paced and altogether novel introduction to Bissau, and my friend's worsening drunkness, I glanced around with a smile, subconciously looking for someone who I might playfully mock my neighbour with. I found only two men paying attention to our loud, one sided conversation. I met their looks with a smile and a shake of the head, which to my minor shame, was returned with a sympathetic frown. I didn't read much into it at the time, only later when I sat with the same men and mentioned the drunken Portuguese did their sympathy, and all round good nature become apparent.
This general kindness was further confirmed by the help I recieved in finding out boat times and finding a room for the night, all of which was unasked for and given with no expectation of reward. Nothing of Senegal or bribe happy Gambia could prepare me for that, and I was genuinely moved by this new humanity. There were no demands for money from children or adults, no rudely persistent salesmen, no exploited begging children, no derogatory remarks about my skin colour, no piles of rubbish willingly left on roadsides, just smiles, welcomes, inquiries and invitations. All that seems like an unfair indictment of Senegal, and certainly judging any country mainly by its biggest city is never fair, but in comparison with Bissau, Dakar is a real mess. That night I was left to reflect on the causes of all this palpable goodness, how could it be here? Across some arbitrary frontier in the forest, where people are alot poorer and constantly endure political instability of the bloody variety? Fascinating. I guess that's why we travel.

The same day, after finding a room and dumping my bag, I set off, my appetite for discovery only wetted.
I found the presidential palace left in a sombre state of disrepair. Structually sound and relatively new, the damage to the building was from bullets, RPG's and arson dating from the last civil war and resultant coup d'etat. The palace was assaulted in 1999, to force the resignation or death of the president, by rebels who had won control the city at the cost of the lives of thousands of civilians and displacement of 250,000. I asked a man on the street if I could go in, to which he said by all means and even sat on the steps watching for any police (I love these guys).

This first picture is taken from the side, and shows how the ex-presidential garden is now planted and producing crops. Also in this picture is a particularly targeted window, with a concentration of bullet holes around its edge.

As I tiptoed my way in, the first view was of the front corridor, destroyed and decaying still further but maintaining an eerie symmetry.

On the other side of that corridor lay what seemed to be a the main reception room, complete with bats hanging from the ceiling. By this time I was infected with the powerful effect of this place. Each step seemed to take a minute, my heartbeat quickened, I was aware of every noise around me and stood in one spot, mouth open for minutes before quickly stealing a photo and tiptoeing on.

Then it was upstairs, the plated window behind smashed and the bats now flying over my head. I scrambled over pieces of the fallen in roof to the balcony before again taking some pics; first of some more bulletholes on the facade and second a couple of views over the square.

Lastly, after thanking my guard for his help, I sat in the square and grabbed these photos, in which you can see the burnt out roof and RPG holes (especially on the left hand side). Glad to be free of the grip of the interior I sat for a good while thinking about it all, a little emotional..... Until my attention span waned and my stomach told me it was time to grab some food.

Next day I caught a boat to Africa's only archipelago, the Bijagos, with turqoise waters, crumbling colonial architecture and a lot of very big fish. Here's the town of Bolama as I arrived....... From the jetty, of the jetty, the government building (2), another Portuguese remnant with some kids and finally a dramatic rain cloud approaching just before my journey onwards.

The boat to the next island took 15 hours, though it really should have taken 6. The cause of the delay was a combination of tides, our heavy cargo of cashew nut wine, midnight drop of half of said cargo on an island and general drunkenness resulting from copious consumption of said cargo. A visiting Portuguese professor had told me earlier on Bolama that the nuts were distilled at inconsistent temperatures, meaning that many people on the islands had gone blind by over doing it. But I gave it a try, everything in moderation after all, and wasn't surprised to find it tasted like nutty wine, wierd, and with a definate kick. Here's a shot I took when waiting for the barrels to be unloaded half way, you can just make out the palm trees in the moonlight, but unfortuneatly not the villagers wading out to the necks to recieve their monthly stockpile of nut wine.

Next morning we arrived on the island of Bubaque with sore heads, having slept on the boat just offshore. Here's a beach and the airfield at sunset on what unfortuneatly turned out to be the only clear day of my stay...

Next day I rented a bike despite the rain and set out for the interior of the island along its only road. The Bijagos people have maintained a strong indigenous culture and I was keen to see some villages, if slightly apprehensive about the effect of my visit. I consoled myself with the fact that these weren't the most secluded of villages and had pretty constant interaction with people from the nearby towns. After a long ride, complete with sore bum and back and suitably soaked, I made it to some villages and waited outside to be invited in, as I'm told is customary. Eventually someone walked by and, seeing my pitiable state, brought me to sit outside a house in the middle of the village. The children crowded around me in cautious silence but with big, bright smiles. Communication was difficult with what little Portuguese I had in common with the adults but they nevertheless made me feel welcome and at peace in their beautiful village. I got up to leave after half an hour but was obliged to wait until the rain had stopped. Another half an hour passed before it did stop and I took my leave with an undescribable contentment. I caught these pictures of the rooftops as I left, just for memory.

Next day it was back to Dakar for my rendezvous with Jo, Siobhan, Steve, Brendan, Tadhg, Caitlin and Billy tomorrow night. This is one of the examples where I am so excited about something it produces a wierd melancholy, must be good.

OK, that was a long one. I'm really not in the mood to check for typos so I trust you get what I mean. The moral of the story? Go to Guinea-Bissau.

I'll depart with a billboard by the dock which shows the reputation of sailors isn't lost on those smart guys at the W.H.O.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The End of the Beginning, the Beginning of the End

The end has come and I am very tired. Apart from a few ends to tie up the project has finished and I'm off South for a two week break before I head back to Dakar for a much anticipated rendezvous with my family and girlfriend.

Fatigue and proximity have not allowed me much reflection and I'm sure I'll muse over it more here as it sinks in, but right now, I feel releived that everything went very well and happy that I've learnt so much. Not just about the application of aid with its possibilities and limits or about the culture and history of Senegal and West Africa but also about myself, and ourselves, as a group and in the broader sense, which is always the lesson I least expect.

As for the talibes, the benefit has been significant. We've been in complete control of our finances; deciding to build 5 new classrooms, 4 outside Dakar and 1 in, which will all greatly reduce child begging and in many cases eradicate it. We've also addressed some inner city problems, treating their illnesses and taking them away from begging to have some fun or learn something new. As always, there are certainly a few things we would change, but overall I think we've exceded what could reasonably be expected of us. Which is great!

Here's some pictures of my final night on a roof drinking tea, a habit I'll miss. First is Daouda (Dr. Tea) making...........tea. Second is Sheena, Marie and Jeannet happily anticipating my departure :-) Third is me exchanging details with Dr. Tea and last is a picture of a Senegalese 'fete' breaking the darkness and calm of the surrounding night.

But I still haven't had enough, now it's time for a biggish trip around West Africa. Right now I'm in Ziguonchor in the Casamance region of Senegal, from here I'm hopefully head further South to Guinea Bissau tomorrow assuming the very changeable price of the visa isn't prohibitive.

Getting all the way to Ziguonchor from Dakar yesterday was an uncomfortable and brilliant beginning to my African adventure. I arrived at Dakar's 'Gare Routiere' at 6.30am to catch a minibus for the 500km journey to Zig (as the obligatory trendy name goes). We left as the sun came up with my legs under my chin. 15 hours, 1 new country and 2 climate zones later we arrived in a night time tropical storm with lightning periodically illuminating the lush forest all around. The real tropical zone began as we approached The Gambia, which is also where the bribing began. At each Gambian checkpoint I climbed over numerous headdresses to be taken into a room with one soldier, who then looked at my passport, stamped it, held it, sized me up and then named his price. For the first two I payed about 5 pounds in total. The third soldier was a treat. He made me do my climb, stamped my passport and triumphantly told me that he would demand absolutely nothing, all with a handshake and a fist bump.

Time has run out on this post must finish quickly. I'll leave you with pictures of; the border, the Gambia River ferry, my bus, the ferry landing and my view of Ziguinchor in the morning.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Daouda for president

This week has seen the beginning of the end for our project. Material for all our building is in place and all should be finished in ten days time. Hopefully more on all of that, with pictures, after we've visited all of the sites for the last time.

On Tuesday we took fifty talibes on a trip around Dakar. First we visited l'Assemblee National, where we were allowed in to look at the chamber and given a talk in Wolof. Next we had a look at the Presidential Palace, a very tall mosque by a beach and finally climbed a hill for a view over the whole peninsula. Here are some of the kids watching a plane come in to land....

Two days later we began a ten day school for the talibes. By the time it's finished, we'll have hopefully taught a hundred of them to make bead jewellery and design and make t-shirts. We also play a lot of football, climb trees and I wrestle with ten at a time.
Aside from our fun at the school, this week we have mostly been entertained by.... Daouda Ba (above). I think he's worth a bit of description here for an insight into our day to day work. His job must be described as unknown, though he does work for the NGO in some capacity. He's slightly shorter than me, likes Pink Floyd and reggae and moves very slowly so as not to expend too much energy. He doesn't play football and can't swim, however he does referee when needed, though in typically languid fashion. He spends a lot of time reading his preferred newspaper, Le Pop, in various locations, for example, daaras, buses, meetings and on a free mat he scored from the mat factory. This year he is still quite angry that last year a volunteer let a woman pray on his Le Pop, the ground was wet and I'm told it was ruined. His favourite lunch is rice and fish. He has a Doctorate in making tea. When he prays or, "goes to see god", he offers to say hi to god for me, which I accept with thanks. Daouda also spends a lot of time accusing other people of being promiscuous (a Sai Sai in Wolof), and claims that he is not because Senegalese women are so forceful that he has no option in these matters. He also definitely doesn't like the president and is willing to shout at anyone who does. He's agreed to come surfing with us next week. Seriously though, he's a really great guy and very funny, most of the time intentionally.

Next time I'm going to try to persuade one of the others to make a guest appearance here, hopefully to give a different perspective and add anything I've forgotten. I sense they might be reluctant, but watch this space....

Lastly, here's a picture of a Dakar beach at sunset and Kherou enjoying his afternoon nap.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Saint Louis and Meetings

We spent last weekend in Saint Louis in the North. It was the first town established by the French in West Africa and has a crumbling colonial beauty to it. It's also an oasis of calm and reggae compared to Dakar's bustle and mbalax. So, pretty much the perfect place to go for a short break. We even spent the last night between the estuary of the Senegal River and the Atlantic, which are seperated by a 100m wide sand barrier; beach, trees, crabs, house on stilts, mint tea, tasty fish and cool water...... Here's a pic from the town.

Work was (perhaps naturally) slow when we came back and we got a bit frustrated, which again served to reaffirm the extreme healing power of meetings! Yesterday we planned our way out of a hole by discussing priorities for our time and budget and setting a deadline for the final decision, which will involve another meeting on Friday. Nice! Also, in some over zealous preperation, I even put together a time vs. money spent graph with a volunteer happiness curve thrown in. It forecasts some accelerated spending, increased happiness, volunteer productivity and better all round results. I think it had the desired effect at the (hopefully temporary) expense of some respect.

A couple of times during the meeting, guys from the NGO stuck their heads in the door, just enough for us to see their looks of bewilderment induced by our exported British bureaucracy in full flow, with suitable amounts of paper, files, water bottles, happiness graphs and such.

The result of all these meetings has gladly been a plan of how best to spend our remaining money and time. I notice I might have been a bit light on the details of the project, so here's what we're actually doing out here. In previous years volunteers have spent the majority of their fund on the daaras in Dakar. This year we have continued to do this, while appreciating that this aspect addresses only the symptoms of the problem. With that in mind, we've set aside a very large part of the budget on projects which address the causes, by either preventing the daaras from appearing in Dakar in the first place, or returning them to their original rural locations.

Some explanation needed there I guess. Basically, a daara is a Koranic school which parents are obliged by religion to send their children to, nearly all villages in Senegal have them. The holy man responsible is called a marabout. Sometimes due to rural poverty, for example the parents not being able to pay for the education, or in the worst cases owing to simple greed, the Marabout will take the kids to Dakar that they might beg of the relatively wealthy people there, to obtain money for their education. Many marabouts take their religious duty seriously and are driven by desperation, others exploit their village's children for personal gain. Each marabout seemingly holds such an esteemed position in rural society that he does as he wishes. At the extreme end, there are 'high up' marabouts who have vast networks of beggars and are personally wealthy and powerful. These men often command more religious respect and, with their following, genuinely sway elections at a whim.

All of which is both fascinating and infuriating. Fascinating because, why read about centralisation of power through religion in Medieval Europe when a similar example confronts me as I stroll through the sandy streets, institutionally more secular but practically, just as influential. The infuriating aspect is obvious.

Here's the UNICEF angle on it, which has been influential with us. And underneath, a picture of l'Assemblee National.


Our work in Dakar has been about relieving the children's difficult situation in the daaras here, where possible with well intentioned marabouts. Elsewhere, we've made a few trips out of town to assess potential preventative and returning projects, which we've now begun work on also. So that's how the project stands right now. I'll let you all know how it all finishes up.

After all this I could do with a holiday, so planning on my trip around West Africa with my family and girlfriend begins in earnest tomorrow, I smell an adventure.....

I'll leave you with a typical Senegalese street scene, complete with sand road, and man walking with foam mattresses on his head.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Dakar and Zoo

Just a quick post as we've got the next week packed full of ambitious plans which will hopefully make blogging pretty difficult.

This week has been a productive and enjoyable one. On Monday we organised a trip to the zoo for the talibes and caught up with some supplementary medical visits. Then at night we had a difficult meeting with the guys from the NGO, about money, what else? Anyway, that went really well for us so, feeling good, we spontaneously jumped on a bus to Dakar. Here's Rhona sticking out of the window while speeding along on a balmy African evening.

Having already described the ensuing events in an email to Joanna, I'll paste it here out of pure laziness.

"On Monday night we went in to Dakar for some drinks, found a Chinese restaurant where the people were actually Chinese but spoke French and lived in Africa. After that confusion we bought some cigars and found my favourite bar in the world yet, bought some whisky and beer before the old dude behind the bar slapped on some techno and turned it up to the max. He even let me behind the bar to get photos with him. Then at 2.30 Rhona and Marie wanted to go swimming so we went down to a hotel on the sea and jumped over the fence. I was pulling SAS moves as we snuck through a closed cafe, only to come up right beside a sleeping security guard in his plastic chair and military hat. I stopped and stayed still but Rhona and Marie ran/giggled their way up behind me, waking him up. He and I both shat ourselves; I put my hands up and he said wow wow wow. I was ready to go to jail but Rhona then popped out 'can we go to the beach' in French and he thought we were guests so said oui oui oui. I was still on all fours from the crawling! But I just got up and bit my tongue hard not to laugh as I walked past him. So then we jumped off the pier, swam a bit, then said goodbye to the guard before snaking behind a bush and jumping over the fence again......."

As a disclaimer, all fun is counter weighted by hard work and, again, the views expressed above are not representative bla bla bla.......

Tuesday saw more medical visits in the morning (ouch) and more planning for our trip. By Thursday the zoo was upon us. We gathered up 50 talibes, packed them into a bus and set off. The zoo itself was a pretty depressing place (small cages and enclosures were full of stale water and litter), not to mention slightly disconcerting. The two pictures below couple to give you an idea of my apprehension.

After the zoo we all got in a big circle and sang Senegalese songs, clapped and danced, they even made me go in the middle to laugh at my interpretation of Senegalese dancing. Later we played various games before catching the bus again. The kids all seemed to enjoy it, and it gave them a day off from begging, which can't be a bad thing. Here's one guy ready to go home.

So tonight we have another meeting to verify our big plans. Firstly going to Saint Louis in the North for the weekend, visiting an area called Kaolack, where we hope to have some schools built and learn alot more about the Talibe situation, on Monday to Wednesday. From there we plan to return to Dakar for a day or two before heading of to some more villages we're involved with for a few days. And then! Holding a ten day summer school. Busy busy. I'll leave you with testament to the fact that after a tiring day at the zoo, Peter can sleep anywhere.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Sen Regal, Indy and MJ

Just to get you in the mood, here's a link to the most popular Senegalese jingle of the moment.


Everytime I even mention it to Jeannet, one of the other volunteers, she actually laughs for about 3 minutes. I guess that means it's good. Also, as I sat down to write this, the song have a merry little Christmas came on, wierd but.... nice!

So bonjour again. This week has gone quickly without yeilding much time or energy to write about it. Here goes anyway. Following on from the evaluation week before, we've started covering areas which our project covers every year.
Firstly, medical visits for all the daaras, consisting of a short consultation for the sick kids, and then buying their prescriptions. Two days of hospital was followed by disinfection of said daaras, which involved driving around town at speed, on the sand roads, in the back of a pick up truck with 4 guys in boiler suits, trying to miss goats, the angry boss dude with full military gear on (?), stopping every 5 minutes for 1 guy with a ghostbuster pack to spray white smoke everywhere, sometimes too impatient to wait for the children to even get out, then speeding away as the kids fell out of the door with 'no permanent damage'. I missed out but that's the picture I got from Peter, the views expressed in this bla bla bla..... Definitely worthwhile as the rainy season is approaching, if a bit bewildering/scary.
Next up we played a game of football and went to a mat factory to check up on the going rate for mats, obviously. After we got a quote at one factory we got a little tour of the it, yep I asked, here's a couple of mildly interesting pics to boot. I didn't take many photos this week, will do better.

Other than that, this week has been a bit of a difficult one for team morale. Which had to happen sometime. We haven't fallen out or anything, just each shown signs of discontent. I only mention it for the fact that it's revealed some endearing character traits. If anyone's suffering from the heat or food; missing boyfriends/girlfriends; got a really, really sore knee; frustrated by Africa or discovered they have 7 British Pounds for the rest of the summer, someone is always on hand to help them out of it. And now we're all better and feeling positive for next week. Safe!
For me some small things started to annoy a little, and I'll highlight them now for their amusing triviality.

Firstly, being the centre of attention on any street is originally quaint, then disconcerting, then normal. It's mostly harmless and I've obviously experienced it elsewhere, but here it is everyone, sometimes they ask for money, not just obviously desperate people, but every now and again apparently well to do people take a chance. Understandably a white guy complaining about being identified as such won't get much mileage, but it's the assumption that I'm rich as a result which gripes. Even my clothes with holes in them won't convince anyone otherwise. Anyway, the most difficult part is that they're right, and to assume, as briefly as I did, that I am not rich is more probably the king of naiveties. This point was physically represented the other day when, after our football match, one of us went to get some coins to buy water for the kids, and had the misfortune to bring out a CFA10,000 note (about 13 Pounds) to get to the bottom. At that point about 15 Talibes buzzed towards the purse like flies around a freshly cut mango, and had to be shouted back, like someone might wave a towel over the fruit. Just a complete accident which showed the uncomfortable reality.

It was ten minutes serious thought on questions relating to said avarice, which is a little more serious thought than I can usually muster, before my thoughts naturally turned towards Indiana Jones. His attempts to resist avarice are examplary. His badassness is hidden by a modest, academic alter ego. Most people see the guy on the left, at his day job, studious, tweedy, uninteresting. Whereas the select few (usually cult-crazy, child-stealing Indians) see the guy below, a picture of fearful masculinity. Im not sure how this analogy works, or if it's even related, but the upshot is, firstly; that Indiana Jones is great, and secondly; that if I ever acquire a talent, some money, or arms like Indiana Jones, I'll endeavoor to hide it. Such were the workings of my mind on a (very very very) hot afternoon. Problem solved!

Since I'm on pop culture..... The headline 'Michael Joins Bob Marley' gives a pretty telling indication of the West African perspective on the former man's last event. A music video homage was well attended at my house last night, with much foot tapping and smiling. One of my brothers turned around after every two videos, just to say 'Michael', with scrunced up lips and a shake of the head. 7 year old Assan sat stuck to the floor with his mouth open, 1 metre from the TV, memories of a similar obsession made me much more sad than I had expected.

Managed to squeeze in a few shots around Dakar; ducking to get petrol, dirt and the barber where I got a dodgy designer beard.

Yesterday we took a trip out of town to see some rural daaras which we may work with. More on that later, here are some pics below in the meantime.

OK, stream of conciousness over, I need bed. There's more than a few issues to be ironed out with the NGO this week so again, we'll be busy. But feeling positive and reckon I'll even slip in a couple extra more blog posts, so keep your eyes peeled. Night night.