Archive for December, 2009


December 28, 2009

Apologies for the silence. I have just been reunited with my computer after a brief and only partially successful visit to Podor – a four hour drive from Saint Louis. Will tell you all about this very shortly. Here’s a tease: Baaba Maal…a decaying port…a night concert in a stadium…and another one to add to the list of One Stop Small Towns…

yes, but is it really this idyllic?

Getting out of Dakar…

December 25, 2009

First step: lengthy negotiation with a taxi driver, whom I managed to slightly mollify by greeting him in Wolof and offering cigarettes. Our man brought me here:

gare routière (courtesy: Flickr)

Looks calm and serene, hm? In reality your car will be surrounded by a whirling crowd of vendors who sell everything. It’s like a giant open air supermarket – except that this one is in never-ending motion: talking, shouting, insisting, walking, running, thrusting items in your face (and they do that to absolutely everyone), haggling and that whole hyperactive crowd will be trying to sell you their wares until the taxi is out of the station. If my life depended on it I would do exactly the same….

Now, a word about the car.

a brand new bush taxi

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Peugeot 504. First one produced in France in 1968, last one in Kenya and Nigeria – in 2006. I wonder why they ever stopped.

This is also Africa’s most enduring vehicle. It can negotiate roads about as well as any FourWheelDrive. I have driven it across sand roads, dirt roads, dry river beds, empty, full of passengers – this car can do it all. And it’s easy to use and maintain. Which is why I guess governments and development bureaucrats insist on expensive, complicated 4WDs that hardly ever leave town…and transport entrepreneurs still haven’t found a decent replacement for this beauty. As a result, your 2010 taxi is likely to look like this…

a real life bush taxi (by neddoscope on Flickr)

Mine was actually rather better looking.

6:30 in the evening, we have finally left the “gare routière” – and these cars don’t leave until they are full. One man up front. Me slumped against the window with a lady next to me who nods off as soon as we are moving – next to a grumpy elderly man in a big garb. Behind us: two sportsmanlike youngish lads and a very fashion-conscious lady.

Off. We. Go. Well………..

embouteillage!!!! (elo mopty on Flickr)

Ten minutes into the trip… and it’s the all-pervasive, inevitable, dreaded, hellish traffic jam. Something out of that classic 1976 Italian film, L’Ingorgo. But worse. Exhaust fumes. Noise. More vendors. A pair of singing boys has decided to target our taxi for prayers. They are ear-piercingly loud and expect to be rewarded for their efforts. It’s a widespread form of begging, something Senegalese frown upon, although giving alms is one of their duties as Muslims.

This takes all of two hours to clear. Meanwhile, we have all smoked the equivalent of 40 cigarettes and looking ahead there’s nothing but more cars, taxis, “cars rapides”, lorries and carts. But at least, we’re moving. Sort of.

By the time we reach Rufisque, an old run-down settlement between the road and the sea, our average speed has increased to a massive 14km/hour. It’s 8:30 and dark. Bad news for the next stretch.

Now the road has one lane for one direction each and an alternating lane in the middle for those who want to take turns overtaking. Except that in Senegal you don’t take turns. You GO. Until someone hurtling in the opposite direction flashes his lights and tells you to get the hell back to YOUR lane.

I hate this stretch of road with a passion…but traffic’s very thick tonight and when we reach Thiès, the next large town, we are cruising at the eye-watering velocity of 36 km/hour. This could get dangerous…

Except – it didn’t. At half past midnight we cruised into breezy and chilly Saint Louis and my first priority was of course to get my back sorted out and into shape. First destination: the bar. Found one on the river, next to this.

Blessed bliss!

Senegal’s most famous bridge. But Pont Faidherbe is falling apart (no maintenance does that) and it’s being replaced. So hurry if you still want to see the famous landmark.

Saint Louis Airport is just outside the town. I live next to Dakar Airport. Flying to Saint Louis would take all of 30 minutes. 50 euros one way? I’d pay. And so would half the passengers I was with. So…

…and I honestly don’t care who it is… Got the picture yet?

en route….

December 23, 2009

Finally on my way! For the next four to six hours I will be doing the following:

1. getting a taxi (after protraced negotiations about the price) and then being hurtled at breakneck speed (no matter what its condition) to the “gare routière”

2. finding a “7 places” (that’s an old Peugeot 504 station car that seats seven people (not 12 as is the case in Guinea where the roads are more dangerous and the cars even older and the drivers suicidal)

3. getting and ignoring offers to buy telephone recharge cards, telephones, telephone holders, belts, jewellery, radios, cigarettes, wallets (for some reason everyone here thinks I need one), biscuits, bananas, lighters, oranges, onions, pocket knives, airport art, watches, pens, toolboxes, individual tools, newspapers (which I’ve already got), whistles, torches – I think you get the idea

4. being whisked off in the now filled up 504 and quite probably sitting in an almightily monstrous traffic jam for two hours trying to get out of town

5. facing oncoming traffic as the driver ignores all road signs and overtakes all manner of lorries and other taxis between Dakar and the first major town Thiès – it’s a stretch of road I have come to fear and loathe (belated thanks to Hunter S. Thomson!)

6. finally settling back a little for the long and excruciatingly boring stretch of 200 plus kilometres that will finally bring me to the old Senegalse capital. Which is celebrating its 350th birthday.

Wish me luck!

Music and another city

December 22, 2009

Off to Saint Louis up in the North and Baaba Maal’s music festival.

We’re in list making mode – so I’ll offer you mine. It consists of one item and I made a prediction some ten months ago that this would become album of the year.

And so it is. Ethiopian jazz veteran Mulatu Astatqe (the living breathing definition of “cool”)  with the wonderfully eclectic London group The Heliocentrics. The album’s called Inspiration Information (number three of a the series on Stonesthrow Records).

Just listen to the first tune, where this lot manage to throw Ethiopian chants, funk, a whiff of Herbie Hancock, wild electric guitars, a cello (!) and an irresistible pulse in a whirling six and a half minutes’ mix. Breathtaking stuff even after 100 plus plays. It never bores – and that’s only for starters.

Here’s some more Mulatu Astatqe and the Heliocentrics to enjoy. Inspiration Information!

Ah…the joys of radio… (production, that is)

December 21, 2009

If you don’t have a studio and you want to record your own voice for a radio program – and you live in a popular area of Dakar – this is how you go about it.

Wait until after midnight. It will be reasonably quiet, by then

Have your texts ready.

Close all windows.

Put everything that can possibly absorb sound (furniture, lots of clothes) into the place where you will record. In my case, that’s the bedroom because it has an extra door I can close.

Dive under the bedsheets for extra sound isolation. Take your recording equipment with you.

Start recording your text…hang on a minute, what’s that? A jet taking off from the nearby airport – which never closes. Press the “stop” button. Wait for plane to be gone, this is a noise you can’t shut out.

Quiet again. Start recording your text…sorry, what am I hearing? Some kid in the next flat has decided to fiddle around with some kind of electronic gadget. Beep beep. Windows don’t stop that. Wait until he stops. I now officially hate electronic gadgets.

Quiet again. No, not quiet. There are crickets. Very sharp metallic sound. Loud, too. Oh – and the gadget’s back too. And there’s another jet taking off. All I need now is for someone to start playing Youssou N’Dour’s latest bestseller. Just switch on the telly, he’s there all the time.

Wait. Someone’s just done that. Tell you what, I’ll get a drink, go to sleep, wait some more…

Very early in the morning. All quiet. The only thing I can hear is the Atlantic roaring nearby. But the windows, the door and the bedsheets keep that noise out.


Script ready? Check.

Microphone working? Check.

Sound levels? (…another damn plane, doesn’t matter, not recording now…) Check.

Alright then. Breathe in. Start reading text.


That’s not me, that’s a call to prayer – but it’s bloody 4am!! Why is he doing this NOW?? It’s not due until, what, 5:30 or something. Ah, but religion here is like the airport: it never shuts down.

(You may be happy to know that at around 5am I got the texts done. Just in time for prayer, that’s right. And if someone reading this has a nice quiet studio that I can use – contact me. I’ll even pay.)

Minarets and spires (Sunday morning/Friday afternoon thought)

December 20, 2009

Central Dakar is home to one of the finest cathedrals in West Africa. Large, too. The Grand Mosque is a mere 10 minutes walk away. Bamako, Mali has a nice cathedral, within shouting distance of a major mosque. Both countries are overwhelmingly Muslim.

The reverse happens too. There’s a gigantic mosque next to one of the main bridges across the Ebrie Lagoon in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s very Christian metropolis and former capital. When Yamoussoukro became the new capital in the 1990s, the place was adorned with a replica of St. Paul’s Basilica (of questionable quality; I wrote about that here) and a giant mosque. They face each other across a modest distance.

My one neighbour is preparing for Christmas and the New Year. My other neighbour was in the midst of the tabaski festivities a few weeks ago. They will not be at each others’ throats anytime soon, as far as I can tell.

I just thought I’d bring this up in the face of the current controversy that is sweeping Europe. From a mildly amusing referendum that banned minarets in Switzerland to a typically French (i.e. incomprehensibly abstract) discussion about “national identity” to complete hysteria about Islam in (where else?) the Netherlands.

A visit to these shores would not go amiss. Something seems to be working here. I think it’s called “live and let live.”

Of course, this is no tranquil Arcadia. Conflicts abound but their analysis has often been staggeringly lazy. “Tribal”. Or “Muslims versus Christians”. Dig deeper and you’ll find it’s none of these things. Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire? It’s politics, folks, (as usual). Dammit: just like Europe…!

We need planes and lots of them!!

December 19, 2009

In flagrant contradiction, some may say, to my tale about city air, I am now going to argue for more planes in the West African skies. Plenty more and plenty cheaper. Sorry about that.

Actually no. Not sorry at all. Care to know why?

West Africa is where the EU was sixty years ago, even under similar circumstances. We have at least five countries slowly emerging from decades of debilitating political instability and war (Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, maybe even Guinea Bissau and Mali to a lesser extent). Others, like Guinea, are dangerously heading in the opposite direction or starting to sail into hazardous territory (Senegal, Niger). But in the main, things have started to look better. What we now need is growth, jobs – and we need it fast before everyone has left on those dreadful fishing boats.

But who’ll deliver? Easy: Africa and nobody else. Fortress Europe is closed, no trader bothers going there. Aid doesn’t work; we all know that. Asia is selling more to Africa than vice versa, the Americas are distant friends at best. There is an urgent need to start doing some very serious business – right here.

For this you must be able to move around. And there’s the rub: we have no infrastructure. Many roads that carry people, goods, money, trade are in an appalling condition. Examples? Dakar-Bamako by bus sets you back two days (the train takes twice as long). Including a slow border crossing, a dodgy night at the bus station at Kayes, Mali – and long stretches of road on the Senegalese side where the maximum speed is that of a horse-drawn cart.

Two days. Meanwhile: flying time from Dakar to Bamako? One hour.

Here’s another one. Abidjan – Ouagadougou. Lovely train ride, I have done it myself. But the tracks are so old that the average speed on this 1100-plus kilometre stretch is…28km/hr. You do the math. And don’t forget to include the long delays at the border.

Again: two days. Flying time from Abidjan to Ouaga? One hour thirty minutes.

But it’s not just time. In Guinea, Mali you can’t travel at night. Bandits. In Ivory Coast, you pay at every road block; Nigeria is worse. Pickpockets in uniform. I once crossed from Sierra Leone into Liberia with a four friends who did not speak English. The Sierra Leonean border guards, police, customs, immigration officials manning the 17 (!!!) control posts, all of which had to be passed on foot in the driving rain, robbed them of an amount that would have almost covered the price of an air ticket.

“Almost”. Because flying in this region is criminally expensive. A six- hour trip from here to Yaoundé, Cameroon, just set me back one thousand euros. That’s 50 per cent MORE than I paid for my six months Amsterdam-Dakar round trip. That one-hour flight to Bamako is certain to cost me upwards of €300. Abidjan? Could be €400-plus. And I am dreading the booking of my Monrovia trip. The company that flew there from Dakar has just folded…

These are 1980s Europe prices. Reason: the prolonged existence of under-scale, top-heavy and mostly inefficient state-run monopolies of the kind that got destroyed in Europe in the 1990s. (Exceptions do exist in both places.) The other reason is taxation. The Copenhagen climate summit has not brought in the booty that many states in these parts had been hoping for. That’s bad news for the patronage systems that underpin these states. But taxation on air tickets has been increased three, fourfold. Fully one-third of my Yaoundé ticket was tax. No one knows where this money goes. Not good, not good at all…

Here’s the inconvenient truth. The kind of trips that West Africans have to endure in order to get to the next country, visit family, friends, do business would kill most of you reading this. It will take a lot of time to build the infrastructure that has made travelling in Europe such a walk in the park. And until such a time, flying is the alternative. Putting this option beyond the reach of, say, 95% of the people is quite simply, criminal.

So easyjet: Come On In! Africans move about in great numbers and they will bring the cash if someone can even half the kind of wretched stress, misery, humiliation, agony and unwanted expenses they endure on the road. There is a growing middle class of professionals, ex-migrants and entrepreneurs and for them, a no-frills, low-cost airline would be an immense bonus. Family visit to Bamako? A €120 round trip is doable. Business in Abidjan? €180 maximum. No hassles, no huge losses of time, no bribes to pay, no fear of bandits, just a smooth 2 hours 30 minutes and you’re there.

Going to Yaoundé I was offered to fly through…Brussels, Paris, Casablanca, Addis Ababa and Nairobi. I finally settled for the only one that would not take me halfway round the world. This simply will not do. Oh and the fare? I’d be happy to see it cut to, say, €400. Not exactly low cost but it’s getting there.

yep - talking about more of these.....

(I have emailed easyjet – they haven’t replied yet…)

Have a look

December 18, 2009

The salon/office/kitchen

street view from the window

looking accross Yoff - from my window

The air we breathe

December 17, 2009

Alright, for once a domestic topic and an important one. When you return to your flat here, after two weeks of travelling, you’ll find the smooth shiny stone floor you left behind covered in a layer of…well, what is it?

Dust? Certainly.

Sand. Yep.

But the black stuff that clings to your broom like glue? Soot – more like. Get it off the floor and then go after the remainder with water and cloth. Honestly, I’m doing more housekeeping work here in a single day than in Amsterdam in, say, one week…….

And I really need to stop smoking, if for one reason alone: it’s entirely superfluous. One day in Dakar (or anywhere else in urban Africa for that matter) and you will be subjected to sand and dust and smoke and soot coming from:

burning rubbish (cardboard, paper, organic waste – and plastic, which reigns supreme);

ancient cars, lorries, buses, minivans and pickup trucks that leave smoking trails that would be the eternal envy of our cigar puffing grandfathers;

the sweeping of streets and courts, which means moving gazillions of nose-blocking particles from one place to another;

open wood fires for grilling meat and preparing other meals (one local favourite is “dibi”, basically a pile of grilled beef of mutton or goat’s meat served on a piece of greasy paper with copious amounts of pepper – an acquired taste);

fumes from businesses that work out in the open, like welding, repair shops, car maintenance, furniture production, tyre retreading, you name it;

I’m sure I am forgetting things but you get the drift. So gather up yet another thick thread of this soot-laden dust and toss it in a plastic (yep!) bag to take outside for the rubbish collector and think: ‘I’m also breathing this in….’ Yes, you are and so are your neighbours and so, in a manner of speaking, is every electrical appliance in the house, including your laptop.

(Wonder who will conk out first, my MacBook or me…)

Air quality. Or rather: its complete absence. It’s a problem in every single African city. You really have no idea how bad it is until you leave for a less urbanised area and are amazed at the quality of the air. (That’s apart from the indoor cooking – again on wood fires – yet another story.)

There are no quick fixes here. You can think of solar powered ovens. You can think of cleaner cars. Four years ago, the Senegalese government banned the importation of cars over 5 years old and while there are still plenty of clapped-out taxis on the streets the situation has definitely improved. You can think of better public transport. Bamako is the first city I know of (in this region) that’s having a think about a tramway – I guess their biggest headache will be finding a place to put it…

And it will definitely get worse. Soon we’ll have dozens of cities of a million plus, Lagos and Kinshasa being by far the largest with 16 million each, according to a Jeune Afrique special on African urbanisation recently. Luanda will have 8 million in 2025; Abidjan, Addis Ababa and Nairobi will have 6 million each. And Dakar? 4 million plus. That’s twice its current size.

Whenever I take a flight out of these places (like Yaoundé – 2 million – yesterday) I never cease to be amazed at the thick layer of black sky that hangs suspended over the entire place. You can only see that clearly as the plane takes off. And there it is, the same thought: ‘I’ve been breathing this in…’ And another one: ‘The folks down there are still breathing this in….’

Back in Yoff

December 16, 2009

Flew in from Yaoundé tonight, back here in my favourite Yoff restaurant (it’s called Figo, just in case you forgot) and after almost two weeks of being deprived from “mbalax”, the ubiquitous high energy fast and furious Senegalese dance music, I am being treated to the new local Youssou N’Dour album. Excellent stuff and just in time for the local Christmas sales. Yes, it’s a Muslim country but they celebrate this one too. Anything to throw a party. And this album is party time writ large. He’s on form and in form and so is his band, Le Super Etoile de Dakar. (Then again, I have never seen his band NOT in form….)

The album’s called “Soleil, soleil”, as one of the always impeccably charming waitresses just told me and it’s got some seriously up-tempo re-workings of his old “Western” material. If you can’t get it where you are…errr….you are missing out. More anon – Saint Louis’s birthday bash is next!