Archive for December, 2009

Yaoundé night theatre

December 11, 2009

This town shuts down at midnight. Incredibly, the government has decided that after midnight folks should be at home recovering and getting ready for work the next day. The order has ostensibly been issued to address the drinking habits of the Cameroonians although you could easily translate this into yet another attempt to control people’s movements…

In any case, celebrations (even those pertaining to a successful film festival), tend to start and end early. If only to avoid the annoying roadblocks and checkpoints that insinuate themselves onto crossroads and thoroughfares as the evening progresses.

Years ago, the Economist wrote a story about a beer transport from the Cameroonian port city of Douala to a place in the interior. The correspondent calculated that the numerous checkpoints along the way, the delays and payment of bribes amounted to fully one-third of the value of the cargo.

No economic loss in our case but still, it was interesting to observe. We were passing through one of those vital crossroads in town and sure enough, there they were. Uniforms, guns, flashlights, torches, the lot. The gendarmes target taxi drivers because they have money. And Christmas is around the corner. So basically, the uniforms look for anything that might not be in order. If they find nothing, they invent an infraction.

Stay in the car. It is late and dark. The taxi driver has left. He is discussing his predicament (always something to do with missing paperwork) with two of the uniforms, one male, one female (the latter usually being even more difficult to deal with). The discussion goes on a bit. Meanwhile, uniform number three is walking around the vehicle asking for our papers. Never leave home without papers or a duly legalised passport copy. (I have precisely such an item glued to my chest.)

The discussion heats up. ‘I can take you to the police post,’ we overhear one of the uniforms say. The taxi driver’s reply is inaudible.

On it goes. At one point, after some 15 minutes, we decide it’s enough and get out of the car.

‘We’re getting another cab.’
‘That’s not necessary, we’re done here.’
And indeed, driver gets behind wheel in a state of aggravated agitation. ‘There’s nothing wrong with my papers, these people…’
‘Yes, it’s almost Christmas. They need the money….’

It’s a choreography, it’s a piece of theatre. It’s acted out hundreds of thousands of times across the length and breadth of the continent. It’s annoying, comical, can be threatening and usually ends after some protracted negotiation. Checkpoints, a disease this continent needs like it needs a new strain of animal flu. But it will be with us for some time….

The rest of the trip, through a city whose 2 million inhabitants have suddenly vanished from the streets, is uneventful. But even the little kiosk right across the road from where I stay and where I had a lovely relaxed evening the night before – is already closed. Dommage.

Film hunger

December 10, 2009

This is why I’m here: got re-acquainted with an old friend I knew from a jazz festival in Saint Louis du Sénégal, a few years ago. Simon Pierre Bell, artist, filmmaker, just sent me a mail telling me he had organised a documentary festival in his town. He was paying part of the festival cost out of his own pocket and as a result lived like a hermit.

Intrigued? I was. So I checked my bank account, got myself a ridiculously expensive air ticket to Yaoundé (but that’s a rant for another day) et me voila içi. This is a huge place, built on hills (seven, like Roma and Lisbon), which means the roads twist and turn and double back on themselves. Add to that the usual anarchic traffic and you have a paradise for…taxi drivers. They pretty much have the place to themselves and so you may find yourself waiting endlessly until one of them deigns to take you with him. You either have the wrong destination or you don’t offer them enough fare. Destination and proposed fare are both shouted through the open car windows up front and then the driver either beeps his consent (rare) or thumbs his nose, puts on an expression of deep miserable contempt for the would-be passenger – and presses the accelerator (frequently).

 So, on to the festival, Image En Live, as Bell calls it. Now first off, here in Yaoundé, like everywhere else in Africa, movie theatres have been converted to supermarkets, churches, offices or warehouses. So where do you put on a documentary film festival? In the only places that still have a screen: the French and German cultural centres. But my good friend has plans a tad more ambitious: he wants the films shown in the outlying areas of this vast town. We’ll see if that succeeds, the logistics are pretty daunting.

Image en live has put together a pretty big program, some 50 films are shown in a matter of days. Most have the signature of an African filmmaker. A big plus as I found out to my pleasant surprise. Why is that?

 OK. First, they are not handicapped by a Western mindset. So the idea that a film, or a report, or a documentary, must be made to show some kind of suffering in order to get help to these poor folks, is mercifully absent. The films I have seen so far also remain equally mercifully free of the usual desire to moralise and pass judgement.

What you see, therefore, is what you get. A portrait of a notorious Yaoundé neighbourhood (called: My Eldorado). Trucks getting stuck en route in the DR Congo. A portrait of a builder of musical instruments.

And one that I particularly liked: a personal story of a young woman who lived through a series of in-family adoptions. This is a common practice in many parts of Africa (the film was shot in Mali) and Awa Traoré puts her own experience, a mixture of good and bad, in context. She talks to mothers who have been adopting children, she talks to those who have been adopted. Some of them have had happy times, others have had experiences so dreadful that they have decided to live on the street. She goes back to her old village and talks to an old griot (the singer/storyteller who is the repository of tradition), who explains why this practice exists.

Once again and crucially, she does something most Westerners coming to these shores are unable to do: she leaves you to make up your own mind. No development agenda, no dogma (religious, environmentalist, feminist or otherwise), no moral panic button: just show how things are, don’t tell anyone how and what to think.

These are the kind of films that could only be made here. And they will increasingly be made here. Simon Pierre Bell has opened up a rich seam here and we have something to celebrate.

Not in Yoff

December 7, 2009

Yoff Tales has set up shop for the time being in another Y-town; Yaoundé, the capital, of Cameroon. There may very well be a tale from here too. Keep calling back and for those who do: many thanks!

Migrant success

December 7, 2009

Here’s an idea if you want to get things done in Yoff: learn Italian. That’s a bit of an exaggeration but there’s a fair number of people here who have

–          been to Italy

–          learned the language (putting my poor attempts at the learning the local language Wolof to shame)

–          got a break…

…and then decided: naah, Europe’s not for me, I’m going home.

So they’re back home and running businesses. One of them is another one of my many namesakes, Ibrahim. He holds office behind a desk at the back of a very trendy furniture shop – along L’Autoroute of course. His own. As he was selling me a nice bright red designer sofa/bed, Ibrahim casually told me he’d gone to Italy just to try his luck, like so many before (and indeed after him). He had worked in a factory for a bit, decided that this was not quite what he had in kind for the rest of his life and found himself more lucrative employment. Like all migrants, he is pretty vague about what made him enough money to return and set up his furniture import business but ultimately: who cares? He makes his own money, employs a youngster who enjoys what he’s doing and things are looking fine. Sharp dresser Ibrahim and yours truly had, in the meantime settled on a price for the sofa/bed: just under 200 euros. Not bad. And would I be interested in a pair of very expensive Italian designer shoes? They’re just in…

No shoes, thanks. But the piece of designer furniture from Italy duly arrived at my flat – on a very old-fashioned horse-drawn cart.

 ‘You can breathe here.’ She’s very pretty, has just come off the flight from Paris and sits across from me on the outside terrace of Figo, easily the best mainstream restaurant/bar/meeting point in Yoff. In tune with the times, or “branché” as the French would put it. Yep, it sits on L’ Autoroute, where else. The recent arrival explains to me that she spends half the year in Europe. When she gets fed up with the place she takes the plane to Dakar. And vice versa. Works fine. Oh and by the way, she’s married. Dommage…

The young couple that run Figo had the Italian experience as well. And they decided to bring some of that here. Nice furniture, designer ashtrays (yes, you can still smoke here, a sign of sanity if you ask me) and of course WiFi (always a laptop or two on the premises). They have a lovely stack of MP3s that gets a regular run and includes a generous amount of Senegalese top stars (Youssou N’Dour, Thione Seck, Wasis Diop) plus pop music from the European Mediterranean. Mercifully, virtually no modern r&b, the perpetrators of which should be put on trial for audio crimes against humanity. There’s also an ice installation, very Italian but evidently out of order for the time being. And…. excellent coffee.

Figo seems to be doing quite alright for itself although Atou, the male half of the couple (he basically runs the place) did tell me after a very long night that things are not easy. Not for want of trying. The Senegalo-Italian kitchen is very good. The atmosphere is cool and pleasant. At the weekends you may find a band or a solo artist playing, to attract the clients. Things like these and plenty promotion are needed to keep a staff of at least 10 quite busy. So now you know where I’ll take you on your first visit…

Just two examples of what they call “circular migration”. But migration is a triple edged sword: it’s an uncertain investment, it plunges you between your own culture and the one you’re heading for and consequently it may seem that you don’t quite fit in anywhere.

For would-be migrants to Europe, it seems two messages are coming through. The first is visible along L’Autoroute – with a bit of luck you can actually make it and build up a pretty good life back home. The second is: Europe? Don’t bother. For traders, Africa’s richest and most powerful demographic, Europe is history. Too much hassle just to get into the bloody Fortress and then come back with overpriced stuff. Dubai, Hong Kong and Istanbul – that’s the ticket.

In the end, everyone makes up their own mind of course but I would hazard a guess: most Senegalese have no intention of leaving. Those who do would most likely fancy a life with two places to call home: one in say Italy, the Netherlands (I will one day tell you a story about a would-be Dutch citizen of Guinean origin) or even France if you can’t help it. And another one here in Senegal, because “you can breathe here”. Circular migration: why not? That’s precisely what I am doing.

L’Autoroute de l’Aéroport – 2

December 2, 2009

Alright, we’re halfway now.

Everything whooshes by at breakneck speed. Looks like they’re all in a massive hurry here.


Watch again.

No, you can’t go now.


Small gap…run!

Made it. We’re on the other side.

Walk out of my street and there it is: a wide open expanse, with four roads. In the middle, the Big One. Two-ways each way – although Senegalese drivers can turn it into a three-way each way at will. On either side, smaller side roads for the local traffic. An astonishing number of cars, buses, lorries, taxis, ancient hugely polluting Renault minibuses driven by born anarchists – someone with a keen sense of irony decided to call them “car rapide” -, motors, mopeds, horse-drawn carts… Everything on wheels nervously flits from one end to the other – ah, and people. Who need to cross. Because I am here but my bakery is on the other side and so is the shop that sells groceries at a better price, or my friends…

Right, so how do you cross one of the busiest four-laners in town? By taking life into your own hands. Hundreds do just that every single day. Mothers with children on their backs, agile young boys and girls, street vendors with their stuff, businessmen with briefcases, reckless streetkids, absolutely everyone makes that run across the deadly asphalt, rests for a bit between those two waist-high concrete walls. (There some space between them, where the lampposts stand and the dirt piles up.)

Yes, I can see your question hovering over L’Autoroute for some time now. Is there no other way to cross the road? Well, there is now. At long last, the two footbridges on either side of the long curve have finally been completed. For years, the only things that were visible were the foundations, two pillars upon which the bridge would be built – eventually. And because people wanted to go to their friends, the grocer, Yoff Market and their tailor, they started crossing the road randomly. With all the attendant hazards. At one very busy point, right at the end of my street, they even cut away bits of that wall in the middle so they could walk through.

‘You can’t change peoples’ habits,’ says my namesake who runs a stall selling fruits and vegetables. ‘And besides, those bridges are too far apart. I want one here, right in front of my stall.’ Good point. Where he is, it’s one of the busiest crossing points and even though the authorities have now closed the illegal gaps in the separation wall, most people still can’t be asked to make a mile-long detour and take the nearest footbridge.

INTERLUDE – Tabaski’s here and (very nearly) gone

December 1, 2009

Only a foreigner could write a phrase with “interlude” and “Tabaski” sitting cosily together like friendly next-door neighbours. Of course: Tabaski is THE party, the  once-a-year opportunity to spend irresponsibly large amounts of money on food (i.e., a sheep), upholstery and more than anything and this especially for the women: clothes. Let me re-phrase that: Very Expensive Clothes.

Indeed, one contributor to a daily newspaper explained (and arguably complained) that from an old religious commemoration, it appears to become increasingly commercialised. (A bit of background here for the heathens out there from this lapsed Dutch Reformed…. the occasion for the Feast of the Sacrifice is shared by all three Abrahamic faiths: Abraham (or Ibrahim), the old patriarch is made to suffer a trial when God asks him to sacrifice his own son. No whys or ifs or buts. According to which version of the story you follow (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) there may have been some arguing or the earthly man may have followed the divine orders without questioning – but at some point Abraham does take his son away and prepares to kill him. As the knife in his hand descends towards his son’s throat, the latter is replaced by a sheep. Abraham’s faith is beyond any doubt, his son lives – the sheep is not so lucky. The Sacrifice Festival has spread to pretty much all corners of the world and is celebrated in a bewildering amount of variety. Here in West Africa it is known as: Tabaski. And a grand party it is…)

The newspaper writer may have a bit of a point but it’s not what you notice first thing in the morning. No, what you hear is the first call for prayer and they sound are decidedly more muscular than normal. There are days when there is non-stop prayer and singing in a small semi enclosure off a small street where no-one has planned a building, yet. We’ll talk about that some day. But normally, at around half past five in the morning (depending on the time of year) the first call to prayer goes out and it’s a fairly modest affair. There is no overwhelming tendency to blast everyone, Istanbul style, out of whatever they are doing, which at that time of day is mostly sleeping.

But today, all mosques have joined voices in what can only be described as a festive but decidedly off-key heavenly choir. The sheep have been bought and it is time for the slaughter.

Ah, the sheep! Getting one has been the usual nightmare. ‘Tu vois le Musulman, son problème est le mouton’, as a Christian neighbour explains. Without a trace of malice, I hasten to add, religious tolerance is one of the great hallmarks of West Africa – and a lesson for the likes of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders or indeed the Swiss who have just voted to stop minarets from being built in their towns. Here, the archbishop and the highest Islamic leaders in the land meet for tea.

Back to the sheep. It is estimated that somewhere between half and three quarters of a million of them are needed for slaughter and a lot of the come from the neighbours, chiefly Mauritania and Mali. Add up raising the animals and bringing them here and your average Senegalese household is faced with an expense that’s the equivalent of, say, a new flatscreen in a European context. (And that’s without the clothes and the rest of the food and the decorations, right?) This year was particularly bad. The vendors refused to bring their prices down to reasonable levels, which was understood to be at around CFA 40,000 (€61). That’s already quite a sum but instead the vendors never went below CFA 60,000 and a lot of them charged even more. “Ridiculous!” was the verdict and so a lot of families went without the sheep. Which basically means: no Tabaski.

But still, as the day rolls on, you will find the delicious scent of churay (a mix of herbs and essences) diluted by the unmistakable odour of a gigantic open-air barbecue, which flavours the air throughout the entire neighbourhood and indeed the city. And there is a lot less bleating going on.

Prayers, family gatherings, food and talk: it’s very much an indoors and a neighbourhood thing. In the evening, everyone is on the street, wandering about, greeting people…the Senegalese equivalent of the Spanish “paseo”. This is the time to show off. Most Senegalese women are pretty breathtakingly elegant on any day but on this occasion they look positively spectacular. Elaborate hair-dos, exquisite “maquillage” and of course those long flowing multi-coloured, glittering robes of the finest material, the outfits that the tailors have been sweating over until the first call to prayer this morning – and someone will be sweating some more for in the coming months.

‘It’s all on credit,’ an elderly taxi driver with a wicked smile told me in the afternoon. Which takes us straight back to the point made by that columnist in the newspaper about the commercialization of Tabaski. There is definitely pressure to show off – the fattest animal, the finest clothes…. I saw only glimpses of the elaborate party, as the taxi was taking me back from the empty gaping hole where the bus station used to be. That’s another lesson from Tabaski: absolutely everything shuts down for three days and that includes – incredibly – inter city transport. I made heroic but utterly futile attempts to get to Saint Louis and celebrate at least part of the Festival with a local family I know there but no bush taxi showed up, the dial-up taxi service (Yes – it exists!) never answered the phone and everything else on offer (which wasn’t much) was either very dodgy or terrifyingly slow. So if you’re in Senegal and it’s Tabaski, don’t try to go anywhere. So instead I wandered about the streets of Yoff and neighbouring Virage, marvelling at the people in their finery and occasionally being startled by the distinct bleating of…a sheep. Do some people keep them for next year?