Archive for March, 2010

The city, the sky…no lights!

March 31, 2010

Dakar power cut

First acquisition upon arrival here: a largish, battery-powered lamp. Made in China, of course. The reputation of the national electricity utility, Senelec, has plummeted even further with more power cuts than ever. Three times a day for hours on end, it’s now common. One of the Senelec offices is right across the street; expect windows to be smashed soon – once again. It’s not the engineers trying to keep an obsolete system going; it’s the management, political appointees with no interest in the company. So once again….

home, last night

Still, there’s plenty of sun to compensate for the lack of artificial light, one would think. And yes, there is. Dakar’s warming up nicely. But this is how the sky ordinarily looks towards sunset…

From my window, between 6 and 7pm

Pollution has one advantage, a former geography teacher used to say, beautiful sunsets…

Fumes, smoke, sand and dust: the air we breathe. And it’s a spectacle. Dakar has some 2.5m inhabitants; this is projected to increase to 4.7m in some 20 years’ time. The future is clear (or should that be murky): more power cuts and more of this:

Skies over Yoff

Monrovia, Abidjan – or: how to manage an airport

March 28, 2010

The terminal building at Robertsfield International Airport was completely destroyed during Liberia’s civil war. Another structure, next to the main building (it may have served as the KLM terminal at one point when Royal Dutch were still flying there), was the only place in a somewhat useable state. With a few modifications, it has served as the main terminal building since the late 1990s.

All of Robertsfield International Airport (photo: Palomarfil on Flickr)

But, as I said, it is really small. So how do you channel an Airbus full of passengers (rich, used to having people at their beck and call, notoriously short-fused and always in a hurry to get the hell through all those obnoxious control and check points) from the entrance through to the departure lounge? The Liberian answer is simple and hugely effective: you slow them down.

First passport control at the entry gate of the terminal. Second passport control at the door, just before you enter the building proper. Third passport control at the airline’s Welcome Desk. Fourth passport control before Immigration; fifth by Immigration personnel. Sixth and seventh at the security gate. Take the passengers through one by one. Be nice, be friendly. It works miracles. No mutterings, quietly, slowly but efficiently, one hundred plus people were guided through the tiny space.

Outside Robertsfield terminal (photo: Windsorca 313 on Flickr)

If they ever complete a new one, they should keep this system in place.

On to Abidjan with a tiny bit of trepidation: 22 hours to spare and no visa. The lady at the Ivorian Embassy in Monrovia was hugely disinterested in the unusual problem of wanting a transit visa for less than 24 hours. Like almost all consular staff, she should take a leaf out of the service rendered at arrival in Abidjan. Praises can’t be high enough.

First: a swing past the medical controls and on to the transfer counter. There, we meet Ibrahim. He listens to our problem, blows away the inevitable interloper who adds only noise to the conversation and guides us on. Does the airport have sleeping facilities?

Of course it does.

Can we get or luggage?

Of course you can, just give me the luggage tags, get up to the first floor where there is Le Makoré – and I’ll be coming back with your luggage.

Restaurant Le Makoré, Abidjan airport (photo by me. Much better pic coming up shortly)

Off to Le Makoré. The waiter in chief also runs the rooms. There are six of them, they have a noise-free airco (for obvious reasons the windows cannot be opened), hot and cold running water, beds, table, chair – basic but adequate. It’s CFA35,000 (€53 for two) – a bargain anywhere in Abidjan, et alone the airport.

After room inspection, it’s back to the restaurant. Ibrahim returns with the luggage.

Next question: can we eat here?

Of course you can but be quick, kitchen will close in a few minutes. Round 9pm, we’re having a fine Ivorian chicken and rice dish, called “poulet kédjénou”.

Le Makoré, Abidjan Airport (photo: Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s going home, his working day is done. We’re having a drink and head for bed. Thank you Abidjan Airport.

Abidjan Airport overnight facility (photo Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s back the next day to help us in our exchanges with the Air Mali manager, whose idea of service it is to cancel a flight, tell no-one about it and then insist that passengers who really need to be home on the day they planned to be…buy another ticket with another airline. ‘You will be reimbursed after arrival’.

Pull the other one, mate.

It takes two hours of virtually incessant calls on Ibrahim’s cell phone (“Can you not pay for a new ticket?” No. “It’s very very difficult.” You screw up, you are duty-bound to get us on another flight. “I’m working on it.” Fine, let me know when you’re ready. “Can you come to the Kenya Airways check-in immediately?” We’re on our way). But early afternoon we’re on board KQ and after an eventless flight and an interesting landing (a bump and a slight swagger across the runway) we’re in Dakar, seven hours before schedule and ready for work. Ibrahim’s mighty pleased when we call him from Dakar. Mission accomplished.

As far as we’re concerned, Air Mali can cancel its flights any day. And just in case you’d miss it: you can never repeat enough that there definitely is room for this advert: “wanted – efficient, reliable, low-cost, no-frills carrier for West Africa. Profits guaranteed.”

(Back soon with more on Liberia, music (as promised) and a temporary goodbye…)


March 24, 2010

Harper, Liberia aerial view

Paradise lost – to be found again. Probably the shortest possible description of the Liberian town you see above. It’s been there for close to 180 years but it was looted and destroyed in the 1990s.

Harper lies in a far corner of Liberia and feels closer to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire than it does to the Liberian capital Monrovia. One of the reasons is the roads. They are atrocious. So you just hop across the river to your francophone neighbours and get your supplies from there.

The word is potential. Look at this – also taken from the aeroplane.

Atlantic Ocean to your right; Lake Shephard to your left

Problem is, as hinted before: how to get there. The road is for those who are adventurous in spirit, or, as is the case with most Liberians, simply have no other options. The sea is definitely not an option: too may horror stories of piles of rust piled with goods and people and then sinking. There is an air link but it’s expensive, as I have found out (see previous entries on this topic…).

So for now, this undiscovered gem will remain just that. An undiscovered gem. HERE is a story on the Radio Netherlands website about what happened to this elegant but damaged town. More to come. (Oh and music lovers – I have NOT forgotten my forthcoming entry on world music…)

Liberia: two cities

March 16, 2010

The capital: Monrovia. Big. Massive. Loud. Very loud: a cacaphony of car horns, engines, sirens, radios, arguments, shouts: “I say my man I beg you!” Loudspeakers blaring American music clog the ears. Noise pollution. Air pollution. Overcrowded. A fierce and merciless daily struggle for a place on one of the clapped-out taxis on Tubman Boulevard, the main drag. Expensive, for everyone. Did I mention loud? I think I did.

But it’s the seat of government, it’s heaven for thousands of petty traders, it’s the heavily air-conditioned headquarters of the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL, the peacekeeping operation now in its 7th year), it’s where the Chinese are building roads, apartments, restaurants and offices, it’s where you get your business done. And then leave.

Harper. At the southeastern tip of the country. Quaint, quiet – a lot quieter than the capital. Clean air, beaches, a fishing village, beautiful architecture you can still see through the destruction and looting and burning that happened here between 1990 and 2003. One locally run restaurant – great food and a lot cheaper than in the capital. Three small places to stay – very basic but at one-sixth of the Monrovia rate. One employer: the local rubber company. Two banks, a few tea shops, some trade, a small market.

Potential aplenty – but no takers. Where are the investors? You can set up an ace centre for water recreation in the port area, there’s a lagoon that shouts out for tourists and seaside restaurants, But for now, there are few jobs and even fewer when UNMIL closes as they inevitably will. Roads are bad, the only fast connection is by air (expensive!) so equally inevitably, people leave when they can. For the capital. And if need be (this is a true story): they walk from here to there.

Back in Liberia…

March 9, 2010

It’s been two years – and a lot of change. An huge amount of construction, new buildings everywhere, road resurfacing going on all over town and a lot of that is thanks to the Chinese.

And of course, some things stay the same. Monrovia is very noisy, overcrowded (an educated estimate is that half of Liberia’s population of 3.5m live in the capital) and – er, did I say noisy? But then: find the havens. A new bookstore on the main drag through the vast Sinkor suburb. An arts gallery, set up by the self-taught painter Leslie Lumeh (there will be more on him on Radio Netherlands shortly). A quiet open air bar, still running in a quiet street in Sinkor. Simply called…”Under the Tree”. Next to a garbage dump but no matter…

More to come then, from this place, astonishing as ever. But I will keep the messages brief because one thing has not changed at all (even when I am sending this through a WiFi connection) – the internet is very slow……..