Archive for January, 2011

A town, a country, sick to the backteeth of this…

January 29, 2011


This revolution will most definitely not be televised….

…because televisions don’t work if there is isn’t any bloody electricity.

Alright, let’s review.

Today – woke up: no current, 4 hours and counting

Yesterday – twice, three times, first time for 3 hours, then two hours, then half an hour

Thursday – came in from town – it was off, had been for hours the neighbours said

Tuesday – 4 hours, at least

And last Sunday, for seven hours


…the owner of the pharmacy down the road must rush – yet again! – to get his generator going, otherwise he can throw his expensive stock of medicines in the bin

…people everywhere will worry how long this one will last or they may have  to throw out expensive food – yet again

…in the house, in the shops and everywhere it’s back to expensive battery lamps – yet again

…my friend who tries to keep his restaurant going must make sure – yet again – that his meat does not rot, his internet connection does not bomb and he will have to apologise – yet again – for the beers not being very cold… (meanwhile, his fuel bill is €300 a month and is there anyone to reimburse them? Is there f***)

…the launderette must turn away its customers yet again because they cannot work…

Right, class, today’s lesson. How do you to destroy an economy? Simple! Kill its electricity supply.

People assure me that this is the worst ever. Worse, there is absolutely no let-up in sight, in spite of what the Royal Family and its Party say. Senelec, the electricity utility is up to its neck in debts, there is no new money coming in, the mechanics are trying their damnedest to keep the old machinery going and are in fact covering up for the unspeakably bad management of their politically connected directors. And just yesterday, the folks in Ouakam (not exactly the most unprivileged part of town) went on the rampage, throwing stones at the utility’s office – and a house reportedly belonging to the Royal Family. Yoff, not exactly dirt poor either, could be next. It’s happened before.

But take a look at Guediawaye and Pikine, two massive suburbs with up to a million really poor people. You can smell the riots. There, people go without current for days. You read that right – days. So you have just put your family supplies in your old rickety fridge and off it goes – and off goes your food. You have not got the money to replace it. Cook it by candlelight, is all you can do. And hope that when they put it back on they don’t blow your fuses out like they did last time.

Tell you what. I’m seriously inconvenienced by this permanent annoyance (can’t work, no internet, no coffee) but my problems are absolutely dwarfed by those who live on a euro a day and are still facing the indignity of getting invoices from an electricity company that does not deliver. I’d be out on the streets too.

It is beyond a scandal and everyone is beyond fed up. And it’s been said before : it takes a special talent to really annoy the Senegalese. But I think I’m not remiss to say that what we have here could well be the makings of the first public uprising caused by electricity shortages. At least to my knowledge. You cannot piss people off so much for so long without consequence. And you certainly cannot take the piss out of people for such a long time. 2012 is around the corner and there will be something that starts with e-l-e-c-t but does not end in –tricity… Don’t even think about a computerised voting system – but do bring a torch to the polling booth.

So I predict a riot and a very hot election. You read it here. A round of (probably warm) beers when I get it wrong.


January 20, 2011

They are finally here!

There's two of them on the ground here since Jan 19. Photo: Senegal Airlines through Aviation Branding Weblog

They’re called Gandiol and Kayemor and reflect the genuine connection felt by the Head of the Royal Family to African realities. The two names refer to towns that have been, in their own way, symbols of the the anti-colonial struggle.

The arrival of the two Airbus aircraft (made in France) also made Him think of His Monument for the African Renaissance, which points to the skies. And to the Canary Islands. But I may have bored you to death with that by now.

It also made Him think of producing small aircraft – made in Senegal. Interesting idea, coming from someone who heads a government that is quite happy to lay waste to local entrepreneurs. See here for the latest example.

But most of all: it made Him think of the youth. Yes. The  youth will show the way forward. Indeed. That is why, a few hours after this umpteenth display of presidential hubris, the youth were extremely busy in at least six Dakar suburbs blocking thoroughfares, setting fire to car tires and playing cat-and-mouse with the police.


Well, for once, they will never have the privilege of boarding either Gandiol or Kayemor. But in fact it’s way more practical than that. Absolutely everyone is sick and tired of paying for electricity that never arrives. Having to throw away food because the fridge is off. Again. The electricity cuts are coordinated from the ministry that is in charge of these things and a lot more, including airplanes. The head of that ministry is His Majesty’s son, nicknamed The Prince.

Events in Tunisia are keenly followed here and there’s even speculation whether this place would be next. Not so sure. It takes real talent to annoy the Senegalese to such an extent. But fair’s fair: His Majesty has that talent in spades.

Relentless Trends – 4 (some more brief thoughts)

January 20, 2011

What would the observer of demographic trends I cited in a previous post have to say about this? In spite of Gunnar Heinsohn’s statement that the birth rate in North Africa has decreased dramatically, UN Population Fund statistics cited in Jeune Afrique this week (the paper edition) say that in the Maghreb about one-third of the people are under 18. Median age of the population: between 26 and 29. So: what do they do?

They leave. They say “there is nothing for us here”. (I remember reading a report about young men hanging around the streets of Algiers, capital of Algeria, whose catch-all phrase was: “Rien à signaler”. Nothing to see. And worse: nothing to do.)

They revolt in Algeria – again.

AND! They throw out a deeply corrupt and deeply unpopular government in Tunisia. One can always hope they get something better.

These events seem to confirm the idea that demographics tell an important part of the story – but not all of it. But yes, demographics play a role and these events in the Maghreb do not take anything away from the main premise, which is this: a society with a surplus of idle young men is a society heading for trouble.

The folks who run these societies have the same options their European colleagues had between the 16th and 19th century. Create work for them. Get rid of them (which basically means: send them abroad or send them to war – and here is one late but particularly egregious example from Europe. Or prepare to be hung drawn and quartered…

One thing is certain: studiously ignoring them is most decidedly not an option. That is very much a post-war Western response, witness for instance the total absence of this demographic from the groups “targeted” by the aid industry (and I will have more to say about that in a future post…). Nor is sticking one’s head in the sand, which this regime appears to be doing

Is history really that repetitive? Seems so. Or as Vonnegut wrote in his epic “Slaughterhouse Five”: so it goes.

The music in my head

January 18, 2011

Quite fitting. I live in Dakar, have a nice little archive of West African music, write about it sometimes…and then I come across “The Music In My Head”. It’s a novel by writer and music critic Mark Hudson and published just over a decade ago. I know the music, heard about the book but never read it.

So, I am very very late with this but that mere fact (in keeping with the main character of the book) just shows you how totally cool I am. Right?

Everyone who has dipped even a small toe in the music business knows that it’s peopled with all kinds of characters and that there is among them a fairly sizeable contingent of individuals who are just, how shall I put it…not very nice. Even though they say they are.

That’s Andrew ‘Litch’ Litchfield, for you, our hero. In the book, he runs a label (of course), he claims deep, profound knowledge of non-White music, he never stops talking, and, oh yes: he has been everywhere. Bolivia. The Caribbean. Seville. Albania. The Himalayas. But nowhere feels better than here, this city, so thinly disguised in the story that the reader immediately recognises Dakar.

A full blown classic

Dakar is of course home to Youssou N’Dour who fronted the legendary Etoile de Dakar. Again thinly disguised, N’Dour (and he does have a melting syrup quality voice like no-one else) plays a major part in Litch’s life. Our World Music Expert, however, makers a mistake. He thinks that he also matters in the life of the great artist. He does not.

Oh and by the way: don’t ever make the mistake of associating Litch with World Music, OK? That’s a totally uncool bland marketing term.

In spite of all his bluster it all ends pretty badly for our authentic music expert. In fact, it ends so badly that he gets deported from the country, after a security officer has told him that he is ‘insignificant’. Ouch!

In the intervening pages a host of characters passes by. Salif Keita, other Senegalese musicians like Pape Seck, Youssou N’Dour’s band, Peter Gabriel, a world music DJ who has never been out of London, an A&R woman who would not know a kora from a balafon but ends up stealing “his” artists, a university graduate who sees the country and its people as a decor for her own larger-than-life drama…

A few of them come out fine, most do not. Which is one of Litch’s rare charms: he is unapologetically judgemental because he thinks he has earned the right. And dammit – sometimes he is right, even though this deep music expert cannot get out of his hotel room without putting his foot quite terribly wrong…

Downtown Dakar. You cannot see my house from here...

But in a way, all these characters are marginal. There are two main players in “The Music In My Head”. One is Dakar, the magnificent home to some of the best music on the planet and, in Litch’s words, ‘the most arrogantly beautiful women on earth.’ (I would agree with “beautiful” in that statement) The only thing I do not recognise at all is the level of danger he associates the city with. Sure, there are places to avoid but Dakar is nowhere near as paranoid as say, Johannesburg. Far, far from it.


The other, the main player, the music. Frenetic drums at a street party that play rhythms you only begin to understand after listening a thousand times. Soaring religious chants at the great annual Senegalese pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba. A band that records one psychedelic song in a garage using pre-historic recording equipment and scores a massive hit – the next day. And of course, Youssou N’Dour in concert and in full majestic flow.

Hudson describes these very well and so you’ll forgive him for some of Litch’s overlong clunky sentences, his ramblings about World Music (long but interesting) and his musings about life in England (long and boring).

But most of all: get the CD, will ya? Classic and I mean utterly classic tunes. Including that garage hit I told you about. Must end here, or else I’ll start sounding like Litch. Now there’s a scary thought…

…and now for…a bit of domestic bliss…

January 11, 2011

Top left! This, my dear readers, is the most important addition to my very modest household. Contrary to popular belief, parts of Africa are cold (and some are in fact bloody cold). Dakar in the winter is one of those. Well, allright…chilly. So this is very nice to have around. As is this…

watch the speakers...

Music streaming into the living room, hot water splashing in the bathroom – I could not possibly cope with more domestic bliss. Off to Guinea soon!

(Normal broadcasts will now resume……)

Relentless Trends – 3. What have we got here…?

January 9, 2011

The Mourides are Senegal’s most influential religious brotherhood, founded late 19th century in the holy city of Touba, by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a cleric whose teachings were strongly anti-colonial. The French sent him into exile for his troubles.

The Grand Mosque of the holy city of Touba

Today, the Mourides have become a business empire that encompasses international banking, wholesale, retail, petrol products and transport, to name a few. There are other brotherhoods as well but they none are as influential as this one. This also applies to politics. They have the ear of government.

Baye Fall before the Grand Mosque. Photo from anonimundo blog

The Baye Fall were established by Ibrahima Fall, with the explicit permission of Amadou Bamba. These were their values in the beginning: be non-materialistic, hard-working, pious – and musical. Cheikh Ndiguel Lô, for those versed into music, is a good example: a quirky, very laid-back man and a fine musician. He is Baye Fall. So is Carlou D, formerly of Positive Black Soul, who starred in the Sahel Opera a few years ago and last year released a truly wonderful album called Muzikr (a play on words, incidentally: zikr is the religious chanting you can hear all over Senegal).

Carlou D in fine form at the 2010 Hertme Afrikafestival. (photo: Bram Posthumus)

If you hear a zikr on the street, accompanied with the trademark clang of money in a calabash – that’s a Baye Fall. It’s an old ritual: religious folks giving some of their piety and spirituality in exchange for victuals. It  is practiced in India, Europe – and Senegal. But it seems that there is a tendency among some that makes a mockery of that old practice.

Picture this scene. A car moves slowly into the street. Zikr reverberates from two giant megaphones, attached to the roof. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they move in: large strides, robes aflow and clanging calabashes. They fan out across the street, stop cars – if the drivers don’t stop they pursue them; they move up to people and no longer ask for money – they pretty much demand it. Simple tradespeople, shopkeepers, children, mothers, they really cannot miss a hundred francs but awkwardly give in. Ten minutes on, the invasion has passed.

Something  jars between the original mission and this temporary takeover of a whole street.


Baye Fall in Saint Louis, September 2009. (Photo from gosong.)


Every September, thousands of Baye Fall occupy the centre of Saint Louis, and not all inhabitants are happy with this: they consider it an invasion. Ostensibly, the march on Saint Louis is in memory of a minor historical event (a religious leader refused to show sufficient deference to a French governor) but the real reason is simple: they do it because they can.

Now – let’s return to those demographic statistics: Senegal is overwhelmingly young and urbanising fast. If one subscribes – even only in part – to the youth bulge theory, a few uneasy questions must begin to be asked. Is this one of the many ways in which essentially redundant men create a niche for themselves, in a society that has no room for them? Then it’s a case of tough luck: if your environment constantly reminds you that you’re on your own, then said environment must not complain if you create your own…

And that opens the next set of questions. Does the state, or more to the point, do the religious leaders in this land have an opinion about this? And if they do: do they condone this kind of behaviour? How many steps away from not just demanding money but simply no longer taking “no” for an answer? And short of sending them packing, what other solutions may there be for the excess young male population?

Answers NOT on a postcard. There are no quick fixes. The West is very unlikely to have any answers to a problem that has ceased to exist, even in its collective memory.

Quick one – Relentless… resumes shortly

January 8, 2011

But this is quite stunning…

Remember that Global Festival of the Black Arts, Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, last month? No, you probably don’t, since it ended December 31st and few outside the circle of the organisers had heard about it. Anyway, here’s a link.

Let’s look away from the massive amount of money wasted on AppleMacs, luxury cars, contracts to chums of the Royal Family. This happens everywhere.

No. Let’s take a look at some of the people who have made this whole thing possible.

The technicians on and off the stage, who worked up to 20 hours a day (and sometimes longer) to prepare the stage, get the sounds and the lights and everything else right.

Tell you what? They haven’t been paid. It was promised – but they haven’t been paid.

The hostesses, ready smiles, troubleshooters, standing outside calming irate visitors because yet another conference had been called off…Working hours could be anything up to 12 hours, sometimes more.

Tell you what? They haven’t been paid. It was promised – but they haven’t been paid.

And yesterday, local daily Le Populaire tells us that the folks of the communications department, who had to deal with ill-tempered journalists who needed their accreditation like yesterday, the folks who had to tell the rest of the visitors about the never-ending changes in the programme…

Tell you what? No, this is getting boring. Now, read this instead…

A word to the organisers. Don’t talk – ever again! – about this having been a celebration of Black Arts or the African Renaissance and all the rest of your flowery phrase-turning – when you cannot be bothered to pay your own people who have worked and worked and worked and worked and worked some more…

You ought to be utterly ashamed of yourselves. But you probably aren’t.


Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs

January 7, 2011

Last year, in March, we (that is: the intrepid and unbeatable journo team consisting of photographer Martin Waalboer and myself) walked into West Point, one of the worst slums in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

West Point, Monrovia. Photo: Martin Waalboer

The entrance is a small corridor – a fantastic spot for anyone who wants to rob visitors. Emerging at the other side and immediately two burly chaps walk up. Security, they say. Self-appointed, that much is clear. They would be “area boys” in Nigeria, “vigilantes” in other parts of the world. They will guarantee our safety and well-being whilst in West Point, they say, provided of course we stop by on the way out and pay them.

We march onto the beach, we pass a big pile of rotting fish, parked right next to the first iron hovels. Apparently, you can even get used to this without spending the entire day vomiting your bowels out. The smell is pervasive. We walk through a cloud of flies.

Into the labyrinth and the atmosphere is grim. We turn one of many corners and find ourselves in a small open space. There’s a small group of – you guessed it – young men, doing nothing. Well, they’re gambling, what else is there to do? Barely concealed aggression on our approach and of course immediate demands for cash. We move on before things get too heated. But you only have to talk to a few and look beyond the gangster pose – and you’ll soon find out what they really want.


The billboard is a pipedream - but at least these guys work... Photo: Martin Waalboer

Jobs will give them a station in life. But West Point, Monrovia, is the terminus. All ends here. Nowhere to go, except for the sea; nothing to do, except sit around. And most of all: absolutely nobody cares. It is a universal phenomenon: young men, at times individually but most definitely as a group are usually loathed, feared, sent packing, or totally ignored.

The inventor of the youth bulge, Gunnar Heinsohn, whom I mentioned yesterday, argues that for these and other surplus young men, there are basically three options: leave, crime and fight. In Africa, they do all three. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from small, aging, frazzled Fortress Europe, immigration will be with you for a very very long time. It does not matter if you channel it through the tiny and unusable pipelines of asylum procedures (virtually no-one from Africa leaves for political reasons); it does not matter how many ships you send to patrol the coast, how many electric fences you put up – you sent your guys overseas for centuries, now the rest is doing the same. Get used to it.

Monrovia, Liberia, May 1996. Photo: gatsbye53 on Flickr

Crime and war are very much last resorts. Heinsohn cites Kenya and wonders why, given its burgeoning young male population, it took so long for the violence to break out. He says there was still that last piece of land to be parcelled out and when that was gone, violence became inevitable. He also cites Algeria, where before the brutal civil war in the 1990s women had up to 7 children. Now it’s less than two. That, he argues, is the only thing that has changed in Algeria.

Personally I think he’s rather short on other factors that may have influenced this drastic change but he does spin an interesting demographic yarn – even though it is incomplete. Yes, you can leave, you can get into crime or go to war. But you can also create jobs. And this they do: setting up “security” outfits, like the one in West Point; going into the transport business, like the “motortaxi” guys in the picture above; getting into trade (although this is limited as trade is very much a woman’s turf); becoming craftsmen…

Heinsohn does, however, have a point if you consider that yet another form of job creation can indeed be…crime. And from crime, especially violent crime, the step to war is not really such a leap. Remember the main slogan of those fighter boys (and indeed a few girls) during Liberia’s civil war? “Pay Yourself.” A few thousand have made a career out of it; some of them are currently heading to their next “pay yourself” operation: Côte d’Ivoire. Luckily, so far, Côte d’Ivoire has not leapt off the precipice.

Most countries do not go to Liberian extremes. But even in small, peaceful, lovely, religious Senegal, there may be a few worrying forms of job creation happening.

More about that, tomorrow.

Relentless Trends

January 6, 2011

Alright, let’s get the new year started with a nice bit of controversy. In three parts. Today: part one. Triggered by a story in the press a few days ago.


This week, the national agency for statistics and demographics (ANSD in French) issued a report with the latest demographic trends. They contain nothing new yet another illustration of how things may well turn out in the near future.

Senegal, says the ANSD, is young and going urban. There are around 12 million people in the country, between 2.5 and 3 million have converged on the capital Dakar and its suburbs. At independence in 1960 that figure was 300,000. So in the space of barely two generations, Dakar has grown around tenfold.

Somewhere between now and 2013, the urban population in Senegal will reach 50%. And here’s another 50% for you: half of all Senegalese are under 20 years of age. The picture is repeated all over the continent.

A few years ago I interviewed the German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn. He has spent his academic life studying genocides: why they occur and how. Heinsohn told me that if you live in a society where 30 to 40 percent of men are between 15 and 29 years old – you live in a society heading for trouble. He called it: the youth bulge. I am no statistician but from the ANSD figures it would appear that Senegal (and indeed pretty much all of Africa) fits the bill.

photo: Human Rights Watch

What you see here is an ongoing scandal all over Senegal, recently highlighted once again by Human Rights Watch but (and this is more important) increasingly seen in Senegal itself for what it is: brutal child exploitation. You can actually argue that this is a precursor to what awaits young men once they join that 15-29 age group. Society’s message to them is dead simple: you’re on your own.

Yes, Heinsohn says, this does indeed apply almost exclusively to men. A society can always put women to use in the home – or in someone else’s home. For men, this option does not apply. ‘He will never become the kindly elder uncle without children in the house of his birth,’ Heinsohn argues. ‘He must go.’

In other words: these young men are surplus to requirement. If they don’t work they are unproductive and a waste of resources. If they fail to get work, everyone wants to get rid of them: family, clan, society.

Photo: Ligue des Droits de l'Homme

And off they go. Departure is one of the few options available to young men who are not wanted. Sounds cruel? For centuries, Europe did exactly the same. Half a millennium ago, the Bubonic Plague wiped out 60% of the population there. The authorities of the day (read: the Roman Catholic Church) began a merciless repopulation campaign, banning anti-conception, killing tens of thousands of midwives (they were suddenly “witches”) and the resultant excess male offspring, quickly found out that they were needed elsewhere.

Spanish pirate by the name of Cortez lands somewhere in Latin America

How did the Spanish call their armies that conquered Latin America? Secundones, the second sons (or indeed the third, fourth, etc…) This thing went on for centuries. The decline of the Roman Catholic Church, the Industrial Revolution and two massive world wars put an end to it. In Europe, the youth bulge is history. That’s why a young man’s death (in war) has suddenly become a tragedy. Most societies have a young male surplus, which is disposable. They do build empires, though…

More to come on this fascinating topic – tomorrow…