Archive for March, 2012

Hello – anybody there? (part 3 and end)

March 31, 2012

Amsterdam residents with roots in the pre-digital age will (i.e. everyone over 40) remember that once upon a time they had to go to the rather unpleasant offices of the city’s electricity utility (Gemeente Energie Bedrijf, or GEB) to pay their bills. That’s all in the past of course. Here in Senegal, this is an evolving story.

ahhh, the good old days... (sort of)

Here, our great, wonderful, lovely electricity supplier Senelec (third largest company in the country, annual turnover of some 350 million euros, according to a 2011 survey by business magazine Reussir) used to insist on cash payment at one of their offices. There was one nearby, across the Autoroute de l’Aéroport. Was.

Routine procedure. Take a book along, because this will take time. Get in early. Take a number. If you’re late, you’ll be #150 in the queue. There are a grand total of TWO windows for this crowd of remarkably patient customers. If you hang in there, their numbers will drop fairly rapidly because a lot of people, facture in hand, payment at the ready, will leave before it’s their turn. Still, expect to spend an hour (or two – or three) here as the electronic queue counter bleeps the numbers up until it reaches you.

Now – a few enterprising men and women decided that there was a niche here. They gave you an alternative. Forget about the Senelec payment office, drab as only state utilities can build them. Instead, go to a neat little office, pay your bill, and leave. You get a receipt and are told to come back tomorrow. Takes all of five minutes. Come in the next day and find the receipt waiting, stamped and all – proof of payment.

Price of this excellent service? The grand total of 500 CFA Francs, €0,75. Needless to say, business was booming.

So what did Senelec do? Give thanks and praises to these entrepreneurs? Help them set up a system to incorporate this neat example of customer friendliness into their own system?

Er, no.

Instead, we got this advert in the press. I paraphrase, but only slightly:

‘For some time, courtesy cabinets have been offering, through the newspapers, services related to the payment of electricity bills in a private capacity. Senelec informs its customers that it has not set up any private structure outside its own commercial offices that can cash electricity bills…Paying the amount due to an intermediary does not constitute a settlement towards Senelec and does not exonerate the customer from the risk of having delivery of electricity suspended should the obligation of payment not be respected…’

and do note the payoff...

A fine piece of warm fuzzy, customer friendliness, written I’d suspect by some bureaucrat with warm fuzzy memories from certain European countries that used to be run by political parties wielding Red Stars and slogans about the World Proletariat Defeating Imperialism (yes, these existed and I visited four of them; I have the pictures…).

Now – fast-forward a few months (I told you: this is an evolving story) and the following happens.

You see: Senelec sends bills but it does not always send electricity. Amazingly, people get upset about this, especially if this goes on for months. So in June 2011, for a whole variety of reasons, people were really fed up and some members of the Great Senegalese Public went into the same offices where they used to sit, patiently, for hours on end, waiting their turn to pay their facture

…and smashed them up.

Senelec across the road from where I live? Closed.

Senelec in Ouakam, on the other side of the airport, which now administers the electricity supply for my part of town? Barely functioning.

The story is repeated all over town and indeed the country.

So who is there to take up the slack? Ha! Those maligned agents who had yanked Senelec’s bill settlement system straight into the 20th century!! They now sport brand new signs above their entrances and statements to the effect that they are “officially approved”. That includes the lady who runs my payment office. Only thing is: she now has to go all the way to town, to the Senelec Head Office with the factures and the cash. But that headache is royally offset by the fact that today she also runs payment services for water, the mobile phone – and of course: she’s a Western Union agent.

What the hell is it with journos, NGOs and child slavery?

March 24, 2012

Years ago, I did a piece on the supposed existence of “child slavery” on the cocoa plantations in specifically Côte d’Ivoire. It was a response to a media campaign by Dutch campaign journalist Teun van der Keuken, whose supposedly hard-hitting campaign documentary on Côte d’Ivoire misfired from the first minute, when Abidjan miraculously became once again the country’s “capital”.

All this was to promote the idea that West Africa was somehow a haven for child-slavery. Note the emotive mutually reinforcing terminology: child! Ooooh! slave! Aaaah!

It was also to promote his own supposedly child-slave-free chocolate. You see? child! Ooooh! slave! Aaaah! FREE! Well the orgasm can’t be far off, then…


Ivorian colleagues, doing some very serious research into the gargantuan amounts of fraud that bedevil the more than one billion dollar cocoa industry have qualified campaigns against “child slavery” as economic sabotage of their country.

But it’s working. In a time that Côte d’Ivoire is trying to get its stuttering economy into first gear after a disastrous political crisis, the European Parliament adopted (on March 14th) a resolution agreeing with the renewal of the International Cocoa Agreement, which now contains bans on child labour. Côte d’Ivoire is the world’s leading cocoa producer. A lot of the stuff finds its way to Amsterdam, gateway to one of the world’s leading chocolate industries.

The European Parliament writes a few facts into its press release, mentioning that cocoa is mostly grown on privately-owned smallholders. It then, disingenuously in my view, inserts the ILO statistic of 215 million child labourers, without linking them to the cocoa industry specifically.


Actually, the ILO did report on the cocoa industry in Côte d’Ivoire ten years ago. It said that there were some 600,000 children working on the plantations. The ILO helpfully added that in 97 per cent of these cases the children were working on the plantations that belonged…to their parents. That was the bit that Teun van der Keuken omitted from his website.

That figure has since been removed from said website but he continues to claim that West Africa is a “notorious haven for chocolate slavery, most often taking the form of child labour abuse.’


For Ivorians, the date of September 19th carries great significance. They will not fail to see the irony of the fact that on that day in 2001, a protocol was signed drawn up by two equally misguided American senators, Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel. They had decided to strangle the Ivorian economy a little more by proclaiming that child slavery (Ooooh! Aaaah!) was rife in Côte d’Ivoire and that it should be stamped out.

One year later to the day, Côte d’Ivoire was plunged into the worst political crisis in its history, from which is slowly recovering. As far as van der Keuken, Harkin and Engel and now the European Parliament are concerned, Côte d’Ivoire’s recovery can wait. There are child-slaves to be saved!


Now, what the hell is it with these people? In this decade, apart from this pile of steaming horse manure about child slavery on the cocoa plantations, we’ve had stories about ships touring the West African coast full of trafficked children, we’ve had the endless and ongoing fascination with child soldiers who must have their War Child-mandated trauma before being admitted back into their real world and so on and so forth. Someone please explain to me this endless journo-NGO fascination with suffering children in West Africa. Preferably a psychologist.


To end:

There is serious child labour happening. Check the streets of every capital in this region. Very little gets done about that. It’s a searing issue that will not be solved by the moral crisis of the next bleeding heart that comes along and wants to tell a story or sell a bar of chocolate. If the locals don’t get angry about it nothing will change. There are signs that in Senegal embarrassment about the huge problem of child begging is leading to some citizen action. Good.

The Ivorian cocoa industry is rife with problems, the most important ones being that farmers get paid sh!te for their produce and that there is massive fraud and theft going on all the way from the fields to the ports. Journalists who have delved into these issues have paid for their work with their lives. Journalists still alive and knowledgeable about this fiendishly complicated, opaque and unaccountable industry have all dismissed the child-slave story. Gives you something to think about.


Want to help Côte d’Ivoire? Buy a bar of chocolate today. Read the reports (among others on the website of FAIR, Forum for African Investigative Reporters, by those who have been going after the b*st*rds that sell the farmers short. The problem is with the buyers, the bureaucrats and the multinationals that are circumventing and undercutting official cocoa buying channels. Not with parents who work the cocoa plantations, with their own kids.

Hello – anybody there? (part 2)

March 11, 2012


So I left you moaning about bad service habits in the Senegalese capital. Are there any exceptions?


It starts, like most good things, on the streets where service is fast, efficient and reliable. Phone cards, newspapers, brooms, shoe repair, fruit stalls, roadside food (not as good as in, say, Indonesia but that may be a matter of time)… in short: if you want things quickly and efficiently delivered, hit the streets.

But there are others cottoning on to the idea that you need to show that you actually like your customer to be in your establishment…if you want him/her back. The guys and girls at the Fast Food, around the corner get this. The ladies at the hardware shop who sell me lamps and other things have got that one covered. And for an entirely different reason, Ibrahim, my hairdresser has it as well. While he rapidly reduces my hair to crew cut size, he fires off the basic philosophy of his faith: work hard, be kind, be honest, save money and don’t do extravagance. He’s a Baye Fall, of the genuine kind, as he keeps reminding me…

And of course this piece would never be complete without mentioning the two nicest people in the world, my friends Atoumane and Fatoumata, who run Figo Restaurant, around the corner from where I live. Their latest gig: telling you about today’s special in advance – by SMS. How’s that for service? These two could teach the entire Amsterdam leisure industry a thing or two. Because, A Bad Ja, if you think service in Dakar is bad – try and get noticed by a waiter in that supposedly hip and happening Dutch capital. In Amsterdam, service in a distressingly large number of restaurants and bars and terraces has reached astonishingly appalling levels. But that’s for another rant if I can be bothered…

Hello? Anybody there? (part 1)

March 9, 2012

The city life web and Facebook site AgenDakar is currently undergoing reconstruction but if and when it comes back I hope it quickly regains its place as a brilliant chronicle of life in a big West African city.

Here’s why.

A little while back, someone whose nom de plume is A Bad Ja has vented his or her spleen about the virtual non-existence of any sense of service in Dakar’s many shops and leisure facilities such as bars and restaurants and cafés.

I can relate. Here’s a scene. Office requirements shop, two minutes walk from my flat. Client walks in. Woman sits behind desk, watches computer screen. Deigns not to look up. So you…er…stand there until Her Majesty can be bothered to deal with the absolute nobody who just had the temerity to enter the shop and disturb Her Peace. After all, you’re only the client. The business depends on you, right? Her salary depends on you too, right? Yes, so? You have been, are, and will forever remain an inconvenience and a nuisance.

Get the idea? Here’s another one.

Furniture shop, big one. Five minutes walk from my flat. A young man sits behind the desk, on the phone, talking with a relative. I wander around the premises, looking for nothing in particular. No acknowledgement of my presence. Until I hit the stairs on the way up. And then there is a sharp…

“Monsieur, that staircase is closed.” Ah – so I suddenly commence to exist.

“I thought around here we say good morning first…”

We have the young man sleeping on the floor of a perfume shop who responded with complete amazement when I announced that I wanted…what???? Buy something? Are you insane? We had the lady running a retail outlet next door, who took a one  second break from the real life conference she was having with one of her girlfriends or relatives to respond to my question whether she had mineral water.

That was exactly one second more than the girl who did not even bother to put her phone down while I had to look on her computer screen to find out how much I owed the shop. Customers! Bloody nuisance I say! The first shop, by the way, has since closed. Goodbye and good riddance.

So let’s hear it from an exasperated A Bad Ja, laying out some of the basics of customer friendliness (and I paraphrase in translation):

One. You say “Good morning/afternoon/evening”. You are preferably the first to say it and preferably without a “sothiou” (toothpick) or chewing gum still in your mouth.

Two. You do not look the client up and down before replying to his or her “good morning”.

Three. You don’t criticise a client in front of another client, it gives us a creepy idea about what will happen to our own good selves as soon as we have left your establishment.

Four. You raise your feet while walking . Oh yes, A Bad Jah! The swish—-swish—-swish of slippers slowly mowing (no: it’s not a typo) themselves across the shop floor in my more or less general direction is certainly one of my pet hates – second only to…


Five. You do at least try and give us the idea that you like us being around, you know, paying you money to buy things and all that.

Six and most of all: if you haven’t got it, or cannot deliver, Let – Us – Know, preferably at the beginning of our exchange – not at the end. You are wasting our time with that.

AMEN to all that! And come back AgenDakar!

(Part Two coming soon)