Posts Tagged ‘air travel’

Abidjan miniatures 5

December 28, 2020

Getting a Covid19 test.

Hey, never mind that you have to do an expensive Covid19 test before you board an aeroplane and that you have to fill in a bunch of forms online using a government website that (surprise, surprise!) has decided to declare permanent war on me…but still. You can have a bit of fun while you’re at it, right? And yes, for most Ivorians, getting a Covid19 test at €76 is eye-wateringly expensive. Incidentally, I parted with a vastly more eye-watering €202 for a similar test in a private London clinic, which was rejected as by the Ivorian health authorities on arrival at Abidjan airport. My passport was confiscated and I was made to take yet another test, at – you guessed it – €76. Add to this the test I did at Mali and that amounts to a cool 400 euros paid for tests in the past four months, whose results were checked precisely ONCE. Neither Bamako (departure), nor Paris (transit), nor Abidjan (departure) I can now report, nor Brussels (arrival and transit), nor Amsterdam (arrival, twice!) were interested in my test result, negative of course. This feels like scratch that: this bloody IS money down the drain.

However, the Covid19 test operation in one of Abidjan’s eight dedicated test centres allowed me another peek in the city’s positively gigantic, constantly innovative, highly flexible and therefore thriving parallel economy. How? When you can’t pay for your test online, for instance, because no credit card. Or when your phone cannot answer questions on a government website. So how do you these things? Follow me.

Or rather: follow the guard, across a busy road, across a terrain where there is a place that sells beer and food (of course, you’re in Abidjan), along an open space and then through a small gate towards a block of flats. Very loud local music called zouglou (much more about that in exactly three days’ time) is playing its upbeat, humorous and topical songs. The first Covid-related tunes emerged here and in Dakar.

‘This is the place,’ says the guard who I have been following. It’s not much more than a simple alcove under an apartment block and it’s run by a fast moving young chap. He sits at his desktop computer and rapid fires the questions that are on the form I cannot fill in.

“Hang on, this country of yours…what’s it called? Holland?”

No that’s only the Western part of it, in fact.

“So, Pays-Bas, then?”

We find the name of my country listed, inexplicably, as The Netherlands. The rest of the list is in French. Weird.

“How come such a tiny place has three names?” By this time we are laughing out loud.

Well, technically, it’s only two since Netherlands and Pays-Bas essentially mean the same. We also have two capitals…well, one official one of course – it’s where I’m from – but the government is in another city…

More laughter.

In short, we’re starting to have a good old time of it. We go through the rest of the form (you have to announce your planned itinerary, which in these Covid times is entirely hypothetical) and we part as best friends. I pay him and he processes my payment for the test; he prints out the receipt and the other forms and he gets 3000 CFA francs (€4,57) for his invaluable service. As I am walking back to the test centre, the guard brings in two others. Covid19 is not only good for government and clinic business…

Back at the testing site, the remarkably patient crowd that has been sitting in chairs for hours before being let into the temporary building is now bickering over whose turn it is. Clearly, the chair system has broken down somewhat.

Meanwhile, me and a fellow test victim are trying to work out how much the Health Ministry is raking in from this new effort. We arrive at yet another eye-watering moment… Let’s say 100 people go to these test sites per day. We have eight of those so that’s 800 people paying CFA50,000. That’s 40 million francs – 61 thousand euros. Every day. Niiiice… How many days are they open per week? Six. Only Sunday’s they’re closed. So that’s at the very least 24 days per month, 25 on average. That is a very cool one billion francs per month; one and a half million euros.

Before all this can truly sink in it is time to be led into the Waiting Room, which is a smallish place where there are notices, a television set and an aircon. I am forever trying to escape these monsters because they make me ill. So to the great amusement of the staff on duty, I move as far away from the cold air blasting thing as possible. “Ah, so you are running away from the cold air!” says a doctor. “Now you have become one of us…” Cue helpless laughter from his colleague and yours truly…

And there, in the corner, is the tiniest Christmas tree in the country. The shopping centres have already gone full tilt into Christmas mode but even when you are being tested so as to make sure you are not caught up in a global epidemic, here’s a tiny reminder of the festive season, before you have your papers being verified once again, you’re being told about the procedure and you’re subjected to the decidedly unpleasant but mercifully brief invasion of your nose by a swab and being sent on your way. Where was that beer again? Hey, you’re in Abidjan. Drinks are never more than a few steps away. But then the guard re-emerges. “Have you forgotten me?” he inquires, beaming innocently.

Course I haven’t.

Border crossings: same country, worlds apart

January 21, 2020

Dakar’s old Leopold Sedar Senghor airport was an indescribable mess with poor to non-existent information for the travelling public, even fewer facilities, swarms of mosquitoes and chairs that were clearly designed to cause maximum spinal damage to the largest number of passengers possible. It was upgraded earlier this century and the situation indoors improved markedly. It involved monitors with flight information you could actually read.

One thing remained firmly in place and that was the scene outside.

Upon putting your nose out the door you’d be accosted by an army of hustlers and touts, all wanting to put their hands on your money by selling you telephone cards you didn’t want, change money you didn’t need or offer discount prices for hotels you had no intention of staying in. By far the most persistent lot were the members of – arguably – West Africa’s most tenacious taxi racket.

Having attached his person to you with indissoluble glue, a tout would not let go until you were ‘safely’ deposited in one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow French or Japanese contraptions waiting in a badly lit parking lot (many flights had and still have the inconvenient habit of arriving very late at night). Objective attained, the tout, the driver, the person overseeing the running order, the person manning the entry/exit of the parking lot and anybody else who thought it necessary to stick his oar in were going to discuss the amount for which they were going to fleece you. Of course, there was a way around the scam, which was to just keep walking away from the airport building, in spite of the ever more insistent utterances and gesticulations of the tout who was seeing his cash dispenser disappear, and post yourself OUTSIDE the airport gate at the next crossroad, where you could pick up taxis for the normal tariff. It would happen, on occasion, that a member of the aforementioned taxi mafia thus scorned would drive up and stalk you equally insistently but would eventually get the message after hearing for the eleventh time that you had no need for his vastly overpriced services. With the new airport, that’s all gone and, frankly, it’s not being missed.

The old airport. Now a strictly military zone.

These days, you arrive at a magnificent new facility, the Blaise Diagne International Airport. (There were rumours at one point that it would be named after Senegal’s third president who started the project, Abdoulaye Wade, but that did not happen.) Entry and exit are remarkably orderly. Immigration? Walk up to one of the squeaky clean counters, hand over your passport. You’ll be asked for your phone number, you then place your fingers on the EU-funded scanners (the officer will kindly help you if you don’t understand how it works) while looking into a small camera, your passport gets stamped and off you go to the luggage hall.

Outside, there a just a few taxis, which stands to reason because the thing has been built some 50 kilometres away from Dakar – and you only have to make it clear ONCE that you are taking the very reasonably priced airport bus for just under €10 and away they go. There are, would you believe it, working ATMs. I feel a pang of wistful longing for the rattling, coughing, wheezing conveyor belt that would spew out your luggage at the old airport, permanently indicating that it was five seconds from giving up the ghost for good – but this particular brand of nostalgia never lasts longer than, oh, three seconds. I am a heartless b*st*rd. Sue me.

The glittering new hall of Dakar’s new airport.

The new airport is an oasis of smooth efficiency. Even when it went massively over budget (bit like the Amsterdam North-South underground, which may be the most expensive piece of pipe ever laid in human history) it is well-ordered and, what’s more: it is smack in the right place, roughly the equal distance from Dakar, the seaside resort of Mbour and the railroad centre of Thiès. Moreover, it is an integrated part of a gigantic urban development area called Diamniadio, previously an unassuming hamlet where two trunk roads met. I hope to be able to delve into that at some point in the future. Here are some impressions, from behind a very dirty window. Public transport, hey…

Diamniadio, under construction

Diamniadio, with Senegal’s ‘Emergence’ logo prominently on the façade. 

Compare and contrast this with the two main border crossings with neighbouring Mali, located deep in deepest Senegal. They are Kidira (the northern crossing) and a hamlet somewhere behind Saraya (the southern crossing). Saraya is reached after a smooth ride from Senegal’s ‘capital of the East’, Tambacounda, using a brand new road all the way to the mining town of Kédougou, a good 200 kilometres south. This is followed by another stretch, shorter but in really poor nick and bordering on the catastrophic the closer you get to the border. Once across, things get marginally better. The road takes you straight to Kita, a mere hop from Bamako.

The road between Tambacounda and Kidira currently looks like this. Now, imagine nearly 200 kilometres of that… True, this is the rainy season but those potholes don’t go away when the rains stop. Nothing could be further from smooth efficiency here! When you travel by bus (as I frequently do) you will almost invariably end up at the border in the dead of night, thanks to the bus company’s time tables. This road takes you to the hub of Kayes, and from there it is another truly gruelling 600 kilometres to Bamako.

It does not really make much difference whether you take the slightly larger post at Kidira or the smaller (slightly less unpleasant) post after Saraya, the ritual is the same.

Everybody files out of the bus. Outside is a policeman who will collect identity cards, loose papers and even a passport or two from the 70-odd passengers on the bus. He takes his haul into a open space adjacent to a sparsely lit building – and disappears inside.

And then, for quite a while: nothing happens.

Then, the door opens. Out comes another policeman with a stack of identity cards. These are usually the first ones to go. Now you have to strain your ears because he will call out the names of the owners of these tiny documents. Once. Rarely twice. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait until the whole not terribly merry crowd has been called and reclaim your card.

Once your name has been called you saunter, walk or strut (in an unexaggerated manner if you please) to the officer holding your card. If you are NOT a national of the country you are now leaving, you will be taken indoors and made to pay. (The same applies for the control posts inside any country, frequently referred to as “petit boutiques” by the travellers.) And even though I am subjected to exactly the same mediaeval treatment, I don’t pay. To some, this is passport privilege and I would agree. To the travelling public at large, this is an egregious dereliction of duty by taxpayer-salaried officers who get away with this behaviour because hardly anyone is supervising them, even less reporting them. But it is happening. Raising a stink about it will empty your pockets even faster and you may end up in jail. These uniforms are lord and master here and they have ways to remind you of that simple basic fact.

Of course, this practice makes a complete mockery of the idea that we are somehow in a free travel zone, as declared every so often by the assembled heads of state when they meet. The gap between their air-conditioned rhetoric and the dusty realities on the ground is staggering.

If people could afford travelling like this, they would, at the drop of a hat. Would you believe it…I wrote this ten years ago!

This happens everywhere and if you think for a second that this is a uniquely West African phenomenon, think again. These are humiliation rituals and the argument always used is that ‘the other side’ (in this case: Mali) started stealing from travellers first. How on god’s green earth are you going to build a thriving commercial region of some 350 million people, let alone continent-wide unity if you turn every single border crossing into a bloody ordeal? And that’s before we get to the next stop: Customs. They will take their sweet time checking every single item on the bus if they haven’t been paid off by the chaps running the bus operation…

I can guarantee you that when you are travelling on a bus you will spend at least three hours at every single border crossing like this: waiting. This was during the day, on the Mali-Senegal border, whilst travelling into Senegal. Do not make the mistake of pointing your phone at either an official building (recognisable by the national flag) or an officer. You will get yourself into colossal amounts of trouble for nothing.

This is a picture I took a little while ago in the delightful city of Marrakech. In the cramped worldview of those to the right of the political spectrum, the name of this city has become synonymous with the supposed existence of a Treaty that Opens All European Borders.

No such Treaty exists. The Marrakech Compact is a non-binding agreement aimed at what the United Nations term ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Nothing about present-day migration is safe, orderly or regular and this is mainly because the European Union and individual European governments want it that way. There has never been a European Open Door policy; the entire EU policy is built around this central notion: keep as many of them out. As my colleague Linda Polman outlines in her meticulously researched book (review coming up shortly), European governments, like the EU, have standing policies designed to make life for migrants and refugee hell on earth.

Unlike the EU, which allows for free travel within its space and tries to keep everybody else away from the Eurotables that groan under the weight of affluence, West Africa must sort out its internal travel woes first. When the Marrakech Compact was voted in the United Nations General Assembly, all nations from the region voted in favour with the exception of two absentees, Guinea and Togo. More importantly, ECOWAS, the union of fifteen West African nations ranging from heavyweight Nigeria to minnows like Gambia, Benin and Togo and everything in between, has committed itself repeatedly to free travel in its huge five million square kilometre space, allowing its 350 million inhabitants the pleasure of moving from Dakar to Niamey and from Abuja to Conakry, hassle-free. On current evidence, and in spite of all the declarations about free travel and trade, these freedoms only exist if you are prepared to fork out ridiculous amounts of cash (when you own a transport business) and allow your pockets to be picked if you are a member of the travelling public. Not only is this grotesque, it also ensures that West African consumers pay far more for a piece of merchandise than is needed.

The Falémé River marks the border between Senegal and Mali

Sure, the view is great. Now, how about turning these bright visions and vistas into reality. Hello ECOWAS: this is 2020 calling…you’ve got work to do. Clean up the borders!!

Arrival (not the ABBA album)

November 11, 2014

It is 4am. A lone plane descends towards the runway of Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. Origin: Dakar. It taxies to its slot. Doors open and some 150 bleary-eyed passengers walk into the corridor that leads to the main arrivals hall. But it will be a while before they get there.

At the end of the corridor they are held up by two little men, who have their little uniforms on and have been driving to the exit point with their little electric trolley. They proceed to check everyone’s passport with meticulous care. To be more precise: they proceed to check very much in particular the passports of the African passengers, including an elderly man dressed in a traditional boubou and a bonnet, clutching a single plastic bag. Clearly, this man constitutes a clear and present danger to the Continent of Europe, as is the lady who is trying to stay upright because she is tired, walking on high heels and increasingly annoyed.

The little men in their little uniforms with their little lights in their little hands and watching all the travel documents with their little spectacles on their little heads (as if these documents have not already been checked by the Embassy, the Airport Authorities in Dakar and the Airline) have identified four or five men who merit a little extra attention. As the rest of crowd disappears into the bowels of the gigantic arrivals terminal, they are questioned on the spot, a procedure that takes not a lot more than 20 minutes before they, too, are being released.

A pointless, annoying, irritating and counter-productive exercise, at the entrance of a country where I had gone to be part of the annual World Music Expo, an event that highlights some of the best international music from around the world and a focal point for artists, managers, agents, record labels, music distributors, journalists and radio makers. Imagine being one of those and being welcomed to this country by two uniformed jobsworths holding up the normal flow of human traffic into an airport? What image does that project?

EUAU

Seen at Dakar Biënnale. By Kiluanji Kia Henda.

I’ll tell you what image that projects. It projects the image of a tiny, frightened little continent that is rapidly losing its relevance in the greater scheme of things. Other parts of the world, Asia in front, are surging ahead and in order to keep up, economically and demographically stagnant Europe needs contributions from everywhere. The way not to achieve this is by treating all incoming visitors with a different skin tone as potential criminals.

The idea that this is being done to appease a virulent strain of political populism that looks for scapegoats is suspect. Xenophobia has been built into Europe’s border protection and immigration systems and it stretches all the way to the West African coast where I frequently see Spanish Coast Guard ships on patrol. But here’s the clue, my dear little frightened European continent…

Africans back winners. This is why Chinese, Turks, Brazilians, Indians and even North Americans are doing rather well here. They are turning away from Europe and are taking their business with them. Shopping in Paris? You must be joking when I can get the stuff relatively hassle-free in Istanbul, Dubai or Guangzhou. Having to fill in a boatload of forms just get a visa to some European hellhole or other? Get out of here. I’ll fly Kenya Airways to Beijing, Emirates to the Middle East and Turkish Airlines to pretty much everywhere.

This is the message to this little, frightened, xenophobic European continent, exemplified by those pathetic little passport-checking uniforms and their pathetic little electric trolley, with which they took off after they had done their pathetic little job. You are increasingly being seen as an irrelevance, an unimportant little place led by politicians without an ounce of vision, only frightened of people from the outside world and determined to keep as many of them out as possible. In short: you are, increasingly, being seen as a loser.

You haven’t got much time left, Europe. It’s shape up of ship out. And as things currently stand, it will be the latter and you will not be greatly missed by the rest of the world. Ask those passengers on that flight from Dakar.

Next?

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.

Reason?

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.

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…)

Harper

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…)

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?

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…)