Posts Tagged ‘cities’


April 4, 2021

Going to an ATM and getting some money is a matter of minutes, if you live in Amsterdam, London, Paris or Berlin. In Bamako, or Ouagadougou, or most other major cities in this region (perhaps Abidjan excepted) this operation can take as much as an hour.

Why? Because only a few local bank subsidiaries – a lot of them are still owned by the French – will accept your card. Your first job, therefore, is to locate a bank that will take your card. Found one? Good. Now, you will often find that the ATM is out of order, has no money, has been disconnected from the satellite-operated network because of an internet glitch or does not work because of a power cut. If this last is the case and you are in the pleasant and lucky possession of a home: go there and grab that beer before it gets warm because chances are that you will have no electricity at your place either.

In all the other cases: find an ATM that belongs to another bank. This machine may be located a cool two or three kilometres from where you are at present. You can cover the distance on foot (I have done this frequently), on a bike (I have been on quite a few of these suicide missions), by Sotrama or taxi. Whatever the case, you may arrive at your next ATM and find…that this one is not working either.

A simple day-to-day operation that should take no more than a few minutes eats up a sizeable chunk of your day in this manner. Time lost that you will never get back.

Now, this is for those of us who own bank cards, which makes us a tiny minority. Hardly anyone in this part of the world has such a thing. Their bank is the cash in their pocket (the economies here are cash-based and will be for a long time to come). And cash is always in short supply, and that includes small change. The amount of time lost searching for the correct amount of change is staggering. The time lost organising splitting up a massive 10,000 franc note (fifteen euros) equally so. Not always – but frequently.

So time gets lost all day, every day. Time gets lost when you are driving a taxi, Sotrama, lorry or tricycle and have to conduct lengthy negotiations about your bribe with a traffic police officer who has seen, found or invented an infraction that you must pay for. This means the proceeds from your current trip have just been partially or entirely lost. You will have to work harder, drive faster and somehow make up for lost money. And time.

Time gets lost when dealing with bureaucrats who sit solidly in that old tradition of what Shakespeare so eloquently calls “the insolence of office” and will make you wait…and wait….and wait…..and wait…….and probably eventually pay for a piece of paper that will give you the right to run a taxi, open a shop, operate a money service, have a beer garden, a restaurant, a concert venue and so on and so forth.

Time lost. Opportunities lost. Money lost. What a waste, while there is so little to waste to begin with.  

It seems to me that the people who can least afford to lose time because they need every minute of every day to make those two euros that will at least allow them a meal and some water and the mandatory cup of tea…that these are precisely the people who lose the most time dealing with what are, at the end of the day, terrible nuisances.

Now you may perhaps understand why in so many big cities across this continent everyone is almost permanently in such an almighty hurry. People are making up for the time they could not afford to lose, negotiating bad roads (time), monstrous traffic jams (more time), the aforementioned officers and the all-too-frequent bad manners of their fellow road users. Time lost idling involuntarily, time lost negotiating, arguing, searching, waiting…

In the rich part of the world we get upset when the train is ten minutes late – yes, me included. In the less fortunate parts of the planet we are always in a hurry, in order to survive another day.

Deadly Geography

December 8, 2012

Sometimes, reality hits home when you move temporarily away from it. In February, I was covering the first round of Senegal’s presidential elections – out of Dakar.

Coming back from Tambacounda (where I met two excellent rap artists) and Kaolack (where an office belonging to the then ruling party was burnt down) I was looking at the landscape from a bush taxi and thinking: this is all very empty. Sand. Savannah. A few trees. A few homes. And a town or two.

Our taxi took a brand new ring road around the town of Diourbel, 146 kilometres from Dakar. Then we joined the old road to Thiès, which runs next to a railway rack. It was astonishing how fast places were filling up. Sand and savannah were still there but the rhythm of the settlements increased – dramatically.

Long before we got into Thiès, we were driving through what was basically giant sprawl. The final stretch from Thiès itself to Dakar, 65 kilometres, is fast becoming one massive megacity.

Not much later, a story in La Gazette (called Deadly Geography) made the point. It said that more than half of the entire Senegalese electorate was living in three rather small districts: Dakar, Thiès, Diourbel. Tambacounda district, which has far more surface area than those three combined was home to…less than 4% of the country’s electorate.

The strain is obvious. Newspaper Le Populaire reported this week that the National Statistics and Demographic Office had calculated that between 2000 and 2009 rents some parts of Dakar had gone up by almost 40%. Forty per cent! Friends keep telling me to NEVEREVEREVER abandon this apartment I’m renting because I will never get this much value for money again…

Question: where did these eye-watering rent increases take place? Sure, Central Dakar, where the expensive offices are. But also in Guédiawaye and Pikine. That’s where the poorest people in town live! If this is the free market at work, someone’s clearly having a laugh.

The strain is obvious in other ways too. Power cuts at any moment. Water pressure in many parts of town (expect the expensive ones) is now so low that this shower you have in your bathroom is…decoration, basically. Any agglomeration that grows at such breakneck speed cannot possibly expect service provision to keep up.

Yes, we know. Cities continue to grow fast because rural folk look for opportunities not available in the village: money, jobs, and so on. Some succeed, a lot more don’t. Fact is, very few go back. I met the grand total of one on my country trip: Vincent had left behind his dreadful and badly paid job as a night guard and had started farming. He was glad to be out of Dakar. But there are very few like him.

Dakar was home, this week, to a massive jamboree called Africites, in the obscenely expensive King Fahd Palace (formerly the Meridien). Hopefully the mayors from all corners of the globe and the other luminaries caught a glimpse of “the other side of town”, if only to reinforce their firmly held and often voiced conviction that they are firmly in touch with “The People”.

More to come on cities. Making them places where you can lead a decent life rather than just vegetate is arguably the biggest challenge on the planet, although it appears that they’re having a word about this thingy called climate change in another jamboree far from here. Well, not that far actually: you can fly directly from Dakar to nearby Dubai. On Emirates.

The air we breathe

December 17, 2009

Alright, for once a domestic topic and an important one. When you return to your flat here, after two weeks of travelling, you’ll find the smooth shiny stone floor you left behind covered in a layer of…well, what is it?

Dust? Certainly.

Sand. Yep.

But the black stuff that clings to your broom like glue? Soot – more like. Get it off the floor and then go after the remainder with water and cloth. Honestly, I’m doing more housekeeping work here in a single day than in Amsterdam in, say, one week…….

And I really need to stop smoking, if for one reason alone: it’s entirely superfluous. One day in Dakar (or anywhere else in urban Africa for that matter) and you will be subjected to sand and dust and smoke and soot coming from:

burning rubbish (cardboard, paper, organic waste – and plastic, which reigns supreme);

ancient cars, lorries, buses, minivans and pickup trucks that leave smoking trails that would be the eternal envy of our cigar puffing grandfathers;

the sweeping of streets and courts, which means moving gazillions of nose-blocking particles from one place to another;

open wood fires for grilling meat and preparing other meals (one local favourite is “dibi”, basically a pile of grilled beef of mutton or goat’s meat served on a piece of greasy paper with copious amounts of pepper – an acquired taste);

fumes from businesses that work out in the open, like welding, repair shops, car maintenance, furniture production, tyre retreading, you name it;

I’m sure I am forgetting things but you get the drift. So gather up yet another thick thread of this soot-laden dust and toss it in a plastic (yep!) bag to take outside for the rubbish collector and think: ‘I’m also breathing this in….’ Yes, you are and so are your neighbours and so, in a manner of speaking, is every electrical appliance in the house, including your laptop.

(Wonder who will conk out first, my MacBook or me…)

Air quality. Or rather: its complete absence. It’s a problem in every single African city. You really have no idea how bad it is until you leave for a less urbanised area and are amazed at the quality of the air. (That’s apart from the indoor cooking – again on wood fires – yet another story.)

There are no quick fixes here. You can think of solar powered ovens. You can think of cleaner cars. Four years ago, the Senegalese government banned the importation of cars over 5 years old and while there are still plenty of clapped-out taxis on the streets the situation has definitely improved. You can think of better public transport. Bamako is the first city I know of (in this region) that’s having a think about a tramway – I guess their biggest headache will be finding a place to put it…

And it will definitely get worse. Soon we’ll have dozens of cities of a million plus, Lagos and Kinshasa being by far the largest with 16 million each, according to a Jeune Afrique special on African urbanisation recently. Luanda will have 8 million in 2025; Abidjan, Addis Ababa and Nairobi will have 6 million each. And Dakar? 4 million plus. That’s twice its current size.

Whenever I take a flight out of these places (like Yaoundé – 2 million – yesterday) I never cease to be amazed at the thick layer of black sky that hangs suspended over the entire place. You can only see that clearly as the plane takes off. And there it is, the same thought: ‘I’ve been breathing this in…’ And another one: ‘The folks down there are still breathing this in….’