Posts Tagged ‘Dakar’

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 15, 2020

Part five – “Hey, Coronavirus! Go back to your country!”

 

“Is Corona a white disease?”

It was a question a Senegalese newspaper asked when it was found that most if not all people who had brought the disease into the West African nation were Europeans. Or had been in close proximity to Europeans. “Is France coronising Africa…” was a clever pun made in Dakar, when the March 4 headline of the Rewmi (Nation) newspaper announced that “another Frenchman” had been found to be contaminated.

The foreign origin of the virus gave rise to this blog piece I wrote, which was subsequently translated into my native Dutch and went on to cause a bit of a stir, especially among people with reading comprehension issues. No, of course I was not advocating “ethnic profiling” white people; if you actually read the end of the piece you will immediately dismiss that idea. It is arrant nonsense.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that when out and about on my long trips through the vast sprawling Malian capital I have not once been addressed as “the white man who carries Corona”. The virus is seen as a problem that we all must overcome. To be sure, behaviour does not always match rhetoric and I will be writing about this again shortly but it is refreshing to see that, so far, the kind of xenophobic nonsense that the virus appears to have spawned elsewhere has not taken hold here. People were, are and remain their usual polite selves. It’s a cultural thing. After all, when you, as a country, have been around for a thousand years you may have picked up a few things along the way…

Meanwhile, there was a neat little bit of actual ethnic profiling happening in The Netherlands and I am wondering whether this upset the same people who were so terribly terribly shocked by their erroneous interpretation of my piece. It concerns this gem. Commentary and translation provided through that link.

The song – if you want to grace the plodding sequence with such a name – suggests that we should stop eating food that’s prepared by what the singer terms “stinky Chinese”; if you do not eat Chinese food you don’t have to be afraid. Of the virus, apparently. Chinese people were accosted on Dutch streets with “Hey, Coronavirus”. But hey – that’s banter, right. It’s fun-ny….

As the late and forever and always great Ian Dury would say in a heavy Cockney accent: no it ain’. It is crass and offensive and serves no purpose. It does not even inform; it just paints a bad and grotesquely inaccurate picture of one particular demographic.

Like the virus itself, this kind of behaviour spreads rapidly. There are reports from Abidjan where Chinese workers have been similarly aggravated. There is a growing scandal about the treatment of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, who have been moved from their homes and hotel rooms, ostensibly in an attempt to keep the spread of the virus in check. This became so bad that it took concerted action by African governments to put a stop to it.

The pandemic has given the usual suspects an opportunity to mount their hobby horse and hammer home their familiarly depressing mantra that “the borders must be closed”. It has given others to opportunity to get onto their White Saviour high hobby horse. We need none of this. Stop pointing fingers at others. The problem is you. And me.

Corona may well have exposed the limits of unchecked globalisation. But instead of giving us the impetus to draw up the bridges, retreat in our bunkers and forget about the world outside, it hopefully gives us the opportunity to build something new, something better and more equitable. A society that starts understanding the value of everything, not just its price. A society that cares for the marginalised, the vulnerable, the frail, the ones cast adrift without their knowledge or consent. A society that stops pretending to care about these groups by throwing them crumbs from the table. A society that recognises that bulldozing away Nature and not giving Her the chance to regenerate is a society on its way to oblivion.

If this whole episode can teach us one thing, this should be it. It should mark the end of the catastrophically misguided “Free market- Free for all – Greed is good – Me first” Thatcher/Reagan revolution that set this train in motion, which is hitting the buffers as we speak.

Here endeth today’s sermon. And for heaven’s sake: do not start playing John Lennon’s Imagine. I can’t stand that piece of sanctimonious piffle that lulls you to sleep instead of making you bloody angry.

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!!

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.

 

Very Important Visitors

November 30, 2014

There’s hardly a bigger headache than heads of state and government descending on a city for a summit. In 1997, Amsterdam was sealed off during an EU Conference that just had to be held in the heart of the old town. February 2008, Monrovia went into lockdown during the few hours George W. Bush came to see his friend Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, ruining my planned interview with the Liberian head of state in the process. And now we have Dakar, suffering under the presence of some six dozen Great&Good who all speak French. Yes, it’s La Francophonie, held in a brand new conference centre built by a Turkish firm for the “bagatelle”, as the French so deliciously call it, of €$75m. Truth be told: the jamboree has made my two last full days in Dakar extremely annoying.

Because the Great&Good That Speak French arrive at the airport, then take the Autoroute and the Toll Road to the conference location: Diamniadio, 30 kilometres outside Dakar. This formerly quiet, sleepy village where this nation’s great Northern and Central/Eastern routes meet is now part of a vast new project: a brand new urban development close to the new international airport that will probably open sometime during 2016.

Back to the Transport of the Great&Good. For several days, from 6am to 11pm, the Dakarois are offered the irritating soundtrack of wailing sirens and the endless whistleblowing of gendarmes preventing people from going about their normal routine of crossing the road where and when they please. Feeling on the street, predictably: ‘Francophonie? Horse manure.’ Yep. The sooner you all *BEEP* off back to where you came from, the better. And do hold your next EU, UN, Commonwealth, Francophone, Whichever conference in a remote National Park somewhere with very few people. You’ll be less of a nuisance there.

Back to the Diamniadio Jamboree and here’s an  excellent observation from a Senegalese commentator: is it not remarkable how little attention has been paid to – by far! – the single most important event in West Africa this year: the revolution in Burkina Faso. Even with Burkina’s  interim president Michel Kafando present among them, it was only the French leader Hollande who named the event. Hollande “forgot” to mention, though, that in October he had, de facto, offered the vacant job of Head of La Francophonie to the now deposed “pompier-pyromane” Blaise Compaoré…

With jihadists in its front yard and Dakar an open international space, security is a major concern for the Senegalese authorities. But it has clearly gone completely overboard by banning an anti-Francophonie Summit, a measure that was – rightly – condemned as anti-democratic. The government of president Macky Sall demonstrates regularly that it has a tenuous relationship with the concepts of democracy, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Still, in fairness, Senegal remains miles away from that hotbed of media and government-fed paranoia, that mortal enemy of personal Space and Liberty as it ogles the private lives of citizens and visitors alike, that surveillance-obsessed, control-addicted nation that harvests personal data on an industrial scale. I am, of course, referring to the United States; with the CCTV states in northeastern Europe, France included, not far behind.

The hunt

February 8, 2014

‘Aaaarghhhhhh!’

There is nothing more annoying than waking up in the morning and having to go hunting for a missing item that is essential in creating one of life’s basic necessities. But here I was and there it was not. Nothing for it but put on shoes, presentable trousers, ditto shirt and hit the street.

8am This was going to be easy. The first shop just across the road has it. Always does. Except that it did not. Hm. Where next? Ha! I know a neat little supermarket down the road, turn right and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

No I don’t need a taxi, as you can very clearly see, you nut you.

8h15am Lovely supermarket. Really nice place. Neat rows. Well instead of wandering around admiring the neat rows full of stuff I don’t need (unlike some people, I do not treat supermarkets as art galleries or de facto museums), I’ll go and ask that very nice lady who is wearing a supermarket uniform. ‘Have you got…’

‘Sorry, no we haven’t seen that item here for…Asha how long haven’t we seen this for…?’ Anyway. Out the door and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

Hello? You don’t have to advertise services I am not interested in, you case you. Honesty obliges: the audio assault by taxi drivers from behind their wheels has diminished somewhat. It appears word has gotten around that the toubabs (those sun-challenged Europeans) don’t like being barked at while walking innocently along the street. I know many Dakarois share my massive irritation but are, as usual, way too polite to do anything about it.

Anyway. I am outside that very nice supermarket and it’s 8h25. Where next? Short of hitting downtown Dakar, which really is ridiculous considering how easy this thing was available only last month, there are two more places to go.

So off we go. On foot.

8h45 ‘Salaam aleikoum’

‘Maleikoum Salaam’

This is the small overstuffed but very friendly neighborhood super. Greetings are in order.

‘How is everything?’

‘We thank God.’

‘Do you have…’

Yes, he does. It’s right there on the shelf. Except that…it’s the wrong size. Quick. A plan, please. If I just walk from here to the Hypermarket (yes, we have those too), that’s a mere 20 more minutes – but wait a minute. Can I really be from home for so long without inviting unwelcome guests? Ever since a laundry list of stuff was taken from my flat last year I never leave without the essentials on my person. Turn back. Go home. Get bag. Load up all work-related items and I am on my rather less merry way to aforementioned Hypermarket.

9h25 Arrival. The guards by now know that no-one, and that means absolutely no-one comes between me and my gear and I rush to the shelf where much-needed item is surely waiting for me. It is. I thought. It’s not.

Wrong size.

So the plan goes into operation. I return to the neighbourhood super that I’d rather give my business to (9h50), grab two packets from the shelf and think: scissors. Scissors? Yes, scissors. Back home (10am). Open up packet. Grab scissors. Cut into the first paper and right-size it. Two hours and eight minutes later I finally have achieved the incredible.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Inexplicably, Yoff had run out of coffee filters size 4. The very next day I went back to the same little supermarket to get some cheese and of course, out of nowhere, they had re-appeared. Never mind. BEEP. No thanks. I’ll walk.

 

A changing city

June 6, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is what is left of the fruit stall, the spring roll stall, the sandwich stall, the coffee stall and a whole lot of other outlets that were razed to the ground in February this year. This is now the corner of my street.

The razing to the ground was met with almost universal approval. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone disagreeing with this action. In fact you will hear one dissenting voice: mine. And my simple verdict after four months is this:

REMOVING THESE STALLS AND KIOSKS HAS BEEN AN ACT OF MONUMENTAL STUPIDITY.

Quite apart from the fact that the vendors on my street corner actually were in nobody’s way, paid taxes into the coffers of their local municipality – call that a kind of officially sanctioned protection racket if you will – they also brought another valuable quality to the street.

A modicum of security.

It was busy; too many people around to get to up all manner of mischief. Mischief there was but we know that in busy market places punishment can be harsh, public and immediate.

A colleague of mine was recently at the mythical Sandaga Market in downtown Dakar. ‘There’s nothing left,’ he reported, ‘it’s like a Sunday out there.’ So what has happened to everyone working there? Read on.

***

If you find that vendors are clogging up your streets, there are intelligent ways of going about regulating this – and stupid ways. Knocking them down is the stupid way. Monumentally so. I have no evidence that the intelligent way has been tried but this would involve…

One: building an alternative before you start knocking stuff down (and yes, you can do that with the World Bank money that was reportedly available for this operation)

Two: making a distinction between those who really are blocking roads, pavements et cetera – and those who aren’t

Three: engaging with the vendors to be affected and point out the alternatives and only then: move the recalcitrant elements out by force.

Like most local authorities the world over, they got it backwards.

And the upshot of this? Permanent unemployment for tens of thousand of people, more begging, less economic activity – or more economic activity but of the wrong kind. I cannot be the only one who is noticing a link between the authorities creating mass-unemployment and insecurity and the crime wave that is hitting my neighbourhood like never before. My own burglary to begin with. But I am far from being the only one. In practical day-to-day terms…

I am among an increasingly large group of professionals who walk around with all my valuables because I cannot leave them at home.

It is now a common occurrence that you get attacked by some youth on a scooter…within hours of you arriving here. In Yoff!

Add to this another ticking time bomb. The little boys who were – and are – being mercilessly exploited by so-called marabouts (condoned if not actively encouraged by the previous government), well, guess what? They grow up. They have no skills, have learned nothing and are already becoming noticeably more aggressive.

In short: street gangs in the making. This government made noises about banning child begging and then climbed down. I cannot prove this but it is my hunch that the president was leaned upon by folks high up the religious hierarchy to back off.

So I am joining a crowd that is not waiting for the next wave of excrement to hit the fan. A growing group that is expressing a desire to leave. Not necessarily the country – but this town?

Nope. Something is going dreadfully wrong here.

The Monument – a short sequel

April 4, 2013

Three years ago this very day, God received many earthly guests for the official dedication of the Monument erected to the eternal Glory of Himself and his Family. I wrote a piece about it, which a lot of you rather liked.

Today, as Senegal celebrates its 53rd birthday, it’s a good occasion to revisit the story of the Monument for the African Renaissance, designed to portray, according to God’s own words, an Africa “that emerges from obscurantism, prejudice and other ills.” It always takes religion, no matter which one, to create a gap as wide as the Pacific between words and actions.

Senegal is trying to recover from God’s reign and the Monument remains a powerful symbol of everything that was wrong with it. There is, for instance, the matter of who paid for this? And how much? The financial construction was rather…obscure and involved the sale of prime Dakar real estate to the North Korean company Mansudae Overseas that built the monstrosity. We don’t talk any longer about the blight on the horizon of this great city but a poll would in all likelihood reveal a majority in favour of blowing the damn thing up. Allegedly, current president Macky Sall pledged such during his winning campaign. But that might be rumour.

*

So yes, you got that right: in order to build His Monument, God, otherwise known as the former president of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade, an avowed free market politician and a conservative liberal sold a piece of his country to a hereditary kingdom, nominally communist. The details of this deal are currently under investigation by officials of an agency called the General State Inspection.

But there is more news. And as always, anything to do with the Wade era revolves around the only thing that really matters to him, money.

You may remember that Wade had declared himself the intellectual owner of the Monument. Of course. This is, after all, the same man who during his last campaign declared that those who failed to acknowledge His achievements ought to be…struck with blindness. Very merciful, very compassionate.

Now, as the Designer-In-Chief, Wade had declared that 35% of the proceeds would flow into his extraordinarily wide and deep pockets. Except that he was not the D-I-C. And now, current minister for Culture Abdoul Aziz Mbaye has declared that as far as he is concerned, the ex-president will not get a penny. ‘Let him first tell us how he is, by rights, the author,’ the minister declared.

*

How times have changed. Incredibly, God lost an election last year and has, appropriately, retired to Versailles. L’État, c’est Moi, n’est-ce pas? According to newspaper reports he is bored out of his skull. Meanwhile, the communist Kingdom of North Korea is going through an unusually tempestuous phase of its ritual sabre-rattling. Obscurantism had to be forcefully removed from neighbouring Mali and remains defiantly undefeated. And the minister for Tourism, a certain Youssou Ndour, has his work cut out for him because Senegal has fallen off the holiday map.

All of which means: no income from the Monument for Mister Wade. And here’s a pretty merciless cartoonist, who thinks that the man who disfigured Dakar’s horizon forever may well be falling on very hard times indeed…

The minister: 'Giving you money for a work that belongs to me - no way.' Street vendor, uncannily looking like a former president: 'But it's me the artist! Give me my money!!'

The minister: ‘Giving you money for a work that belongs to me – no way.’ Street vendor, uncannily looking like a former president: ‘But it’s me the artist! Give me my money!!’

Bread – a (not so) simple tale

January 30, 2013

It happens sometimes that a friend asks me: is there anything you miss about Holland? And as a matter of fact, there is: brown bread and decent cheese. You can get cheese at fiendishly inflated prices in an upmarket shopping space like the unspeakably dreadful Dakar City; full of folks full of themselves. It is, mercifully, located many miles from were I live.

But OK – cheese is sort of doable. It’s the bread that’s the real story here.

You see, this used to be a French colony. Food-wise, this is not a catastrophe, you add French cuisine to the magnificent Senegalese national thieboudiën (rice, fish, spice, vegetables), and all is well.

Except for breakfast.

Alright, we agree on the coffee. But that is where me and the French part company. Croissants, confiture, you must be joking. And the worst of all: baguettes. Yes, I like them, freshly baked and crisp.

But not everyday.

And this is where I accidentally made a discovery. I went to a small bakery down the road and pointed at something that did not look like a baguette. The young man at the counter asked : ‘But…do you know what that is? It’s mburu duggub. Millet bread.’ ‘It’s not baguette,’ I replied. ‘I want to try this.’

I took it home…

From a small corner in my modest kitchen

From a small corner in my modest kitchen

…and it turned out to taste a million times better than those wretched…anyway: I don’t want to alienate my French friends too much.

Now, millet is grown in Senegal. Wheat is imported, to the tune of millions of euros, every year. My simple economic mind thinks that here is a golden opportunity to kill three, nope, four birds with one stone.

1. Buy duggub, save a Senegalese farmer who would otherwise close business and come to town.

2. Save huge amounts of money on wheat imports.

3. Create more rural employment and build a healthy section of your very own economy.

4. Improve the quality of breakfast.

Oh and, er, educate the mills that produce flour. I remember a debate in the press here, last year, about this very issue and why the moulins were refusing to process local produce. Technically difficult, they claimed. Even when the bakers, as we speak, are threatening to go on strike because the price of flour has gone up – again.

Technical difficulties? Balls, I’d say. In the words of a famous TV series character: make it so. But only when the consumer wants it. And that’s another bottleneck: the obsession with price. Understandable but in this case, quite wrong. What you spend on better bread, you’ll probably save on the doctor.

***

Same story about shoes. Why buy cheap Chinese stuff when a village called Ngaye, in your very own backyard produces some of the finest shoes anywhere on the planet? Yes, they are more expensive but they last five years instead of three weeks. And why not restore the cloth manufacturing industry, as this entrepreneur wants to do, and serve the market with quality material – made here?

The possibilities are endless. The riddle is why it’s not happening. Consumer habits? Yes. Entrenched interests, especially among traders and importers? Certainly. Outdated (French!) legal frameworks that put massive obstructions in place for anyone who wants to start a business? Part of the picture too. There’s probably more.

A lot of big business started in the proverbial garage. Why not a bakery? The address: La Villageoise, Autoroute de l’Aéroport, Yoff Mbenguene, Dakar. Spread the word.

 

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.

Local authorities

December 2, 2012

Question: are all local authorities the same? Or, as my old Zimbabwean friends would say: do they all have the same mother?

Exhibit HERE: when the Autoroute de lAéroport was built, only a few short years ago, it bisected the lovely village of Yoff. ExhibitTHERE: the same occurred in the 1960s, when the village of Badhoevedorp (where I grew up) was cut in two unequal parts by the A9 motorway.

The one in Yoff is level with the surrounding area and… I just remember, I wrote about this here and don’t have to repeat myself any more unnecessarily that I do already…

Now – here comes the point.

When the road was finished, people still wanted to cross to go shopping, see their family, go to work, see their friends and so on. As there was the grand total on ZERO footbridges, people set about crossing the lethal sixlaner on foot. Dangerous, definitely. Got a better idea?

Well yes: bridges of course! There is today a grand total of TWO, about a mile apart and (of course) not at the one point where it would have made the most sense, i.e.: where people actually cross. So the daily death-defying runs across l’Autoroute remain.

Until yesterday.

Sharp whistles rang out. The sound, which usually conjures up images of bent traffic cops trying to extract some cash from wily taxi drivers, came from gendarmes who were, for the first time ever, actually preventing people from crossing the road!

The road in weston. Pic taken from one of those bridges, just two hours after a kerosine tanker had crashed, October 2009.

The road in question. Pic taken from one of those bridges, just two hours after a kerosine tanker had crashed on the day I moved into my apartment, October 2009.

So this is the solution the powers that be come up with: do not, whatever you do, come up with a solution that would actually be popular – no. Do not, under any circumstance, build a bridge that people may actually want to use. No: use enforcement instead. And leave the undesirable situation in place. That way, everybody wins, no?

Incidentally, that awful road in my old village is of course still there – noise 24/7, elevated six metres into the sky and going on for miles. Another Exhibit THERE: Amsterdam municipality has decided to build the most expensive piece of pipe humankind has ever seen so that it can also say: we have an Underground, saddling generations of Amsterdammers with a grotesquely inflated local tax bill.

I’d welcome more examples of administrative insanity, I’m sure there’s loads. Not that they ever learn anything but it’s fun exchanging the horror stories. Meanwhile, the gendarmes will certainly be back. Not holding my breath as to when that third footbridge will be built…