Posts Tagged ‘tourism’

The dark side of being generous

July 2, 2020

It’s boys. Aged between, say, six and twelve they approach you on the street or call you when you’re passing by. Bright smiles, while they take a break from playing football or just bright smiles beaming straight at you.

“Toubab!” That would be me.

“Hello!” I say back to them, or him.

And more often than not, the next word out is…: “Argent.”


Sometimes it comes specified: the amounts demanded have ranged from 100 CFA (a mere fifteen eurocents) to fully one hundred times more than that. “Ten thousand francs.”  Eyes unblinking, smile still in place. We are in Ségou.

I have spoken about this in a previous blog and explained this behavior as the result of the extremely pernicious effects of colonialism and its sequel, international development aid. But individual behavior (to be very specific: individual white behavior) makes things worse, especially in places like Ségou, where I am at the moment, a city that used to thrive on tourism before international fear of jihadism and then the Corona crisis put a stop to it.

Now I have previously complained about being seen as a stupid loaded European but very seriously: being regarded as an ATM on two legs is a) annoying but insignificant and b) a symptom of something deeper.

This ‘deeper’ manifests itself in the domestic sphere in ways you only become aware of when you listen to stories like this, told by a friend here in Ségou. It goes like this.

“When Ségou was not yet overrun with tourists, I used to make a little extra money as a schoolboy shining shoes. This still happens today: you go to a place where clients are seated, you ask if they need their shoes polished and when you have done the work you return them and they give you 50 or 100 francs.

One day, one French tourist called me. Remember, there weren’t loads of them at the time so this was special. He was seated on the terrace of one of those posh hotels they have in Ségou. When I returned his shoes to him he gave me two thousand five hundred francs. I was over the moon! I ran home at high speed to tell my parents what had happened.

I showed my dad the money and what did he do? He hit me, saying that I had stolen it. Nobody gives such an idiotic amount to a shoe shine boy. We never managed to return the money since the man had disappeared and it’s stayed an issue for a long time. And I learned a lesson.”

I want you to reflect on this story, as I discussed it with my friend after he had finished his tale. First off, the amount given was indeed completely ridiculous and it did, rightly so, arouse suspicion. Second, while it most probably made the ‘generous’ tourist feel good about himself, it put life at my friend’s home on edge. Not just because the insane amount of money the young boy suddenly carried in his pocket, no. This works on another level, too.

Giving cash to people who are perceived ‘poor’ in places like Ségou or in many other parts of the continent where Africans come into contact with white lifeforms is principally not about the receiver. When you give money to a boy you perceive as poor, and especially when it is a large sum, it becomes all about you, the White Saviour.

And what’s more, as my friend stressed a few times while we discussed his story, it undermines parental authority at home, something that is taken very seriously here. Giving ten thousands francs to a kid, which has obviously happened because how on earth could that boy have come up with such an amount to ask of me…? Giving ten thousand francs instills in this young boy the idea that Mum and Dad don’t provide as well for me as this White Man or Woman could. The White Person is capable; my own parents are not, even though they put food on the table. Look, money! In my pocket.

In short, it reinforces once again the idea that Whites are superior and Africans should be grateful for whatever gets sent their way. In reinforces the racist mindset present through slavery and colonialism and perpetuated through the aid industry. We give – we feel good. They receive – we feel good.

All this is learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned, on both sides. Whites with their Superiority Syndrome, Africans with their forced-upon-them Dependency Syndrome, especially egregious in tourist places like Ségou, which does indeed tend to get infested with mindless loaded do-gooders. Visitor, this is not about you. In fact, while you are here, nothing is.

OK. Here is how I ended one particular Ségou episode. I looked at the spokesman of the football team who had asked me for money, for some time. He looked back. Something dawned. He said: “Pardon.” We made our peace. Walking away, the realization came that he may have been apologizing to me in person. But far more importantly, he was, in fact, saying “sorry” to his parents.


May 7, 2014

Alright I (still) live in Dakar, have run this blog on and off for almost five years and I have never written about Gorée. Correct? Correct. And after my visit yesterday (which reconfirmed my premonitions) I can tell you that the main reason for not going there is…that in spite of all its evident picturesqueness…

Gorée 1

…I can’t stand the place.

It begins even before you get onto the boat (“la chaloupe,” as it is charmingly called) that takes you there. Quite apart from paying a fairly extortionate rate to get aboard you also have to begin dealing with people who offer their services as Guides. All fine and good but wait until I get onto the island, OK? It’s a bit like the incessant taxi horns: if I need you I’ll let you know. I don’t need this in-your-face service offering. On the boat, you will also be accosted by very nice ladies who are being very nice to you because they want to sell you something. All invariably have a boutique that you absolutely must visit or a restaurant where you must come and eat.

From a shopyard. Hawks in the sky.

From a boutique yard. Spot the hawks…

The arrival is pretty. Port. Small beach. And a quay that has not been repaired in over 50 years to make a wild guess. By contrast, the new departure building that houses all maritime services out of Dakar is a massive step forward from the shack where we used to be herded into prior to departure.

Stepping off the quay you are herded…towards the Tourism Office where you are made to pay about one dollar for the privilege of visiting the island. Fair enough, but I personally would like to be informed of this before I step on the boat. A sign at the ticket office, say. Fumbling for the cash you are approached by people who offer their services as Official Guide, once you have stepped away from the payment office. Walking down the first street past the office the line changes to “It’s interesting with a Guide.”

No doubt. But it rather grates that the assumption first of all is that I am French. And second that I know nothing about the island and its Portuguese – Dutch – British – French – Senegalese history. And third that I have loads of cash. All these are dead wrong but in Gorée, you are pushed back in the role of dumb, money-laden French tourist. Of which there are loads, assuredly. However, one might assume that Gorée has made an effort to distinguish between those and others. Otherwise, the suspicion lingers that this country does not take its premier tourist destination terribly seriously.

Sometimes I do get a pic right!

Sometimes I do get a pic right!

There are museums. They range from underwhelming (Maritime) to excellent (History) and a special place must of course be reserved for the House of Slaves, that stands as a monument for this crime against humanity, of which Saint Louis, not Gorée, was the principal Senegalese focal point. I personally do not think it necessary to inflate the figure of slaves that passed through Gorée to a height that exceeds the entire transatlantic trade to bring home the sheer despairing humiliation of it all. Let the dungeons and the cells and the Door of No Return speak for themselves. They do so, eloquently.

Dakar-Plateau, as seen from Gorée

Dakar-Plateau, as seen from Gorée

The trip to the Castle at the top of the island is a gauntlet run through an open air consumer gallery with overpriced restaurants and equally overpriced and not terribly interesting art, a few exceptions notwithstanding. Instead of enjoying the scene, you hurry through. One moment’s hesitation and it’s: ‘Looking for something? Come here.’ Being surrounded by folks who follow, hawk-like, your every move does not make me want to come back.

Gorée is a world class tourist destination based on its importance for human history. It could also be a welcome haven away from the nervous bustle of the city opposite. Instead, it exudes the atmosphere that everything revolves around money. My money. And weirdly enough, I can’t shake that unpleasant feeling.

A dignified Gorée is built up around the historical axis that links the Castle, via the House of Slaves and the excellent Gorée Institute to the Fort that is home to the History Museum. The rest are add-ons, non-essential consumer items. It’s nice to be able to eat, nice to be able to have a drink, nice to even spend a night here but not vital in a place that is one plunge away from a major West African metropolis. As for the shops and the guides: nobody needs this overkill. Prioritise the local Goréens – after all they need to make a living -, ensure that everyone understands that ‘No, sorry, not interested,’ means just that…and leave me alone until I get there. Whenever that may be. Until then:

That's it, folks - goodbye!

That’s it, folks – goodbye!