September 28, 2004

Email from a friend visiting Dakar

Dakar is known as the Paris of West Africa, not really sure why. [...]It is a megacity – in every way from overpopulation to crime to extreme urban poverty. [...]The African extended family system affords a safety net to the poorest and most vulnerable. In Dakar there are entire families living on the street. It is also supposed to have extremely high crime crates but thank god I didn’t experience that personally.

Although I did get ripped off for just about everything I bought, the city is extremely expensive. A meal in an average restaurant in $10 (bay area prices). But for lunch you can have fresh fish and rice on the street for $2. By the way Senegalese food is awesome. Flock to your nearest restaurant if you can to experience this culinary delight. Yassa (onion sauce) and peanut stew are the main staples. [...] The food was out of control and there was a griot playing the Kora while we ate.

The nightlife is Dakar is the best in West Africa and I got to sample some of it. [...] But I did get to see Sheihk Lo bust out some Mbalaxx (Senegalese music with a lot of percussion). [...] It is common for random women to run on stage during a song and break out in a crazy dance flailing theirs arms and legs and thrusting their hips in unison with the djembe. Very cool sight to behold. […]

In terms of an adventure I had a big ass roach crawl on me in the middle of the street and I rode in the public transport (colorful yellow and blue vans sitting about 15 people, with music and decorations).[...]

My most favorite sight was watching people gather in the streets for the Friday prayers. Friday is the holiest day for Muslims and although they pray 5 times a day, 2 pm is a big one. The men gather at the mosque but since there are so many people the prayer spills over into the streets (women pray at home although menopausal women are allowed to go in the mosque, but not many do). Since Dakar is such a huge city this means all the streets near the mosque get filled with people praying. No car passes, no pedestrians walk. I got caught outside at that time and had to wait until the whole thing was done to pass. It was so beautiful to see a sea of people standing and kneeling unison. [...]

Hope this description wets your appetite to come visit, Dakar is only a 20 minute flight from me (Banjul, The Gambia) or you can take the public transport – 5 hrs.

Island of Gorée

From a website:
"The island of Gorée lies off the coast of Senegal, opposite Dakar. From the 15th to the 19th century, it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders. Today it continues to serve as a reminder of human exploitation and as a sanctuary for reconciliation."

September 27, 2004

Bargaining 101

I initially felt rather apprehensive about having to bargain for (almost) everything in Senegal. I mean surely they vendors would trick me into paying higher prices. Would they also be dishonest with me but less so for local habitants? Well, yes they do charge a slightly higher price for toubabs (foreigners) but the difference is generally negligible. And besides, bargaining is an art so if you're not ready to chit chat when you shop you are either 1)very rich and money does not matter for you; 2)insensitive about driving local prices up for Senegalese nationals or 3)stupid. But hey! It's a free country. I think...

The trick with bargaining is that you must cut every price in two. That's the true worth of the item. The second trick is that you have to find your own style, much like dancing. A style that is you, that you are comfortable with and that flows naturally from your disposition.

Case in point:

My friend has a bargaining style that is very much her own. She comes up to the stall and asks for the price. Then she groans and grunts and starts with: "why are you charging this ridiculously high price? I'm not a tourist so don't give me toubab prices. Why do you have to be so dishonest?? You give me an unreasonably high price so let me give you an unbelievable low price! What, you think I am rich I am just a volunteer!"

These bargaining sessions start out on an irritated tone and
quickly escalate to shouting matches. The vendor matches the intensity and anger of her tone and finally, after much arguing (and me hiding in the corner), they agree on a mutually acceptable price. When the item is purchased, she and the seller are the best friends in the world and civilly ask each other what they are planning to do for the rest of the day.

On the other hand, I am rather more calm. I stroll to a stall, hesitate and greet the vendor with a smile. When she tells me the price, I always nod and say that the item is very nice but really too expensive, could you give me another price? A little bit of chit chat back and forth allows us to arrive to a decent price.

The two styles could not be more different but the funny
thing is that we end up paying the same prices.

Moral: 1)Always try to bargain. This is not disrespectful, it's just the way business is done here. 2)Find a style that's you. The vendors always will match your attitude. 3)Cut everything in two. 4)If you want to sweat less, bargain my way. If you like strong emotions, my friend's technique is the way to go.

September 22, 2004

African Formality

Yesterday, we were all prepped up to receive the honorable Ambassador to Nigeria in Senegal. And I mean prepped: we had huge flowers, flags of the US, Senegal, and Nigeria made by tailor, catering by the poshest place around, pamphlets and speeches printed out and everyone wore their nicest outfits.

At 11:00AM, a mad rush for the conference room starts up and I am summoned to put all the little food canapes on trays and whisk them off to the car. Imagine this: 15 people panicking to pack all of the flags, speeches, foods and drinks and staff in three cars to go to the Nigerian Embassy. Why? The rather hefty Ambassador could not climb the 30 some stairs to our office. So, as our country director said: "If the king cannot come to you, you go to the king".

What followed were profuse apologies on behalf of the Ambassador (she did not realize what we had prepared in anticipation of her visit), formal speeches, lots of smiling and shuffling around, and dead silences punctuated by meager attempts at making polite conversation. Each staff member had to stand up in turn, state his/her name, country of origin and job title. After each introduction were bursts of applause. It felt like the Oscars. I was also asked to lead us in prayer, a task I quickly relegated to a more religious member of our staff, under the guise of being too bashful to talk (whew! I go away easily this time).

While this exercise in civility was nicely executed, I cannot stop to wonder: did we really have to be so formal? Wouldn't it have been easier --and a great deal less embarrassing-- for all those involved if we had had a nice, relaxed conversation over tea?

Ugh, cultural differences.

September 20, 2004

Near death experiences

On Thursday and Friday I went on a business trip to Thies (about one hour East of Dakar in light traffic and a billion hours back in heavy traffic). After two months in Dakar, Thies felt like paradise on earth. The landscape was painfully twisted grey trees, green grass and forests, donkeys scratching their backs against abandoned phone lines, farmers bringing their harvest to town in a horse and buggy and lots and lots of space. Needless to say, I was tempted to shirk my duties and live in a hut there.

The ride back was considerably less pleasant due to the heavy traffic. This is no ordinary traffic. African traffic includes vendors swatting to your windows to sell you popcorn, chickens crossing the road to get to the other side (har har har), buses cracking at the seams with people, large trucks with wobbly wheels that are about to fly off and taxi cabs that act like they've never taken a driving class in their life. I must have projected far more confidence that I felt because my supervisor dropped himself off at his house and let me handle the thick of the traffic back to the city center. I trembled, my legs were tense, I sweat like a pig in roast, I prayed, I wept and I stalled (the battery was flat so this necessitated people pushing the SUV out of incoming traffic--twice). Upon returning home, I felt so shaken that I promptly called a friend to ask for the nearest Malaria clinic. Surely my general feeling of unease had to be due to Malaria and not my wussiness?

I want to thank Allah and the great God above for sparing my life. I will never drive in Dakar again.

I joined a running group with Senegalese and expat friends on Saturday. The Senegalese have the reputation of being quite athletic. I will testify to this: the running was very hard and the hot weather was not a deterrent to the group. While I did not come in last, I did get overheated and my face became the hue of a ripe tomato. I did manage to stop at regular intervals to put my head between my legs to prevent hyperventilation. I also had the good fortune of having people enquire at regular intervals to see how I was doing. I think they were afraid I would die on them and they'd have to carry me back. That would certainly put a damper on the afternoon. Well, the sun may have gotten to my brain but I am planning to run again next week.

Dakar Run Against Bushies

This is the irrefutable proof that we are Running Against Bush in Senegal! (Note: faces have been cropped to maintain the privacy of those involved--and to keep the private police off our arses) Posted by Hello

September 14, 2004

Run Against Bush

Would you believe it? We actually staged a "Run against Bush" in Dakar, Senegal! Ok Ok so we're not very athletic and it's stifling hot here so it was a more like a "Fast Walk against Bush". But I will proudly state that we are the only "Run Against Bush" group outside the United States. Yep, not even the French have organized this!

Colonialism's break up with Senegal has left it in a sad state. The country is now trying to create ties with the United States. This would explain why we (of Senegalese, French, Cameroonian, and Canadian origin) were told not to stage the Run lest we particularly want to be followed by the Special Police. Instead, the group wore white shirts and a few of the more courageous men wore the Blue "Run against Bush" shirts.

Despite our rather sad visibility, we had loads of people approach us to ask us what we were doing and discuss politics with us--invariably, this turned to Cote d'Ivoire's struggle and why we were not staging a "Run Against Cote d'Ivoire's Troubles". Sigh. We were also asked if our little walk would change the way the American public would vote, especially since Bush is currently in the lead. Our Senegalese friend very pertinently answered that this was not the point. The point was to show people what we believe in. Right on!

Shameless plugging

For lack of a more interesting entry, I will do some shameless plugging for my brother's website... He's in Madagascar right now and is having some sort of adventure. His pictures are awesome and he's managed to keep the spelling mistakes to a minimum (must have a spell check there).

Just come back to read me 'ya hear?

September 07, 2004

The Beach Somone

A little solitude away from Dakar Posted by Hello

Beaches in Dakar

My first experience on a beach in Senegal was picturesque and dangerous. This required walking through a maze of a village, all the while avoiding goats, burning grills and shrieking children. Well, after that eventful swim in a quite populated Dakarian beach (swimming in sewage water requires the artful skill of keeping one's mouth closed at all times and avoiding the floating sharp objects), it was time to try something new.

My friend was intent on starting with the less nice beach to the nicest so that I could be constantly amazed. We climbed into a huge SUV packed with a kite surf, a cooler containing 5 loaves of bread, two stunning girls (that includes me) and two strapping men. It was quite embarrassing to ask for directions as the villagers would oogle these "American tourists" with a packed car, blaring loud music and wallets overflowing with cash. I guess I should mention here that we were Swedish, South Africa, Czech, French and American.

The first beach was pleasant and we shared our bread with a lady and her two girls. They suddenly opened a jewelry and clothing stand and, true to our American nature, we had to buy buy buy. I was quite proud of myself because I was a tough bargainer although I was dealing with a rather shrewd (but cute) fourteen year old girl who kept on saying "let's chat, let's chat" when I rolled my eyes at the prices.

We visited a second and a third beach and saw an abandoned post office (with letters still waiting to be mailed), decaying bunkers on a hill, yellow green and red boats on the shore sheltering swift pale-yellow crabs, man-made hammocks, people on sand motorbikes, a kite surfer, loads of wild dogs and a young man almost drown. It would be an understatement to say that it was an eventful day.

Today I am having difficulties with writing this message as my sunburnt arms and puffy eyes are proving to be formidable opponents.