Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gdansk and the End of History

This is a story I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor last year, when the fate of the three shipyards in Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin was still in question. These days the situation looks bleaker. The EC ruled against the Polish Treasury's re-structuring proposal, and the Gdynia and Szczecin yards are being auctioned off -- no one knows if the buyer will want to continue building ships, or do something else entirely with the land. As for Gdansk, it's been sold to a Ukrainian steel company. When I spoke to the shipyard artists last year, they showed me tentative plans for the proprty -- it seems the company would like to build a shopping center there.

So capitalism is eating the shipyards at last. It's an ironic historical twist, and a sad one.


When Michal Szlaga got his first job at the Gdansk shipyards five years ago he was fresh out of the arts academy, a struggling photographer desperate for money. He was hired as a shipyard painter, a job that required getting up at 4am for a day of punishing manual labor in the harsh winter of northern Poland. One morning he woke up crying.
He lasted eight days. Then he quit.
But Mr. Szlaga couldn’t leave; he may not have been able to hack it as a painter, but as a photographer he was hooked. This giant industrial complex – site of the beginning of the end of the Communist Bloc -- holds a hallowed place in Poland’s collective memory, even as it disappears into the pages of history and off this nation’s economic map.
“These are the most recognized shipyard workers in the world. They are heroes for some people,” he says, explaining why he traded in the winches and blowtorches for his camera and began to wander the shipyard grounds documenting the men and women who spent their lives there. “I realized I could only take pictures. It’s all I could do here, really.”
He’s not alone. Over the past seven years an entire colony of artists like him came to live and work among the 19th century buildings and towering cranes.
For Poland, indeed for most of the Western world, the Gdansk shipyards are much more than just a place to build ships – they are the cradle of the legendary Solidarity Movement, where in 1980 an electrician named Lech Walesa led 17,000 workers in a series of strikes that triggered the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Solidarity went on to become a powerful political force, launching Mr. Walesa into international prominence. It won him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983; seven years later, it won him the Polish presidency.
Today the shipyards are fighting once again, but this time it’s for their very survival. Financially stricken by the breakup of the Soviet Union and rapid privatization, they built just five ships last year, down from 35 a year during the 1970s. Where 20,000 men once worked among the massive cranes and bricks, today there are around 3,000.
There’s a very real possibility they’ll soon close down completely.
It’s a call to action for Szlaga. “This place is an obsession because it’s disappearing,” he says. “The more it disappears, the more photos I want to take. They keep knocking down buildings so I feel like I have to.”
Looking through his pictures, you start to understand: faces covered in grease and creased by decades of hard labor look directly into the camera, unsmiling. These are stark images of shipyard work – men and metal in a surreal landscape of oversized machinery and crumbling brick. In the age of modern technology, this is a vanishing world.
This year, Szlaga’s industrial photography won a prestigious Lucie Award, and his work has been shown in New York, Austria and Sweden.
This marriage of art and industry began in 2001, when shipyard management decided to rejuvenate the grounds by renting cheap studios to artists. Szlaga and 25 others moved in, forming an artists’ colony of photographers, painters, dancers and architects. They all lived and worked together in a building only a few hundred feet from where Walesa signed his landmark agreements with the communist authorities.
“We were the first [artists] here,” explains Szlaga. “That’s why people were so enthusiastic about creating something. The atmosphere was magic, extraordinary.”
For other shipyard artists, the appeal of the derelict buildings and soaring cranes is less historical than physical. Konrad Zientara, an architect, has been living on the grounds for five years, and for him the allure of the shipyards is in “the space, the views, the holes, the cranes, the platforms that carry pieces of ships, the special things that are only here ... people don’t see the space and the beauty of it, because the only thing you hear about is the history,” he complains. “The events were important, but I think the place suffers from them.”
If the place suffers, the shipyard workers suffer more. Many of the original leaders of Solidarity are still doing the same jobs they were doing three decades ago: riveting, painting, and welding ships. In 2005, when the Polish political elite descended on Gdansk to mark the 25th anniversary of the strikes with elaborate processions and ceremonies, the workers themselves were urged to stay home.
“I think people like to remember symbols, but the symbolic worker isn’t connected to the real worker,” muses Zientara. Seen as grimy, uneducated, and often drunk, today’s shipyard mechanic or painter isn’t considered fit to be a national icon.
It is precisely this reality gap that many of the resident artists are attempting to bridge. In a northern neighborhood of Gdansk, an area overgrown with weeds and fronted by abandoned brick tenements, a mural by Iwona Zajac stretches along a wall by the side of the road. In simple black and blue, the artist intersperses shipyard scenes with the words of the workers themselves – most filled with memories and fierce sense of belonging. “I never thought I would work for 42 years in the same place,” reads one; another states proudly, “I have a feeling there’s a piece of me in every ship we built.” One universal sentiment is: “I will miss the place. When I retire I won’t know what to do with myself.”
The mural has become a favorite among the workers.
“When I walk along the wall I feel like crying, because it’s the truth,” says Zbyszek Stefanski, a ship painter since 1974. “The artists are great! Young people who had no idea what was going on in here did a lot of good for the shipyards.”
But those halcyon days are coming to an end. Last January the artists’ colony was broken up to make room for offices, and the artists themselves were obliged to find new studios. Some, like Szlaga, stayed on the shipyard grounds; others moved away.
The yards themselves may face an even bleaker future.
In an ironic twist, the very same victory that ensured the Gdansk shipyards a place in history is also destroying them. The ships they built were destined for the Soviet Union, and since the collapse of the USSR the yards have struggled to compete in other markets. State aid has kept them afloat, but Poland joined the European Union in 2004 and is now forced to adhere to Europe’s more stringent regulations regarding free market competition.
Earlier this month the Polish Treasury, in a last-ditch effort to save the yards, submitted a final restructuring plan to the European Commission. If it isn’t approved, the Gdansk shipyards will be ordered to pay back the $300 million in state aid they’ve received over the years. It’s money they simply don’t have. Such a ruling would mean almost certain bankruptcy, and an end to building ships.
On September 9th, several hundred people gathered at the foot of Gdansk’s Monument to Fallen Shipyard Workers to protest the potential closure of the yards. Emotions were running high. At the edge of the crowd stood 68 year-old Pawel Zinczuk, his white hair and frail frame at odds with the burly men surrounding him. Zinczuk’s shipyard career spanned 35 years. In 1980 he was one of the key strike organizers and spent six months in prison for dissident activities.
When asked how he felt about the current situation his eyes filled with tears. “I’ll put it this way,” he said quietly: “In 1996 I was laid off. After my last day I sat on this monument for three hours, and I was so upset I had a heart attack. It’s a very hard time for me now because I feel the same way ... the shipyard was my family and my home.”
Several years ago the resident artists organized an exhibition called “Dockwatchers,” a collection of works underscoring their ambivalence toward the legend of Solidarity and the course of recent history.
Szlaga’s photographs were there, among them a portrait of working-class hero Anna Walentynowicz whose radical politics and consequent dismissal ignited the 1980 strikes. In the picture, she stands beneath the mouldering brick arches and broken windows of a crumbling shipyard building, a diminutive elderly lady with a fierce look in her eyes.
Walentynowicz was pushed from politics long ago. She seems to be suffering the same fate as the shipyards themselves, slipping slowly out of the present and into the annals of history.

Published Sept. 22 2008, Christian Science Monitor:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Staying Afloat in Bangladesh

The hazy, deserted streets of Khulna, lined with crumbling colonial arches and peaked gables, are surprisingly chilly in the dead of night. My bicycle rickshaw bumps and rattles through town toward the port, tucked away at the end of a rutted alley past a row of shuttered tea stalls. All I can make out of the boat that will take me to the capital, Dhaka, is an enormous orange wheel. When the order comes to board I make my way across the gangplank, past several dozen motionless figures huddled like refugees under blankets and tarps in the oily grime of the third-class deck. They are my fellow passengers, and they don’t look up.

By 2am, the Rocket is ready to launch and the old 15-foot wheel groans to life.

Contrary to its name, there is nothing speedy about the Rocket riverboat service. The Khulna-Dhaka trip takes around 28 hours, while by bus it can be done in eight. But these Mississippi-style paddlewheels pre-date most of the area’s roads. Built by the British in the dockyards of Calcutta, they have been plying the waters between Dhaka and West Bengal since the 1920s; until the 1980s they ran on steam. First-class passengers can experience the river much as their colonial predecessors did, although today you’re likely to be the only foreigner on board.

This arrangement suits Bangladeshis just fine. They may not be efficient, but boat trips continue to sell out, day after day, year after year. In fact, the riverboat business is booming.

“The people of Bangladesh are used to traveling by boat, all over the country,” explains A.L.M. Kamaluddin, director of the government agency that operates the Rocket. “They live in the river, work in the river, bathe in the river, farm in the river. It’s their livelihood and they are used to it. They lie down to sleep on the deck, and in the morning they arrive at their destination.”

I wake up the next morning, not on the deck, but in my elegant wood-paneled first-class cabin -- complete with a fan, reading lamp (circa 1945) and small sink. I wander sleepily out onto the deserted first-class deck, only to rush back inside for my camera. On either side the shore is slipping past like an impressionist painting, green rice fields and golden sand glowing through the morning mist. From time to time a woman in a bright sari strolls by, a fisherman wades in with his net. Someone on the bank waves. I am enchanted.

The steward, Mr Biswas, appears with my breakfast of fried river fish, omelette, toast and tea served in delicate gold-rimmed china – like all meals on-board, it comes off as a half-forgotten interpretation of British cuisine. Food on the Rocket bears no resemblance to anything else I have ever eaten in Bangladesh. But Mr Biswas beams when I praise the fish, and promises to cook me more for lunch. All day long he hovers around me, deliberate and proprietary in his tidy red uniform.

By mid-day Bangladesh has begun to reclaim the boat. The sound of people singing and clapping floats up from downstairs, and someone has turned on a radio. A fingerless beggar reaches through the gate separating first from third class. I’ve been joined on the deck by a group of bearded Imams trying to turn me toward Allah. As evening falls, wooden canoes glide past on either side, farmers harvesting the water hyacinth that lies on the river like a heavy duvet.

But it isn’t until our first shore-leave that I am struck by what an anachronism the Rocket really is. The rowdy port of Barisal is a carnival of Christmas lights, crowded with street vendors selling curry, fried puri and crispy little nests of fushka. And there, dwarfing our quiet vessel, is the future of riverboat travel: a flock of enormous, brightly lit commercial cruise ships blasting Hindi music across the water.

A full day on the boat slips smoothly by, and before I know it I’m sitting on the darkened deck watching the flickering lights of the shore drift past the railing. The old wood creaks softly with the vibrations of the motor, and the big wheel churns. It strikes me that this doesn’t even feel like transport, certainly not the Bangladeshi variety – no frenetic bus stations, no bone-shattering roads, no suicidal drivers who make you regret having never written a will. A voyage like this can be a holiday in itself, a blissful, occasionally surreal retreat from dry land and everything that comes with it.

But in the end, there isn’t much time to say goodbye. I open my eyes at dawn to find myself thrust abruptly into a chaos of barges, canoes and clanging bells; like Dhaka’s streets, Dhaka’s port is a hive of activity. Canoes swarm hopefully around larger vessels, shuttling people, transporting cargo, angling for a piece of the action. I barely have time to collect myself before I am hustled off the boat and back into modern Bangladesh.

It really does feel like an awakening – as though, as Mr Kamaluddin said, I have spent the past day dreaming on the deck. But this is a country that is waking up and moving on, so off we go.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Between Mud and a Hard Place

The following is an article I recently wrote about the Rohingya, Muslim refugees from Myanmar living for decades in southern Bangladesh. A final (considerably re-written) version appeared last week in The Economist (, but since some people were wondering what of if was mine, here's the original:

Between Mud and a Hard Place: Muslim Refugees Left With Nowhere Good to Go

As international pressure mounts against Myanmar’s repressive military regime, a community of long-suffering refugees in Bangladesh are glued to their radios hoping that any whiffs of democracy could give them the chance to reclaim their land and their dignity. Sadly, they may be waiting in vain. For unlike the political exiles hovering in Thailand, the Rohingya, an impoverished Muslim minority chased across the border decades ago, have never been very welcome at home.

State-sponsored persecution of Burmese Muslims may have reached its pinnacle in recent decades – the 1997 attacks on Yangon mosques were led by military intelligence officers thinly disguised as Buddhist monks, according to Human Rights Watch’s Myanmar consultant – but the hostility is nothing new. Anti-Muslim sentiments have been simmering for centuries in Burma. The dark-skinned Rohingya of the north, who have more in common physically and culturally with Bangladeshis than with most Burmese, have always been singled out for abuse.

Since their ascension to power, the junta have ostracized the Rohingya by refusing to recognize them as Burmese citizens, calling them only “Residents of Rakhine State.” An estimated 97% today have no nationality. The military regime routinely presses them into slave labour, severely restricts their rights to travel and marry, and denies them access to medical care and education.

The Rohingya have been fleeing systematic violence and repression in Myanmar by crossing into Bangladesh since 1978. But the Bangladeshis have been reluctant hosts. Citing overpopulation and land scarcity, successive governments have forcibly repatriated the refugees. 250,000 were expelled between 1991 and 1992, and an additional 230,000 since then.

For the past 15 years Bangladesh has steadfastly refused to grant the Rohingya refugees status. Only two official UNHCR camps now remain in the southern division of Chittagong. But most of those repatriated, finding themselves thrust back into the same conditions they had fled, trickled steadily back to squat in makeshift shelters and communities just across the border. Today around 8,000 live in an unofficial camp called Tal, while another 200,000 have settled in the surrounding area.

Tal was born out of Operation Clean Heart, the ominous code name for a 2002 crackdown in which thousands of Rohingya were rooted out of communities across southern Bangladesh. “I guess they had a look at how the Nazis did it”, speculated Médecins Sans Frontièr’s Frido Herinckx , describing how police threatened local Bangladeshis with imprisonment unless they reported on their Burmese neighbours. But instead of returning to Myanmar, thousands of suddenly homeless Rohingya regrouped and settled on a 30-meter-wide stretch of mud along the banks of the Naf River.

The residents of Tal live in abysmal poverty, with as many as 12 people crammed into flimsy shelters patched together from reeds and plastic tarps. Floods regularly leave up to 80% of the riverside camp underwater, and hostility from the local community often leads to violence. Still, most are convinced that life there is an improvement over the daily humiliations suffered in Myanmar. “If I can’t even say ‘this house is mine,’ how can I live there?” said one 32-year-old man. “The government in Burma made us give them everything, so we left.”

But life in Bangladesh may be on the upswing. The government has recently shown signs of softening its policies, including plans to re-locate Tal to a drier and more permanent location. The humanitarian community hopes the Rohingya will eventually be granted Bangladeshi citizenship, as was recently the case with thousands of Urdu-speaking Biharis, although such a move could be decades away.

Most Rohingya insist that if democracy is established in Myanmar, they will go back. But whether democracy will grant them their long-awaited rights as citizens is another matter.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Blood, Diamonds and Amateur Anthropology

For those of you who were wondering what I was doing in Sierra Leone and what on earth WFP has to do with Blood Diamond, here is the article I recently wrote for the website (

But first a little background: earlier this month, I spent about two weeks in Freetown helping to screen the movie Blood Diamond for the World Food Programme, the first official public screening in the country. We managed to attract quite a lot of interest from the international press -- Reuters, AP, BBC -- but the experience was enlightening for other reasons as well. I was fascinated at the way people reacted to the film, shrieking out loud at scenes of violence, completely missing jokes that would have been funny to Western audiences and laughing at the men who went to such lengths to capture diamonds. There was one scene at the end that consistently got the biggest laughs each night: Leonardo DiCaprio is dying on a mountainside, and right before he gives it away he takes his first long, loving look at the pink diamond for which he had sacrificed everything. In the West we find this either touching or cheesy; in Sierra Leone, it's bloody hilarious. After all, why on earth would all these crazy white men kill each other over a rock?

I suppose that's the conclusion we're all meant to reach. We just reach it from very different directions.


Bringing it Back Home: WFP Screens Blood Diamond in Freetown
By Hilary Heuler

He knew Blood Diamond was an action film, and like any 15-year old boy, Mohammed likes action. When the lights dimmed and the opening credits rolled, the Sierra Leonean teenager was there with his friends, anxiously awaiting his first glimpse of the film that had opened the world’s eyes to the suffering endured by his countrymen during a decade of civil war.

But these boys sat apart, propped in wheelchairs or leaning on crutches. Like many members of the audience, they had lived through the violence on-screen, and they could still feel the terrible wrath of conflict in the limbs they had lost to the rebels.

Mohamed was a young boy when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) raided his village and chopped off his right leg, a punishment meted out to thousands of innocent civilians during the war. Now he spends his days lurking outside a popular Freetown restaurant in his wheelchair, begging from passers-by. But when the World Food Programme held the first public screening of Blood Diamond in the country, Mohamed and nearly 1,000 other Sierra Leoneans poured into the halls to watch.

From May 8-10, WFP Sierra Leone organized three screenings of the film, all free to the public. The agency worked closely with Warner Brothers to make the on-screen aid operations as realistic as possible, and the result are scenes that brought home to millions of viewers the indescribable humanitarian tragedy that defined one of West Africa’s most vicious civil wars.

Yet until now, the film had never been shown in the country whose bloody history it portrays, a country without real cinemas of its own. “We wanted to give the people at the very heart of the story a chance to see this film,” said County Director Felix Gomez. “We hope Sierra Leoneans will look back and take pride on everything they have achieved since the end of the war.”

This was no placid Western audience witnessing the faceless violence of far-off continents. In Freetown, the viewers owned the story, cheering enthusiastically when the good guys won, roundly abusing the South African mercenaries when they appeared on-screen. As Sierra Leonean journalist Idriss Kpange told me, the movie really did show what life was like during the war. He only wished it had been shot in Sierra Leone.

For Mohammed, production details were incidental. The film made him remember the years of brutality that ripped his country apart and changed his life forever. But as the lights came up and people began filing out of the hall, the boy in the wheelchair had a wide grin on his face.

Yes, he insisted, it was a really good show.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Talking About a Revolution

Since its independence, Guinea has been a country of almost extraordinary peace. Despite its bellicose neighbors – Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea Bissau all border – Guinea resisted all temptation to plunge into civil war, and even its token military coup was pulled off in 1984 with a minimum of bloodshed and comparatively few bruised egos.

Which isn’t to say that Guinea hasn’t had problems: its people are among the poorest in the world, the government has long squandered a vast wealth of mineral resources and the country was recently declared by Transparency International to be the most corrupt in Africa. Electricity doesn’t work, running water is nearly non-existent, the price of rice has skyrocketed over the past year and the roads are of the type that swallow trucks whole. The currency has been in freefall for years. It is one of the few countries in the world that seems to be visibly deteriorating over time, like an abandoned city left to rot. Yet the president has been re-instated over and over in a series of laughably fraudulent elections, and each time the population grumbles but does nothing. Some call it passivity, others call it patience. But for whatever reason, Guineans, for the past 49 years, have always just sat there and taken it.

Until now.

I was fortunate enough to have the chance to visit Guinea again about a month ago, less than two weeks before the current strike began. A friend of mine is a Peace Corps volunteer there, as was I four years ago, and we ended up spending several days in the Peace Corps training house in the village of Forekariah. Crossing into the country from Sierra Leone delighted me, as it always does. I couldn’t suppress a grin as I argued with the familiar, pig-headed Guinean gendarmes, sucked on cheap Guinean oranges and began tossing Malinke exclamations into my speech. That dinner’s rice and sauce was, I would have sworn, the best I had ever had.

But the biggest thrill was when, sitting alone at the house, I suddenly found myself face to face with Makan, one of my own Peace Corps trainers from 5 ½ years earlier. Not only did he remember me, but he remembered my name. Immediately. Later we were joined by Daffe, another old trainer of mine, and the three of us reminisced about days gone by, shared news about other volunteers I had known and gossiped about life in Guinea. A new training group was on its way, a volunteer turnover was about to occur and yet another new cycle was beginning. Le plus que ça change . . .

Or so I thought. On January 10, the unions in Guinea declared a general strike, the third one in a year. However, this time the demands went beyond the usual lowering-the-cost-of-rice and removing-the-tax-on-fuel. Conte had personally released a friend of his from prison, Mamdou Sylla, also the richest man in Guinea, who was being held on corruption charges. It wasn’t a particularly surprising move, but it was enough to push an already strained population over the edge. This time the unions wanted blood, and even the political opposition parties stood aside to let them go for the kill. They demanded that Conte step down, and 16 days, 49 lives and tens of thousands of demonstrators later, they are still holding fast. The Guinean people, they say, are tired of empty promises.

We Guinea-philes working in Dakar followed all of this eagerly, amazed at the sense of national unity evident in the demonstrations and a little bit stunned that Guineans were finally rising up against everything that had been so wrong for so long. But most of all, we were proud. Wouldn’t it be amazing, we speculated, if after all this time, Guinea ended up being the West Africa country whose people succeeded in overthrowing a dictator through popular uprisings? It would just go to show that what we’ve always maintained is true: the government is appalling and nothing in the country works, but Guineans themselves are some of the most wonderful people in the world.

Two days ago I met my friend Karen at her house, and was alarmed to find her in tears. She had just had word from a friend of hers, now a Peace Corps director in Guinea, who had been sent to Bamako. Karen played me the voice mail message: “I needed a good cry tonight . . . you never think it’s really going to happen . . . the cars have already been sent out to evacuate the volunteers, and they’ll be here on Thursday. If they get sent home it’s going to break my heart.” Karen had been evacuated years earlier from Cote d’Ivoire, and was re-living painful memories. I just sat and stared at my hands. I pictured the white land cruisers pulling up next to volunteers’ huts, ten minutes to pack, hurried goodbyes to those who could be found, plans and project and friendships uprooted, a country receding into the distance.

But the picture that really stuck in my mind was of sitting in the Forekariah Peace Corps house several weeks earlier with Daffe, joking about other volunteers we had both known. Suddenly he vanished into the office and appeared again a minute later, brandishing several sheets of paper with little passport-sized headshots stuck all over them. The pictures were of us, my entire training group, taken when we had first arrived in Guinea. I was 21 years old. “I have them all hanging above my desk, so I will never forget any of you,” Daffe assured me. Our faces peered up at me through water damage and fly spots, still looking fresh and naïve after all these years. And I thought about how wonderful it was that here, in a forgotten corner of West Africa, we would live on forever as the idealistic youngsters that we once were.

All I can say is that I wish the best for Guinea, with Peace Corps’ help or without.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Story of a City Boy

Although child beggars are no rare sight on the streets of West Africa, in Senegal the phenomenon has a unique twist. Here, packs of ragged children roam the city carrying tomato paste cans filled with sugar cubes. They stalk pedestrians, beg money from passing cars and scurry for any spare change thrown from the windows. Most are orphans, and many spend their days sleeping on the streets.

These children are known as Talibés, small armies of beggars commanded by powerful marabous (Islamic religious leaders) who collect the money at the end of the day. The marabous are supposed to be responsible for housing the children, feeding them and giving them an Islamic education, but from the state of most Talibés on the street it is clear that the system doesn’t tend to work in their favor. Most are dressed in rags and visibly malnourished. To a lot of foreigners they are just pests, but I was recently lucky enough to get to know one Talibé a little better.

Kara is 16, but looks about 12. He has a broad, somewhat goofy smile, a spindly frame and a chronic cough. He followed me home one night, just kept walking along with me even though I had assured him that I wasn’t giving him any money and that I lived a good ten minutes up the road. Kara didn’t seem to care. He had nowhere else to be, and he appreciated the chance to practice his French (most Talibés speak little to no French at all). He walked me all the way to my door, shook my hand and walked off, never asking for money again.

I began to see Kara around town, and every time I did he would hurry up to me with a grin and insist on walking me wherever I was going. We chatted about this and that, the weather, his friends, my working hours. One morning I was running late and hadn’t had time to eat breakfast, so I mentioned that I wanted to pick up something on the way. When he heard this, Kara reached under his dirty shirt and pulled out a half a loaf of bread.

“Here,” he said, “take this. Someone gave it to me.”

I didn’t know what to say. But I quickly assured him that I was not about to deprive him of his bread and ducked into a shop to buy a pain au chocolate. When I broke off a piece to give him, Kara shook his head. “No, you eat it,” he said. “I’ve already eaten this morning.”

The next week, my friend and I were walking along a main street when two men came up and aggressively tried to pickpocket us. We got away, but no sooner had we got clear of them than Kara came running up to us talking fast. He had seen the whole thing. In fact, he had even tried to push between us and the men, and got a rough elbow in the chest for his efforts. Not to be deterred, Kara ran over to one of the guards along the street to tell them that the two men were thieves.

At this point I was pretty impressed with the courage and integrity of this little guy. When I saw him again several days later, on the fête day of Korité (the last day of Ramadan), I was pleased to see that someone had given him a new boubou. This gave me an idea, and I decided to bring him back to my flat to see whether he would fit into some of the t-shirts a friend of mine had left. I had a whole pile of them sitting in a closet. So for the next hour or so Kara sat out on my porch, drinking the juice I poured him and munching on a piece of leftover pizza. He was excited about the shirts, insisting on folding each one meticulously before placing it carefully in a plastic bag (even the dirty ones). I held the bag as he folded, and as he worked he began to tell me about his world.

Both Kara’s parents are dead. After their death he went to live with his aunt, who kept him in school for several years and then opted to pull him out and send him to a marabou for a religious education. “She’s not a nice woman,” Kara muttered. “I would rather go to school, but now I have to live on the streets.”

The marabou beats the children, he told me, especially if they don’t bring back enough money in the evening. “Kids living like this start to do bad things. They drink, they fight, they do drugs. I don’t want to be like that. Now Youssou N’Dour,” Kara motioned toward the stereo where the famous Senegalese musician was playing, “he has a lot of money but he does good things. He gives his money to the poor. If I had money, I would do that too.”

I don’t know how much money Youssou N’Dour really does give to the poor, but he clearly had his little fan convinced.

Kara fell asleep on my couch, catching up on sleep, and when I went out later I sent him on his way. I handed him 80 cents for a plate of rice in the market and watched him wander off clutching the bulging bag of clothes. That was two weeks ago, and I haven’t seen him since.

I still look for Kara on my way to work, and hope to see him come running up jingling a couple of coins in his tomato paste can. I hope he hasn’t suffered any fall-out from the clothes I gave. I hope his cough hasn’t got worse. He’s already 16 years old; with luck, he’ll soon be old enough to work himself out of his servitude, or at least to find his own way off the streets.

But in the mean time, I think I’d like to buy him a new boubou for Tabaski. If anyone sees a scraggly kid with ideals far beyond his circumstances, send him my way.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Stormy Weather

By West African standards, Dakar is Europe. A bustling cosmopolitan city with a functioning public transportation network, trendy bars and good Vietnamese food, Dakar can feel more similar to Naples than to the village I served in while in Peace Corps. And in many ways it is. But it this is still Africa, and every now and then something will happen to remind you that you haven’t got off as easily as you might think.

To anyone trying to set up a new apartment, these things tend to happen a lot. A big part of the problem is Senelec, Senegal’s electric company, a Soviet-style bureaucratic machine that makes the DMV look like a kid’s lemonade stand. Senelec is well known for its inefficiency in all but one area: if they think you owe them money, they will cut off your power within 12 hours. They then take another two weeks to turn it back on once you’ve paid, and only then if you happen to be home during a week day between 10:00am and 5:00pm.

Most of my dealings with Senelec were comparatively painless, mainly because the man in charge of new contracts happens to be the housemate of one of the guys who works at my estate agency (this is still Africa, after all). However, I did make the mistake two weeks ago of trying to run down to the office during a ferocious rain storm. I noticed the drizzle as I went to flag down a taxi, and five minutes later the drizzle had become a deluge. I rolled up the windows as far as they could go and moved into the middle of the back seat to keep from getting too wet. Almost instantaneously the traffic turned into gridlock.

“C’est pas prudent,” the driver kept muttering as we crawled along the back streets toward Senelec. I agreed that it probably wasn’t too clever to try to dash around town in the rain, but I assured him that I had an umbrella. We pulled up to the Senelec building in front of a cluster of people huddling under an awning, but it wasn’t until I opened the door to get out that I realised I couldn’t move – the water outside was knee-deep, and moving too fast to wade through. I had to shut the door quickly to keep from flooding the car. We had literally driven into the middle of a river.

Due to the topographical vagaries of Dakar, Senelec’s street lies just a little bit below the surrounding streets, and when it rains the entire road floods. Water comes rushing down from the centre of town toward the sea, stranding cars and dividing the neighborhood in two. My taxi driver was able to drive about 50 more meters down the street before his engine started smoking and he had to stop. We lifted our feet as water started pooling on the floor, and watched as rubbish, stray shoes and bags of laundry went sailing past the windows. There we sat, unable to go anywhere, for at least 20 minutes until the rain stopped, the water receded at bit and we were able to drive onto a dry side-street. Giving up completely on preserving my leather shoes, I waded through the remnants of the river towards the Senelec building. It wasn’t until then that I learned they were closed for Friday prayers and wouldn’t be open for another 2 hours.

But please don’t think I’m complaining! Senelec aside, life in Dakar is good. I saw a Senegalese movie about bush taxis the other day, the fruit seller on my street speaks Malinke, and I’ve discovered the most amazing green juice. I saw a woman selling it in little plastic bags (like all juice) on the way back from my flood adventure. It has a Wolof name I didn’t recognize and tastes vaguely vegetal. A new snack! I bit off the tip, sucked at it happily and was in a good mood for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Circuit City, eat your heart out

It’s three months later and I find myself back in Senegal, but in a very different role. I have opted to postpone my nascent journalistic career in order to take advantage of an opportunity to work for the UN World Food Program. I’m still torn over whether or not the move is justified, but in any case it is temporary. And in the mean time this is Hilary Heuler, unofficially reporting from Dakar, one of Africa’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities!

I was lucky enough to take over a flat immediately, a studio downtown for which I am paying only slightly less than what I would pay in California ($500/mo). This, I am told, is a steal for this area, but the price might be due to the fact that I’m in the onion packing center of West Africa. My street is continuously choked with trucks carrying onions, men moving onions, sacks of onions piling up on corners and rotten onions collecting in the gutters. Every morning is a chaos of produce. Walking to work is like walking through Costco, if all Costco sold was onions . . . and it was in the process of being demolished.

Used appliances also seem to be a popular commodity in my neighborhood. The electronics black market is a deceptively simple affair; on the surface, all you do is step out the door, approach the first guy you see on the street (probably sitting next to a table full of rusted hinges and cords belonging to who-knows-what-appliance), and ask him for what you want. On Saturday I was after an electric kettle and a UK/Africa adaptor. My guy, ElHadj, offered me a seat, and within minutes both items were recovered from the bowels of the market and sold with a minimum of haggling. I walked home feeling smug, but it was the beginning of a long afternoon.

First the kettle didn’t work (at all), so I went back and had it replaced. ElHadj didn’t apologize, but he did very good-naturedly send off his boy to find another one, which was then tested for me using the wall plug of a nearby shop. Then the adaptor turned out to be the wrong type of adaptor altogether, and didn’t fit my plugs at home at all. This problem was a bit more difficult to solve, and when ElHadj tried to explain the problem to his runners they produced extension cords, multi-outlet flats and other appliances with cords attached. They did finally find me the appropriate adaptor, which fit my wall. But when I got home I found that it didn’t work either.

ElHadj is a nice guy, and an honest businessman. He chuckled at my electronic woes, blamed the manufacturers, and blamed his middle-men each time they plunged into Dakar’s back alleys for more. But in the end my kettle, for which I paid $16 (after four trips back and forth), turned out to be a pretty good deal – I later found that the expat supermarket was selling the same thing for $50.

As usual things work out in the end, but rarely the way you expect them to.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dreams of Africa

Some of you may have read last week about a man named Victor Mooney, a Brooklynite with a dream of rowing from Goree Island (Dakar) to New York. He built his own boat out of a converted pirogue, trained for three years, and secured sponsorship from a Catholic church in NYC. Victor then spent nearly a month living on Goree, a beautiful island reputed to be the point of departure for slave ships bound for the Americas. He had to get his boat repaired, he didn't speak French or Wolof, and he was followed around by two crazy African American women from the church who ranted about the glory of God and the suffering of the African people. One of them called herself the Queen Mother. He was doing it for AIDS; he was doing it for slavery; he was doing it for God. All the Goree islanders knew was that he was doing something difficult and a bit crazy, and that he wasn't likely to make it. So on the morning of May 7th Victor Mooney set off on a trip that fewer than 50 people have ever successfully completed.

AP sent me out to Goree early that morning to see him off, take pictures and gauge local reactions. As the ferry pulled up to the island I could see the colorful little hand-made vessel bobbing around next to the dock. Two women dressed all in white were waving at each boat that went past, and when I approached and greeted one in French she said "Good morning!" slowly and purposefully as though she were speaking to a child. I could only imagine how she had been speaking to the Senegalese. Victor was there, puttering about his boat and looking like a man about to be executed.

At 9:00 the New Yorkers set off for the old slave house, followed by a handful of curious islanders and nearly as many press photographers. As we snapped pictures, Victor visited each room in the building, covered his face in dust from the floor and crawled on his hands and knees to the "door of no return" -- supposedly the door through which the slaves were loaded onto the ships. His religious companions were weeping and wailing, and as Victor stood on the threshold tears streaked his cheeks. The Queen Mother cried "God is the greatest!" as he leapt down onto the rocks, climbed into the water, and swam to his little boat. It was high drama for a Sunday morning. The Senegalese audience looked supportive but bemused, and within minutes after Victor left everyone had scattered.

What I later learned is that there was more to this story, and that philanthropy is a complex thing. Mass, a friend of Victor's, explained to me that the Americans had angered a lot of people on the island by assuming that, because Victor was rowing for a charitable cause, everyone who helped him should do so for free. "He insisted that people do things for him out of charity," Mass said. "I didn't like that." After all, who was Victor Mooney but a rich American with a bizarre dream?

The ideological basis of the operation also confused people. Victor had tried to make his voyage into an expression of pan-Africanism, trying to breach religious and cultural divides by allying himself with Catholics, Muslims and mystics alike. He had been to speak with the marabout Touba, whose image had been placed in a prominent position on the boat. As a result, the Catholic church on Goree would have nothing to do with him. "That's just not the way we do things here," Mass sniffed. I couldn't help but wonder what the women in white thought about that.

So Victor rowed into the Atlantic for Africa, leaving behind him an island of people who didn't understand his motives, didn't approve of his ideology and would rather have been paid for their work than have someone kill himself on their behalf. He didn't last long. Later that evening, I was walking through Dakar when a man ran up to me sputtering that he had seen me on Goree and knew I was writing a story on the American rower. There was news. Victor Mooney had only made it a couple of hours into international waters when his boat sprung a leak (he later blamed Senegalese carpenters) and was overcome by waves. Victor himself was rescued by the Senegalese navy, taken back to Goree and flown home to New York. After three years of training, his dream had been cut short in less than a day. Back on the island he was quoted as saying he would never attempt the crossing again. "It's finished!" he exclaimed. And so it was.

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Africa Works . . . ?

A week in Bamako crawled by. I was waiting for a train to Dakar, the famous Bamako-Dakar "express," though it took me three days to even learn when it left: Wednesday. But when I went to buy my ticket on Tuesday, I learned that the train would not be leaving that week, nor could anyone guarantee the following week -- there was a fete of marabouts in Dakar, and the train had not come back to Bamako the week before. However, there was a train leaving that night that went as far as Kayes. I pretended that all made some sense, and bought the ticket.

The train to Dakar is legendary throughout the region, largely because it is so unreliable and uncomfortable. Everyone in Bamako also pointed out that it had been de-railing a lot lately, although the details changed all the time. Were passenger trains or freight trains de-railing? How many people had died? Was the company owned by Germans, Canadians or Americans? No one knew. No one was talking about it.

I arrived at the station promptly at 7:30pm. "No, of course the train won't leave on time," a conductor snapped impatiently at me. "No one knows when it will leave, it doesn't have a schedule. Ici c'est pas comme en France!" Annoyed, I told him I wasn't French, but later I heard him use the same line with everyone who complained about anything.

We pulled out of Bamako at 8:30 -- an hour late. Everyone on board was astonished at the train's punctuality. They told me it usually doesn't leave until 10:00 or 11:00. I settled into my spacious vinyl chair with its cracked and pitted armrests, and marveled at the fact that despite my good fortune in sitting next to an open window, no breeze came through the carriage at all. The old man sitting across the aisle was wearing a turquoise boubou and gnawing on a mango, swallowing the skin. He fanned himself with a woven straw fan and stared at me fiercely. Everywhere I looked, fans fluttered like moths. We sat like that for the next 18 hours.

The woman next to me was a rich girl whose family owned two houses. Her hair was finely braided and tied back, and her pedicure made her toenails look like enamel claws. Every time the train stopped, she hung out the window and did some shopping. Standing barefoot on the seat, she bought bunches of mint, toothbrush sticks and bags and bags of mangoes. "Chez nous, des enfants sont beaucoups," she explained. Everyone else was buying mangoes as well, and in massive quantities. Mangoes piled up in sacks and buckets in the aisle, and soon the motionless air in the carriage hung heavy with the sweet-and-sour scent of rotting fruit.

Desperate to escape the smell and the heat, I sought out my favorite seat on every African train: the steps by the open door that says "Do not open while train is in motion." At this point I always feel acutely grateful for the continent's general lack of concern for health and safety. My feet planted on the bottom step and one hand braced against a handrail, I sat and watched as rivers, villages and desert scrub brush sped by, hoping the next jolt wouldn't send me hurtling into the dry grass. Behind me a ferocious-looking conductor in a grey suit was muttering to himself as he meticulously recorded each stop the train made, and the time it spent there. I couldn't imagine why. He had a forked beard and woolly hair in which was lodged a blue pen, and after he had tucked his notebook into his pocket he railed at everyone within earshot about how late the train was and how nobody respected schedules. No one seemed to be listening.

Some of the villages we stopped in looked too small to have a road, let alone a railway station. Women came running out of the huts to mill about under the windows selling mangoes, brochettes and bottled water. Pulling away from one stop I leaned out to take a picture, and my lens cap fell off and rolled into the dust. "Don't worry, we can get it back for you," one of the conductors assured me. "There's a train behind us. We'll telephone to tell them to look for your lens cap when they stop in that village, and then we'll bring it to you in Kayes."

It was a far-fetched proposition, but it occurred to me that here in West Africa, this was one transaction that might actually work. After all, ici c'est pas comme en France . . .

It hasn't happened yet, but if a Peace Corps volunteer in Kayes were to email me here in Dakar to say that my lens cap is on its way back home, I wouldn't be entirely surprised.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Waiting for the mangoes to run dry

A friend of mine from Wellesley, Caitlin, is a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Mali. She was my official excuse for making my way back to this country. Meeting her in Bamako on April 8 was the only fixed appointment I had to keep during this entire trip. Of course, I missed it, and by a spectacular two whole days.

We did finally cross paths in the town of Sikasso, from where we headed out to her village. Caitlin lives much further "en brousse" than I did in Guinea; her village is about 9kms off the paved road, with no transport in or out, no women selling rice or milk or fried pastries on the side of the road, and no shops. If it weren't for the wealth of mangoes ripening on the trees, food would be a real problem. Caitlin assures me that in a couple of months, it will be. She talked about the hungry season last year, when she watched children fighting over the inedible pods growing on a bush outside her house. "They fill your stomach," a local man had told her, "but they make you sick."

The two of us spent three nights in the village, moving slowly, chatting lazily and avoiding the sun. Caitlin's Malian counterpart had just run off with a stash of project money and she was left trying to negotiate the fall-out. This scandal was the subject of every conversation -- that and elephants, a herd of which had just passed through a week earlier. Caitlin had gone to see them with several dogs, and the elephants had charged. Caitlin had nearly been trampled and two of the dogs had to be shot. Everyone wanted pictures.

We slept outside every night, me swathed in a dusty mosquito net, Caitlin taking her chances in the open air. Her house is on the outskirts of the village, but the nocturnal noise is still surprising: crooning radios, barking dogs, the unearthly wailing of the donkey next door. The only pump in the village broke, and everyone was drinking well water. We wandered listlessly around in the dust, pausing under mango trees to chat with old men parked on woven mats, fielding questions about the elephants.

On Sunday we bicycled 10kms to a nearby waterfall, the closest thing in the area to a tourist attraction. A thin spray of water dribbled and spat off a mossy cliff into a pool so deep I couldn't touch the bottom, where dry season mud swirled thick and orange and there were rumors of crocodiles. Vegetation grew thickly on the rocks and the air felt at least 5 degrees cooler. We swam, lay on a cool ledge, napped, and swam some more before trudging back to the bikes through a mango grove carpeted in leaves and crawling with red ants.

"That's the thing about Mali," said Caitlin. "There are so many places that are almost great, but aren't."

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Guinea gets its own

I did all the calculations in my mind, and decided that I had left Guinean transport in the dust. I had cleverly managed to avoid most of its nastiness -- after a week spent in-country, all I had had to suffer through was a Peace Corps ride and two hitched lifts in 4x4s. The only thing that remained was the trip from Kankan to Bamako on a road which, as the only sign of progress in the past three years, had been paved. It was an easy ride, they told me. Shouldn't take more than 6 or 7 hours. So 11:00am found me sitting in the Kankan taxi park, book in hand, confident that I would be eating dinner in Bamako. All that remained was for the taxi to fill up.

There are clearly many, many things I've forgotten about Guinea. The taxi, of course, did not fill up. I waited at that station for 9 hours, during which time they moved us to a minibus, loaded and unloaded and reloaded luggage on the roof, waited around for the driver to show up, waited some more while he disappeared again, and generally wasted time until 8:00pm. By that time I was spitting nails, furious at the thought of having to get into Bamako in the middle of the night. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. After taking our time filling the gas tank and stopping for a leisurely coffee break in Siguri, We rolled up to the Mali border at 12:30 -- half an hour after it had closed.

Along the way we stopped in a small village to investigate a fatal traffic accident. Leafy branches had been piled on the road to block off the scene, and crowds of people were milling around in the moonlight. They were gathered in front of the little white Peugeot that had struck down a villager, and in the center of the group old men with white beards were speaking softly and gesturing toward something on the ground. I tried to get closer, but as I craned my neck to see I felt a hand on my elbow pulling me back. It was a man from my minibus. "Let's go," he whispered. "You don't want to see that."

The border post was manned by 3 or 4 tired customs officials in navy blue uniforms. They sat languidly on the steps of the office or lounged on bamboo beds in the courtyard. This was the night shift, and after midnight there was nothing to do but listen to the radio and turn people away. Our minibus parked outside the office and my fellow passengers scattered into the night. I didn't feel like going anywhere at all, so I parked myself on a step, chatted to the bored officers and talked them into letting me crash on one of the bamboo beds. By 1:30 we were all sleeping fitfully under the stars: me, several men and women in uniform, and a guard who had left a car radio blasting to keep him awake. He looked particularly peaceful snoring on a bench next to me when I woke up to the morning prayer call.

What with customs drama, roadblocks and random shopping stops (someone wanted mangoes, someone else needed onions), we didn't get into Bamako until 11:00am the next day -- a full 24 hours after I had arrived at the Kankan taxi park.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

West African Seasons

Wow, I seem to have fallen rather behind here. I blame this on Guinea, on the fact that the only internet access in Kankan is infuriatingly slow, and on my own personal laziness. So in the name of efficiency, let's just skip the rest of Cote d'Ivoire (there wasn't much) and move on.

As most of you know, one major goal of this trip was to return to Guinea, to see some of my former students and to visit my various families there. I knew I would be arriving in the middle of the hot season, and in Haute Guinea the hot season is not something to be taken lightly. I have memories of sweltering nights that force you to sleep out on the porch, and of fitful naps snatched between the buzzing of mosquitoes and the morning prayer call. I remember wrapping myself in a wet pagne to keep cool, sweating during showers and counting to days until the rains would finally come to take the sharp edge off of the heat. In my personal mythology of life in Guinea, the hot season was hell.

But what struck me on the bumpy ride between N'Zerekore and Kankan was that the hot season is many other things as well. It is the season of ripe mangoes, of small children with sticky, fruity fingers and roadside tables piled with bright orange pyramids. It is the season of baobab fruit and creamy red cashew fruit, which market women insist cannot be eaten with milk (no one is quite willing to believe them, nor is anyone prepared to try it). It is beach season, when the women and children of Kankan descend on what's left of the Milo river to scrub clothes, bathe, play in the water and exchange gossip, while men in pirogues load their boats with sand and slowly punt their way upstream. They are headed to the brickery; with the sun hot enough to bake the ground solid, it is also brick-making season. This is the only season for swimming, because, as the locals will tell you, all the crocodiles spontaneously disappear when the water gets this low. We think about it a little, contemplate how nice it feels to be wet, and decide there may be logic there after all.

The hot season is also the end of the dry season, and the dust is at its dustiest. It coats the wide teak leaves by the side of the road, hovers in a cloud for a full 5 minutes behind each passing vehicle and leaves brown sweaty streaks on your skin. It gets into your eyes, gets into your hair and grits between your teeth, and whenever a gust of wind whips by there is nothing you can do but cover your face.

And so, dirty and reveling in seasonal fruit, I made my triumphant return to Kankan, to Sanguiana and to the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. The PCVs in the area were not hard to find -- a new group had just arrived and was swarming around Kankan's only respectable hotel -- and I was soon updated on what had changed in the program and what had not. To complete the time warp, I even got the chance to attend a Peace Corps party in the true Haute tradition, and for anyone out there who knows what I'm talking about, the newbies do not disappoint.

My host family in Kankan was glad to see me, but didn't seem particularly surprised. "Where have you been?" they asked, then went back to cutting up fish. The reaction in Sanguiana was more enthusiastic. People came running out of their huts to meet me, food was proffered from every direction and more people seemed to remember my name than ever knew it to begin with. I spent the night in my old hut, newly-thatched, and marveled at how little had really changed.

(A political side-note: Guinean villages may seem like peaceful places, but Sanguiana has an activist side I never would have given it credit for. During the elections last year, the Prefet in Kourousa came to the village and announced that no one without an identity card would be allowed to vote. In rural Guinea, this includes most people -- many have never even been to Kouroussa, let alone to a regional capital where an ID card could be purchased. Moreover, Haute Guinea is a traditional stronghold of the opposition, and no one was under any illusions as to why they were being cut out of the electoral process.

So the villagers burned down the Sous-prefet's hut, ransacked his house and stole everything inside. Shots were fired and three people were injured, at which point everyone gave up and went home. I can't believe that anyone voted at all. Now the Sous-prefet, who has since moved his family back to Kouroussa, lives in a house right behind the ruined shell of the old Sous-prefecture. The incident doesn't seem to have tarnished his political career, though, and no one I talked to had anything bad to say about him.)

Ca c'est la Guinea!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pioneering the north

Abidjan was a pleasant surprise. I had heard a number of damning reports of the city, including one from a friend of mine who was mugged in broad daylight crossing a bridge. Since he was there in 2003 the reputation of the bridge hasn't changed – anyone can tell you that if you cross it, you WILL get mugged – but having taken all due precaution, I found Abidjan to be an exciting, diverse and surprisingly up-beat metropolis. Nothing I've seen in West Africa can rival it for scyscrapers or good restaurants, and yet the neighborhoods till retain a good deal of friendly African charm.

But after 6 days I knew I had to move on, so I headed north toward Man. This involved crossing the Zone de Confiance, the cease-fire line separating rebel territory from government forces. As it turned out, though, the crossing was the least of my worries. By the time my minibus had bribed its way through a vertitible forest of military barrages (road-blocks – I counted 7 in one hour), we were all too happy to escape the underpaid Ivoirian armed forces.

Government territory ended with an impressive line of razor wire, a military encampment, two white UN tanks and a dozen or so Bangladeshi peacekeepers sitting around in blue helmets. They seemed interested in very little other than staring at me as I marched past, and when I smiled back one of them took a picture of me with his mobile phone. When I got back into my minibus they all came running up to ask, 'Which country? Which country?' I told them I was American, which earned me rounds of applause ('America is very good country! Very big!') quickly followed by an offer of marriage.

The rebels, when I finally found them, were a rag-tag bunch. The men at the first barrage over the border ushered us into what looked like a child's home-made fort and proceeded to go through our papers. The young man with the AK47 asked me a series of rather pointless questions ('when we see white people, we like to chat a little,' he explained) then let us go. It was the last I saw of them until I got into Man itself.

More to follow on Man . . . watch this space!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A warm welcome

"You see all these people?" said the man behind the counter. "They are coming and going as they please. There is no hassle. You must tell people that there is no hassle in Cote d'Ivoire."

He was wearing an Ivoirian military uniform, and was parked comfortably behind a table at the boarder crossing from Ghana. The man was clearly bored and probably underpaid, and he had my passport. Early in the conversation he had made it clear that he didn't intend to give it back until I had paid him CFA3,000 for the privilege of a stamp. When I politely refused, he launched into a lengthy lecture on the state of affairs in Cote d'Ivoire, the treachery of the French and the generosity of the Americans.

"Do you see these computers?" He waved proudly toward two Dell flatscreens in the office behind him. "Who do you think gave them to us? Well, who? The Americans!" All things considered, I was glad that my country had scored highly on the computer front, but the man didn't draw the connection between the American passport in his hand and the machines in the office. He carried on for another 15 minutes, waxing nostalgic about the way things used to be, until I asked for directions to a taxi to Abidjan. He knew quite a lot about that as well. After enumerating all my options in terms of routes and modes of transport, he looked down at the passport and, almost as an afterthought, stamped it and waved me on my way. "Have a good day!" he cried after me. "Tell more tourists to come to Cote d'Ivoire!"

On the road from the border to Abidjan I felt for the first time that I was really back in West Africa. Our minibus hit a barrage (roadblock) every 20 minutes or so, and at each one we had to get out -- usually so they could search the car and hassle the Nigerian girl next to me. Sometimes they simply opened the back and called me out because the captain had spotted a white girl and fancied a chat. I don't know what it all accomplished in terms of security, but I'm sure more than a few bribes were extorted.

Ah, but what a beautiful country! Dense forest, banana and palm groves, gleaming piles of watermelons and bright mangoes stacked by the side of the road. Whenever we stopped the women in my car did a bit of regional shopping, and by the time we got to Abidjan the trunk was filled with pineapples, yams and bunches of live freshwater crabs tied together on a string.

The country may be at war, but it's just so much more fun than Ghana!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A land of extremes

(copied from a journal entry made March 21)

We find ourselves today in palm-frond huts perched precariously on a narrow strip of sand sepparating a fresh-water lagoon from the sea. It's a lovely spot, quiet and peaceful, except for the incessant wind that's been blowing since we arrived. It isn't hot, exactly, but the air is heavy and wet. It gives weight to the wind, making it distracting, a presence to be reckoned with.

There is no shelter from it here. The camp of Marantha consists only of ten windowless huts, a shade structure, a reed "bar" and a collection of sun-bleached wooden lounge chairs facing the lagoon. There is a small fishing village nearby and wooden conoes pass all the time, but the effect is nonetheless one of complete isolation. The handfull of Ghanaian staff move slowly, listlessly, and lie about in hammocks strung between the palm trees. No one speaks much, and the sound of the wind makes everything more distant.

We came here on a second-hand tip from someone Mariette (Dutch girl) met. The moment the tro-tro deposited us in the dusty town of Ada Foah, we were set upon by boys wanting to take us somewhere, anywhere, wherever we wanted to go. One had heard of the huts on the sand spit, and offered to provide us with a boat to take us there -- there seems to be no land route. We followed him, and were led into the shiny compound of a private house to wait. The place was called "The Hooker," and proudly displayed its logo of a woman sitting primly on a fishhook.

As it turns out, the Hooker is a fishing business run by two Americans and an Australian. As soon as they heard that three young white girls has arrived, cold beers were produced, a dinner invitation was proffered, and the canoe we were waiting for came and went. The men lent us their little motorboat for the ride over to the huts (a bit aghast that anyone would chose such basic accomodation), and sent it over again to collect us for dinner.

And so we feasted on freshly-caught tuna, ripe avocadoes and chilled white wine. The three men usually have clients to see to -- wealthy Americans over for week-long fishing trips -- but they have none at the moment and seemed glad of the chance to socialize with anyone new and female. The Peace Corps mooch in me couldn't resist. Besides, there is no water or electricity out on our sand bank, and these men have hot showers and South African cable TV . . .

The ride out is extraordinary, by motorboat or canoe. The lagoon -- a good-size lake, really -- is edged with dense palm forests and dotted with tiny villages of fishermen. The reed huts and palm-frond thatch blend into the trees, and at night all you can see of the shore is the occasional winking of a lantern. On the other side of the sandbar the beach stretches for miles in both directions, and the only electric light visible is the distant glow of a town on the horizon.

(We stayed in Marantha for two nights, and just got back to Accra today)

The devil in the details

It's like meeting an old lover, one for whom you've been pining for years. You find there are certain things you've forgotten -- they way he laughs at inopportune times, his annoying taste in music, his penchant for oggling other women. This is a bit how I feel about returning to Africa.

There are many details about life here that I seem to have filtered out of my memories. City hotels, for example -- I had forgotten the lack of running water, the unflushed toilets, the fact that many of them double as brothels. I had forgetten the restless loneliness of long evenings with no one to call and nowhere to go out. Also the blinding frustration of waiting forever for taxis to fill up -- not the waiting itself, that I remember, but somehow I also remember being more patient about it. Maybe I was.

I had forgetten how exhausting it is to walk around town in the heat. Negotiating the shouting, shoving chaos of a big city market with a handbag you're worried about, sore feet, sweat dripping into your eyes and only a foggy sense of where you're going . . . it leaves you longing to collapse in a cool chair with an icy frapucino. Needless to say, there is no Starbucks on the corner.

I thought I had spent enough long, long weeks in Conakry to remember these things, but it's funny the new memories I've been able to dredge up lately!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Walk on the Beach

Among expats working in West Africa, Ghana is a travellers' paradise. People speak English; there are buses, and they work; Ghanians are famously warm and friendly; there are elephants, if you can spot them; the food is, well . . . it could be worse; and of course, the beaches are spectacular.

These beaches have been the subject of many wintery London fantasies for me over the past couple of months, and I headed for the coast as soon as I could possibly get out of Accra.

17 hours after my plane touched down on African soil, I found myself stolling through the gentle surf on the beach at Kokrobite. The light was waning, the air warm and heavy. Few people were about, but I had nonetheless managed to acquire two companions, naked little boys of about 6 and 9. They frolicked up and down the beach like puppies, wriggling on their stomachs in the water and playing with anything that came to hand. After a while the crabs began to run, little translucent darts of motion that scuttled from their sandy holes to the water's edge, and back again. The boys were after them in a flash.

This all seemed very good, innocent fun until a crab was caught, and then the hunt was on in earnest. Isaac, the eldest boy, held his prey out to me as a gift, gamely offereing to rip its claws off for me. I assured him this really wasn't necessary, and suggested that the crab might be happier if he tossed it back in the water. Isaac looked a bit puzzled, then came up with his own sollution -- he tossed it up the beach, where it skidded to a halt in the dry sand. The younger boy shrieked with delight and pounced on the poor crustacean with a wooden plank. That was the last I saw of the creature sacrificed in my honour.

The game of crab torture continued, shells flying everywhere, and the further we moved from the backpacked camp the more rubbish appeared on the beach. After a while I noticed that the black spots among which the boys were hunting were, in fact, human faeces -- like many West African beaches, this one doubled as a public toilet. It makes perfect sense, actually -- every time the tide comes in, the area cleans itself. And this is exactly what began to happen as the three of us turned around. Trying to monitor the boys' kills and dodging lumps of floating poo, I reflected on how Ghana's beaches may be legendary in West Africa . . . but everything is relative.

It's good to be back.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hello all,

This blog was set up to chronicle my trip through West
and Central Africa. I'm only going for three months
this time, but I hope to spin this reconnaissance trip
into something more permanent. From the comfort and
(chilly) safety of a London flat, I see this as an
opportunity to get a taste of life in conflict zones,
and to talk to people who make a living out of
reporting them. If I can pick up some news agency
work along the way or turn my observations into
stories, all the better.

My planned route includes Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire,
Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon and the DRC,
and a number of countries in between. However, my
first post should be from a lazy beach in Ghana, where
several days of sun and drumming should give me just
enough confidence to take the plunge over the border
into my first real war zone: Cote d'Ivoire, my own
private coup, the mess I missed by just 7 days back in
2002. How touching that it has waited this long for
me . . .