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 . . .