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.


Adam said...

Wow. You know quite a few languages, don't ya?

Emmanuel.K.Bensah II said...

your blog is interesting, Hilary, but somehow, your prejudices--whether unwitting or not--appear to resonate throughout your post. COmments like "this is africa after all" only help to build such perceptions...

keep up the good work, though...enjoy Senegal.

Hilary Heuler said...

Thanks for your comment, Emmanuel. I'm sorry if I came off as prejudiced. What I intended to say was that even in as apparently "Western" a city as Dakar, with its veneer of official structures, things still tend to get done primarily by way of personal connections, family ties and freindships (much more so than in a place like London, for example). Nor did I intend for this to be a criticism -- quite the contrary! I have great admiration for the incredibly efficient personal networks that people establish in order to circumvent cumbersome (and let's face it, often inoperative) state bureaucracies. It's one of the things that makes me love it here; at the end of the day, it's still the human element that counts.

I'm sorry if I gave offence, and I hope you keep reading!