Sunday, July 24, 2011

Saint Louis Jazz Fest

Not THAT Saint Louis, but the Saint Louis in Senegal.  The program featured some top name talent including headliner Kenny Barron on piano, but this entry is more a look at Saint Louis.
Saint Louis was formerly THE capital of West Africa during the French colonial period.  The town is listed as a UNESCO Heritage site and I'm beginning to wonder just how lax the standards are at UNESCO... ("Hey, Eunice - remember that old slipcover we had for the davenport?  You think that might qualify us for some UNESCO money?"  "Of course, Ned.  Just using the phrase davenport in the application will qualify us...")

It's not that Saint Louis isn't without its history.  It's that the entire town is a complete dump that hasn't been maintained since the French left over 50 years ago.  Even though it's named Saint Louis, you can see remnants of how this place was essentially New Orleans for Africa.  Many buildings had terraces overlooking the neatly aligned streets and you can almost imagine ceiling fans whirring while self-important people were drinking cold lemonades and being served by staff wearing white suits.  It was probably a pretentious little town, but it was probably also really nice.

I stayed outside of the town in a beach area that had five hotels.  The route to this "tourist" section passed directly by the real, live fishing village portion of the town.  There was fished piled high with all the aroma you might expect from fish sitting out in the sunshine for hours on end.  There is apparently no ice in Saint Louis...

Saint Louis was the first time I ever took a horse-drawn taxi.  I negotiated a fare of about $2, but ended up tipping the man more when I realized just how much the horse had to work.  It was my way of making sure the horse ate that night, too.

There are miles upon miles of white sand beaches with nary a single person occupying any space at all (save for Sunday, when the locals head out en masse and getting a taxi or bus back into town is impossible).  I stayed at a relatively expensive hotel (about $50 per night, with swimming pool and direct beach access), but decided I wanted to support a local merchant while I was in the area, so I sat down for lunch at a makeshift restaurant that appeared to be part village/part tourist accomodations. 

I was greeted by a kind woman who asked me what I would like to drink.  I was served me a cold Coca-Cola (which seemed to take about 10 minutes to arrive) and then she took my order.  I asked for "the special" - figuring it would either be the best meal or something about to go rancid - but that I would get "the real deal." 

She placed my order with her son, the chef, and then sat with me for a conversation that lasted about 15 minutes.  Then she offered to give me a tour of the cabanas that were for rent for the princely sum of $5 per night.  The reason they were so cheap was because there was no electricity. This got me to thinking about the Coca Cola and I realized they probably had to run down to the corner store to get me the bottle!  It also got me to thinking about how they stored the fish they were about to serve me...
Anyway, she left me alone for awhile to relax and listen to the waves.  After about 15 minutes, I began to walk around the area and visited with a shopkeeper who probably hadn't sold anything since the Clinton administration.  After another 30 minutes I was relaxed enough (and certainly hungry enough!) to begin poking around the small village and couldn't find anyone that even appeared to be working on preparing me a meal.  My hostess and her son were both gone.

I waited a total of 75 minutes and the area appeared nearly devoid of activity.  I left enough money for the Coca Cola - and a generous tip - and walked down the beach back to my hotel.  On the way back, I was wary of a wild dog.  I remembered seeing this exact same dog the previous day gnawing on a freshly killed goat with a small pack of wild dogs directly on the beach.  It didn't take a genius to figure out the owner of the goat had not planned on serving goat to a pack of wild dogs.  The thing that struck me the most was thinking this was the only time in my entire stay in Senegal where I truly felt frightened for my life.  To put this in true perspective, the dog looked like Cujo.  Its eyes glared at me with a definitive look as if to say, "I am NOT domesticated."


I would highly recommend visiting Saint Louis, Senegal for jazz festival because the town absolutely comes alive.  The only real surprise was how many people I knew from Dakar who had also made the trek up for the weekend; completely oblivious to anyone else making plans!

There was a street parade of musicians that definitely felt like a New Orleans march.  I was able to get a great view of the entire "old town" in a way that I probably never would have otherwise seen.  The old town is surrounded by rivers on either side that lead directly to the ocean.  If this place was clean, it would be one of the most picturesque areas I've ever traveled.  After the street parade, I grabbed a small bite to eat at a poolside patio restaurant that was featuring some local music.   A dancer came on stage, followed by a local artist who performed fire-breathing acts (up close!) for many of the guests.

Following that, I heard more music from a ferry boat that was docked on the riverside.  I made my way onto the boat and climbed up to the top deck level where I found an open bar, incredible food and some very smooth jazz musicians.  I learned that I had just crashed a private party, but was quickly introduced to the host of the event who welcomed me with open arms and made several introductions. 

With full belly, I meandered over to the concert - stopping to hear music, music, and more music coming from pubs, nightclubs and street corners.  The concert on Saturday night was good (not great), but the after-event parties were incredible.  Every bar in town featured some different type of music playing and was packed with festival goers.  Most of these people did not attend the concert; they were just in Saint Louis to soak up the atmostphere. 

I settled into the hottest, steamiest club in town.  I swear I was transported to Cuba as the band was playing a smoking set of Latino party music, complete with a horn section.  I would guess maximum occupancy was probably meant for 80 and there were at least 200 people in the place.  Everyone was dancing - because why not dance if you are going to sweat faster than the perspiration on your beer bottle.  The crowd was a mix of black and white.  The joint ran out of beer.  No one seemed to mind waiting while someone pried open the doors to the nearby beer store to help themselves to a late night delivery...

A quick footnote to the Sunday night feature concert.  The opener for Kenny Barron was the Mina Agossi Trio.  This band consisted of an Asian drummer who I kept thinking was the second coming of Mitch Mitchell.  The bassist blew me away with his combination of live play that he coupled with his own tracking loops.  And then there was Mina on vocals.  That was it.  It was the most stripped down sound I've heard since Morphine, yet it also sounded like 5 musicians on stage.  When they decided to cover Hendrix's 3rd Stone From the Sun (with great success, I might add), I felt like I was sent off to another planet.  This probably isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I would definitely catch this trio any time they play within a 250 mile radius (and the version I heard was better than the link below)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I always miss the good stuff!

The Whitest Guy in West Africa is now safely ensconced in the United States.  Meanwhile, violent protests have shaken the city of Dakar and another town an hour away, Mbour, as President Wade tried for a constitutional power grab.

Unfortunately for the president, several months earlier he replaced the Director General of Senelec - the nation's only electricity provider - with his son, Karim.  Given the corrupt nature of Senegalese politics, this was originally seen as a good sign (after all, the President would only put his son in charge if there was a plan to make his son look good, right?)

That was just prior to the so-called Arab spring.  And prior to the incredible spike in the price of oil.  Oil is what Senelec runs on.  This is a formula for power outages that are as frequent in Senegal as fart jokes in the third grade.  The only difference is the power cuts are now lasting for days, not just hours.  And THAT is a formula for violent protests as the President's power grab was essentially meant to help him pass more power to his son in the style of an old fashioned monarchial dictatorship.

10 months ago, I would have told you this type of thing would not be possible in Senegal.  But, 10 months is a long time - especially when political leaders are so insulated from the citizens they no longer have any clue as to their disconnect. 

The current events are an incredible reminder of the human side of events.  Today, I received an email from a former colleague who was charged with sending some hard drives back to our home office.  Here is his email, verbatim:

Also, I will send you the packing list and reports as soon as the problem on Campus is resolved. Right now it is dangerous to send the drives. I will try tomorrow. If not possible, I will wait for one week. I do wait to hear from you about the replacement hard drives.  I need to rush home...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dinner and Lunch

I am blessed with an ability to move seamlessly between different groups of people.  I can talk with homeless people and CEO's of Fortune 500 companies within the same hour and feel as if I connected with both crowds.  So, when asked "What's it really like in Africa?" and "How is Senegalese food?" I thought this post might be the best example of both worlds.  This all happened within an 18 hour span...

FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER: About once a month, several of the neighborhood guards get together in our garage for a dinner party consisting of the same exact meal:  pork and wine.  Let me start with the wine: I walked in last night and saw a 10-litre jug that formerly would have been occupying space in a typical office water cooler.  The jug was filled with red wine that was purchased (discreetly) from someone in the military who somehow is able to obtain barrels of the stuff from Spain.  It cost 10,000 CFA (about $20) for 10 liters of wine.

The first thing that hits you on these Friday night dinners is the funnel.  Two guys are required to pour the wine from the 10-litre jug; one to hold the jug while the second balances the funnel into the mouth of a 1.5 liter bottle that formerly held the Kirene brand of water. Our guards save all the water bottles for just this type of occasion and they are careful to ensure that we are able to get nearly 7 complete bottles without spilling a drop.

Our guard is in charge of obtaining about 10 pounds of roasted pork.  Another guard's wife arrives with a giant metal bowl filled with sliced red onions, some type of green pepper, herbs and chiles.  She mixes the roast pork by hand with the vegetable blend and then places the completed dish on a very small table. 

Seven men and one woman then gathered round in rickety chairs to proceed eating by hand (using only the right hand).  The "President" of this secret society makes sure every glass is continously filled to the brim - and we drink out of 12 ounce water glasses!  If you're doing the math, that works out to over one liter of wine per person.  The ratio was 6 black guys, one white guy and one wife/server.  Total cost for the entire meal (including wine) is 35,000 CFA (about $70).  They would do this more often, but for two reasons:
1.) By only having this gathering once a month, it becomes a treat and not a normal dinner
2.) They don't earn enough money to do this every week.

Much of the pork is still "on the bone."  If you get a bone - don't worry.  Just toss the bone on the garage floor and one of the two stray cats that I adopted will come and munch on any leftover meat.  French was the primary language, with some broken English thrown in for good measure, so I didn't understand much of the dinner conversation.  However, I can tell you that I laughed endlessly at the antics of the group and even managed to take some compromising photos of people after they passed out from drinking the wine - much to the delight of the people who were able to remain awake.  I hear the photos were posted on Facebook...

At some point in the night, one of the guards brought out some wrapping papers and carefully rolled up some loose tobacco.  He shared his cigarette with a couple of other guards.

We started at 9:00pm and I didn't hit the pillow until after midnight. This simple recipe, coupled with excellent companionship, made for one of the best dinners I have ever had in Dakar.  While I might have only known two people before the night began, I walked away with 7 friends. 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON LUNCH: Every Saturday since the 1930's, the "Directors Generale" of the major companies in Senegal get together for a lunch party.  Each week, a different member is responsible for hosting the event at one of the area's posh hotels. 

I arrived a bit late and found almost 70 people milling about enjoying the open bar.  I saw a friend who explained the whole purpose of the event and helped me make the connection of how I was invited.  He mentioned that I could not have a drink until I had walked through the crowd and shaken hands with every person there. 

The first thing that hits you on these Saturday lunches is the atmosphere.  Linen napkins and 7 tables set for rounds of 10.  There were 4 different forks, 3 different knives and an array of glasses for each patron. There were buckets on each table with a decent chilled white wine; these bottles were replaced as soon as they were depleted.  Next, before the entree was served, each table was presented with a 1.5 liter bottle of a 2006 Rothschild Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Medoc region (essentially, the west bank of the Bordeaux region).  The host of the afternoon must pick up the tab for the entire event and I'm pretty sure each bottle at the hotel cost more than 35,000 CFA.

The ratio of white men to black men at this event is about 6:1 and no women were invited (excluding, of course, the serving staff).  The first course consisted of slices of homemade, spiced bread sealed together club sandwich style with just the perfect amount of fois gras.  These tasty sandwiches were accentuated by a tri-fruit chutney (pineapple, orange and pear) as well as a small red pepper called baies rose.

The next course was a wonderfully broiled thiof (a grouper fish) served with a pistachio creme sauce and topped with both white and green asparagus.  The rice was reminiscent of a nice risotto and I was looking forward to dessert when I realized the main course had yet to be served! 

The main course was a beautiful medium rare lamb sirloin accompanied by whipped mash/baked potato that was garnished with baby corn and a julienned carrot.  A balsamic dressing was drizzled along the side of the plate.  One of the more amusing components of the lamb dish was that there were small cubes of rendered fat neatly arranged with bones from the meat on the edge of each plate.  I wondered whether there were any stray cats in the kitchen...

The lamb sirloin was at least six ounces and went tremendously well with the red wine.  So well, in fact, that our table was presented with a second 1.5 liter bottle of the 2006 Rothschild.  Don't worry - every other table went through a second bottle, also.

After the lamb, we were served an array of cheeses including two types of brie and gouda.  After all, we needed to finish that second bottle of wine.  I was so full I couldn't even stick around for the dessert of that featured something drenched in spiced rum.

Many of the men were chomping fat cigars (you can still smoke in restaurants in Dakar) while a person at my table managed to light up a Marlboro after every single course was served.

We started at 1:00pm and lunch was still going strong at 3:45.  Most of the conversation was in French, with some broken English thrown in to help me understand the jokes, but I still couldn't understand most of the conversation.  This incredible gourmet meal was as good as the finest meals you might find in any country.  It was one of the best lunches I have ever had. 

While the similarities and the stunning difference between rich and poor are obvious, I think both meals actually represent "the real Africa."  There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Dakar, as well as a tremendous amount of poverty.  But for me, the biggest difference between the two meals was that I didn't really walk away from lunch with any new friends.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hospital Food's Not Bad Here...

The title is a bit misleading, but I'll get to it...

This Thursday, I joined my local Rotary club as we celebrated the donation of a mammogram machine to a hospital in Dakar.  I am convinced if the U.S. stopped giving any money whatsoever for "foreign aid" and instead asked people to give 1% of those funds to Rotary International, all the problems of the developing world could be solved. 

This particular machine came compliments of a club in Belgium and was the first mammogram introduced to this section of Dakar.  There were two things about the introduction of the machine that took me completely by surprise.

First, most women in Senegal do not even know what breast cancer is.  In Africa, people just "get sick and die" - there is not much regard to "Why?"  So, introducing this piece of equipment also means introducing a whole new concept called, "preventative medicine."  In fact, one female member of the donating Rotary club (a business professional from Senegal) had no clue how the machine worked.  While we might be over-stimulated by all the breast cancer awareness marches, fundraisers and advertisements in the U.S., this concept that disease might be detected early enough to save a human life is news in Africa.

Second, we actually walked right into the exam room while a woman was having an appointment!  No, she wasn't actually being screened upon our arrival, but the idea of patient privacy is something that hasn't really occurred here either.  I'm thinking a description of the hospital might be in order to help the set the scene...

The building looks like a high school built in the 1960's that hasn't been maintained ever since it was built.  There were lots of chipped and decaying tile floors, tile walls and whitewashed concrete walls.  The decorations on the walls looked mostly like "school spirit" posters you might see in any high school.

There were no "recovery rooms" to speak of: just the equivalent of park benches or locker room benches.  There was an open-air atrium (although atrium isn't the right word, because that would imply some amount of class and fancy) and people were sleeping on the benches wrapped in blankets.  A mangy orange cat slept on the ground next to one patient.  There were no waiting rooms, either, just more locker room benches for arriving patients.

After we finished our tour of the hospital, we retreated to a conference room for our meeting.  The chairs in the conference room had well-worn cloth fabric that was a deep orange color; these chairs could have easily been hand-me-downs from a restaurant that closed in the 1970's.  I nearly fell through a hole in my chair, when - suddenly! - someone brought us covered dishes and beverages to thank us for donating the mammogram machine. 

Having never eaten in a Dakar hospital, I - of course - decided the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would get sick and have to go to the hospital... and I dug into my plate that included some version of what could only be called an African spring roll, some type of spongy bread-cakes that were shaped like fortune cookies and some kind of ravioli type thing with minced meat.  It was accompanied by a pineapple beverage whose can proudly proclaimed, "With real chunks!" 

You'll note that I didn't ask what the names of any of these foods were.  Half the time, I can't recognize what I'm eating in an American hospital, so why would an African hospital be any different?  In any case, none of the foods was life threatening and the pineapple chunk concoction was an excellent pairing with the menu. 


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bottom of the Barrel: West African Beer

This week's entry is dedicated to two friends: PR, an avid homebrewer and, JK, an industry veteran who - when informed I was going to live in Africa - sent a one sentence note: "Drink lots of beer."  
But, this is a blog about business in West Africa - not about idly drinking lots of beer.  Luckily, one of my security guards has an uncle who is gainfully employed at (drumroll, please...) the Societe Des Brasseries De L'Ouest Africain, alternately known as SOBOA and more commonly referred to as, "The Only Brewery in Senegal."'Ouest_africain

My guard and I secured a reservation to take a brewery tour for May 20.  Make that May 27.  Change that to June 3 at 3:30 p.m.  We arrived promptly at 3:30 p.m. to meet our designated guide.  Well, actually we showed up at 4:00 p.m.  It did not really matter.  Our designated guide never arrived until 5:00 p.m.  It's difficult to explain "Africa time" to people who have never been here, but this is fairly typical.  Nothing starts on time; you should just be happy if an appointment is kept at all.  Even a meeting with our accounting firm, Ernst & Young, scheduled for Friday May 27 actually occurred on Wednesday June 1. Why would I think a brewery would be any less business-like?

The other bit of information required for pleasurable reading is a bit of knowledge about African beer.  A better name for it might be "Lottery Beer" because, regardless of the label, you never have a clue what it's going to taste like until after you've opened the bottle.  I thought it was because of poor quality control procedures, but my tour proved otherwise.

There are two well known West African beers: Gazelle and Flag.  Gazelle comes in a giant green bottle and dates back to 1929.  Gazelle harkens back to the days when it was safer to drink beer than water, and when Muslims drank beer and ate pork.  Okay, I made that last part up, but Islam has been in this country since the year 1040 so the fact that Senegalese love to drink beer and eat pork should tell you how relaxed the religious observations are here. 

Gazelle has a relatively low alcohol content and is socially acceptable as a breakfast beverage (goes great with Corn Flakes!).  Gazelle can be consumed by women and small children.  Okay, I made that last part up, too!  But, the important note here is that Flag should not be consumed by children.  Flag puts hair on your chest.  Flag has hallucinogenic properties.  Flag is a thoroughly dangerous beer...

Or, so I thought.  After taking the SOBOA tour, I discovered that Gazelle and Flag are essentially the same beer with a singular exception:  Flag contains more of the "secret ingredient." You know, that secret ingredient that gives Flag its yellowish color?  It's maize.  Flag has more maize.  While it is manufactured with imported barley, the corn content is what ratchets up the alcohol factor and provides drinkers with the famous "Flag headache" the next day.

There was one other surprising factor for you home brewers.  I asked where they stored their hops.  Hops are the flower that gives beer its aroma.  The brewery manager looked at me as if I had asked him whether they put small children in the beer.  As it turns out, SOBOA uses cans of "hop extract" (Hop Extract #9, to be exact) to add flavoring and aroma.

I have previously worked in almost all facets of the beverage industry, but this is the first time I have seen everything under one roof.  EVERYTHING is done directly at SOBOA.  This brewery is the manufacturer, the distributor and the sales & marketing agency.  Glass bottles are not manufacturered in Senegal (which seems ridiculous given all the sand here), and virgin glass would be outrageously expensive to import.  So, all bottles are sold with the equivalent to a 20-cent or 40-cent deposit and the returnables are re-washed, re-labeled and re-filled directly on site.  In fact, there is not even a minute's time between when a bottle is washed and when it is re-filled.

The cases that hold the beer are made of plastic and even broken cases are recycled; shred into small shards (say that three times fast!) and sent out for re-manufacture.  SOBOA employs at least 1,000 people and is a 24/7 operation.  It's a gentle reminder that manufacturing items for local consumption is one of the keys to economic development for any developing country. 

Throughout the tour, I was surprised at the professionalism and the many quality control check points at the brewery.  I even had a frank discussion with the manager about possibilities for defects in the process (or, "Why does every bottle seem to taste different?") and surmise that any errors in the process could only come from the bottle washing and refill.  Most likely, differences in the final taste are most affected by post-brewery storage.

As an aside, SOBOA is also the local manufacturer for Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta Orange and nearly every other carbonated, bottled beverage available in West Africa.  I learned that the Coca-Cola syrup is actually imported from two different places and mixed together on-site, so that not even one syrup producer can know "the formula."  The only true imported beverages here are Heineken, Corona, Desperado and a variety of Belgians (with the most expensive beer being Corona!). 

There are several other tidbits that I found interesting.  Being located in West Africa, not much is actually "under a roof."  Bottles are stored outside in open air (hence, the plastic cases).  The beer tanks are outside in open air.  Only the bottling plant and the brewery itself are located under a physical roof.  Next, no one was wearing hard hats or steel toe boots.  Even employees working with broken glass were often wearing plastic sandals!  Finally, there are no toilets here.  None.  There are "facilities", but they consist of open pipes and urine-slicked floors.  The wash basin looked more sanitary.  Now that I think about it, I was never actually shown where the pipes led to or where the water used to brew Flag actually comes from...

The tour itself took almost two hours.  That did not include "post-tour" discussion with fresh, cold beverages.  No two-ounce samplers either, but full bottles of all-you-can-drink Flag, Gazelle, "33" Export and Castel.  The latter two brands are made under license.  Castel is originally from Cameroon and "33" Export has a checkered history, to say the least.  No one seems to know where it was exported from and whether or not the "33" appeared on this bottle before it appeared on the Rolling Rock bottle.  But, those would be topics of discussion for a different day, when JK and/or PR buys me a beverage to talk about my time in West Africa...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Endemic Corruption

For some time now, I've been sketching out this blog entry in my head.  The question that students ask me the most is, "What business would you start in Senegal?"

My answer is, "I would not start a business in Senegal because the corruption is so deep - and at so many layers - that I would have to spend all my time on managing and controlling instead of doing something constructive such as new product innovation and providing superior customer service."

Let's start with the obvious corruption: government employees.  Remember when we used to call these people "public servants?"  Today in Senegal, even the military has finally succumbed to endemic corruption.  The Gendarme (essentially, the armed forces that also serve as a general police force for most of the nation) were considered one of the bright spots for many years in Senegal.  The following story is more representative of their role today.

Last week, the director of our program was returning from a rural location and his vehicle was pulled over by the Gendarme "for inspection."  Rather than be satisfied with just one vehicle, this particular officer then proceeded to pull over approximately ten more vehicles and told everyone to wait.  Essentially, the officer would then determine which driver was most likely to pay a "fine" directly to him for some imagined infraction.  This process would likely continue for most of the day.

Everyone knows about this type of corruption in Africa, but no one does anything to stop it.  That's simply because this corruption can only occur if it is sanctioned from the top of an organization.  To me, it's shameful, but I don't think this even captures the idea that the entire society is corrupt. 

The "private" corruption is why Senegal - and most other African nations - will never be a good place to do business.  I recently took over as the financial manager for my institution after the previous employee resigned.  There were things I expected to see such as "padded" expense reports, pre-paid gasoline cards that seem to be spent when no one is traveling, phantom employees, etc.

What I was unaware of was the outrage and scandal I would cause when I took the lead role in disposing of assets that are perfectly useable, but obsolete for our purposes.  First, the employees were outraged that the assets were not given to them as a donation.  Who would receive the assets?  Well, that was for the Operations Manager to decide, but - surely - these were "their" assets.  And, if we were going to sell the assets, then the staff was obviously much more qualified than I was to locate the buyers.

Here's where the scandal occurs: the real reason the employees were so angry was because I - the Whitest Guy in West Africa - was going to keep to keep all the "commissions" that were rightfully theirs.  Most readers should be shaking their heads right now (as I did) in wonderment, but any time an asset was previously sold at our institute, the person who sold it took a percentage of the sales price right off the top as their "commission" before turning in the remaining money to the company.  How much commission?  Well, no one knows because that gets negotiated between the buyer and seller (our employees!). 

It's not enough that we pay employees wages and salaries that are significantly above market rates, most of the senior administrative staff considers it their RIGHT to pocket 10% to 30% on EVERY transaction - sale or purchase - that our organization endeavors to make.  And this is part of the culture!  After all, just because they work in the private sector and not government doesn't mean they aren't entitled to take a percentage of each transaction.  In government, we call that a bribe in most parts of the world.  In private industry, we call it "theft", but in Senegal it's much more palatable to call it a "commission."

You want an airline ticket?  One professor asked for a ticket home during Christmas break.  He had a travel allowance of $1,500.  I booked my ticket over the Internet for $1,250.  His price (to the same destination) was $1,700 when purchased through our organization.  The extra $450 was meant to be split between the travel agent and whichever employee at our organization made the call.  When he complained to the employee, she responded, "You're rich, so you can afford it." 

By the way, she's the person I replaced as financial manager...

Some people might be laughing and saying, "It looks like THEY are teaching YOU a lesson or two about how to do business."  But, they're not.  They have raised the level of mistrust such that I now have no desire to do any business with them. 

Lest you think it's just our organization, I spoke with the manager at another education institute about how he handled this problem.  His answer was simple, "I work 12 to 14 hours a day and do all the purchasing myself."  He has one advantage in that he is Lebanese, and there is a large contingent of Lebanese businesspeople in Dakar.  He only does business with the Africans when he has to. 

Even my local Rotary Club is having the same issue with regard to bringing donated medical devices into the country.  The biggest issue (after determining how to avoid bribery at the port) is that most of the organizations that would be prime recipients for these supplies are very likely to re-sell them.

And the biggest irony of all?  This is a country that is widely known for a large tribe a businessmen known as the Marabout.  Go ahead and look them up; they are represented throughout the world and their basic system of accounting is built on... trust.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A vacation in Spain

I know, I know - what does a vacation in Spain have to do with Senegal?  Read on... 

One of the more obnoxious things about Senegal is that airline flights are reasonably priced for arrival in Dakar, but ridiculously expensive to fly out of Dakar.  For example, the Gambia - which is a country sort of tucked inside Senegal - is only a 30 minute flight from here.  The advertised "promotional" price for a round-trip excursion is about $90.  However, with airport departure taxes, the total cost of the trip will exceed $330!

I have also learned that airlines are completely irresponsible when it comes to pricing, because airfares from Dakar never make any sense.  TAP Airlines is based out of Lisbon, Portugal.  All TAP flights from Dakar to anywhere in Europe go through Lisbon for a connection.  If I want to fly TAP to Madrid, it will cost $650 - with a connection in Lisbon.  If I want to fly TAP to Lisbon - direct - it will cost $750.

Iberia Airlines is based out of Madrid, Spain.  All Iberia flights from Dakar to anywhere in Europe go through Madrid for a connection.  If I want to fly Iberia to Lisbon, it will cost $650 - with a connection in Madrid.  If I want to fly Iberia to Madrid - direct - it will cost $750.  Yes, you read those figures correctly.  It is always $100 more to fly direct than it is to take a connection.  There is no way two flights can be cheaper to operate than one flight, which is why I have absolutely no sympathy for any bankrupt airline.

Anyway, I decided to book Las Palmas in the Canary Islands (a Spanish territory) for 3 days, followed by 4 days in Madrid.  Price, of course, was $750.  Gran Canaria, the biggest island, is a beautiful place that is reminiscent of Puerto Rico.  Las Palmas has a population of about 400,000 people and the diversity on the island ranges from volcanic cones to sandy beaches.

I came to Dakar to get away from it all.  After a while, Dakar can grate on you.  The sand-swept streets, the trash strewn all about town, six guys on every corner trying to sell you a pre-paid phone card, taxi drivers honking and stopping asking if you want a ride across the street.  In addition, the stress of grading final exams and entering final grades, and then having to listen to students try to "negotiate" their grades as if that's part of the culture, and - well - sometimes a person needs to get away from the place where he "got away from it all." 

So... I was relaxing on the beach in Las Palmas.  Perfect climate (70's, slight breeze, topless women), perfect day, perfect everything.  Afterward, I went to dinner at an open-air, beachside restaurant where a street musician had set up to play jazz guitar and I enjoyed a seafood risotto (that kind of tasted like Spaghetti-O's, but in a good way).  It was about 10:00pm and I was just about to leave the restaurant when a man came in with an assortment of toys for sale.  These were the kinds of toys that a vendor might be huckstering at any silly carnival: glow sticks, noisemakers, cheap plastic gifts, etc.

The wandering salesman was obviously pushing his favorite: a flashing, barking dog toy.  He came around to each table with a big, toothy smile and said something to me in Spanish.  I speak very little Spanish, but I thought I recognized the phrase.

Then, I said, "Wait a minute. Where are you from?"

"Senegal!" he replied with a big smile. 

And what had he said to me in Spanish that caught my attention?... 

"I give you good price."

P.S. If you are not laughing right now, you may want to read this archived classic:

Off to Madrid.

I always like the unexpected on vacation and the unexpected in Madrid came in the form of a giant street parade on a late Sunday afternoon.  The Church of San Gines one of the oldest churches in Madrid, named after Saint Genesius of Arles, the patron saint of notaries and secretaries.  I'm not sure I ever knew there was a patron saint for notaries and secretaries, but it seems to me that if we are going to honor notaries and secretaries, we might also designate a new patron saint for bloggers.  I nominate Saint Suldog...

At first, I thought the parade was on old fashioned funeral march.  New Orleans style.  There were two dozen people carrying a giant statue upon their shoulders while a band played with drums and brass.  People were cheering on the streets and some guy in uniform - my guess is that he was the Grand Poobah - shouted "Viva!" to a screaming crowd of thousands.

The parade went down a long block, but took over 20 minutes to complete.  It ended with the giant statue being ceremoniously entered into the courtyard at the Church of San Gines.  I'm not religious, but I couldn't help but be drawn in by this spectacle.

I've never really learned to read music, much less write music, much less try to figure out how to write it on the Internet, but there was something overwhelming about a band playing some variant of St. James Infirmary while the church bells roared in a pattern of:
G G#__D#_G# G

There were women crying in the streets, children celebrating, a man who nearly passed out from exhaustion from carrying the statue, and hundreds of on-lookers from the windows above representing many races and nationalities.  I decided to enter the church and was treated to a show of glorious artwork from a church built in the 1600's. 

As I left the church and passed the courtyard where hundreds upon hundreds of people were now exiting, I noticed a beggar with a coffee cup asking for change.  All of these people celebrating the great glories and miracles; all of these people in high spirits - and not one person put a coin in his empty cup.  Most wouldn't even look the man in the eye.

I thought, "Wouldn't it be ironic if this beggar was actually Jesus?"...