Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday Shopping at the Artisans' Market

I will return to America for three weeks for winter break and thought it would be a good idea to bring back some souvineirs.  Being the male of the species, shopping for souvineirs has never been my strong suit.  I tend to buy a dozen or so generic gifts and then distribute them amongst friends and family by letting them choose what items they like.  When the gifts are gone, they're gone.  Which is a nice way of saying you probably ought to make an effort to see me before I see you if you want any presents this year...

Senegal has several artisans' markets.  The most famous of these is the Artisanal de Soumbedioune, conveniently located less than 3 miles from my home.  I estimate there are over 100 vendors plying their trade at this market and the funny part is: they all sell the same stuff.  And I mean the same stuff.  The real artisans are tucked away in compartments, working diligently to turn out the look-alike handcrafted goods. The "artisans" working the market stalls are absolute hucksters. Would you like a set of "See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkeys?  Every artisan stall has them.  In three different sizes. 

And when they see the Whitest Guy in West Africa enter their little village, the dollar signs are clearly visible in their eyes.  The only way to recreate the shopping experience for you is to replay the actual sales pitches that I received from these vendors.  The following is an amalgamation of verbatim lines used to lure me in...

"Bon jour. Ce va? Parlez Anglais? Where are you from? Etas Unis? Boston? I love Boston Celtics. So for you, Celtics Man, I give you good price. Today is special. For you: half price. On Everything. You see these?" (brings out a pair of wooden spoons). "How much you think? Two for 10,000 (about $20 US). That is good price (they are probably worth $1 each). Oh, that is too much? Don't worry. That is my opening price, then you bargain back. How much you have?"

I told him the truth. I am only there to look.  I brought 2,000 CFA (about $4), enough to buy a Coca Cola (about 400 CFA) in case I get thirsty and maybe even a snack.  I pulled the 2,000 out of my pocket to show him I was being honest.
"Okay, one for 2,000."

I shook my head no and smiled.  As as I left the stall, I heard... "Okay, one for 1,500.  You still buy a Coca Cola"... and I walked on to the next vendor.

"Come here. Just look. Just come take a look at my work.  Just come inside," says the next vendor as he points to his eyes and forcefully grabs my arm to lead me into his marketplace stall.  This can be a bit disconcerting to Americans, which the vendors are fully aware of.  And the vendors are also fully aware that if you don't buy from them, you will buy from someone else.  Inside the stalls is where the real bargaining occurs. 

Meanwhile, the first vendor reappears as if out of nowhere. "1,000 for one"...

But, back to the second vendor. "You are first customer today.  My father said, 'Never let first customer go without buying,' so I give you good price. You see these (as he points to some small wood animal sculptures), I make these. This is all my work.  How much you think for these? 10,000 CFA for three"...  As I try to leave, the vendor blocks the entry way to the stall.  Once again, this can be disconcerting to tourists - downright intimidating, in fact - if you do not understand that you merely look the man in the eye, shake his hand and say, "Non, merci."

The third vendor was my favorite.  He did not appear to be working in a stall, but was merely wandering the marketplace.

"Come here. You are nice man. These other men don't treat you well. I give you gift. It comes from my heart. There is no cost," and he proceeds to wrap a bracelet made with sea shells around my wrist.  He explained that sea shells were once used as currency, so this was a highly treasured gift.

"You like my gift? Now you give me gift. How much money you have? You will not give me gift? Why? You do not like Senegalese people? You do not like black people? Come with me to my shop. I give you girlfriend."

I had to smile and chuckle at his approach, but still I nodded in the negative and thanked him for his time as I took off the bracelet to return his merchandise.

"You do not like Senegalese girls? You do not like black girls? Perhaps you would like a young boy?"

No!! No!! No!! I love Senegalese girls! I love black girls! 

"Then, you come with me and I give you black, Senegalese girlfriend. Just come take a look at my work"...

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Street Children and Le Circque de Dakar

The circus was in town!  Okay, not in a Ringling Bros./Barnum & Bailey fashion, but a local troupe was hired by the Rotary Club of Almadies to help raise funds for a truly worthy cause.  I decided to take two of my finer students as my guests to reward them for their volunteer efforts around campus and this was - by far - one of the most memorable experiences I've had in Dakar. 

We were greeted at the door by a man on stilts and then deftly avoided a unicycle rider (or did he deftly avoid us?!) as we mingled with other guests before taking our seats.  There were approximately 250 people of all ages in the audience.  The performance was held in a recently renovated open-air theatre. 

The "emcee" of the circus was a buffoon-like clown who was ably assisted by a mime sidekick.  Unlike the colorful clowns in the U.S., these gentlemen - as well as the entire troupe - were dressed in black and white, including black and white face paint.  The buffoon was approximately 6 feet, 5 inches tall including his incredibly spiked out hair.  His worthy companion was 5 feet, 9 inches at most which obviously made for a series of running gags wherein the shorter clown would "shadow" the bigger clown while performing outlandish mimics of the emcee.

The first act of the circus consisted of high flying acrobatics, as teams of two or three African gymnasts performed.  They were accompanied by a live band of traditional-style West African musicians.  I have to admit this was the first time I had heard more than a smattering a "real" Dakar music as most of the streets are filled with African hip-hop or contemporary American style music and it was much more pleasant than the African hip-hop and contemporary music.

There was a break for intermission as we settled in to a collasal feast, which becomes all the more essential to this story.  The beneficiary of this event was The Empire De Enfants, a home for street children.  Whatever image you just conjured with regard to the phrase "street children" pales in comparison to the actual stories and conditions faced by these children, as I was soon to learn...

After the intermission, the next component of the evening's entertainment was a documentary film about these street children.  In the rural areas of Senegal, where people have never seen a city, parents are often persuaded to allow their children to attend "Koranic" schools in Dakar.  Children as young as four years old are then sent to the city where - at 6:00pm each evening - they are essentially let loose on the streets with buckets and sent begging for spare change in order to eat.  Each child is responsible for collecting approximately $1.50 per day - with the funds turned over to their "teacher."  The children often do not bathe since they have learned dirtier children look more needy.

Enter Anta Mbow - a native Senegalese woman who spent many years in France.  Anta has a deep, hoarse voice reminiscent of a blues singer playing for spare change in a Mississippi fish fry.  Her voice seems to lend authenticity to the plight of the children.  Mbow and a partner took over the formerly abandoned open-air theatre and turned it into a home for the street children.  The documentary film showed the children painting the walls, repairing broken walls and working hard to make this their new home and school.  The ultimate goal is to "re-introduce" these children into a family environment.  It takes a great deal of convincing to even get the street children to come into the Empire de Enfants because they have learned not to trust adults.

Needless to say, the Koranic teachers are not happy; fear and punishment are their primary sources of motivation to keep the street children in check.  Therefore a guard must be posted at the Empire 24/7 to protect the children.  After the film, Mbow detailed the story of one particular guard who was especially vigilant in making sure the teachers do not attempt to kidnap the children back into a live of servitude.  This particular guard was formerly a street child himself.

After the documentary, there was an auction of children's artwork.  The artwork was developed for a project to sell holiday cards to help raise funds for the Empire de Enfants.  The auction was absolutely the highlight of the evening...

There was a happy young man, about six or seven years old, sitting just a few seats away from us who quickly grasped the concept of "bidding" after his mother allowed him to raise a hand on one of the items.  Even though his parents appeared to be fairly well off, I don't think they could have imagined how much they would be spending that night as a direct result of his enthusiasm for the remainder of the night!  The mother finally had to physically restrain the child, who was laughing hysterically as he would sneak a hand up in an attempt to keep the bidding going.  Others in the audience would outbid the young child, but our hero would always find a way to continue to run up the bids - with a little help and a wink/nod from the auctioneer.  All told, the auction raised over $400 from selling ten pieces of children's artwork.  Nice job, young man...

After another set of acrobatics, the audience was treated to a performance by the street children.  They gathered in a choir format and sang a couple of songs for the audience.  They were out of tune, out of beat and rarely stood in a straight line but the idea that 30 young children who just a few months before might have been sleeping on the streets could now be coordinated into a chorus was enough to bring the house down.

The evening concluded with a fireworks show, but I think the greater "light" came the following week when the Rotary Almadies Club announced they had raised approximately $8,000 for the Empire de Enfants.  This will cover approximately 2 months of operating expenses and was twice the targeted amount.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Great Feast

The alternate title for this blog entry was, "A Sad Day For Goats."  I finally figured out why there are goats everywhere in this city, or at least why there WERE goats every where in this city...

Wednesday was Tabaski, which is the Muslim equivalent of Thanksgiving and a time of great feasts.  I think I have found the secret to world peace: declare every day a holiday to be celebrated with a great feast.  The streets were mostly barren here on Wednesday - with some carryover celebration into Thursday.  Heck, many people took Friday off also.

With the holiday, the head of the family must get a ram to feed his family.  While the cost of a ram is reasonable (maybe 60,000 CFA, or $120), you may remember wages of many workers here are as little as 50,000 to 60,000 per month so it is quite normal for the head of household to save for several months to be able to buy this ram.  It is also quite normal in Senegal for the head of household to have more than one wife, which means that a man could literally save up for the entire year to provide both of his wives with a traditional feast. 

This is probably a subject for a different blog entry, but who would want two wives, anyway?  The wives can't be too happy ("Honey, I think I'll be sleeping with you-know-who tonight") which obviously must lead to twice as much nagging for the man.  But back to our regularly scheduled broadcast: 

For Thanksgiving, we Americans have mostly chosen the humane solution for feasting which is the drive down to the local supermarket to pick up our feast already decapitated, plucked and with a packet of giblets inserted into its cavity that can be easily thrown away (with thanks to the folks at Plainville Turkey Farm for doing all the decapitating for us!). 

For Tabaski, the head of household is expected to bring home a real, live ram.  A real, live ram tied up to a post right under my bedroom window for the entire night before the feast.  A real, live ram that bleats all night long while tied up to a post under my bedroom window for the entire night before the feast.  Frankly, I wish they would learn to buy their meat at the store, but this holiday is all about sacrifice...

I wandered through several different neighborhoods on Tabaski to see some of the sacrificing.  The man is in charge of slitting the throat of the ram (after much prayer and thanks, of course) and then the animal is carved up on premise.  I saw buckets overflowing with goat parts and not a single piece goes to waste.  It's pretty disconcerting to see a bucket with goat intestines and eyeballs sloshing around, and I'm not sure what one guy was trying to do with the skull (although he was holding his machete in an upright, Samurai position as I walked past), but give these people credit in the "waste not, want not" department.

The holiday is celebrated because the Bible says Abraham was supposed to sacrifice his only son but instead of a son, God came down and provided a sheep instead.  Or a goat, I guess, depending on the region you live.  I say the Bible, but this is where it gets a little tricky, because the Muslims have a different Bible called the Koran that says the same thing.  The only difference is that Abraham's only son is two different people because Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael because Abraham had two wives (at the time anyway) although he cast out one wife with the son Ishmael and kept the other Isaac, although he didn't really keep either one because God said he had to sacrifice "the son he loved", which the Muslims say must have been Ishmael and the Jews say must have been Isaac because he had already cast out Ishmael even though the Bible also says Abraham only has one son.  So, Ishmael is the father of the Muslims and Isaac is the father of the Jews although Isaac and Jesus pretty much led the same exact life (only begotten son, took a donkey up a hill, son carried the wood to sacrifice himself on his back, etc.), so I guess Isaac is the father of the Christians, but Abraham was the real father of everyone -  or so it seems - because he got married again and had lots more children and lived to be 137 years old.

I'll put my views on religion aside for a moment, but the fact that people want to kill each other over the interpretation of a book that has so many tall tales and inconsistencies makes me wonder if maybe we'd be a whole lot further along if God had spared the ram and actually taken the son. 

Tens of thousands of goats in Senegal would surely have agreed.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the U.S. Role in West Africa

I always enjoyed the way philosophers of old would name their treatise with "On", such as "On the Philosophy of Natural History" or "On Liberty."  Given the vast importance of this topic, I thought it deserved to be accompanied by at least some pomp and circumstance...

Senegal is seen as the centerpoint of the West African region for a few reasons.  All of West Africa was formerly under control by the French, which means it was underdeveloped and the people were lazy, but the wine was good.  Oh wait, that's France!

Actually, the reason Senegal is the focal point is because you rarely hear about it in the news.  It has never been mired in a modern history civil war.  It has a stable democracy - including a peaceful transition after the defeat of a major political party.  And, more important, it's not Nigeria.

Traditionally, all of Africa has served as sort of a pillaging ground for developed nations.  Europeans pillaged natural resources in the 1700's and 1800's and - heck! - the United States pillaged 10's of millions of people during that little period known as slavery.  After World War II, some of the European nations lost their appetite for colonizing the world and in the mid-1960's, the French gave up control of this region.  Hold that thought for a moment, while I turn my attention to the U.S. role. 

I had an opportunity to meet with the U.S. ambassador and several dozen U.S. citizens in a "town hall" format meeting this week.  None of these people have real jobs; they are all here working as missionaries or serving in some other "non-governmental organization" doling out alms to the less fortunate.  In all the time these people have been here, they haven't made one iota of a difference.  I'm sure they can point to many instances of meaningful assistance, but from a macro-political/macro-economic view, they haven't had any impact whatsoever.

From a military strategic perspective, the United States has never had a major presence in Senegal.  There are very few natural resources worth fighting for in this country. There is no oil, no gold, no diamonds - just a giant fibrous plant called the baobab. So, what's changed and what is the U.S. role? 

Well, when the French left the region in the 1960's, the vacuum of power in many areas was sucked up by the Muslims.  Which means the money that started flowing into the region after the French left was Arab money.  New roads, infrastructure, etc. were being developed and the only thing these new benefactors asked for in return was THEIR SOUL (que soundtrack for deep, dark villianous laughter).  For example, the major thoroughfare near my residence was widened and re-paved, but the Muslims were allowed to build a giant mosque on a nice swath of waterfront land that previously served as a major launch for traditional fishing boats.

So, the U.S. finally took notice that it was losing the war over the hearts and minds of an entire region and decided to do something about it.  It was going to build a giant, waterfront embassy about a half mile away from that new mosque.  We secured the rights to build our version of a waterfront temple on a couple of cliffside acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  Well, technically, it was cliffside hectarage, but Americans don't know what a hectare is and (without the help of one of the fine readers of this publication, I wouldn't have spelled it correctly either), so I'll continue to refer to it as acreage. 

Then, the Army Corps of Engineers came in and determined it was unsafe to build on this couple of cliffside acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  So, now we the world's most expensive softball diamond and children's playground facility in all of West Africa!

Never mind that all around this region, there is new construction on every other plot of cliffside acreage.  A massive new shopping mall was developed next to a massive new Radisson Blu hotel next to a massive new artistic monument.  The U.S. of A. picked the one place on the entire coastline that could not be built upon.

In true U.S. fashion, we would not sit idly by and become the laughingstock of West Africa.  No, it was time to turn to Plan B.  We usurped the region formerly known as "Club Med" in a very tony beachside neighborhood, tore down the entire facility and have now broken ground on a new facility that will cover enough space to host Super Bowl VXIII.  The new embassy building is expected to be complete in spring 2013 (yes, it's that big) and will employ 525 employees including a new U.S. Marine Security Guard quarters. 

And why are we doing this?  Unfortunately, parts of West Africa have recently become a training ground for Islamic terrorists.  Forget Pakistan and Afghanistan  - regions that have been at war since I've been alive - and welcome to the peaceful side of West Africa.  The deserts of Mali are where the secret wars are being fought, and you can expect U.S. military troops to die here. 

On the U.S. role in West Africa?  In the paraphrased words of Bob Yamate, newly appointed Deputy Chief at the embassy, "We just completed construction on a new school building in a rural area. That school has the emblem of the United States indelibly etched into the building.  That's the type of goodwill that will last longer than anything else we can do over here."

Hopefully, we're not too late to the party.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Island Celebration

This weekend was the Goree Diaspora Festival.  For more information on this festival, please visit
The website is written mostly in French, so I'm not sure of the exact purpose of the festival, other than one of the islanders telling me it serves as a nice kick off to the annual tourist season for the Ile de Goree. 

There are two ways to reach Goree Island from Dakar.  The first is to rent a traditional fishing boat that is the size of a four man shell utilized by college crew teams on the Charles River. I predict this vessel has an 85% chance of capsizing.  The second method is to go to the new ferry terminal and take a large seaworthy vessel named "BEER."  I couldn't make that up if I tried.  "BEER" costs 5,000 CFA (about $10) for the round trip and is about a 15 minute ride.  Beer is not included on "BEER", but I'm thinking you could BYO.

The great thing about developing nations is the complete lack of detail for safety features that would have started numerous lawsuits in the United States.  When we docked, two of the ship's crew helped us jump off onto a long, concrete breakwall/dock.  And I mean jump because the gap was well over two feet.  Then, if the waves ever crested the breakwall, it would have sent a few dozen people (including senior citizens) directly into the bay.  By the way, senior citizens were hoisted by both arms and swung onto the dock if unable to jump.

We were traveling with a dignatary - the former minister of education - who is well liked throughout Senegal.  Goree Island's Iman (Muslim leader), as well as several other important looking people, greeted us on the dock.  This was especially nice because the minister himself is Christian and the purpose of his visit was to pay homage to the Catholic church on the island during the festival.

Of course, our welcome paled in comparison to the welcome given when the next boat arrived carrying none other than Pedro Pires.  Who? You'll just have to click onto this next website to find out.  Please make sure your volume is turned up because I would not want you to miss this stirring version of their national anthem

Pedro had at least a dozen military officers surrounding him, the entire police force of Goree Island (all four of them), plus an assortment of men with suits and even more important looking people.  I estimate Pedro is no more than 4 feet, 3 inches tall but you can't really tell that from his photo.

Goree Island is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Dakar, if not all of West Africa, for a very odd reason: The House of Slaves.  The House of Slaves is one of the oldest buildings on the island and today serves as a monument to the Dark History of the Dark Continent. 

You can walk through cement holding cells with separate quarters for men, women and children.  There are even tighter quarters for the rabble rousers and dissidents.  According to the guides, millions of slaves were chained together two-by-two with heavy shackles and boarded onto awaiting ships through the very famous "Door of No Return."  The door itself is actually an opening at the end of a long cement corridor.  Ironically, the opening looks incredibly inviting as the sea green waves brilliantly offset the darkness of this exit.  Unfortunately, the end result was not so incredibly inviting and many slaves chose instead to jump - still shackled - into the shark inhabited waters and to a certain death.

Now comes the biggest horror of all:  Not much of this is actually true.  I had the good fortune to be introduced to a history professor who retired to Goree Island.  I learned the House of Slaves was built in 1776 (how's that for irony?!), nearly 200 years after the slave trade was established.  Slaves were most likely loaded onto ships at a nearby beach because the area adjacent to the Door of No Return is too rocky for any boat to set anchor.  Next, the number of slaves that actually left from Goree Island probably measured in the thousands, not millions, given the small capacity of the island itself (about 1,100 year round residents today).  Still, the building is an especially poignant tribute.

Now back to the fun stuff.  Goree Island is an incredibly laid back place that combines the best of Jamaica and Peaks Island.  Maine residents will understand the Peaks reference because it's just a short ferry ride from Portland, but a world away.  Many of the local men wear dreadlocks, and many islanders choose to work as artists or merchants selling local arts and crafts.  One estimate says 500,000 people visit the island each year, so this is especially welcome news for the residents who would otherwise have no source of income.

I met many islanders including a guide who steered me into his mother's restaurant (good) and then stiffed me for a beer (not so good, but I would have bought him one anyway).  The funny part was that I saw him about an hour later and his eyes lit up as he said, "I was looking for you!" 
But my favorite was a Rastafarian looking dude (his name is pronounded Day-lee, but I have no clue how to spell it) who instructed me on how to play the kora, an ultra-cool instrument that any guitarist would be immediately drawn to.  The kora is essentially a multi-stringed lute with a body made from a hallowed out, giant gourd and strings of nylon fishing line.  Day-lee then asked me to purchase the instrument for $100, but I was good enough to inform him that only a fool would travel to Goree with $100. 

Who wants to bet on whether or not I'll come home with a kora?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Yet Another Typical Day

People often ask me two questions that seem completely unrelated. "What's business like over there?" and "Are you having your typical, completely unbelievable life?" - a reference to the fact that once-in-a-lifetime events seemingly happen to me on a regular basis.  So, let me describe yet another typical day in paradise...

I had the day off Friday and decided to sit in a chair under a shade tree and relax with several other men whose job was to hang out in chairs under the very same shade tree.  You've probably heard stories that people in Africa survive on $1.27 a day and there is some truth to that, as I'll get to in a moment. 

The men I was lounging with were really on duty!  They are all security guards.  We have security guards because all of our neighbors have security guards and because it's a polite thing to hire locals to keep watch.  The guards like to congregate in one spot and hang out, because there is no crime wave in our neighborhood.  Also, we have security guards for the same reason we have ladies who clean, cook and do our laundry: labor is downright cheap.

The average monthly wage for household help is 50,000 to 60,000 CFA per month.  That's $100 to $125 per month for those of you keeping score at home.  I only wish we could find help in America that worked as hard for $100 to $125 per month.  Heck, I wish I could find a WIFE who would work as hard around the house and only ask for $100 to $125 per month (with apologies to Jim Sullivan for ALL-CAPS above; please see Suldog's website to see how to write an award winning blog)...

With labor this cheap, I still find it unbelievable that Senegal's unemployment rate is about 50%. Of course, 50% is the official unemployment rate.  Each street corner has a minimum of two young men trying to sell prepaid cell phone cards for about $1 per card.  These people are probably not counted in the official statistics, and I'm not sure I've ever seen them successfully peddle as much as one card, but they can work a crowd like the best carnival hawkers. 

But, back to the story.  One of the guards mentioned he was going downtown during his lunch hour to get a prescription filled for his young child.  I asked if he was taking a taxi (about $2-$3 for a 4-mile one-way ride) and he replied, "No, that's too expensive. I take the car rapide."  The car rapide (pronounced "care-a-pee") is that colorful bus that adorns my blog.  I almost tumbled out of my chair to ask if I could tag along - such was my great desire to become a car rapide tourist on my day off.

The fare to downtown is 100 CFA inward bound and 150 CFA outward bound.  I don't have a clue why there are different fares, but I splurged and paid both ways for the two of us (about $1 total).  While I was busy playing tourist, you might have guessed this is how Senegalese actually commute to work on a daily basis.  Doing the quick math, 6,000 CFA per month is equivalent to 10% of the average wages for household help. 

The car rapide is not rapid at all.  It stops every fifty feet or so to pick up passengers.  The car rapide fits about 15 passengers comfortably. I counted 37 riding in ours; 38 if you count the guy literally hanging off the back door.

Anyway, after getting the prescription filled, we had to wander through the downtown market to find our bus back home.  Dakar's population is about 4 million people not including goats and stray dogs.  I would estimate that 2 million people, 300,000 goats and most of the stray dogs wander the downtown market during lunch hour.  I nearly lost track of my security guard a dozen times as we plowed our way through the maze of people and animals - often stepping out into slow moving traffic to get around vendors or a particularly large throng of market participants.

As we crossed one street to get to the bus station, we narrowly avoided being hit by.. our official University campus cruiser!  The driver and his passenger - one of my housemates! - were busy reading directions to their destination and weren't paying any attention while navigating the crowded streets.  To put this in perspective, cross a random street tomorrow in - say, Boston - and see if you have a near-accident with 1 of 3 people that you live with (the other two of whom were on vacation and not even in the country).  In fact, see if you can recognize anyone else on that street, let alone have a near-accident with the one person you were planning on dining with that evening.  And thus answers question #2 from the opening paragraph.

To answer question #1, we shall now examine why my colleague was driving downtown in the first place.  He is the editor of an international mathematics journal and his website was down.  He went into the city to hunt down the owner of the website business so he could murder him in cold blood.

I should back up here a moment and replay a story from earlier in the week.  My colleague was in our shared office with his graduate intern.  I was easily able to eavesdrop on their conversation with the owner of the website business, wherein my friend was shouting obscenities and making constructive comments such as, "A child could have designed this site! This is nothing like what you promised! If you cannot do the work you promised, then maybe I'll hire a child to do it for me!" at which point he handed the phone to his intern and said, "Now, you tell him that in French!"

When the website completely disappeared from the Internet, there was some obvious hell to be paid.  My colleague tells the remainder of the story: "I went in and there were several employees sitting around doing nothing.  I asked for the boss. A man replied, 'He's not here.' I said, 'What happened to my website?' and he answered, 'The power is out and our generator broke this morning. The boss is out trying to get a new generator.'"

And so answers question #1.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bizarre Bazaars

I like shopping in an open air market with goats. 

Sure, we have a spanking new ocean front shopping mall, Sea Plaza.  The fact the name is written in English should give you a hint as to its target market.  While the United States may still be mired in recession, good old fashioned American consumerism is alive and well here in Dakar!

Sea Plaza has any number of shops you would find in a typical shopping mall.  It's anchored by the largest grocery chain, named Casino.  When I first came here, I thought, "What a concept! Gambling and grocery shopping!  Just put your merchandise on Black or Red and you get free groceries or pay double!" but no such luck.

Prices are typical shopping mall prices.  While the names of the stores might be a little different (there's a Samsung store, not a Best Buy; a Reebok store, not a Foot Locker, etc.), you could confuse this for a high-end mall in any major metropolitan area. 

But, you can't go shopping with a real, live goat at Sea Plaza.  So, whenever possible, I like to go to the bazaars.  There are several different marketplaces and I'll try to explain them to the novice shopper.

In downtown Dakar, vendors approach your car window and try to sell you goods.  If you need anything (and I mean anything!), you just drive into downtown at approximately one MPH, roll down your windows and wait for the vendors - who will appear as if a magic shopping mall descended upon your vehicle.  Certain things are expected for sale in this environment: sunglasses, cell phones, watches... and I'm pretty sure none of this stuff is stolen because the vendors wear giant sandwich boards with all the merchandise plainly offered for sale as compared with similar downtown markets New York City where all this fine stuff would be hidden under someone's jacket.

But, it's the other "not so normal" items that I'm constantly wondering about.  One guy was walking amongst the cars with a single ironing board for sale.  I'm not sure if he has a whole supply of ironing boards and he is known locally as "Crazy Larry: King of the Ironing Boards" or if this was his last piece of inventory and he will graduate to some better merchandise - such as selling a mop and bucket set.  Although, if he chooses the latter, Crazy Larry will be up against some stiff competition because "Mohammed the Mop Guy" was actually carrying several mop and bucket sets on his shoulder as he weaved through traffic.  This is capitalism at its finest.

There is a street in Dakar that - for at least a mile - has only furniture for sale.  There is no smarmy sales associate named Rita with an overabundance of perfume to "assist" you in the decision making process, just a continous row of locally made furniture.  Often, you will see a furniture maker cutting pieces on the sidewalk and crafting a new item while you are wandering amongst his offerings.  The smell of fresh cut wood smells good in any country.  Although I can't speak to the durability, I can tell you they spend an enormous amount of time carving figures and designs into headboards on beds and seem to care about their finished product.

If the downtown market does not suit you - because you have no vehicle, for example - then you may take one of the ubiquitous taxis to another open air market.  EVERYTHING is negotiated in Dakar, especially the taxi fares.  While this might seem a bit disconcerting to a foreign traveler, it's really quite amusing after you figure the average taxi driver has just spent five minutes negotiating with you over 1,000 CFAs, or about $2 in U.S. currency.  That's $2 for the entire ride.

By taxi, it's easy to access any number of other outdoor market places.  Some vendors have permanent shops at these markets whereas others set up shop by sitting on a carpet on the sidewalk.  These bazaars are fairly easy to describe, so rather than take time here I will recommend that you just rent any action-adventure movie that features a chase scene through a bustling market.  You know, the one where the good guy gets chased by twenty six bad guys and knocks over a vegetable stand, barely avoids getting run down by a motor scooter hurtling down a narrow alley, jumps onto an awning and... you get the picture.

What you don't get is the smell.  Dust and dirt have a particular aroma, and most of the market streets here are filled with dust and dirt.  People have distinct body odors and these are intensely magnified in the crowded markets.  I could smell the fish market from a block away, but nothing could prepare me for seeing an entire city block filled with fish vendors, customers and thousands of pounds of fresh fish being hacked to pieces.  One thing missing?  There was not a refridgerator in sight and - because of the heat - displaying fish on ice is not practical either.  The place was swarming.  Not just with people, but with flies.  Remind me not to try the sushi here... 

The meat stalls have an aroma all their own.  Most of these street butcheries actually look quite clean and it appears the flies favor fish over red meat.  That said, most of the locals prefer their meat cooked well done and I'm not sure I'll be ordering a rare burger any time soon over here.

And that brings me back to the goats.  Goats are everywhere around Dakar.  You can find a goat tied up to a post or a rock or something on just about every corner in the city.  I believe the local currency here is "goat" as in, "How much is that nifty African mask?" "Two goats and a bottle of water." 

It's not like you can ride a goat, so I've surmised that people keep goats as pets just like we might keep a dog.  Of course, you can also milk a pet goat whereas the family dog might take offense if a similar manuever was attempted.  But, there's probably a reason this country doesn't have a McDonald's yet and it's because "Goat McNuggets" sound like you might be eating a particular part of the anatomy...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

How to Win Friends and Influence People

With all due apologies to Dale Carnegie (who has been dead for 55 years, so I'm not sure if he needs the formality), the biggest drawback to moving to Senegal was not having any friends.  I should probably begin this entry by explaining my living situation:  I share a villa with three other professors who can best be described as:

* a 70-year old Belgian who takes a nap every afternoon so he can stay up to watch the 8pm soccer game
* a 65-year old Lebanese math professor who edits a math journal in his spare time
* a 30-something English professor from Boston who edits a journal on communism in his spare time

Given my free-wheeling Libertarian ways, we aren't exactly four guys you expect to find playing cards on Saturday nights.  Although it certainly makes for some interesting dinner conversation...

So, over the past two weeks I have been on a mission to meet people off campus.  This is not particularly easy given that I don't speak the local languages: French and Wolof.  Frankly, Wolof seems a whole lot easier to learn, but Rosetta Stone hasn't come up with a nifty 3-CD package and I'm not sure how much good it would do me to learn a tribal language. 

That said, have you ever noticed that French is pretty much a tribal language?  I mean who truly speaks it?  Some Canadiens have their version, some people in Louisiana have their version, a couple of Caribbean Islanders have mixed it with their language and call it Creole, the West Africans were forced to adopt it as a second language and there's a small part of Belgium that was formerly French but was probably lost as a bar bet over who could eat the most snails in under 90 seconds.  So, the next time you meet some snooty Frenchman, kindly remind him the entire world is English, Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic and that he may as well pierce his nose with a bone and wear a grass skirt because he will soon be relegated to tribal status.  But, I digress...

The first place I went to meet new friends was the local Rotary club, which - according to their website - met at a hotel.  When I arrived, I saw a GIANT sign with the familiar Rotary emblem placed next to the hostess station at the hotel lounge.  I waited for 30 minutes directly next to the GIANT sign for someone to greet  me.  In any language. 

Finally, I flagged down a waiter and asked in my best French, "Rotary rendevous?"  He led me to a back room where at least a half dozen people gasped upon my entrance - because they all walked right past me on their way to the back room.  Given the title of this blog (see: "Whitest Guy"), you would think someone - anyone! - might have noticed me.  Apparently not, so it was off to a different Rotary club two nights later.

The second Rotary club meeting went very well.  The entire meeting was held in French, but it was a budget meeting so I was able to decipher most of the content.  They also held elections - which were much less contentious than the last elections I witnessed - and invited me to a club social dinner to be held in two weeks.  They all seemed very professional.

And that's when I remembered what my daughter's kindergarten teacher told me.  When she learned I was moving to Africa during our parent-teacher conference, she pulled me aside and whispered, "You have GOT to find the hash club when you get to Dakar."

The words "hash", "kindergarten teacher" and "parent" aren't normally used in the same sentence, so when I gave her a quizzical look she explained there is an international secret society of "hash clubs" where ex-patriate runners gather.  They also happen to meet for cool beverages after they run.  And they do not advertise for new members; this club is by invitation only. 

I knew I would have to utilize all of my research and people skills to ingratiate myself to this fine group.  I Googled and I Binged and I searched high and low for any sign of the Dakar hashers; I sent two emails to two different blogs that bounced back as undeliverable; I even phoned the U.S. embassy ("Hello?  U.S. Embassy?  I'm an American citizen looking for a hash club in Dakar....  Hello?").  Nothing.

On Saturday, I decided to go for a walk.  By myself, of course.  My attempts at becoming the Dale Carnegie of Dakar had fallen woefully short.  I neglected to bring any water on my walk and took a small detour to a local merchant.  Of course, I also realized I neglected to bring any money on my walk, so I took another small detour back to my original path.  Because of that 20 minute detour, I happened across a group of people on the route back to my home.  They all wore T-Shirts that read, "Hash Club Runners."  Upon seeing my eyes light up - and my obvious parched condition - they invited me back to their secret rendevous for doughnuts and beer.  They descended on Dakar from faraway places such as Spain, Kenya, Congo and France.  The Spaniard told me it took him nearly six months of searching before he finally found his way into "The Club."  After they performed an initiation ritual - where I correctly guessed that I needed to chug a beverage upon command (why is it I can understand THAT in French?) - they invited me to join their club.

Which all proves one thing: there are no coincidences in life.  But if you would like some sound advice on finding your destiny, you might do well to consider the Dos Equis advertisements...

"Stay thirsty my friends"

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Elections in Africa

I was fortunate to be smack in the middle of election season during the past week.  The primary Presidential candidates were Ugochukwu Njoku (pronounced "Kingsley") and Amadou Abdou Kader (pronounced "Amadou Abdou Kader"), plus a lesser known candidate. 

Normally, I gravitate toward the lesser known candidate.  Heck, I think I can even name the last 3 Libertarian presidential candidates (Bob Barr, Michael Bednarik and Harry Browne) and the last 3 Green presidential candidates (Ralph Nader, Ralph Nader and Ralph Nader).  As a casual observer, I found it much more interesting to follow the two major candidates who appeared to clearly define their differences.

One of Kader's campaign posters featured a picture of him in dressed in fine, traditional African garb overlooking a tranquil garden.  It was a pensive moment meant to show his deep connection with nature.  Another poster showed him dressed almost entirely in white standing next to a monument marking the founding of an educational institute.  While his body faced the camera, his face was turned down toward the monument to show great respect for the institute.  Kader is a slight man with handsome features, and comes from a family with obvious wealth.

Kingsley's campaign poster showed a picture of him surrounded by four loosely dressed women.  He wore a black t-shirt and had a big toothy smile.  Kingsley's campaign slogan was: "Vote Kingsley!  Get Action!" and - judging by his entourage - Kingsley appears to be getting way more action than Kader.  Physically, Kingsley is also a much larger man than Kader, so he dominated his campaign poster whereas Kader appeared to blend in with his surroundings. 

The day of the elections was absolutely what you would expect from an African election and I was able to witness first hand one of the polling stations.  There was a sheet of paper containing a list of all candidates for the Senate.  Voters were asked to check off names from that list, fold the paper and place it into a can in a protected voting booth.  Fair enough. 

But, the election for president was organized in MUCH more different manner.  Voters were asked to take a slip of paper with their choice for president pre-printed on the ballot and place it into the voting can.  So, the election workers obviously knew which candidate you favored based on which slip of paper you chose.  Voters could take slips from all three candidates into the booth to help keep their vote secret, but you can tell that a voter might easily be accosted after leaving the polling station because they would still have two slips in their pocket (unless they ate the unused ballots).

Election wardens checked off the names of registered voters as they took their ballots.  No one checked ID's.  Even I was offered a ballot, but I politely declined and said I was just an election monitor from America.  Things appeared to be going smoothly until the wardens suddenly cut off the voting with at least 30 minutes left.  The largest person in line - a thuggish looking man with Rastafarian dreadlocks who was an obvious Kingsley supporter - became very vocal with his displeasure and nearly started a physical confrontation with someone at the polling station.

The votes were counted and - by a narrow margin - Kader won the election.  The Kingsley supporters were not pleased.  Led by the Rasta-Thug, they did not demand a recount - they demanded a re-vote! - and took their case directly to the Office of the Secretary.  Miraculously, the Secretary agreed with Kingsley and ordered a re-vote!  The Secretary noted there appeared to be more votes tallied than the maximum number of registered voters, and declared the first election void.

On the second round of voting, Kingsley won handily.  So, there you have it - everything you would expect in an African election!  There was electioneering, shady voting practices, ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and - when the results came in unfavorabley to the more vocal party - an overturned election!

And this was just for the right to leade the Suffolk University Dakar Campus Student Government Association... a campus of 85 students.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Championship Soccer Match

There is something about a championship game - in any sport - that creates a ring of energy around its venue.  Whether it's the Super Bowl, a high school tennis match or Christians vs. Lions, the atmosphere is charged.  Instinctively, some people begin speaking like How-ard Co-sell (look him up, kids!)

And so it was, with the local favorite Jaraaf team taking on Casa Sport for a 6:00pm championship game.  There are no reserved seats, so even if you pay top price to sit in the good section (about $10) the best you'll do is a moveable aluminum chair.  Therefore, our driver suggested we arrive early (say, 3:30pm) to watch the opening game: a "Class B" championship match between two teams no one seemed to know.

I should take a break here for a moment and explain my view of soccer. Soccer is the most boring sport in the world. I watched all of two minutes of the World Cup, and that was just so I could say I heard those annoying plastic horns that everyone seemed to be talking about. And - of course - we have 18 channels of television dedicated to nothing but soccer on our cable television.  Even ESPN's African feed shows soccer instead of SportsCenter.  But, this promised to be different...

Casa Sport is from the Casamance region of Senegal.  This particular area has been fighting for Independence and has - as recently as March, 2010 - been the only region of Senegal where the sound of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard.  This wasn't just any championship soccer match:  it really was war.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was a sea of green and white moving and singing in rhythm to the beat of a dozen drummers, real brass horns and other assorted local instruments thrown for melody.  The Casamance fans had arrived by the busload and were already partying at full speed.  It is at least a full day's drive from Casamance to Dakar, so these people had no intention of going to work the next day.

One person would dance as fast as he or she could to the music, to be replaced by the next fan in line, while the rest of the fans were doing some variation of the "Iggy Shuffle" (you might have to look that one up, too!) and waiting for their turn.  It was 86 degrees outside, and the sun was shining directly upon them.  How long could they keep up that pace?

The first championship game is what gives soccer its reputation.  Final score: 0 to 0.  That's right.  We sat for over two hours and basically watched grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  Over two hours?  That's because of "extra time".  For those not familiar with extra time, sometimes the referees think one team might have been stalling.  So - to punish the fans - he can assign "extra time" for us to sit and watch them stall even longer. 

To decide this championship, they had a shootout.  Suddenly, EVERYONE seems to be able to score.  The shootout lasted for another 30 minutes as players would queue up and take 90 seconds between shots.  The blue team won, their 26 fans went wild and my butt was already molded into the shape of an aluminum chair.  Meanwhile, the fans from Casamance kept pounding away at the drums, dancing at full speed and singing whatever song it was they were singing.

By this time, the Jaraaf fans had also shown up.  They were separated from the Casamance fans by a ten foot wide aisle - and several armed guards.  They brought their drums, their horns and their singing legion of support.  It was a duel for the ages.

Jaraaf got on the board quickly for a 1-0 lead.  Finally, someone scored a real goal!  And the only idiot in the entire stadium with a plastic horn was celebrating - directly in front of me.  At that point, I knew I was a Casamance fan and I wanted nothing more than to see that region become Independent by 8:00 pm...

Then, Jaraaf's goalie was called for interference (or some other stupid penalty) and was given "the red card".  It's a whole lot more exciting to watch a baseball umpire throw a manager out of a game than it is to watch some idiot - wearing a safety orange outfit - stand at attention holding a red card. 

Speaking of stupid penalties, soccer has a penalty called "offsides".  This rule states that if the fastest man on offense beats the defense down the field, the offense gets a penalty.  It doesn't matter where it is on the field, it's a penalty.  Let's put that in perspective for you real sports fans, with Gil Santos as the call...

Brady drops back to pass.  He sees Randy Moss down the sideline and throws toward the end zone.  Moss beats the defender for a touchdo!... Whoa!  Penalty on Moss. The defender slowed down, so it doesn't count.  Bring the ball back.

So, we watched several times as the defense actually RAN THE OTHER WAY when it saw the offense and the ball coming.  There's a great concept!  Soccer really needs to work on its marketing plan.

Anyway, Casa Sport tied the game on a penalty kick and their fans went even more wild than could be imagined.  I looked down and hoped my shirt was turning green and white. 

For the next hour or so after that score, nothing happened.  At about this point, the fights started to break out in the stands - even though no alcohol was being served at the game.  I have figured out why fights break out at soccer games: because even the most loyal of fans gets bored stupid sitting for an hour watching grown men play "Keep Away" with a ball.  They need something to do! Except for the sea of green and white, which kept on dancing, singing and moving to their own beat.

With about 5 minutes to play, Casa Sport scored again to take a 2-1 lead and their audience went wild.  The players all ran over to that section of the stadium and - they too! - began doing their "Iggy Shuffle."  I would have done it also, had I not been surrounded by a bunch of dour looking Jaraaf fans.  Casa Sport held on to win the game and their celebration with their faithful lasted for about 30 minutes.  At 10:00 pm, we left the stadium.  It was still 86 degrees outside and the continued beat of drums, harmonic singing and full speed partying by the fans from Casamance - who never once sat in their seats - continued.

Later in the week, I spoke with a high ranking government official in Dakar.  He told me the region of Casamance took an entire week off from work to celebrate the victory.  Imagine what the party would look like if they actually won Independence? 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Taste of the "Real" Africa

Let me start by saying Dakar is a very metropolitan city.  It's about as 3rd World as Storrow Drive in Boston or the Eastern Promenade in Portland.  Sure, you can find a penniless man sleeping next to a bridge, but that bridge is next to an expensive home over looking the water and the man is probably just looking for a quiet night's sleep. 

But, that's not the Africa anyone wants to see.  I wanted something a bit more dangerous!  I wanted to go on a safari!  I wanted to see "The Big 5"!  And thus far the only five dangerous, wild animals I had seen in Dakar were:
1.) The Stray Cat
2.) The Very Fast Lizard
3.) The Annoying Little Chirpy Bird outside my window
4.) The Mob of Cretins waiting for me at the airport and...
5.) The very large woman with dreadlocks who moved here from the U.S. 10 years ago and now gives tours of Dakar

So, today it was off to the Bandia Nature Reserve - a game park located about an hour outside of Dakar.  To describe Bandia is pretty simple:  It's like Busch Gardens in Tampa without the roller coaster, tram ride and childrens' petting zoo.  These are trained tourist animals who pose and smile when they see a camera.  In fact, except for the monkeys and a certain species of antelope, all the critters in the place were imported from somewhere else in Africa.

Four of us arrived in the Suffolk University 4WD campus cruiser.  In case anyone from Suffolk is reading, this was obviously a business trip.  Once we arrived, we had to hire an expert tour guide for 4,000 CFA Francs (about 8 bucks U.S.).  When you consider $8 is all the guy is going to earn for the day, it was worth renting him just for his expert knowledge of how to navigate the mud and ruts in the road.  But I digress...

The real story here is that the guide needs to sit in the front seat to tell the driver where to go.  Which means someone from our party of four had the pleasure of riding in that "third row SUV seat" for about 2 hours. You know that seat.  There's no open window or air conditioning vent.  It has all the legroom and comfort that you'd expect to find in the bathroom of an economy class flight.  And it's usually folded down so you can fit smelly soccer gear in the back, so who knows what condition it will be in when turned upright.

We did the fair thing and - after a rousing game of "rock, paper, scissors" the loser was... our 70-year old department chairman.  Hey, fair is fair.  Besides, he's seen the Nature Reserve before and I didn't come halfway across the globe to kiss his butt or try to get a promotion.  I wanted to see wild animals!

Indeed, I saw a mama giraffe with her newborn (seven days old!), water buffaloes, warthogs and a herd of impalas.  I saw monkeys, hyenas and plenty of colorful birds.  I even saw crocodiles and giant lizards.  But, the most dangerous and wild animal anyone ever has seen is a 70-year old man climbing out of the third seat of an SUV after two hours of bouncing around on dirt roads. 

I did get to see the cities of Rufisque and Thies; viewed the coastal towns of Mbour and Saly; and rode through small villages at points in between.  I saw hundreds of baobob trees (some estimated to be 1,000 years old!!!).  I saw a main street that was once a proud French outpost turned into a slum, thriving market places where you could buy one blue platform-heeled shoe (right foot) as well as various other unmatched pairs, mucky streets impassable by car being expertly navigated by horse and wagon, children playing soccer on gravel fields and even a sign for a junkyard that read, "Paradise Auto Pieces" written in perfect English.  But, that's the Africa the non-profits want you to see so you'll send more money.

Now back to my search for the real Africa...  where did we leave the old guy, anyway?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Arrival in Dakar

I arrived in Dakar on Sunday the 5th after a refreshing 8 hour direct flight out of D.C.  For the geographically challenged - Senegal is the western most point of Africa.  It's closer to New York than South Africa (which would be another 8 hour flight) or the middle east (14-20 hours).  In fact, I'm much closer to Spain or Portugal and can pretty easily escape for a long weekend in Morocco.  Of course, if you're geographically challenged, you are probably still trying to find New York on your map right now.

I know I'm somewhat of a celebrity, but even I couldn't believe the hundreds of people gathered at the airport anxiously awaiting my arrival.  After I cleared customs (thank you, Arlo Guthrie, for the advice), I was greeted by a throng of smiling faces.  Almost every one of them offered to help take my luggage.  Where they planned on taking my luggage was no business of mine, but just the simple act of politely declining these well wishers took me a considerable amount of time.

After locating my personal driver and paying a $2 tip to the nice gentlemen with the official airport vest who helped me wade through the crowd of my adoring fans, we headed off down the Ouest Corniche toward my lodging.  Dakar is an odd city for driving.  The standard right of way is "first come, first served" and the car horn is actually part of the local dialect, which translates loosely as, "I can see you."

One out of every five vehicles driving on the Corniche is a Mercedes Benz.  And one out of every five vehicles is taxi cab - usually a 1970's-era European compact sedan painted yellow with black fenders to more easily disguise the damage to every corner of the car.  Each taxi also has a dangling side view mirror and a broken windshield - which are obviously mandatory components of the vehicle inspection laws for livery vehicles here.  I didn't take the public transportation, but have attached a photo of their bus as my signature stamp to your right.  Those who have seen my brightly colored wardrobe will quickly realize that I will blend in just fine around here in Senegal as "The Whitest Guy in West Africa"...