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.