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 http://jimsuldog.blogspot.com/ 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.