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?"...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Plage des Mamelles

I tend to post my blog Sunday mornings, but it never occurred to me to write about what I actually DO every Sunday.  I take Sunday afternoons off and head to my favorite, secluded little beach.  One might think this is quite selfish and that I do not want anyone to know about my favorite, secluded little beach for fear that my blog (read by - who? - tens of millions of tourists each day before embarking on their journeys to Dakar???) might destroy the character of this place.

In fact, I don't want the beach to become overrun with tens of millions of tourists.  But, after speaking with my favorite bartender, Adame, last Sunday, I realized that he WANTS more people to know about this fine place since this is how he makes his living.  Since this is my only outlet for spreading the word, the following is a picturesque tour of my favorite place in Dakar...

Surprisingly, I never knew this beach existed until I located it on a tourist map.  This is a classic tourist map where things are identified by little icons with short descriptions, such as an icon with a grocery store cart and a short description of "supermarche".  Le Plage des Mamelles had an icon of a little umbrella that the map key described as "site balneaire" (literally: nice tourist spot).  There was also an icon describing the place as safe to swim. 

The beach is very easy to miss because it is located next to Phare de Mamelles - a lighthouse located on the highest point in Dakar.  I love to run up the steep, winding path to the lighthouse to view the entire city.  To the north is the Almadies region with its sandy beaches, rocky points and distinctive cape formation that pokes out into the ocean like a bird's beak.  To the east is the airport where I can watch planes arriving and departing.  To the expansive south is the downtown section, but from here it is also easy to see the Madeleine Islands (a bird sanctuary with no human residents) as well as Goree Island.  This is a working lighthouse including a light keeper's family living amidst.  There is no fog horn, which I miss from Cape Elizabeth...

But, you can't see the beach from the lighthouse!  The lighthouse is situated on a 105 meter high cliff and the beach is located directly adjacent to the cliff.  From the beach, the lighthouse stands as a small building atop an imposing tower of rock.  The rocks show obvious striations, but there are also natural carvings in the rock that are reminiscent of Mesa Verde cave dwellings.  In fact, the entire rock formation and surrounding area looks like Arizona; a desert with cactus plants strewn about at random and dirt trails leading to nowhere. 

Now, picture Arizona with an ocean and a tiki bar.  How cool would that be?  Not as cool as Plage des Mamelles...

The ocean temperatures are actually quite cold!  Warmer than Maine waters, of course, but Dakar is on the same latitude as Belize, halfway between the Troic of Cancer and the Equator, so it would seem the waters here might be of a similar temperature.  No such luck.  Belize is tempered with the Caribbean Sea, whereas Dakar gets slammed with the mighty Atlantic.

"Slammed" is a perfect description for the waves that hit this beach.  The waves are normally over six feet high with a perfect surf or boogie board swell.  While this might not seem conducive to swimming, the natural formation of the tide line and the beach itself are perfect.  In the ocean, just beyond the "wave line," the sand has somehow collected such that you can be standing on your feet with your head above water while watching the waves hit the beach!  In other words, there are parts of the ocean less than 6 feet tall beyond where the waves form and hit the beach.  Not a sandbar, just a hilly formation under the ocean's waters.

The physical characteristics of Plage de Mamelles are beautiful, but what makes this place truly special are the people.  There are rarely more than 50 people at the beach - ever - on Sundays.  And, this is the only beach I've seen in Dakar that has a perfect mix of locals, tourists and ex-patriates.  I have always seen at least two mixed race couples (white male/black female and black male/white female), pairs of single females, single men in groups, groups of young ex-patriates and families with children (also often of mixed race).  There is almost always a group of people playing soccer on the beach - locals and tourists easily mixing into a game.

Some of the credit for this mix is due to the "owners" of the tiki bar: a group of three "Senegalese Rastafarians" who have taken the time to develop tiki huts to provide shade, as well as create a tiki bar serving cold beverages and the local sandwich.  The tiki huts are exactly as you might picture: straw thatch roofs set on sturdy poles.  What's especially nice, though, are the little artistic touches that are carefully placed about.  For example, an old plastic jug with a handle has been transformed into a happy face.  The handle serves as a nose, while two buttons have been added for eyes and a smile is drawn on to complete the "face."  This would be called "folk art" in developed countries, but here it's just something fun to add to the atmosphere. 

Adame is my favorite server.  He has a big, toothless smile (only two upper incisors!), yet he is likely not even 35 years old.  His English is as good as my French, but we seem to communicate well.  One week, I was on vacation and didn't come to the beach.  When I returned the next week, he smiled and shouted, "You're home!"

The Rasta-Senegalese have a monopoly here.  (As an aside, I don't want to get these guys in any trouble, so I'll just use Rasta-Senegalese as a code-phrase and you can sort of draw your own conclusions...)   They could charge whatever they want for drinks and food.  If this place was in the Caribbean, you would easily pay $5 for a beer and $10 for a sandwich.  Instead, beer is 1,000 CFA (about $2, compared to buying a single bottle at the store for $1) and sandwiches are the same price.  I think it's just easier for them to divide up 1,000 CFA bills at the end of the day...

The sandwich is a local specialty: a fried egg served on French bread, with fried onions and french fries stuffed into the sandwich.  The sandwich is topped with ketchup and a local spread that is made with mustard, oil and chopped garlic.  It's the messiest sandwich you can possibly eat, but there's an ocean a few steps away to wash your hands when you're finished.  It is also the perfect dish to accompany an ice cold local beer and both of these are the perfect accompanient to a sunny, 80 degree afternoon.

Tipping is not normal in Senegal, but I always leave something extra for Adame so he can buy cigarettes.  And, for Adame's sake, I hope this place becomes the most successful tourist spot in all of Senegal. 

Right after I leave...   

Sunday, April 24, 2011

More Vignettes

The trash truck arrives about three times a week.  Dakar is one of those areas where you wouldn't dream of leaving your trash outside overnight, much less for a few hours in the day because of scavengers (both human and animal).  To be fair, the animals are just searching for food and are rather courteous while the humans will strew the trash all over the place looking for a broken cell phone. 

To alert the residents, the trash truck gives its signal when it arrives on the street:  multiple blasts on an air horn.  We're not talking a pleasant little honk; we're talking a driver laying on the horn for a count of five, followed by several repetitive blasts.  I'm not sure if you've ever been awakened by an air horn at 7:00 am, but it would seem to be a bit more user friendly if they just established something called "a schedule" for when they will pick up the trash.


From a physical perspective, young Senegalese women are some of the most beautiful women in the world.  They dress well, have incredibly expressive eyes and are usually very physically fit.  Yet I have rarely seen a middle-aged Senegalese woman who might be considered physically beautiful.  It's almost as if they go from age 25 to age 50 immediately after having children and there are no women between at any ages in between.

Some women might find that comment offensive, but I mentioned it to a Senegalese woman who said, "It takes a lot of work to keep up appearances, so once the women get married they just sit around, get fat and have more babies."


The Presidential motorcade often drives through Dakar.  Military men are stationed every 100 yards on both sides of the street for the entire length of the President's travels.  The motorcade is led by two Gendarme motorcyclists who make a first pass through the route in order to clear traffic.  Afterward, the motorcyclists circle back and join to other police motorcyles, four S.U.V.'s, two limosines, two vehicles with the President's license plate, an ambulance and a military vehicle - plus the official car of whatever dignatary they are escorting. 

The military men stand in place until the President's journey is complete.  They are then picked up one-by-one by a second military vehicle.  The Presidential vehicles have curtains on the windows, ostensibly so would-be assassins cannot tell which vehicle he is in, but it also has a not too subtle effect on eliminating any piece of reality that the President might actually see.  It makes me wonder how Obama, or any other head of state, can have any clue as to how the real people actually live - and what traffic in Washington, D.C. must look like.  It also makes me think that the President would probably be safer if he just hopped into a taxi - because no one would have any reason to search for him there. 

But, I give all this background information for a classic Senegalese juxtaposition: last week the Presidential motorcade was driving down a road where raw sewage was flowing like a river.  All the money spent on pomp and circumstance - yet the President is completely oblivious to the fact that people just want broken pipes fixed promptly.  At least the motorcylists leading the way now know about the issue...


A friend logged onto the Internet and learned that one of her friends (age 33) died.  Besides the obvious condolences, I asked what anyone in America would have asked: "How did she die?"

My friend shrugged her shoulders and responded: "She got sick."

Imagine living in a country where death is so prevalent that people don't even know the cause of death, much less whether the illness could have been prevented or treated.  The deceased was married and left two children.  The youngest child is two years old.


It was mid-week and a colleague wanted to introduce me to a nightclub/gambling casino because I casually mentioned that I had not had a chance to try all of the sins this fine Muslim nation had to offer.  Being mid-week, the club was fairly empty.  However, I clearly heard voices speaking my language - American English and discovered several active duty U.S. military personnel on a 48-hour leave.

People see the news and think they understand what our servicemen are doing.  We are peacekeeping in Iraq.  We are trying to make villages safer in Afghanistan.  We are trying to stop the Libyan army from killing its own citizens.  What they don't see are all the smaller missions that are being carried out in some of the most God-awful places in the world. 

The deserts of Mali are a training ground for Taliban.  The soldiers could not tell me anything of their mission, but I learned they had been in the desert without seeing a bottle of water for four days.  They asked if I was safe and one soldier even pulled me aside to ask if I had a weapon or if I needed anything for protection.

There is no better feeling than buying active duty infantry a round of drinks in a foreign land where no one knows anything about who, what or why they are fighting.  Our soldiers are the best. 

Why do I have more compassion for stray cats than human beings when it comes to creatures begging me on the street?  I think it's because the cats show genuine appreciation when I help.


Regular readers to this blog will note that I have been trying to learn French with little to moderate success.  Because I don't speak French, people - especially my African co-workers - mistakenly think I don't UNDERSTAND French.

This would be a big mistake.  An even bigger mistake would be to talk about me "behind my back" whilst riding in the same vehicle as me... especially if you are an African co-worker who is trying to earn a year-end bonus...


My French tutor (who is actually of Russian descent) was mugged on the Ouest Corniche.  The Ouest Corniche is probably comparable to Central Park in New York: beautifult by day, but stay away at night.  The mugging occured at 8:00pm.  It was three grown men against one woman with a sprained ankle.  The criminals made away with a backpack that contained cheese, bread, cans of soup, a book on French verbs and - most important - a French language book written in Russian.

I can guarantee you the thiefs will earn exactly $0 from the sale of the French/Russian book and a book of French verbs.  But, to my friend, those are tools for employment.  Without them, she has nothing. 

There really ought to be a special place in hell for people who steal without having a clue as to the real value their "booty" has to the person who was attacked.  I know, I know... "Happy Easter" and "Go to Hell" don't usually appear in the same article, but it seems particularly fitting for this instance.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Accro-Baobab Adventure

Accro-Baobab Adventure is the name of a real business in Senegal.  It is billed as being "fun for all ages: from 4 to 77!"

The business is obviously owned by a foreigner because there is a functioning website with prices clearly displayed, a working telephone number answered by a bilingual staff member, read-able directions accompanied by a map as well as numerous photos of people who look like they are enjoying themselves.  Don't believe any of the photos: these people have already soiled their pants as part of a "team building exercise" and are trapped on the course.  Those grins are the same ones you might see in an insane asylum from people who are laughing hysterically at their situation.  As I will explain...

First, let me explain the baobab.  The baobab is a giant tree: usually about 60 to 80 feet high with a trunk diameter of 24 inches.  Giant.  There are "baobab forests" that dot the country-side, but it is definitely possible to see giant baobabs still standing in the city limits of Dakar.  The tree is known as the tree of life in Senegal because it provides fruit ("monkey bread"), the leaves may be eaten and the tree can store water.  The tree is pulpous, meaning you can't chop it down for wood to build anything (which is probably why there are still so many remaining).  Also, in some cultures, people are buried in a hollowed out section of the boabab.  Sometimes the trunks can "break open" while the tree is still standing and it is possible to see a random skull or other bones lodged into a portion of the trunk.  I might have inserted that last part for "dramatic effect."

My friend and I were chauffeured to this fine location by our driver who never met a bump in the road he didn't like.  In fact, our driver takes the phrase "speed bump" quite literally as "go very fast over this bump."  We arrived in record time.

I knew roughly where the location was and wisely packed three 1.5 liter bottles of water as well as some cashews and chocolate covered bisquits (think Keebler Fudge grahams, or - if you are a high-classed citizen - think LU chocolate covered busquits, which is pretty much exactly what these are) because there isn't a grocery store around for miles.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by some local men dressed in official "Accro-baobab Adventure" shirts who were happy to strap a harness, clamps, a pulley and some other gear onto us.  No safety helmet required.  Heck, it wasn't even an option.  I love this country. 

I had been ziplining in Costa Rica before and had presumed this was going to be a similar adventure.  At the ziplining course, the workers did everything for us.  They strapped on our gear.  They secured our pulleys.  They were located at both the beginning and ending platforms of each location to assist with getting on and off the zipline.  It honestly couldn't have been easier. 

Our first clue that this wasn't Costa Rica is when we were taken to a "practice course" by our guide.  He spoke very little English and my friend and I speak very little French.  There are many of you who have seen horror movies and there's always a point in the horror movie where you fairly scream at the television, "No! Turn around! Run!"  My friend was screaming those exact words while asking for an English speaking guide.  I decided I had to be brave for the both of us, so I dutifully went through the practice course without difficulty.  My friend was able to find a worker who spoke enough broken English to build the absolute minimum level of confidence required to complete the practice course.  Then, it was off to the real thing.

First, we climbed a giant baobab tree using a strategically placed ladder.  Our safety equipment was tethered to the ladder and this was fairly easy - although a bit strenuous.  After reaching the top of the platform, we were then instructed on how to zip-line across a 60 foot ravine to another baobab.  In the back of my mind, I asked myself "How is a 4-year old was supposed to figure out how to stop at the other side with no one there to assist?" but I quickly put that out of my mind as I went hurtling through the air.  This was the easy part of the course.

We continued through a maze of activities that could only be described as a vicious prank developed by all the contestants who have ever played (and lost) the television game show "Survivor."  There were rope walks, catwalk bridges, more ziplines, more trees to climb on ladders and planks that were much more rickety than the "practice course" ever would have suggested.  And it was getting hot outside. About 85 degrees to be exact.  Our driver was taking photos of this hilarious excursion while drinking his bottle of water.  That's when it really hit me.  There was no way to actually get off the course without completing the course!  And there wasn't an ounce of water anywhere to be found in these tree-tops without actually hacking one of them open with a machete.

My friend - who is self-admittedly allergic to exercise - was getting a bit tired at one point.  Our guide let her rest at one platform and pointed for me to continue along to another section of the course.  After we had begun this course, he informed me with a smile that this particular section was the "military course."  I discovered why moments later when I was asked to traverse a particular section consisting of two swinging logs followed by two stirrups followed by two rope-swings followed by another swinging log. 

I would have paid a monkey $30 to bring a bottle of water up to me.  The monkey would have laughed because it wouldn't have been stupid enough to attempt the military course.  My friend, who by this time was very well rested, laughed heartily when I finally returned to her platform after performing 5 other tasks.

We finally zip-lined down to the finish area where we were once again photographed.  After landing, we were led to a "break" area where we were served approximately two ounces of hot tea.  I asked my driver to bring a bottle of our water, but forgot that the water had been sitting inside of a locked vehicle for two hours and was now hotter than the tea!

It was about this time that my friend and I noticed some small children.  It was also at this time we discovered there was a children's course.  The children were strapped into their safety gear and happily zipping across "their" course.  The children's course consisted of 10 foot trees and wide platforms occupied by helpful staff to assist their entry and exit onto the course.  They also had a big trampoline to play on.  They were laughing and smiling.   I was unable to lift my arms over my head for 4 days.

I have to end this with a quick post script.  As we were about to leave, a group of Chinese tourists were embarking on the course.  One of the tourists was, ahem, a bit timid to zip-line across the first section and was trying to wrap her arms around the trunk of the baobab for protection.  After a dozen or so false starts, she finally made it across. 

My friend and I couldn't help but take pictures, laugh and smile as we left for the day.  We drank our hot water and the chocolate had completely melted on our bisquit-cookies.  We both agreed they were the best cookies we had ever tasted.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Meeting with the Ayatollah

I met with the real, live Ayatollah!  Not THAT Ayatollah, but a local guy here that is considered the holiest of the holy for the minority sect.   His name is Ayatoullah Al-Sheigh Abdul Mone'm Al-Zien.  I was too afraid to ask if I could just call him Al...

He is able to travel freely through every country in West Africa on a diplomatic visa and is revered as a king by his followers.  The Ayatollah is of Lebanese decent, so I obviously visited with my Lebanese friend to ensure proper translation.  Okay, I was traveling with my boss, the former Minister of Education, to give the news that our campus was closing and I was essentially just tagging along so I could say I met an Ayatollah, but humor me for a moment with my self-importance.  On another note, my Lebanese friend is also responsible for the spelling of the Ayatollah's name, although I'm pretty sure it's not correct because every Google search turned up empty. 

There is a strong Lebanese contingent in Dakar - about 25,000 - and, like many places, they run the bodegas, grocery stores, money changing shops and other small businesses that the locals never seem to figure out how to do for themselves.  And, like many places, they are largely reviled in the city. 

We were welcomed into the meeting room which might be described as "Muslim retro-chic" if that was the motif someone was trying to achieve.  It might also be described as "hasn't been updated in 30 years" since the wall-to-wall carpeting, faux leather furniture and gargantuan coffee table were obvious relics.  The bookshelves were packed with what might have been the Arabic Encyclopedia Britanica, but I'll never know for sure.  For all I know, the books may have consisted of 35 years of back issues of "Good Housekeeping" magazine set in fancy bindings. Although I'm pretty sure it wasn't the latter, because we were served cheap tea and very cheap store-bought cookies upon the arrival of "The King."  There's a reason some people have a lot of money: they don't spend it.

The Ayatollah is a Shiite in a town where the Sunnis outnumber them by the millions.  I was told beforehand that this man was very open-minded and is considered by many to be "a thinking man."  After meeting him, I draw the conclusion these personality traits are probably as much a function of being a minority pragmatist for more than 20+ years instead of being truly open-minded. 

The Ayatollah lamented the politicians' requests for Lebanese support in the upcoming elections.  "They come to us many months before an election asking for money and for our votes; then we don't see them or hear from them for 5 years."  In other words, not much different than the U.S...  He made some suggestions (including one that I hear more and more often - that my boss should run for president) including the keen observation that he cannot support 15 different opposition candidates such that the opposition might be smart by consolidating to one candidate that he might be able to support.

He spoke of how the current administration has done little in terms of public works for its citizens.  He noted the Lebanese Shiites have built a hospital that has served more people - free of charge - than the government-run hospital.  The Ayatollah is considered "a friend of math and science" and he told of the new school being constructed in downtown Dakar and offers to build other schools in the rural areas.  He even explained how his organization made a generous offer to build a new power plant to assist with the regular electricity shortages.  Of course, there was a small catch: "We only asked that we be allowed to take the regular profits from this power plant."  In other words, proposal was dead on arrival because the current power structure is much more concerned with having a monopoly on taking profits from state-run enterprises than in providing more electricity.

We left after an hour's time and with a list of complaints that we were asked to take to "people who can do something about them."  It seems this is one case where controlling a big pile of money can't buy happiness.

There is a very relevant side note to my visit.  The mess in Cote D'Ivoire has had a dramatic impact on the Lebanese community in that country.  They made the silly mistake of siding with the now deposed leader, Laurent Gbagbo.  The Lebanese are now being persecuted by the new, democratically elected leader; their stores are being looted, their homes are being burned and their bank accounts are being frozen.  Funny how we never hear about these stories on the evening news.  Many of the Cote D'Ivoire Lebanese are fleeing for the relative safety of Dakar. 

It is a reminder that supporting one political agenda in Africa is enough to get you killed if it's the wrong agenda.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Traditional Music Concert

For me, one of the biggest draws to come to West Africa was the music.  I love all types of music (okay, opera is awful and I've never been a big fan of country OR western), but I devour world music with the same appetite as a pile of ribs with slathering sauce...  I must have listened to every African CD released by Putumayo Music and was ready to absorb sounds upon arrival.

If you read any guidebooks for Senegal, they will explain the rich culture and how music is a part of everything in West African culture.  I expected to get off the plane and be greeted by a welcoming committee of local musicians.  I expected my students to sing and play instruments while studying for a test.  I expected drum circles on every corner and singing at the grocery store.  Instead, the only local music I ever hear is what we Americans would refer to as "urban."  That's right: most of the Senegalese men listen to rap and gangsta while the women listen to "pop/soul" and the equivalent of the Top 40. 

In fact, the worst American export ever can be readily found here.  I'm not talking about Michael Jackson, I'm talking about the fashion style wherein young black men wear their pants halfway down their butt.  One of my students (who is a bit overweight and incredibly NOT hip) tried out this fashion with disastrous results.  Apparently no one told him that if you want to try that style, you're not supposed to wear "tighty whiteys" underneath...

So when I learned of a traditional music concert featuring artists from the Casamance region, I jumped at the chance to see some real, live African music.  But first, I had to get there... Every taxi driver in Dakar will nod yes when you tell them where you want to go.  I could say, "Worcester, Massachusetts" and the driver would nod in agreement and give me a price.  Only after they drive into downtown will they stop to ask directions. 

To make matters worse, the concert was venue was listed as the Theatre de Verdure.  Everyone (except me, and - of course - the taxi driver) knew this place better as "The French Institute."  We stopped at least 5 times to ask for directions.  Then, before the driver actually arrived at the location, he stopped to and ask for more money because he didn't realize it was located so far away.  This ensued in the usual argument of epic proportions (he in Wolof, me in English) and resulted with me exiting the taxi to find my way from who-knows-where.

I arrived 20 minutes late, but that was okay because everything in Dakar is one "African time."  My friends will tell you I am 20 minutes late for everything in America, but I seem to be the only person who shows up for any event in Dakar expecting it to start promptly.  The lights were down as I found a seat and the band kicked into high gear.

The concert itself was fantastic.  The band was called Keloumake and the musicians played traditional instruments such as the kora (a stringed instrument made from a gourd that is played much like an Irish harp), an akontig (a lute-like instrument with a bamboo neck called a "bangoe" that - not surprisingly - produces a banjo-like sound), the bougarabou (drums), a bolong-guineen (another gourd-like drum instrument), a bass player, a guitar player and an attractive female singer/dancer.  After reading all that, wouldn't it be easier if I just inserted a link?

You'll notice the akontig player is dressed in traditional garb of bare feet and a giant tie-dye diaper.  He smiled all throughout the performance.  He may have even toured with the Grateful Dead in the 70's...

Which brings me to the unexpected irony of this blog entry: the audience.  During the first song, the lights were panned onto the audience and I realized the place was filled with what looked to be rejects from a PBS beg-a-thon.  Of approximately 150 attendees, at least 80% of the audience was comprised of white, middle-aged people (me included).  Two women who would  have easily qualified in the category of "earthy, crunchy" began dancing in front of the stage during the first song.  I'm not sure what tribe they belong to, but if their dance was indicative of their mating ritual I am pretty sure I understand why neither one of them wore a wedding ring.

That's when I realized I would have to change my ways.  I might be getting older, but I can't believe I have devolved so much that I am now willing to spend money to hang out with the "Kum-Bay-Ah" crowd.

I think I'll go listen to some gangsta rap to make myself feel younger.  I might even pull my pants halfway down my @$$... but, don't ask what I'm wearing underneath!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In the Rough

Many businessmen or women who travel frequently are concerned with a single item: can they sneak in a round of golf?  This week, I finally played a resort golf course at Le Meridien Hotel.  To be fair, Dakar hasn't seen rain in four months so I was expecting the course to be in terrible shape.  That didn't matter; I was looking for was "The Experience."  And a new blog entry.  But, what an experience it was!

I arrived with a student who had never played golf, but has shown a keen interest by wearing argyle sweaters and knickers to school.  This particular student is also fairly well off financially so I wasn't worried about him spending all of his allowance in one place.  Golf can be a ridiculously expensive little hobby...

Prior to our arrival, I thought ahead and said, "We should go to the sporting goods store less than one mile away and buy golf balls and tees."  The sporting goods store less than one mile away did not sell any golf accoutrements.  This should be your first indication as to golf's popularity rating amongst the locals, but at least I felt better about paying "pro shop" prices knowing I had made some effort at advance planning.

Upon arrival, I learned that greens fees were 15,000 CFA (about $30) and renting a set of golf clubs was 10,000 CFA (about $20).  These fares were inclusive for the entire day, so I could play 9 holes or 27 holes for the same price.  This is comparable to prices at very mediocre U.S. 9-hole golf courses, so I paid with nary a second thought.  The course superintendent asked if I needed balls and tees.  I learned that 10 balls would cost 3,000 CFA (about $6, not too awful) and then I began to wonder about the balls.  There's no such thing as a 10-pack of new balls and - indeed - I was not surprised to receive a black plastic bag with 10 used balls.  "Gently used" would be a vast understatement:  these balls couldn't have made it more than 20 yards on the driving range.  I even think the word "Range" was removed with paint thinner to give the balls an extra sheen. 

Then, I was presented with a nice bag of new golf tees.  For $6.  Yes, $6 for 40 pieces of carved wood.  To put that in perspective, I can buy a hand-carved set of "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" monkeys for $6 in Africa.  I could probably hit the monkeys farther than the golf balls, but the point here is not to complain about price (like all golfers do); I was here for the experience of West African golf.  And a new blog entry.

Then came the big surprise:  for some reason, we happened to mention the student had never played golf before.  The course superintendent shook his head and apologized profusely, but said the student could not go out on the course by himself if he was a true "golf virgin."  The student would have to hire the club professional and pay for a lesson.  In fact, he could hire the club professional and take the lesson directly on the course so that we could enjoy the day together, but he could not go out without hiring the club pro.

I shuddered to think what this was going to cost.  Then, the superintendent said the club pro would cost 10,000 CFA, but that would include the lessons, clubs and one hour on the course.  I scratched my head for a moment.  Didn't I just pay 25,000 CFA without golf lessons to hack my way through the very same course? Such is pricing in West Africa.

We were greeted by the club professional and I was pleased to see my greens fees also included my very own personal caddy.  I have never had a personal caddy before and looked forward to having such a knowledgable advocate on my side. 

The club pro was as knowledgable as your average high school golf team dropout.  No matter what happened, he would go into some theatrics as if to mime, "You lifted your head."  My student could have run up to the ball like Happy Gilmore attempting to whack Bob Barker, but he still would have received the same advice of "You lifted your head."  Then again, he was playing golf for 60% less than I was so he couldn't complain about the lack of precision from his newfound mentor.

But my caddy was a different story.  This was a man who knew the inner workings of the course.  Its design, its nuances, its intricacies.  And it didn't matter how far away I was from the hole, he would look at the bag and say, "6 Iron?"  I finally figured out the 6 iron was the only club that wasn't warped, bent or ripped to shreds and I played most of the day with the trusty 6 iron.  My set of rental clubs also came conveniently loaded with a left handed putter.  I'm right handed, but you'll see in a moment that really doesn't matter...

I'm the worst golfer in the world and THAT is the best part about playing golf in Dakar.  No one can possibly get angry about their score because the greens aren't much more than sand with grass sprouts.  After four holes, I was laughing so much at the greens that I felt I couldn't do much worse than putting left-handed.  I asked my caddy for the club and proceeded to sink a 20-footer from the fringe. 

The beauty of golf in Dakar is that it's a microcosm for the rest of Dakar.  Hakuna Matada; no worries.  We didn't even have a scorecard.  The club pro was insistent that I take a mulligan after every bad shot.  "Favorable lie" was the rule, not the exception.  Oh - and the course markers are listed in meters, not yards - which I discovered halfway through the course when I couldn't seem to reach the green with my trusty 6 iron...

To top it off, this is an oceanfront course with views reminscent of playing golf in Hawaii.  There was even a cliffside hole where I had to hit over an ocean cove to get to the green.  I missed, but my ball hit a rock and bounced what appeared to be about 100 feet in the air - nearly landing back on the fairway. 

So, if you're coming to play golf in Dakar do yourself a favor and leave the Visa card at home because I don't think they accept it here.  Bring a sleeve of balls, your own bag of tees and forget about your handicap.  It's going to be a great day.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Finally! Protests in Dakar!

What?  You didn't hear about the Dakar protests on ABC/CBS/NBC world news?  That's because there is no oil here.  And no tourism.  And no jobs.  And no one was killed.  What Senegal needs is a good old fashioned riot, but it will likely not happen for reasons that will become clear.

I have written previously about my thoughts on whether or not we'll see reform in this country (my analysis is "no"), but it was interesting that Senegal was the first country outside North Africa (read: first black nation) to have a protest.  This isn't as sexy as North Africa (read: Arab) protests because there was no secret cabal of texting, and twittering and Facebooking.  In fact, I learned of the protests from a tersely worded message from the U.S. Embassy advising me to stay away from the area.  I stayed away, but only because I was on spring break and already out of the country...

Therefore, you are getting only second hand knowledge of the protests.  But, first a little background...

Two people have thus far set themselves on fire and a third was going to attempt it, but was foiled before he could be successful.  The first person who succeeded was a military veteran who needed medical assistance and was unhappy with the help he had been receiving.  By all accounts, he was a troubled man.  The second person was a mystery.  He was a young man who wasn't particulary politically active; newspaper reports gave quotes from friends and family saying they really couldn't figure out why he did it.  Nothing to report on the third man (other than "foiled attempt").

So, the seeds of discontent are here, but how could they not be?  The President is widely reported as being 85 years old.  Many think this is an understatement of his true age.  The reason for the protests are pretty simple:  after 11 years of rule, the President is running for a 3rd term (lasting 5 years).

There is no strong opposition, so he will likely win (more on that in next week's post, by the way).  Actually, in Senegal, the major opposition party is paid to oppose the party in power.  Come to think of it, that's a pretty sweet occupation: paid curmudgeon ("Hey Larry, what'd you do at work today?"  "I opposed things. Of course, everything I opposed was approved, but that's my job...").

And, once the President wins re-election, he will likely do as all great African leaders do:  try to turn the government over to his son.  The voters of Dakar already rejected his son's candidacy for mayor, but that certainly won't stop this politcal dynasty.  Meanwhile, unemployment remains at about 49% and power outages are the daily norm - often for more than half the day - and prices for consumer staples have doubled under the current administration.

Even though Dakar is a pretty peaceful place (for example, our protestors chant "He should go" and "Vote him out"), President Wade is a pre-emptive type of guy.  Upon hearing news of the upcoming protest, he did what all great African leaders would have done:  he arrested the organizers BEFORE the event started and charged them with an attempted coup-d'etat.  So, when all the protestors got together to listen to rabble rousing speeches... there was no one to give the speeches.  Reuters reports there were more on-lookers than demonstrators.

Elections next year should be very interesting.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

We're Going to the Zoo!

Many people mistakenly assume that - just because I'm in Africa - there are wild animals lurking around every corner.  The only four-legged creatures I've seen since my winter break at the San Diego Zoo have been cats, dogs and rodents and I thought it was high time to spend a morning at Dakar's municipal park zoo, located adjacent to the Parc Forestier De Hann.

Admission was 350 CFA per person (that's 75 cents each, if you're counting at home), so I decided to splurge and take a "local" with me to help translate in case I had questions.  Upon arrival, the zoo was everything you would expect from a municipal zoo that charges 75 cents for admission.

"Disrepair" would be a vast understatement for the conditions.  Most cages featured such animal friendly accoutrements as concrete, chipped lead paint and rust.  Apparently, the zookeepers are afraid the animals are either going to breed or fight, so most often animals were singularly housed while a potential companion was located directly adjacent in a separate cage.  Many cages appeared abandoned.  There was no clue as to species of the prior residents as there were no identifying labels on any cages. 

In America, zoologists have discovered "marketing" and develop "animal habitats" and "exhibits."  These were pretty much prison cells.  About the only things missing were a stainless steel toilet and soap on a rope.

The good news is that primates stand a chance of getting a good meal.  And that's not because of the staff or the grand municipal budget, but because there's a lady selling bananas, nuts and vegetables in front of the zoo for prices that are comparable to grocery store prices.  We bought two bunches of bananas and proceeded to a row of cages where we could feed the monkeys.

One of the monkeys (or chimpanzees or apes or insert identification sign here) had learned a skill that I call "entertaining the tourists."  If you waved your hand around in a circular fashion, he would do a pirouette and then a little shuffle-dance before taking a small bow.  It was actually the highlight of the day.  He was well fed.

Some of the primate cages housed two residents. There would always be one dominant primate who would not allow the other to get any banana.  My guide noted, "Now you see how the real Africa works."

Many of the areas that housed larger animals consisted of a simple fence with one access gate.  Often, there would be no lock on the access gate.  I was tempted to walk in and visit with a water buffalo - who appeared no more scary than a dairy cow - as well as a large animal that looked like a combination of horse and antelope.  The "horselope" (seriously, I think I'm going to go back with cardboard signs so the next person will at least know what to call it)  was "fenced in", but someone had ripped a hole in his fence that was large enough to enable the creature to stick his head out so visitors could feed him.  He was also well fed. 

My disappointment with the zoo could not have been more apparent than when we viewed what would have been a major event at any other zoo in the world.  A baby lion was recently born (umbilical cord remnant still visible), but there was not a single sign announcing the birth.  Also, the young fella was separated from his mother and father and left to sleep alone in a previously abandoned cage.

On that note, I asked my companion, "How do they get enough money to buy food for the lions if they only charge 75 cents admission?"  Within moments, we figured out the answer as we drifted into an area that DEFINITELY should have been off-limits to the public and found a small goat farm on-site.  While we were admiring the goats, I looked down and saw what I can only describe as "hoof remnants" scattered across the ground.  They appeared to have been gnawed off by the lion.  I think we were in the lion's feeding area...

One of the funnier moments was viewing "exotic" animals.  Think about it: we're in Africa, so what animals might be considered exotic?  How about the rare and endangered pigeon?  There was an entire section dedicated to this highly regarded fowl.
My friend shuddered when walking past the hyena cage.  She told me a story from her youth about how the "magic men" in her village would go into the woods at night and turn themselves into hyenas.  Then, they would roam the woods in search of prey.  Children, of course, did not go into the woods at night for fear of the hyenas.  We did not stay long at the hyena cage.

Generally, I avoid politics and policy on this blog, but I think this a clear, unfortunate example of where government is not properly supporting a public resource.  This place should be privatized immediately and be given a chance for success (like the highly successful local game reserve). 

All of Dakar would be better off if the government allocated the budget to an organization (non-profit or profit) that could then raise additional funds and run this place like a true educational exhibit.  If Dakar wants to attract tourists, a top ranked zoo in West Africa could be a very strong selling point.  The bureaucrats could even cap admission at 75 cents for all Senegalese children in exchange for budgetary support. 

The biggest worry with my suggestion is that whichever monkey gains control of the place might keep all the bananas for himself rather than do the right thing for the community.  Still, he couldn't do much worse than the monkey currently in charge.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Define "Cold"...

First, I have never quite grasped the concept of "Writer's Block."  How could someone stare at a blank page or an empty screen and NOT have something to write about with all this great material to choose from around Dakar...

I have read with interest the stories of winter from America this year.  You couldn't hold a global warming conference anywhere in the U.S. when - at one point - 49 states had snow on the ground (including Hawaii).  Nor'easters blanket New England on a weekly basis.  Syracuse has recorded 157 inches of snow this winter - that's BEFORE the month of March.  Nowata, Oklahoma hit minus 31 degrees.  Nowata, Oklahoma.  Why is it the only thing I can picture when I hear "Nowata, Oklahoma" is Junior Samples sticking his head out of a cornfield saying, "Population 3,971. Saaaallluuute!"

For more of Junior Samples, try:

Many of you have wondered, "What is winter like in Dakar?"  Surprisly similar, as you will learn from my observations while out running last week.  First, I made my way down an oceanfront promenade called the Corniche.  The Corniche is actually a four-lane highway that runs along the ocean route, and adjacent to the Corniche is a huge stretch of concrete sidewalk.  Think Storrow Drive along the Charles River.

One particular stretch of the Corniche is about two miles long and features a small beach.  Normally, there are over a thousand people walking down this particular stretch after work, and there are hundreds more exercising on the beach.  This particular day, the numbers had dwindled because of the weather. 

Any souls brave enough to fight the temperatures wore woolen, knit hats and gloves.  The exercisers - who are usually dressed in soccer uniforms - were more likely to be wearing a warm-up track suit with long pants and jacket on this particular, blustery day.

I left the Corniche and ran into a neighborhood that gave off an aroma of desolation.  Six men were bundled up, warming their hands around an open pit fire they had built on the side of a street.  It looked like a scene out of Mad Max, except instead of burning a tire in an old metal garbage can they arranged rocks and were burning what appeard to be some old furniture.  The time of day was just prior to sundown.  These men looked like homeless people and were preparing themselves for a long night. 

Children scurried to get from one place to another, deftly avoiding open space as if the wind would carry them away.  Many people stared at me as I ran through, with some even calling out comments that (I think) warned me against running in this type of weather or that I was not dressed appropriately for the conditions.

I returned to my neighborhood and did not see the guards.  There are six houses on my street and each house has a security guard on duty.  Since there is no crime in my neighborhood, the guards bring plastic chairs outside and set up a central watchpoint where they can hang out and shoot the breeze for hours. There were no guards outside today.   

I found our guard inside our garage.  He was wearing a heavy overcoat as if he were on the sidelines at a Green Bay Packers game, hoping his unit would not have to go onto the field.  The garage door was open just enough for him to be able to record the comings and goings of pedestrians.  I asked why he wasn't outside enjoying the beautiful day and he shuddered while responding there would be no outside for him today.

Then, he asked me with an incredulous voice, "Aren't you cold?"

It was 17 degrees on this day.  I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  Oh, wait.  That was 17 degrees Celsius.  About 63 degrees for you and me.  And it was the coldest day of winter.

This week, it was back to normal.  I came back to our neighborhood and saw three guards out mingling.  I said to our guard, "I have some news for you."  He asked if it was good news or bad news, and I replied that it was just news.  He was still wearing a jacket and I had to inform him that it was 88 degrees outside and that winter - all six days of it - appeared to be over. 

He laughed heartily.  But, he did not  remove his jacket.   

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Customer Service Aplenty - Part Deux

For some reason, merchants guard their change as if these coins contained real silver, gold and copper while throwing paper money around as if it contained real wood pulp. 

I once rode with a taxi driver who stopped at three different places looking for a 500 CFA coin (approximate value: $1), but no one would give him change for a 1,000 CFA bill.  Never mind that the driver wasted much more time trying to find a coin than trying to find his next customer, these people are absolutely steadfast about the need for coinage.

My local convenience store/gas station absolutely refuses to give out change unless someone makes a purchase.  And there are two ironies here:  they will not give out change during the day when the bank - located one block from the convenience store - is open AND the employees don't own the store, so I imagine they would get paid for walking to the bank, cashing in bills for change, and walking back to the store.

You may have already guessed this information is required reading to appreciate the story of my most recent shopping experience at Casino.  One other note that will add tremendously to your reading pleasure is to understand Part One of this story occurred sometime in October, whereas Part Deux takes place in February.

I went to Casino ostensibly because it is the only place in Dakar where I can find a particularly yummy brand of cashews.  They are prepared "Senar Style" which (I think) means that the entire cashew nut is first grilled, then shelled and bagged.  These cashews are WAY better than dry roasted peanuts, which is the closest comparison I can make in the U.S.  Before I leave Senegal, I will be visiting the company to ask them to fill an entire carry-on suitcase for my personal consumption in the U.S.  If they even last the plane ride home...

In any case, I walked to the cash register with a 200 gram bag and the cashier looked at me.  She asked me something in French, which the bag boy translated to me in English as, "She wants to know if you have money."  I looked closely at the cashier and it was - yes indeed! - "I'm a B*tch!" from October!  Apparently, she thought I might try paying with a credit card and she was planning to refuse my purchase.

I said, "Oui" and she ran the product through the bar code scanner.

I need to digress for a moment to tell yet another story about the Casino bar code scanner.  Ever since that fateful day when I was charged $20 for truffles that I did not buy, I only purchase a few things at a time at this fine grocery store.  That way, I can clearly see what is being scanned and how much it will cost.  One day, I went to purchase a bag of cat food (clearly, another blog entry is forthcoming on that) and noticed the store had replaced the usual ten varieties of Friskies with a single variety of store brand.  Every section of every shelf contained the same variety of store brand cat food.  Usually a 1/2 kg bag (one pound) costs 675 CFA (about $1.40) and a 2 kg bag (5 pounds) costs about 2,400 CFA (about $5).  When they scanned the store brand through the bar code, someone had - once again - entered the wrong price in the system and I refused to pay $5 for a $1.40 bag of cat food.  Every cashier in this store has finally determined I am the one customer who does not take kindly to paying three times more than I should because of bar code idiocy.

Now, back to our previous story...  My lovely cashier ran the product through the bar code scanner and the price came up as 2,090 CFA (or, $4.18).  I handed her three 1,000 CFA bills.  She asked if I had change.  I said no, only bills.  You may realize that she was speaking in French and I was speaking in English, but we were communicating quite well.  Or, so I thought.

The next thing I know, the bag boy translates for me in English, "She wants to know if you have any change."  No, I repeated, I only have bills.  The cashier looked at me.  She asked me AGAIN if I had change.  The bag boy reaches into his pocket and pulls out some coins.  I honestly thought he was going to pay the 90 CFA for me just to put an end to this Mexican stand-off.  But no, he shows me his change and asks, "Do you have any of these?" as if I didn't understand him the first time.  I held my tongue, but the cashier absolutely would not open her cash drawer to make change.  Had my command of French been a bit better, I would have said, "You do realize your job is "cashier", which means "one who makes change", don't you?"

Instead, I tried a different tack: "No comprendre Anglais?"  I asked.  She shook her head no, raising her eyebrows as if to say, "Who, me?" and matched that facial feature with a smirk that would have made George W. Bush proud.  "Oh, that's too bad," I replied loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear, "because I was going to call you a F***ing B*tch!"

Suddenly, her eyes lit up.  "Oh!" I said, "Vous comprendre Anglais! Donnez mon f***ing changer!"

At this point, my favorite cashier now realized that in my few months in this fine country, I was able to grasp enough French to survive in a supermarket.  She slowly opened the register.  She handed me a 500 CFA coin, effectively shortchanging me by 410 CFA (or, about a dollar).  I said, "Non, neuf!" and held up nine fingers.  By this time, two other customers were waiting in line and one of them clearly understood English.  For the benefit of that customer - and now anyone within three rows of this particular register - I held out my hand and proudly pronounced, "My f***ing change, please."

My favorite cashier slowly counted out coins and handed me the worst possible assortment of coins she could think of handing me (think a dime, two nickels and five pennies instead of a quarter).  I nodded my head, smiled and walked out of the store.  Those who know me will vouch that - while I may have a crude sense of humor - I rarely use profane language anywhere other than a golf course.  But, I can now see the allure to becoming a stand-up comedian because there really is something satisfying about dropping the F-bomb three times in one minute in front of an audience to chastise someone who clearly relishes her status as "I'm a B*tch!"

Maybe she thought she was making me look like a stupid American, but I know better.  For pennance, I will return to Casino.  And buy a small bag of cashews every week.