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.