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!