Category Archives: Senegal

Africa Overland

Waiting for the bus at the Mali-Senegal border

Crossing into Mali from Senegal, you immediately know you’ve transitioned into a poorer country. The amenities change. Everywhere in Mali are half-finished concrete buildings – the remnants of some great idea on the part of the government or an NGO or whomever, for which the money ran out. Senegal’s by no means a developed country, but you get the sense that there’s an entrepreneurial, if misguided, spirit present in the towns and cities: Senegal is moving forward – maybe at the expense of some of its charm and West African-ness – but it’s moving forward nonetheless.

The apprentice collecting fares from the front seat in a bush taxi in Mali

Both border controls were a breeze. On the Senegalese side, the officer thanked us for visiting his country, stamped our passports without hassle, and wished us safe travels with a kindness utterly absent in the way I’ve seen American immigration officials berate and belittle foreigners.

The Malian side too was little trouble. An intimidating gendarme cracked into a teddy bear when we told him we’d been Peace Corps volunteers and especially when we started asking him how to say a few words in Bambara.

The hassle came on the road, especially in the first few hundred kilometers, where frequent checkpoints turned the 800-900 km – a long distance by any measure – into a marathon day. Our visa receipts got us a simple nod of acceptance from the police, but they used the opportunity to extract a little bit of pocket money from the Malians and other Africans on board the bus.

Anne-Claire in the back of a pickup in Mali

Maybe the Senegalese officials are just better paid and don’t need the extra income from bribes. Even traveling through the heavily militarized Casamance region in southern Senegal, where rebel separatist sentiments necessitate (apparently) the tanks that roll through the towns with soldiers manning the gun turrets and the frequent stops on the roadway – though they’re so cursory, I can’t imagine they’re ever effective in rooting out insurgents – even there, little money seemed to change hands.

The land too changed almost immediately after crossing the Senegal River, which separates Kidira in Senegal from Diboli in Mali. Anne-Claire and I often joke that when they drew the border between California and Oregon, the California folks just drove north until the sun stopped shining, then took a few steps back and planted their stakes. Of course, there’s quite a bit of rain in northern California, but the four times I’ve driven across the border, our little joke has held water – sun on the California side, rain or snow in Oregon.

The same idea seems to have been put in place by the folks who drew the Senegal-Mali border. Right over the border, the verdant fields swarming with birds give way to the dusty hardpan of the true Sahel. Mango trees heavy with fruit are replaced by scrappier neem, acacia and shea trees, and the baobabs, in comparison to their grotesquely huge and heavily branched cousins in Senegal, look spindly and stunted.

Nigerien bush taxis (van in the background) always seem to get more for their money

The bleakness is oddly comforting in a way, as I can feel we’re getting closer to Niger. You can hear it in the cadence of speech and see it in the well-worn dress and thatched roofs and mud huts melting in the rainy season.

Even the trundling bus has the comfort of familiarity, swerving from shoulder to shoulder to avoid the slightest pockmark in the tarmac – West African bus drivers will gladly run down donkey carts and cyclists, and they seem to see dogs and livestock as little more than videogame obstacles: best not to hit them, but not at the cost of speed. But present a driver with an inch-deep pothole, perhaps a foot in diameter, and he’ll tiptoe his overloaded rig across it as gently as if he were balancing stacks of dishes on the roof.

As green as it gets – driving through Niger on the way to Kollo

Travel is a perennial challenge here. The air conditioners in the buses stopped working long ago, but of course the windows don’t open. The only air comes from the vented escape hatches in the roof, and then only when the bus is moving. And, in a region that’s produced the likes of Yousou N’Dour, Ali Farke Touré and Salif Keita, bus drivers seem to love with a cult-like obsession the same way that some people love campy B movies in the States the clangy, scream-laden, over-instrumented, over-amplified music of less adept artists that’s always too loud.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this way of seeing West Africa, even with all its challenges. It’s almost as if jigsawing our way through the region’s roads, we’re unlocking the secrets this part of the world holds. It’s only like this you can see how the harshness of the land forges tough-as-nails people, tempered by relentless hospitality and an eagerness to laugh that’s unlike anywhere else.

It’s an area of the world I was proud to call home for two years, and I’m excited to be back.

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Sanctuary

Watching the sunset on the beach, we could have easily been on a tropical island somewhere. Lightning flashed far in the distance, and the heavy moist air from the day’s teasing rainstorms settled over the beach, leaving us glistening with sweat in the last light of day.

But this wasn’t just anywhere. This was Senegal. Cows shared the sand with us, and down from where we’d just walked, smoke bellowed from the skyscraping palm trees, as women dried the day’s catch that had just come in on the massive wooden boats.

We’d arrived in Ziguinchor to visit Haroon, one of Anne-Claire’s former classmates. Our second day, he took us to stay at a work colleague’s house on the coast, up near the border with Gambia. Cheikh, the colleague, runs an NGO called Water and Sanitation for West Africa. Over his decades-long career, he’s worked with the World Health Organization, the UN, and now USAID, currently focused on improving sanitation in villages through strategies like hand washing and building latrines – in short, combining behavior change with infrastructure improvements.

Here on the outskirts of Kafountine, Cheikh’s built an oasis of calm with bungalows for visiting friends, solar-powered electricity, and a pack of friendly dogs named after world leaders, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin among them. (Nicholas Sarkozy died recently after being bitten by a cobra.) Cheikh has planted trees on the land with his small personal staff, and both nights we stayed there, we enjoyed walks down to the beach to watch the sunset. The second evening, we watched as a flotilla of massive fishing boats and their crews of 25-30 men each hauled the day’s harvest through the surf.

We ate well, enjoying dishes of fish with fried potatoes, rice and fish sauce, and chicken served with fried bananas. Always accompanying the meal were Cheikh’s stories, detailing his adventures in development. We spent a long time Saturday evening discussing the failures of massive, one-size-fits-all projects and the need to tailor solutions to the cultures they’re designed to work within.

It’s heartening to see a well-educated African, who’s lived and worked all over the world, focus his talents on improving things for other Africans and to see that he doesn’t just accept poverty for his continent. One of my biggest takeaways from Peace Corps is that as outsiders, we’ll never affect real positive change leading the charge in development. We just don’t have the knowledge of the culture, the vested interest and connections to local communities that takes a lifetime to acquire. Outsider-led projects, in my opinion, do little but muck up the situation even further. Best case, we should be supporting folks like Cheikh and taking direction from them as to how we can best help those around us.

Virtual Bush Taxi Ride

Here’s a short video Anne-Claire took on our ride through Senegal and the Gambia. The roads in parts of Senegal are notoriously bad, even for West Africa. Drivers, to save their cars from gaping holes in the road that would devastate a vehicle that hasn’t had shocks for decades, swing wildly from one side of the road to the other. There’s an elaborate system of using turning signals to indicate to oncoming traffic which way you’re going to pass, though I still haven’t figured it out. I’m not sure they have either, which might be why road accident fatalities are 8-10 times higher in the developing world than elsewhere. Often, the smoothest track is with one set of wheels on the roadway and the other on the less-worn dirt path running alongside.

I’m sharing this now, after we’ve left West Africa, so there’s no need to worry. We traveled some 3500 kilometers on roads in Senegal, Mali and Niger (roughly the equivalent of driving from California to Ohio), all thankfully without incident.

Crossing the Gambia

We left the soft cradle of the diplomatic family’s house early in the morning and took to the already-muggy streets at 5:30 a.m. After Anne-Claire argued the price of our luggage down from the exorbitant price the driver first demanded, we got in a bush taxi headed for Ziguinchor in southern Senegal near the border with Guinea-Bissau.

Five and a half hours straight in the ‘sept-place’ (seven-seater station wagon, excluding the driver) were about all my seat bones could take; the airflow to our seats in the third row had stopped, creating a suffocating, sauna-like atmosphere that pushed my claustrophobia to the limit and nearly sent me in a panicked launch toward the cracked windows. A commonality over much of West Africa we’ve found is that people often prefer to be sweaty rather than dusty, so they’re often loath to roll down the windows in all but the worst heat. It was a good reminder of what real heat is. I looked vaguely like I’d been through a rainstorm, and I was intimately aware of every sweat gland on my body. I’d forgotten how much my eye sockets can sweat.

When we arrived at the Gambia border, I thought it would be a welcome reprieve. First, it was just an opportunity to get out of the car. We had to get an exit stamp in our passports from Senegal (easy and free), then pay a small ‘entrance fee’ (read: bribe?) to get into the Gambia without a proper visa.

Second, the country’s namesake river holds a powerful place in my memory, as this was where the story of ‘Roots‘ by Alex Haley began. The film drove my curiosity about Africa when I first saw it at 11 years old, and reading the book years later in my first months at post in Peace Corps deepened my understanding of the rhythm of village life.

The real fun started as we got close to the Gambia River. Defying all logic, our driver sped past the miles-long stretches of cars, buses and trucks waiting for the ferry to cross the river. Word has it that the Gambian government refuses to build a bridge for fear of losing the bustling commerce that passengers forced to wait days generate in the thin sliver of land that forms this odd country.

While Anne-Claire and I had egg sandwiches, the driver took our contributions to bribe the ferry operators into letting us move up in the line (our fellow passengers contributed as well). Hot, cranky and tired, we decried the entropic disarray as people fought for the few places on one of the two slow, decrepit boats that left each bank of the river at most once an hour.

On reflection, though, this is Africa – things operate differently that the way we know, and in the end there’s a method hidden amongst the madness. It may not look like what we’re used to or can even comprehend, like the way news in a village always seems to spread like wildfire: I’d get home to my Peace Corps house in Niger, say hello to my host family, and not 10 minutes later, folks from the far side of the village a 15-minute walk away would arrive just to greet me because they’d heard I was home.

I suppose that’s part of what makes traveling interesting. If everything looked the same, the impetus to light out wouldn’t be so strong.

Dakar

Sometimes traveling opens up a different sort of experience than you’d expect to have. And sometimes it happens to be one of things you’ll remember most. Our stop in Derry, Northern Ireland, fits this description – what we’d originally intended to be just a stopover became a memorable visit with new friends that opened up a window to the history of the area.

Our first day in Dakar ended with one of those evenings. We arrived early Tuesday morning from Casablanca. I’m not sure if it was because it was 1:30 in the morning, but the immigration line was more efficient than most we’ve had to wait in. Anne-Claire had left the poles for our tent strapped to the outside of her bag, and they were missing when it came down the carousel. When she asked a guard if this was ‘just something we should expect traveling here,’ he looked offended and said it absolutely was not. Though we didn’t mean to offend him, it was impressive to see someone taking pride in the fact that this isn’t just another middling developing country where that sort of stuff is par for the course.

Sure enough, the poles eventually came down the beltway. After winding our way out to the taxi stand, we hailed one and worked out a price, and he took us to our hotel in the center of the city. We hadn’t realize just how centrally located it was, so it was nice to step out the next morning (OK, not really the morning – around 12:30 pm) and be right in the center of bustling Dakar.

Anne-Claire and I both noticed how little attention we got, especially compared to what we’d been used to in Morocco. Even though we stick out here quite a bit more, most folks leave us alone, and the few that are interested in our business – for cell phone cards mostly – are just as likely to proffer their goods to a Senegalese.

The helpful clerk at our hotel recommended a restaurant for lunch called Chez Loutcha a couple blocks away that serves Cape Verdean and Senegalese dishes. The food was terrific – I had Dibi, sort of steak frites with spiced lamb instead of beef. The prices are a bit higher then we’re used to from Niamey, but the bustling café full of Senegalese and ex-pats alike enjoying their lunch hour was evidence that Senegal does not sit at the bottom of most economic and development indicators (as Niger does).

We ran errands around Dakar in the afternoon, sent a few souvenirs from Morocco home to the State, and had a Peace Corps-esque indulgent ice cream at a fancy café on the big square called Place de l’Independence. Our real treat in Dakar came in meeting a friend of a friend who is a Foreign Service officer. She and her husband were kind enough to let us stay with their family for a couple of nights. They live in a gorgeous ex-pat house and have three charming children who were eager to have visitors.

After nearly a month and a half on the road, a couple of nights that felt like we were in America were a welcome break, similar to the times in Peace Corps that we spent with the missionary family in Maradi who took in us strays on holidays, or with our country director and his wife when they’d host us for dinners at their house.

We shared a delicious dinner with the family and a current Senegalese Peace Corps volunteer who they’d also taken in for the night. The kids are whip-smart, speak French and English, and have devised all sorts of games to keep themselves entertained. We enjoyed their company so much that we came back early from a visit to Ile de Goré to swim with them the next afternoon.

Ile de Goré is a small island off the coast of Dakar that played a small role in the slave trade and now houses a slave museum and memorial. On it are some excellent examples of colorful French colonial architecture, as well as a small beach. We might have been a little road weary for such a touristy spot, as we didn’t have a lot of patience for the people offering their guide services or pedaling paintings.

Overall, we enjoyed our time in Dakar. The city has character to be sure. You’re just as likely to see a stunning woman dressed like she just stepped off the plane from Paris as you are to see a family that’s come in from the bush to make a better life for themselves. You’ll find French coffee shop chains and United Colors of Benetton, but like so many other African cities, Dakar has become a victim of its own success. The area it now occupies is huge, and the strain of so many people has stretched its electrical power far beyond its capacity. We were told there’s a 200-Megawatt shortfall (not sure what this would mean in the States, but it sounds big). For comparison, the entire country of Niger requires about 200 Megawatts of electricity.