Monday, 29 September 2008

In Dakar, Life’s a beach everyday.


In Dakar, Life’s a beach everyday.

Valle D’Or, Yoff, Terou Bi, do these names sound familiar?  They are the names of some of the beaches in Dakar and being the nice person that I am, I took it upon myself to visit these beaches so that I could tell you my readers about them. It had nothing to do with me wanting to escape the heat and having a good time.


There are 10 beaches in Dakar and all of them different from each other. Some like the Pointe de Almadies and Yoff, you can swim and surf, in Ngor & Terou Bi, you can go fishing, snorkelling and diving to your heart’s content. As for none swimmers like me who just want to paddle in the ocean and feel the water on our body, you can visit Ngor and Goree. If you like a little more privacy far from the crowds, then visit Valle D’Or, but be aware that the smell of smoked  from the fisheries close by can spoil the experience.


Our first beach was the Plage de Yoff, probably the largest beach in Dakar. For someone used to really huge waves at the beaches in Lagos, I was pleasantly surprised at how gentle the waves were and the soft sand made it a pleasure to walk on the beach. Since it was a Sunday, the walk on the beach was also for people-watching. This is strictly for the ladies, if you like well-built, tall dark-skinned men, my sister, Yoff is calling. Its eye-candy ville, my eyes had such a huge feast they thanked me for bringing them along.


For the brothers, all is not lost as the Senegalese babes are right up there on the scale of beautiful women and if you stick around you may see the occasional topless babe on the beach. Hmmm the stuff dreams are made of, right?


Another memorable beach trip was the one to Ngor. The plage de Ngor was not really impressive because we could hardly get into the water for the sea-weed. So we got on the canoe to Ngor Island, which is about 5 mins from the mainland. It’s a small beautiful island with well preserved brick houses and the main attraction is the beach.

Here we spent about 3 hours in the water because it was sooooo good, that we one couple looked they were having sex right in the water, all I could think was ‘I hope they have a condom!’  When we were not ‘swimming’, we were being ogled by those buff bodies I talked about earlier. I can’t say I blamed them though, when you’re hot, you’re hot especially in a bikini. Sorry guys, no more bikini pictures.


Although, technically it’s not in Dakar, the beach on Goree Island is another lovely one. A 7-minute boat ride from Dakar, Goree attracts the eyes with all the brick buildings and clay? roofs. An island known for it’s history of the colonial times, it’s a place that is well worth visiting. If you like dreadlocked guys, then you’re in ‘Rasta Paradise’ because  almost every man here wears dreadlocks. I asked our guide who also happened to be a rastaman (surprise, surprise) about this, and he said ‘it’s the island spirit, it makes everybody want to have dreadlocks’.


After a heated conversation with the islanders over the future of Africa and how we can change the continent, we spent the night in Goree, at a small guest house called, Keur Sokhna for 13000 cfa (about 30 USD) and it was money well spent. We woke up to bird-songs and went for a morning swim and another walk around the island deliberately avoiding the slave-museum, we were on our way back to Dakar.


 Ok, enough of the vicarious living for now, the beaches of Dakar beckon. More gist later. I’m outtie! 

Friday, 12 September 2008

Any beautiful day...

As time goes by, i wonder where the day has gone.

Its been 4days in Senegal and it feels like i've always lived here. Its a friendly and peaceful environment, with everybody trying to help especially when they understand that you dont speak French. The day flies by really quickly because there's so much to do.

I've always heard people say that Senegalese women are beautiful but i didnt quite understand what they meant until i experienced it first hand. They are easily the most beautiful women i have come across yet in Africa and i say yet because i havent travelled wide and there is still a lot to see.

From their slim tall figures, to their beautiful smiles to their lovely faces, i would say God took a little extra time creating these women.

All around me here, i see a clear appreciation of the body, beauty and skin that is African. With a wrapper around their waist and a spring in their step, they swing along to some unheard tune playing in the distance.

I'm thankful that im not a man and not in the least inclined towards women, i would have had my plate full contemplating what to say to these 'works of art'. Instead, ill say to a creator who did a great job and took a holiday afterwards...Good job Monsieur Dieu!

Visa to where?

This is an amusing something that happened to me at the airport as I set out on my own journey to Celebrate Africa.
At the Virgin Nigeria counter I handed my passport and ticket to the attendant. As he quickly flips through my travel documents he fixes me with an exasperated and impatient expression and demands “where is your visa?”
“Visa? I mouthed wondering why I needed a visa. He returns my passport to me and replies in Pidgin English, “Aunty, if you no get visa you no fit go!”
He immediately signals to the next person behind me to come forward. “Visa to where?” I asked in a very bemused tone and he goes “UK Visa”, “if you no get am, you no fit go”.

I smiled and told him I was headed to Dakar and therefore didn’t need a UK visa. He literally took a step backwards, looked up sharply with a shocked expression on his face and answered me in thick Yoruba, “ehn, then why did you dress like people going to London? You should have said all along that you were going to Dakar”. His colleague at the other counter quickly adds, “We know people wey dey go Dakar when we see dem”

What?! That had me almost doubling over in laughter; so the next time I’m travelling, I have to go to the airport to get the dress code for each country I visit.

Celebrates Africa Makes Two

09/09/08 .
Hooray! we are now officially a team – Team Celebrate Africa – with the addition of Oluchi to the hoofing it, sightseeing, bus-riding, strange food-eating, Celebrating Africa partnership.

Not that this significant milestone was achieved without some struggle...

Two months after the journey began, my sister Oluchi has joined the Celebrate Africa team. She arrived in Dakar on the 6th of September, with much anticipation and excitement on my part. I am very excited to have company on this journey but this also means that I have to adjust to not running the show alone now.
In December last year when I began making concrete plans for CA, Oluchi did a lot of the planning with me, with the intention to do the trip together. However, as time went by she lost her nerve, and said she couldn’t do it just yet as it would mean leaving her job, leaving the family etc etc. You know that long whine of the uncommitted! After just one week in Accra during the first week of CA, she became a thorough-going convert: she promptly went back home and resigned her job.

Our travelling partnership is now three days old, time we have spent trying to gauge each other’s rhythm. I’ve bitten my tongue when the impulse to scream at her for mishandling the video camera – by my perfectionist standards -becomes almost uncontrollable! She’s been trying not to become exasperated – but I can feel the eyes rolling and the little intake of breath that goes along with that - with my wanting to attend to every detail.

We are going to have fun together, as long as we don’t end up killing each other before the year ends. I have to try and not ‘big sister’ her – hey, after all we are partners – the sisterhood of the Africa Celebrators, right? That’s cool long as I’m the principal partner, ok, Oluchi?

Oluchi will be focusing mainly on filming and interviews with the various charming Africans we come across. You can read more about her on the website. I am sure you will agree that it was a great idea for her to join me on the road. Big welcome, Sis and Junior Partner.

Hell is a bus ride to Tambacounda.


Hell is a bus ride to Tambacounda.

I am trying to Celebrate Africa, but I tell you these our bus driver, border officials and their mates, are not helping my mood at all!

The bus ride was an adventure or misadventure – take your pick! - I didn’t bargain for. A journey that was supposed to take five hours became a bus-ride from hell!

The bus left Kayes – a border town in the west of Mali- after a 2-hour wait and a mad rush to get onboard that completely disregarded the fact that you’d paid the full fare for, gasp, gasp, a seat. If you weren’t nimble, ruthless or cold-blooded you simply ended up standing all the way to Dakar. I gave up my seat for two elderly people and squeezed myself between two really large people, it was a little suffocating, but all for a good cause, and I didn’t really mind as it was going to be a mere 5-hour drive. 5 hours? Yeah, right!

At the first immigration check-point, we all submitted our passports on command and had to pay a “special handling” fee of 1000cfa each to get them back. I’m thinking, “that’s okay, it’s normal even though it’s not written in any books anywhere but it has become institutionalised.” Again, I reminded myself that border control duty was dirty and dangerous, and that these poor, prosperous looking guards had to be helped in any way possible.

Next, we get to the border [yes, there are two immigration posts at Kayes] and once again, we submit our passports. We wait for our names to be called out aloud, my name is called last and when I walked up to the customs official to collect my passport.

Customs Official: ‘Give me 10000cfa!’

Sassy Nigerian Woman: ‘ 1000? For what?’

This support of Customs Officialdom is getting to be too much: I cock my fist and put in on my hip in an unmistakable gesture of defiance.

In the meantime, the other Nigerian on the bus who has been asked for the same amount quickly pulls out a 5000cfa note, causing the immigration officer to look at him and say ‘if you don’t have the money, go to that side and wait for me’. So I follow the Nigerian man (who by the way has a Ghanaian passport, which may explain his quiet acquiescence) and we wait for a few minutes in the two-person No-Money line.

Some Nigerians, who were travelling in the other direction toward Mail, overheard me as I complained to my fellow “sequesteree” about the injustice of the situation. These experienced border crossers, overhearing me, said to me, gently, as in the way you talk to a difficult child, ‘look, na so dem dey do for dis place o, if you come from English speaking country dem go dey treat you as dem like. Infact the Senegal side worse pass sef’

In surprise –maybe, I was buying too much into the ECOWAS hype, I ask them ‘why 10 000, why not 1000 like all the others?’ They just laugh and tell me to bargain for 5000cfa.

I walk up to the counter and hand out a 5000cfa bill to the official and after a long song and dance act about me being a student and not having more to give him, he accepts and signs my passport.

Being a believer in‘The Secret’, I make promises to myself that I would cross the Senegalese border without paying a dime. Well, I guess I haven’t gotten a hang of The Secret yet, because not only did I pay 10000cfa, but the officials subjected me to a barrage of pushing, shoving and screaming, the like of which I hope never again to experience when I refused to pay. Another official seized my passport and kept yelling at me ‘ Just pay your money! Pay your money!’ This is not the Africa I was counting on Celebrating, I can tell you, gentle reader!

Eventually, the pressure to become a good fellow traveller and to allow the bus and all of the people on board to continue on their merry way broke through my wall of resistance and I paid the bribe. It was ugly, but it had to be done, my fellow travellers were wondering whether I had taken leave of my senses, my Ghano- Nigerian brother was literally begging me to pay so that we could leave. I was boiling-point livid, but it was clear that my righteous anger was not going to resolve the problem there and then! I consoled myself by thinking that these guys obviously did not get the memo that ECOWAS citizens don’t need more than a passport to cross the border. Or maybe they did and could not be bothered.

The thoughts kept on crossing my mind with some frequency: “surely, this is not the Africa that I left my home and family to celebrate? This one where I get beaten up when I refuse to pay a bribe? This one where they don’t even ask for a bribe nicely? Should I have stayed home?” These thoughts release me from my inhibitions and I curse these thieving Customs Officials and their brothers wherever they can be found throughout the world, but that doesn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks.

Advisory to the Senegalese government: “Stop your employees from sullying your country’s good name, or and put up signs at the border posts that say ‘Beware! Crazy officials at work’! You would be doing travellers a favour!

Time check, 11pm.
The bus drives for a few more minutes and drives into the customs garage at Diboli, a Senegalese border town. All the passengers begin to alight and spread cloths on the ground around the bus. Bewildered, I quickly look for the Nigerian guy, and ask, ‘what’s going on?’ ‘Oh the bus is not moving again till tomorrow morning. There are some women in this bus who have goods to declare at customs but the customs have closed so we have to wait here till morning!’ Ok, I take deep breaths, I can deal with this. I quickly take out my blanket, dab on some insect repellent and stake my claim on a spot on the ground. Bonne nuit.

Time check, 2 am,
There’s a heavy wind blowing and the woman lying next to me says something loudly in Wolof. At once, all the sleeping people wake up and quickly rush back into the bus. I, as usual being clueless about what’s going-on, walk behind the bus for a quick pee. When I’m done, I turn around to see that the heavy wind has turned into a sandstorm, blowing so much sand my way. Sand in my eyes, my hair, my mouth, my clothes, everywhere!

I run as quickly as I can back into the bus, back to my seat.
It begins to rain and I try to sleep in my seat, but I can’t sleep because there’s a really strong smell coming from right next to me. It smells like urine, sweat, bad breath all combined. I think the old lady and her blind husband have urinated on themselves. All the windows are closed, it’s suffocating. I can’t stay in the bus, but it’s raining outside. I chose the rain over dying by suffocation.

Time check, 7 am.
All the passengers are awake and in high spirits, making loud conversation and laughing loudly. I try to cheer myself up by washing my face and brushing my teeth. I discover a huge blister on my neck, I must have been bitten by an electric fly. So much for using insect repellent.

Time check: 2pm
We are finally back on the road and have been since 11am, which was when the almighty customs officers resumed work and cleared us. We’re eleven kilometres from Tambacounda, where I’ll be staying with my friend and her family.
We get pulled over, again! Customs officials on a stop and search, we all alight with our bags submitting our passports as usual. The customs official peers through all the bags and detains a passenger for daring to question his authority. We get delayed for one and a half hour. Tamba is so close yet so far away.

Time check : 4:30 pm
The bus finally rolls into Tambacounda, 24 hours since I left Mamou’s family in Kayes. It looks like a dusty old town but after my ordeal on the bus, I’m ecstatic to be here. I feel sorry for the other passengers who still have to get to Dakar, another good 8 hours from Tamba. If anyone tells me they’re travelling to Senegal from Bamako by bus, I would say ‘Enter at your own peril.’

Monday, 1 September 2008

The 'Real' Africa?

I posted this article a while ago on my website. Please feel free to comment.

The ‘Real’ Africa?
They call it the Dark Continent, even to this day! It's unknowable, it's stuck in the era before light, before television, before anything good. It reeks with waste from pit latrines. It’s filled with animals that are worth seeing, and humans that are worth shooing away! It's a blank page upon which anyone can write their fantasies. It's the place lovers of "authenticity" can travel through without noticing anything that disturbs their fantasies.Welcome to Africa!On the bus to Tamale, I met H-----, a Jamaican-American (or is this a redundant term, after all Jamaica is in the Americas). We got talking and eventually, she came to stay with me at my friend’s house while I was in Tamale.
H---- swears by Bradt, a guidebook on Ghana targeted at mainly European and American tourists visiting Ghana. I noticed that many of the tourists I saw had a new copy of this and I wondered how much money the publishers must be raking in.According to Bradt, there are a few things worth seeing and doing in this vast area of great historical importance. We are here to celebrate Africa, so let’s celebrate the African experience as it is lived by tourists to Tamale.

H----- suggests that we do a few things around Tamale as have been suggested by the ‘bible’, like visit Kalpohin, the Mole National Park and spend the night in a village called Larabanga with some people called The Salia brothers. We head out to Kalpohin for a ‘cultural exchange programe’ on a bus alongside some other tourists, though it turns out there is just two of us and the bus is actually a motorbike.

Next, We get on a bus by 4am to go to Larabanga and then Mole park which is about 6km from Larabanga. Once we reach Larabanga and step down from the bus, we are swarmed by young men who are immediately offering us a place to stay, to act as guides and just generally be of help (nuisance?). H.... tells them that we’ll be staying at the Salia Brothers guest house, so they point us in the right direction, making sure to tell us that the place is full. Me, being the city girl that I am, I’m expecting to see a modest house with a terrace and nice roof, you know, a very simple building. So you can imagine my surprise when we find the house, and it’s basically a collection of poorly built, hurriedly constructed mud-cement plastered huts, with dingy looking rooms and a pit latrine.

The beaming owner, Alhassan graciously offers to let us sleep on the roof for 3 Ghana cedis or stay in one of the rooms when the Dutch family who spent the night there check out. I’m horrified, because 1: It’s a filthy house and I don’t understand why anyone should pay to live like that and 2, this guy is making it look like it’s the Ritz or something. But H----- is sounding very excited, saying ‘wow, I can’t wait to sleep under the stars’. I’m thinking, No thanks.

Finally we decide that we need to get Mole Park and see if they have any accommodation, luckily I get a bunk-bed for 8 GhanaCedis a night and quickly stake my claim on it.

Afterwards, H----- accuses me of not being authentic in my decision to celebrate Africa since I refuse to experience what she calls the ‘real’ Africa. This got me asking a question many before me have asked.What is the real Africa? Is it a ram-shackle, filthy, rundown hut with no plumbing or is it a room with a comfy bed and running water? Is it an unwashed, naked kid, with runny nose and a bloated tummy or a happy, well-fed, fully-clothed kid? Is the real Africa the one where villagers perform on demand for tourists for a hand-out or is the one where the legendary Yaa Asantewaa stood up to the colonial invaders and demanded the release of her King in the 19th century Ashanti Kingdom?

Is the real Africa, dreadlocked guys on the beach trying to catch the eye of any foreign tourist for a quick buck and possibly a visa or is it an evening at the local drinking spot, having long conversations about Plato?

Heaven forbid, that I should complain about those lodgings because that would mean that I’m not truly African. To be truly African, I need to live in a mud-hut with a pit-latrine and if I choose properly planned sewer systems that give people a modicum of dignity – that would be inauthentic , almost …European… and we can’t have that happen.

I reject anything that makes it acceptable for anybody to live a helpless, filthy, poverty-stricken life all in the name of being authentic. Those same villagers who perform on demand have shea butter, cotton and pottery as a source of income. Why aren’t they being engaged in an equitable way to make money from these things and change their status?To make an experience really African does not mean having to battle flies from the pit-latrine. I know many people who live in villages whose houses are very clean, not paid for by any aid agency. Are they not Africans? Shouldn’t that way of living be celebrated?
Am I being naïve?You tell me.