Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Road To Timbuktu

The road to Timbuktu is a long one, both literally and metaphorically. If it’s not the beat up 4WDs or the pockmarked pistes that get ya, it’s the innate Moptian desire to bleed the few tourists that are in the country right now for every cent they can get. I know that I want to go to Timbuktu but I’m not exactly sure how I’ll get there and Mali tends to be wonderfully short of unbiased tourist information - “You want to go to Timbuktu? My brother’s got a friend whose cousin’s son has a pinasse which could take you there” etc. There are two options really; I can try to negotiate my way onto a cargo pinasse and sail for 3 or 4 days on the Niger or there’s the more prosaic route plied by the 4WD mafia on whatever days there’s a quorum for going that far north. I opted for the former because it immediately appealed as a more adventurous option and it just seemed like the right way to get to Timbuktu. Meeting someone who was willing to take me there was the easy part - agreeing on the terms and conditions is the very reason the phrase caveat emptor was coined. I meet a guy who introduces me to the ‘captain’ of a cargo pinasse, and who agrees to take me there for 16,500F but warns me that the accommodation is basic. This is what I’m expecting and so I don’t have a problem with it. I just want to get there and preferably via the river route.
I was shown the boat, told to be there at 10am the following morning and that it would set sail around 2pm. I also bought enough mineral water to last me the 4 days they said it would take to get there, and a straw sheet for sleeping on. The boat itself was indeed grim and home to the captain’s family of 5 children, one of whom, an infant of about 6 months spent the entire day bawling his eyes out, bless him, whilst I waited for the departure that never did actually come. I waited on board for 8 hours in total during which time I became the focus of attention of all the captain’s five children. I shared one meal with them which was served up in a giant basin - four of the kids and I sat self-consciously around the basin and dug our hands in for fistfuls of rice. No forks, no plates, just scoop and chew. The meal itself was rice with sauce and some fish heads thrown on top as meat and was cooked on the boat by one of the sons.
By 6pm it was becoming clear that the pinasse wasn’t leaving at all and so I disembarked with my bags and asked the captain for a refund figuring that I really don‘t have enough time in Mali to be waiting for a pinasse that might never depart. And there my problems began. I was told that it was leaving in under an hour - it didn’t - and that I needed to get back on - I didn’t. I was also told that there was no money to be refunded, that it had all been absorbed in the maintenance costs of the pinasse. Clearly this was bullshit but as the day grew darker, there was little or no budging until I was offered 10,000F - some 6,500F less than what I’d originally paid. In situations like this, if your haggling skills are failing you - no amount of haggling would have saved the day in this instance - all you can do is mention les gendarmes in passing. It’s the only back up plan I had and it felt like I‘d just threatened them with my mother. Their reaction - there were now 4 others hanging on every word of the discussion - switched from amusement to anger to incredulity and back to amusement again. The offer was raised to 13,000F which would leave me with a 3,500F loss. An expensive day but ultimately just about €6. All that was missing here was Noel Edmonds with a phone waiting to talk to the fucking banker.
It was completely dark at this stage, there were 5 very large Malian men around me by the river and I wondered how much assistance the Malian police force might be once I’d explained the story in my pitiful French. One of the 5 grabbed my stuff, demanded the money they’d given me back, told me to go to the cops and so, shamefully, I caved in and took the cash. Should I have called their bluff? Should I have haggled for more? Did I just get wiped out there? Yes, clearly. Lesson learned. Stupid tourist.
Wary of my experience from the previous day I walked over to where the 4WDs depart the following morning. The wait begins at 8.30am and at that time there are 4 people - 12 are needed as a minimum for departure. By 2pm there are 5 people and it’s looking unlikely we'll be going anywhere. All of a sudden there’s a huge screaming match which starts in front of me - I’m getting used to these and being involved in a few of them - but what it’s about I have no idea. Anyway once it blows itself out - it takes half an hour at least - my bag is taken and we’re away by 4pm. What they’d done - and the reason for the shouting match - was to reroute the 4WD to take the passengers going to Timbuktu and to some of the outlying towns - note that in this case an 'outlying town' means half a day's driving.
It’s a pretty regular 4WD and there are 14 passengers squeezed into it. Remarkably, 8 bodies - including yours truly - are squeezed into the 2 seats facing each other at the back. Welcome to the cheap seats. The first hour or so is pleasant as we wind our way beside the river but then once we move from the river the dust begins. Dust through the windows, dust through the doors and dust through the floors. It seems as if I’m the only one not wearing one of those Lawrence of Arabia head scarves and before long the entire bus is coated in red dust. This continues, unabated, for 8 hours and my lungs will probably never be the same again. Apparently between 1588 and 1853, 43 Europeans tried to make it to Timbuktu, 4 made it and only 3 lived to tell the tale. If it’s this difficult in 2011, fuck knows what it must have been like centuries ago. Not even Mungo Park himself would have survived the dust in the back of the 4WD.
We overnight in the town of Diré. The first I knew of this was when the engine was killed in the town centre, everyone rolled out the sleeping sheets, threw them to the ground beside the 4WD and slept - ‘Right, looks like we’re staying here then’ - and so I stretched myself out on the back seat of the 4WD and grabbed as much sleep as my mosquito companions would allow me. I should point out here that in West Africa, at least 70% of the time I have no idea what’s happening when it comes to getting from one place to another. No-one tells you that you need to switch buses or that there’s been a change of plans so I just follow the crowd most of the time. We abandon our 4WD in Diré, jump on another one - I have to point at it and say ‘Timbuktu?’ - and drive the last 5 hours to the city.

*Just as a footnote whilst I’m posting this; the journey home from Timbuktu which was supposed to take 8-10 hours maximum began at 3.30am, involved two hours of driving around Timbuktu and waking people up to take their places on the 4WD, 2 punctures, a 1 hour delay because the driver decided to take an alternative route and got lost, transfer to a baché at Douantze still some 200km from Mopti and then at least a dozen breakdowns (I stopped counting at 6) in between, the last of which involved the bus dying on the side of the road just 10km from our destination. Close but no cigar. All told, a journey of 15 and a half hours. You just have to love this shit.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


And so to Djenné, one of West Africa’s oldest towns and one of the jewel's in Mali's crown, and I’m sitting here typing this whilst watching an orange headed lizard with a blue body - they own this place - do those strange little press ups lizards do, not five yards away from me. Djenné is one of those superlative exhausting places you probably haven’t heard of - I hadn’t - but should. It isn’t overly easy to get to - I had to get off the Bamako-Mopti bus at the carrefour de Djenné and wait two and half hours whilst the price for the shared taxi went up the darker it got, and then you have to take a ferry across the river, as Djenné is built on an island - but it’s absolutely worth all of the effort.
The centrepiece in this stunning place is its Grand Mosquée, the largest mud-built structure in the world apparently. The present incarnation was rebuilt entirely in 1907 but it was first built back in 1280 and it’s a beautiful construction when you consider that, well, it‘s made from mud. There are three front-facing turrets from which innumerable wooden spars jut and which give it its other-wordly appearance. Truly, it looks like some sort of prototype medieval African spaceship or an unusually shaped birthday cake from which several Flakes protrude. After the rainy season each year a team of volunteers gather to give the place its annual renovation and explains why, for a structure built over 100 years ago, it’s remarkably well preserved. Naturally, the interior is closed to non-Muslims but the exterior is more than spectacular enough to not feel bothered by that. It’s also unusual in that the call to prayer is done by a man who stands on a wall to the right of the mosque and belts it out at the top of his voice. This is a change from the deafening pre-recorded calls to prayer that have ruined many a lie-in in Muslim countries around the world. Hopefully this starts a trend.
The town of Djenné itself is every bit as magical as the mosque for which it gets its fame. You won’t find any touch screen interpretative centres anywhere here and for a UNESCO World Heritage Sight it’s managed to retain the timelessness that brought it to attention in the first place. This is probably the first town that I’ve visited in West Africa where I’ve truly felt that the way of life, the houses, the traditions and the customs haven’t changed remotely in half a millennium or more. There are few cars here and you’re just as likely to be shouted at for blocking the way of an advancing team of oxen and cart as you are being beeped at. India this is not. I befriend two locals who own a crafts shop and spend much time drinking tea and sheltering from the sun with them. One of them points out his girlfriend on the street one afternoon but he explains that he can’t marry her because he doesn’t have enough money. Women in Djenné, they stress, like lots of money.
They don’t like their bad spirits here and there’s a tomb of a young girl who was sacrificed back in the 9th century in the belief that it would banish the evil spirits from the town. There’s another tomb nearby where women who are having difficulty becoming pregnant come and throw something as an offering on the tomb. Perhaps this is the way to go as far as IVF treatment is concerned because there are children everywhere here and all of them want a cadeau or a bon bon from me.
On a wander around the town I drift out towards where the mud-brick houses thin out and find myself looking out over a vast plain through which a barely moving river flows - this is dry season. What’s special about it though is the fact that there are hundreds of people, mostly women, strewn along the banks of the river bathing children, washing pots and pans and doing the laundry. As unexpected and breathtaking sights go, it is absolutely cinematic in its beauty. I take some token photos hoping to capture some of the magic but as with all sights like this, I stare for ten minutes to preserve that mental picture.
I spend three nights here, all of them sleeping on the rooftop of Chez Baba and I have it all to myself - there are no other guests staying here right now because few are stupid enough to travel in Mali in April. For 3,000F you get a mattress on the roof and if you’re lucky there’s a full moon - there is - and you sleep under the stars with a wonderfully cooling nocturnal breeze. It remains about 25 degrees during the night but it is the most exquisite place to sleep and then you’re awake the next morning with the buzz from the town below. What I didn’t expect to find here amidst the chaos, dust and kids harassing me for sweets, in fact about the last thing anybody would expect to find here was a local kid wearing a Clare GAA jersey. Yes, Clare. So in my few days here; Barcelona? Check. Real Madrid? Check. Scummers? Check. Liverpool? Check. Clare? Er, check. No doubt there’ll be bonfires burning on the streets of Djenné for that next Munster Final victory. That's a line Marty Morrissey would love to use.
I arrive here the day before Djenné’s second biggest draw - its Grand Marchée, held every Monday. The population of the town doubles or triples as traders and buyers come from the surrounding villages, some covering huge distances, to get here early on Monday morning. The space in front of the Mosquée is utterly transformed as when I got here on Saturday night it was empty but by Sunday evening had already started to fill with some traders staking their claim to the best sites, pitching their stalls and sleeping there lest their prime site would be usurped. Even here it’s all about location, location, location. The Marchée has been happening, probably, since Biblical times and I imagine that it differs little from then today. The whole thing is enormous. By the time I wandered down there early on Monday morning it was transformed and by lunchtime there wasn’t a space left between the various traders. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s almost impossible to squeeze your way through the heaving bodies; women with their sleeping bambinos tied to their backs, scruffily dressed kids with buckets pleading for un cadeau, wandering pharmacists carrying buckets filled with a variety of pills, young boys selling putrid tomatoes and dried chillies, hungry babies breastfeeding everywhere, herdsmen leading their prize goats through the melee, tribal homeopaths with special threads to cure your backache, little girls running amok gazing up and shouting Tu vas ou? and men with trolleys, empty and full, desperately trying to make their through all of the aforementioned and me. In a word - special.
Though the environment surrounding Djenné is unforgiving there are many villages nearby and I prolonged my stay here by an extra day to visit the village of Sirimou, home to the wonderfully named Bozo people. It’s a 20 minute moped ride from Djenné and when you get there you have to wade across the river as it’s built on an island. It’s a beautiful place and they also have their own captivating mosque though on a much smaller scale than Djenné’s. As we cross the river we’re surrounded by naked kids swimming in the shallows with buckets tied to their waists looking for fish. They’ve caught several which they proudly show me but they’re barely of goldfish proportions. We visit the village primary school where children attend - and many don’t - between the ages of 7-14. Lessons are taught in French only and in the senior class there were 40 children. Yikes. I visit another village in which, amazingly, there’s a wedding ceremony. We can hear some incredible music before we get near the ceremony and there, in the centre of the village, is a stunning little celebration with beautiful Malian music and a dance performance by some village women. My presence there is noted and ignored as everyone’s too busy enjoying the dancing and the music. I am utterly entranced by this part of the world, moreso than anywhere to date in West Africa and watching ceremonies like this which aren’t deliberately staged for visitors makes it feel more special.

Into Mali and more trouble in Bamako

Having made it to the Malian border post of Diboli from Tambacounda without any hassles I waited two hours for a bus which would take me direct to Bamako, Mali’s capital which was still some 700km and a 14 hour bus journey away. Even if I don’t allude to it in future posts, assume that intense heat is a constant from now on. It was 40 degrees the day I got here and it’s been high 30’s or low 40’s ever since. I googled temperatures in Mali yesterday and none of the cities registered anything under 40 degrees. This will be part of life for the next month and a half and is the main reason there are few, if any, other travellers in Mali right now. It does, however, mean that there are very few mosquitoes about.
Getting a green light to board a bus in this part of the world does not mean that the bus is actually leaving and so we wait for an hour or more for some bullshit reason in the midday heat on our unmoving, breeze-free bus. It’s heartening though to look around and see others perspire as much as I do because at times I feel like I am the source of the Niger.
We leave the border at about 2pm - it takes almost two hours to pass through a never-ending series of roadblocks close to the border - and arrive in Bamako just before 4am. I sit in the street across from my lodgings for 3 hours as it doesn’t open until 7am. I’m spending my days here in the good company of the nuns who run the Mission Catholique. For a mere 4,000F a night - in Bamako terms that’s unbeatable - you can sleep in their dormitory. It’s basic but it’s clean and, in a city that’s anything but, it’s very very peaceful. As I type a blog entry one day in the courtyard I stifle a chuckle at the fact that Jesus Is A Rochdale Girl plays.
The nuns are cheerful and non-intrusive and they leave their guests to themselves. There’s one nun there who insists on speaking French to me every day even though I’ve made it very clear to her that my French isn’t up to scratch. She talks to me for five or ten minutes every day - interminable when you don’t understand what the other person is saying - and probably sees me as a bit of a Forrest Gump, as all I can muster are the occasional uncertain ‘Ouis’, ’d’accords’ and ‘peut etres’ whenever I think they’re necessary.
Bamako is light on actual sights to see - it’s ugly to be honest - but it is the capital city and it broke up my journey nicely on my way across to the east where most of the main sights are to be found. It does have its Grand Marchée which is like any other huge market really and is notable only for its sprawl - the chaos, noise and legions of people you‘ll see in any major market anywhere. The fetish stalls near the Marchée Des Artisans are intriguing though. There you’ll find a cluster of stalls selling dried skins, fur, dessicated lizard, chameleon and monkey heads and a variety of limbs from animals I couldn’t begin to name. These heads and body parts are stacked on top of each other and so you have the chilling effect a whole host of pained expressions eyeballing you as you walk past. This place is amazon.com for witchdoctors.
Fascinated as I am by it all I decide to take a photo - there’s no sign saying that photos are prohibited - so I point my camera and as I’m checking my photo, my camera’s snatched from my hand. It’s the stall owner and he’s seriously pissed, as am I though because I have no idea what it is he’s pissed about and he‘s got my fucking camera in his hand. A shouting match ensues as he absolutely refuses to return my camera until, finally, we’re separated by a cop who orders us both over to his cabin.
‘Here we go again’ I think as we trudge over to the makeshift police cabin. There we meet the police chief who’s surely got better things to be doing but, regardless, the inquisition begins. The entire conversation is in French which places me at a distinct disadvantage but I know enough to say that I didn’t realise that I was causing offence blah blah bullshit blah. But it isn’t enough for the stallholder who - no pun intended - wants his pound of flesh, as if he didn‘t having enough on the bloody stall. Still the police chief has my camera even though, by now, the offending picture has been deleted. I’m asked to wait outside - real principal’s office stuff - while the stallholder remains inside. He emerges a couple of minutes later during which time he’s probably told “Look he’s just a stupid fucking tourist.” and still looks pissed as he emerges and storms past me. I’m handed back my camera, given a ticking off when it comes to the decorum involved in taking photos of dead monkeys, look sufficiently contrite and I’m allowed to wander off again. Jesus, secondary school was a breeze compared to West Africa.
There’s also the issue of change here, or, more accurately, the absence of it. Purchasing anything in any shop anywhere in Mali has suddenly become an ordeal. Why? Because Malians never ever have any change for you and, shit, this is the capital. When you go to an ATM (and you’ll usually spend two hours finding one that is , firstly, in service - a rarity - and, secondly, compatible with your Mastercard - almost non-existent) the smallest notes they dispense are 5,000F notes. There are 1,000F notes in circulation but clearly they’re been zealously guarded by some Malian Silas Marner somewhere because the shopkeepers certainly don’t have any.
Take this evening for example; I wanted to pay for my meal, took out a 5,000F note from my wallet and the owner immediately puffed out his cheeks, looked aghast, as if I’d just handed him a copy of Readers' Wives with his wife on the cover, and asked me if I had anything smaller. I didn’t. He told me to go and find some smaller change and to come back and pay for the meal then. I went next door to the corner shop, picked up something I didn’t really need but anything to break a note, handed it over, the woman puffed out her cheeks…..and you know the rest. She took the note, walked outside and went next door to the restaurant where I’d just eaten to ask if he had any change. She came back empty-handed of course, handed me the note and the can of Fanta and told me to come back when I’d found some small change. At this stage I’d had a free meal and a can of Fanta to wash it down with…..I could have lived here for years if this had continued. Eventually, two shops, a packet of gum and a bottle of water later I struck gold - the shopkeeper still puffed out his cheeks when he saw the 5,000F note though - and in The Twelve Days of Christmas style, I went back over each of the places I’d visited, settled my debts with each of them until my 5,000F was exhausted leaving me back at square one and another 5,000F note to break. This is West Africa.


There’s much to be said for research, real research not cursory glances at a travel guide which makes reference to pirogue trips across to the islands without confirming on which days those trips occur etc. Bollocks to it, I’m in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau and I’ll be here for less than 24 hours before returning to Ziguinchor tomorrow afternoon - that hardly counts does it? I’ve spent longer in some international airports. My plan was to visit Bissau for a couple of nights, take a trip across the visit the beautiful islands off the coast here but there are no island connections until Tuesday next. Today’s Saturday and accommodation here costs a small fortune and so I’m cutting my losses and retreating back to Senegal and heading off to Mali instead. Most of Guinea-Bissau’s sights are out of reach unless you have your own transport, in fact much of the same is true for everywhere in West Africa and so I’ll remain at the mercy of the bush taxi mafia and their haphazard routes and timetables for the coming weeks.
I’m in town long enough to see the scars of the civil war on the buildings in the old city - peace seems to interrupt the fighting in this particular part of the world. There’s an uneasy peace here right now though for how long it will last in a country notorious for military coups, political assassinations and increasing threats from South American drug barons who’ve taken advantage of the country’s non-existent coastal security to make Guinea-Bissau the number one entry port for South America’s endless cocaine supplies, is anyone’s guess. The former presidential residence sits proudly at the top of Avenue Amilcar Cabral but its façade is peppered with bullet holes and the roof has been blown off. I spend a Saturday here and it’s the most remarkably empty city I’ve ever been to and I've been to Canberra. Go on - see if you can find some people in the photos above. Few people, fewer cars and absolutely no atmosphere whatsoever even down by the docks. Christ, I imagine Sundays are a riot here but I won‘t be hanging around long enough to find out.

The Sept-Place Experience

*Be forewarned that this entry contains the use of gratuitous language. But fuck it, don’t they all.

In a continent largely devoid of, let’s say, reliable public transport, something has to fill the void. Enter the sept-place - they could only exist here in Africa and whilst they do fill the void they‘re far from reliable. If you want to join the dots at all in in West Africa you cannot do so without putting yourself at the mercy of the sept-place experience. Technically speaking it’s a vehicle for seven people (this doesn‘t include the driver), hence the name, but in reality with young children on laps this can often, and usually does, reach double figures. And though they may not be your children, such is the inherent claustrophobia of being in the sept-place that you will be expected to do your share of the mothering too, offering a lap for a child who’s fascinated by the whiteness of your skin and wants nothing more than to sit on your lap and poke your eyes out.
It’s far more organised than I’d initially thought - ‘tickets’ are issued (essentially a piece of paper with the price and your all important seat number written on it), and the car does not move until full. You have the option of paying for a second seat if you wish to speed up departure but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a lot more room to manoeuvre when the journey is underway. Luggage fees are arbitrarily decided upon - if you look like someone who’d pay 2,000 CFA for two bags then that’s what you’ll be asked for. But it’s that seat number which should be your biggest concern - if it’s number 1 to 4 then your luck’s in as you’ll have some room to stretch your legs but if you’ve been handed 5 to 7, too bad, varicose veins will probably suit you. Tickets 5 to 7 thrust you right into the pit of the sept-place, a forgotten place where a seat has been inserted almost as an afterthought.
The first hour. During that first hour or so of the journey you’re thinking “You know this isn’t too bad. Besides I’m in West Africa and, hey, this is all part of the experience. I‘ve endured worse than this. This will make me stronger.” You’re too busy enjoying the countryside, the mud-brick huts, the straw roofs, the people strolling by the road - this is why you came to this part of the world. There’s a beautiful child on a mother’s lap in front of you who you wink at and who returns your winks with a smile which makes it all worthwhile. The roads may be bad but the driver is doing a great job of avoiding the worst of the holes, an encounter with one would surely result in a broken axle. There’s a gorgeous early morning breeze wafting in your direction from the open windows. There’s an unspoken camaraderie between the passengers who clearly understand that they’re all in this together. All is well. Life is beautiful.
The second hour. With nowhere whatsoever to stretch your legs, things start to get mildly frustrating as you experience the first jabbing pains which extend from your back right down to your heel. If you could just move your legs for five minutes then all would be well again. The little child who’d been staring at you is still staring and it‘s becoming annoying now. The person’s elbow beside you finds your rib cage once too often, in fact the person beside you has morphed into Bony Man all of a sudden and all of those bones are jutting into you. At this stage you still think that it may be unintentional. After one hour of staring at flatness and an unchanging, barren landscape, you’d like to change the channel but there isn’t anything else to look at - it’s all the same for miles around. This part of Senegal is the West African equivalent of Longford. It starts to stink too - seven people squeezed into a tin box in the middle of Senegal and moving away from the Atlantic coast approaching midday - it’s gonna get messy and it does. And you need to piss. Not badly but it’d be nice to pull over for just a couple of minutes. But still, you stoically think; “Phew, this isn’t pleasant but what a story I’ll have to tell at the end of this trip. I‘ll be glad when we get there though.”
The third hour. It gets ugly. The driver has clearly never consumed any liquids in his entire life. Neither have the other passengers. What’s wrong with these people - don’t Africans piss? And it’s approaching midday and that cold breeze which wafted all the way back to you at dawn has now become a furnace, wafting hot air, dust and sand in your direction. The children are crying now but they’re probably upset at the fact that your face has turned crimson - a combination of the oppressive heat, the ‘Jesus Christ let me out for a piss’ contortion and the fact that, as the blood has stopped flowing to your legs two hours ago, it has to go somewhere. Meanwhile thoughts have become a tad more negative; ”F**king bullshit. Squeezing all of these f**king people into a car this size. Who looks after these f**king roads anyway - Cavan County Council? Next year I’ll travel in f**king Germany instead. What in God’s name is that child staring at - did I grow an extra eye since I climbed into this f**king contraption? F**king hell man, my thigh is not a f**king arm rest.” Of course all of these thoughts are internalised, and though the inner fires are a-blazing, the exterior betrays little of this beyond the aforementioned crimson face and the neat little puddles of perspiration accumulating below you formed by rivers of sweat coursing down your arms. The farts which you’d politely stifled in the first couple of hours are now unleashed with as much vitriol as you can muster. It’s all you can do not to scream “Take that!” with the release of each successive fart. You’d say it too but you don’t know the French for it and shouting ‘Allez!‘ as you break wind just doesn’t seem right.
And then, oh sweet Jesus it‘s about f**king time…...the driver indicates, pulls over and everybody gets out for five minutes. And, of course, within two minutes of standing erect again, bladder emptied and stretches done, the dark spirits lift, the storm clouds clear and all is well with the world again. At least for an hour.

The Casamance

In this whirlwind tour of Senegal I’m still equivocal about the country and if I was asked right now what I thought of Senegal, I’d sing the praises of Saint Louis loudly whilst advising people to give Dakar a miss, charmless hustler-filled dump that it is. And so the Casamance gets the casting vote in this. The Casamance region is home to the Diola, fiercely independent people for whom separatist struggles are what gets them out of bed in the morning. There’s much to admire about them; they completely rejected the notion of slavery which blighted (and in some cases - hello Mauritania - continues to blight) the histories of many a west African nation, and they gave a resounding two fingers to the French when the rest of Senegal fell into line and - let’s be honest here - don’t we all want to give the French the two fingers from time to time. Or is that just me?
Ziguinchor is the capital city of the region and, pardon me if I’ve used this description before, but it’s compact, crumbling, dusty, and if for some strange reason you‘ve come to the Casamance in search of bounteous mango supplies, this is the place for you. There really isn’t all that much to see in the city and unlike Saint Louis, say, once you’ve wandered through one area there’s little reason to retrace your footsteps again. And most surprisingly it’s devoid of any real atmosphere at all - even Dakar bristled with some sense of energy but here the vibe is soporific as if the zest has been devoured by the heat.
It also has a Guinea-Bissau consulate which is only open for business when you call the mobile number of the administrative officer who’s helpfully put his number on the door. I need a visa, it’s Friday afternoon and so I call him. I have enough French to tell him who I am, what I need and ask if I can have it but, as anyone who’s learned a language from a CD or textbook knows, you’re fucked when they say something that’s not on the CD or in the textbook. Humans eh? I keep asking him to repeat what he’s just said (and I feel like saying “But this wasn’t on the CD”) and eventually he starts to scream - I can’t say I blame him really, if the roles were reversed I’d be screaming too - and so I hand the phone to the waitress who not only calms him down but arranges for him to come and meet me to issue my visa on a Saturday morning.
It’s clearly not the man I spoke to on the phone who’s there to meet me at exactly 9am the following morning - instead I’m issued a visa within five minutes by a calm individual with fluent English and so it’s off to Guinea-Bissau I go where I’ll hopefully spend some time in the capital and wander over to the islands of Arquipélago Dos Bijagos. The best part of Ziguinchor for me have been the neighbourhoods off the map where you get to see the people as they are. I wander around the neighbourhoods twice, managing to get lost on both occasions, once long after dark on a Sunday night but never once feel as if I’ve strayed into a part of town that I really shouldn’t be in after dark. Here the roads are made of sand and the people congregate to watch the wrestling live from Dakar and in many houses there are garden parties where the neighbours gather to talk and dance.
My last days in Senegal are spent on the long road out east to Tambacounda, my last port of call here before I cross the border into Mali. The roads here are in various stages of disrepair and much of our time is spent swerving wildly from one side of the road to another to avoid ending up in one of these craters from which there is probably no escape - you might survive but your axle won‘t. The view from the sept-place is beautiful, quintessentially and classically African; beautiful straw huts with witch hat roofs which look like they’ve been transported from Bronze Age crannógs and always, somewhere off in the distance, African women wearing impossibly bright colours from head to toe striding through the fields carrying pitchers of water or some food from the fields on their heads . It’s these little views that flash past - like a freeze frame from a movie that burns itself on the memory - when I’m on the move that make this such a beautiful part of the world.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Welcome to The Gambia Take II

You’d given up on me, hadn’t you? Well, I’m back and here I am - just about perhaps - in The Gambia, Africa’s smallest country. Geographically speaking The Gambia is ominously surrounded on all sides by neighbouring Senegal, and the country, already oddly pinched (it’s 300km long but it averages 35km from north to south), is further split into two by the Gambia river which courses through the centre. Just when you thought West Africa was all about dusty, pot-holed roads leading to faded colonial Francophile cities with a never-ending soundtrack of African music, along comes the stubbornly Anglophile bastion of The Gambia. There are dozens of ex-pats and holidaymakers here and the British influence is still very strong. Almost everybody speaks English which makes a pleasant change for me enduring a constant struggle with my French these past two weeks. Every radio you hear is tuned to BBC World Service and, bizarrely, the supermarkets stock the most un-African product lines imaginable - there’s Horlicks, McVitie’s and Tetley’s (make tea bags, make tea!) amongst many others. Jesus wept, this is West Africa - I want théboudienne - the taste of Senegal, I want benechin - the taste of The Gambia, not fucking Toffeepops and Jaffa Cakes - the taste of, I dunno, Grimsby?
The Gambia is predominantly famous for birds - it’s an ornithologist’s paradise apparently, as are many of the West African countries touching the Atlantic - and beaches. It also has a sitting President who has variously claimed to have found cures for HIV and asthma, all this whilst still having time to oppress journalists and crush freedom of speech, truly a multi-tasker. People’s voices dip noticeably to a whisper whenever the President is discussed - not a popular man. 90% of Gambians are Muslim though not that you’d notice. Theirs is a very moderate approach to their faith unlike, say, in Mauritania where people spontaneously prostrate themselves by the side of the motorway to pray.
This is also known as The Smiling Coast of Africa, a schmaltzy moniker that’s largely true unless you’re strolling down Bakau and accosted by one of the many hustlers who insist on shadowing your every move. If you tell them that you’d rather walk alone, the smile quickly turns to a frown and you’re accused of being all sorts, unfriendly being about the politest. Then there’s folk like Nuha who works around the clock at the Romana Hotel where I stay for my 5 days on the Atlantic coast, a soft-spoken, gentle and utterly charming giant of a man. Spend a little time talking to any Gambian and it’s very much the same story.
This being Africa, it’s easy to watch a football match and I get to see Madrid destroy the Spuds at the Bernebeau. For half-time entertainment, instead of listening to Bill, John and Eamonn discuss the finer parts of postmodernism in the modern game we get to enjoy some obituaries, presumably just to let you know in case any of your loved ones have inconveniently passed away during the first half. And then just as the second half gets underway, the generator gives out - the Minister for Energy must be a Nepali as power cuts are the norm - whilst someone pops off to the petrol station to get the fuel to get it started again. I wander off to watch the second half in the fish market with the fishermen who are too enthralled by the match to even comment on my presence amongst them. The generator remains frustratingly in operation however for the entire 90 minutes the following night when the sizable Chelsea contingent here watch their team come undone and even they wonder why Fernando Torres gets 90 minutes these days.
Then there’s the capital city of Banjul, population 35,000! Cute little city and it’s even got its own Albert Market, a busy place where if the smell of fish doesn’t drive you out then the attention of the bumsters will. I’ll leave you to work out for yourself what a bumster is. Banjul also has its own landmark, the 35 metre monstrosity that is Arch 22 which was constructed to celebrate the military coup of 1994. It’s ugly beyond belief - I’m guessing the President found the time in between finding a cure for cancer and ending world hunger to draw up the plans, most probably during a power cut - and in a city of such a tiny population in an impoverished country it seems ridiculously out of place.
I feel as if I haven’t given The Gambia a chance though - spending 5 days on its Atlantic coast is the equivalent of spending a stag weekend in Blackpool and claiming to have gained an understanding of English culture. There are trips to be taken upriver but they’re both expensive and time-consuming so time is the enemy and I have bigger fish to fry - Mali for one - and so it’s onward south to Ziguinchor next and the fiercely separatist Casamance region of Senegal.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welcome to The Gambia

Border crossings always make me edgy. You’re completely at the mercy of the officers manning the post and if they arbitrarily decide to make you wait for two hours, then wait you must. If they decide that there’s an ‘exit tax’ to be paid - not at all uncommon in these parts - then frequently you must pay it or face an endless wait for the return of your passport. Each different border crossing potentially brings with it new demands or challenges although having breezed through the Mauritanian border post - notorious for the intransigence of its officers and lazy attempts at procuring ’inducements’ - I was expecting entry to The Gambia to be similarly straightforward.

Exiting Senegal was easy and so I strode the 20 yards to the Gambian passport control post next door not anticipating any problems. I showed my passport, was asked the obligatory questions and allowed to be on my way. As I re-entered the hallway I noticed a guy emerging from a door behind me at the same time. “Hey man,” he said, “what’s up?” I mumbled a response but kept moving assuming he was trying to sell me some Gambian currency. Still he persisted; “Drugs police. I need to ask you a few questions.” I turned and had my first proper look at him and there before me was a dead ringer for Whittaker dressed as Chuck D - LA Lakers' shirt, baggy jeans, Nike trainers and a New York Yankees' baseball hat on his head. I kept going as, dressed like that, I assumed he was taking the piss for someone’s amusement. He advanced and grabbed my arm and showed me his card which I barely looked at as I still couldn’t take the guy seriously. “I don’t want to see your fucking card,” I said as I pulled away and headed for the sept-place taxis which would take me Barra and the ferry to Banjul. ‘No way he’s a cop,‘ I thought. Wrong.

As I discuss how much it’s going to cost me to get to Barra, I get tapped on the shoulder by an officer in uniform; “This officer needs to have a few words with you,” he says pointing at Snoop. I look at him again and realise that I’ve, er, made a slight miscalculation. As he leads me back to passport control he’s seething and I can hear him say “I’m gonna fuck you over. No fucking respect. I’m gonna teach you a fucking lesson.” He brings me to the unlit detention room but mercifully leaves the door ajar. He’s practically screaming at this stage and still I’m having trouble swallowing that he’s a cop. “Call your fucking embassy,” he spits, “I’m detaining you.” I try to tell him that as he wasn’t wearing a uniform I had no idea that he was a cop. He’s not buying it, telling me that he showed me his card. “I’m gonna fuck you up,” he keeps repeating. Enter Good Cop. For every Bad Cop there has to be a Good One, right? This one enters - not wearing a uniform either but definitely not looking like Snoop and is told the gory details. “Oh,” he exclaims upon hearing the expletive, like some fucking shocked Victorian parent “why did you use that word?” Again I explain that it’s all a misunderstanding and that I have apologised but Chuck D isn’t having any of my apology. In fact I think at one stage that he’s actually going to cry, but though the tears don’t run the tantrum continues. I have to empty my two packs item by item - damn it my bag needed to be repacked anyway! - just to prove that I’m not carrying any narcotics. At one stage it occurs to me that maybe they’ve planted something on me - yeah, complete paranoia but it feels bizarre that I’m even in this detention room because I’ve hurt someone’s feelings - but the investigation ends with the removal of the last item of clothing from my bag. Once I’ve repacked I await the inevitable lecture or at least a claim for some ‘compensation’ to soothe away the pain I’ve so clearly caused the traumatised officer but that’s it. I put on my packs, leave the detention room without a word and enter The Gambia.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Like Moosic

I don’t know what you’re talking about Miss, but let me assure you of this, I like moosic, do ya like moosic?” Moosic is wonderfully unavoidable in Senegal. Throughout the cities of Saint Louis and Dakar, the neighbourhoods are tripping themselves up with musical festivals of all types of African music. The Senegalese have music and dancing in their DNA and part of the fun attending various concerts to date has been watching the audience reaction, incapable as they of suppressing the urge to dance, arms aloft, to what they’re hearing. I wouldn't know a kora from a kosika but I do know when something sounds wonderful and there have been many thrilling musical events - some impromptu and some not - in the first week of my time here.
Senegal's capital, Dakar, is almost the polar opposite of Saint Louis, totally lacking its charm and timeworn beauty. Home to 2.5 million Dakarians its streets are filled with hustlers pushing belts, t-shirts, bracelets and all sorts of cheap Afro-trash that no-one wants but someone has to sell. I get here just as they’re preparing for Independence Day and so the streets and buildings are being given a cosmetic touch up. There really isn’t all that much to see in Dakar - you can stroll up to Place D’Indépendance and look at the Gouvernance and the Chambre de Commerce but as a whole it’s entirely devoid of the spunk and character of Saint Louis.
There is though the saving grace of the traditional wrestling which takes place at the city stadium on the night I arrive here. There’s one large stand packed to the rafters looking down on the wrestlers ing themselves in the arena below. There’s a large square area marked out by sand bags where the bouts take place, three and four at a time. The idea is that the first man down is the vanquished and there are jubilant roars of approval when a particular manoeuvre is successfully completed. Those not wrestling - and there are many participants - plod menacingly beside the arena keeping themselves warm, clad in nothing more than a thong. The whole thing is utterly primal. As with attending a concert, there’s more entertainment watching the stands and the interaction amongst people. At one stage everyone stands as a man from a microphone works himself to oral orgasm, there’s a perceptible buzz inside the stadium as an overweight man in zebra-striped khakis shuffles around the racetrack surrounded by a posse of photographers, wrestlers and some beefed up security men - the man beside me tells me that this is 'The King' (clearly a retired wrestling superstar as Senegal, last time I checked, wasn't a monarchy) and his every wave is greeted with euphoria.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On the road to Senegal


In purely geographical terms the distance between Nouakchott, Mauritania and Saint Louis, Senegal is a mere 200km - in west African terms that's 12 hours. Welcome to west Africa. Through a combination of bush taxis, pirogues, endless waits on barely roadworthy buses and one double tyre blowout at about 120 km an hour, we do ultimately make our way to Senegal. I'd expected most of the delays to occur at the infamous border crossing of Rosso but we're ushered through quickly (and no exit taxes!), piled onto a pirogue to cross the river which separates Mauritania and Senegal. Entering Senegal from Mauritania is like going from mono to stereo, from black and white to colour and it's evident from the moment your land on Senegalese soil. There's a breeziness about the Senegalese which is intoxicating - shit even their money changers have it as well as good rates.
There are 5 of us making our way to Saint Louis; myself, two Italians and two Poles and we sit and wait for 3 hours for a bus to fill and make our way towards Saint Louis. The drive - just over 100km now - takes three and a half hours as it's mostly on a dirt track which runs parallel to the road which is under construction, not a rarity in these parts I'm sure. Saint Louis is a beautiful city though, its centre resting on an island in the midst of the Senegal river. Saint Louis was the first French settlement in Africa and there are some stunningly decrepit colonial buildings around every corner.
Arriving in Senegal also means that we can look forward to eating once more as Senegal is noted for its cuisine. There's thiéboudienne - rice cooked in tomato sauce and served with chunks of fish stuffed with garlic, carrots and herbs - or mafé - rice served with meat sauce with a peanut base. The appetite lost in Mauritania has been rediscovered. There's a wonderful traditional food market down by the river but there's a collective aversion to photography and so the cameras remain in our pockets for the duration of our visit there. I have found though that pointing your camera in almost any direction results in a pThere's also a remarkable amount of street art adorning many of the buildings in the old quarter adding to the character of the old place. And now that we're in Senegal there's music everywhere. Senegal, where have you been?