Friday, August 17, 2007

Senegalese Infrastructure

I've been meaning to do this post for a while, but I had to prepare all the elements! Anyways, here is a look at how things work here.

1 - The Cab.

When you take a cab here, you have to be ready to negotiate. Of course, the prices are dirt cheap, but there is no meter, you just decide with the driver. So when you hail a cab, you stick your head in the window, tell him where you're going, and then suggest a price. He counters, and you keep going until you reach agreement. Often pretending to walk away helps. They'll say, 'ok, ok, i'll take it'... because there's way more supply than demand when it comes to cabs here. When I was in St. Louis, the system was even more relaxed. You just get in, go to your destination, and then basically give the cabbie whatever you think it's worth - or give him a bill and wait and see what he gives you back. I guess there's just a level of trust that doesn't exist in Dakar.

Check out this taxi repair/washing stand ...

One thing I found incredible, is that the price of gas is nowhere near as cheap as I expected. It's more than a dollar a litre. Yet a cab ride that would easily cost $20 in Canada, would cost $3 here.
The driving is of course, uncontrolled. But amazingly, I have yet to witness a traffic accident here. It's not just that there are no lanes and very few traffic lights, its that everyone thinks they have the right of way, and often, it's only at the very last minute that one of two drivers heading into an intersection from opposite directions will decide to slow down.

2 - The Bus.
Here is the luxurious bus stop I wait at on my way home.

I've talked about the busses before - the fact that the system is quite effective. But there are of course, some things you should do to master the system. First of all, there are two bus lines - the white busses and the blue busses... In many cases, they pass along similar routes, but they have different bus stops. So when I go to work I can take the blue #9 or the white #31. But the stops are abou 100 m apart. And if I wait at the blue stop, and the white one comes, I have to run to catch it in time. So now, I stand in between both stops, and when I see one coming, I get to the appropriate stop on time!

The other thing about the bus, especially when it's crowded, is that you should always aim for a spot near the door. The ideal spot, is right on the step with the door open, that way you get all the wind that passes by. Otherwise, sometimes it can be HOT...with so many people crammed beside each other.

3. The Coffeeshop.

Coffee is big in Senegal, and specifically Nestcafe. It has a monopoly on this country - seriously. Little vendors walk around with hot water, nescafe packets, and cups, and sell you hot coffee for 50 cents...

4. The Hairdresser.
Of course, there are the salons, but there are also stands on the street where men can go to get their heads shaved. It's basically a chair, a mirror, and a little countertop. You sit down in the middle of the street, get your head shaved, and keep on walking. Wish I had a pic.

5. The Fly Killer.

Seriously, I have never in my life seen flies so big. They are everywhere and they are huge. So in the office, we have this weapon to try to kill them. (p.s. I killed my first fly today, it was so exciting!) It's a gun wound on a spring with a flat end. So when you see the fly, you line up the gun and fire... it's quite entertaining actually.

6. The Heat.

When the electricity is out, it is almost impossible to sleep because it becomes so hot. The thing is that outside, it's not hot. It's nice and breezy. But as soon as you get into an enclosed space (bedroom, bathroom, etc) you start sweating almost instantaneously. So, one night, I told myself I just couldn't lie on my bed in distress as the heat overcame me. So I took a straw mat, lay it on the roof, hung my mosquito net fromthe clothesline, stuck my earplugs in, and swept peacefully.

7. The Garbage

I suppose some of the folks here haven't had exposure to environmental education. So some of them get rid of their garbage by stacking into piles on the side of the road, and burning it. Often on my way home, I walk by three or four piles of garbage with smoke coming out of them. They have no idea how harmful it is, I imagine!

8. The Recycling.

There is no formal recycling program in Senegal, but there is an unofficial network of people who make money by going through garbage at the dump, collecting all the recyclable metal and selling it. Can you imagine? Some of them even have little shacks at the dump where they sleep.

9. The Cemetery

This hole in the wall - literally - is the door to a cemetary in Dakar's Medina neighbourhood. The cemetery is falling apart, covered in garbage, etc. It's quite sad. When I was in St. Louis, Lamine and I went to visit his mother's grave. It was really hard to watch. The grave was marked by a piece of wood with her name written by hand, just resting on the sand. She is in a plot with others from the family, and each body is identified just by a lump of sand. Lamine spent a good 20 minutes digging up the sand with his hands to try to maintain each body's shape. In the next plot over, another young guy was sweeping leaves and dirt off his family's grave. Then Lamine prayed for her and ran his hands through the sand a little. It was really... difficult. I can't imagine having to do that. (I love you Mom!)

10. The Little Extras

So guess what they have even all the way in Senegal? RED BULL! Can you believe it... and it's chepaer than in Canada. And I even see the Red Bull car driving around. And... this is the sad news, they now have pop in plastic bottles! I think they will slowly phase out the glass bottles, which is so depressing, because there is nothing I love more than a cold Fanta Orange out of the glass bottle....

Saint Louis

Last weekend, I took a 7-hr trip to a city on the northwestern coast called Saint Louis. It's the former capital of Senegal, dating back to colonial times.

Me and a friend of mine, Lamine, left home at5pm Friday at started our trip at a place where people gather to get rides to other parts of the country. They call it the "gare" but it's nothing like a train station. It's just a bunch of people, cars and chaos, and thank God I had Lamine, cuz I would have never found my way around otherwise. People who want to make some money just drive their cars over, wait until they have enough passengers, and then take off to whatever destination. So there are people there looking to get rides, people looking to give rides, and people who want to sell things to those who are waiting - everything from biscuits to eggs to noisemakers! We rode a minibus with about 15 people (the pic is from my view in the back), for a distance of 270 km (yes, 270 km took 7 hours - hello traffic!) for the equivalent of $5 each - which would have been a wicked deal, only, they shoved an extra person in the back with us, so litterally, you were stuck to your seat and to the people on either side of you for the whole trip. My butt was sweating just sitting there. When someone needs to pee, he just calls out to the driver, who pulls over on the side of the road for two minutes. And everytime you stop, villagers on the street stick something in your face that they want you to buy. (Since the traffic is so bad, there is a whole business in just selling to people travelling along the main route from Dakar to Thies (on the way to St. Louis). Mangos are quite popular, but there are other things too). Although, everywhere in Senegal, it is comon to sell things to people through car windows. Merchants will run alongside the slow-moving car, until the transaction is over, then the car drives on, and the merchant gets a rest.

Anyways, so we arrived at St. Louis at midnight! Luckily a nice room and meal awaited me at Lamine's aunt's house, where I stayed for the weekend.
St. Louis is nice. Less western/cosmopolitan than Dakar, even more Senegalese. The beach is really nice and the architecture is colonial style. Anyways, here are some pics (Lamine along the water, the market, and where they dry the fishes):

Malicounda Pics

Here are pics from my visit to Malicounda for the commemoration of the day 10 years ago that 35 village women announced they were abandoning female genital mutilation...

This is the woman I quote in the article, who said she had conducted female circumcision on about 500 girls in her lifetime, but she gave it up after learning the health risks... Funny thing about this woman - she's a traditional villager: only speaks Wolof, 60 years old, wears booboos, etc. But she carries around a cell phone! (Only when it rings, she lifts up her shirt to find it in her waste bag and doesn't even notice that she's exposing her breasts in the process.) Quite a few older, bigger women don't wear bras here, and their tops are very loose... I'll leave it at that.

To the right is a picture of the main square where all the commemmorative speeches were taking place. All the villagers sat under tents on the outside, and all the media on the inside. Below left are some of the signs they created for the event, which read "Malicounda Bambara village symbole dans le processus d'abandon de l'excision."

And of course, no party would be would be Senegalese without some dancing and singing, so that explains the last picture.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Malicounda Bambara

Jeez... sorry for the delay!

My first out-of-town trip for work was... to say the least... interesting. It was the 10-year-commemoration of the first public declaration from village women in Senegal that they were abandonning female gential mutilation. From the get-go the set-up was unusual from a Canadian perspective. UNICEF, which organized the event we were reporting on, also organized a bus for all the press (about 30 Senegalese print, radio and TV reporters - and me!), fed us the whole weekend, and gave us cash for our hotel... Can you say conflict of interest? (yes, still.searching, i agree that media realities in Africa might be different - perhaps the media can't afford to cover things any other way - but one Senegalese journalist said her media organization never accepts money, so maybe things aren't so different after all. And certainly UNICEF wanted to make it easy for the journalists and get them onside the cause). In any case, the whole thing was disorganized. The bus didn't leave on time, of course. There was no air conditioning, and it was SO HOT. Seriously, I don't think I've ever lived a day where I was continuously sweating like this day.

We stopped first in this town called Thies, about 3 hours (actually 45 minutes, but with traffic 3 hours) east of Dakar. There, a bunch of delegates from different countries met to discuss strategies in the fight against female genital mutilation. The sound was horrible. I had no idea who the various speakers were. Parts were in a language I didn't understand. Overall, it was rather useless. When it was over, the MC asked if the media had questions. No one said a thing. Then, when the group dispersed, it was like a free-for-all, with all the journalists going after different people to interview. I kinda stood there, lost in the crowd, not knowing who to talk to or what information I wanted. It was a challenge to say the least.

Before I had the chance to do even two interviews, the bus swept us away to take us to a hotel in the neighbouring tourist town called Syla. I tried comparing notes with some of the other journalists, but most didn't get that much out of it either. At least they helped me with the spelling of some of the names, which were totally foreign to me. Funny, in Canada, when you quote somebody, you always have to ask them to spell out their name, so that you get it right. Here, if they hear a name, they know how to spell it - I guess because all the names are spelled the same way.

So, on this very "informative" trip, we wasted the night away waiting for the bus at the hotel, which was to take us to dinner and a cultural night. The bus was so late, that after dinner, it was midnight, and we cancelled the culturnal night and went back to the hotel. So in a whole day of travel, we got barely any information.

The only useful part was when Marie (a local journalist I met on the bus) and I went off into the village to try to find out if despite the big hoopla about abandoning the practice, FGM was still going on. We found a village elder who said exactly that. She spoke in Wolof. I didn't understand a thing. Marie would translate after every answer. She said that just a week ago, a girl had been circumcised in the village. But of course, she had no proof.

The next day was the big ceremony in the nearby village of Malicounda Bambara - complete with a marching band, posters, music, dancing. There were thousands of people there gathered around this square, with speeches etc. It was such a difficult day, because almost all the speeches were in Wolof. I had no idea what was being said. Talking to people without a local journalist by my side was near impossible, because most of the villagers didn't speak French. I felt totally handicapped. And even when you do have someone translating for you, the answers are never as good. You can't get the real emotion, or for that matter, more than a yes or no answer in a lot of cases. On top of that, there were so many different people present and different avenues you could take with the article, so it was pretty overwhelming.

At the end of it all, I came home with more confusion than anything, a whole bunch of notes without anything too useful, a headache and a tan from being in the gruelling sun. And of course, a bunch of new friends !

(A note on the friends. When you make friends with a Senegalese person, they expect a lot out of you. You're supposed to call them everyday to say hello, how you doing... When you slack off in the communication, they get offended (somewhat like my friends in Canada!). They could easily text/call you 2-3 day in the course of the day, without anything meaningful to say!)

Anyways, that's my report on my trip to Malicounda Bambara... the town where 35 women made history in Senegal. My article will explain the story... I'll post that with pictures soon....

But basically, it opened my eyes to the difficulties of reporting in a foreign place. And this wasn't even a conflict zone. Imagine if you had to deal with a language you don't know, names you don't recognize, an environment you don't understand, and bullets flying over your head ! It's a whole other world - and one that requires a lot of patience and dogged hard work. I wonder if I'll ever find myself there !

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Senegalese Press Conference

For those of you not in the media world, let me give you some context about an average Canadian press conference. You walk in; one, two, maybe three people read short statements; they take some questions; and it's all over in 30 minutes.

My first Senegalese press conference lasted 6 hours. I kid you not. It was supposed to be a "briefing" about an event coming up this weekend. (Commemoration of the day 10 years ago when 35 village women declared they were abandonning female genital mutilation - Today, about half of Senegal's 5000 villages have abandoned the practice.) Instead, it was like a day-long conference - with tons of local journalists, about 10 different people speaking, powerpoint presentations, microphones at each seat, the whole works. Each person in the room introduced themselves (including all the journalists)... it was like a nice family reunion. The organizers even gave us money for our transportation costs - straight cash in my hand. (In Canada, media organizations bear any costs they incurr themselves). This weekend, I'm travelling to a village about 2 hours from Dakar to go to this event, and UNICEF is organizing a bus for all the journalists to go together... and giving you money for your hotel... it's crazy !

Anyways, half the press conference was in French. The other half in Wolof, and I had someone sitting beside me whispering in my ear what was going on. Afterwards, I did an interview through a translator with a woman who used to remove the genitalia of young girls (the most severe form of FGM is when you remove all the clitoris and the labia and then sow the vagina up, leaving only a small hole the size of a matchstick for urine to come out - sorry for the graphic details, but just so you get the idea) This woman said she probably did 500 procedures - but has now given it up because she's learned about the health risks involved (can lead to hemorrhage, HIV/AIDS, problems during child birth, even death sometimes, not to mention psychological problems, sexual dysfunction, etc). Should be an interesting weekend in any event.

So by the end of this day, I was pretty exhausted and hungry. Went home looking for something to snack on until dinner (which isn't til 9:30pm) ... A bag of chips would have been amazing. Went to two or three corner shops who had no idea what "croustilles" were... Finally, somebody handed me what looked like a bag of corn pops, but I only had a bill of 2000 CFA (about $4), and it costs 50 CFA (10 cents)... Since nobody in Senegal has change, needless to say, I didn't get the "chips". So instead I bought a hamburger, and the guy who sold it to me asked me if I was married... and I wanted to swear at him. ... That's when I knew I needed some downtime.

Sometimes, nothing bothers you. Then other times, everything does. And not being able to find a bag of chips will push you over the edge. So it's just a matter of noticing when you're near your breaking point, and retiring to a quiet place to regroup. That's my strategy anyway.