Monday, November 26, 2007

How to be a guy in Senegal

Any time you see a white girl, follow these instructions, exactly.

1 - Ask her her name.
2 - Ask her where she comes from.
3 - Ask her if she is married.

Seriously. That is the systematic order. Without fail.

"No tudd?"
"Fo joge?"
"Am nga jeker?"

I've mastered the system though. My answers are:

Eva. (that's all they can understand. There is no 'h' in Wolof, and the 'b' is a bit unusual)
Man waa Canada la.

I'm from Canada.
And yes, I am married.

That's how to keep them away.

Even better: "My husband is Senegalese." Then they really like you.

But lately, I've decided to have a little fun. When the taxi man asked me to marry him the other day, I said, "Sure, we'll go to the mosque this weekend. But as long as you kill 3 sheep." He answers: "Three? I can't afford three." I say, "Well I'm sorry; I can't accept any less." It's quite an enjoyable game.

Except when it came from the 103-year-old on the bus. (so he said anyway). Then I wasn't so much in the mood to joke. I said yes right away!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"C'etait chaud a Dakar hier"

Litteral translation: It was hot in Dakar yesterday.
Actual meaning: Things were heating up in Dakar yesterday.
That's what everyone was saying today, after the worst riots this city has seen in years. Here's how it all unfolded:
I'm in the office, when around 1:30pm, my boss comes in announcing there are demonstrations downtown and that we should probably leave early so that we make it home before they get out of hand and reach our office (about 20 minutes away), just to be on the safe side. A march by union workers protesting the high cost of living had been planned for that afternoon. But separate protests had spontaneously started that same morning, sparked by a presidential decision to clear street vendors from the sidewalks in order to improve traffic flow. (Dakar's streets are clogged with people selling everything and anything, because it's the only work they can find. The president's decision meant thousands of people had just lost their livelihoods.)

I ask my boss is this isn't something we should be covering. She says, yah, actually you're right. The rioters had already reached my neighbourhood anyway, so I was going to be amongst them no matter what. So off I head to where the march of union workers was supposed to take place. It's calm, but people have begun gathering and police trucks are already stationed.

The march begins like any demonstration in Canada would - people holding signs, whistling, filling the streets and walking in groups. I find a big truck driving along blasting music, so I hop on to get a good vantage point for pictures. I interview people who complain about different things: teachers who have never received the extra money the govt promised them; journalists protesting the arbitrary arrest of their colleagues by the authorities, men who make $20 a month; get no medical insurance and can't afford their rent; others whose tiny salaries are expected to sustains dozens of family members (because unemployment is so high here, if one family member gets a job, he/she is expected to take care of everyone else - including distant relatives - who cannot provide for themselves).

So, I'm walking and interviewing people in the crowds, when all of a sudden people start running in one direction because the police have fired tear gas. Eventually, the crowds disperse enough for me to see the dozens of riot police that are now confronting the protesters head on. I walk off to the side a bit, trying to get pictures, conduct interviews and at the same time, be aware of where I should and shouldn't be to avoid trouble. Police push people in certain directions, and if the officers face any resistance, they don't hesitate to beat people with their rubber truncheons. From what I can see, it's often the police instigating the aggression. An old man, who must have been 70 years old, shows me a bloody cut on his arm.

Then, another tear gas grenade. This time, I get a good wiff of it as I hurry along with everyone else trying to escape the smoke. It hurts a little to inhale, but I'm far enough away that it doesn't really affect me. At one point, as I take out my camera to take a picture of the police, and I realize my hand is trembling! I never get too close, but it's still enough of an experience to make you slightly nervous. Every now and then, the crowds come together again, until a warning shot or tear gas force them to separate.

Within half an hour, the police have basically shut the whole thing down, clearing the main street and threatening to hit anyone who doesn't move where they tell them to. When you do as they say, you find yourself getting pushed into side streets, and the road you would take to get home is blocked. Police trucks have parked in the middle of the intersection and are guarding every corner. As my journalist friend Cyr says, when I run into him, "It's like a civil war zone here." It's a bit of an exaggeration of course, but it was certainly an experience.
Still, the afternoon march by the trade unions was nothing in comparison to the riots of that morning (when I was safely in my office). Young street vendors burned tires and cars, pillaged the mayor's office, threw rocks at police and shattered windshields. I stopped by the hair salon where my friends work on my way home after the afternoon march. They said they were forced to close their shutters because the mobs were throwing rocks at the store windows and burning the wooden tables people use as stands.

The street vendors got some concessions from the government in the end - new places in the city that would be reserved for them. The streets were empty as I walked home from Wolof class today. Even the lady who normally sells peanuts outside our door wasn't there anymore.

It's the street vendors' riots that made the front pages of the paper today, eclipsing the wider and more far-reaching problems of lack of jobs, low salaries and high cost of basic commodities. So the government solved one problem, but it certainly won't be able to solve the other anytime soon. People are sick and tired of being poor and jobless. And there is certainly mounting dissatisfaction with this government. I'm sure some component of these riots was just kids looking for an excuse to cause trouble. But there's no denying that people are frustrated and increasingly unwilling to tolerate this situation. The city was basically back to normal today, and I don't think we'll see riots like these for a while, but when this kind of tension exists, it doesn't take much to unleash people's anger.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What do you mean please?

I started taking Wolof classes a few weeks ago. It's kind of pointless now since I'm leaving so soon, but it had just gotten to the point that it was embarrassing and I coudn't converse fluently with some of my best friends. I should have done it a long time ago, but better late than never, as they say.

Wolof is the dominant language in Senegal. Even if they are from a different ethnic background(Puulaar, Sereer, Jola, etc), virtually all Senegalese speak Wolof. As do all the Gambians, Guineans, Ivorians ets, who come to Senegal to work. While in Dakar, most everyone speaks French, in the villages there are some people who know nothing but Wolof.

Anyways, what's interesting about the Wolof classes is what is demonstrates about Senegalese culture. Here are some examples:

A French girl in the class (most of the foreigners here are French) asked how you say 'please' in Wolof. The teacher said there is no such word. Why?

When you say please, or 's'il te plait' in French (the direct translation is: if it pleases you), you imply that the person you are asking has the option to refuse. When in fact, in Senegal, if you ask someone to do something, they are obliged to do it. I always used to yell at my 'grand frere' Kalz during Ramadan, because when we were all hungry and breaking fast, he would ask me to stop preparing my own meal in order to prepare his, or to bring him water before I've even had a bite to eat - without even saying please! I always felt the urge to tell him to get it himself, but for him it was perfectly normal to ask me to do it and no please or thank you necessary. But now I understand why.

There are actually many arabic-based words in Wolof. All the days of the week for example: Altine is Monday (from Al-Itneen), Talaata is Tuesday (Al-Talaat), etc. That's because when Islam arived, Arabic words replaced the Wolof ones. French is having the same impact now as some words have no real Wolof version, but some amendment of a French word. Watch is montar (montre in French), fan is wantilaateer (ventilateur), etc.

Wolof names are also reflective of casts. Certain last names are part of the "entertainer" cast I talked about in an earlier post: les grillots - dancers, singers, drummers, storytellers. The name "Thiam" (the name of the family I live with) is supposed to belong to the bijoutieux (jewellers). Carpenters are a cast, tailors another, etc. The nobles are the non-casted. But the cast system is falling apart, and as such, so are the assciations. People's names and professions no longer correspond to their casts, and people are intermarrying between casts (formerly it was dishonorable for a noble to marry a casted person, or even open a hair salon. Because the nobles weren't supposed to work).The Thiams with whom I live with are nobles, not jewellers. I imagine in half a century, Senegalese will not know casts ever existed.

My last point on Wolof classes: It is incredible the amount of time we spent learning greetings. And here, learning greetings means learning how to say "How are your goats doing?" ... That's because greetings are about 10 minutes long and include everyone and everything. Salamu Alaikum. Nangadef? Ana ma wa kerr ga? Naka affairee. Namoonala. 'Hello? How are you? How is the family? How is business? It's been so long since I've seen you.' Before leaving of course, you must ask the person to greet their family for you, wish them off in peace, etc. It sounds very nice indeed and is heart warming that they care so much about personal relationships. But it becomes a little difficult when you're in a rush and you have to spend 10 minutes greeting each of the three regulars you pass around the corner from your house. If you say hello quickly and keep going, you're being rude.

Ok, until next time. Ba benenn yoon!

The path to foreign corresponding?

I've always been so intimidated by the process of becoming a foreign correspondent. How do you do it? Where do you start? Some start at a news outlet in their own country and work their way up from general city news, to provincial politics, to national politics, to international news. I imagine it would take years and is never for sure. Others just implant themselves wherever they want to go and start building a reputation for themselves bit by bit. But there are so many questions...

How do you get plugged into the news world to know what's going on when?
How do you coordinate different buyers for your stories? Can you work for a wire like Reuters while at the same time pitching to the CBC or are you going to piss them off?
Who's out there and who wants what?
And if you work or a wire, they expect you do be ready to cover any breaking news in the region you're in. In Chad, that can range from business stories on the oil pipeline, to environmental problems in Lake Chad, to the new European mission there, to conflicts with neighbouring Sudan, to poverty. You have to be ready to write serious for the serious papers, and tabloidy stuff for the tabloids. You have to be persistent. You have to take every story you can get. Attend every event. Get to know people. Make yourself known.

It can be real hard. People only have so much appetite for a central African country like Chad. And as a freelancer, there is never a guarantee of work or a good rate for your work.

So to address some of your comments, I'm not doing this trip to kill my 10 days. I'm doing it because it is a very narrow opening of the door into this world. IRIN is willing to pay me for reports from Chad in those 10 days. Agreed, 4 of them wil be spent travelling probably (and you can't imagine the hassle of trying to organize flights in Africa. You assume you can book a flight anyday to wherever you want, but either the airline doesn't even go that city and there are no flights for three days, etc.) but that leaves enough time to do some decent reporting, especially if I know what I'm looking for. Once I have some reports written on the ground under my belt, it will be a lot easier to approach Reuters or Agence France Press or anyone else, because I will have somethng to show them. Even to get on the UN plane to the humanitarian hub in the east, Abeche, (apparently the UN is the only institution that flies there) you have to prove that you are writing a story for someone. ie. You have to already have a committed buyer that is willing to vouch for you.

Plus it will allow me to do this first trip with the support of the UN (in terms of permits, authorization, etc) and give me a hang of how things work before I try to do it on my own.

In Chad for example, you need a visa to enter, you need a permit to travel within the country, you need a permit to work as a jouranlist, you need a permit to visit refugee areas, you need a permit to take pictures, the list is endless.

Bottom line, it's quite compliated. Basically, this gives me a chance to see if I can do it on a small scale before trying it all out. I'll go for a vacation when I get back to Canada!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What Next?

My biggest fear in coming here was that I would do my six months, go back to Canada, and return to my old life - reporting about Larry O'Brien (Ottawa's mayor) or garbage collection (no joke, I have done several stories on this) or some woman who lost her parrot (again, not joking). These are, indeed, important stories that someone has to tell and that many are interested to read - but it's just not what interests me.

On top of that, my time at IRIN has been incredible in terms of orienting myself to the humanitarian issues in West Africa, but for the most part, I have been reporting from my desk in my air conditioned office, next to a Frenchie, a Brit, an American and an Australian. (p.s. What's the noun for a French person?)

So... I've been thinking of what to do next. And I've come up with two options, and I'd like your votes! I'm still planning on going to Egypt in the month of January to study Arabic, but I have about 10 days between finishing at IRIN and starting my Arabic classes, in which I would like to visit another country in the region and set the framework for returning as a freelance journalist. Then the plan is to come back to Canada for a while - enough time to see my wonderful friends and family! - and then eventually head back here (I use "here" very broadly - meaning, Africa, Middle East, wherever I see fit!)

Option 1 - Niger. (not to be confused with Nigeria)

Rated the world's poorest country by the UN. Mostly desert, lots of nomads - and a whole lot of complications!

You guys are always asking for my articles, so here are a couple that give you an idea of what's going on there:

A quick summary of Niger is basically this: It is a mix of complete poverty, foreign companies exploiting uranium, a semi-rebellion by Touareg people who say they are being discriminated against and that the government is not redistributing the revenue from the uranium extraction, and a government that refuses to negotiate with the rebels, and is instead arresting people and journalists who it believes are sympathetic to the rebel cause. Voila.

There is a state of emergency in the north of the country, where the sporadic rebellion is taking place; foreign journalists have been barred from entering; and movement is quite difficult because of landmines.

So if I went, I would probably be stuck in the capital (far from danger mother, don't worry), and I'm not sure how much I would be able to accomplish, other than to orient myself a little to the country, make some contacts, etc.

Option 2 - Chad.

I'm sure you've all heard the story of the French NGO accused of child trafficking for trying to "save" Darfur orphans by taking them to host families in France. Yup, that's Chad. (Here's another taste of my journalistic adventures: But apart from that, there is lots going on there and apparently a complete lack of reporters (other than the ones who have flown in to cover this scandal and will leave as soon as it's old news). In the east of Chad, about 450,000 people are in camps - they are either refugees from Darfur (in neighbouring Sudan) and the Central African Republic, or they are internally displaced people, because Chad itself has been home to fighting between government and rebel groups, cross-border raids by Sudanese militia, and interethnic fighting. A European Union force is going to be deployed there in a couple weeks to stabilize the eastern region.

Nick, from the office, says that while Chad is a "very unpleasant" place to be, it is far easier to operate in than Niger, and apparently Associated Press is looking for a stringer there.

Either way, I'm kind of intimidated by the idea of being a freelance journalist in an area I don't know (how to make contacts, be in the loop for press conferences, understand the complicated politics, and avoid dangerous situations), especially when I don't have the backing of an organisation. Having a media outlet behind you not only gives you a name when you approach interviewees, but also connects you to a whole structure set up to help you (contacts, resources, people with experience, etc) ... I imagine even something as simple as a cell phone or connection to internet can be difficult in these countries when you're on your own.

Still, no media outlets have the money to permanently station people in some of these countries, so a stringer can be very successful by writing stories for all sorts of different outlets. And I guess once you make friends with the local journalists, you can connect yourself to the media scene. I've already got a good starting point (all the phone numbers I've gathered over my time here of president's spokespeople, etc) and I can almost definately string (journalistic term for "freelance or write") for IRIN, at the very least.

Really I think the only way to ever get to where I want to be is to just plunge right in! You never know what you're capable of until you're tested, right?

And Mom, at least Darfur is not on the list! Wish me luck!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Unsustainable Charity

Juxtapose what I’m about to write with my last entry and you will get a glimpse into how confusing it is living here. It mixes you up and sometimes you really don’t know what to think.

Basically from the moment I got here, my Senegalese friends have asked me for money. Kalz asked me for 2000 francs ($4, but worth more here obviously) within days of meeting me. I gave Lamine 10,000 once, which was supposed to be a loan but apparently loans don’t exist here. Blondin asked for 2000. Fatou, another 2,000. Atouman’s Mom – yes, his mother – asked me for money. His sister, himself. After a while, you just want to scream at them, “I’m not a damn bank!” But part of you is embarrassed to say no because they know you have the money, and you know you have the money. If a friend in Canada told me they needed 20 bucks, I wouldn’t ask questions. I would just give it to them. So why should it be any different here? Plus, they do so much for me; they’re so kind. I feel bad not returning the favour – albeit financial – when my turn comes.

But several things make me uncomfortable about this.

First of all, I find myself asking whether they really need it. Atouman’s family for example - they all wear gold jewellery: rings, earrings, necklaces .. things that I don’t even wear. Lamine smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. It’s a question of priorities, I suppose, but I’m sure not sure when they ask for money that’s it’s really a desperate situation.

Second, sometimes I think kids here are raised to beg and it bothers me. It’s almost shameful and I feel bad for parents who have to watch their children act that way. There’s this one kid near my house named Diallo, who I've become friends with. But now everytime he sees me, he tugs at everything I’m wearing – my watch, my purse – asking for money. He almost rips things out of my hands if I have anything. Today, he followed me into my house because he thought I had bananas in my bag. It seems his mother is embarassed every time he clutches at things - but where did he get that habit from, if not from the people around him? Part of me just doesn't want to encourage such "desperate, undignified" behaviour (ie. Don't they have any pride?) and part of me hates myself for writing those words and asking that question.

But my biggest problem with this money thing is that it’s so unsustainable. You give them money today, they need more money tomorrow. The need never ends. And they can’t constantly depend on someone's charity to fill that need. They have to find ways to generate it on their own. I think of the little beggar boys on the streets – here begging is actually entrenched in a system. The Talibe are young boys – sometimes orphans, sometimes from poor families who give them up - who live with a marabout (Most Senegalese Muslims have religious leaders called Marabouts, who they believe give them advice, guide them, etc. “My marabout told me this or that”). The arabout teaches the kids Qu’ran, feeds them and gives them some place to stay. In exchange, they have to beg on the street for money which they take back to the marabout - supposedly in order to pay for everything he does for them, but in reality it all oes to the marabout. It's common knowledge that the kids are badly treated by the Marabouts ie. not fed enough or clothed well. Many walk around the streets of Dakar all day barefoot, with dirt on their faces and ripped clothes. The Talibe are recognizable by their tin cans. The fact that people continue to give them money – people incluing Senegalese – only encourages them to maintain this system, in which they spend every day of their lives begging for money. These are young able children who could be doing so much more. And sometimes it makes me think I shouldn’t ever give them anything, because it only keeps this system alive. I suppose it’s the same question international donors ask themselves on the broader development scale.

It's also a question that I think every foreigner asks him or herself when they get here. Check out my friend Erin's thoughts on this topic if you're interested. She's teaching English in a village in Benin. (Choose the Nov. 1 post)

I've stopped letting it bother me too much. When I feel like it, I give. When I'm tired of giving, I stop. But it's definately an issue that has many implications on the wider scale, and I hope that eventually, as a global society we find the right balance.