Me again, calling in from sunny Senegal (well I say sunny, but it's just bloody hot to be honest). I’ve travelled to St Louis, the former French capital of Senegal-Mauritania (they used to be the same country). The relaxed ambience, and old French architecture, make a pleasant change from the intensity of Dakar, where I spent two nights at the Hotel Vieira; an establishment which (apparently) is owned by the Patrick Vieira’s granddad.
In contrast to the laid-back atmosphere that cloaks the rest of Senegal, Dakar is hive of activity. Quick-footed touts, loud-mouthed businessmen, and charismatic conmen buzz about in a blur of frenetic colour.
I met one such conman on Dakar’s beach. He welcomed me to his country with confidence-building charm, and pampered me with kind words about English people.
(Other Senegalese people have also been keen to point out that foreigners who visit Africa aren’t racist, and that this is a good thing because whilst we may be a different colour on the outside, we’re all the same on the inside. This, of course, is an obvious fact. But it’s a fact that seems a little disingenuous when coming from someone who’s only talking to you because you’re white, who’s trying to sell you things solely because you’re white, and who’s hassling you because you’re white; because to them white skin means a nice juicy payday.)
Anyway, I digress. The man on Dakar’s beach gave me a necklace and a little metal object for my mother. He said it was from his heart; that he was happy, and that in Senegal people give things when they are happy. So far so good. Then he said that he was organising a barbeque on the beach for orphans. I smiled; it sounded like a nice event. Only then did he ask for money, from my heart, as a sign of my appreciation.
That was when I became sceptical. I asked where and when the barbeque was taking place, but did not receive an answer. I tried to get an invite, but failed. I offered to bring some food, but my offer was rejected. So, unhappy with the man’s answers, I decided to leave. Then the man asked me to return the gifts he had only just given me.
I felt really guilty. My instinct was to help a good cause, and refusing to do so seemed made me feel awkward. But I felt that I was being scammed – that it’d have been naïve to donate.
I finally found peace the next day, though, when I met two more people who also tried to pull off a similar scam. One asked for money for a baptism (in a Muslim country). The other wanted money for a baby shower. He also claimed to be the cousin of El Hadj-Diouf.
But the scammers were the only lowlight of my time in Dakar. The highlight was ‘Vivian’, Youssou N’Dour’s sister-in-law, whose band played music with a distinctive African twang, a splash of reggae and a drop of afrobeat. Two musicians played djembe's, and another played a drum that was attached to his armpit. The crowd danced until the wee small hours, only stopping to shove crumpled CFA notes into Vivian’s belt. And the backing-singers shook themselves into a trance.
After a good night’s sleep I headed for St Louis in an 8-seater Bush Taxi, along with a driver, 10 passengers, a child and an infant. At one point we drove past an endless parade of mango sellers, who sat side-by-side for over a mile. They all had plenty of mangoes. None of them had any customers.
We stopped near one such seller. Five others immediately rushed towards the windows of our vehicle. I asked the lady nearest to me how much it would cost to buy one of her mangos, and was quoted 50 pence, which seemed a little steep. But I had missed breakfast, and felt that a mango would fill the hole in my stomach. In the end I was given thirteen!
I gave two to the receptionist of my hostel, for which he called me 'A true African man'. I think he said that because people here seem to share whatever they have. When they have a lot they give a lot, without expecting anything in return. When they are short, other people help them out.
Such hospitality was extended to me by the waiter I met over dinner. He invited me back to his family home for a meal the next night. I, of course, took some mangos! And he also took me to see a Muslim ceremony.
The people at that ceremony seemed happy for us to watch them sing and dance. They took it in turns to haul a heavy wooden object between their legs. Then they hit themselves on the back, before repeating the whole process. I am told that this tradition is limited to Senegal, and I can understand why!
I experienced this same sort of hospitality the very next day when, after playing football on the beach with a group of local children, I was invited back to one of the player’s houses for tea.
‘Tea’ is not only a drink, here in Senegal, it is a ritual; one that usually takes a couple of hours. One pot of tea is boiled, sugar is added, and then the tea is boiled some more. The tea is poured into a couple of cups, then poured in and out of a third cup. It is returned to the pot. Finally, everyone gets to drink. Then the process is repeated. Three cups are drunk in each sitting; one contains more mint, another contains more sugar. Everyone talks throughout.
I left the footballer’s house having met four generations of his family, who all lived in the same small, dark room. After the hassle of Dakar’s scammers, my confidence in humanity had been well and truly rekindled. I’d experienced a sort of hospitality, friendliness and warmth, which went way beyond anything I’d ever experience in the West. And my appetite for more had been well and truly wetted…
WEST AFRICA BLOGS
Back in the summer of 2003, aged 21, I went travelling on my own for the first time. The emails which I sent home, edited versions of which appear here, were my debut efforts at real writing.
Looking back, my trip around West Africa was eventful to say the least. In these blogs you'll encounter rampaging prostitutes, charismatic scammers, debilitating illness, and petite crime. But shining through it all is a real sense of humanity. The warmness of the Africans, their friendly nature and welcoming personalities, struck me almost every single day. Hopefully they'll leave a similar impression on you too...