WE LOVE DAKAR! Part 3: Dak’art

WARNING! Tired people brace yourselves: this is a ridiculously long blog, even for me, with a stupid amount of pics. But can I help it if Dakar was this fascinating?

The Art of Living

Stumbling upon the Lou Bess Farmers Market outside Ngor Lounge our first Saturday in Dakar, it was like we had wandered into a Cape Town southern suburb on a weekend. There was a similar range of rainbow hippies selling a similar selection of tempting yummy produce, just a fascinating difference in ingredients.

Dakar's monthly Lou Bess Farmers Market

Dakar’s monthly Lou Bess Farmers Market

Yummy stuff for rainbow hippies of the world

Yummy stuff for hippies of the world

I was thrilled to see that all the delicious natural products we had met on our journey through West Africa – from the dried bissap tea of Cote d’Ivoire to the moringa leaf of Liberia – were at last being transformed into a range of commercially viable products in Senegal. Did you know that moringa contains twice as much protein as yoghurt, 3 times as much potassium as bananas, 4 times as much calcium as milk, 4 times as much vitamin A as carrots and 7 times as much vitamin C as oranges?

Environmental development group Nébéday supports the Jappo Liggey women’s cooperative to plant one for every euro donated. Powdered leaves of this drought-resistant ‘tree of life’, native to the Himalayas, are prescribed for malnutrition, aneamia, gastric problems, fatigue, blood pressure, diabetes and lactation regulation. It can also be used for water purification and as soap for hand washing!

Finally, moringa was being marketed as the health wonder it is

Finally, moringa was being marketed as the wonder plant it is

and manufactured on an industrial scale

and manufactured on an industrial scale

African made beauty products using indigenous ingredients like coconut oil and

African made beauty products using indigenous ingredients like coconut oil, shea butter and local honey

Our favourite Zena jams

Our favourite Zena jams

Best of all, local juices in tempting combinations from Fruitic Foods...

Best of all, local juices in tempting combinations from Fruitic Foods…

the brand new business of my new friend Fatou Seck

the brand new business of my new friend Fatou Seck

Yummiest of all was the fresh milk and yoghurt on offer from real Senegalese cows of the Dolima co-op. The award-winning Laiterie du Berger currently employs 800 Fulani herding families in an attempt to create a local industry robust enough to challenge the evil monopoly of imported powdered milk, which accounts for 90% of consumption.

Dolima displays headshots of all their local herders behind their tasting station

Dolima displays headshots of all their local herders behind their tasting station

I can’t tell you how excited we were. We hadn’t seen real milk since Namibia and when I got Sampson to taste one of their creamy free samples, he said Dolima yoghurt was so delicious “it might just be the thing that tips you over into living here”…

Thanks Édouard and Jacques for sharing your story!

Thanks Édouard and Jacques for sharing your inspiring story!

Even more cheering than seeing locally manufactured products was seeing a pile of locally published books including Dakaroises poetry. A month later, we were living on the site where the market takes place. As the stalls were being set up early in the morning, I caught sight of a guy who’d just got out of a taxi and was about to take a photo of Big Reg.

Big Reg's view of the market

Big Reg’s view of the market

and the guy who came to take a photo of him

and the guy who came to take a photo of him

“Simon??!” I shouted, recognising him from the Little Baobab blog “Simon Fenton?” He was as gobsmacked as me as he had no idea who I was! I told him his blog had been recommended to me by a friend of mine, and I was very sad we hadn’t had time to drop in to his place in Casamance because we were running late to cross the Sahara – and now here he was!

Simon had come to Dakar to promote his book Squirting Milk At Chameleons, a frank and winning account of his journey from self-exiled British traveller to finding love and purpose as a family man in rural Senegal. He told me Big Reg looked like the Daddy of his overlander ‘Kermit’ featured on the front cover! He sold 27 books that day, including one to me – and has recently launched another, Chasing Hornbills.

We met Nathan’s wife Mina Fuhr for the first time that day: she popped up like a pixie, a radiant-complexioned Japanese/German who multitasks as a yoga teacher, professional belly dancer and vegan recipe creator. She was there selling copies of her cookery book Mother’s Milks, an autobiographical account of how to fall in love with good-for-you food doubling as a survival guide to eating disorders.

Sampson was busy coming to the rescue of a South African’s Senegalese wife. Phillip Steenkamp was away working as an engineer to finance his fledgling farm Sunu Tool, so his wife Rachel had come alone to the market to sell their home-made boerewors but quickly realised that braaing is not as easy as her hubbie makes it look. She was saved by Sampson who replaced a broken bolt on her braai and gave her some tips for cooking with charcoal. He was rewarded with two packs of scrumptious boerwors, seasoned only with fresh coriander, salt and pepper – no cereal, no MSG. It’s the first time I’ve been able to eat it for years. Maneer Steenkamp, we salute you!

Rachel Oumou Sy and her sister, getting to grips with braaiing with tips from Sampson

Rachel Oumou Sy and her sister, getting to grips with braaing thanks to tips from Sampson

Big Reg had a succession of visitors including an American/Senegalese family from Atlanta with two surfing daughters – go girls! – and a British teacher who reads my blog. I was gobsmacked again.

Lovely to meet Momar and Kristin Ndiaye, their surfing daughters Aneesa and Jayla, teacher Carrie Tooth and entrepreneur Fatou Seck

Lovely to meet Momar and Kristin Ndiaye, their surfing daughters Aneesa and Jayla, teacher Carrie Tooth (r) and entrepreneur Fatou Seck (l)

I rushed to snag a bagful of organic veg from Mamadou and Nicole’s Taaru Askan farm before it all disappeared, not just peppers, carrots and sweet potatoes, but also lettuce, rocket and BROCCOLI. We hadn’t seen that since Namibia either, not locally grown and affordable. I can’t tell you how delicious it was. Thanks to Nicole’s advice, I cooked the leaves as well.

The peerless display of organic veg grown on the Taaru Askan farm by Nicole and Mamadou (left)

The peerless display of organic veg grown on the Taaru Askan farm by Nicole and Mamadou (left)

Bliss on a rice cake

Bliss on a rice cake

When Zama arrived, I took her to buy some and Nicole surprised me by saying how inspired she’s been by us following our dream to travel. She has been feeling too scared to quit her job as an international student volunteer coordinator and follow her passion for the farm. “You just went for it, and with kids too! I have to be more brave…”

Yum yum YUM!

Yum yum YUM!

Somehow I still can’t convincingly explain how, for me, it would have been braver to stick with the dull sublunary routine of school-work-school-work-escape-at-the-end-of-the-year; how it kills me to know exactly what I’m going to be doing a month from now, how I thrive on living in the moment. Surely ‘brave’ is doing the right thing for your family, against your nature – not indulging a craving for adventure?

She also complimented me on my “mature, intelligent and articulate” daughter, who’d been helping her out that morning. However, Ruby was about to give us an example of the exact opposite behaviour. My Uncle John and Auntie Jill will know what I mean when I say “She pulled another disappearing act à la Royal Priors”…

Ruby had been hanging out with three of Nicole’s young American volunteers. She had asked permission from her Dad to “go for a walk with them” (note, she hadn’t asked me). About half an hour later, Nathan told us he had pre-ordered Ceebu Jën (Wolof) a.k.a. Thiéboudienne (French) for us at his favourite place, just down the road. When Sampson phoned Ruby to call her back to eat, he found they were now “in a taxi on their way to the trampolines”. “Whaat? Get back here NOW!”

While we tucked into plates of Senegal’s deliciously healthy national dish of simmered fish, veg, rice and tamarind relish, and I tried not to worry about my daughter, we heard more of Nathan’s story. His father was a high ranking CIA official who worked all over the world. Nathan was born in Dakar and since 9/11 has rejected the ‘American dream’ lifestyle and has chosen to live as a Senegalese rather than an American. He trained as a classical conductor and has worked here as a drum teacher and part time entrepreneur, but he has centred his career around creating an annual celebration of the Senegalese master of the sabar drum, Doudou Ndiaye Rose.

Doudou collaborated with musicians such as Josephine Baker, Miles Davis and the Rolling Stones and was revered internationally in countries as diverse as Japan and Spain. But in his later years, before Nathan’s homage, Doudou was sorely neglected by his own government. Nathan organised and conducted a very successful series of mass drum orchestra and improvised dance events called Deggi Daaj showcasing his master’s unique skills annually for four years. Nathan’s spotlight reintroduced Doudou to the mainstream and granted him some of the national acknowledgement long denied. Last year, just a few days after their final event, he passed away peacefully at the age of 85.

While we were there, Nathan was asked to attend an official ceremony to rename a square in Doudou’s honour in a quarter of the old city called Medina. While such acknowledgements offer some balm, Nathan is understandably feeling somewhat lost right now without the direction and guidance of his mentor, and saddened as Doudou’s extended musical family seems to be splintering and struggling to find cohesion.

Tucking into Ceebu Jën with Nathan and Mina

Tucking into Ceebu Jën with Nathan and Mina

At this point, I received a ‘please call me’ from Ruby. Her volunteer friends had left to go home in the opposite direction, so she was now alone in a taxi whose driver didn’t know where Ngor Lounge was, and sobbing, realising how stupid she’d been to leave in the first place. Thankfully a) Nathan speaks Wolof and put the restaurant manager on to give exact directions to the driver and b) this is Dakar, where (Nathan assured me) a 14 year old girl alone and crying in a taxi is guaranteed to be looked after and not taken advantage of. I only had to endure about 10 minutes of minor panic before she was delivered safe and sound.

Later she admitted she’d felt peer pressure until she realised they were really nice people and wouldn’t have thought any less of her if she’d said “Oh my Dad will be cross if I come with you” and concluded she’d been putting it on herself. To be fair, she was totally out of practice with peers, and had her head turned by the excitement of the whole occasion. But to be so enamoured of company as to Totally Forget Everything We’ve Ever Told Her about telling us where you’re going/knowing exactly where the truck is/checking you’ve got credit on the phone…? It was a big lesson, for all of us.

Mina and Nathan don’t have a car; Mina travels to all her gigs in the middle of night over weekends via taxi and never feels afraid. This was a revelation for me. It’s such a novelty for a woman used to the social norms of South Africa, to find a city where you can feel completely safe travelling alone in the middle of the night.

The next afternoon, I set off to meet Simon, having read his book in less than 24 hours. We drove down to the Plateau for a drink at the idiosyncratic Hotel Sokhamon, where he generously shared lots of info about his wonderful publishers Eyebooks, who focus on producing works by “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.

Welcome to Hotel Sokhamon, part industrial theatre space, part Fred Flintstone house!

Welcome to Hotel Sokhamon, part industrial theatre space, part Fred Flintstone house!

The awesome view made up for the overpriced juice.

The awesome view made up for the overpriced juice.

Si also told me about the Biennale launch party which had taken place at the old station the night before. The art world cognoscenti of NYC, London and Paris were all there, many apparently with dyed grey hair. I’m so out, I’m in!

We were interrupted by a tall, graceful woman who heard us mention her home country Guinea-Bissau. Justine Mendy speaks perfect French, lives in Accra and is as much in love with Dakar as we are. While Simon was chatting with her, her companion Maudo and a quiet guy with a cute ‘fro, I snuck off to take my first look at some Biennale fringe exhibitions on site…

Sundowners with Justine, Simon and Maudo

Sundowners with Justine, Simon and Maudo

amidst lovely chunky sculptures of wrestling - Senegal’s national sport -

amidst lovely chunky sculptures of wrestling – Senegal’s national sport –

and sabre drumming, by Mamadou Ndiaye 'Thia'

and sabre drumming, by Mamadou Ndiaye ‘Thia’

and mixed media in a collaboration by Antoine Tempé...

and mixed media in a collaboration by Antoine Tempé…

and MIS Wude...

and MIS Wude…

in a gallery with possibly the best sea view ever

in a gallery with possibly the best sea view ever

The Art of the Vernissage

Dakar is a city that breathes art. From the tailored prints of the women walking the streets to the iconic hand-painted car-rapides. As Boris said, here art is the fabric of life.

These are the best shots I could get through a dirty windscreen

These are the best shots I could get through a dirty windscreen…

so cheerful, we were sorely tempted...

so cheerful, we were sorely tempted…

to get Big Reg a makeover

to get Big Reg a makeover

though Ruby would just prefer a horse and cart

though Ruby would prefer the horse and cart

These ‘transport en commun’ 12 seater public transport taxi buses, are famous works of art but due to be phased out by 2018.

On the international art scene, Dakar is most famous for its Biennale, a city-wide exhibition of the best in African contemporary art which has taken place every two years since 1992. With all our delays, we had managed to arrive in Dakar at exactly the right time, with Dak’Art 2016 happening from May 3rd – June 2nd, ending just before the start of Ramadan. With 65 artists invited to the main event, and several hundred exhibiting on the fringe, the city is transformed during this month into a veritable gallery of galleries.

Vernissages means previews in French but in a more lip-smacking way, in the sense of ‘taster’ or the Afrikaans ‘voorsmaakie’ . They were happening all over town that first week in May and I was desperate to get in the loop but couldn’t get my hands on a programme. I missioned to ask at large hotels nearby in vain – not only did they not have programmes, they couldn’t even tell me where I could find one and seemed uninterested in the whole thing. How can the biggest art event in the continent be happening in their own city and they not be trumpeting the fact to their guests?

Nicole looking glam

Nicole looking glam

Nicole invited us to an opening at her favourite Carabasse Restaurant. Her landlord is an art dealer, so she hears about these things. He arrived in royal blue boubou and a stretch limo… Sampson’s back was bad so he was lying down, but kids and I quickly jumped in the car. We were rewarded not only with fabulous art work and the best bissap and bouyé juices yet, but a carnival troupe from Martinique in the Antilles performing outside! Nicole was dancing even though she had a broken rib.

I'd forgotten my camera, but luckily Ruby has her phone

I’d forgotten my camera, but luckily Ruby had her phone

So I was able to capture...

So I was able to capture…

some of my favourite paintings...

some of my favourite paintings…

in the exhibition...

in the exhibition…

including this tour de force portrait of Mandela drawn in text from his Rivonia trial speech by Baye Mballo Kébé

including this tour de force portrait of Mandela drawn in text from his Rivonia trial speech by Baye Mballo Kébé

And Ruby snapped...

And Ruby snapped…

some kif pics...

some kif pics…

of the carnival outside!

of the carnivalistas outside!

Aso Mawon Matnik carnival troupe from Martinique

Aso Mawon Matnik carnival troupe from Martinique (from website)

My pan-African carnival exchange participant list just keeps growing!

Dak’Art

Finally, in the middle of the following week, we drove into the very centre of town to the Ancien Palais de Justice, the main venue of the Biennale. Sampson and I had driven round it during our early exploration of the city. On that first empty Sunday, the former courthouse was derelict and forlorn. What a transformation had been affected to make it the jewel in the crown of this year’s official exhibitions!

The exterior had been painted sky blue in honour of the theme “La Cité au jour de bleu” chosen by inspirational Cameroonian artistic director Simon Njami from the poem by Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal.

The interior – a fantastic space, enormous, battered and heavy with the weight of history – had been swept clean to display the works of 65 artists from all over the continent. There was some fascinating footage of what they’d had to clear out to make way for the exhibits: including a huge mess of fax papers, Brother computers and curly-wired telephones.

Brace yourself for the Biennale!

Brace yourself for the Biennale!

Driving up to the Ancien Palais de Justice

Driving up to the Ancien Palais de Justice

where the Biennale installed the main exhibition of Dak'Art 2016

where the Biennale installed the main exhibition of Dak’Art 2016

Sampsons doing an album cover pose in front of the list of exhibitors

Sampsons doing an album cover pose in front of the list of exhibitors

Inside the newly cleared space was as inspiring...

Inside the newly cleared space was as inspiring…

as the words of Senghor at the entrance

as the words of Senghor at the entrance

Here's some of the stuff we loved...

Here’s some of the stuff we loved…

in this visionary 'city in the blue daylight'

in this visionary ‘city in the blue daylight’

peopled by characters like this feller...

peopled by characters like this feller…

part of Nigerian Abdulrazaq Awofeso's 'Fragments from the City'

part of Nigerian Abdulrazaq Awofeso’s ‘Fragments from the City’

Then there was this room by

Then there was this former courtroom…

The walls are talking loud...

The walls are talking loud…

and saying something

and saying something

the world needs to hear...

the world needs to hear…

the writing's on the wall, and in the rubble...

the writing’s on the wall, and in the rubble…

The scope and scale of the exhibition was impressive

The scope and scale of the exhibition was impressive

The children were intrigued

The children were intrigued

and delighted...

and delighted…

("Check the trees made of catapults!" by Algerian Kader Attia)

(“Check the trees made of catapults!” by Algerian Kader Attia)

bemused...

bemused…

and occasionally intimidated...

and occasionally intimidated…

This photographic installation '(P)residant'...

This photographic installation ‘(P)residant’…

was a searing indictment of the pretensions of African rulers

was a searing indictment of the pretensions of African rulers

who style themselves 'Father of the Nation' or

who style themselves ‘Father of the Nation’ or

'Supreme Guide'

‘Supreme Guide’

with commentary

with commentary

scrawled on the opposite wall

scrawled on the opposite wall

I urge you to look at clearer versions of Beninois/Belgian photographer Fabrice Monteiro‘s work in his web portfolio; his climate change series The Prophecy (with the next instalment nominated for the Greenpeace Photo Award 2016) just blew my mind.

There was such a crazy range of stuff...

There was such a crazy range of stuff…

from this 3-D board game...

from this 3-D board game called ‘The People’s Algorithm’ by Modupeola Fadugba…

depicting the challenges faced by young Nigerians in the most populous country in the continent...

depicting the challenges faced by young Nigerians in the most populous country in the continent…

to Malawian Samson Kambalu filming himself walking backwards through the Lincoln Memorial then playing it hilariously forwards...

to Malawian Samson Kambalu filming himself walking backwards through the Lincoln Memorial then looping it hilariously forwards…

to political statements...

to political statements…

and feminist statements...

and feminist statements…

to religious statements...

to religious statements…

(I adored this piece featuring a two tone balance of churches and mosques by Senegalese Henri Sagna called 'Equilibrium')

(I adored this piece featuring a two tone balance of churches and mosques by Senegalese Henri Sagna called ‘Equilibrium’)

to statement of sheer colour...

to statements of sheer colour…

and bravado...

and bravado (Ethiopia’s Aïda Muluneh)…

or delicacy...

or delicacy…

and vulnerability... (detail of Senegal's Mbaye Babacar Diouf's 'En Action')

and vulnerability… (detail of Senegal’s Mbaye Babacar Diouf’s ‘En Action’)

But the piece I found most powerful was the Raft of Medusa by Franco-Russian-Afro-Brazilian Alexis Peskine. It combined splintered Senegalese fishing canoes, portraits made of nails and a video featuring African migrants wearing crowns of thorns made from Eiffel Tower curios. Its luscious imagery, heightened colours and pop kitsch sensibilities pack a hard punch to the solar plexus and reminded me very much of the work of Brett Bailey. When I later googled Alexis Perskine, I recognized him as the quiet guy with the Afro who came and sat opposite me when chatting with Simon, Justine and Maudo at Hotel Sokhamon the weekend before!

Alexis Perskine's piece the Raft of Medusa...

Alexis Perskine’s piece the Raft of Medusa…

reflects on the circumstances that propel young men...

reflects on the circumstances that propel young men…

and women of the continent...

and women of the continent…

to risk such a dangerous journey north...

to risk such a dangerous journey north…

to an unwelcoming country...

to an unwelcoming country…

where their sacrifices on behalf of their families...

where their sacrifices on behalf of their families…

and others' families...

and others’ families…

go unacknowledged...

go unacknowledged…

along with the colonial history that proceeded it.

along with the brutal colonial history that proceeded it.

Perskine reimagines the rape of Medusa...

Perskine reimagines the rape of Medusa…

as the ongoing exploitation of the continent...

as the ongoing exploitation of the continent…

a scandal far greater than the original shipwreck...

a scandal far greater than the original shipwreck…

immortalised in the original Raft of the Medusa by Géricault, now in the Louvre

immortalised in the first Raft of the Medusa by Géricault, now in the Louvre.

Sadly, I found the contributions of the South African artists rather insubstantial in comparison.

The exception was Kemang Wa Lehulere's film 'The Bird Lady, in nine layers of time'...

The exception was Kemang Wa Lehulere’s film ‘The Bird Lady, in nine layers of time’…

uncovering the hidden work of forgotten 1970s Gugulethu artist Gladys Mgudlandlu

poignantly uncovering the hidden work of forgotten 1970s Gugulethu artist Gladys Mgudlandlu

Sampson pulled out after 40 minutes, but Ruby and I saw every single thing; I was proud of my inquiring kids. I also felt immensely privileged to have been given such a window into contemporary continental shifts in the art world.

It's been a hard day's art

It’s been a hard day’s art

Sampson takes a load off...

Sampson takes a load off…

This is more the kind of Dak'art he appreciates

This is more the kind of Dak’art he appreciates

In the time we had left before rush hour, we sought out Nathan’s highlight of the Fringe so far: Chez Joe Ouakam on Rue Jules Ferry. As we entered the space, an intriguing old feller stood up and waved in genial greeting and we assumed he knew the people who were coming in behind us. Afterwards I was doubtful about that, as he did it for everyone who followed.

Welcome to the alternative universe of Joe Ouakam's 'Midnight Congress'

Welcome to the alternative universe of Joe Ouakam’s ‘Midnight Congress’

We wandered around the bewildering sprawl of newspaper cuttings, hanging black cardboard...

We wandered around the bewildering sprawl of newspaper cuttings, hanging black cardboard…

paintings, piles of leaves, feathers and fluff...

paintings, piles of leaves, feathers and fluff…

sculptures suspended by the roots of giant trees...

sculptures suspended by the roots of giant trees…

floating chairs with names on, poetry...

floating chairs with names on, poetry…

which were impossible to make sense of without better knowledge of French, Wolof...

which were impossible to make sense of without better knowledge of French, Wolof…

and the current political situation in Senegal...

and the current political situation in Senegal…

and possibly not even then.

and possibly not even then.

But, next to the giant trees with the giant trunks...

But, next to the giant trees with the giant trunks…

the best installation of all was Joe himself.

the best installation of all was Joe himself.

I felt in the presence of a great showman, a great spirit...

I felt in the presence of a great showman, a great spirit…

and would have loved an excuse to get to know him.

and would have loved an excuse to get to know him.

But I felt awkward being present in the context of Euro tourists with fat cameras and didn’t feel I could communicate who we were... I just left a thank you note.

But I felt awkward being present in the context of Euro tourists with fat cameras and didn’t feel I could communicate who we were… I just left a thank you note.

Joe Ouakam, a.k.a. Issa Samb, is a legendary figure in Senegal’s Agit-Art movement and there were a thousand questions I longed to ask but there were too many people milling around. Though I didn’t manage to exchange more than a word or two with him, Joe still succeeded in giving me the best present of all – a festival programme!

The programme for the Dak'Art festival Fringe called 'Off'...

The programme for the Dak’Art festival Fringe called ‘Off’…

was in fact a folder of 7 programmes covering exhibitions in areas across the city and beyond

was in fact a folder of 7 programmes covering exhibitions in areas across the city and beyond

What a special day in our lives. I felt that if I saw nothing else, I’d at least got a flavour of the best of the fest that day. To top it all, Zola even squeezed in a surf on the way home.

Zola got 10 waves...

Zola got 10 waves…

at Viviers point...

at Viviers point…

and Nathan got to test drive...

and Nathan got to test drive…

his brand new board

his brand new board

Is it just me or...

Is it just me or…

are Zola's shoulders expanding exponentially?

are Zola’s shoulders expanding exponentially?

The Art of Throwing A Party

Our last but one weekend in Dakar, we vacated our berth outside Ngor Lounge to make way for a wedding party. Sampson had been complaining that the clutch felt a bit hard, and as we pulled into our sewage vidange place around 3.30pm on the Saturday, the ball joint broke, snapped clean off. Another truck driver there identified the problem, and sent it off to be soldered for 1500FCA, but immediately it broke again.

With thanks to M. Ousman Diop, boss of the sewage depot at Pikine Ouest

With thanks to M. Ousman Diop, boss of the sewage depot at Pikine Ouest…

without whose services, we'd have literally been in deep sh*t...

without whose fortnightly services, we’d have literally been in deep sh*t…

a snapped ball-joint was but a blip in comparison!

a snapped ball-joint was but a blip in comparison!

This Breakdown no.14 threatened to wreck the weekend, substituting my planned Saturday night on the town with a unscheduled sleepover in the sewage works. But with the help of an English speaking Gambian, Sampson miraculously found the part for 5000FCA (R100) at the fourth place he asked at – and somehow the driver installed it, as I was cooking, just before they shut at 6.30pm. M. Sayé shook his head when I offered him payment “It was just what any friend would do”. I had to force him to take a 5000FCA note “for your family” if not for his pains.

Kind M. Sayé standing to the left of Sampson with the rest of the Saturday night crew

Kind M. Sayé standing to the left of Sampson with the rest of the Saturday night crew

After supper and showers it was 8pm. Sampson was keen to abandon the whole idea of driving into town for a jol, but I insisted and it turned out to be an easy trip. Up until the last 10m of wide road to the roundabout outside the station, that is – right in front where the police were hanging out waiting to nail drivers “coming down the wrong way”. There was no ‘One way’ sign displayed – Sampson went back to check – so we were braced for the good cop/grumpy cop routine they pulled.

Good Cop told me Grumpy was “very by the book – it’s will be 12000FCA (R240) to make the infraction disappear”. I, however, was determined not to break our duck for bribes, so we parked outside and waited very patiently, while Grumpy Cop avoided us and nailed several others. After 15 minutes, we invited Good Cop in and were nice and chatty. He was thoroughly overawed, both by the truck construction and a glamorous smiling Ruby. Good Cop ended up leaving Sampson’s licence behind on the table and fobbing Grumpy off.

Meanwhile, in the half hour we were waiting outside la Gare, Big Reg had become an art installation. We had visitors from Cameroon and Togo, and then the Secretary Generale of the Biennale himself turned up for a truck tour!

We finally went in at 10pm.

We finally went in at 10pm.

Outside you could see it used to be a station...

Outside you could see it used to be a station…

Inside, Afrosiders had created an amazing space from this Art Deco relic.

Inside, Afrosiders had created an amazing space from this Art Deco relic.

There was some art on display...

There was some art on display…

not as much as I would have liked...

not as much as I would have liked…

but more than the live painting happening on the balcony...

but more than the live painting happening on the balcony…

it was the place...

it was the place…

and the people themselves who were the artwork

and the people themselves who were the artwork.

Not to mention the dancers, b boys flipping, spinning on their heads and doing full somersaults onto the concrete - hectic!

Not to mention the dancers, b boys flipping, spinning on their heads and doing full somersaults onto the concrete – hectic!

Upstairs, there was fashion on display. While Nathan was trying on jackets that made him look like Prince, this fuschia-turbaned goddess told me how the Senegalese don’t value their own simple style, but always try to bling it up. She bewailed the fact that it took a French man to recognise the value of their heritage (the old station building) and launch a campaign to rescue it from demolition.

Very Purple Rain n'est-ce pas?

Very Purple Rain n’est-ce pas?

Nathan introduced me to the man in question, Erwan Le Vigoureux. He truly is as ardent as his name suggests, being the founder of Dakar’s most prolific underground art collective, Les Petits Pierres. He was producing and promoting parties most nights of the Biennale month and (being also father to a young family) should probably be rechristened Erwan Le Exhausted by now.

Erwan had already been told about us by Jérôme Barth of La Sénégalaise de L’Automobile, his major sponsor (and patron of many of the more cutting-edge Fringe events) and he was happy for us to park off outside. We went to bed at midnight, after greeting Mina arriving from her bellydancing gig. The music only went off at 3am but it still felt amazing to doze off safely outside a night club. I couldn’t imagine sleeping so soundly in a similar spot in Jo’burg or London?

Sampson loves how Dakar party vibes are so genuine – there were no huddles outside mulling or gathered round a spliff and hardly any drunks either. The crowd were genuinely high on human interaction and art. There was an incredibly focused feeling of togetherness, the exhilaration of celebrating a culture so progressive and so vibrant it was practically morphing before your eyes.

Viva Independent Art Viva!!

Viva Independent Art Viva!!

View of Big Reg through the recycled plant bottles...

View of Big Reg through the recycled plant bottles…

as Sampson snoozed outside la Gare on Sunday morning

as Sampson snoozed outside la Gare on Sunday morning

What a gorgeous building

What a gorgeous building

The next morning, the kids and I took advantage of our city centre berth and walked up to the Hotel de Ville to check out their exhibition. It was well worth it, although we found the setting more attractive than the artwork, some of which reminded Ruby of an unfinished school project.

Checking out the sculptures at the Hotel de Ville

Checking out the sculptures at the Hotel de Ville

We liked some of the artwork...

We liked some of the artwork…

more than others...

more than others…

but the Jeff Koons-y monochromatic shapes...

but the Jeff Koons-y monochromatic shapes…

of Marc Montaret's ‘Poetic Playground’ installation in the gardens below...

of Marc Montaret’s ‘Poetic Playground’ installation in the gardens below…

would have impressed me a lot more if we were allowed to play on them rather than sitting uselessly fenced off.

would have impressed me a lot more if we were allowed to play on them rather than them sitting uselessly fenced off.

Sadly, I think we were more excited to discover, in the Citydia supermarket next door, Ruby’s new favourite treat: dried baobab strips.

Before we left, we filled up with water at the nearby Total garage. The Lavage guy was a bit reluctant to give us any at first, so Sampson did lots of magic for him and ended up drawing quite a crowd for a sleepy Sunday. This is where we met the first ever magician en route who reciprocated by showing him some tricks.

Sampson with magician M. Pierre Mendy who showed him the broken toothpick trick...

Sampson with magician M. Pierre Mendy who showed him the broken toothpick trick…

as well as the disappearing note in the teapot ;)

as well as the disappearing note through the lid of the teapot😉

Meanwhile I was inside the truck chatting with Yoyo the butterfly artist.

Yoyo had travelled up from Butterfly Island in the Siné Saloum delta to sell his work.

Yoyo had travelled up from Butterfly Island in the Siné Saloum delta to sell his work.

He told me it was his grandfather M. Doudou Diaw who was the first to think of creating art from fallen butterfly wings...

He told me it was his grandfather M. Doudou Diaw who was the first to think of creating art from fallen butterfly wings…

and I had no reason not to believe him although I’ve come across several others ...

and I had no reason not to believe him although I’ve come across several others …

selling work in a similar style since...

selling work in a similar style since…

though not as exquisite.

though not as exquisite.

It took a while to chose which one Nana would like best for her anniversary present, but in the end the kids and I plumped for two love birds over women with parasols. He asked 10000FCA (R200) and I didn’t bargain at all as I thought Yoyo’s work was of a higher quality than much I saw exhibited that month. He had never heard of the Biennale. I told him to go down to la Gare and ask if he might display there.

At this point, Sampson appeared with his audience to give them a quick tour. As the truck filled up, I felt a little uneasy as three tall guys hung in the doorway then quickly disappeared. I hadn’t known Sampson had put the iPod on charge in the kitchen plug; only that night did he realise it had disappeared. It was a good reminder to stop being complacent about the friendliness of West Africa before moving North, but a sad loss: there were long stretches of Sahara where we missed singing along to our favourite songs. We hope the thieves enjoyed the BBC Miss Marple dramatisations as much as the kids did, but we doubt it.

The Art of Creating a Pan-African Icon

The following week, on way back to Ngor from LASA, we finally got to visit the African Renaissance Monument.

At 3pm It was relatively quiet...

At 3pm it was relatively quiet…

and we were looking forward to finally getting up close and personal with Dakar's first family...

and we were looking forward to finally getting up close and personal with Dakar’s first family.

Shoo, it was a LOT of steps...

Shoo, there were LOTS of steps…

but the view from the top...

but the view from the top…

from the Collines de Mamelles...

from the Collines de Mamelles…

across the flat roofs of Dakar...

across the flat roofs of Dakar…

to the airport, was unique

to the airport, was unique

We were grateful to be charged the African/resident rate of 3000FCA each (R60) rather than international tourists 6500FCA, and Zola was granted an enfant rate of only 500FCA.

This was quite reasonable when you consider the Monument's building costs of €30 million need to be recouped.

This was quite reasonable when you consider the Monument’s building costs of €30 million need to be recouped.

The Monument was unveiled on 3rd April 2010 in the presence of 19 African heads of state.

The Monument was unveiled on 3rd April 2010 in the presence of 19 African heads of state.

Senegalese President Wade had these words inscribed for visitors:

Senegalese former President Wade had these words inscribed for visitors:

Message to the Youth
Young people of Africa and the Diaspora, if one day your steps carry you to the feet of this Monument, think of all those who have sacrificed their freedom or their lives for the Renaissance of Africa

At 49m high, the Monument is the tallest statue in Africa. Born of a millennial enthusiasm for a rebirth of a pan-African outlook amongst some of the continent’s leaders, it was supposed to herald a new dawn of African pride.

Presidents Mbeki, Obesanjo, Bouteflicka and Wade are lauded inside as the initiators of NEPAD...

Presidents Mbeki, Obesanjo, Bouteflicka and Wade are lauded inside as the initiators of NEPAD…

where the Monument is positioned as the culmination....

where the Monument is positioned as the culmination….

of the sacrifices of a long line of African freedom fighters...

of the sacrifices of a long line of African freedom fighters…

and pan-Africanist philosophers...

and pan-Africanist philosophers…

and a celebration of a new global African pride and glory

and a celebration of a new global African pride and glory.

I found this terrifically worthy endeavour...

I found this terrifically worthy endeavour…

to educate visitors around aspects of resistance to colonialism and heroes long overlooked by history...

to educate visitors around aspects of resistance to colonialism and heroes long overlooked by history…

was somewhat undermined by the bizarrely low res quality printing of much of the display...

was somewhat undermined by the bizarrely low res quality printing of much of the display…

not to mention the fact that the Monument was built by Mansudae Overseas Projects...

not to mention the fact that the Monument was built by Mansudae Overseas Projects…

a North Korean construction company.

a North Korean construction company.

Does this woman's hair look African to you?

Does this woman’s hair look African to you?

Our dapper tour guide, with the jacket and demeanour of a headmaster, told us that the statues of SuperAfricanMan and his Family were made of copper: 100 tonnes for the man, 70 for the woman and 20 for the baby.

The Monument is bigger than Statue of Liberty, and the father faces west towards it across the Atlantic holding the baby who symbolically points to the future, while the mother holds her hand backwards acknowledging the sacrifices made by her people in the past.

Eish.

Eish.

We rode up to the top in a tiny lift that could only accommodate 4 people at a time...

We rode up to the top in a tiny lift that could only accommodate 4 people at a time…

But the views over the peninsula were sublime...

but the views over the peninsula were sublime…

if slightly surreal...

if slightly surreal…

as we were looking out of the windows in the father's hat...

as we were looking out of the windows in the father’s hat…

at his baby boy's bottom!

at his baby boy’s bottom!

Downstairs in the conference rooms, there was some interesting art work...

Downstairs in the conference rooms, there was some interesting art work…

some rather bizarre...

some rather bizarre…

but strangely beguiling...

but strangely beguiling…

figures representing the different tribes...

figures representing the different tribes…

and pastimes of Senegal

and pastimes of Senegal

a little incongruous amongst the marble and mirrors...

a little incongruous amongst the marble and mirrors…

and priceless artefacts such as these 13th century wooden thrones from Angola...

plus priceless artefacts such as these 13th century wooden thrones from Angola…

and this Liberian mask...

and this Liberian mask…

amongst the many gifts given by the African leaders who graced the inauguration in this very room - preserved for posterity.

amongst the many gifts given by the African leaders who graced the inauguration in this very room – preserved for posterity.

I was embarrassed Thabo hadn’t even sent a card.

For all Mbeki’s faults (several million unnecessary deaths from withholding HIV treatment among them), I have to take my hat off to his promotion of the vision of an African Renaissance first conceptualised by the towering Senegalese polymath Cheikh Anta Diop, and his efforts to inspire his peers to see beyond purely national interest (or purely individual as with our current incumbent).

Since his tenure, the African Union has become a much more powerful organization. After complaining of double standards at the ICC, the AU put teeth into African justice by asking Senegal to host the first ever war crimes trial of an African leader in Africa.

In 1990 ousted president Hissene Habre escaped from Chad to Senegal, and resigned himself to a life of luxury in Ouakam – Nathan’s neighbourhood and Sampson’s favourite surf spot. But when in 1998 Pinochet was arrested in Spain and put on trial for crimes committed in Chile, Habre’s Chadian victims ramped up their calls for the prosecution of ‘Africa’s Pinochet’.

View of Ouakam from the top of the African Renaissance Monument

View of Ouakam from the top of the African Renaissance Monument

He was first arrested 16 years ago, but former Senegalese President Wade lacked the political will to enforce the law; current President Macky Sall moved forward to establish a special court to try him in 2013. The prosecuting lawyer still has shrapnel in her leg from a grenade attack Habre organized on her 15 years ago. The 30th May was a proud day to be present in Dakar when, after a 25 year campaign to bring him to justice, the verdict condemning him to a life sentence was finally delivered in a city court.

A day to remember

A day to remember

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WE LOVE DAKAR! Part 2: Teranga  

Day One

We spent our first night in Dakar outside the Ambassador’s house.

We’d turned up at the SA Embassy late, having got lost on the way in, and arrived at 4pm, without an appointment. Yet former Chief of Defence Intelligence General Abel Mxolisi Shilubane graciously made time to see us, listened to our crazy story and came down to visit Big Reg. He then invited us back to the Residence to have a bath.

What a warm welcome from SA Embassy staff!

What a warm welcome from SA Embassy staff!

Ambassador Shilubane reminding us once again...

The graciousness of Ambassador Shilubane reminding us once again…

how blessed we are to travel as South Africans

how blessed we are to travel as South Africans

His driver escorted us north along la Corniche Ouest, a stunning route winding up and around the peninsula alongside the glittering sea.

Welcome to Dakar...

Welcome to Dakar…

WOW!

WOW!

What an introduction to this city. The shimmering stretch from Ouakam to Ngor reminded us of driving along Main Road around the Cape Peninsula, through the villages of St James and Kalk Bay through to the posher bits of Hout Bay and Clifton. Sampson was suddenly whooping and pointing at the peeling surf, excitedly shouting up to Zola who was craning out the window of the nose cone.

Driving past the iconic mosque at Ouakam...

Driving past the iconic mosque at Ouakam…

looking back towards the central city...

looking back towards the central city…

and north towards - what the hell is that??!

and north towards – what the hell is that??!

Meanwhile Ruby and I were gaping at the epic scale of the African Renaissance Monument – we’d read it was bigger than the Statue of Liberty but we still weren’t prepared for its sheer presence.

Whizzing past the African Renaissance Monument...

Whizzing past the African Renaissance Monument…

looking forward to coming back for a proper view of this incredible site

looking forward to coming back for a proper view of this incredible site

The road slalomed round volcanic hills to Almadies, the Ambassador’s suburb, which is half-Sandton, half-building site. I came to realise that the latter could be said for most of Dakar.

Typical view of Dakar's built up areas

Typical view of Dakar’s built up areas

There was a dirt road at the end where the Residency sits.

There was a dirt road at the end where the Residency sits.

Welcome to the Residency

Welcome to the La Residence

Mrs Shilubane came out to meet us wearing her slippers. I loved her immediately. She was so warm, greeting us with hugs before showing us round the three storey marble mansion. Currently there was only her husband, herself and 12 year old Zanele, their last child remaining at home, staying there, but later that month, when the Minister of Arts and Culture came on a visit, Felicity was catering for thirty!

The humble abode of the SA Ambassador

The humble abode of the SA Ambassador

The roof had a cracking view of the surf. Sampson was so keen to see it up close, Mrs Shilubane told her husband to take him for a quick drive to the beach the minute he walked in from work! How kind. Meanwhile she had a cup of rooibos with Ruby and me in the truck.

The next morning was April 1st. Sampson and I lay whispering and giggling from 6.30am plotting our moves, then started banging about to wake the kids. He waited till Ruby climbed down the ladder from the nose cone to go to the loo then leaned into the cab to retrieve his yoga mat. As he swept the curtain aside, he swore most convincingly and exclaimed “The bloody cat’s had diarrhoea on my seat!” There was a chorus of “Oh noooooooo” as Ruby ran from the shower end and Zola hung upside down off his bed to get a look. “April Fool!!” we chorused. Totally got’em! My Dad would be so proud.

Ruby spent the day hanging out with Zanele and baking while the rest of the Sampsons missioned in Big Reg to check out the surf along the Ngor coastline.

Checking out the surf on the Ngor side of the peninsula...

Checking out the swell on the Ngor side of the peninsula…

along with the rest of Dakar's surf population

along with the rest of Dakar’s surfing population

Ironically the place called the Secret Spot was packed with surfers, and the wave was closing out, so Big Reg continued on to the end of la Corniche des Almadies. This most westerly point of Dakar peninsula, and thus the whole of continent, was strangely unheralded. There’s no sign, no tourist photo opp. Currently it’s a building site as the former site of Club Med (which is what wave is named after) is being revamped by Sheraton at astronomic cost into a swish new hotel and a swathe of private suites.

'Club Med': the reef break at the westernmost point of the continent

‘Club Med’: the reef break at the westernmost point of the continent featured in iconic 60’s surf movie The Endless Summer

The site is just down the road from the brand new enormous American Embassy, so security in the square kilometre around it is super tight, with uniforms sporting automatic weapons bristling on every corner. It’s impossible to park anywhere near it, so Big Reg pulled over next to a restaurant complex half a kilometre away. The boys set off barefoot carrying their boards, blagged their way in and clambered over huge rocks to the break. It was, apparently, “very cold and big and hairy”.

Boys all excited, off for their first decent surf since Liberia

Boys all excited, off for their first decent surf since Liberia

I lay in the truck in peace and wrote. Later I took a wander around the gathering of art and life that is Le Ngor Restaurant complex. It’s not like anywhere I’ve ever seen. You could describe it as a Senegalese Touch of Madness meets the Brass Bell with a dash of Madame Zingara but it has its own unique magic.

Welcome to the wonderful, magical world...

Welcome to the wonderful, magical world…

of Le Ngor Restaurant...

of Le Ngor Restaurant…

a.k.a. Le Pied Dans L'Eau

a.k.a. Le Pied Dans L’Eau

encrusted with shells...

encrusted with shells…

bejewelled with mosaics...

bejewelled with mosaics…

bedecked with paintings of many colours...

bedecked with paintings of many colours…

sporting portraits of presidents, present...

sporting portraits of presidents, present…

and past...

and past…

with unrivalled views of the Ngor coastline...

with unrivalled views of the Ngor coastline…

all the way back to the monument. Oh, and a private beach.

all the way back to the monument. Oh, and a private beach.

Owner Boris Sow, who speaks about as much English as Sampson does French, seemed happy for us to fill up with water and to “Stay anytime, as long as you like”. However, I don’t think he expected us to park off as long as we eventually did, when we finally escaped the garage…

That first day, we got back to La Residence just in time for supper with the Ambassador’s wife and daughter – roast chicken, carrots and peppers cooked by Ruby, pap cooked by Mrs Shilubane. It felt strange and luxurious to eat off china on a sparkling white tablecloth.

Dinner with the Ambassador's wife Felicity and daughter Zanele

Dinner with the Ambassador’s wife Felicity and daughter Zanele

Felicity excused herself for eating pap with her hands “like at home”; she was so lovely, unapologetic and unaffected, and made us feel so comfortable, I joined her. I learned to eat with my hands while working in Bangladesh years ago; it enhances the experience of the meal. While a tailor came to measure Felicity and Zanele for their Freedom Day outfits, we tucked into the cookies, chocolate cake and gluten-free lemon cake Ruby had baked that day. How delicious? I had four slices and took another back to the truck… Nom nom nommmmmmm.

It was Diounda Ndiaye, the security guard outside the Residence, who first explained the meaning of the Wolof word teranga to me, meaning a particular commitment to hospitality . “Senegal is the land of teranga: as a visitor, you arrive with nothing but you leave rich”. This is their proud tradition – to spoil guests. I told him this is why I am glad my kids were born African not British; they are absorbing this attitude. Countries who complain that enough is never enough, and hold on jealously to what they have, will not survive the climate change challenges to come. The future belongs to Africans because they know how to share with grace.

Proud Dakarois Diounda Ndiaye who taught me the meaning of 'teranga'

Proud Dakarois Diounda Ndiaye who taught me the meaning of ‘teranga’

Three weeks later

After 18 days, we finally left LASA, on a Saturday morning when the traffic was relatively light. At the Colobane roundabout, a traffic cop in a beret pulled Big Reg over. Sampson reckons the cop saw Ruby sitting in the passenger seat and thought she was driving with headphones on and then, rather than admit his mistake, cast around to find something else to pin on us. He settled on the bikes, strapped on a rack on the back, super legally for SA but, for the first time ever, not covered with a tarpaulin. As we were just crossing town there had seemed no point.

I was driving the pick-up in convoy behind him. It was my first time at the wheel of a left-hand drive and my hands were shaking a bit. As I jumped out the car I dropped the roadblock kit, scattering SA Embassy cards over the road. Beret Stickler pointed at the bikes and pronounced “L’insecurité”, “unsafe”, and made us wait while he wrote out a ticket. Then he told us we had to take it to the local police station, sort out the fine, get a receipt and only then would we get Sampson’s International Driver’s Licence returned.

There was no way I was leaving without his licence, as this left us open to infinite hassle from every uniform between here and Ngor. So I called the Defence Attaché (who’d given his card to Sampson when he bumped into him with the Ambassador at the supermarket). I explained the situation to Lt. Col. Prince Masinga and put him on the phone to Beret Stickler. “Mon Colonel” he said, clicking his heels together and practically saluting on the spot. He gamely stuck to his guns for about 10 minutes, but after reiterating all points and standing up for the principle, he waved his hand and let us off anyway. I got Sampson to show him some magic tricks, which softened the blow a little.

After this unnecessarily stressful 45 minutes at the roundabout, I was sunburnt, dusty and sweaty, with mud between my toes. Still, driving on the right now seemed less of a trial in comparison.

It was such bliss to reach the quiet haven of Ngor Lounge, wash my feet and Lie Down. Finally we had escaped the industrial zone. It was unutterably lovely to wake to the fresh smell of the sea and the ringing calls of Le Ngor’s resident peacocks – who sound exactly like Kevin the bird of paradise in the movie Up.

Welcome to Ngor Lounge, our home from home for the next month in Dakar

Welcome to Ngor Lounge, our home from home for the next month in Dakar

Ngor Lounge, the third venue at Le Ngor complex

Ngor Lounge is the third venue at Le Ngor complex

and a tad more swanky...

and a tad more swanky…

and cocktail lounge-y than the other two...

and cocktail lounge-y than the others…

but still proudly African...

with an African chic interior…

with divinely chic decor

utilised for several TV shoots while we were there,

the sexiest staff...

the sexiest staff… Aissata Baldé, Adja Seck, Ada Jean Idaye and Rokhaya Dieng

with a spectacular sea view

and a spectacular sea view

Le Ngor's resident peacocks...

Not to mention Le Ngor’s resident peacocks…

Kevin

Kevin

and Mrs Kevin

and Mrs Kevin

The flat paved sheltered area between the kitchen and the lounge restaurant was possibly the best spot to do T’ai Chi I’ve had on this entire trip, with a seaview all the way to the African Renaissance Monument on the left and the westernmost point of the continent to the right. Spectacular.

My T'ai Chi spot at Ngor Lounge

My daily T’ai Chi spot at Ngor Lounge

with a view worthy of a millionaire

with a view worthy of a millionaire

on a huge yacht

on a huge yacht

This 36.8m catamaran Vitalia II was moored off the Ngor coast while we were there. She apparently held the Jules Verne Trophy for fastest time around the world from 2005-10, and has recently been converted into a cruiser.

Meanwhile the kids and I were bowling along with school. Ruby and I finished reading Romeo and Juliet in same week as the UK was celebrating 400 years since Shakespeare’s death. Zola, co-opted in as an extra voice, surprised me by getting into it more than his sister – the macho posturings of Romeo and his mates made him snigger. We commemorated by watching West Side Story as well as Franco Zeferelli’s wistful version.

Ruby found Shakespeare trying enough...

Ruby found Shakespeare trying enough…

without certain jealous types getting in the way of reading it!

without certain jealous types getting in the way of reading it!

Surfs at Ouakam provided some of best waves of trip so far for both Sampson senior and junior, including one particularly huge day when a wave landed on the nose of Zola’s Roydon Bryson board and snapped it.

Ouakam, a fishing village in the heart of the city, with a spectacular mosque...

Ouakam, a fishing village in the heart of the city, with a spectacular mosque…

and some great waves (this is a calm day)

and some great waves (this is a calm day)

I loved the colourful vibe

I loved the colourful vibe

Sampson loved the BYO plate restaurant baking fish in coals

Sampson loved the BYO plate restaurant baking fish amongst coals

The board-snapping trauma required some serious improvising to repair...

The board-snapping trauma required some serious improvising to repair…

Sampson cut a piece of wood and put it inside next to the stringer

Sampson cut a piece of wood and put it inside next to the stringer

and then glassed it with fibreglass sourced from local fishermen

and then glassed it with fibreglass sourced from local fishermen

of which there are plenty!

of which there are plenty!

Not sure who was more pleased with himself - Zola or Dad!

Not sure who was more pleased with himself – Zola or Dad!

At Ngor, I became uncomfortably aware that my kids were in need of other kids. If there was no surf, and he was fed up with biking, Zola was bored after school with no one to play with, and Ruby was needing to gossip about whether Ariana Grande was a better singer than Adèle with friends – not me. I felt we were being selfish to keep them so close. But on the other hand, if there’s a chance I might die at 57 like Prince, I’m still glad to have stolen this special time together. I was very happy when my daughter hugged me so hard and danced with me in the kitchen to Ed Sheenan and a passing Portuguese couple told me what a great thing we were doing for our kids.

This is Numo - who has a heart of gold and did a lot of research on our behalf trying to find a biodiesel supplier - and his wife.

This is our Portuguese friend Nuno Sousa – who has a heart of gold and did a lot of research on our behalf trying to find a biodiesel supplier – and his lovely wife.

The previous week at LASA, Jérôme Barth’s executive secretary Mariam had got us contacts at Dakar’s biggest hotels and Sampson and I set out in the bakkie to follow them up.

Thanks again Mariam!

Thanks again Mariam!

In the wake of Cote d’Ivoire attack, and an official American Embassy warning of rising level of threat in the capital, the Radisson Blu was demonstrating high security, with dudes in suits flashing a mirror under each car entering to check for bombs. We were welcomed by fluent French-and-English-speaking Muscovite chef Daniel Egreteau. Daniel has worked in 21 countries in his long career, cooked for the Queen, the Emir of Qatar, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Castro, Chaves and Putin, and is Russia’s answer to Jamie Oliver. A maverick spirit, he and Sampson bonded immediately; he instantly puts plans in motion to have the Radisson’s waste vegetable oil set aside for us for the next month.

Welcome to Dakar's Radisson Blu

Welcome to Dakar’s Radisson Blu

Chef Daniel Egroteau and Sampson...

Chef Daniel Egreteau and Sampson…

sharing a moment by the infinity pool

sharing a broment by the infinity pool

When he told us of his plans to open an exclusive gentlemen’s supper club in Moscow in a double decker bus, I suggested he consider running it on the used cooking oil he generates from his own kitchen. He was very excited at the idea and we really hope he keeps in touch and lets us know if it happens!

Gourmet Hotel Terrou-Bi was even more swish (check the video) – they have their own marina nogal. I love the crazy life we lead where we get to live in a scruffy truck and travel anywhere we like, but also get to hang out at 5 star hotels every now and then. Many thanks to their wonderful young Chef Stéphane Loquin and Director of Food and Beverages Vincent Berthelot for their immediate enthusiasm to support our endeavour.

Terrou-Bi are admirably prompt and change their oil frequently; their very first one provided us with 180L!

April 27th

Freedom Day started with the Ambassador’s wife giving me freedom from the labour of long delayed handwashing. We arrived at the Residence at 9am with a mountain of dirty clothes so big, it took until 4pm for housekeeper Awa to put it all through their idiosyncratic machine.

The washing line with the best view of the surf in the city!

The washing line with the best view of the surf in the city!

Thanks to housekeepers Awa Faye and Rokia Sidibe who gave us so much help...

Thanks to housekeepers Awa Faye and Rokia Sidibe who gave us so much help…

Thoroughly intimidated by Ruby’s technology lesson, I greeted Nozuko, ironing in the hall. She was one of four interns just arrived at the SA Embassy on work experience. Her story was one of impressive determination and commitment – she was an attorney before she applied to join the diplomatic service, and the process took 2 and a half years. She one of only 40 chosen out of 25000 applicants for this 5 year cycle!

At one point I was on the roof having folded a pile of sheets when an enormous eagle landed on the corner of wall about 10m away. I stood very still and we checked each other out for at least a minute. Both of us were feeling on top of our game.

When he finally flew off, I leaned over the parapet and had one of those timeless moments when the world briefly holds its breath and you feel a huge well of gratitude. Below me a huge team of labourers in hard hats and high res vests were throwing a slab of concrete, smoke was rising from the fire of a woman cooking in a shack under the bougainvillea next to them and the cry of a muezzin rang out across this new city. I felt a shock of sheer joy and thought “I LOVE MY LIFE. Every day is different. I’m so lucky not to be bored at home.”

Remember this moment of gratitude

Remember this moment of gratitude, suspended above all the busyness

Sampson was having a similarly intense moment of appreciation as he waved to fishermen from inside a turquoise barrel while surfing with Zola at idyllic Ouakam. They then drove straight into the diametric opposite, a demonstration where crowds protesting at government plans to sell village land were burning tyres and breaking glass. The army had just been called in.

Thanks to Rokia for giving pap and vleis to a post-surf-hungry boy!

Thanks to Rokia for giving pap and vleis to a post-surf-hungry boy!

Back at the truck, all four of us fell over ourselves to shower and change for the Freedom Day celebration in under an hour. We impressed ourselves with how smart we scrubbed up. I was wearing my Mandela skirt, which usually only parades at borders, and Sampson was wearing a suit – gasp!

The King Fahd Palace hotel was bedecked with banners announcing the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific-EU summit currently being hosted there by President Macky Sall. We were welcomed into a huge function room dotted with round tables laden with tiny pastries, mini choc mousses and fruit hedgehogs. Lt. Col. Masinga was resplendent in full dress uniform greeting guests alongside Felicity looking elegant in beige and cream shoeshoe and pearls.

The King Fahd Palace – the biggest hotel in Dakar - a gift to Senegal from Saudi Arabia

The King Fahd Palace – the biggest hotel in Dakar – a gift to Senegal from Saudi Arabia

set in luxurious grounds

set in luxuriant grounds

Guests were greeted by the ambassadorial team

Guests were greeted by the ambassadorial team

Political Secretary Thobeka glorious in blue shoeshoe fabric with pink and yellow flourishes

Political Secretary Thobeka glorious in blue shoeshoe with hot pink and yellow flourishes

Zanele, Nini and Ruby

Zanele, Nini and Ruby

Snacks for Africa

Snacks for Africa

Deputy Minister Landers gives the keynote address

Deputy Minister Landers gives the keynote address

As we’d left the Residence, we’d passed the Ambassador in his gym clothes, eyes closed and flat out on the stoep, wincing as his driver massaged his calves. We knew he must be in great pain standing motionless on the daïs throughout a long hour of speeches. Deputy Minister Landers gave an interesting keynote address on SA/Senegalese cooperation, including fascinating details of the proposed twinning of Robben Island with Gorée to commemorate 30 years since IDASA hosted historic first talks between Afrikaner intellectuals and the ANC in exile in 1987, at the Dakar Conference.

The transition from formal occasion to party was carried off with aplomb by the world class Zulu dancing of the Gauteng Dance troupe. They were having such fun, there was an immediate upswing in the energy of the room.

Party starters:

Party starters:

Gauteng Dance troupe making us proud...

Gauteng Dance troupe making us proud…

Viva ministers who can take a joke viva!

Viva ministers who can take a joke viva!

Seriously, they were brilliant

Seriously, they were world-class

While the Sampsons tucked into platefuls of meat, I contented myself with bissap juice and watching the press take photos of the cutting of the flag cake, complete with pyrotechnic display.

I really love...

I really love…

how South Africans know how to party...

how South Africans know how to party…

even on the most formal of occasions

even on the most formal of occasions

Chompers

Chompers

I had chats with some very interesting people: Louis from the Zimbabwean Embassy, another intern Zena, but most fascinating of all, the Namibian Ambassador Trudie Amulungu and her stunning daughter Pena, who is studying Justice and Transformation Honours at UCT. Sampson originally impressed the latter by saying “I could tell you were mother and daughter because of your mannerisms: the way you move your mouth and hands is exactly like her!”

Sampson meeting his sharp-witted match in the Namibian Ambassador

Sampson meeting his sharp-witted match in the Namibian Ambassador

When I said I was missing my mother, Trudie revealed that her mother died in a car crash in 1979 aged 42, when her youngest brother was 2 years old. Trudie, aged 20, took over the family management and determined to get all her 9 siblings through college and able to provide for themselves before her kids reached that stage. She was so hardcore with her 7 brothers (relentlessly pushing them, not allowing any swapping of courses) that they nicknamed her The Native Commissioner. She also married “the only white freedom fighter in the Namibian struggle”. An indomitable woman. She was just about to publish a book about her life called “Taming My Elephant”. Look out for it!

Blessed to make the acquaintance of Pena and Trudie Amulungu

Blessed to make the acquaintance of Pena and Trudie Amulungu

Our first day at Ngor, Zama Scaraffiotti had turned up on our doorstep at 8am with her French husband Lucas and 3 year old daughter Cosima. A South African from KZN, she’d just landed from 2 years in China. Before that they’d spent 2 years in Nigeria, and before that 6 years in France where she was chef to the SA ambassador in Paris as well as writing a Xhosa-French phrasebook! She was about to take her advanced Mandarin exam – an impressive woman on all fronts. I felt like we were fast friends almost immediately.

Lucas, Zama and Cosima

The Scaraffiotti family: Lucas, Zama and Cosima

A week later, I was proud to be able to introduce her to the wife of the SA Ambassador and the Namibian Ambassador at the Freedom Day celebrations. Strong sisters of the south should stick together. Meanwhile Ruby had disappeared with Zanele and Nini from Namibia to explore the hotel. She ended up in the main conference room sitting on the Presidential leather throne apparently – so much for security!

We didn’t waste this opportunity and a chat with the Maitre D’ was followed up with a visit to M. Demba, head of Commercial Services at King Fahd Palace who gave the project his blessing and put us in touch with Chef Jules Souleyman Mangue. It was nice to know we were going to be recycling oil that had graced the table of the President himself!

Chef Jules of King Fahd Palace passing on the President's waste vegetable oil - merci beaucoup!

Chef Jules of King Fahd Palace passing on the President’s waste vegetable oil – merci beaucoup!

End of April

At the first opportunity, I took our resident sapeur Zola to buy a suit as promised to him since Christmas in Liberia. I’d asked the advice of the Ngor Lounge kitchen staff and they recommended we go to the Marché Sandaga in the centre of town on the ‘Plateau’, Dakar’s CBD. Before we even entered the warren of stalls clustered in this square kilometer, we’d found an obliging trader willing to send out for anything my son’s heart desired. Within 15 minutes, he’d sourced the James Bond look Zola had been dreaming of, with a waistcoast nogal. The black was a little too formal, the brown too slouchy, but the navy blue was just right.

Move over Daniel Craig...

Move over Daniel Craig…

There's a new dude in town

There’s a new dude in town

My friend Yaya in the kitchen had told me a suit should cost 10 000FCA, the stall holder asked for 75 000FCA, so I negotiated to 25 000FCA (R500) and everyone left happy. Just to sit sheltered from the beating sun in a shaded alley way while options were brought to us to try on was worth 5000FCA. We should definitely have come here to kit Ruby out, rather than the pricey mall next to the Radisson.

Thanks to Ngor Lounge kitchen staff for the sartorial advice!

Thanks to Ngor Lounge kitchen staff for the sartorial advice!

In return for the waste vegetable oil they were donating, Sampson happily agreed to perform at a function Radisson Blu were giving for their staff on May 1st.

This is the seafood buffet Radisson guests can enjoy on a Sunday for 30000FCA (R600)

This is the seafood buffet Radisson guests can enjoy on a Sunday for 30000FCA (R600)

Décor at the salad bar

Décor at the salad bar – made from fruit and veg!

The patisserie section is superb. I can’t eat any of them but appreciate the artistry.

The patisserie section is superb. Sadly I can’t eat any of it, but appreciate the artistry.

Our friends at Radisson Blu: Chief Steward Mbaye Penda Ndao and HR Manager Mamadou Diallo

Our friends at Radisson Blu: Chief Steward Mbaye Penda Ndao and HR Manager Mamadou Diallo

not forgetting the lovely Mme Ngoné Diop, HR assistant

not forgetting the lovely Mme Ngoné Diop, HR assistant

This annual Workers Day celebration is obviously very popular. The staff arrived in an already jolly mood about 1pm, and spontaneous dancing broke out almost immediately amidst the queues as people piled their plates from the buffet. When very long and monotonous speeches from union reps threatened to kill the vibe completely, the MC wandered about keeping the energy going by challenging people to dance-offs. I assumed M. Sidy Ndiaye was a professional, but found out afterwards that he works on reception!

Staff in a jolly mood at the Radisson Blu's Workers Day lunch

Staff in cheerful mood at the Radisson Blu’s Workers Day lunch

where senior management dress as kitchen staff and serve them a free meal

where senior management dress as kitchen staff to serve them

and boogying in the aisles is the order of the day!

and spontaneous boogying in the aisles is the order of the day!

At 2pm Sampson thought he was about to start when the staff were invited to bring up any issues on their minds. There was such a queue to speak, I wondered if this once-a-year workers’ jamboree was their only opportunity? After an hour voicing grievances such as why overtime rules for security were different from the rest and the discrepancy between Christian and Muslim holidays, two thirds of the room went back to work.

It was a horribly flat moment to be sent on to perform. But I restarted the dancing to judge the mood of the room and found the few people remaining were still up for engaging. Sampson delivered his spiel, interest was sparked and intelligent questions were asked. It was much easier to collect oil after that. Radisson Blu were part of the team!

Zola's first juggling performance

Zola’s first juggling performance

M. Sidy Diop, an ex-pro footballer, also got up and showed his juggling skills, including catching a tiny ball on the back of his neck!

Back at Ngor Lounge, groups of delightfully sensible and unscreechy schoolchildren came regularly to have a sports lesson in the carpark or hang out during free periods. Girls from the West African College of the Atlantic started chatting with Ruby while she was doing handwashing. We gave them a truck tour, then went back with them to their school round the corner for a visit. Ruby was loving how they were all “normal sized” and “spunky” with a distinct lack of flicky hair. I was loving how reasonable the fees were compared to the American International School of Dakar (R3000 compared to R30000 per month). They may be short of sports facilities, but they offer a bilingual Baccalaureate programme. This sparked an interesting train of thought…

Big Reg's roof gives a good view of Ngor Lounge...

Big Reg’s roof gives a good view of Ngor Lounge…

and its basketball court...

and its basketball court…

which kids from WACA make the most of....

which kids from WACA make the most of….

during their sport lessons

during their sport lessons

After weeks of parking off on their doorstep, watching them work, I asked to interview our gracious hosts. Boris is a restless spirit, as wriggly as a 9-year-old boy constantly questing for stimulation, and it took several days to pin him down. His French wife Peggi, with her dark eyes and hair twisted into an effortlessly chic chignon, may be petite but she is the calm at the centre of his vortex and seems absolutely unflappable. Their sons have her cheekbones and his panache.

Our gracious hosts Peggi and Boris Sow of Le Ngor Restaurant complex

Our kind hosts Peggi and Boris Sow of Le Ngor Restaurant complex

N.B. My French is pretty basic so I’m not sure I got all of Boris’s more philosophical inferences, but here’s my best shot at translating our conversation:

The Sows built their first restaurant on the beach 12 years ago, but because of rocks taken for building and rising sea levels, the ocean is now up to the deck a lot of the time. The décor was Boris’s vision, created by the artist Mamgor Ndika under his direction. The sculptures are by Guite Malo, the paintings by Bagala of Ghana. The art spills over the walls onto the floors, outside into the toilets and beyond, like a ravening enthusiasm…

Le Ngor decor

Le Ngor décor

from the restaurant...

from the restaurant…

from the kitchen...

to the kitchen…

through the garden...

through the garden…

to the playground

to the playground…

to the sea

to the sea

Peggy: “In Europe you are judged if you do art, here everyone does art, no one laughs, no one judges, everyone is encouraging.”
Boris: “Sharing, that’s what works…”

yeah

Yeah!

Lone wolf Boris himself is a living work of art, a true original, with a constantly roving energy rather like the well disciplined pitbull he parades some mornings. Sampson said that Boris, with his head shaved in punky circles, reminds him of “an African Liam Howlett”. Boris assents “I am always against the current.” He left school at the age of 10 and says he got most of his education on the streets of France where he arrived in 1995.

Totemic

Totemic

They met in Marseille in 1997 where they were both working in security. In 2002 they came back to Boris’s hometown for a holiday and had a picnic on the beach exactly where the restaurant is now – back then there was absolutely nothing here. They were inspired by the beauty of the place and decided to go for it. Boris came ahead to sort out negotiations for the land, then Peggy came over with Samuel, 5, and Pablo, 4 months old. The boys are now 16 and 11.

Boris and his boys Pablo and Samuel

Boris and his sons Pablo and Samuel

When I asked them why they chose to bring their children up here, without hesitation Peggy answered “La liberté” – freedom.

“In France kids can’t just go outside and ride on their bikes, it’s dangerous, the traffic… here everyone is keeping an eye on your kids and making sure they’re OK. If a little one starts crying here on the beach, someone will come and check. It’s automatic in Africa, everyone cares.”

Sharing the load

Sharing the load

She goes back once a year to visit her parents in Perpignan. “Our kids see that in France, no one greets on the street, no one comes to help you if you break down. Here everyone greets, whether you know each other or not, it’s just polite.”
“Human” Boris adds.
“Of course there’s stuff they love about France: the cinema, McDonalds, big swimming pools, but it’s all just recreational stuff.”
“Their Maman, she also likes the shopping…”

They are proud that their kids speak Wolof, and know their grandparents.

Ancestors are with us

The ancestors are with us

Although Boris is Muslim, and Peggi is Christian, they say that has never been a problem for them here.

Balance

Balance

“Would you ever go back to live in Europe?” I ask.
“Never” says Boris definitively.
Peggy adds “I have given up trying to explain to my family and friends why I prefer to live here. There is too much prejudice. Their idea of Africa is mud huts and women with babies on their back. They cannot conceive of Dakar as a modern international city with a thriving culture.”

Ngor Lounge speaks for itself

Ngor Lounge speaks for itself

Boris adds “Ici, on a rien dans les poches mais on souris” – we have nothing in our pockets but we’re still smiling. “Here if someone is sick, someone asks if you’re ok. In Europe you’re given pills, ignored, you’re left to sit in front of the TV with a blanket… It’s not healthy.”

Just breathe it in

Just breathe it in

When I ask the reason why Senegal seems to be doing better than elsewhere on the continent, Peggy reflects “It’s Africa but modern; a democracy, stable” and points out the primacy of “la palambre” – the tradition of ‘palaver’, prolonged discussion on a daily basis.

“In Senegal, you drink tea and talk, you discuss everything: politics, women, homosexuality. If you don’t agree, you talk about it. You don’t have to have the same opinion, no problem. For hundreds of years it’s been like that here. Elections are never tense. People may have strong opinions but the next day, we’re back here drinking tea again.

Crossing swords or playing together?

Crossing swords or playing together?

Either way, in Senegal, teranga will prevail

Either way, in Senegal, teranga will prevail

The contrast with comments made about the Gambia that same afternoon could not have been more marked. During our interview with West African Democracy Radio, exiled journalist Sheriff Bojang Jnr. said the exact opposite about his home country…

Sheriff Bojang Jnr. (the Jnr. is v. important) bonding with Sampson

Sheriff Bojang Jnr. (the Jnr. is v. important) bonding with Sampson

I loved listening to the challenging and rigourously balanced content of WADR broadcasting from here in Dakar to Ghana and beyond. I especially loved DayBreak anchors Celia Thompson and Alpha Kamara; Sierra Leonean Celia’s intelligence and positivity is as luminous as her lisp is endearing.

Freelancer Sheriff was nominated as a CNN MultiChoice African Journalist Award in 2015 for his coverage of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. He threatened to resign unless reluctant WADR management let him go. That gives you some idea of his dynamic determination. But Sheriff’s own story is almost more dramatic than any he has reported upon.

He is the younger brother of Sheriff Bojang, ex-proprietor of independent newspaper The Standard, and thorn in side of ‘His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh’ until 2014 when the Gambian President called in Sheriff Snr. to serve the Republic as Minister of Information. When he was young, Sheriff Jnr. looked up to his elder brother as a hero, a beacon of integrity, a shining light guiding him along his chosen career path. Now Sheriff Snr. is regularly churning out rebuttals like this, respect has faded somewhat and his little brother, a fierce critic of the government, has become persona non grata in his native land. I couldn’t bear to think how torn his family must be.

Yet, revealingly, Sheriff Jnr. still won’t contemplate giving up his Gambian passport to become Senegalese. In Africa, hope springs eternal.

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WE LOVE DAKAR! Part 1: On Est Ensemble

How we have fallen for this city.

We spent two thrilling months in Dakar and had way too many amazing days to document them all chronologically. Instead I’ll try and unravel aspects of the city and it’s culture through the lens of different experiences. As I was living it I knew it was going to be a battle to try and get across just how kaleidoscopically delightful it was. It was like meeting a new friend or lover and just wanting to spend as much time as you could with them because the more you found out, the more enthralled you were.

Together We’re Stronger

I’m pretty sure that it was Mamadou who, while waiving our thanks for his help on the road from Foundiougne, was the first person in Senegal to say to us “On est ensemble”. We came to hear this endearing phrase several times a day in Dakar.

When the Big Green Truck finally made it to La Sénégalaise de L’Automobile – the top garage in West Africa according to our trusted friends at Tractafric in Paris – chief security guard M. Diop was called out to greet us. It was the evening of a public holiday, Senegal’s Independence Day April 4th, yet he went out of his way to make sure we had a safe berth and water, and invited us to come to his house nearby if we needed anything – we were not to worry about calling him on the phone even in the middle of the night. My heartfelt thanks for this warm welcome were met with an “On est ensemble” and a hand on his heart. Almost everyone we met at LASA over the next few days followed this pattern of expressing care and concern in a most genuine fashion.

Welcome to La Sénégalaise de l'Automobile

Welcome to La Sénégalaise de l’Automobile

The best Mercedes garage in West Africa

The finest Mercedes garage in West Africa

M. Binou Diop, LASA's security chief

M. Binou Diop, LASA’s security chief and epitome of service with a smile!

The direct translation is “We are together” but, by utilising the French pronoun “On”, produces a sense of “One is” rather than plural “We are”; our unity is emphasised. In France, while shrugging off thanks, people usually respond “De rien” meaning “It’s nothing” or “You’re welcome” rather than “On est ensemble”. The difference between Youroupe and Ourfrica is right there.

“On est ensemble” means a lot more than “you’re welcome”, and it’s not just used to accommodate an honoured visitor but often between brother workers. The phrase encompasses the deliberate inclusivity of the concepts of “Namaste” or “Ubuntu”, acknowledging the human in each other: “I am because you are”.

Saying “On est ensemble” rather than “De rien” results in – what? In me, tangible feelings of solidarity, togetherness, support, motivation for giving – habits that build a society, cement bonds between its people and nurture a sense of mutual understanding that everyone has their ups and downs: “I’m here for you because one day I’ll need you to be here for me”.

It is all so simple and so intoxicating for one brought up to rely on the “Every man for himself” attitude of urban UK. LASA’s company motto turned out to be an English language version of “On est ensemble”: “Together We’re Stronger” and it’s so true. Living on the road, exposed to all the hazards of life lived day-to-day in brand new situations, there hasn’t been a single example of the contrary. Nowhere has “Chaque est pour soi” (every man for himself) helped us progress.

The LASA family motto

The LASA family motto reflects the spirit of Senegal

Here in Dakar, there is no shame in admitting to needing others. Indeed there is nobility in it, humility and honesty – and an appeal to those qualities in you. It is like being brave enough to say ‘I love you’ first to the one you have fallen for – risky perhaps, but the quickest way to engender reciprocal warmth.

It is most beguiling.

* * *

LASA is not like any other garage we’ve visited en route. Firstly it’s clean. There are no piles of rusting parts or oil puddles anywhere, no black dust hanging in the air, no neglected corners. Secondly it’s quiet. Despite having 250 employees and there being hundreds of vehicles on site being worked on, there’s relatively little revving of engines to disturb you, perhaps because it’s so massive and spread out. Thirdly, and most influentially, it smells magnificent.

Somewhere nearby – but not so nearby we could find it – is an enormous bakery generating the most maddeningly delicious scent of cookies, waffles, crepes or sometimes roasted coffee beans. You can smell the delicate sugary scent of biscuits on the air at all times of the day and night and sometimes the wafts are enough to drive you mad with desire. Imagine Willy Wonka had a Bun Factory – that’s what it smells like. Scrumptious.

LASA: everything your truck's heart could desire

LASA: everything your truck’s heart could desire

When we arrived, we thought we’d be there at least a week. Sampson had been emailing Jean-Pierre Blanc, the chief of the Mercedes workshop, so he already had some idea what a parlous state Reg was in. J-P looks very much like the jolly father figure he is, but don’t let his soft features fool you: he works harder than anyone in his team. He gets up at 4am every day to commute to Dakar from the coastal resort of Saly, and works from 7.30 till late, very often the first to arrive and the last to leave.

Big Reg arrives at LASA, the best garage in the whole of West Africa

Big Reg arrives at LASA, the garage with the best reputation in the whole of West Africa

and parks outside the Mercedes Workshop

and parks outside the Mercedes Workshop

The domain of M. Blanc

the domain of M. Blanc

J-P calls Mercedes “l’éléphant de la piste” but he himself is a mammoth force

J-P calls Mercedes “l’éléphant de la piste” but he is a mammoth force himself

The experts l to r: Tidiane Diallo, Addane Seck, Idrissa Kanauté and Ousseynou Sall

The experts he calls on l to r: Tidiane Diallo, Addane Seck, Idrissa Kanauté and Ousseynou Sall

It took a couple of days to pull in freelance truck expert M.Sall and get to grips with a comprehensive list of Big Reg’s needs. Meanwhile, the kids and I went Back to School. The beginning of term 2 had me feeling utterly inadequate as teacher at times: I was struggling to get to grips with Ruby’s maths and science, her favourite subjects. I couldn’t remember how to work out areas of triangles with surds for measurements or the name for molecules with three elements. And since when is sulphur spelt sulfur? I was beginning to realise I cannot in all conscience keep her out of school much longer because I will be jeopardising her capacity to pass exams because of gaping holes in her knowledge and confidence. Plus she’s going to need access to a lab…

I took comfort in the magnificent lunches we were able to indulge in; our time in Dakar will forever be remembered as the Era of Cheese And Jam. French supermarket Casino not only stocked camembert, brie, and emmenthal, but also superb Senegalese-made conserves in local flavours of bissap, corresol, tamarind and baobab as well as mango, pineapple and lime.

Our favourite Zena confitures

Our favourite Zena confitures: YUM!

Zena the company that makes the jam has been running for over 30 years and was just down the road from LASA! I’m even considering importing it to SA – don’t you think people who shop at Woolies would be keen to buy it? It sure put us in a good mood for getting back to Romeo and Juliet and French.

We were lucky enough to meet with Mme Odile Filfili who shared the history of this fabulous family business

We were lucky enough to meet with Mme Odile Filfili who shared the history of this fabulous family business

After scouring the city for parts, M. Sall had a huge list of jobs to do and M. Blanc asked how we were going to pay. Our great supporter Tractafric had committed to covering the parts – as they had done for us in Cameroon, Ghana and Liberia – but labour costs could only be approved by LASA’s boss.

Directeur Generale Jérôme Barth was so busy, we could only get to meet him on our third day there. I’d been dressed in my last clean smart outfit ready to meet him two days in a row, but it was smelly by day three so I was back to basics. I needn’t have worried. After M. Blanc escorted us through the enormous showroom, up two flights of stairs to the DG’s office on the top floor, M. Barth turned out to be a lot hipper than we’d anticipated, and – would you believe it – a surfer.

Jérome Barth, DG of La Sénégalaise de l’Automobile.

Jérôme Barth, DG of La Sénégalaise de l’Automobile, a very busy man…

who nevertheless manages to squeeze in a quick surf when the swell is good before work on a Tuesday morning!

who nevertheless manages to squeeze in a quick surf when the swell is good before work on a Tuesday morning!

This fact came out in the first five minutes, as soon as Sampson mentioned his first surf at Ngor – where, of course, Jérôme lives – and after that, nothing much else was discussed in the whole meeting! He started surfing at 19, has surfed all over West Africa and first came to Senegal 30 years ago. When shown a video of Zola surfing in Liberia, he raised his head with a whole new respect for the lad and immediately called his mate Patina Ndiaye, Senegal’s original surf legend.

Jérôme has the aura of Superman. You get the feeling he wears his wetsuit under his shirt and tie, ready to rip them off when the need arises and transform into: Surferman!

The DG was called away before we could bring up the subject of money but he immediately arranged a pick-up big enough to put boards in the back for Sampson to use. We got back to the truck to find the wheel, gearbox and shocks were already off…

Here we go... LASA's team get stuck into Big Reg

Here we go… LASA’s team get stuck into Big Reg

first tackling the damaged wheel hub...

first tackling the damaged wheel hub…

and pulling out the dodgy 'boite de vitesse'

and pulling out the dodgy ‘boite de vitesse’

The Mitsubishi double cab bakkie transformed our experience of Dakar. Instead of being trapped in the garage, we were able to get out and about and explore the city.

Four Outings and a Numeral

1. Our first weekend, we went on a family outing to Gorée Island, Senegal’s most famous tourist attraction. The port the ferry leaves from is on the east side of the peninsula, so we got there in only 10 minutes from LASA in the light traffic of Saturday morning and walked straight onto the midday ferry.

First view of Gorée Island from the ferry

First view of the Île de Gorée from the ferry

Senegal's most famous tourist attraction

Senegal’s most famous tourist attraction

with the Fort d'Estrées on the northern end built 1852-65

with the Fort d’Estrées on the northern end built 1852-65

with beautifully preserved buildings

beautifully preserved buildings

and a charming waterfront

and a delightful waterfront

The boat was crowded with colourfully dressed ladies on their way to attend an annual blessing by their marabout. While we ate a humble picnic next to the gathering, a small group of men dressed in fine boubous and caps arrived late singing lustily verses of religious praise as they fingered their prayer beads.

Our guide, reggae musician Capello, took us around the beautiful village perched on the volcanic basalt rocks of the island, sharing the history of the buildings, the statues and  slave houses of successive colonial powers: Portuguese, Dutch, English and French.

The village of Gorée is so charming...

The village of Gorée is so charming…

the island setting so picturesque...

the island setting so picturesque…

the boat-shaped buildings so interesting...

the boat-shaped buildings so interesting…

the thought of living there so appealing...

that the thought of living there is quite appealing…

if the weight of history didn't hang...

if the weight of history didn’t hang…

so very heavy upon the air around

so very heavy upon the air around.

The island is tiny but there was such a lot to see.

The Mariama Bâ boarding school for the top performing 350 girls in the country, with their studies paid for by the government.

The Mariama Bâ boarding school for the top performing 350 girls in the country: their studies are paid for by the government.

The Gorée Institute for Democracy, Development and Culture, where the pan-African Arterial Network was launched

The Gorée Institute for Democracy, Development and Culture, where the pan-African Arterial Network was launched

The school of medicine attended by former president

The former William Ponty school attended by the first president of Côte d’Ivoire

the church

St Charles’ church built 1830

with Capello keeping the stories going the whole time

with Capello keeping the stories coming the whole time

We were also fascinated by the process of the sand artists

We were also fascinated by the process of the sand artists

demonstrated to us en route

demonstrated to us en route

and couldn't resist buying this one for Mom's birthday

and couldn’t resist buying this one for Mom’s birthday

Which would you have chosen?

Which would you have chosen?

Capello showed us a lovely live performance venue named for the famous curator of the House of Slaves Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, who it seems single-handedly created the myth of Gorée as the main embarkation point for the Atlantic slave trade. Despite the fact that the vast majority of slaves came from further down the West African coast, his citation of erroneous figures of ‘more than a million through here’ with such conviction over 40 years turned it into a site of penance for a succession of American presidents, as well as Mandela.

Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye creator of the slave tourism industry on Gorée

Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye creator of the slave tourism industry on Gorée

has this venue named after him

has this venue named after him

Our last stop was La Maison des Esclaves itself, which had been shut a couple of hours over lunchtime. Sampson and I were quite appalled at the procession of selfie-takers tramping through the hallowed halls. It was impossible to get a quiet shot of the view through the Door of No Return because a professional photographer, with an enormous thrusting phallus of a lens, was physically pushing everyone out of the way to frame a fat lady in purple, first with her friends, then without, here with her hat, here with her shades.

The central staircase of the House of Slaves

The central staircase of the House of Slaves built by the Dutch in 1776

above the passage to the Door of No Return

above the passage to the Door of No Return

Presumably he’d been hired for the purpose of documenting My Day Out At The Slave House. As she stood and posed, almost simpering, taking care to only show her ‘good side’, I felt sick. She wasn’t quite pouting like a supermodel but she was, I felt, completely missing the point. I wondered what the ghosts of the souls who’d suffered in here made of her ilk, now causing such a cacophony in their mansion of doom. I missed the solemnity of la Porte de Non Retour at Ouidah in Benin, the stark horror and simplicity of the sliver in the wall at Elmina in Ghana.

We’d paid for a guided tour in English in 10 minutes’ time, but after a cursory glance at the sign ‘Celules recalcitrants’ over a minute dark hole and overhearing a snippet of the previous tour (“Virgins were isolated because they were worth more…”) I decided I just didn’t have the stomach for it today and walked out. We’d heard it all before, in more appropriately respectful company, and I wasn’t sure I could face it again amidst gaggles of giggling children chasing each other about as if la Maison were a jungle gym.

Sitting quietly outside La Maison des Esclaves

Sitting quietly outside La Maison des Esclaves

When I first visited Robben Island, the guided tour was given by an ex-prisoner, which not only ensured an authentic glimpse into the traumatic history of the place, but encouraged visitors to show respect for the guide’s experience. It is a tragedy that such insight can never be provided at Gorée. The loss of Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye’s vivid representation of the history of West Africa’s slave coastline is no less devastating: the artist who reimagines our history and keeps the horror of its lessons alive is vital in helping us teach our children not to repeat it in the future.

My little flower, cherishing the day and the lesson

My little flower, cherishing the day and the lesson

The Musée at the fort was much more informative.

The old fort was the site of a 12 room museum

The old fort was the site of a 12 room museum

spanning the history of Senegal from the prehistoric to the present

spanning the history of Senegal from the prehistoric to the present

and blessedly photography is not allowed inside

and blessedly photography is not allowed inside

Leaving Gorée in peace

Leaving Gorée in peace

Back at LASA, April felt like spring in Cape Town, windy and hazy. The kids got the bikes down and each morning they’d whizz off to buy bread and fruit from the stalls just outside. One day, Zola stopped rather precipitously in front of Ruby and her emergency braking ripped the big toenail off her left foot – the one that had only just grown back after her second ingrown procedure last year. She was not at all pleased that she was in for another 9 months of growing yet another one.

The very next day, Zola surfed ‘Club Med’, the reef break at the westernmost point of the continent, and trod on a load of sea urchins. Sampson tackled them with a needle in the way Salsa had taught us in Liberia: don’t try and gouge the spikes out and risk breaking them into smaller pieces; rather make the hole around each spike bigger so it falls out.

The reef break at the wild westernmost point of the continent

The reef break at the wild westernmost point of the continent…

where sea urchins abound...

where sea urchins abound…

Eeek

Eeek

Ouch

and Zola did this: 0uch!

Rather Dad than me...

Rather Dad than me…

Famously, Zola never cries. Aged one, he knocked a front tooth out but made no noise at all and shed only a single tear. But this experience had him howling and hanging onto my hand for grim death. I think it was almost as traumatic for the rest of us. It took one hour before supper and another after to get all 24 spikes out. He got to choose what we watched on the laptop cinema that night as a reward for his bravery.

Take a break

Taking a break from the torture

The next day, surfing at Ouakam, he slashed the same foot with his fin and Sampson had to take him to a local clinic to get 6 stitches in his ankle. Ruby said it was karma: all this had happened to his left foot; her toenail had also been gouged from the left.

Meanwhile, I was loading blogs slowly but surely – our story was still in Guinea Bissau, but my aim was to catch up and reach Dakar before we left it.

2. We even went out midweek! The French Institute in Dakar promotes a quarterly programme of arts events and on April 12th we drove into the CBD to their beautiful Café Le Bideew. The restaurant is like a circus tent marquee whose open sides are draped with giant mossie screens with patterns of flowers and leaves painted on; the whole thing felt quite Christmassy, what with the fairy lights and William Morris-esque print table cloths and napkins in contrasting red and green.

Daba Makourejah and her band at Café Le Bideew

Daba Makourejah and her band at Café Le Bideew

It was delightful, despite being full of annoying French smokers. We couldn’t afford to eat, but persuaded the manageress to let us stay by sharing two desserts and trying all the local juices: tamarin, bissap, bouyé and ditax (we’ve no idea what the fruit looks like, but the juice is green, like a combination of cucumber and melon, just more powdery).

Gluten-tolerant Sampsons tuck in to molten chocolate soufflé under coeliac mother's nose (cruel!)

Gluten-tolerant Sampsons tuck in to molten chocolate soufflé under coeliac mother’s nose (cruel!)

Tee hee

Tee hee: comparing guava and ditax

The singer/guitarist Daba Makourejah was stunning in red, and I enjoyed her hooky loop song ‘Tant pis”. Her drummer stood out for me as a muso of talent; I found him chatting with Zola outside after I paid our bill. More and more often, the good looks and cool aura of our son seem to be attracting admirers…

Zola and his new friend, drummer Yannick Proenca

Zola and his new buddy, drummer Yannick Proenca

3. We made another date with Mamadou to meet his wife, and hooked up with them at La Place du Souvenir for the opening of the 9th annual Dakar Women’s Group Art Show.

La Place des Souvenirs...

La Place du Souvenir…

is an impressive public space...

is an impressive public space…

with a positive pan-African agenda

with a positive pan-African agenda

Thanks for inviting us Christelle, Nicole and Mamadou Sarr!

Thanks for inviting us Chrystelle, Nicole and Mamadou Sarr!

We were surprised to be greeted with a red carpet – thank God I’d persuaded Sampson to wear some bloody trousers and leave his too-short-shorts at home. The foyer was full of fabulously dressed, fabulously arty people, with a flock of flamboyant women in hot pink, scarlet and orange. My favourite was rocking a Jackson Pollack-splashed white dress with a blonde-tinted afro and chunky turquoise necklace, but I was too intimidated to ask if I could take her picture.

Loving Dakar art from the word go - this by Sebastien Bouchard

Loving Dakar art from the word go – this hunk by Sebastien Bouchard

How about this exquisite rendering of the old station by Mbaye Sow?

and this exquisite rendering of the old station by Mbaye Sow

and this collection by Ousmane Sow

and this colourful collection by Ousmane Sow

Everyone was loving it

Everyone was loving the exhibition

And there weren't just paintings, like this by Malang Camara

And there weren’t just paintings, like this by Malang Camara

but prints

but prints

such as these by

such as these by

and sculpture by Yakhya Ba

and sculpture by Yakhya Ba

and photographs by Malick Welli

and photographs by Malick Welli

Sampson immediately bumped into a friend he’d made in the surf at Ouakam a couple of days ago. Nathan the American body-boarder turned out to be Senegalese-born Nathan musicultural diplomat and conductor of an international drum and sabar orchestra – which includes Yannick from the Café Le Bideew gig!

Meeting Sampson's surf buddy Nathan Fuhr for the first time...

Meeting Sampson’s surf buddy Nathan Fuhr for the first time…

He turns out to be disciple and muse of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the world's greatest sabar musician

He is disciple and muse of Doudou Ndiaye Rose, the world’s greatest sabar musician – of whom more later

I surprised myself by loving the vast majority of the paintings; the colours and textures of Dakarois artists seem to resonate with me. Nicole bought one, then challenged her husband to identify it on pain of divorce: “If he really loves me, he’ll know which one I chose” she confided. Eeek, I don’t think Sampson would manage that; he still struggles to remember how I like my tea… Mamadou scoured the gallery, narrowed it down to two paintings featuring children and then correctly identified the one she’d plumped for! Whattaguy!

Sights of Dakar by Sea Diallo

Images of Dakar  – by Sea Diallo

and by Tampi Daro

and by Tampi Daro

3D multimedia by Loman Art

3D multimedia by Loman Art

Rainy season snapshot by Toni Okujeni

Rainy season snapshot by Toni Okujeni

We were blown away by this giant painting by Ibou Diagne

We were blown away by this giant painting by Ibou Diagne

Nicole's purchase - by Mamadou Sadji

Nicole’s choice – by Mamadou Sadji

Ruby was getting on like a house on fire with Mamadou’s daughter. Chrystelle was visiting from Paris; she’s a military nurse in the French army and her last posting was Djibouti. She thought Ruby was 19 and vice versa – but Ruby’s 14 and she’s 30!

We all enjoyed ourselves so much...

We all enjoyed ourselves so much…

at this awesome event...

at this awesome event…

How could you not with a master kora player...

How could you not with a master kora player…

carafes of ambrosial bissap and bouyé juice on offer...

carafes of ambrosial juices on offer…

and trayfuls of divine snacks...

and trayfuls of divine bijou snacks…

shotglasses of salad with pipettes of dressing, petit pois mousses, grape and cream cheese balls…This was the first time I’d been exposed to the artistry of the chefs of Terrou-Bi.

shotglasses of salad with pipettes of dressing, petit pois mousses…This was the first time I’d been exposed to the artistry of the chefs of Terrou-Bi.

All this and supporting local charities through showcasing local artists too!

All this and supporting local charities through showcasing local artists too!

Hats off to the organisers!

Hats off to the DWG organisers!

We were almost the last to leave. Tannie Justine will be interested to know that Mamadou, like Sampson, has a gift for ‘talking to tables’…

4. At lunch with Jérôme that Friday, he passed on invites to the Magic System concert happening on Saturday as he was off to the Siné Saloum for the weekend. WHAT a gift to see our favourite West African group! The gig was a prestigious marketing exercise for the Addoha apartment complex Cité de l’Émergence. Ruby and Zola were looking the part, sporting brand new outfits from the mall.

Local support act Pape Diouf had a super impressive band of 14 musicians, including three sabar players, one talking drum and a standard kit drummer. His two male dancers reminded me of those flexi toys on elastics you push up from the bottom that we had as stocking fillers as kids. They also could crumple to the ground with their legs bending bizarrely and rise again from impossible angles.

It was amazing to watch how young men in the crowd responded to the music, bursting into dance, leaning forward with knees and elbows out, claiming the floor with their often synchronized, sometimes surprisingly camp moves. I loved how the vibe was so NOT drunken or leering, and very laid back. Ruby said she felt completely safe and thus free to let her hair down and join in.

There were several families with kids younger than ours all dressed up, very cute. In between advertising the attractions of the apartments, the MC encouraged kids to come up on stage with him and dance, giving them a 5000FCA note (R100) if they would sing along. The 15 month old from the family next to us stole the show!

Zola was in a fair bit of pain from the stitches in his foot, so we spent quite a while in the car scoffing fruity chews listening to Now Show podcasts waiting for the headline act.

Magic System finally took to the stage at 10.15pm in an epic display of showmanship and coupé decalé dance moves, despite the guys all being in their 40s by now. When they sang our favourite track ‘Bouger, bouger’ the crowd went berserk, but their finale 2014 World Cup anthem ‘Magic in the Air’ (with a part of their video filmed on Gorée) topped even that, with everyone joining in the aeroplane vibes and conga-ing around. It was the first time I’ve seen Ruby so relaxed in a concert setting, giving into dancing and leaping about in sheer joy. It was humbling that the young lads were so pleased to dance with us.

Totally worth the solid two weeks it took for my hips to recover from pogo-ing on the loose gravel…

The following weekend, while performing at a Magic System concert in Côte d’Ivoire, Papa Wemba died. This was three days after Prince’s untimely passing; a heavy week. I remember, twenty years ago, Before Sampson, a discussion between two jazz musos of my acquaintance. (This was before Buddy Wells and Marcus Wyatt were famous, still in their final year at UCT.) They were arguing about who were the best African musicians to hear play live. Baaba Maal and Manu Dibango were on the list. Angelique Kidjo, they agreed, was the Queen and Salif Keita was the Prince. But the King, indubitably, was Papa Wemba.

What the rest of the world doesn’t understand is that when the DRC lost their chief Sapeur, for West Africa, it was like Elvis died.

* * *

After 10 days at the garage, the cats ventured out of the truck for the first time. They got their confidence up when the view outside the door became stationary.

Tiger girding himself to go outside

Tiger girding himself to go outside

Fixing all of Big Reg’s problems took longer than expected because LASA’s truck expert M. Sall is a freelancer, so sometimes we had to wait days at a time for him to become available. Beggars can’t be choosers, but after two weeks the strain of living in a garage began to tell. When construction started on J-P’s new work pits and jackhammers were brought to drill huge holes in the concrete next to us, I started to lose it.

M. Sall sorting out the diesel filter

M. Sall sorting out the diesel filter

The carrosseries team working out why the windscreen won't go back in

M. Pape and M. Mamadou of the carrosseries team working out why the windscreen won’t go back in

Whoops...

Whoops…

Sampson getting a big shock from Idri!

Sampson getting another big shock from Idri!

Meanwhile the mosses were driving us up the wall...

Meanwhile the mosses were driving us up the wall…

Almost as much as the jackhammers...

Almost as much as the jackhammers next to us…

Sigh

Sigh. Not making it easy to do school.

There was one day when everyone stropped. Ruby got up late and grumpy and showed so much disdain for her Dad he threw a cup of water at her. Meanwhile Zola was doing such sketchy schoolwork, I had to reprimand him. When he sulked, I put Sampson in charge of teaching for the rest of the day. That taught everyone a lesson. The next day we switched to doing school upstairs in LASA’s Café Bivouac, which improved everyone’s moods.

Bienvenu au Bivouac, LASA's super chic inhouse restaurant

Bienvenu au Bivouac, LASA’s super chic inhouse restaurant…

which looks out over the showroom

which looks out over the showroom

With decor by ...

With decor by visionary interior designer…

Mme Anne Portilla (r) assisted by Maha Haddad (l)

Anne Portilla (r) assisted by Maha Haddad

So charming

So charming

with superb touches

with unexpected touches

of exquisite colour

of exquisite colour

and comfort

and comfort

of sparkle and delight everywhere

adding sparkle and delight everywhere

n'est-ce pas?

n’est-ce pas?

Managed by the host-with-the-most M. Ousseynou Dieng

Managed by the host-with-the-most M. Ousseynou Dieng

Meanwhile, LASA’s crew were doing us proud. This is what they and Tractafric gifted to us:

List of LASA’s work on Big Green Truck

  1. replaced gear box (WHOO-HOOOOOOOO!!!)
  2. replaced shocks (YIPPEEEEEEE!!)
  3. replaced nuts and bolts and provided us with 10 spares
  4. replaced diesel filter
  5. engine, gearbox, and transfer oil all changed
  6. checked the wheel balance, front axel and diffs wheel axle
  7. greased the nipples
  8. tightened torque on 8 nuts on drive shaft
  9. made thrust plate for suspension and customized skim bottoms
  10. cleaned air filter
  11. cleaned exhaust brake
  12. tightened belts
  13. repaired and refit spare wheel hub
  14. made replacement mosquito net for the door
  15. adjusted the brakes
  16. washed the truck
  17. replaced the windscreen

The total bill was in excess of 2650000FCA (that’s more than R50 000, about €4000) of which Tractafric paid 45% and the rest was covered by LASA. How can we ever thank them?

HUGE THANKS to LASA especially J-P Blanc and his family of mechanics

HUGE THANKS to the whole LASA team especially J-P Blanc and his family of mechanics

We cannot fully express the difference LASA’s work has made to the smoothness of our gear changes and the support offered by their massive new über-shocks. Big Reg is no longer swaying like a drunken old man over every bump, as he has done since The Tipping in Côte d’Ivoire. Finally Sampson was feeling confident we could make it across the Sahara.

I don’t think the bottle of South African wine and bar of chocolate we gave to J-P was any recompense for the inconvenience of having a family living on his forecourt for three weeks. Bless him for his patience.

Thanks also to M. Euloge for trying in vain to solve my laptop challenges

Thanks also to LASA’s IT fundi M. Euloge Thiaw for trying in vain to solve my laptop challenges; his efforts were much appreciated

Thanks also to M.Barth’s P.A. Mme Mariama who got the ball rolling with waste oil collection by calling in favours at all his favourite hotel restaurants.

Mme Mariama x

Mme Mariama, dynamic executive secretary, fashion icon and kind heart

Extra-enormous thanks to Jérôme Barth, an extra-ordinary man.

The thing I like best about Jérôme is that he is a generous and visionary patron of the arts – I’ll be demonstrating more of this in part 3. Perhaps he considers Africa Clockwise a work of art? However he has managed to justify the spending on us in his budget, we are immensely grateful and hope to justify his faith and support in partnership into the future.

Together We ARE Stronger.

Onward and upward

Onward and upward

 

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Pop Goes the Wheel

Six months into the second leg of our journey, after more than 18 months on the road, everything is slowly but surely falling apart. Big Reg sat through two rainy seasons during his sojourn in Liberia; as a result of all that mould, rust and corrosion, Sampson is forever stripping down and bodging things back together: the gas cooker in Kendeja, a new sink-holder in Robertsport, the cutlery drawer in Guinea, the fridge in Guinea-Bissau, a leaking shower pipe in the Gambia…

In Liberia, Sampson had replaced...

In Liberia, Sampson had to replace…

the rotten wooden sink-holder...

the rotten wooden sink-holder…

with a custom-made brushed aluminium version.

with a custom-made brushed aluminium version.

Not bad for a blagger.

Not bad for a blagger.

Parking on slopes means that washing-up water constantly runs over the side of the worktop in the kitchen and the drips are slowly warping the wood of the cupboard doors below. Plastic crockery is cracking, and the foam in mattresses and seat cushions has ceased to be springy. The tabletop made so lovingly by Groundswell wooden surfboards has split with the pressure of being swung up and down every day when it is turned into a bed. We are having to jam wood chips under control switches on the cooker to keep the hobs lit. Most terrifying of all, the toilet pump keeps sticking, threatening to break down once and for all.

Cupboard door warped by constant washing up drips

Cupboard door warped by constant washing up drips

On the way to the Gambia Coral Beach Hotel one day, Sampson accidentally knocked a switch that stopped the vegetable oil returning from the engine to the tank and broke two of the four solenoids. During the hour-long meeting I had on Skype he replaced one and stripped and replaced the other with a kit. I’m very proud of my no-mechanical-skills-whatsoever-when-we-set-out husband. But now we have no spares left, which is a bit worrying.

Leaving the Gambia, it felt like Big Reg was on his last legs: the tyres were all shot, the exhaust brake kept sticking, and the jumping-out of second gear, which was happening occasionally in Liberia, was now constant. We were limping towards Dakar and the specialist Mercedes garage highly recommended by our saviours Tractafric, just praying we could make it.

The crossing of the border from the Gambia back into Senegal was very smooth, probably because so many people are doing it all the time. But it was still weird to drive just a few metres forward and find everyone suddenly speaking French again. African borders imposed as a result of squabbles between colonial powers seem more artificial here than anywhere. The ongoing tensions between the nations created as a result bear witness to their illogicality.

It was notable for the fact that Senegal is the only country so far where narcotics officers have come to check inside the truck, possibly because of the amount of cocaine coming up this way from Guinea-Bissau – it first happened when we entered Casamance, and again here in Karang. We didn’t know if the cats counted as contraband so stuck them in the food storage cupboard with the tins to be on the safe side. We needn’t have worried: when he saw our picture of Madiba, the gentleman checking was too overcome to search for anything, just put his hand on his heart and told us Mandela was also his president.

It was a relief to be out of the urban atmosphere of Banjul...

It was a relief to be out of the urban atmosphere of Banjul…

and back in the bush...

and back in the bush…

even if it was slightly disconcerting...

even if it was slightly disconcerting…

how near the mangrove swamps were coming to the road.

to see how near the mangrove swamps were creeping to the road.

But throughout the Siné-Saloum delta...

But throughout the Saloum delta…

the views...

the views…

and the birdlife are spectacular!

and the birdlife are spectacular!

We followed the hot and bumpy road north through the Siné-Saloum delta region to yet another ferry at Foundiougne. It only took 13 vehicles at a time, so we worked out we had two more to wait for. We were sat in the sweaty queue in direct sun and were talking about making lunch when “PFFFFfffffffffffffffffttttttttttttsssssssssssss”…

I thought that the coach next to us had its air brakes stuck but realised the noise was coming from underneath me. I opened the side door and looked down – eeeek – the tyre below me was subsiding, tipping us towards the ground at a rapid rate.

Hmmm. Time to cancel all plans for the day...

Hmmm. Time to cancel all plans for the day…

Shoo.

Shoo, that’s FLAT.

So, breakdown no. 13. Sampson was notably cool: he knew what to do about this one. I asked a motorbike taxi man to go fetch the nearest mechanic and soon Yancoba was back and fetching blocks of wood to jack the truck up with.

At least we were providing some entertainment for others waiting

At least we were providing some entertainment for others waiting

While one team struggled to get the flat off...

While one team struggled to get the flat off…

the other battled rusty chains to get the spare down...

the other battled rusty chains to get the spare down.

It was absolutely filthy as it had been horizontal since Angola...

It was absolutely filthy as it had been horizontal since Angola…

when it had nearly wobbled off the hub in Dombe Grande.

when it had nearly wobbled off the hub in Dombe Grande.

First time we've had parts delivered by horse and cart.

First time we’ve had parts delivered by horse and cart.

Thanks to Yancoba Sané (2nd from left) Omar Sané, Kolli Gueye and Lamin Djob with Sampson giving thanks for their Leathermans

Thanks to Yancoba Sané (2nd from left) Omar Sané, Kolli Gueye and Lamin Djob with Sampson giving thanks for their Leathermans!

Couldn't have got the new spare secured without them.

Couldn’t have got the new spare secured without them.

In a few hours Yancoba and his crew took the back wheel off, put the spare back on and skipped off with time to get ready for their Saturday night out, all for R300. We decided against making the crossing in the dark, and spent the night on the dockside.

Back in the queue...

Back in the queue…

waiting for the ferry from Foundiougne...

waiting for the ferry from Foundiougne…

but our hopes of crossing before dark...

but our hopes of crossing before dark…

receded into the dusk.

receded into the dusk.

Officials punished our reluctance the night before by making us wait for the second ferry in the morning, after the buses delivering people to work had crossed. Sampson was a bit peeved, but I was in no hurry – the delay gave me time to take some spectacular pictures. I felt the calm and dignity of Senegal reasserting itself over the scramble of the Gambia to pander to tourists.

Dawn through the mosquito screen

Dawn through the mosquito screen

revealed the calm of the delta

revealed the calm of the delta

I felt very privileged...

I felt very privileged…

to be feeling at one with it

to be feeling at one with it

To wander amongst the workers that morning...

To wander amongst the workers as a witness that Sunday morning…

while Sampson stretched and the children snoozed...

while Sampson stretched and the children snoozed…

According to Wikipedia, the Serer kingdoms of Sine and Saloum are two of few pre-colonial African Kingdoms whose royal dynasty survived up to the 20th century.

I had a chat with M. Tejan, a man of about 30, who was unloading several cartfuls of bags of straw which were to be transported out to the forty or so Iles du Saloum as animal feed. He was very interested in our journey and our family, and quizzed me closely about Zola’s adoption. Finally he seemed satisfied with my explanations that, due to the prevalence of HIV, there are many babies needing to be adopted in South Africa and not enough Africans keen to adopt; especially as I had committed to bringing my son up to be conversant in the language and culture of his Xhosa forebears, and both my children as proud Africans, knowledgeable about their continent.

It cost Big Reg 7500FCA (R150) to cross the Saloum; we were surprised to find nothing on the other side, no town or even food stalls just a giant empty building with a brand new carpark as yet unused and a queue of traffic waiting to board. Thank goodness Sampson had bought their tapalapa baguettes that morning already.

The other side was a vast expanse...

The other side was a vast expanse…

of salt pans and...

of salt pans and…

not much else...

not much else…

Lovely road - let's get to Dakar!

But a lovely road – let’s get to Dakar!

We drove straight out onto the salt pans and soon pulled over for breakfast and to check how the new wheel was running. Sampson’s face was pale when he looked up. Bad news: the holes in the wheel hub made wobbly in Angola were starting to shear the bolts off. It would be dangerous to go any further.

Uh-oh...

Uh-oh…

Dodgy hub holes shearing off the bolts

Dodgy hub holes shearing off the bolts

It was Sunday and we hadn’t seen a single car pass us since we left the ferry. The peace and tranquility of the Siné-Saloum suddenly felt very ominous.

Sampson went straight into cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof mode. He ignored all my appeals to Eat Breakfast First before trying to decide what to do, and started stalking up and down outside in the heat without a hat or sunscreen. It upsets me very much when he deliberately goes deaf and won’t listen to reason like this. Many times, in calmer moments, we have spoken of the wisdom of his Dad Reg’s mantra “Panic slowly”; many times he’s promised to try an implement it when the shit hits the fan, for the benefit of the kids if not himself. I was honestly more worried about the future of  our relationship than the future of the wheel when he flagged down the next car and we were blessed to have Mamadou Sarr delivered to our door.

Alhamdulillah for Mamadou Sarr!

Alhamdulillah for Mamadou Sarr!

In my diary, I described him as “the cheeriest man in Senegal” and my first instincts were so right. We’ve known Mamadou for a while now, and I have never seen him in anything less than ebullient mood. His optimism is infectious and his good humour restored Sampson to his better self within minutes.

Mamadou jumped out, grinned and introduced his companion, a mountain of a man called Abdul Aziz, who turned out to be a mechanic he’d brought from Dakar to fix his Land Rover, which had broken down this side of the ferry. Abdul had sorted out the problem earlier than they’d thought, so now Mamadou was quite willing to take a three hour detour to help us.

Abdul got the punctured tyre wheel off the back (a job that had required three men in Foundiougne) but while trying to lift it into the jeep, realised it wasn’t going to fit. “We need a bakkie” said Sampson, and at that very moment, I kid you not, one arrived, driven nogal by a Senator of Mamadou’s acquaintance with his industrial tycoon party-funder in the passenger seat. They slung the wheel in the back, Sampson jumped in with Mamadou and off they went in convoy to the town of Fatick 9km away.

The moment just before "Hmmm... we need a bakkie...oh!"

The moment just before “Hmmm… we need a bakkie…oh!”

The rescue team set off to Fatick

The rescue team set off to Fatick

Zola had mild food poisoning, possibly from drinking an iced baobab/orange juice Ruby had ill-advisedly bought them in a market the day before, although she was unaffected. I set to making the most of our Gambian supermarket goodies and fried up a pile of French toast (corn cakes dipped in egg) with Marmite to tempt him to eat. We demolished an entire packet between us, listened to Cabin Pressure and played with kittens…

Killing time teasing kittens

Killing time teasing kittens

Until everyone was flat out

Until everyone was flat out

It was staggering how much hotter it was inland. The temperature gauge I bought for my birthday was reading 38˚C by the time they got back at 2pm. They’d got the inner tube puncture fixed and came back with the wheel strapped on the roof. But even the mighty Aziz couldn’t get the former spare wheel off because the bolts were so embedded, so Big Reg had to limp on into town, escorted by Mamadou.

In this couple of hours, Mamadou and Sampson had bonded fast friends. In between making each other laugh, Mamadou told him that, where he comes from in Joal, if someone travels north or south to the next province, they will be cared for, and given free accommodation and food. As far as he knew, this reciprocal arrangement between Serer people and their Fula and Diola neighbours has been in place forever. What a brilliant idea – like a free AirB’n’B!

Fatick is the birthplace of Senegalese President Macky Sall and it seems he’s been investing heavily in vanity projects in his hometown. We drove along a huge empty boulevard past a vast Hôtel de Ville to a deserted grandstand. The scale of them seemed wildly optimistic for such a one horse town. I’m afraid I didn’t take any pics as I was too hot and distracted at the time looking for the garage.

Once we found M. Koumar, we let Mamadou and Abdul go – Mamadou had already paid 7000FCA for parts but refused to take a refund. “I’ll sponsor you” he said, so we passed a large note on to Abdul for his efforts. I want to thank Mamadou from the bottom of my heart, not just for what he gave us of his time and resources, but for the gracious and open-hearted way he did it. He is such an ambassador for the spirit of Dakar, he made us even more eager to get there. We pray we may be there to help Mamadou the next time he breaks down on Chapman’s Peak Drive…

M. Koumar and his team got stuck in. Metalworker André cut off the stuck bolt and made three washers for the duff remainders, while Sampson went looking fruitlessly for new ones. He did a fair bit of magic to entertain hangers-on and I did a lot of explaining of our mission in basic French (which is all we all had) while they got the dodgy wheel off and the repaired punctured one back on.

Culprit no. 1

Culprit no. 1

With this bodge job, this wheel went back to being the spare, to be used only in an emergency

With this bodge job, this wheel went back to being the spare, to be used only in an emergency

Thanks André the welder, M. Koumar, Ebrahim and Abdoulaye

Thanks André the metalworker, M. Koumar, Ebrahim and Abdoulaye

Come on, smile!

Come on, smile!

That's better!

That’s better!

As dusk fell, we said goodbye and set off again into the tranquil bush. The cold shower that night was bliss. My feet had gone through so much sweat and dust that day, by the end of it I felt like I was paddling in mud inside my sandals. I was increasingly aware of the encroaching dryness of the Sahel – the inside of my nose was sore and we all had cracked lips.

Back to the peace of the bush

Back to the peace of the bush

With such a dodgy spare, we were really flying by the seat of our pants to Dakar now. But Sampson was high on the human interaction of today and revelling in the rewarding outcome of the challenge he’d been thrown. With him back feeling positive, anything was possible.

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Gambia Part 2: On Baobab Beach

Big Reg parked happily outside the Coco Ocean for a couple of nights, but behind the huge windbreak of the hotel, the mossies were tucking into us so determinedly we had to put nets up inside. With hotels on board and waste oil collection underway, we set out south to find an empty beach. Once again, we picked a random turn off and lucked into a perfect spot: it was opposite the village of Brufut, but we christened it Baobab Beach.

This looked promising...

This looked promising…

but was better than anything we could have hoped for!

but was better than we could have hoped!

We couldn’t believe these enormous trees were growing this close to the sea.

We couldn’t believe these enormous trees were growing this close to the sea.

Wow

Wow

WOW.

WOW.

What a view!

What a view!

And hardly anyone else here

And hardly anyone else here

You can’t argue with the Gambian climate. The balmy temperatures, golden mornings and blue skies were a breath of fresh air for us. The pouting mouth of the Gambia sticks out into the Atlantic and the stiff wind along the coast seemed to banish the harmattan as well as the mossies. It was a shocker for us more used to the heat and humidity of Liberia. I had to dig out my Cape Town winter clothes. British walkers sweating in T-shirts were somewhat surprised to see me in socks and a hoody, shivering in sub-25˚ temperatures!

Meeting and greeting the locals in a chilly wind

Meeting and greeting the locals in a chilly wind

The wind was so cold, we started shutting the door and sleeping in ‘jamas in sleeping bags. It was a bit dark behind Reg’s tinted windows when closed. We all took hot showers for first time since Angola. Washing was taking forever to dry i.e. all day, instead of 10 minutes.

The wind down by the sea was too strong to hand washing so we moved back up the slope

The wind down by the sea was too strong to hang washing so we moved back up the slope

We couldn't see the sea, just the gorgeous bougainvillia

We couldn’t see the sea, just the gorgeous bougainvillia

which was a wonderful windbreak

which was a wonderful windbreak

On our morning walk I was testing Zola on irregular French verbs because he knows his times tables better than me now. How times have changed since we first left!

Check the size of the cuttlefish here - as big as Dad's slops!

Check the size of the cuttlefish here – as big as Dad’s slops!

It might be known as the Smiling Coast, but to me the Gambia will be remembered as the Chatty Coast. How these people love to talk! That might sound ironic coming from Sampson and me – you know we can both talk the hind leg off a donkey – but we met our match in Gambia. Everyone wants to gab. In the tourist areas, hearty greetings tended to be a prelude to hustlers trying to persuade you to visit their bar or shop, but even on practically deserted Baobab Beach, you had to keep your head down and march on determinedly or else the morning walk could take the whole day. The three people you bumped into could chat for an hour each!

I made an exception for our lovely neighbours.

Our dear friend Ebrima Touré

Our dear friend Ebrima

and his friend Julia

and his faithful friend Julia

Ebrima Sanneh is a special human being. When, during our second conversation, I said “I love your necklace” he immediately took it off and offered it to me. “No!” I said, horrified he’d taken it as a hint, “It suits you much better, and I hardly ever wear jewelry” but that was Ebrima. He was completely genuine and spontaneous. If he knew a way to make you happy, he would.

Ebrima lives on the beach when it’s warm and squats in a half built house at the top of the slope when the wind is too cold. I saw his pallet tucked between the palms, next to his charcoal burner for green tea and a couple of rickety chairs. He seems to get by providing certain herbs to the community, but his dream is to build a restaurant in the perfect spot he inhabits between the baobabs.

During the few weeks we stayed there, he and a handful of friends dug the foundations and made bricks ready to build. His place is going to be called Tiana’s, after his British sponsor. Much love to you Ebrima, and thanks for your hospitality. We wish you all the luck in the world and hope to come back and have sundowners at your place one day.

These are the bricks Ebrima made but I'm not sure where the aura came from - it's purple so that's auspicious I'm sure

These are the bricks Ebrima made, but I’m not sure where the aura came from – it’s purple so that’s auspicious!

What a view Ebrima's beach bar will have

What a view Ebrima’s beach bar will have!

The second Ebrima used to come past on his bike between his two jobs. I found his accent fascinating. Unlike Liberian, Ghanaian or Nigerian English, the Gambia has a Jamaican lilt that sometimes verges on Welsh. One Sunday he hung out with me while I did the handwashing, discussing the state of the world while listening to the BBC World Service on his radio. He was a softly spoken apologist for colonialism and apartheid, though that was probably less what he believed as what he thought I’d want to hear. He was equally cautious when I asked his opinion of the current Gambian government. While he didn’t look over his shoulder, his slight hesitance, and cautious comment “They’re doing their best” suggested, if not fear, certainly unease.

Gentle thoughtful Ebrima Jassey brought us presents of coffee and a sim card

Gentle thoughtful Ebrima Jassey brought us presents of coffee and a sim card

In the month following our stay in the Gambia, President Jammeh was criticised internationally following the death of an opposition leader in detention.

Big Man/Brother is featured on a disturbing number of billboards

Big Man/Brother is featured on a disturbing number of billboards

including several put up to congratulate himself

including several put up to congratulate himself

Big Reg was driving down the highway one day when a man leaned out of passing car, hollered something and saluted us emphatically. I didn’t catch exactly what he said (it was “BOKKE!” apparently), just turned to Sampson and commented “Well, he was pleased to see us”. A few days later, the same guy turned up outside the truck and invited us down Baobab Beach for a drink. His name’s Ryan Visser and he’s from Durban. He told us he lived round the corner behind the Madiba Mall.

For real!

For real!

Ryan Visser, candidate for South African Superhero

Ryan Visser, candidate for South African Superhero

Daíre's Bar

bid us welcome to Dáire’s Bar

where the locals are as cool as the beer...

where the regulars are as cool as the beer (very)…

and the solar-cooked sausages are smoking hot!

and the solar-cooked sausages are smoking hot!

Sampson felt right at home

Sampson felt right at home

Ryan is the President’s pilot. His colleague Sammy, the Kiwi with the tattoos, is the co-pilot. I wish I could show you the pics they showed me of the interior of the presidential plane; plush is too inadequate an adjective.

Ryan seems to know everyone, and everyone in Banjul knows Ryan. (Even the SA Ambassador in Dakar knows Ryan.) He was on his phone immediately, pulling in oil for favours, while his Irish wife Mary told me of their whirlwind romance, recent wedding and her imminent departure back to a top job in hospital management in UK. They are a high-octane couple with a high fun quotient and, truly, it was a tonic just to hang out with them. The biltong was a bonus.

The kids also had immense fun with Cian (8)...

Zola also had immense fun with Cian (8)…

and Daíre (13)

and Ruby loved hanging out with Dáire (13)

Brave boys brrrrrrrrr!

Brave boys brrrrrrrrr!

Despite her sore back, Mary generously did a big wash for us, blitzing filthy towels and sheets in her machine. This was a candidate for my best birthday present. She even gave us some of their bed linen, bless her.

Ruby's truck decorations included heart-attack-inducing exploding balloons

Ruby’s truck decorations included heart-attack-inducing exploding balloons

On my birthday itself, my husband gifted me with his presence on our early morning walk, a very rare occurrence. Sampson took a brilliant self-timer pic by balancing Tim’s camera on a boat – which is why the horizon’s a bit wonky.

Sampsons selfie 16th March 2016

Sampsons selfie 16th March 2016

He decided that standing in a line looks rubbish so told us to run towards the camera to give the picture some movement. We’re laughing because this is his third attempt to get back to the line and look spontaneously in tune with our movement before the shutter goes off!

taken from this boat

It was taken from this boat

After a delicious breakfast of juicy Gambian grapefruit, we drove back to the Coco Ocean to find Osman, Natalie and Terry waiting for us at the gate. Osman had offered Sampson a couple of nights free in the hotel and he’d asked to delay it for my birthday – what a present! I was mainly looking forward to taking a luxuriously long shower, but I got rather more than I bargained for…

When a smiling Gambian welcome meets South African largesse...

When a smiling Gambian welcome meets South African largesse…

They escorted us through to the VIP section and led us down the steps to Royal Suite 54. It was HUGE.

Feeling like Royals at the Coco Ocean

Feeling like Royals at the Coco Ocean

The bedroom

Check the size of the bedroom…

The lounge

and the lounge…

The bathroom

and the one of two bathrooms!

The 'dressing room' was bigger than the living space in the truck!

The ‘dressing room’ alone was bigger than the living space in the truck!

It not only had two bathrooms, a kitchen, lounge and patio, but also – its own private pool.

NO WAY!

NO WAY!

Yes way!

Yes way!

All thanks to these angels: Terry, Natalie and Osman

All thanks to these angels: Terry, Natalie and Osman

Blossoms all

Blossoms all

I have to admit, I was sobbing just a little bit at this point. Their generosity was quite overwhelming.

Exquisite

Everything was so… exquisite

and majestic

and majestic

Glorious

Glorious

There was more: breakfast was included! WOW. You can go all day on a Coco Ocean breakfast. Especially if, like Sampson, you have your Norwegian smoked salmon and poached egg with a side order of bacon. AND a waffle with fruit and cream. We were the only table not to leave a morsel of food on any of our plates.

Sumptuous breakfast at the Coco Ocean

Sumptuous breakfast at the Coco Ocean

Only Sampson could manage to squeeze in dessert as well...

Only Sampson could manage to squeeze in dessert as well…

We went to thank Chef Guido for the waste vegetable oil and found out he had Italian parents but was brought up in Leamington Spa and was a Coventry City fan! When I reminisced about Cov winning the FA Cup in 1987, he told me he flew back from sous-chefing in Dubai every weekend for that glorious season!

The Sampsons' present...

My present from the Sampsons…

was this inner tube...

was this inner tube…

which everyone but me...

which everyone but me…

had a jolly fine time...

had a jolly fine time…

playing on!

playing on!

I had another appointment...

I had another appointment…

To top it all, I was given a voucher by Layla Idrissi, Terry’s wife and Coco Ocean Spa manager, for free spa treatments.

Darling Layla is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside

Darling Layla is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside

Oh my word, I have never felt so spoiled. Not only was I gifted a massage from the talented Touria, I was also given an hour long Hamam treatment, a specialty of Layla’s native Morocco.

The spa is the ultimate in luxurious calm

The spa is the ultimate in luxurious calm

with elegant individual treatment rooms all tiled in marble

with individual treatment rooms all tiled in marble

Did I mention how much Auntie Juz would love it here yet?

Did I mention how much Auntie Juz would love it here?

Pardon?

Pardon?

Oh I did.

Oh I did.

Therapist Sarah led me into the Turkish bath area and sluiced me down with bucketfuls of hot-springs-warm water, before slathering me from head to toe with ‘Savon Beldi’: black soap made from virgin olive oil and essential oils of eucalyptus, cedar, cinnamon and extracts of algae. She then left me lying on a heated marble slab to soak up the scented steam for 15 minutes.

Despite being naked except for a paper G-string, I felt surprisingly relaxed and comfy on the warm marble plinth watching the humid haze condense into droplets on the dark tiles. But just before I dozed off, Sarah appeared with a ‘kessa’ exfoliating glove and went to work on my body, sloughing off several layers of dead skin I didn’t know I had on me. Blurgh! She splashed me again with bowlfuls of bath-hot water then daubed me with detoxifying Rhassoul Clay, which removes impurities and replaces them with nourishing trace minerals. Another 15 minutes at 43˚C and I began to feel like I was back in Liberia – my lungs love it. My skin was lapping the treatment up as well, and felt baby-soft and baby-new when I slipped into a cool shower afterwards.

The ten minutes of perfect peace sitting wrapped in a warm robe sipping iced water after I floated out of the treatment room was the most blissful I’ve felt in years. I’d never had a spa treatment of any kind, but I absolutely loved the Hamam and will be saving up to do it again – hopefully in Morocco itself!

So this is what it feels like to be pampered

So this is what it feels like to be pampered

Ahhhhhhhhhh....

Ahhhhhhhhhh….

Immediately after that moment of perfect peace, I realised I missed my Mom terribly. With a pang, I remembered an abandoned attempt we once made to go to a spa together and thought “She should be here with me, experiencing it in style.” Luckily, my daughter turned up for verbena tea, and we went for a lovely wander together through the grounds, gathering hibiscus blossoms and counting our blessings to be sharing such a day as this.

What a wonderful birthday!

What a wonderful birthday!

Layla also treated Ruby to a facial, which has inspired her to concoct several of her own since from egg whites or cinnamon and Gambian honey! Thank you Layla and Terry for all your kindness and may blessings rain down upon you both.

Ruby and I were thinking...

Ruby and I were thinking…

we could seriously get used to this

we could seriously get used to this

On our second evening we went out to dine at the Kasumai Restaurant next door.

Somebody feeling a lot cleaner than usual...

Zola feeling a lot cleaner than usual…

and looking like...

and looking like…

an Egyptian prince courtesy of hairdresser Ruby

an Egyptian prince courtesy of hairdresser Ruby

Coco Ocean's resident monkeys came to greet us...

Coco Ocean’s resident monkeys came to greet us…

ever optimistic for a snack...

ever optimistic for a snack…

on our way out...

on our way out…

to the beachside restaurant next door

to the beachside restaurant next door

I had fresh fish domoda – a Gambian dish with groundnut sauce, which was scrumptious – and a naughty-but-nice baobab juice shaken with water and condensed milk for a delicious dessert!

Check the band...

Mmmmm…

The first of many delicious baobab juices...

The first of many delicious baobab juices a.k.a. bouye

A straggly band of musos gathered themselves together very slowly and looked like they were about to play reggae but surprised us with a Dire Straits medley. They kicked off with Romeo and Juliet, which was amazing as the kids and I had just read the balcony scene. As the gravelly-voiced lead guitarist growled out a bizarre pidgin version of the lyrics, I was remembering how my Dad used to sing along to this album while driving me to school and how much I loathed Dire Straits in 1984. Meanwhile Sampson was recalling hanging out smoking bongs in the back of his van with his mates at 17. We found ourselves gripping hands across the table and gulping back nostalgic tears. It was hardly the romantic nuance Shakespeare or even Mark Knopfler had envisaged evoking, but it was ‘a moment’.

The Sultans of Swing

Gambia’s Sultans of Swing

The Gambian music they played was even better and we embarrassed the kids by dancing shamelessly round the tables.

Oh MOM...

Oh MOM…

Back in the truck, unpacking, I was surprised to have a ‘relieved to be home from the holidays’ feeling. Staying at the magnificent Coco Ocean was such a treat, I felt like a queen swanning around the VIP areas for a couple of days. But for those of us not effortlessly elegant like Natalie, it was exhausting to be surrounded by mirrors. I realised I was worn out with having to monitor my appearance and keep my hair looking vaguely respectable. It was great to be back with an excuse for looking like a gypsy!

Big Reg headed north for the swell. Sampson had found a promising spot next to the military base of the Gambian Armed Forces in Bakau. Ever more like his Dad, Zola was much happier after a surf. A long paddle out to sea revealed a left hand reef break that they suspected had never been surfed before; they christened it ‘Bubbles’.

Sampson and son surfing outside Bakau New Town

Sampson and son surfing outside Bakau New Town

a quiet spot to park off

a quiet spot to park off overlooking a windy cliff reminiscent of Cornwall

except for the wildlife

except for the wildlife

The battalions of GAF stationed nearby could have had a problem with Big Reg on their land...

The battalions of GAF stationed nearby could have had a problem with Big Reg on their land…

But they didn't: Staff Sergeants enjoying banter with Sampson

but they didn’t: Staff Sergeants Babukar and Ballow enjoying banter with Sampson

While the boys were in the water, I gave Ruby’s hair a trim. Two young boys passing picked up strands of her golden clippings like they were precious. Maybe I should start selling them!

Ruby spent the afternoon making jewelry

It was the end of term, so Ruby spent the afternoon making jewelry

There was a call centre on the corner and the young staff used to come down to the sea for a breath of fresh air during their breaks. Mohamed was playing a Martin Luther King speech on his phone when he sat down to watch me do T’ai Chi and we got talking. We had a very interesting conversation about life and what it was all about. He would like to be a journalist and is frustrated that he was born in Spain (his Mom works there) but is struggling to obtain a Schengen passport. I suggested he could go train in Ghana or Nigeria instead. At the end of our chat, he told me that, even if I professed atheism, in his eyes, my positive outlook revealed me as a Believer.

Me and Mohamed Camara, journalist of the future

Me and Mohamed Camara, journalist of the future

I regret not travelling beyond the tourist belt of gritted teeth to the genuine smile behind them. I’m quite sure the rural villages of the Gambian interior are far more charming than the urban sprawl of Serecunda and the Atlantic Coast, which reminded me rather of Midrand or a very sunny day in the Midlands.

Is it just me or could this be Village Walk?

Is it just me or could this be Village Walk?

Say no more

Say no more

But the benefits of the city cannot be denied. Thanks to Dentist Desmond Pyper for giving us all a check up and only charging Sampson to fix his broken filling. Dr Des is from Jersey and works as a volunteer at the Swedent Clinic for several months each year.

Dr Des the volunteer dentist

Dr Des Pyper, volunteer dentist

We are super grateful to the Gambia Coral Beach hotel for not only donating waste oil but also letting us access their wifi: I was able to have management meetings on Skype and Sampson caught up with his brother, while Ruby was researching school projects and Zola was finding out what poetry was.

Many thanks to the Gambia Coral Beach, our home from home

Many thanks to the Gambia Coral Beach, our home from home

with some interesting pseudo-Malian architecture...

with some interesting pseudo-Malian architecture…

and some fabulous murals...

and some fabulous murals…

featuring scenes of life...

featuring scenes of life…

along the river Gambia

along the river Gambia

Many thanks to Chief Security Officer Mr Lamin Janneh a.k.a. Banna

Many thanks to Chief Security Officer Mr Lamin Janneh a.k.a. Banna

for letting us hang out so often in the car park

for letting us hang out so often in the car park

In the carpark, we were intrigued to see this Land Cruiser:

Check the number plate

Check the number plate

and the spare - wow!

and the spare – wow!

A couple of days later we met adventurous Polish family, Jacek, Kasia and Konrad Piwowarski, who had driven down to Cape Town in 2012 and were now on their way back to Krakow!

Konrad, Jacek and Kasia Piwowarski from Poland

Konrad, Jacek and Kasia Piwowarski from Poland

They didn’t speak much English, and of course my Polish is pathetic, but when I took this photo, an amazing dialogue took place.
Jacek: “Your first camera was stolen, yes?”
Me: “How did you know?”
Jacek: “I read your blog”
I couldn’t believe it! No one had ever said that to me before! Thanks Jacek and hamba kahle.

Thanks to Lamin S.J. Jabang and Samba Jallow for schlepping Coco Ocean's waste oil to us

Thanks to Lamin S.J. Jabang and Samba Jallow for schlepping Coco Ocean’s waste oil to us

Our last day there, dear Terry arranged for Coco Ocean’s driver Mohamed Cham to chauffeur Sampson around to collect waste veg oil from all the other donating hotels: Ocean Bay, Senegambia, Kairaba, Coral Beach, Kombo Beach, Sunset Beach and Lemon Creek. Sampson had offered to do a comedy show at Coco Ocean to thank all contributors and we’d arranged an interview at West Coast Radio to promote it.

Sampson enjoyed his interview at West Coast Radio

Sampson enjoyed his interview at West Coast Radio

with On The Spot anchor Jimmy Hendry Nzally

with On The Spot anchor Jimmy Hendry Nzally

arranged by station manager Therese Fatou Gomez - loving the owls Therese!

arranged by station manager Therese Fatou Gomez – loving the owls Therese!

For an hour charming On The Spot anchor Jimmy Nzally entertained us with his constant refrain of “POWERFUL” in response to anything vaguely meaningful Sampson said. Sadly Coco Ocean was forced to cancel the show amidst security fears for Brussels Airlines staff who regularly stay there after the bomb attack in the Belgian capital.

Ryan and Mary popped in for a goodbye drink with Osman and Natalie at the same time as I was posting a blog in the Coco Ocean reception lounge. It did my heart good to see what genuinely good friends these young South Africans are. They were discussing their next holiday together, to sights in and around Dakar. Natalie’s quick wit made me laugh as she took the mickey out of the men. Mary had brought creme eggs for the kids as an Easter treat, and left Dáire flirting with Ruby in the truck. How lucky we were to fall in with such a caring and fun bunch.

On 25th March we finally set off north. Just before we left, I gave Ebrima my Zulu necklace as it seemed to suit him far better than me.

Ebrima wearing a hat he plaited from palm fronds and the necklace Ruby’s godfather Bheki gave me - I know he would approve.

Ebrima wearing a hat he plaited from palm fronds and the necklace Ruby’s godfather Bheki gave me – I know he would approve.

Bless you for your kindness

Bless you for your kindness

We drove through the weirdly empty centre of Banjul central, past Arch 22, built to commemorate the military coup of 22 July 1994 when ‘His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh’ came to power.

Arch 22 in central Banjul

Arch 22 in central Banjul

As we drove around the roundabout I noticed the Arch seemed to be all front with nothing much behind it, which rather sums up my impression of the President himself. He seems to have a rather inflated sense of his own significance in the history of the Gambia. With a sense of satisfaction, I read that the Arch has been closed to traffic because “the stability of the structure is in doubt“. Now there’s poetic justice.

Big Reg headed out to catch the boat to Barra and arrived at the terminal just before lunch. Five sweaty hours, two James Bond movies and three ferries later, we managed to get on. You can’t complain at only R160. Later I was told that this is public transport and thus free to tax-payers – what a marvellous model, wish we could emulate that in SA.

I was soothed by the sight of the passing crowds, and wished I could have done a photo study of the waiting women. Their clothes were so beautifully colourful, their style suddenly more Arabic, the scarves more sparkly and diaphanous. It was Friday and proud Muslim men were spruce in full length robes and caps.

Three times we watched crowds sprint for the ferry int front of us...

Three times we watched crowds sprint for the ferry in front of us…

having been penned in the port terminal for a couple of hours...

having been penned in the heat of the port terminal for a couple of hours…

when the doors were opened they would race to get a seat...

when the doors were opened they would race to get a seat…

crammed alongside a few hundred others...

jammed alongside a few hundred others…

on the ferry from Banjul to Barra

on the ferry from Banjul to Barra

Finally Big Reg was crammed on with another 17 vehicles and around 500 people. I felt quite euphoric up on the roof in the blessed cool at last.

Bye bye Banjul

Bye bye Banjul

Big Reg heading north again at last

Big Reg heading north again at last

Hooray!

Hooray!

The horizon looking tempting

The horizon looking tempting

We landed and drove out of Barra to a quiet spot in the bush. In the middle of the night the nearly full moon woke me blasting through the open hatch like a spotlight. After an hour, I gave in, got up and started editing. I was consoled by the smell of crushed wild basil under the truck tyres.

Wild basil scenting the road north

Wild basil scenting the road north

After driving for an hour in the morning, Big Reg was overtaken by a kombi with a big guy in the front seat waving madly at us. When we pulled over five minutes later to have breakfast before we hit the border, he jumped out of the taxi and came back to greet us – it was Mohamed the driver from Coco Ocean, and we’d stopped right outside his house!

Mohamed Cham, Coco Ocean driver and generous spirit - so glad the universe gave me another chance to take a photo to remember you by!

Thanks Mohamed Cham, Coco Ocean driver and generous spirit – so glad the universe gave us another chance to take a photo to remember you by!

Posted in 17 The Gambia | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Gambia Part 1 : Too Much Toubab

Coming into Banjul was a bit of a culture shock. Firstly there were hundreds of advertising hoardings. Sampson found it surprisingly difficult to drive at first, he was so overwhelmed by them. It was browbeating by billboard. The information overload meant he was struggling to distinguish between roadsigns and adverts. You only realise how exhausting modern urban life can be when you’ve been out of it for a while.

Typical array of signage on Demba Doo Drive

Typical array of signage on Demba Doo Highway

Secondly it was shockingly touristy. We knew of course the Gambia’s reputation as a package holiday mecca and had expected it to be more like Ghana than Guinea, but as we entered Banjul, the kids were gasping at the fleshy expanse of sausage-skinned types outside the window.

Welcome one and all

Welcome one and all

The ubiquitous slogan for the Gambia describes it as ‘The Smiling Coast’. Gambia may be the crooked smile in the squashed face of Senegal (with the Dakar peninsula as the pointy nose) but I felt her put-upon people were often smiling through gritted teeth. They have a lot to bear, what with an increasingly erratic dictator and a never-ending stream of ignorant guests. They seemed lovely but weary.

JulBrew: even the beer is Smiling in the Gambia

JulBrew: even the beer is Smiling in the Gambia

At the border, I had the same disconcerting feeling as when entering Ghana, Nigeria and Anglophone Cameroon – that I was put off my stride by suddenly having to switch from French to delivering my patter in English! It might seem bizarre to feel at a disadvantage in your native tongue, but sometimes the shield of being seen to be incompetent can be useful, as you can choose what you want to understand.

The British influence was immediately apparent when we were told You Can’t Park Here. At first we were excited that perhaps that meant we had to cross over because they drive on the left hand side of the road (as in UK and SA) but no, officials were just being uptight and inflexible, and made Big Reg shift to and fro till they were satisfied to the inch.

In the biggest office, there was a Big Boep who was totally uninterested in our Letters of Introduction, just showed me a list of countries requiring Visa And Clearance, the latter being a pointless letter costing, apparently, 3000 Dalasi each (+/- R1200). I remarked that it was funny the SA Embassy in Bissau hadn’t mentioned this while we were arranging the show at the British High Commission in Banjul. When he found out we were dual citizens (there’s no visa or ‘clearance’ necessary for UK passport holders) he appeared to cave in and said “So I’m letting you off 12 000D… how will you show your appreciation?”

Big Boep resisted being ‘given’ a magic show by Sampson despite the delight of all the other blokes in the office. When he reiterated his request, I slowly and sadly said that the Dept of Arts and Culture did not allow us to show our appreciation in any other way except through arts and culture… Finally he took the passports, asked how long we needed and said “I’ll give you a month” like he was doing us a favour.

We were so glad to be out of there.

Fulsome friendly greetings from Rastas by the side of the road at every junction made up for this rude introduction. Banjul was a joy to drive around, even less busy than Bissau, with public buses and pony traps pottering along together.

Welcome to Banjul

Welcome to Banjul

The donkeys pulling carts in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau were replaced by horses in Senegal and the Gambia

The donkeys pulling carts in Guinea and Guinea-Bissau were replaced by horses in Senegal and the Gambia

The Senegambia Strip sounds glamorous but it was about as salubrious as half a high street in any seaside town in Blighty. That first morning we went scouting for oil and called in on a few hotels nearby, at one of which pink Brits were sat round a huge blue pool sinking beers or snoozing on beach loungers. Ruby said, “Oh my God, it’s just like Benidorm!” referring to the old favourite sitcom and Zola piped up wide-eyed “Did they really film it here?”

They could have.

Typical Gambian Atlantic Coast hotel

Typical Gambian Atlantic Coast hotel

a holiday heaven for the sun-and-pleasure seeker...

a holiday heaven for the sun-and-pleasure seeker…

full of typical British tourists

full of typical British tourists

as far as the eye can see...

as far as the eye can see…

I couldn’t help but feel shame at what the British have bequeathed to the world. Post-French-colonial popular tourist spot, Cap Skirring in Casamance, offers a range of cute bistros, sidewalk cafés, bijou art galleries and elegant hotels. Post-English-colonial popular tourist destination the Gambia provides tacky fish and chip restaurants, Indian takeaways and supermarkets full of overpriced crisps and chocolate digestives. The things the British can’t live without even for a week. Oh and did I mention beer?

On the plus side, I was able to replace the Marmite (hangs head in shame at irredeemable Britishness)

On the plus side, I was able to replace the Marmite (hangs head in shame at irredeemable Britishness)

Thanks to kind Jainaba Bau at Kotu Supermarket who gave the wistful kids a free ice cream!

Thanks to kind Jainaba Bau at Kotu Supermarket who gave wistful kids a free ice cream each!

We found our way down Bertil Harding Highway to the five star Coco Ocean Resort and Spa whose GM was the sole person to have replied to Sampson’s blanket email enquiries to all the hotels of Banjul. Osman Bezuidenhout is as gloriously New South African as his name would suggest, and did us proud in every way possible. Not only did the Coco Ocean donate more waste vegetable oil than any other hotel in the Gambia, Osman and his team made our stay unforgettable.

A very different experience awaits at the Coco Ocean

A very different experience awaits at the Coco Ocean Resort and Spa

Shamiel Sampson (our cousin no doubt) and Osman Bezuidenhout

Shamiel Sampson (our cousin) and G.M. Osman Bezuidenhout

Hospitality manager Terry Langenhoven came down to visit later that night – he couldn’t get over seeing a CA number plate in the Gambia! He’s been working abroad for 18 years since he left Cape Town at the age of 20. It was wonderful to be so warmly welcomed by our compatriots; they made it feel like a homecoming.

Sampson, Terry and Osman

Sampson, Terry and Osman

Osman started by taking us on a tour of the hotel at the end of his busy day. We were stunned by the difference in ambience at the Coco Ocean compared to the majority of Gambian hotels we’d seen so far. As we entered the magnificent lush green setting, Ruby said it smelled like Kirstenbosch Gardens. It looked like them too – the hotel was designed by a German landscaper who trained as architect, so the gardens play a central role in creating his vision of a mini-Moroccan walled city. It’s an oasis of calm.

Scheherazade’s Arabian Palace would be a better name for it

Scheherazade’s Arabian Palace would be a better name for it

The luxury is so gloriously understated

The luxury is so gloriously understated

It's like a fairytale of peace

It’s like a fairytale of peace

The décor is mostly in a monochrome palette, with deep turquoise and crimson touches. It’s breathtakingly elegant and infinitely restful.

Check the sofas in reception...

Check the sofas in reception…

below the soft lights of the dome

below the soft lights of the dome.

and the terrace of the main restaurant

The terrace of the main restaurant

Auntie Juzzie would love it here.

Fairygodmother Juzzie would love it here.

Actually who wouldn’t?

Mind you, who wouldn’t?

Osman told us tales of when an actual Moroccan prince came to stay – he booked out the whole hotel but declined to sleep in the presidential suite in favour of a giant tent they had to set up on the lawn. The prince even shipped in silk brocade drapes and Persian carpets for the week.

Each little haven feels so secluded

Each little haven feels so secluded

This is the VIP pool

This is the VIP pool, if the first two were too crowded for your taste…

The Coco Ocean has also hosted the Nigerian President, and the President of Guiné-Bissau. When the President of the Islamic Republic of the Gambia, His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, was celebrating his 50th birthday at the same time as the Gambia’s 50th independence day, the wind carried hundreds of sparks from the huge firework display onto the thatched roofs of the hotel buildings. They lost two of them and caused so much damage, Osman was nearly arrested as a fire starter. Luckily it had been the President’s idea, and he did cover the costs. Eventually.

Osman said that during the Ebola pandemic, occupancy dropped to 5-10 guests at times, despite the fact that the Gambia was hundreds of miles from the infection zone, but thankfully trade has recovered and they’re busy again now. However, the Coco Ocean is so beautifully designed that even when it’s full, it’s peaceful.

Osman manages 300 staff, can’t be older than 35, and is on call 24 hours a day for his guests. I only realized later just how very busy he is, and how kind he was to take the time to show us round. Luckily he has his wife Natalie to hold the fort at reservations – she’s even more capable if anything – and superhost Terry at his right-hand. We are so very proud of these guys, flying the flag for SA excellence at a world-class resort.

The next morning, walking on the beach with Zola just past the Coco Ocean, I stopped to do T’ai Chi. It was a cloudy day so I hadn’t taken the camera. Of course, this would be the time when a fascinating ritual took place right in front of us. A little further along the beach appeared a figure dressed in orange grass skirt layers from head to toe, like the vertical spinning mop in a carwash. He was circling a group of boys and howling occasionally like a hyena. The cries were plaintive rather than threatening, but still clearly warning you off. It was another version of the Egungun figure that we first met in Nigeria, and have seen similar examples of through Benin all the way to the Netos de Bandim show in Guiné-Bissau.

Zola and I sat and watched bigger boys chase smaller ones into the sea with lots of laughter. A clutch of the smallest ones were already sitting shivering wrapped in thin cloths as the eldest, a Rasta youth, rinsed and hung their wet clothes out. When the ceremony seemed over and the Giant Mop had departed, we went to greet them and Rasta Moussa a.k.a. ‘Admiral’ was very pleased when I whipped off Zola’s orange hairwrap to reveal his dreads.

He told me he was looking after the younger sons of his brother while he took the older ones to the bush. They’d spent two weeks together and his brother was returning today so they’d all come down to “the river” for a cleansing ceremony in case of “any wounds… the water is good for them”. He explained gravely that when you do something like this some people come to lift you up and some people come to destroy you, so you employ (what sounded like) “Sadonka” to protect you during the ceremony: “No one bother him”. They were Fula, but said the Mandinka and Wolof do this too.

Later, my friend Lamin Ceesay at Brufut echoed this account of the role of the figure he called Kankurang. As a group of around 20 boys aged around 7 were escorted past me by another headless fringed figure while I was doing T’ai Chi one morning, Lamin told me how newly circumcised boys were protected from evil spirits by his presence for 40 days.

Lamin Cissay, my cultural interpreter at Brufut beach

Lamin Ceesay, my cultural interpreter at Brufut beach

He also described other characters: Zimba from Casamance, the lion-man who entertains with a powdered face; Agugu, who is also found in Sierra Leone and Liberia; Kumpo, who has a long stalk on his head and his face covered with reeds. I am dying to do some research into the origins and commonalities of these figures in carnivalesque rituals across West Africa.

Semantic pedantic me was also fascinated to see how the most common surnames had morphed from Guinea to the Gambia: from Jalloh to Jallow, and Cissé to Ceesay. Same name, different colonial master writing it down.

Veronica

Veronica

This is Veronica from Lewisham whom we met on the beach and whose accent reminded me so much of my friend Lorraine! Her daughter got married at the Coco Ocean – a brilliant idea if you’re looking for a wedding venue… While sat outside the Coco Ocean, Big Reg was admired by Geoff Cann, the most charismatic and cosmopolitan Jehovah’s Witness I’ve ever met.

Geoff Cann: 6ft 3” of tall stories

Geoff Cann: 6ft 3” of tall stories

Geoff spent 25 years in East Berlin, smuggling copies of The Watchtower over the border, and had a particularly amusing anecdote about peeing on a Stasi interrogator accidentally-on-purpose. He has a Filipino wife, a Brazilian son-in-law and once drove a truck like ours to Tblisi. Geoff was the obvious candidate to undertake the challenging task of getting my long-expired UK passport back to Blighty for renewal, and he gamely agreed to act as courier. Bless you Mr Cann-do, you are our hero! Without your intervention our journey Africa Clockwise would have ground to a halt – to discover why, read on …

(Roger, your €20 donation came in handy here to cover postage, thanks a million!)

Like Conakry, the Gambia proved to be another place with an annoyingly small limit on cash withdrawal amounts (3000D or R1200 at a time) which means ABSA was doing well again charging us a R50 fee rather than a percentage every time we access our account.

We started celebrating my birthday early, on the Sunday before: a day on the Strip kicking off with a full English breakfast. We wandered up and down the road with the toubabs in an attempt to appreciate the benefits of the British colonial hangover.

Our first bacon since home.

Tucking into our first bacon since home.

‘Toubab’ is what the Gambians call tourists and is used similarly to the Cornish word ‘emmet’. Debatably, it comes from the ‘two bob’ Gambians used to beg of their colonial masters.

The 'Senegambia Strip'

The ‘Senegambia Strip’

Some Gambians argue that they do well out of the former relationship. They have better roads and their economy is certainly healthier than Guinea Bissau’s. But is it worth it, for this Muslim country to be swamped with bacon and beer? Not to mention the unattractive hordes that demand them.

Sex tourism in the Gambia is well documented; we’ve been appalled by wizened ‘scrumpers’ pawing 20-something goddesses over dinner since the Congo and Cameroon, but this was our first time to witness so many middle-aged European women with African toyboys. By far the scariest couple, however, were the seedy new retirees in outrageously short shorts on the next table who somehow managed to be scrawny and fat at the same time.

Ruby and I abandoned our brief wander in the very touristy craft market when one man said “I’ll give you my shop for your daughter” and was only half joking; it was too tiring to keep fending off the feigned friendliness to explain we seriously didn’t have enough spare cash for trinkets. Instead we indulged in a supermarket stash of birthday goodies: Libby’s orange juice, cheddar cheese, olives and Crunchie Bars. Thanks Nana!

Wandering the Senegambia Strip...

Wandering the weirdly Euro-world of the Senegambia Strip…

from the eponymous hotel at the top...

from the eponymous hotel at the top…

to the greasy spoon at the bottom...

to the greasy spoon at the bottom…

via Nando's. Who'd've thought?

via Nando’s. Who’d’ve thought?

It was fun pretending to be Proper Tourists, just for one day

It was fun pretending to be Proper Tourists, just for one day

Sitting in the Senegambia Hotel in the late afternoon, poaching their wifi, I caught sight of a BBC news flash scrolling across a nearby screen with details of the recent bomb attack in Côte d’Ivoire, at the sleepy coastal resort of Grand Bassam where Ruby had her ill-fated horse ride. This was a worrying shift to targeting Euro tourists that didn’t bode well for the Gambia or Senegal.

Around the same time we heard news of another brutal murder of a teenager in Cape Town, while out with her family in the Tokai forest, which had rocked our south peninsula community. I held the kids a bit closer to me that night. Again, I felt keenly how lucky I am on this journey to be able to cherish every day as the precious gift it is with the ones I love.

Our new companions

Our new companions

Scary

are all around

Vultures have been visible in increasing numbers since Sierra Leone, coming quite startlingly close at times, but we hadn’t seen anything like this group, outside one of the hotels, feasting on a dead donkey.

Drop the dead donkey

Drop the dead donkey…

...or is it bacon?

…or is it bacon?

Sampson reckons that, with their bald red heads, they look a lot like British tourists.

Posted in 17 The Gambia | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Truck Cats

This blog is especially for all the people, like me (prior to Mar Azul), who could never understand the internet’s obsession with cats. I’ve bundled up all the kitten stories and cyoot pics together so they can scoot right over this one.

Brace yourself, they're sickeningly adorable

Brace yourself, they’re sickeningly adorable

Before we set off Africa Clockwise, the Sampson family lived happily in Cape Town with two rescue dogs, Pollyanna and Spud, who scampered about on a walk with me across Noordhoek beach every morning and with the kids on the common at weekends. We thought long and hard about bringing them with us but decided that, although calm Polly would cope fine, Spud was just too excitable to live without such guaranteed exercise, and it would be too cruel to split them up. It was very sad for us to have to leave them behind, but wonderful for them as they are now living in our old house with the darling Eckley family, being loved by Bjorn and Tariq and eating far better than they ever did with us.

Zola, Ruby, Polly, Spud, Bjorn and Tariq

Zola, Ruby, Polly, Spud, Bjorn and Tariq

Can't believe these photos were taken less than a year ago: how she has changed!

Can’t believe these photos were taken less than a year ago: how she has changed!

On the second day the kittens were with us, gamboling around inside the truck parked on the baking pavement outside the SA Embassy in Guinea-Bissau, Ruby was doing the washing up and all at once caught her breath, then sighed happily: “That’s what was missing – it was animals. Now I feel at home.”

Contentment

Contentment

A Day in the Life of Tiger and Cleo

Our day now begins with the scrabbling of claws against the catproofing® sometime around 7am. Sampson makes milk from powder and puts it down before releasing the kittens, so they can get their noses straight in it – if he doesn’t, Tiger starts caterwauling with a level of indignation more akin to an outrageous wrongdoing.

Tiger muscling in for milk

Tiger muscling in for milk

King of the truck

King of the truck

After breakfast, it’s exercise time in the corridor i.e. the 4m long space we have between the cab and the toilet. Jousting is the cats’ favourite pastime. They begin by standing at either end on tip toes with arched backs and freeze, checking each other out for half a minute. At a silent signal they fling themselves towards each other, claws out, skittering kittens under our feet as we’re trying to get washed and dressed.

Standing on their hind legs with paws up and claws splayed, they sometimes look like they’re kung-fu fighting – those cats ARE fast as lightening. It can be a little bit frightening…

(Sadly, there are no action pics. Too blurred.)

Their second favourite game is wrestling. While Tiger is undoubtedly stronger, Cleo is quicker and often uses her superior speed to outwit him and get on top. Yay for girl power.

Don't mess with the Queen

Don’t mess with the Queen

School time signals pre-nap cuddling. Tiger has an unerring instinct for going straight to the page of Maths we’re discussing and sitting on it.

Attention seeker 1

Attention seeker 1

Attention seeker 2

Attention seeker 2

Whaddya mean 'writing'?

Whaddya mean ‘writing’?

What about OUR needs?

What about OUR needs?

Their morning doze requires them to circle the truck to check where the sun is today – then they park off, flat out in the corridor or curled up in the cab. If they wake upstairs, they might have a quick game of chase-me-round-the-curtains.

Catnaps 1

Catnaps 1

Catnaps 2

Catnaps 2

Catnaps 3

Catnaps 3

Catnaps 4

Catnaps 4

Catnaps 5

Catnaps 5

They’re quite used to the roar of the engine by now, though Tiger will still run to Ruby for reassurance. If we’re driving, Cleo likes to use me as an escalator: she comes up onto my lap, over the cushions onto my shoulder and then steps off my head into the net above the passenger seat. She snuggles down there, taking comfort in the swinging as we rattle along. Sometimes I forget she’s there and she scares me when she decides to hop back down.

Catnaps 6. Sometimes Tiger squeezes in too

Catnaps 6. Sometimes Tiger squeezes in too

If we pass a market, they may be lucky enough to get fresh fish. Then all sibling fondness is off the agenda as Tiger, with a stiff tail and hair standing up on his back, lives up to his name and snarls at his sister if she dares to come near his portion. They both love fish, but he wolfs it down, practically choking in his enthusiasm to get the lion’s share. He reminds me of Ruby at birthday parties when she was 3 or 4, standing at the cake table and eating until she was sick. I had to stop taking her in the end.

Cuddles 1

Cuddles 1

Cuddles 2

Cuddles 2

It is quite disconcerting how often the attributes of the kittens mirror those of the kids.

We regularly feed Cleo an extra portion to stop her brother hogging the nourishment. Now he’s only 20% bigger than her, as opposed to the 50% he was threatening to be. One day Ruby impressed me by displaying an unprecedented enthusiasm for sewing, making three kitten toys including this fetching mouse from cotton wool and old pyjamas.

Ruby gets creative in the name of cats

Ruby gets creative in the name of cats

When we eat lunch, cats must be off the table, but are usually under it, playing with string, a plastic bag or a leaf. Cleo is incredibly quick and nimble. Tiger is quite dof, and often ends up watching like he’s stoned. He’s very clumsy, the only cat I’ve ever seen who falls off things. He’s had some hilarious tumbles, one particularly spectacular one off the indoor ladder, backwards, that had Sampson choking on his cornflakes.

Chase the lump round the table leg...

Chase the lump round the table leg…

Tiger is constantly outmanoeuvred by his quicker sister

Tiger is constantly outmanoeuvred by his quicker sister

Tiger loves cucumber. He treats it as if it were fresh fish, guarding every morsel jealously. Cleo is as bemused by this as we are. The other day I caught him on the table with his jaws in half a cucumber, trying to pull it out of a bowl and battering it into submission with his paws. Is he even a cat?

Catnaps 5

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 6

Catnaps 8

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 9

Cleo likes to keep you company on the toilet

Cleo likes to keep you company on the toilet

Zola's going to hate me for this...

Zola’s going to hate me for this…

But it's hilarious AND cute, how can I resist?

But it’s hilarious AND cute, how can I resist?

We haven’t stopped laughing since they arrived.

My brother will be delighted to know that the advent of cats has allowed me to tap into my inner Johnny Morris: as kids we used to love his voiceovers for anthropomorphic antics on Animal Magic. I’m quite proud my improvising can have Zola crying in silent hysterics.

Heartfelt thanks to our cat mentor Sean Pike for teaching us the usefulness of a water spray to preserve curtains – or mossie screens in our case. Also to threaten incessant mewlers!

Afternoon naps are the best, when they curl up on my bed or in the washing bowl. Tiger might come for a cuddle, pushing his head under your hand to be stroked. Cleo plays much more hard to get but is far more rewarding when she choses to grace you with her presence. She is the softest being alive.

Catnaps 6

Catnaps 10

Catnaps 7

Catnaps 11

Catnaps 11

Catnaps 12

Catnaps 8

Catnaps 13

It has been a revelation to me how fastidious cats are, and how tiny kittens instinctively use a litter tray (or in our case, the bottom of an oil container full of sand) and kick over the traces. Still, cat poo is the worst. In the confined space of the truck, in a hot place with no breeze, it could be considered torture. I don’t know how the kids cope overnight crammed in the nosecone with the upstairs tray at their feet…

Tiger and Cleo are usually given their supper before ours so they can have a play and get the energy out of their systems before we settle down for the evening. Someone might swing a knotted string for them to have a good sprint round. If we’re watching something on the ‘laptop cinema’ (Sampson’s Mac Book suspended from the clothes cupboard on bungee cords) they will usually come to join in the snuggling. You may be fooled into thinking they’re very fond of you especially – Cleo has a divine way of poking her nose into yours like she wants to kiss you – but this myth is quickly dispelled when she suddenly runs up and over your face in response to a call to play from Tigger.

It is amazing how they pick up on our tension. During the last but one episode of Broadchurch, the kittens suddenly started racing up and down from one end of the truck to the other, leaping over an obstacle course of beds, from nose cone to book box to mattress to headboard onto Sampson’s stomach and back again. We all felt like cats on a hot tin roof at that point.

Finally it’s time for bed, and all the bairns clamber up into the nosecone. Cleo likes to spend at least part of the night on Ruby’s head, though they alternate sleeping on each of the children. They always have one wrestling bout in the middle of the night, which may or may not involved hanging off the nets, and usually end up fast asleep in her clothes cupboard.

Ruby doesn't get to sleep late anymore!

Ruby doesn’t get to sleep late anymore!

One morning, Sampson and I were lying in bed having a cuddle in the peace before the kids woke up, watching the kittens tumble at our feet. He was repeatedly dragging his big toe along the wood and they were staring at it in fascination as it kept coming back to get them. “Cats really are peanut-brained” he said “They would sit here and watch my toe for hours”. We chatted a while, as Tiger and Cleo scampered about, then stopped and lay in silence once more, marveling at their antics. “You do realise” I said “that we are the peanut brains: cats are God’s Big Toe.”

Parental lie-ins became a problem in week four of our new cat-life when Tiger started getting up earlier and earlier to demand food. After a couple of pre-dawn landings on his head, haggard Sampson started experimenting with cat proofing the nosecone to keep the kittens locked in with the kids. Wedged-in curtains didn’t work… but believe it or not he then discovered the spare seat cushion left over from his bed fit like it was designed for the space!

Catproofing® prototype 1: curtains...

Catproofing® prototype 1: curtains and cardboard…

didn't work.

…didn’t work.

Catproofing® version 2: more solid seat cushion plus a couple of trays et voilà!

Catproofing® version 2: more solid seat cushion plus a couple of trays et voilà!

This new catproof ‘wall’ has the added bonus of providing a bit more privacy that we’re used to… It’s a sad indictment that Sampson’s first thought on realising this was: “Hooray, I can sneak an extra pack of Biskrem without the kids noticing!” Sigh.

Tiger and Cleo are not quite old enough to want to venture outside the truck, and we’re not sure what will happen when they do. Tiger the tom is definitely a more intrepid explorer than his sister, but so far, the constantly changing scenery of Outside The Door has been confusing enough to dissuade him from crossing the threshold.

Hmmm… wodja think?

Tiger: Hmmm… wodja think?

Cleo: Nah...

Cleo: Nah…

Tiger: Maybe!

Tiger: There’s a Big World out there waiting for me, I know it!

Things I Have Learned From Cats

  • I am a cat person. Who knew?
  • Humans are not top of the food chain.
  • There is always time to stroke a kitten or cuddle a cat.

This final point goes for children as well as cats, but all too often we forget to indulge in that impulse. During the Ebola pandemic, when we were forced to return home and the kids were back at school, I found I missed them physically during the day. I resented the fact that their teachers and peers got the best of their energy, and that they only got back to me hungry and tired with a pile of homework. There was so little time to play or just lounge about cuddling. The cats have reminded us all to revel in the freedom of Being not Doing, while we can.

Like babies all over again

Like babies all over again: infinite fun to play with

No greater peace

and no greater peace as when they’re asleep

Now, to the tune of Hanna Barbera’s classic cartoon Top Cat:

Truck Cats, the most delectable
Truck Cats, whose intellectual
Close friends get to call’em TCeees
Providing they’re giving a feeeeeed
Truck Cats
The indisputable leaders of the gang
She’s the boss, he’s a wimp
They’re the jousting kings
They’re the most tip top
Truck Cats!

Just reminding you who's in charge here

Just reminding you who’s in charge here

Going...

Going…

going...

going…

gone.

gone.

Posted in 16 Senegal | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments