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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 island is tiny but there was such a lot to see.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Musée at the fort was much more informative.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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…
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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
- replaced gear box (WHOO-HOOOOOOOO!!!)
- replaced shocks (YIPPEEEEEEE!!)
- replaced nuts and bolts and provided us with 10 spares
- replaced diesel filter
- engine, gearbox, and transfer oil all changed
- checked the wheel balance, front axel and diffs wheel axle
- greased the nipples
- tightened torque on 8 nuts on drive shaft
- made thrust plate for suspension and customized skim bottoms
- cleaned air filter
- cleaned exhaust brake
- tightened belts
- repaired and refit spare wheel hub
- made replacement mosquito net for the door
- adjusted the brakes
- washed the truck
- 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?
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.Barth’s P.A. Mme Mariama Diao who got the ball rolling with waste oil collection by calling in favours at all his favourite hotel restaurants.
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.