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.
His driver escorted us north along la Corniche Ouest, a stunning route winding up and around the peninsula alongside the glittering sea.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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!”
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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!
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!
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…
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.
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…
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…”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Although Boris is Muslim, and Peggi is Christian, they say that has never been a problem for them here.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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…
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.