Our art-craving slaked, we got on with the business of getting out of here. Ousmane, our best friend at Ngor Lounge was proving a godsend. Boris’s right hand man, Ousmane was at work from dawn till dusk during the month we were there, mostly shifting rocks to build a new terrace below the restaurant. He seemed to be hewn from rock himself, with sinew formed through long hard labour and infinite patience.
When Big Reg’s right front wheel had a slow puncture, Ousmane helped Sampson and Zola get the pneu crevé off, so Sampson could take it to Top Pneus, where luckily it was revealed to be just a valve problem. “Good for another 6000km” apparently… thank dieu for our Continental tyres.
How can I express my heartfelt thanks to Consular Officer Claudinette Davies at the British Embassy in Dakar? It was she, back in January while we were in Sierra Leone, who agreed, via email, to be the receiving address for my renewed UK passport. Without it, we wouldn’t have made it beyond Senegal. I wasn’t allowed to take a photo of her inside the hallowed halls of the Embassy when I went to collect, but take it from me, she is a stunningly beautiful woman with a gorgeous smile! I am eternally grateful for the peace of mind we had, leaning on the very British aura of reliability she projected even from four countries away.
Sampson and I applied for extra-large passports before we left South Africa, but children are only entitled to the standard size with 20 pages. As we knew we had +/- 20 countries to pass through up the west coast, we thought that would suffice, especially as (because of a delay due to the Dept of Home Affairs losing Ruby’s SA passport application) we had to get our first Angolan, DRC and Congolese visas stamped in our British passports, and swapped back to using our SA passports in Gabon. So we thought there would be more than enough room left.
But one of the effects of the extended Ebola pandemic meant that Zola had entered Liberia three times, with two more pages than anticipated used up on full page visa stamps issued in London and Pretoria. At this point he had no more pages available in his passport, and Ruby had only one. As the South African Embassy in Dakar told us they were no longer issuing temporary passports, our only option to continue travelling as South Africans was to fly back to SA and apply for new ones from the Dept of Home Affairs, which could take anything from 6 weeks to 6 months. We couldn’t afford the time or the money to do that at this stage, so we had no choice but to transfer to our British passports. Suddenly the 3 years I had spent jumping through copious hoops to make sure we were all dual citizens before we left (testifying, amongst other things, that my toddler son “had no affiliation with terrorists”) were worth it.
What’s more, we had read in Kingsley Holgate’s book Afrika: Dispatches from the Outside Edge about the trouble his family had had as South Africans getting into Morocco. As SA is one of few countries in world to recognise the sovereignty of the occupied territory of Western Sahara, they were met with some hostility and forced to go back to Pretoria to get their visas. Now might be a good time to swap over.
So THANK JEHOVAH for Geoff Cann, the superhero we met in the Gambia who offered to courier for us, because without his help, I would not have received my British passport in time. I dread to think what mileage might have been made of me travelling as South African while the others moved on as British at the borders to follow…
The good news about onward travel, we found (on visiting the embassies of the next two countries en route) was that it was not possible to obtain a visa for Mauritania except at the border, and no visa was needed for British passport-holders into Morocco, alhamdoullilah! So we saved ourselves about a week’s to-ing and fro-ing right there.
The bad news was that an extension to our Senegalese visas (obtained in Bissau three months ago) might be free, but negotiating the hurdles of ridiculous bureaucracy needed to obtain it could take longer than any visa process so far. In fact it took five different visits and over a month. Thank God for the bakkie lent to us by LASA.
The first time we set out to find the Ministre de l’Interieur, the address listed on the internet proved not to exist. The second time, we headed to the Cité Police building where we had been told visa extensions are obtained from, only to be told you do indeed collect visa stamps from there (on Wednesday and Friday mornings only) but you have to submit your applications for an extension somewhere else. The next day we missioned right into the centre of town, and submitted a ‘letter of request’ plus supporting documents at the actual Ministry of the Interior. I was given a receipt chit, and told to go back to the Cité Police office the following Wednesday.
We did that, expecting to be issued with visa stamps, but no, this was just an opportunity to queue for an interview with another stuffed shirt upstairs in order to explore the reasons why we were still here. An hour and 45 mins later, an official report had been typed up, l-e-t-t-e-r-b-y-l-e-t-t-e-r in our presence and we were told we’d be telephoned with the outcome in a week, which was longer than the visa time we had left, but “not to worry we were in the system now”.
Three weeks later, we still hadn’t been phoned, so eventually I called them. Our application was still sitting on someone’s desk because our phone number hadn’t been transferred from the business card I’d submitted with the official report… I took the passports in to Cité Police, only to be told that the Director Who Approves was out, so I’d have to come back tomorrow to collect them with the long-awaited stamps in.
The reason the visa extension interview took so long (apart from his lack of typing proficiency and his tendency to have long cell phone conversations while the queue grew ever longer) was that M. Alioune Badara Ndoye was so interested to hear about our travels. He had been stationed in Cote d’Ivoire himself on service a few years ago. When he saw a magazine photo in our press file of the Big Green Truck in Lambaréné, he told us the fascinating story of how his marabout Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba was exiled there for many years for scaring the colonialists.
Cheikh Bamba didn’t preach directly against French rule but asserted firmly and patiently that a good Muslim’s only obligations were to obey God, to work to be self-sufficient and to follow the non-violent path of religion. He founded the brotherhood of the Mourides in 1883, and his gentle and fearless constancy inspired an increasing number of followers. His powerful poems preached pacifism and respect, with an emphasis on industriousness which was taken up by disciples such as Ibrahim Fall. Fall’s conceptualising of physical labour as prayer was to make Senegal an economic powerhouse in the early 20th century.
In 1887, Cheikh Bamba founded the holy city of Touba, which was intended to be a place that reconciled the spiritual with the temporal. This was considered incendiary enough for the colonial authorities to exile him to Gabon for 7 years, to Mauritania for another 5 and to keep him under house arrest in Senegal for the following 15. After being held captive for a total of 32 years, the French ended up giving him the Legion d’Honneur in 1919 in recognition of the number of soldiers he sent to fight for them in the First World War. Today, 40% of the population count themselves as Mourides, followers of his Sufi teachings, and the Grand Magal attracts more than a million pilgrims to Touba annually.
Cheikh Bamba’s godly principles are foundational to Senegalese Islam and among the reasons that we can feel relaxed when our 14 year old daughter ends up sobbing alone in a taxi. How can you be afraid when most of the car rapide drivers advertise their commitment to his compassion by emblazoning his name, the name of his holy city or his disciples above their windscreens?
The first indication I had of the central importance of marabouts (pronounced mara-boo) in the lives of the Senegalese was at Sendou, a little place we pulled off just south of Dakar to do some much-needed washing the weekend before we entered the city at the end of March.
Zola proved ridiculously naturally talented at juggling. On that first day, when he reached a rally of 11 he was so stunned, he looked over at his Dad and dropped his balls!
Meanwhile three young men passing stopped to speak to us. After some pleasantries, Osman told us this was a sacred place “where a great marabout of Senegal first prayed” although there was no sign to mark the spot. He led me to an indentation in a rock in the centre of the brick-lined boat shape that we had assumed was unfinished paddling pool: “This is where he put his knee.” He waved his hand to indicate the half finished place next door about 5m away: “His handprint is somewhere the other side of that wall.” I must have looked surprised. Osman nodded gravely, “He was very tall.”
They were pleased when I told Zola to move away from the holy place. They even thanked me for hearing them out. I should have been thanking them for not shouting at us and evicting us on the spot for desecrating a sacred space. I’m sure that might easily have happened elsewhere, but the Senegalese are far too gentle, and value teranga far too highly, to behave in so rude a fashion.
By the end of May the kids were at the end of term 2 already. It’s amazing how much you can get through when stuck in a garage for 3 weeks, and without typhoid holding your brains to ransom. They took only 7 weeks to complete 12 weeks’ work.
When Zola came to his final project in Natural Science, making a filter from a plastic bottle with sand layers in it, I said “Haven’t we done this before?” Then I realised he hadn’t, but I had – with Ruby, then halfway through Grade 6, three years ago when we started homeschooling the month before we left. Eeek. I’d come full circle.
Zola was spotted in the surf by a French journalist, who ended up interviewing the kids for ID magazine, Paris. This got to be a pattern over next couple of weeks – Zola was even asked to model for a video but turned it down. Give him another year or so…
Meanwhile, Mercury Retrograde had struck with a vengeance, leaving me without a laptop; by now I was doing shifts with Sampson on his, furiously resizing silly numbers of pictures taken in the Gambia, determined to catch up on the blog.
My hopes of ‘being in Dakar, writing about Dakar’ were fading, but if I could at least reach Dakar online before we left in the flesh, that would be something. After a succession of broken or stolen ipods, cameras and laptops we were down to the bare minimum of gadgets by now – one of each remaining.
Sampson started transferring the contents of the containers on the roof to the big Jojo tank for filtering the last of the palm oil. We had to use it up on the next leg because palm oil will solidify in the pipes in temperatures less than 17˚C, and desert nights could drop below that.
Zola was restless, talking about giving away his cars and his Lego; as his 12th birthday approached, I was sensing the end of an era. He was eating so much, and growing so fast, his hands and shoulders seemed to be expanding daily. On days I realised I was going to have a hard time getting him to focus and settle to school, I rather let him help his Dad – one day he lifted ten 20L containers of dirty oil up onto the roof and poured seven of them into the Jojo tank. There was a lot of water in it that needed to settle and be run off before filtering. It could take days at a time to sink right to the bottom.
By the time we left, we had one tank of palm oil and three tanks full of sunflower, soya and peanut oil collected from Dakar hotels, as well as 10 extra containers on the roof; 1000L in all. Sampson reckoned that should carry Big Reg the 3000km across the Sahara to Spain.
As Zola had taken over most of the weightlifting duties by now, so Ruby had taken over the handwashing. She is so much stronger than me, and was needing the exercise. She was also being very lovely and useful, quite often cooking and doing the weekly Casino shop to save my energy. Sampson would drop her at the supermarket every Friday while he was collecting waste oil from Radisson Blu and Terrou-Bi.
This kindness almost made up for her being so infuriating the rest of the time.
One day, Sampson and I stood in the loading bay behind the Radisson’s kitchens with Chief Steward M. Ndao having a meaningful chat in the carpark while waiting for the bidants of waste oil to be carried out. M. Ndao is a terrifically twinkly man, who gave you a sense of being both utterly reliable and great fun. In response to the Wolof greeting “Nanga def?” “How are you doing?”, he was explaining the meaning of “Mangi fi” which literally translates as “I am here” i.e. “I am present” rather than “I am fine”.
He postulated that these words make you thankful and aware of being alive compared to, for example, the man who died in the night. This frequent practice of gratitude points to the mindfulness of the Islamic prayer ritual, a five times daily commitment that lifts you out of your routine to acknowledge your presence in the present.
M. Ndao spoke of the tradition of African hospitality as another pillar of Islam; “giving whenever you can” makes you feel good and keeps you well and happy, as well as passing on positive vibes. That, he said, was why he and his team at Radisson Blu had made the effort to help us. Thank you M. Ndao for being such a shining example of a proud Muslim following the admirable teachings of the Quran and beaming such cheer on those around you.
This humility and foundational commitment to unselfish mutual assistance tangibly underpins every interaction in Dakar. I cannot tell you how seductive the spirit of ‘On Est Ensemble’ is, as it seeps into your everyday experience of the world, and you start to relax. What with the great waves and the perfect weather, Sampson summed up the attraction of life in Dakar for us: “To live without fear of sharks in the water… and to live without fear of sharks on the land.”
I would certainly find it more comfortable to live in a country with a lower GINI coefficient than South Africa, which boasts the highest gap in the world between rich and poor. Senegal may not be so rich, but it’s not poor either, and admirably stable and democratic. It ranks 158 on list ranking countries by their GDP per capita (SA came 89th of 185) and has a healthy tradition of civil society defiance as encapsulated in the Y En a Marre movement.
In Senegalese cities, it feels like everyone is struggling, but no one is starving. There are very few SUVs cruising about, and relatively few shacks. I like that. There isn’t the glaring inequality of Hout Bay and Imizamo Yethu, or Noordhoek and Masiphumelele, existing cheek by jowl with each other but on different planets. In Dakar, we’re all in it together. On est ensemble.
I just found out that ‘ngor‘ means ‘dignity’ in Wolof. Well, that settles it.
We got back to Ngor Lounge after our weekend away to discover that Ousmane’s baby had finally arrived! His son was born on Sunday 4pm after Ousmane had been up till 4am Saturday working at the wedding. We were invited to the baby naming ceremony the following weekend.
That weekend may have changed the course of my life.
Despite the undeniable onset of menopausal insomnia and hot flushes, I was feeling very happy. I was loving my mid-afternoon bissap tea, and perfecting my one chop bob haircut. This was the culmination of the no-frills policy I had instituted just before setting off on this trip, shaving my head to let the grey grow out knowing there would be no hairdressers available to touch up my roots every 6 weeks en route. I had it down by now: wet it, comb it, grab it flat at the nape, scissor it straight across. Not so much lazy as utilitarian. It felt so satisfying, constantly striving to distil my life to the bare minimum of maintenance and resource usage so I could focus my energy elsewhere.
On Friday 20th May, Sampson and I had a proper lunch date at Ngor Lounge. It was his first time out of an oil-stained T-shirt in weeks. Although he spent the morning on the roof, at 12 o’clock we were ensconced in a sea-shell-encrusted bower like proper adults having a proper adult conversation about where best to take Big Reg to spend our retirement: Durban or Mozambique, Penhale or Europe…
Nathan, our go-to guide for the weekend’s events, was recommending a visit to the intimate venue of Les Petits Pierres, the original underground collaborative art project of Erwan La Vigoureux.
We were missing out on a lot of stuff Nathan invited us to, firstly because Sampson’s back was bad and secondly because I was struggling to sleep 3 nights out of every 7 and thus not strong enough. I found myself constantly making excuses despite a smorgasborg of exciting events on during the Biennale. Eventually I had to explain that, being a ‘Spoonie’ (a person managing an immune dysfunction disease such as ME which severely undermines your energy) I can’t go out two days in a row, and late nights take me several days to recover from.
Amazingly, or perhaps not, Nathan’s Mom turns out to have been struggling with ME symptoms for the last 2 years, and we ended up striking up an email correspondence. She hasn’t been able to fly from Florida to visit him since she got ill and I hope I have been able to help him understand why.
Ruby wasn’t feeling well so we left the kids safely tucked up in the truck watching laptop TV and set off to Ouakam. Out on a Saturday night, just the two of us – I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened!
Les Petits Pierres is very Ruby in the Dust meets Scarborough/Kalk Bay vibes. It was an inside-out house wearing its heart on its sleeve.
Every wall was a mural, every nook and cranny held an artwork. Nathan had been present the night when the artist who decorated the wall behind the stage spontaneously got up and wrote his soul thoughts straight out in perfectly even handwriting.
An eclectic crowd of locals, Frenchies and Americans milled around a display of wooden sculptures in the rooftop garden. The guitarist who got up on stage downstairs sounded spookily like a French version of the bloke with the Brooklyn accent in Blk Sonshine. Ouakam 2016 suddenly felt very much like Obs 1996. We felt very at home.
After a lovely chat with Mina (before she left to get a nap in before her dancing gig at a posh nightclub at 2am), I was discussing potential SA/Seneglaese cultural collaborations with Nathan as Sampson was talking to Erwan about the possibility of doing a gig there. Suddenly we were excited about meeting like minds and building creative partnerships from this base.
Will I be able to hold onto this feeling if I’m not here? I know that the UK drained it all out of me, that sense of how easy it is to leap into another country and another life, to open yourself up to new challenges, to defy the slough of despond, to create something worth celebrating.
I’m not sure exactly when it was we realised we didn’t want to leave Dakar, and the feeling of ‘anything’s possible’ that it gives us. It was amazing to feel the same way about this city as I felt about Cape Town 20 years ago. More amazing was that all four of us felt it and all four of us wanted to carry on living here. Everything seemed to be opening up and full of potential. There was so much to do. Do you remember that Brand SA slogan Alive with possibility?
Somewhere along the way that got lost in South Africa – I’m not sure if it was me that lost that sense of ‘anything’s possible’, or the country. Did I just get old and cynical, or did constantly bashing my head against the brick wall of entrenched racism and entitlement wear me out?
Certainly I find the quiet dignity of the Senegalese a salve. There’s no need to trumpet black pride, it’s just there, the bedrock of all endeavour. Independent since 1960, flourishing, truly democratic – there’s no need for politicians to strut or bluster. Of course we are new to Dakar, naïve and ignorant of the subtleties of the contemporary political situation but it feels like there’s a lot less nonsense and it’s just a question of getting heads down to the work to be done to build the country, the city, the neighbourhood.
I found myself longing to bring my son up in an environment like this, where men who look like him hold their heads high, unbowed by the weight of our heavy history. Not to mention giving my daughter the chance to spend her teenage years feeling relatively safe from rape. It was all very tempting.
At one point I asked Nathan about the complicated handshake the musos were greeting each other with, lifting the back of each other’s clasped hand to their forehead in turn several times. He explained this was a Baye Fall greeting, an expression of ‘ziaar’ or loving respect. I found it’s intimacy very touching.
Things were just warming up and people were piling in as we left around 10.30pm. We thought this would be the last time we would see each other, so when we said goodbye Nathan said we must clasp ‘la main gauche’. He explained that when Senegalese use their ‘forbidden’ left hand to bid farewell to someone, it is because they are ensuring you will have to return to right this cultural taboo.
We missed the early Sunday morning baby naming ceremony, but were escorted by Alioune to the celebrations afterwards at Ousmane’s dad’s house in Mamelles. Ousmane came out to greet us, exhausted but resplendent in an ivory boubou and silver jewellery. On entering the house, each guest was brought a bowl of warm soft couscous porridge with creamy yoghurt and sugar.
Ousmane’s youngest daughter is very prepossessed. He complains he can’t do a thing with her, that she won’t be told by anyone, and is not to be cajoled. But I was impressed that on arrival all kids, no matter how young, would go round the room and greet all the adults respectfully by shaking hands. No one was let off for being shy or stroppy.
I got into conversation with an elder next to me who was very interested in the trip and immediately identified the whole point of it “Ah. Pas seulement pour découvrir la nature, mais aussi la connection à l’autre”. Exactly.
It was punishingly hot, so we went home for the afternoon to rest. I loaded a blog and fed myself safely before returning that evening. A marquee had been erected, and was now full of about forty women sitting round in their finery looking like Christmas, with a DJ pumping tunes. Compared to the Gambia, Senegalese women’s style is simultaneously more modest but sexier: skirts are longer, but more fitted and flattering. (Senegalese men and women tend to be ridiculously good looking. And every single fabric is gorgeous. This was markedly unlike Mauritania to follow…)
There were occasional flurries of dancing, with bouts of a Senegalese more chaste version of twerking – all the same moves, but in skirts to the floor. I was called to join, but didn’t feel well enough acquainted to bounce right in and own the dance floor. Ousmane, on the other hand, warned us he was about to have his moment – when he went on he brought the house down with his funky five minutes.
Once dusk fell, Ruby and I completed the Sampson contribution to the entertainment with a fire show. It was difficult because of the wind, so we called the kids outside into the lane and the adults had to crane over the wall. It’s safe to say we rounded off the night – Ruby’s firedance moves blew those boys’ minds away.
When we rejoined the party, we were called for an Official Photo with the family. We felt like honoured guests. Ousmane’s wife had changed into evening dress of rose pink and lots of gold jewelry with make up like a Hollywood starlet of the 1940s.
The main meal was served to around 100 people in the courtyard at about 8pm, noodles and spicy beef and onion stew on huge silver platters. Ousmane was sharing his with three other men: Lamin, his French brother-in-law Remi and another big feller. I couldn’t eat any because of the MSG so the Sampsons did well with a whole platter between just the three of them. We reflected the 20000FCA Sampson had slipped to Ousmane as a gift for the baby would barely cover the pineapple fizzy drinks given out to everyone at end.
We were all feeling so happy and welcomed. Sampson was sat back just grinning, loving the celebratory vibe; Ruby said it all felt so comfortable, as there was no drinking and no leering she felt completely safe; even Zola was relaxed and smiling with no one hassling him. As the crowd melted away, Ousmane sat outside on the kerb with Sampson and said, if we come back, he’s definitely going to sort out a house for us to live by him.
When we finally left, he offered Mark ‘la main gauche’. I just hugged him.