Thursday, 20 December 2012

A mixed week for shoes

This week started out badly. I have a pair of shoes that I love. They're the only pair of heels I can consistently walk in, especially on dirt roads where you really need a wedge, and they're red, and I love things that are red. And they've been with me a long time - I bought them in Cote d'Ivoire when I was 17 or so, and I've loved them ever since. They accidentally got left behind in Uganda when we moved back to the UK, and I made my parents find a way to rescue them. I really love these shoes, and they weren't even close to being worn out.

My beautiful shoes the way they're meant to look

But on Monday, I noticed that my beautiful shoes were sitting at an odd angle. Looking at them, I realised that the soles had been completely destroyed, making them totally unwearable and totally irreparable.

Seen from the side, the sole collapsing

A close up of its poor mauled sole :-(
I have no idea how this happened, but two working theories. One is insanely strong floor cleaning equipment, and the other is ants, which were crawling all over them when I first noticed. I suppose it could also be both.
 Either way, I am sad. I realise it's only a pair of shoes, but beautiful red shoes that I love and can walk in don't come along too often, and sometimes it's the little things that hit you worse than the big things. Christmas away from home I can deal with. A lost pair of shoes, even a pair of shoes that was old for a pair of shoes and widely travelled and so had had a good life, much better than most pair of shoes.... that really hurts.

Luckily, this week had some slightly better news on the shoe front. While buying a handbag from a very talented leather-worker, I noticed he also sold shoes. I asked if he took orders and he said he did - so I picked a pair where I liked the style and asked him to make them with a red upper and a neutral sole, rather than green and black, the original colours. I stood on a piece of paper and he traced my feet, and four days later I picked up my shoes.

My new shoes... as you can see from the colour scheme, my taste hasn't changed much in the last decade!
This is my shoe guy's handbag shop. Any takers?

 I would definitely give up my new shoes and much more to have my old shoes back, but it's still pretty cool that I live in a country where I can get leather shoes made-to-measure for the price of a cheap pair of ballet pumps in the UK.

Monday, 17 December 2012


Normally in Bamako on the weekend we go to a party or out for dinner. But this time we decided to do something a bit different - we went to the Tuareg Cultural Centre for a fashion show and concert. Once we got there we found we'd been misinformed - not a fashion show, but a play, and then a concert. But it was still a wonderful opportunity to step into another world.

Outside, the centre is unpreposessing - it's a metal door with a small awning, with 'Tumast' written in Roman and Tamazigh script. But inside you step into a huge mauritanian style tent - not really a tent, actually it has a thatched roof, but the cloth walls and the leatherwork and silver and other Tuareg symbols that make up the walls give it that feel straight away. There's no alcohol, but we had shots of the strong Sahel tea, and as we were the first people there - only half an hour late, rather than an hour and a half, like everyone else, we had some brochettes with the director. He told us a little about the centre, how it had grown from twenty years ago when only a handful of Tuareg families lived in Bamako, rather than the hundreds there now, and a lot about about his interactions with journalists. Particular ire was reserved for La Nouvelle Observateur, whose journalist allegedly claimed to have met the MNLA there.

After eating, we made our way back to the tent, where other people had started to arrive, and curled up on seats around the back ready for the show. When it came, I didn't follow all of it, but what I did follow was funny, about an inept king and his equally inept advisors, and the mix of French and little Tamazigh interjections was fun to listen to. Then, after the show, the concert began, a group down from Kidal, playing exiled music, banned by Ansar Dine in their homeland.

Sitting in the back of the tent, watching the music and the people, I felt like a child at a wedding - curled up in a corner, watching the grownups in the beautiful clothes, safely invisible. First two people, then many more, got up to dance, women and men in rows opposite one another, moving slowly to the music, all in the most amazing costumes. For the men: boubous and some in turbans, and for the women: some in Bazin boubous - a Bamako style - but lots in the more traditional Tuareg costume, consisting, for women, of a long, transparent piece of cloth wrapped an improbable number of times around the body and somehow held in place over the head. I have one from when my family visited Tamanrasset, in Algeria, which I use to cover a chair, but when I've tried, a few times, to wear it the way they do I've always failed to figure out how it works.

Too many people over-romanticise the Tuareg - wild blue men of the desert, and all that - but it's very, very easy to do.

Friday, 14 December 2012


One of the things that's interesting about living in Mali is that it's totally changed my perspective of Africa.

Normally we're used to talking about 'Sub-Saharan' Africa, which includes Mali. But Mali isn't really sub-Saharan. Bamako is, and the south is, but a lot of the north, the part that's occupied and causing all the trouble right now - that part is definitely Saharan, and the difference matters a lot when you start thinking about the dynamics of the conflict here.

Traditionally, those of us in Europe think of deserts as a blockage. Of course I knew they aren't really, any more than seas are. Back when I was writing my undergraduate thesis, focusing on Early Islamic North Africa, I spent a lot of time reading about continuity in the cross-Sahara trade routes. So 1500 years ago there was a thriving trade across the desert in goods such as salt, gold, and slaves. Nowadays the goods have changed, but the routes still exist - transporting migrants, drugs, and smuggled cigarettes, among other things. So northern Mali, and hence southern Mali, has always been connected to the world to the north.

Even more important than the economic link to the north is the political link. When I was about 13, my family was based in Algeria. There, we faced a threat from the south - an Islamic militant group called the GIA. The GIA were nasty, carrying out massacres of civilians, but through the 90s they lost popular support and suffered defections following an amnesty law, and gradually they were eclipsed by a splinter group, the GSPC. The GSPC were mainly active kidnapping westerners for ransom, attacking Algerian security forces, and smuggling. In 2007 they formally affiliated with al-Quaeda as Al Quaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), and they are now active in northern Mali, bits of Niger, and bits of Mauritania.

So the rebel group that we worried about from the north in the late 90s is the same one that we're worrying about from the south now. Algeria, with it's powerful security apparatus and it's long border with Mali, is a major player in the planning over what to do in the north - and their policy is based largely on the implications of the conflict on 'their' rebel group and their border.

So thinking of Mali as 'sub Saharan Africa' makes no sense at all. In some ways it's disconcerting - it throws an assumption into question, and suddenly I feel like I'm expected to know about North Africa - even though THAT'S THE MIDDLE EAST, NOT REAL AFRICA! What do you MEAN it's important and I should learn about it?!

But there's something about it that makes me feel connected - the thought that rather than having followed this conflict for six months, I've been following a part of it for years. I feel like I understand part of the background a little better than I otherwise might. As an historian, I instinctively look to explain events with reference not only to current tensions, but also to past events and long term currents, and I'm sceptical of stories that seem simple - such as, for example, seeing AQMI as only Al Quaeda. I'm troubled by the short term explanations that are all the analysis we have time for, with nothing prior to the last five years or so considered, but I lack the knowledge of Mali to do even that properly. It's why I read as much anthropology as I can get my hands on - histories of African societies are often hard to come by, but anthropology is much more plentiful, which is in itself pretty telling, but definitely a can of worms too far for today. Having even a little background on the trajectory of even one of the active groups makes me feel a little less rootless, and a little more at ease, in the context I'm transplanted into.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

All of a sudden, Mali exists

Obviously it always existed. I haven't been suspended in space for these past months. But suddenly, the English-speaking media seems to have noticed. Obviously I always keep an eye out for Mali-related news, but suddenly there seems to be a lot more of it, and not just in the places I would expect to find it (IRIN, ReliefWeb, Reuters, African Arguments, etc).

Yesterday I noticed this piece, on boat owners in Mopti, on the front page of the BBC world news page. Then today the BBC was on Mali again, talking about the arrest of a French national trying to travel to the North. From the links at the bottom of the page it seems like there are quite a few stories on Mali, but when I open them and look at the dates it works out as about 1 per month since the coup, so two in a week is a definite uptick.

Then there's this week's Economist, which has not one but two stories on Mali. A leader, entitled 'Terror in the Sahel', and a more detailed article (highly recommended for an intro to Mali) that discusses the different rebel groups. Again, it's not the first time it's come up in the magazine, but being elevated to leader status seems to show a new interest, and previous articles seemed to care more about Mali's cultural heritage than about it's people.

As for other papers... there have been a few articles in the Guardian, a lot of them colour pieces about Mali's music, but a gradually increasing number of actual news pieces (e.g. French drones, refugees in Mopti, a good profile of Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali, and the shocking news that the Nigerian army might not be totally equipped to fight in the desert). The Telegraph has a few articles - roughly one a fortnight for the past couple of months - but they're all about the Mali-as-AQ-haven-bombs-in-London angle - they explain why it's important, not what's actually happening, until the last couple of weeks, when they have articles on Clinton in Algeria and Ansar Dine's moves towards peace talks. Only the FT has been covering Mali in any detail for a while, generally with very good very detailed articles..

So in a few media, it seems like suddenly everyone's interested in Mali. The coverage is pretty good - there are some holes, with most media focusing on Ansar Dine and AQIM rather than MUJAO/MUJWA, but that makes sense because MUJWA is a much more confusing group to analyse than Ansar Dine or AQIM. They also don't mention many of the underlying dynamics*, preferring to focus on the basic facts: 'Armed groups affiliated to Al Quaeda took over the north and now there are plans for a military intervention'. But I wouldn't really expect that to be in the news - that's what African blogs, Crisis Group reports, and academic papers are for.

So why is Mali suddenly in the news? I guess the short answer is that there might be about to be a war, supported by France (a lot), the US (a lot) and the UK (a bit) - so the Libya coalition again. So it's gone from being a bit of local bother in a faraway country, only interesting insofar as it might lead to bombs in London, to part of a wider question around response to the wars that have followed the Arab Spring and the debate around liberal interventionism. But living here, following it for months, it's kind of weird that 'my' crisis is becoming mainstream. My response to reading most of the articles I've linked to was 'well, duh?', which is fair enough because I'm not the target readership. They're not wrong, they're just simplistic. But on the whole, if you read the articles, you'd have a good basis of what's going on in Mali, which is really all you can ask for. On the other hand, without the context, they feel oddly suspended, and the Mali described in the articles isn't the Mali I live in.

So I am a bit resentful of the media because I think Mali isn't getting a fair representation. But what I really worry about is the impact of the media. From a fundraising perspective, publicity is good. If Mali is in the public eye, there will be pressure on governments to donate, and the public will likely donate as well, which will make my job easier if the expected military intervention leads to the expected massive humanitarian crisis. But what if the media influences decision makers in a particular direction - one that may not be the right one for the complex environment of Northern Mali? Perhaps focusing on military intervention at the expense of the longer-term development aid, local peacebuilding, and attempts to address the drugs trade that the region needs? The instincts of most of the international community push them in a 'high politics' direction anyway, and away from development or peacebuilding - so what if the media starts reinforcing this prejudice? If it is on the American policy radar, does that mean we'll see drone strikes? Drone strikes are probably not good, though probably less bad in the Malian desert than in the Pakistani highlands.

I don't mean that the high politics/intervention approach is wrong - I definitely don't know enough about Mali to have the right to a theory - or that media interest is bad -not my area either. And public attention will be invaluable if there is a refugee crisis we need to respond to. But somehow I can't quite shake a sense of unease, and I can't figure out if it's because I'm being protective, or because I actually have a reason to worry.

*e.g. AQIM is loaded because of kidnap ransoms paid by western governments, which is a pretty good argument in favour of the UK policy of never paying ransoms. Northern Mali has long been a route for drug smugglers crossing the Sahara, which is both a source of income and a source of local conflict. Tuareg rebellions have been a fairly regular occurence over the last 20 years - so clearly the underlying issues leading to these rebellions are not being addressed. And the north has been basically ignored by a Bamako government that was such a corrupt shell that it collapsed at the smallest push in March. And the current government is a shaky transitional arrangement with many competing factions and limited public support.

Monday, 5 November 2012


One of the major features of Mali life has been the curfew. It's now been lifted to midnight, but for my first few weeks here it kept me trapped at home every evening, with nothing to do but watch my way through the whole of Dr. Who. Which got dull after a while.

I did a lot of reading, but after a while even that started to get old. So I decided I needed a project, something to keep my brain ticking over. The solution: Coursera. Coursera is a free website, where you can take short, not-for-credit courses produced by major universities around the world, especially the American Ivy League schools. The lectures are posted online as videos, and then depending on the course there are often assignments, either multiple-choice quizzes, or short essays which are marked by a peer grading system - you submit your essay, then the next week you grade five other people's essays, and your result is the average of those results. I've been considering doing something with the OU, but I'm concerned about the money and long-term commitment, so this seemed like a great way to test the water.

I started out by signing up for a ten-week course in Greek and Roman Mythology, run by a chap called Dr Peter Struck at UPenn, which I'm currently just over halfway through. Each week there are about 90 minutes worth of lectures, plus texts to read ranging from the enormous (half of the Odyssey) to the short (the Oedipus tragedies). Then there's a weekly quiz and two essays over the course - all in all it's been taking about six hours per week. The readings have been interesting - mainly forcing me to read things I've wanted to read for ages anyway - and the lectures have been interesting and relevant. One of the best parts is the online forum, where the thousands of students have started threads discussing different aspects of the text - I've learned as much from those as from the lectures. The Mali bandwidth means I have to be a bit organised with the lectures - usually I start them downloading on Monday evening, go to the gym, then watch them later in the week - but that's not too much of a problem.

As for the assignments - they're surprisingly similar to being at a real uni. The multiple choice quizzes I mainly guess, a strategy that has so far been successful, and I started writing the essay at 9pm on a Sunday night (it was due midnight US East Coast time). Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Luckily, my carefully-honed last-minute essay-writing skills haven't deserted me, and I ended up with a pretty good score considering that the entire process took about an hour.

One of the odd things about it is how it's worked as a mental trick. The course doesn't matter, at all. It doesn't matter if I fail (obviously it does, because that would condemn me to a life of mediocrity... but it doesn't matter *really*). But since I'd signed up and committed to it, I've been making sure to do all the readings (well, most of the readings...), and doing things like listening to lectures at 7am on a friend's sofa the morning after my friend's wedding in Canada, because I didn't want to fall behind. Because once I've committed to something, I feel like I need to do it, even if I don't really. So it's functioned as a trick to make me learn things I want to learn anyway. And best of all, I'm excited to listen to the lectures (yes, I'm a loser), so I've got more efficient at work and am making myself leave earlier, which is a double win.

It's also been interesting as a way to identify friends. One of the things people ask one another here is 'what do you do with yourself in the evenings'. When your answer is 'well, I'm doing this online course in Greek Mythology', people split into two camps: 'AWESOME, what a great idea', and 'huh?'. If you say 'Awesome', then you mark yourself out as a geek like me, and someone I want to be friends with. And even if I didn't find anyone, I'd have learned loads of really interesting things about Greek and Roman Mythology, which makes me cool... right?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012


So this weekend was Tabaski - the Malian word for Eid-al-Adha. Eid-al-Adha is the Muslim festival celebrating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son on God's command - for which he was rewarded by being given a sheep to sacrifice instead.

To commemorate this, every year sheep are slaughtered, with a prayer said as they are killed, and the meat eaten, with a portion given to the poor. The wider festival involves families visiting, sharing the meat, eating more meat. So to summarise: it's a big deal, and a lot of meat is eaten by all.

In the run up to Tabaski, the streets become gradually more and more full of sheep. You'll be driving along, and suddenly you have to stop because there's a herd of sheep in the way - think driving in the country in Wales, only in a city, and you get what I mean. And when you ask people about it, they're all excited, and you can't help getting excited too, even if it isn't your festival.

And this time, I was in luck - a colleague invited me to hers for some sheep. As I spent Eid-al-Fitr eating in a fairly depressing Chinese restaurant because it was all that was open, I jumped at the chance, and on Tabaski morning up I jumped to go across town to hers. Sadly, there was traffic, so I missed the actual sheep killing, but I ate a lot of sheep, which was good, and it was great to be part of it. By the evening, it was party time - huge queues outside all the clubs, and everyone out dancing and celebrating.And by the next day it was quiet, with only the massive, expensive sheep that no-one can afford to buy left standing - and the tiny ones, which people buy to bring up ready for next year.

Of course, because it's Mali, it has to be political too. A few taxi drivers complained that sheep were more expensive this year because of the crisis in the north. At first I assumed it was just taxi driver moaning (because some things are the same everywhere) but I asked a couple of colleagues about it, and it turns out it's true. A lot of the sheep come from the North, and the traders can't get down, so it's pushed prices up in the capital. And on top of that, the drought killed hundreds of animals - pushing prices up further. So prices are up by about 50%, and on top of everything that's hit people this year, a lot more of them can't afford a sheep. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Ways I Might Die in Mali

Since our security advisor imposed the totally unnecessary curfew, we've been spending some time listing the ways we are actually most likely to die in Mali. I thought I'd share them. Spoiler: 'Jihadi attack' and 'road block death' aren't there.

1. Car accident
By far the most likely

2. Hit by car while walking by road.
There aren't really pavements, so this is definitely feasible. Also they don't indicate, and they swerve a lot. And I look the wrong way when I cross the road. Clearly I'm doomed.

3. Falling in a hole
There are a lot of holes in the street, mainly drainage channels/sewers as well as giant potholes. Walking back from the gym at night, with no lighting, I'm often genuinely concerned that I'll fall in a hole and die.

4. Infection
Possibly related to 3. If I fall in a hole, I'll probably survive the fall (the holes aren't that big), but the foul smelling black crap at the bottom of the hole/ditch would probably not be good for me.

5. Breaking my neck falling down a hill at the hash
Some of the hares like to have us run down rough-cut steps. Some time, someone's going to break their neck.And given my current fall rate, it'll probably be me.

6. Electrocution
Someone in the Dakar guesthouse was nearly killed by a live wire coming in contact with, of all things, a sunshade. It's worse here. The other day I unplugged the washing machine and the entire plug came out of the wall. Then I looked down and realised the water pipe had overflowed and I was standing in a pool of water. Holding disconnected wiring. Realise that I've had time to have all these thoughts and am not dead, so live wires probably aren't in contact with the water. Put down wiring on top of washing machine, back away slowly...

7. Malaria
This should probably have gone higher, but I'm taking prophylaxis for the moment

8. Drowning
Drunk people + pool parties = dangerous

9. Flipping off the bridge
In a famous Bamako incident, three Americans were in a car with three prostitutes crossing the bridge (at 3am?). The car flipped, went off the bridge, and they all died. It turns out there's an uneven road surface that, when you hit it fast, means that this happens quite often. Although luckily the traffic's bad enough that hitting it fast isn't usually an option.

10. Level crossing
The taxis stop in traffic halfway across a level crossing. In Kampala someone was killed doing that a few years ago, and it always freaks me out.


11. Zombies
I haven't found a good zombie plan for Bamako yet - no location that has both access to water and food, and is defensible. If there's a zombie apocalypse I think my best bet would be to die in the first wave, rather than have my suffering prolonged.

A little morbid perhaps, but kept us entertained for an evening...

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bug season!

I just got back to Mali from leave, and it turns out that it's Bug Season!

The rainy season is receding into the past, the hills around Bamako are getting steadily browner, and the air is dustier.But the main change is that there are bugs EVERYWHERE.

There have always been ants. But now there are more, and they're bigger, and they have NO FEAR. I was reading on my sofa in my living room last night, only to find massive (luckily non-bitey) ants crawling ALL OVER ME.

Then a step up from the giant ants, there are big black hoppy things (technical term). They're about the size of my thumb, and they regularly launch themselves at me from the other side of my office. You don't know shock until you're merrily writing a report only to find yourself pelted with massive black insects seemingly intent on flying into your face.

Then there are the grasshoppers and criquets pelerins (locusts) making their annual pelerinage from north to south. Those don't fly into you as much, but they are still everywhere. Apparently there are more than usual this year - normally they wipe them all out in their Libyan breeding grounds, but this year people in Libya have been a bit busy and didn't get round to the extermination. Luckily they don't seem to have destroyed too many crops - for a while, we were worried that after the war and the food crisis, the locusts would be next - possibly followed by the river of blood, the frogs, and the death of the first-born son.

Anyway, having been eagerly anticipating the cooler weather, I now have lesser dreams. I just want to be able to sit in my office without enormous bugs flying into my face, and on my sofa without being covered with a swarm of ants.

Friday, 21 September 2012

How to tell if you live in a conflict-affected country

There are a lot of signs you can use to tell if you live in a conflict affected country. For example:

Are there lots of checkpoints manned by people in uniform? Check
Is there occasionally violence in town? Check
Demonstrations? Check
Security threats against expatriates? Check
Increasing amounts of firearms in circulation and violent crime? Check
Curfew? Check

But despite all that, Bamako doesn't feel like it's in a conflict-affected country. t's overwhelmingly safe to travel around the town, and although there are demos and security threats at the moment, that has a lot more to do with 'that' video than anything to do with the war.

But today, I had a real sign that I'm living in a conflict affected country: being asked out by a 'security contractor' old enough to be my father.

I was in the gym, biking away, and a large man with an American accent asked me if I spoke English, and when I said I did, he asked me where the remote for the a/c was. Then said how nice it was to meet someone who spoke English because "here, you never know"*.

Anyway, once he'd worked out that he could talk to me, there was no stopping him. Lots of polite chitchat about where we were from, then this:

Me: so what do you do out here
Him: I'm a contractor
Me (trying not to sound suspicious): That's interesting. What kind of contractor.
Him: Security.
Me (trying not to sound judgemental): Oh?
Him: Yes, training.
Me: Oh. Right.
Him: Of course with all this in the north...
Me (trying not to sound too interested): Yes?
Him: so what did you say you did again?
Me (internally): damn, just as it was getting interesting

Now I don't know what he's doing, but I don't really need to. What I do know is that being chatted up by over-muscled security contractors that are far too old for me** is a cast-iron sign that I'm back. Hello countries in conflict. It's been a while. But you knew I wouldn't leave you forever, right?

*No Mr Security Contractor, you don't - you're already doing pretty well with the fact that most people already speak some of a second language. French. Not really fair to expect English as well. 

**to be clear, I said no. Actually I said that I would be in Kayes next week and then on leave. But hopefully that translates as no...

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Rainy Season Ended

A week and a half ago, the rainy season ended. And I really mean ended. It didn't phase out or anything - one day it was chucking it down every day, then one day it just stopped. And it hasn't rained since.

And so the city is back to where it was in May. The muddy streets are dusty again. The air isn't clear any more - there's a dust haze gradually rising. The green on the hills is fading - although it's hard to tell if that's because the plants are dying or if it's because the dust is blocking them out.

And it's getting hot. Not crazy hot like it was in May, but still low 30s and nothing in the way of breeze to cool it down. And there's none of that fresh feeling we get when it rains - just thick, hot air. Fewer pretty sunsets too, as the dust blocks them, and no more spectacular fork lightening across the sky.

So - there was a brief, shining moment... and then more dust.

At the hash, we're still running, but it's just a lot less nice than it was - it's hot and I'm sure one day I'll drop dead with dehydration.

On the plus side, there's no mud any more, and I don't have to walk through a lake to get to work. And it's easier to get a taxi because there's less competition and the ones missing windscreen wipers can stay in action.

But I miss the nice clean dust free air :-(

Apparently by mid-November it'll get as cool as the low 20s though, so that's something to look forward to.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Crisis - the Radio Programme!

For the last couple of evenings, I've been listening to 'Crisis', a radio drama made by (BBC) Radio 4 about aid workers, in honour of World Humanitarian Day. For those of you not familiar with the concept, World Humanitarian Day takes place on August 19th, the anniversary of the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, and commemorates humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in the course of their work.

The BBC are generally good adaptors, but on the other hand I've seen what they (and other TV and radio channels) have done to other professions (see the well known documentaries 'Casualty', and 'the Archers', for example), so there was no reason to suppose mine would be any better represented. So my expectations were mixed. On the other hand, there was no way I was missing it!

So far I've listened to episodes 1 and 2, and I was pleased to discover that at least some of it seemed familiar - especially the human stuff about 'but I have to go to a difficult post to get on' and the lack of mutual comprehension between regional/country office type people and lunatics who want to spend all their time in tiny bases in the middle of nowhere. I'd like to think that sending someone who, we are told, doesn't know what she's doing, to a sub-office is unlikely, but experience suggests otherwise, and anyway, the idea that NGOs do do that is kind of the premise underpinning my career plan, so... well...

Episode two they started to race through the stereotypes: the drunken expat, frustrations with staff members, confused beneficiaries, issues with violence and the rains, fighting the centre for resources, the corrupt local offical. Although to be fair to the BBC none of those stereotypes are exactly without foundation, I slightly regretted not making myself an aid worker stereotype bingo card beforehand.

Other parts were less familiar. It may surprise people to know that I do not in fact have legions of colleagues traumatised by kidnap experiences, although I suppose most of my colleagues also aren't interesting enough to feature in radio programmes, so the fictional heroine of a radio programme will by definition be more interesting than the rest of us. There was also something misleading about the whole 'expat in danger' premise of the story - I get that it has to be accessible, but local staff make up by far the biggest proportions of aid workers killed (by something like ten to one) - although admittedly there were some nasty kidnap incidents in Darfur, so they're being accurate there at least.

What I think jarred most though, was that the way in which aid work was depicted seemed so different from what we try to do. Admittedly I'm working on a food crisis, not a rapid onset refugee crisis, but the premise seems, so far, to be: poor Africans helpless, local staff unable to prioritise, expat (white girl?) saves the day. Which is a view of aid we're trying *not* to propagate. And they make it all seem so easy: oh this camp has no water. In that case, we'd better drill a borehole. Whereas a lot of the time it's an awful lot more complicated than that - where does the borehole go, what about sanitation, what about food. And even more complicated when you get to slow onset stuff like a food crisis - where working out who to help and what they most need is a lot more complicated than 'this camp has no water. let's drill a hole'. That said, to be fair to the BBC, it may be a bit much for them to convey the complexity of the entire aid industry in five 15-minute episodes, and the logistical nightmare of moving stuff around was well captured.

So overall, I'd probably give it an 8 or so out of 10. Not sure if I can be bothered to listen to the rest - being rather familiar with aid worker stereotypes, it felt a lot like I'd heard it before - but if you haven't heard it before and want to, I'd recommend it.

Anyone else got any thoughts?

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Bamako in the Rainy Season

So, after my lovely holiday in the UK, it was back to work. Not Dakar, as before, but back to Bamako. The Funding Coordinator job fell vacant again, so I was asked to come back, and despite mixed feelings (short version: more interesting job in Bamako vs amazing quality of life in Dakar), I agreed.

The good news is though, that in the two months I've been away, Bamako is transformed. I realise the moment I arrive, stepping out of the aeroplane and waiting for the wall of soul destroying heat to hit me... not feeling it... taking a cautious step forward... still not feeling it... and practically skipping as I realise that that's because there is no wall of heat!

Where before it was 40 degrees, now it's in the high 20s or low 30s, which feels fresh in comparison - even cool enough to run outside. The rain is frequent enough that there's less dust. And the hills surrounding the city, which before were barren, brown and shrouded in dust have erupted in green. The little gardens near Oxfam's new guesthouse are pushing up vegetables like no tomorrow. And above it all, the sky is still blue, except for the few days when it rains, when it's grey and dramatic.

So mostly it's warm and humid and sunny, and sometimes the clouds gather and the heavens open. And when the heavens open, they really open - great pelting raindrops that soak you through in seconds. There's not much to be done except wait it out - umbrellas are pointless against the force of the rain, taxis all leak and don't have windscreen wipers so it's not a good idea, and fun as it is to frolic 'Singing in the Rain' style, walking would be a disaster - not only would you get soaked, but flood-induced electrocution is one of my new fears, and more realistically the raging torrents down each street mean that it would be easy to fall into the drainage ditch - which wouldn't be much fun.

And so, when it rains, Bamako shuts down. The other day we were out in it trying to go to the market, which was anyway closed (though now I know what Bamako will look like in the early stages of a biblical flood, which is always interesting, so the trip wasn't wasted), and passed a flock of motorbikes huddled under each bridge, allowing just a small space for cars to squeeze through. That car was more or less solid from the top down (just a couple of drips) and had a windscreen wiper, but the water was rising steadily through the floor, even when we weren't driving through mini lakes, so I was glad to get out of it.

Once the rain stops though, it's glorious. 20-odd degrees, crisp and fresh. And surrounded on all sides by green. It's something I could get used to, but sadly I won't have the chance - this goes on till mid-September, and then the heat starts again.

For now though, the transformation is total - not something we see in our green country, where it rains all year so it's always green, and dust is a rarety. I think this is why after all this time and all this packing, I still love travel - this is a side of nature that I've read about, that I understand in theory, but which I haven't really experienced before, and which, experiencing it, takes me by surprise by how literally miraculous it feels. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

I went on holiday!

I just got back from 2 weeks of holiday back in the UK. I'd been away three and a half months by then, and I had tickets for the final day of the rowing at the olympics, and there was no way I was missing THAT, so off I went.

All in all it was wonderful to be home. The weather was good, and the UK in summer (where there is a summer) is a very nice place. I drank lots of tea and lots of ale, and ate lots of pub dinners. And lots of Olympics. Started with an opening ceremony party at Emma's, complete with torch relay against the other flats and me breaking my toe in a particularly competitive egg-and-spoon race. Then the cycling road race on Putney High St - amazing in it's combination of the everyday ('I'm on Putney High St. I used to row near here. That's where I used to shop') and the amazing ('Holy Crap there are flags everywhere! And those people are going so damn fast! And COME ON CAV'). Then the gymnastics at the O2 - spectacular and fascinating, and a legitimate opportunity to perv at underage men in lycra with massive guns. Then a morning at the big screen in Hyde Park to watch some athletics and some rowing.

And lastly, and best off all, the rowing at Dorney, again combining the everyday with the amazing - the day before I was practically skipping, and odd to think I was excited about going to Dorney. Normally I hate Dorney! And I was going to Dorney on the train not in a car full of rowers and smelly wet rowing kit. And when I got there I wasn't going to lie in a front loader, being soaked, but instead to watch the best rowers in the world compete. And it didn't disappoint - of course we got soaked, but what would a trip to Dorney be without getting soaked, and it gave us an opportunity to one up one another about 'the wettest I've been at Dorney'. And we ran into a few people we knew, of course. It started with the minor finals, which was fun because we could all see things they were doing wrong, before building up to the real finals - where we watched Team GB win two Golds and a Silver, including Golds for two people in the men's four who we all knew slightly from Oxford boatie-ing.

Generally as well the country had a different spirit - everyone was so happy, and there was flags everywhere. In the US and Israel I found this creepy, I think because they were there all the time, but as an unusual outburst of patriotism and realisation that actually our country could put on a pretty good show and could be actually pretty good at sport and hey even the weather was fine, all coupled with the knowledge that in a week or two we'll be back to our normal, grumbly selves, it didn't seem so uncomfortable. And as a returning exile delighted by everything I found in my homeland ('It's so GREEN!' 'Aren't pubs the most wonderful cosy homey things in the WORLD!' 'Gosh it's so easy to travel around here, the distances are so manageable' 'Aren't our old buildings so PRETTY!' 'Yes, yes I do want another cup of tea'), it suited my mood exactly.

When I wasn't Olympic-watching I spent a lot of time (though never enough) with friends - some of whom I barely saw when I lived in the UK, because there's something about being back for a short time that makes you pull your finger out and see people, rather than assuming that you can see them whenever so never bothering. I even ran into a few randomly - Alex from Pembroke in Cardiff, Rob from Georgia at the Olympics, and Mishi from Geneva in Oxford. Apparently the UK is a very small place - who knew? Anyway, lots of catching up was done by all, and I left much reassured that I will still have friends when I go home.

Picking up on the politics was fun too - what's happening at the ERS, what's happening with the local Lib Dems, and how Labour in Oxford are introducing mental plans to screw over people in multiple occupancy houses, which in the case of Oxford is basically everyone under about 40. Sad not to be there to help fight it, but sure they'll do something equally daft again, so I'll have future opportunities.

All in all then, there were two things that made it a wonderful holiday - picking up the threads of my life, and experiencing the UK in a way that I never have before and will never have the chance to do again. Which couldn't really have been much better.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Isles Madeleines

On Sunday, I got the boat to the Isles Madeleines, off the coast of Dakar. Dakar's more an 'experience' place than a 'things to do' place, and this was one of the few 'things to do' that I hadn't yet done, so when someone suggested it I jumped at the chance.

To get there, you go to the beach-where-they-bring-in-the-fish-next-to-the-market-for-the-tourists. It has an actual name, but I don't know what it is, but those instructions have always worked for me. You used to be able to get there on a legit boat, but after the national parks killed a fisherman there a few years ago while he was fishing illegally, the trips were stopped. So instead, you find a fisherman willing to take you over in his pirogue.

Ride negotiated, we got into the pirogue. On clapping eyes on it, I wouldn't sure we'd all fit (we were a group of 14), and considered refusing to go, but in the end I decided that they weren't so far out that I couldn't swim back if I needed to so it was worth the chance. Packed in, we chugged through the sea, with unexpectedly large waves throwing the boat around, and the bottom getting steadily fuller with water. I was with Elena, who was on the trip to Lac Rose, and we were literally clinging to one another till we got there.

Happily, we arrived safe, rounding the islands - volcanic rocks thrown out of the sea with a white frosting courtesy of the birds - and entering a small lagoon in the centre. We piled out onto the beach, explored a little, had a picnic, had a swim, then Elena and I headed off to explore. From the other side of the island you could see across to Dakar - but felt a million miles away. We climbed down to a tiny beach with massive breakers chasing us up onto the rocks, and with a baobab stretched out along the cliff seeking soil. Scrambling back up, we carried on around, climbing onto rocky outcrops and finding an abandoned building, with a yard and more baobabs.

Eventually we'd got all the way round, looking down on our friends in the lagoon, before scrambling down the rocks to walk around the base of the lagoon, getting back round to the beach for a nice cooling swim and some madeleines for the Isles Madeleine.

Later, we piled back into the pirogue and headed home. Somehow it wasn't as scary this time, though I'm not sure the waves were much smaller. Then my friend gave me a lift home, and I spent the evening reading Dickens and having a glass of wine. Perfect Dakar day, and I couldn't have asked for a better for my last Sunday in Senegal.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Empathy and Riches

Yesterday I read an article in New York magazine summarising a number of studies suggesting that richer people and people who've been primed to be more money oriented are less empathetic, possibly because being rich makes people feel important and thus less likely to empathise with poorer people.

The article was interesting, and spoke to a lot of the debates at the moment about high corporate salaries, inequality, poor social mobility, and so on. But fear not, this isn't going to turn into a pro-Occupy screed, although I can do that too. It actually niggled at me because it fed into one of the things that's wierdest about being out here - that here, I'm rich.

In the UK, I've got used to being not poor, but certainly only just comfortable. In Oxford I biked rather than getting the bus to save money, I only bought clothes in charity shops, I had two jobs, I made packed lunches, I lived in a house where we crammed lots of people in to keep the rent down, and whenever I went to the supermarket it would take ages because I had to compare the prices of everything to get the cheapest thing (including occasionally going to multiple supermarkets. Fun fact: in Headington, if you get Waitrose Essentials it's often cheaper than the Co-op and it doesn't fund the Labour party).

Here, I'm loaded to a level that is ridiculous. I still spend ages in the supermarket looking for the cheapest thing because it's what I do... but all the time I'm knowing that I don't have to, and sometimes I buy imported cheese or canned things because I can. I get taxis rather than the bus, because I can. I eat out often, because the food's good and it's a nice experience, and because I can - and a bit because I couldn't while I was in Oxford and I'm making up for lost time. And I still save most of my money.

It weirds me out on two levels. Firstly, the rapid change means that I've had to turn my self-image on it's head - to go back to the Occupy thing, I used to be the 99%, and now I'm the 1%. Globally, I suppose I always was the 1%, but here it's very, very obvious. Secondly, whereas in Oxford, I felt like a normal person, here, I don't. I feel like I'm a special breed - not a person, but an expat, in the same way I feel that rich people in the UK don't live on the same planet as the rest of us.

There's also an irony to it. In the development sector, developing-country experience is prized, mainly because it shows you understand how programmes work, but also because it's supposed to give you insight into the problems of development. I suppose it does, but in a way that makes the problems of development utterly distinct from the problems of poverty. Because here, I'm rich, and how can someone who's rich possibly understand what it's like to be poor? If anything, to understand what it's like to be poor we should be spending time doing insecure minimum wage jobs in a super expensive part of the UK - while all the while telling ourselves that we'd be middle income in a lot of poor countries.

So the empathy article fitted in with some existing concerns I've had. As a suddenly rich person, as well as becoming an expat rather than a real person, am I less empathetic? It's true that I've been grumpy a lot, but maybe that's just because I don't get enough sleep. And I've been a bit rubbish at trying to get to know my colleagues, but that's mainly because I'm moving away soon so couldn't be bothered. I don't think I'm particularly important which suggests that I don't yet have an exaggerated sense of my own importance. And yet... I get cross with taxi drivers for saying they know they way then they don't, although I know they only do it because they need the money. I don't always tip as much as I should. I know that one of the guards is desperate to learn English, and I could have helped him but didn't.

How far are these me being human, and how far am I losing my empathy? Of course I don't want to second-guess myself all the time, and I shouldn't believe everything I read on the internet. But, just in case, if anyone notices me turning into an evil bitch, please, please say something!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Change we can believe in

OK, so this post is totally just a spurious excuse to use the title...

One of the daily chores of living in Dakar is trying to get hold of change. CFA, the currency, comes in denominations of 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, and 1,000, with coins for 500, 250, 200, 100, 50, 25, and 10. The 10s are basically useless though. Mostly you see 100, 200 and 500 coins.

The trouble is, that when you go to the bank the money generally comes in 10,000s, but no-one will take them except supermarkets and restaurants. Sometimes the fruit stands and small shops will take fives, and very occasionally taxis. But mostly you need twos and ones, and sometimes they won't even change those. It's annoying, because it occasionally makes it impossible to buy things like milk or peanuts or a mango that come in small quantities and don't cost very much. Which is annoying.

It means that when you do have change, you hoard it. Or when you go somewhere that will accept tens, you pay with them and swear blind that you don't have anything smaller. In taxis it sometimes leads to games of chicken, where you say you only have a two, and they swear they don't have coins. Eventually either you crack, and give them 500 and they put it in pocket of coins, or they crack and you drop it in your handbag to clink against the others.

Olympic Swimming Pool

At the moment, the rainy season is starting in Dakar, which means several things:
1. It's getting steadily hotter
2. It's very humid
3. Every few days it chucks it down for a couple of hours and is blissful afterwards. Totally different kind of heat and unpleasantness to Mali (that was way hotter but also less humid. I'm not sure which I dislike more), but similar post rain gloriousness.

One of the things this means for me is that I'm less keen to go running. By the sea there's a breeze which makes it sort of bearable, but it's already about 1.5k each way to get to the sea, and given the heat I can't go much further than 8k, and when 3 of those are sheer hell and the rest are mildly horrible, it doesn't seem worth it.

Luckily, Dakar has a solution for me. About 5 minutes from the office (10 minutes from the house) is an olympic sized swimming pool. Entry cost 1000 CFA (about £1.30). It's open air, and is open till eight, which is perfect for leaving work at 7, getting home and dashing to the pool. The a/c in my part of the office is fairly rubbish, but there are few things more awesome than leaving the office and within 15 minutes being doing lengths in a clean, massive, refreshing pool - crucially, it's big enough that even when it's hot out, the pool isn't too hot.

I'm going to keep saying this till everyone believes me: I honestly don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live in Dakar. It's actually like paradise.


Here I often get around in taxis. I've used the bus a couple of times, but generally I'm lazy and I can't be bothered, and the taxis aren't expensive, and usually I can split the cost with someone, so taxis it is.

There are a few peculiarities of taxis though. The first one, is that you agree the price before you go. In some cases it's easy - I know it costs 1500 CFA to get into town - but you still have to go through the ritual where the driver says '3000, it's good' and you say 'no, 1500'. He says 'we say 2000'. And you say 'no, 1500'. He shakes his head, and you say, 'OK, we don't go' and stand back, and then they change their minds and agree to your price. It's kind of annoying - you know the price, it's really obvious you know the prices, but you still have to go through the process.

Where it gets annoying is when you don't know exactly where you're going, and you just have to guess how much their initial price is ripping you off by. My usual tactic is to go low and assume they won't take you for less than is fair, but this sometimes fails when they don't know where you're going either. In that case they (hopefully) start stopping and asking people, while steadily getting grumpier and grumpier, until eventually you get there. At that point they grumpily ask for another ludicrous price, and you give them whatever you think is fair based on how long you were driving for, usually about 500F more than you agreed. If you got it right, usually they accept it and you don't have to bargain again.

But the bargaining also serves a purpose. It signals the taxi is vaguely safe. I've learned the hard way that if they don't bargain, they're way too desperate for a fare. This has happened twice. The first time we were going from a restaurant to the house. We got in the taxi, only to find that it had to be bump started. When it started, it turned out the lights weren't that great, and the brakes didn't really work - he was engine braking the whole way and swinging around the cars in front when that didn't work. It was fairly terrifying, but luckily he was driving fairly slowly and we arrived in one piece. The second time was even funnier. I was coming back from a clinic in town and it started raining. Turned out the taxi driver had no windscreen wipers, so we had to sit until it stopped raining - which can take hours. Then it turned out the taxi leaked. After about ten minutes we were so damp that I got out in the storm and found a new taxi.

There's something else valuable - if you can have some banter with them ("3000F? That's the price for going, coming back, and going again, right?" "but have you seen the price of petrol" "the price of petrol hasn't changed since this morning though"), then you know they speak French. Which is super useful when you don't know where you're going and you know that they probably don't either.

Lesson: how long the taxi bargaining process takes is directly proportional to the desirability of the taxi.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Small World

It's a very small world sometimes. Mostly we say that when things happen that are actually totally predictable, like meeting someone I knew in Uganda here (expats in Africa move to other African country shocker) or meeting people in airports (everyone transits the same places... and yes, I'm embracing the stereotype) or when people on Gap Yahs meet people from school in hostels in Thailand.

But sometimes it really is weird.

One of my colleagues comes from a village close to my grandmother's village in France. Considering the population of the area, this counts as weird.

When I moved to the US, there were three other British people - and I had at least one friend in common with all three of them.

Then yesterday I was talking to a British guy whose wife works at Save the Children. Turns out he was in Exeter M1 just before I was in Pembroke M1 - we didn't actually compete, but nearly, so lots of Torpids chat was had.

And then there are all the times your friends know one another in unexpected ways. A lot of the time you only notice because of Facebook - seeing a status, then seeing that someone you know has liked it, and thinking 'hang on, how the hell do they know one another'. My favourite one of these was when last year my then boyfriend ended up going on holiday with someone I know from Kent - and didn't realise until my parents were stalking me via his parents.  

Sometimes it feels suffocating, like even when you leave you're still enmeshed in a web of people who all know one another and come from the same places. And most of the time it's really a sign that I need a more diverse social circle - even when I move to Africa I end up hanging out with middle class people from Southern England!

But sometimes it makes you feel at home - and I did enjoy being able to talk about rowing for an hour or so on Sunday evening.

Monday, 25 June 2012

An Indian, a Moldovan and a Brit went to a Lake...

It might sound like the start of a joke, but it isn't. Last weekend, I went to visit a lake near Dakar - it's called Lac Rose because it has a high concentration of salt (higher than the Dead Sea) which means it looks pink in the sunlight. I went with my friend Dev - who I know from Uganda, and from Couchsurfing, and who now lives in Dakar (cue exclamations of how it's a small world). Elena, a girl from couchsurfing who works in a Swedish call centre and is in Dakar training workers for a new Swedish call centre, came with us. From that auspicious start, the day if anything got weirder.

We got the bus to the lake sans incident, and there sat down with some people Dev knows - a man from Mauritania who once walked a camel 700 km to sell it for a profit, only to have it die 20 km from its destination. He now lives by the lake, and runs camel rides around the dunes. We had mint tea with him and his sons, then set off for a walk around the lake.

First bit was over the sand, which was tricky walking and not much shade but otherwise fine. Then a bit on the road, past a place that does horse rides, and stopped for a coke. Then it got interesting - we decided to go walk by the lake, so cut across a field (walking on the raised boundaries between fields, not over the farmer's crops!), then through a swamp to get down to the shore of the lake. The lake's low at this time of year, so we were walking over a salty crust - again, not a piece of shade in sight, but it was beautiful in a barren kind of way. Realising it was too far to walk, Dev suggested cutting across the lake - apparently something he once did successfully, though with slightly burnt feet as the mud's hot.

Never one to turn down a challenge, I immediately whipped off my trousers and shoes and headed towards the lake. Tactical error. Not only was the mud super boiling, it was sinky. Before I knew it I was stuck knee deep in mud and it took several goes to wrench my feet free and get back to more solid ground. Worse still, the salt crust scratched my feet and legs, which were then caked in salty mud from the sinking - so it stung a bit. In case anyone's wondering, there are two lessons here. One is 'lake floors are sinky and this is bad' and the other is 'don't be a damn idiot and engage your brain before doing anything'

We carried on, but it was clear that I just couldn't go all the way around the lake, so we cut back up over the swamp (blissful relief as I sank a bit into the fresh water) and found a well, where there was a young man with a bucket and a bottle. So we washed ourselves, or to be more accurate, Dev washed himself and Elena and I got our legs wiped down by the young man, who positively refused to let us do it ourselves! Then we found a taxi to take us round to the other side of the lake, where we wandered through mounds of salt drying, and watching people harvesting the salt - scraping it off the bottom of the lake, cleaning it, piling it up to dry, loading it into bags, and driving it away.

After that it all got rather less dramatic. We walked round to the Campement, which has a restaurant, and had lunch and went and floated in the lake, and climbed up to an observation deck to see how pink it looked from above (very), and sat by the pool until it was time to get the bus back to Dakar. Then I did some sleeping.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Minimalist Tailcoat

One of the geeky joys of having a blog is looking up what terms people have used to get to your blog. In my cases it's either 'Explorer Laura' or something like that, or Moscow stuff - apparently there are a lot of people typing 'Amazing Russian Hairstyle' into Google.

But not one, but two people in the last week have got to my blog by typing in 'minimalist tailcoat', which just seems... odd... anyone know what a minimalist tailcoat is? Or why it would lead you to my blog?

Dakar Paradise

Dakar is genuinely the closest place I've ever lived to paradise. If I had to pick my second favourite country after the UK, it'd still be Uganda by a mile, but on every plausible measure of quality of life, Dakar's street's ahead.

First up, the weather. At the moment the three-month hot season is beginning, so it's starting to feel a bit sticky. The rest of the year, it's mid-20s, with a breeze, and sunny. Not much to speak of in the way of mosquitoes, cool enough to run, and still glorious blue skies. Which is basically perfect weather.

Then, there's the beach. Dakar is on a narrow peninsula, so the sea all but surrounds us. There are parts where it crashes against cliffs, there are sandy beaches with gently lapping waves, and there are beaches with all ranges of surf breaks. It means at the weekend its easy to get a taxi to the ferry point, go across to N'Gor island (or swim over) and chill on the beach, or to go surfing at Yoff, or go to the Radisson hotel and watch the sun dip into the sea. And it means that in the evening I can go running by the sea as the sun sets.

Then there's the food. Fresh seafood at point des Almadies, the westernmost point of mainland Africa, fruit and vegetables in the street, and tasty peanuts on every corner. That's for every day; for special occasions, there are the kind of restaurants I can't afford to go to in the UK - fancy sushi, Thai, French, Argentinian, you name it.

There's the music. Every bar we go to seems to have a live band, playing jazz, covers of pop songs, or their own beats. On Thursday-Saturday this weekend I went to three different bars, all of which had live jazz - and I wasn't even trying to see live jazz, it just happened. People don't always dance - a lot like British people, kind of all bopping in our chairs but not getting up - but the music's great.

Of course, I'm sure a lot of European cities are like this - glorious weather and great food - but I can't afford to live like this there. I suppose that's the key - my quality of life here is great because my money goes further. If I wanted to eat out in the centre of town every day it *wouldn't* go further, but I don't, so that's OK.

But a few weekends ago I was on the ferry to Isle de Goree, and spoke to a couple of Senegalese men living in France. They asked me how I liked Dakar, and I gave my standard answer, which goes along the lines of 'Dakar is amazing and wonderful and I don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live here'. They answered that everyone did want to live here, but there weren't the jobs. Obviously this works on two levels - *they* want to live here, but there aren't the jobs so they're in France; and everyone wants to live her but just hasn't had the chance yet.

I'm told by people who've been here a while that the honeymoon will wear off, but right now I still don't understand why everyone doesn't want to live in Dakar.

Friday, 8 June 2012

A Dakar Jubilee

We didn’t get any days off for the Jubilee, and France 24 only offered short sections of coverage, so I missed a lot of what was happening in the UK – plus the street party being held in my parents village, which they assure me was a great success despite the weather!

Instead, I had a tea party with some British friends on Sunday, hosted by a journalist working out here. Also there were a couple of my colleagues, a girl called Izzy that my sister Emma knew from Uganda and put me in touch with, and an architect called Will who turned out to be descended from the inventor of Marmite!

Rose, our host, had decorated her garden with bunting left over from a party Oxfam hosted for the royal wedding, and on a recent trip back to the UK had acquired some Union flag cups, napkins and plates, so all in all it was a very well decorated little corner of Britishness. She’d made Victoria sponge, and decorated it with a plastic Buckingham Palace, with figures of a coach, the Queen and Prince Philip, and some corgis. We had Earl Grey tea to go with it, made in a teapot from leaf tea, and then moved on to toasting her majesty’s health in gin and tonic.

Then yesterday was the annual Queen’s Birthday Party at the embassy. As the British community isn’t very big here, we all got invites. I was pretty excited – not only free food and drink and an opportunity to meet people, but despite growing up in the FCO I’d actually never been to the QBP – so was excited to finally remedy it. So on Thursday we all put on our glad rags and made our way into town.

The party was held in the garden of the Residence – a lovely space in the heart of the city. As predicted, there was free cheap Cava, and lots of British cheese. I was very impressed by this – in places we lived there were direct flights from the UK, and we could occasionally convince them to bring the cheese out for us, but getting it out here will have been much harder! Later in the evening they brought out fish and chips and cupcakes with little flags in them, and a fruit cake. All in all a very well stocked evening!

The crowd was fairly evenly split between dignitaries – who all looked very smart indeed – and members of the community – who all had dragged their ‘smart outfit’ out of the back of their wardrobes. I met a couple of new people, and managed to avoid being rude to someone from British American Tobacco who sells cigarettes here and in Gambia and Mali (I asked, and he doesn’t smoke). Slightly depressingly it seems like the main British companies here are BAT, Imperial Tobacco, BP and Shell. Go the national image there!

The Ambassador and the representative of the Government, the Commerce Minister, gave speeches, then we all sang the national anthems – embarrassingly, I had been in the cheese queue when the speeches started so was right at the front, so I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be in a lot of photos when they all go up next week! Then the Commerce minister gave a toast to the Queen’s health and a little speech on how Senegal was going to export tomatoes and onions to the UK (note to self: find out more about what Senegal exports), and we all got back to making merry.

Of course, my little group of friends from the tea party were among the last to leave, partly because they didn’t close the bar and we assumed that would be our hint. It did give me a chance to ask the Ambassador how he procured the cheese though - apparently he’d been back in London a few weeks ago for the annual Heads of Mission meeting, and had bought it there, then brought it all back (23kg of cheese) in his suitcase! I just hope he had the stilton in a separate bag to his suits!

Between them, a nice few evenings – somehow these things seem to take on more significance when you’re away from home, so it’s nice to feel we’ve marked the occasion in our own little way.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

In Which I Find A Puppy

Many years ago, before I was born, my parents adopted a little dog. She showed up on their doorstep one day, with a docked tail and obviously tame and used to belonging to someone. And after a few days they couldn't take it any more, so they let her in and fed her. Of course that was that - they called her Sandy, or sometimes Dig-Dig, and she lived with us for fifteen years until she died on Christmas Day when I was fourteen.

In that time she lived in five different countries, and went through quarantine twice - not a cheap process, but she was a lovely dog and we all adored her. I've taken from this two key lessons. One: never feed a strange dog unless you're ready for dog ownership. Two: dog ownership can be managed as long as you don't move too often, but international dog ownership is very expensive. While I would love to own a dog, clearly my life isn't stable enough for it to be fair on the dog right now, and I definitely can't afford it.

Unfortunately, puppies have big brown eyes that stare at you and can't be denied, and today my resolution was tested.

I was out running (horrible unfitness = inevitable result of a month of no exercise but not as bad as I feared), and on the way back a little brown puppy, looking a lot like a labrador but probably a mongrel, dashed across the street, jumped up at me, licking and sniffing my hand, before stopping and looking up at me reproachfully. I've been a bit wary of dogs ever since being bitten by one in Cote d'Ivoire and having to get a rabies shot, but this one was obviously tame and totally gorgeous. She didn't do this to anyone else, which makes me think she's owned by a white person so I look more like home to her than anyone else on the street.

I patted her a few times and looked at her collar - she had one, but no tag on it so no number to call. Considered brining her home and feeding her, because I hate the idea of her being out there all on her own and lost and maybe getting run over, but I'm not allowed pets in the guesthouse, and I'm scared of drifting into dog ownership. Obviously if I did that I'd put posters up to try and find her owner - but what if I don't find them? If I knew I'd be here all year, I might do it, but I might not be, and anyway, I really can't afford it and I'm clearly not responsible dog owner material. And I didn't have a lead or anything anyway.

In the end I cross the street again, wait for a gap in the traffic, then call her across, and ask some of the guards in the street she came out of if they've seen her before - none of them have. At least she's on the right side of the street now though, so if she does manage to find her way home then she hopefully won't have to cross any busy roads on the way.

When I get home, I tell Christina, the other English girl in the guesthouse, about it. She says she saw her too, the day before, which makes me even more worried and sad. I decide to go back later and see if she's still there - if she is, I'll get her some food from the supermarket and feed her in the street.

Luckily, the story has a happy-ish ending. I go back to where I saw the dog, and don't see her, and, to my relief, also don't see a dead dog in the street. I go down the street she came out of, and a hundred metres down the road I see her curled up outside a little corner stall. The owner is just shutting up, so I stop to talk to him - he tells me she isn't his dog, but that he's going to look after her until her owners find her. I'm glad she's found a friend, and she seems happy, so I ask if I can come back and visit (at which the stallholder clearly thinks I'm crazy but decided to humour me) and leave it at that. 

Friday, 1 June 2012


So I realised that I never got round to trying to describe Bamako, which feels like something of an omission. Although ACI 2000 and the weather were my dominant experiences in Mali, in a short time I did manage to pick up a bit more than that.

The first thing to say about Bamako is that it sprawls. Dakar feels like it's crammed into as small a place as possible, which makes sense because it started by the sea and has expanded backwards up a narrow peninsula. Bamako has the Niger river - hundreds of metres wide, and this is the dry season - through the middle of it, but no natural boundaries, so it's just sprawled, with long low suburbs stretching for miles. And of course, because of the weather, it's grey and dusty.

Dakar also has an obvious centre - Plateau, where the government buildings and embassies are. Bamako doesn't seem to have that - there's certainly a kind of downtown, but the Presidential palace is way up on a hill (which made it even more obvious that the crowd had been allowed in when they got in to beat up the interim president), and I'm not actually sure where the parliament is. I know where the central bank is, because it looks like a tower from mordor, but there's nothing really close to it so not sure if it's really in a centre centre. There's also the market and mosque, which was a lot more lively and which felt a lot more like a centre, but which are further away from all the administrative buildings, and Place de l'Independence and the Musee Nationale, where a lot of the marches were held, which is a different area altogether. All in all I just wasn't sure. It also meant it never seemed an option to get a taxi to an area, and then walk around - because even within a quartier, things are really spread out.

It was also a difficult city to get your bearings in, partly because it's so spread out and partly because it all looks the same - low buildings made of concrete, and people selling things in the street and hanging their wares off the walls. Of course it didn't help that I was going everywhere in taxis - even though to get a taxi in Bamako you need a rough idea where you're going as the taxi driver likely won't, that works more on the micro level (how to get to the exact place from a well known landmark) than the macro level (where places are in relation to one another). And taxis seem to cost the same to go basically anywhere in Bamako, so that isn't much of a clue either.

So far it hasn't sounded very nice. But there were bits of it I liked a lot - we found a restaurant overlooking the river, where you could see a bridge with street lamps on it and a couple of buildings with neon signs at the top on the other side of the river. Not much of a Bamako Riviera, but the closest we got. Hippodrome has some nice hangouts, and before curfew kicked in I managed to go to a live concert, which was fun and made me realise it would have been fun to be there longer. The park by the national museum and botanical gardens were utterly gorgeous. And I liked ACI a lot, despite the fact that I couldn't buy vegetables or tonic there. 

Of course I realise I didn't exactly see the city at it's best - hottest time of year, and a curfew to boot. I wouldn't mind going back and getting a different view at a better time. But on the whole it's fair to say it didn't bowl me over. I think the problem comes down to: it's a big city, so didn't have the oversized-village feeling you get in somewhere like N'Djamena, which is a bit irritating sometimes but is also nice when you're new and don't know many people. But it didn't seem to have big-city amenities - supermarket, clubs, etc. So  while I'd like to go back in cooler (politically and literally) times, it's not going on the list of African cities I've fallen in love with - at least not yet.

Thursday, 31 May 2012


Today I was walking with my replacement. She wasn't walking that fast, but I had to ask her to slow down - I've noticed I walk differently here.

In the UK, I walk upright, with my shoulders slightly forward, striding out. I'm usually going somewhere, and why not try to get there as quickly as possible.

Here it's hot and I'm wearing flipflops. I walk with my centre of gravity a bit further back, and saunter more, picking my feet up less. 

It's a lot slower, but it uses a lot less energy, and sometimes this way I can even get all the way to from the guesthouse to the office without dripping with sweat. It's not something I did on purpose, but it's definitely different, and it's definitely the way I normally walk when on holiday. Will be interesting to see what I do when I get back to the UK - if I get back to 'getting somewhere' walking or if I'm still saving energy.

Monday, 28 May 2012


I’m sitting in the airport waiting to leave Kayes. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to see much of it, and what I have seen hasn’t made much of an impression. The town sprawls along a couple of main roads, and, since Kayes is halfway between Dakar and Bamako and is the last town before the Senegalese border, the roads are filled with trucks, with a weigh scale half way along the main road. Other than that, it’s like any other town – low, square buildings made of concrete, dust, and people walking slowly between them. There are a couple of restaurants selling rice with fish or vegetables or meat, and a nightclub we weren’t allowed to go to. And a fancy hotel.

I believe there’s more to it than that – the Lonely Planet describes colonial architecture and a bustling market, and we passed the market and crossed the Senegal River on the way to the airport, and both looked a lot more pleasant than the bits we’ve seen. But we were working from 8-6, and were then placed under curfew from 6 onwards, more for the convenience of the area manager, drivers and logistician than because there was any actual risk – we also got an email informing us that since we had a gaggle of white people here, we should avoid ‘exhibitionism’ in town.

We considered going out yesterday, Sunday, for a bit of tourism – maybe a pirogue trip or visiting a local colonial fort or going to the market – but it was hotter than I’ve ever experienced before, far too hot to do anything except lie inside with the a/c on, and any we all had a proposal to write to be submitted this evening. So we stayed home and worked instead.

So my experience of Kayes consisted of an office and a hotel. While the hotel was nice, and there was a pool, it gets old after the first couple of days, and anyway I only used the pool once because it was so hot it was like swimming in a bath, plus it was basically opaque which freaked me out a bit – I couldn’t help wondering what was living down there. I literally didn’t interact with anyone except colleagues in the entire time I was here, and was just shuttled between the two in a white land cruiser. It felt like everything that’s worst about the aid system (something I wrote about a while ago, about the Americans in Burundi, who even used to get loo roll shipped in from the US). It’s true that in Bamako I mainly hang out with other expats, and when I don’t then it’s with colleagues, but at least I also get to talk to people on the street, in shops, and taxi drivers, and I feel like the place I live is an actual community rather than sanitised expat land.  

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Summer Eights

This weekend in Oxford was Summer Eights, one of my favourite weekends of the year. Last weekend was my 10 year school reunion, something I’d been looking forward to for a couple of years. Neither is that important – I’m in touch with the people from school I want to be, and the ones I’m not in touch with it’s generally because I have nothing in common except having been educated in the same place. And Summer Eights will happen again next year.

But still... between the two of them, I’ve been a bit gloomy about being away for the last couple of weeks. My boys from St Hugh’s won blades, the girl who used to cox M1 and is now coxing the women executed a beautiful t-boning of Queens, and, best of all, Pembroke ended 8 years in the wilderness by reclaiming the women’s headship. It’s not the big one for me – my headship ghosts were mostly laid when the men took the torpid headship this year – but it’s a big deal, with smashing boats and Pimms and sunshine and burning a boat in the quad. As if to rub it in, today was the hottest Summer Eights on record, with glorious 30 degree temperatures in Oxford and less dust than last year after a few weeks of rain. 

It’s also something that I can’t talk about with colleagues. Rowing is niche even in the UK, though I could probably explain to a British person why I miss it so much. But the people I’m hanging out with here don’t know what Pimms is (and think it sounds disgusting), they don’t understand about duck tape, and most of all they don’t understand that when you live in a country where it rains most of the time, then the windows of sunshine are extra joyous, and none of those are things I can explain. The other point is that the gloom isn’t just about those two things – it’s also about the reminder that there’ll always be things I’m missing – weddings, christenings, 30th birthdays, Henley, the cricket, trips to Cornwall or Wales – without even getting on to the day to day niceness of England in summer – the Isis, the Perch, the river, and running in Oxfordshire. 

What I’m trying to remember is that in January and February in Oxford I was going loopy, bored in my job and with my life, and terrified of waking up in 20 years time stuck in middle class, middle aged inertia. If I were still in Oxford I’d have enjoyed eights and a trip down to Dorset, but none of those were reasons to stick around. The work’s more interesting here, I’ve learnt loads already, and in many ways I can’t really remember why I was so apprehensive about leaving since it was so clearly the right thing to do. I’m glad I spent enough time in the UK after my masters to remember that it is home, and I can’t imagine being based anywhere else, but at least for the next year or two I’ve got no particular intention of going back. In the mean time, I’m looking forward to going back to Dakar, where I’ve got some Brits I can talk to about home stuff, and I’m desperately looking forward to a trip home in July and August. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Bamako Market

The day before we went to Kayes, Joachim the Regional Wash Guy (yes, that's his full name. Really.) and I broke out of the ACI bubble and went to the market in Bamako.

The traffic was dreadful, so we got out of the car and walked the last few hundred metres - a rare treat on it's own. I'd heard about Bamako's terrible traffic, but this was the only evidence of it I'd seen, and it made a big change from ACI. There, I see a lot of people in the street, and a couple of times I've seen parties, but since it's the same people going about their daily lives, it feels more like walking through someone's living room on my way to work than it does like being surrounded by people. The streets near the market were very different - stalls spilling onto the streets, hand carts carrying goods to be sold, women selling mangoes. It was more life than I got to see anywhere else in Mali, so I'm glad I got to go on that score alone, as I assume that that's far more representative of the city than my office-guesthouse-taxi-restaurant-taxi-guesthouse shuttling.

In the market, there wasn't anything particularly new. At this point, I've got most of the African tourist tat I need  want and even I am struggling to justify more earrings, so I wasn't really planning to buy unless I saw something good. But it was interesting to look around - lots of leatherworked boxes, lots of ebony carvings, silver Tuareg jewellery and regular Afro-tat beadwork jewellery. Some nice wooden and silver earrings which I womanfully resisted. An ebony handled bottle opener which actually might have been useful - at the moment we're getting Joachim to open our bottles for us with his cigarette lighter, and it doesn't feel very empowering to have a man open your beer for you every time. In the end though, I left with just a leather bracelet - dyed in different colours and with an asymmetrical shape that I like. It's unusual enough that I don't have one already, and is also something I'll use, and it's nice to have something to remind me of Mali.

We were also shown some Dogon door replicas - as part of the hard sell, I was made to sit down in a stall and be told the story behind the carvings (something about a woman who had no children, and a marabout... it all escapes me somewhat). I found it very interesting, but Joachim was clearly feeling uncomfortable and wanted to go, and since he was being very nice and pretending to be married to me so I wouldn't get hassled, I humoured him.

So far nothing special. But what really jumped out at me was the fact that on a Saturday afternoon in a big tourist market in central Bamako, we were the only shoppers. To be fair to Joachim, he wasn't just dragging me away because he was taking the husband role too seriously and assuming that included cutting short my shopping, it was also that he felt uncomfortable about the fact that we weren't buying much when people clearly needed us to. The market normally would cater both to tourists and people who live here - but tourists aren't coming to Mali any more, and many of the people who live here have gone home - or at least aren't buying new stuff that they won't be able to take with them if they need to leave in a hurry.

If things stay stable, the people who live here will start to drift back. But if a path to long-term stability doesn't become obvious soon, their organisations will start downsizing or relocating and they won't be back. Tourists won't be back any time soon - not only because Mali is now associated with wars and coups, but also because many of the sights they come to see (i.e. Timbuktu) are out of reach in the North. Meanwhile, the people in the market need to re-think their livelihoods in a situation where there are few options, and where they will have invested heavily in stock to sell, and in rent for their stall space. And that's just one example - this is the one that I'm exposed to, but there'll be others - of how the situation affects real people. The tragic thing is, that there's very little we can do about it except hope for a swift transition and an economic recovery - otherwise the people whose market income is damaged will be left with very few alternatives and a steadily declining income stream.

Evacuating to Kayes

So this week we're in Kayes, having been pre-emptively evacuated from Bamako for a few days. This was because the 20th or the 22nd depending on how you look at it (it's complicated... trust me) was the 40th day of the transition from military rule in Mali, which was the designated day for the inauguration of the transitional government. By Friday there still wasn't a transitional government, so we decided to clear out for a few days in case it got difficult in Bamako. I packed all my stuff though - I'm meant to be back in Dakar next week, and not confident I'll be back to Bamako in time to leave from there.

On Sunday, when we set off, we were all a bit grumpy as an agreement had just been agreed. But off we set anyway, on a journey which our logistician had assured me would take 5 to 7 hours. Google Maps suggested 8, so I was cynical, but it turned out to be 11 soul destroying hours. Here are some things that sucked about it:

  • it was 11 hours
  • the gut clenching fear you feel as a lorry drives straight for you only to swerve away at the last minute. Traffic accidents are either the biggest cause of death for aid workers, or one of the biggest. Which was actually something we extensively discussed on the road, for extra comfort and fun. Bonus points if you spotted the irony in evacuating us from Bamako for safety reasons while sending us on a journey that was statistically far more likely to kill us than being in Bamako.
  • I was stuck between two WASH guys who had a long coversation about WASH at the beginning.
  • having to stop when (first) a bag of onions and (second) a bit of desk fell off the roof rack. And no, I don't know why we were taking a desk or onions from one part of Mali to another, either, given that as far as I can tell neither onions nor desks appear to be in short supply in Kayes. On the plus side being able to produce a roll of duck tape and a leatherman when stuff is falling off the roofrack = smugness.
  • I forgot my ipod in Dakar.
  • in the Sahel, there are no bushes.
  • although we got some breaks I couldn't really walk around in them because it was 45 degrees and I'd have died of heat, especially as I was trying not to drink too much because of the lack of bushes.
  • the programme manager spent the last 3 hours saying there were only 45 minutes to go. To quote John Cleese: "it's not the despair. I can handle the despair. It's the hope I can't stand".

Eventually we got to Kayes and hotelled ourselves up, while the UK contingent and Joachim, the Belgian WASH guy, headed straight for beers. No national stereotypes here, oh no.

Next day, turns out it was a good decision to shut the office and pack us out, as there were massive demos in Bamako by pro-junta crowds protesting against ECOWAS 'meddling' and the interim president. They were calling for the implementation of a 'national convention' comprising 'civil society' to elect a transitional president - commonly believed to be code for Sanogo. This feeds a lot into Sanogo's narrative that he's the 'anti-politician' clearing out the corrupt classes, and which he's associated with a lot of anti-ECOWAS propaganda.

The counter-argument is that civil society in Mali isn't that strong, and that Traore, the interim President was, as Speaker of the Parliament, democratically elected and in the line of succession, so having him as interim President is a constitutionally legitimate solution in a way that having an unelected 'convention' decide that the coup-ster would be President wouldn't be. At the same time, there obviously are large groups who feel that anyone associated with the political class can't be trusted to run the transition, so it obviously isn't that simple either.

The unrest ended with crowds storming the presidential palace and beating the interim president unconscious - with only three fatalities. Given that the Presidential palace is on top of a hill and well guarded, it's obviously inconceivable that this could happen without army support, whether explicit or otherwise. Meanwhile, various pro-coup groups have decided to hold a 'national convention' anyway, and may announce their choice as President later this week. Since this is likely to be Sanogo, and it's pretty clear the military are the ones still running everything, this isn't likely to mean anything good.

On the positive side, this morning the Prime Minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, who is generally seen as not fully part of the political class, having spent lots of time outside the country working for Microsoft, went on TV to condemn the attack, as did ECOWAS, and, eventually, Sanogo did too. So for the time being things seem to be calm in Bamako, although by all accounts still pretty tense.

In Oxfam terms, this is frustrating not only because of the political crisis, but also because of what it means for the emergency response. When there are demos we have to close the office, which makes it difficult to work and delays our emergency response, and some people can barely work at all. Given that we're entering the peak of the crisis and time is therefore of the essence, this is pretty frustrating for all of us.

Otherwise, it's like a really weird combination of normal work and being on holiday. The office is basically like every other Oxfam office, with some nescafe and dodgy internet and the same five people I share an office and apartment with in Bamako. On the other hand we're in a hotel rather than the same guesthouse we're always in, and it has a pool and a bar with music and a pool table, which counts as super exciting when you've spent the last month living in an apartment 100m from the office with a 9pm curfew. And since I can't work as effectively here as I can in Bamako, it feels a lot like being on holiday, only a really sad busman's holiday.