Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mali National Museum

Yesterday being Saturday, there was less obligation to be at work than usual. Obviously still *some* obligation to do work (report to edit to be submitted on Tuesday. Three proposals next week = trying to get the stuff I can get out of the way out of the way. Living the dream, I tell you). But also time to get out and do other stuff.

I have a Lonely Planet West Africa, which told me that the National Museum was interesting and informative, so I figured that while I had a relatively free Saturday I might as well go and see it. The two people I'm sharing a guesthouse appartment with (the guesthouse here consists of four three-bedroom apartments, and I'm sharing with two other women - Anne Solenne, who is the EFSL coordinator, and Christine, the regional M&E advisor normally based in Dakar) decided to come too, and as we were considering leaving Stefano, who has now been allowed to return from Dakar, wandered upstairs looking for coffee, and joined the gang.

Since nothing in life is ever easy, before going we had to work out if we were able to go. There were rumours of a demonstration in town, which might have made it unsafe to get to the museum in the town centre (though we might have been able to get in through the back). So we phoned around the Oxfam security tree to try and find out what was going on. No-one seemed to have heard anything, and the only evidence we could find for the demo was an update on the French embassy website posted last night, so we decided it was worth taking a chance - after all, if we were blocked we could always turn around and come back.

Turned out, though, that everything was fine, and our taxi dropped us safely outside the museum, which turned out to be definitely worth the visit. The first room was about fabrics, which are a core part of West African culture - not just the brightly coloured cotton pagnes that I've loved for years, though there was a great explanation of how they were made traditionally, but also indigo fabrics (traditionally a plant beaten into the cloth, now usually mixed with synthetics and dyed normally), woollen rugs, including a type known as mosquito-net rugs because they're usually hung around the marital bed to prevent mosquitoes getting in, and embroidered boubous, with explanations of the meanings of different types of embroidery. Lots to learn, not least the French for 'loom' and 'shuttle', and a beautiful exhibition.

Next up, masks. This was much harder to get my head around than the fabrics, because while I already knew a bit about fabrics so could figure out what it was probably saying even when I couldn't understand the words, I didn't know anything at all about masks. But masks are important to all the different ethnic groups in this area, often used by societies into which members of the group are initiated as they reach adulthood. The masks take different forms and have different functions - some resembling animals and designed to scare, others with different degrees of anthropomorphism, emphasising different features according to the culture of the group. I found some with small mouths, emphasising the virtue of judicious silence, particularly interesting!

The last room was statues and artefacts, which charted a pretty detailed history of the different cultures in Mali, how they've grown and shrunk over the last millennium, how they've interacted with one another, and their trade links with other parts of the world. Again, didn't follow it all - archaeological vocab also not being a strong point - but it was very interesting. One of the great things about this region, at least when I'm wearing my ex-historian hat, is that we know a lot more about it's early history than we do in more southern parts of Africa. This is partly because the climate - dry desert and mud by the Niger river - is good for preserving things, but also because Islam brought with it writing, which meant there was written history far earlier than in many other areas (though how accurate it is is another question). And where the history wasn't being written down by people from this region, there were Islamic geographers and travellers writing down what they found.

More disturbing was the labelling of the artefacts - almost all of them were labelled as having been looted and recovered in raids, or found by French customs. I wasn't clear where they were being looted from - the original sites or the museum - but it was clear that there has been enormous looting of Mali's historical heritage, and intuitively it seems likely that the recovered objects on display represent only a tiny fraction of what's been lost. Of course the issue is more complicated than that, and not just because I like being able to see Malian and other African stuff in the British museum. I remember in Uganda hearing about a British lady who had inherited the Kabaka's stool from her father. Of course it belongs in Uganda. But the stool still exists, whereas the Kabaka's drums were destroyed in Uganda's wars, and had the stool been in Uganda it would have been destroyed in the fire at the Kasubi tombs in 2010. Wars are bad for museums - see Iraq and Afghanistan - and Mali isn't particularly stable, so maybe the artefacts are better elsewhere. But the people of a country should be able to see their heritage. The person I'm replacing is going to run an African cultural exchange NGO based in South Africa, so I remind myself to ask her if her NGO does anything to work with museums on protecting and recovering artefacts.

Out of the museum (three rooms = good size for a museum!) there's a garden with scale models of famous Malian architecture. None of them were labelled, so I'm clearly going to have to do some research then go back and look again (will try and take someone who has a camera with me), but since I can't travel to the North to see any of them in real life (rebels/kidnapping = not so good for the tourists) it was nice to at least be able to wander round and get an idea of what they would look like. Overall, Mali National Museum = highly recommended if you ever happen to be in Bamako.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Working out where I live

When I arrived in Bamako, I had no real idea where I lived, which was obviously going to create problems with things like telling taxis how to get there, working out where I could go running, and generally working out what was nearby and what far away. So an early priority was to work out where I lived.

I began on the first night. I walked out of the guesthouse, and wandered around the quartier, looking for buildings that might be marked on google maps or have addresses on their websites. I found the International Organisation for Migration and Canadian Visa Processing Centre (amusingly enough, they're in the same building), and identified a large open space near the guesthouse (= easy to find on google earth). My real win, though, was when I spotted the Radisson only a few streets away from a tarmacked road only 500m from the house. Major hotel chain = DEFINITELY on Google.

Based on this information, I went home and got online. I knew the name of the quartier, and googling the Radisson confirmed I was in the right area. Switching to satellite view, I looked for the open space. Boom. 5 minutes and I had a working theory on where I live. Thank you Ushahidi Haiti for that skill!

Next step - test the theory.

To do this, I designed a running route for the next morning that should have taken me past two roundabouts and the US embassy. 6:30am, and off I set. First roundabout, check. Second roundabout, check. It was deadly hot and I couldn't bear to carry on, so I didn't get as far as the US Embassy, but I did see a white man out running in a Red Sox t-shirt with a dog, so I suspect it wasn't far away.

By this time I was pretty confident in my theory, but just to double check I looked for labels on google maps. The nearest roundabout was called 'Place CAN'. A bit of googling turns out it stands for Place du Coupe Africain des Nations - and when I got there it had a big football in the middle of it, which I thought was fairly unlikely to be a coincidence.

So know I know where I live, and I can tell taxis how to get there and plan running routes.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

First Day in Mali

So my first day in Mali went something like this:

5am: wake up, finish packing.

6am: lift arrives to go to airport

6:40am: drinking coffee in airport having got through passport control ridiculously fast.

8:am: plane leaves. Spend plane journey praying for safe arrival, and reading the history section of the Lonely Planet West Africa. Discover that Burkina Faso means 'Country of Honest Men', which is a Good Fact. Then talk to the steward about his recent holiday to the UK and try not to throw up my Doxycycline.

9:45: arrive. Someone is there to meet me with a sign. WIN. Mali has the same currency as Senegal (the CFA) so I've stocked up on cash before I get there, so nothing to do except get in the car and go to the office.

10:30: leave stuff at guesthouse (nice room, normal size, has a cupboard and a fan and a/c and a bathroom and enough space to do skipping with the fan on, which is useful given that heat = not running so much)

10:30-12:00: emails

12:00-12:30: preparation for visit to EU. This is scary as at this point I know nothing about our programmes or our contracts in Mali.

12:30-1pm: lunch

l-2:30pm: start handover

2:30pm: get in car to go to EU delegation

3:00-4:30pm: 90 minute meeting with EU delegation (development people not humanitarian people) in French to update them on how our programmes have been affected by the crisis. Head a bit sore by the end, especially when the EU technical experts start asking our programme managers technical questions and I desperately try to follow. Ouafa says 'I'll send you a letter' a lot, for which I make fun of her later as 'I'll send you a letter' obviously means 'Laura will send you a letter'!

4:30pm: find fruit seller outside EU delegation. Buy bananas and mangos. Can now feed myself - WIN. The fruit is a lot cheaper than in Senegal, and the mangos are if anything better, but the bananas aren't as good and they won't sell me less than a kilogramme, which is a bit of a pain. Still, I don't have any other food at the moment, so I'll likely be eating a lot of bananas until I can fix that.

5pm-6pm: back in office, figuring out if it's humanly possible to submit three concept notes next week. Answer: only one way to find out!

6pm: leave office. Go back to guesthouse, then go out to try and find more food, with limited success. There are lots of very small shops around the neighbourhood, which all sell roughly the same stuff - some kind of flour, sardines, eggs, sometimes bread, tea, matches, powdered milk, and a few other things I can't identify. End up with bread and eggs, which combined with the bananas and mango is definitely a balanced diet, so counting that as another win.

7:30pm: get home, cook. Discover that the kitchen doesn't have any knives, so it's lucky I didn't buy anything I needed to cut. It also doesn't have a tin opener, so it's lucky I didn't buy a tin. Poached egg sandwich though is fine. Discover from other guesthouse residents that there is a supermarket called Azar that's a 1500 CFA taxi ride away - so can stock up on things they don't sell in the little shops (e.g. vegetables, pasta, salt) at the weekend. Also discover the gueshouse has wifi. Very Win.

So at this point I've sorted out living, starting to get there with work, and food and drink also on track. Next tasks: acquire phone, work out where in the city we are (at this point I know the quartier, but not sure how it relates to anywhere else), and find somewhere reasonably nearby where I can eat out and get a beer. And it's definitely bedtime.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012


The last few days have mainly been a blur of preparation for Mali, but I'm now definitely off tomorrow, with a car picking me up at six.

One of the odd bits has been living with three people who all work in Mali and were evacuated as non-essential staff. They can't go back, but I can go. They've all be nice about it - one apathetic, one cracking jokes, and one berating the system. But you can tell it annoys them - if it's safe for me to go, why not for them to go back? The main reason isn't wholly reassuring - it might not be safe, but the funding coordinator is classed as essential staff. But the main reason is that the decision to send me can be taken by the regional centre, whereas Oxfam policy states that once someone's been evacuated, the head of the International Division, in Oxford, has to decide to let them go back. The Mali Country Director has written and asked, but she's not in the office this week, so they're in limbo.

It reminds me a bit of my Cote d'Ivoire days, many many years ago. I was living out there in 2002 with my UK diplomat parents when an attempted coup and civil war split the country in half and left those of us in the economic capital, Abidjan, living under instability and a curfew. Every night, after curfew, my parents and I would gather around the TV and watch the Ivoirian news, ending with Colonel Yao Yao giving a highly partisan account of the current state of 'les evenements', reminding us to 'restez calmes et serains' if there was trouble, and always ending in the phrase 'haut les coeurs' - both now family catchphrases.

From early on there was talk of changing the travel advice and evacuating non-essential embassy personnel, and eventually in mid-December we did. A few days later, and we were in the UK, my poor sister having changed her plans so she couldn't come out at all, while my poor mother and I desperately ran to the shops to buy jumpers. I merrily went off to Thailand on a Gap Yah, while my mother was left in limbo for several months, never able to make plans to stay (find a place to live, get a job, etc) because she was always being told she might be able to go home, and always being told 'no, not this time'. Meanwhile, the situation in Abidjan got steadily worse, so on top of the uncertainty over her own position, she had worry over my father's.

That's what Team Mali are putting up with at the moment - not just worry and displacement (apart from anything else, none of them seems that worried), but also uncertainty and frustration that they're not making as much progress as they'd like in their programmes because they're not there to run them. And living under uncertainty is tiring and it gets you down - which, incidentally, is why I was so unsure about coming here.

Of course the elephant in the blog post is that this is a cushy story. Being evacuated as a British diplomat's family or Oxfam expat staff member is easy. Most people who have to leave home due to insecurity can't even dream of what we had - they grab their children and what they can carry, and they run. They leave their livelihoods and property behind, they may lose other family members, and they may not know where they're going. Eventually they end up staying with friends and relatives, as we did, or in camps, and don't know how long they'll be there and when they can go home. I read an article in the Graun this week arguing for Somali refugees in Dadaab in Kenya to be able to work - right now they can't, even though many have been there twenty years. Twenty years, without being able to work, set down roots, and plan, and with relatives left in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Which rather puts all our uncertainties into perspective. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012


So it turns out I'm going to Mali. On Thursday. For a month.

 The funding coordinator is leaving on Friday, and we've got a gap of a month till we get a new one. Given the rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis there, this is far from ideal.

 At the moment, everyone working in the Sahel is having huge trouble financing our work, for all sorts of reasons. In the first place, it's a French speaking region, and as such it's beyond the general consciousness of most of the Anglophone media, which means that the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US, which are most of the big donors, have basically not noticed there's a crisis. The French media has, but most of the non-French non-English media is at least partly led by the Anglophone media. This means that there's been very little pressure to pledge money to the crisis.

It's also a gradual onset emergency, and a food and political crisis rather than a natural disaster. Again, this makes it harder to fundraise for - people are generally far more willing to give money to a sudden natural disaster, and put pressure on governments to do the same. And the Sahel has been in the news for food crises over and over in the past years - 2005, 2008, 2010, now 2012, which creates a sense of fatigue. All this means that, to quote Liam Byrne 'there's no money'.

Meanwhile, things in Mali in particular are getting worse - there was already a food crisis, then the coup and sanctions cut off a lot of the food coming into the country, pushing prices higher. The sanctions have now been lifted, but a range of rebel groups (some Tuareg separatist, some linked to Al Quaeda, some other Islamists... it's all very complicated!) have between them taken over the north of the country, creating a refugee and IDP crisis and causing huge problems of humanitarian access - as if to reinforce the point, a Swiss woman was kidnapped only a week ago from near Timbuktu.

The result of the instability is that the food crisis is getting steadily worse. Which is appalling to watch, especially given how unnecessary it is - it would have been bad enough without the coup and the war, and it makes me FURIOUS with the men waging this war for their own ends, while the consequences are felt by people just trying to get by in a harsh environment. Incidentally, if you ever doubted the extent to which food crises (and especially famines) are caused by politics and state weakness, rather than by climates and droughts, look no further than the way things have developed in Mali. Then go and read Sen.

But on the other hand, a dramatic worsening of the crisis in Mali might unlock money, in the same way that the UN declaring 'Famine' in Somalia last year (another classic demonstration of how it's conflict, not climate, that causes famines) opened the floodgates of funds for the East Africa crisis. If it happens, it's likely that it'll happen in the next month, which is likely to be the peak of the crisis.

Which is all a long way of saying that the next month or so would be a bad time not to have a funding person in Mali. And since I'm the only person who is a) available and b) speaks French, that means me. So I'm off to Mali. I'm nervous of whether I'll be able to do a good job, but on the other hand, I'll learn loads, and this is basically what I've always wanted to do - work on an emergency for Oxfam - so I'm pretty excited that I'm going to get to do it.

So, expect a few more posts from Senegal, increasingly Mali-related, followed, probably, by a long hiatus, as I expect I'll a) be too busy to blog and b) not have enough interwebs to blog even if I wanted to.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


So a blog post by a friend has been doing the rounds lately, called 'How Shit Happens'. Definitely worth reading, though probably mostly an in-joke. However, a key part of the in-joke is where the logistician get involved - talking with a heavy French accent and dragging on a cigarette.

Because for some reason, almost all logisticians are French. Also all French aid and development people smoke. I should know, I'm living with enough of them.

Anyway, this has triggered a week or so of entertainment for Team Guesthouse and friends (OK, maybe we should get out more). Why does this happen?

The first theory I got involved 'a certain type of Frenchman, their wives and the need to get away from them', and logistics being apparently easy to get into. The trouble (apart from this being based on xenophobic national stereotyping... not that I'd ever be guilty of that when it comes to the French) is that a lot of the French logisticians are young, free and single (or at least act like it), and anyway I'm not sure logistics *is* that easy to get into. It's possible that it's all an elaborate conspiracy, but I think it's probably time for a new theory.

Next theory was that French people have the right mindset for it - not because they're all adulterers who want to run away from home, but because they're good at the 'go go go do something right now' aspect of a humanitarian response. Anglo-Saxons are, allegedly, more prone to stop and think about what we're doing. My correspondent conceded that this might be a Good Thing, but that for logistics folks you wanted the go go go people. Generally speaking though, I was trying to get away from dubious ethnic sterotyping in my theory-building.

So my next plan was to ask some actual French people. I mainly got a few evenings of drum-beating about how MSF has the best logisticians (not implausible - they do manage to scramble pop-up hospitals incredibly quickly), and some stories about 'well I was in this country, and there was no electricity and no beer, but the MSF logisticians had found beer and rigged up a cooling system using a dustbin, some wire, some straws and duck tape!' 'I was in this country, and they'd rigged up a system of pulleys and levers to pick the beer out of the cooling system so they didn't have to move. It even took the lid off so they didn't have to put their cigarette down for a second!'.

Eventually, though, I got an actual answer. Apparently there's a logistics training school in France. It's in Bordeaux. Which rather makes me wonder whether the French logisticians are good at getting the beer because their logisticians who trained at the French uber-logistics school, or whether the people good at finding the alcohol were also smart enough to find a training school in Bordeaux.

Dammit, why didn't *I* think to do my masters in Bordeaux!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Presidential Suite

Greg and Olivia moved out on Friday, so yesterday I moved down to what we're calling the Presidential Suite, because it's the size of a small flat. In fact, it's the size of *not that small* a flat.

I have joyously put all my clothes into the cupboard and moved into the bathroom, which even has a bath. Not much storage for things other than clothes, but I'm sure I can buy myself some shelves and maybe a desk somewhere, and in the mean time the fact that the room is palatial makes it easy to do the 'neat piles' thing - what annoyed me about my old room was not only the lack of any storage space, but the fact that there wasn't even the floor space to pile things up.

Best of all, I can get the internet in my room, which means I don't have to choose between being able to watch a film in bed at night and being able to download stuff at night (the only time the internet is quick enough to download things). This is basically the height of luxury.

Sadly the camera isn't working, so no pictures, but I might have to borrow one at some point just to show off.

Olivia and Greg are pretty well set up too - we went to visit them last night in their house in Ouakam, about halfway between Point des Almadies and the beaches and Point E, where I live and where the office is. They have a massive, massive house with three bedrooms, a kitchen and big living area, and a patio, for which they're paying 800 Euros a month all-in. Which makes me feel slightly queasy about Oxford rents!

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Beaded Thongs and T-Shirts

Last night being Friday, Team Guesthouse headed out. We went to Point Des Almadies, one of the parts of the city that sticks out into the sea, which has loads of seafood restaurants serving amazing, cheap, fresh fish, including local oysters, various fish no-one could identify, and.... sea urchins! Obviously we ordered a plate and passed them round - you don't actually eat the spiky bit, slightly to my relief, they're cut in half for you and you put lemon on and scrape out the flesh from around the outside. It wasn't awful, but to be honest it just tasted like fishy slime, so probably won't go for those again.

So we ate fish and drank cheap white wine, and as we did, people wandered around selling things. A lot of it was the usual African tourist tat - paintings, ebony statues, beaded jewellery. Then there were some T-shirt sellers, one of whom tried to sell me a t-shirt saying 'If you annoy me, I'm getting a second wife'. Just what I've always wanted.

The best though, were the women selling what were obviously beaded thongs. I'd seen these on the beach as well, so I asked one of the other people there, a long-term Dakar resident, about them. Apparently they're very common and a lot of Senegalese women wear them regularly. They're considered very beautiful, and if you sway your hips in a particular way then they're apparently enjoyable to wear. I can't help thinking that no matter how enjoyable to wear they are, you'd still be wearing a beaded thong, which can't be comfortable. But I guess I'm seeing the purpose of underwear differently to the Senegalese, because beading thongs are everywhere and you can even get glow in the dark ones. So that's the Christmas presents sorted then...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Bank Holiday in Dakar

So I've been here a week now, and finally I've done something vaguely interesting! In Senegal, Good Friday isn’t a bank holiday, but Easter Monday is, so we still had a three-day weekend. Saturday I was still too wrecked and cold-ridden to do anything except stay at home sleeping and reading, though I also ventured out to the supermarket again and moved furniture in my room around to make it easier to at least sort my clothes into neat piles rather than just letting my bag explode over the floor.

On Sunday, though, I was start to feel better, so I ventured out for a run. Unfortunately, 2 ½ km in, I realised I’d forgotten to put on sunscreen and since it was mid-afternoon, in Africa, I should probably go home and do something about that. Anyway, it was a successful experiment – not too much hassle, saw lots of other women out running, including one other lone white woman (aside: I need to remember to call them toubabs now, instead of wazungu). I’ve discovered there’s a hash in Dakar, so think I’m going to join them if I want to keep up this running malarkey.

On Monday, we sat around all morning before Aoife from Team Mali and I decided it was time to break the cabin fever. It was a bit cold and windy, but we decided it wouldn’t be a bank holiday without a cold, windy trip to the beach, so we decided to go to N’Gor island. We got a taxi to the place where you get the pirogues, passing by the Monument of the African Renaissance, a *cough* totally-gender-sensitive construction featuring a muscled African man striding into the future, carrying his child in one hand and dragging a bare-breasted female behind him.

I’d heard of this statue before, but wasn't prepared for its sheer scale – huge, and up the top of a mound with stairs up to its base. Running up those stairs, Rocky style, is my new ambition. Sadly the monument is quite a way from my house, so even getting there and back will require a reasonable amount of training, let alone facing what looked like about 200 stairs, but it’s always good to have goals!

Past the monument, we got a pirogue across to the island, complete with lifejacket (woo! Health and Safety!) and went for an explore. The island's pretty small - 5 minutes of so across - but whereas the mainland side has sandy beaches, the far side has dramatic rocks and surf. There were a few surfers out, so obviously can be done, but the water's still freezing so I think I'll wait a week or two until real summer starts!

With the island explored, we ended up back on the original beach where we shared a beer and a brochette of gambas with fries – huge, fresh, spicy, delicious and pretty cheap – and watched people on the beach. From my observations I conclude that common Dakar beach pass-times include:
- Football
- Wrestling (national sport in Senegal, dontcha know)
- Stripping down to your speedos, covering yourself in baby oil, then walking out in front of a group of people, bending over to touch your toes (with your back to the crowd) then getting down and doing press-ups in sets of 16 (yes, we counted) every 10 minutes or so. Of course.

Then, finally, as the sun went down, we got the pirogue back. So far, living in Dakar hasn’t felt that different to living somewhere in Europe - one of the less developed bits of Europe for sure, but still Europe. But the pirogue back reminded me that I’m definitely in Africa. We all got lifejackets again, but then they piled us into the boat like sardines in a can. When we pushed out, we were about 6 inches above the water, and whenever we got hit by a wave, it'd slop into the boat, we’d all get soaked, and the boat would get steadily lower. Luckily it was fairly flat, but it was still both scary and funny.

So a good day out, about 20 minutes travel time from my house, total cost: less than a tenner. Could definitely get used to this!

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Guesthouse Living

I actually don’t have much to say about Senegal yet, because this week I’ve mostly been at work or at home sleeping off a cold. So all I have to talk about is the guesthouse. It would be fair to say that this post is largely to reassure people (parents...) that I'm still alive.

All around the world, Oxfam has houses that are used by staff visiting the country. It’s much cheaper than hotels, as well as being nicer for the longer-term guesthouse residents, like me. Recently there was a bit of controversy around the one in Kenya, which has a pool. Ours isn’t that nice, but it’s still pretty cushy, with a big living area and wifi that has now decided it wants to work again, and a hammock that appeared from nowhere over the course of this week. Amusingly, it doesn't have a sharp knife or anything to cook in the oven with - but it does have three different ways to make coffee - four if you count the nescafe - which does rather say something about the general inmates.

At the moment, though, it’s pretty full, and most of the people here will be here a fairly long time – Team Mali still have no idea when they’ll be allowed back, Olivia and Gregoire are looking for a place but don’t know how long it’ll take, I’m here 11 months, and Elise, from Advocacy, is here 2 and a half months. There’s also Joaquim, a WASH guy from Liberia who’s here for a week for induction, but he mostly eats out. Anyway, all of us here for a while want to buy food and settle in. It makes it a bit tricky to manage the kitchen, and harder to keep track of which identical bottle of milk is whose, not to mention being difficult to fit all our milk in the fridge at all. All in all, it feels a lot like living in Cite in Geneva or Blakeley in Tufts, but, thankfully, with adults who don’t steal. One of Team Mali and I have taken to calling it the Big Brother house and commenting on what everyone’s doing in a bad Geordie accent: “it’s 8:15 in the Big Brother house, and everyone’s finally had their coffee” Unfortunately none of us ever do anything interesting enough for it to be amusing.

So, on my second night, we had a house meeting to figure out how to work things. We went through the kitchen and identified things that didn’t belong to anyone and were therefore communal (a jar of marmite! Some green lentils! Nescafe! Win!), divvied up the shelf space, and set up a kitty to buy the essentials: our morning bread, milk, butter, fruit, avocados and beer.

Since then, it’s all been pretty sweet. Everyone gets along reasonably well and respects everyone else’s space. Olivia and Gregoire have a one year old who looks cute and makes cute kid noises but who I have no responsibility for looking after. I don’t have to worry about going out for bread every day so if I oversleep I still get breakfast, and there’s always fruit. The yoga is no longer accompanied by pan pipes. The TV doesn’t work so can’t cause arguments. They all smoke like chimneys, but do it outside, so no complaints. It’s phenomenal for my French – I’ve realised my ‘domestic’ vocabulary is basically non-existent, because I’ve never needed to say ‘vegetable peeler’ or ‘knife sharpener’ in French before. And the fact that I'm talking to actual French people in French not about work means I'm learning some slang for just about the first time ever.

In other news, as my cold seems to have finally abated and I’ve finally had enough sleep to feel human again, tomorrow I’ll likely go out and hopefully do something interesting.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

First Day in Dakar

I’m in the guesthouse in Senegal, having got in last night. Airport wasn’t too bad – had a bit of trouble finding the person who was meant to pick me up, had to fend off a few taxi people who eventually believed I was being met, but all good in the end.
I shared a lift from the airport with Gregory and Olivia, a French couple coming out because she’s starting a job with Intermon Oxfam (Oxfam Spain), and got to the guesthouse to find it chocabloc with our colleagues from Mali – following the coup d’etat a couple of weeks ago and the worsening of the war, including our having to shut our programme office in Gao following its fall to the rebels, the decision’s been taken to evacuate our expat staff to the regional centre, so they’re all in the guesthouse at the moment.

This has pros and cons. The pros are that they fed me so I didn’t have to run out and shop on my first night (relief!). The cons are that the guesthouse is full so I got the room that no-one wants because it’s tiny and only has one drawer in it. Sigh. Guess I’ll be living out of a suitcase for the foreseeable then… Hopefully the Mali people will be back in Mali soon, then I can steal one of their rooms. Also, this would be good because it would indicate things are getting better in Mali. But mainly the rooms…

On the other hand, the guesthouse itself is pretty nice, which is a relief after the one in Chad, where my room was nicer but the common areas were grim. It’s got huge common areas, with tables inside and outside, a balcony upstairs, and a reasonable kitchen. Allegedly it has wifi as well, though I haven’t managed to connect to it yet and will probably post this tomorrow from the office. It’s also about a 3 minute walk from the office, which is going to be a nice commute.

This morning I was woken at 7 by two of Team Mali doing yoga outside my room to the sound of pan pipes, which made me feel a bit like being stuck in the toilet of a lowbrow restaurant, but which could have been worse. I got up and considered a run, but decided to wait till I knew the area a bit better. So instead I got Stephano, one of the yoga practicers, to take me to the local boulangerie, where we bought fresh baguettes for the house’s breakfast, then headed on to a cashpoint, a patisserie selling croissants and cakes, and a fruit stall where we bought tiny, flavourful papaya. Food wise, this was looking like a win.

At the office, I spent most of the day clearing emails and suffering death by induction. Always a pain when you just want to get on with the job, but at least I have a clearer idea of what I’m meant to be doing now, and I’m less worried that I’ll prove totally incompetent and somehow cause disaster.

After work though, another win. I needed to get food, so my boss and her partner took me to the Casino supermarket (yes, we have a French supermarket here. They sell lots of expensive things imported from France, and some less expensive local things). They wanted me to get a taxi back as they were worried I’d get lost (totally a reasonable fear) but I was equally determined not to, as I wanted to get to know the town. So I memorised where we went. Turn left after the sign for the chez Lila hairdresser, then right near the overpass. Then drive along next to the overpass and turn most of the way left. Follow the road across a little bridge to the centre medicale du cornice, then turn left. Then walk along the street to the supermarket.

Shopping done, I attempted to repeat in reverse. One small wrong turn, near the roundabout, but I got myself home. I feel a disproportionate sense of achievement, and the walk by the Corniche – the area by the beaches and the sea – has done me the world of good. There were dozens of people running there, including a fair few women, so I know I can run, and now I have somewhere to go. It wasn’t particularly pretty – though the Radisson hotel there overlooks the sea and I’m told is amazing for sundowners, which makes sense because it faces west across the ocean.

Just outside the house, I stop and pick up some papaya for breakfast tomorrow. It’d be coming it a bit strong to say I’m feeling happier about being here, but I feel like I’ve seen enough of the place to know that it’s nice enough, and whether or not I’m happy here will depend on the people. And whether or not I can get myself into a room that has some kind of storage device, because I don’t think anyone could be happy living with the contents of a suitcase strewn across the floor for a year.