Andrew in Senegal
I first visited West Africa three years ago as a volunteer on a month-long international work camp that UNA Exchange had placed me on. I travelled through Ghana into Togo, where I taught in a summer school and helped build self-composting toilets for a village otherwise deprived of sanitation facilities. Once I had returned to the UK, I always quite fancied coming back for a bit longer.
At 2am on Monday 26th September, I stumbled off a flight from Lisbon to Dakar, Senegal, excitedly punch-drunk on in-flight wine. I was back in Africa, the realisation of a long-held dream! I was fired up! Wired! I�m coming to Dakar to work at the British-Senegalese Institute and save the world!
Seven weeks later, I am settled into my job and beginning to take stock of Dakar�s beauty, vibrance, stench, chaos and contradiction. Like everyone�s conception of an African capital, Dakar has its fair share of goats, battered taxis, brightly painted buses, hawkers, hookers and con-men. But, it also has more diplomats per square mile than you might like to imagine. As young boys sell Nescafe coffees for 5p a throw, and aged Mamas fry doughnuts on the side of the road, convoys of Mercs regularly hurtle down Boulevard de la Republique delivering politicians to their ministries and big businessmen to their villas.
My point? This city seems to have polarised extremes of wealth I could ever have conceived of. Even the normally comfortable middle class, teachers and small business leaders, are living in tiny homes with no running water or electricity, having to travel miles to their place of work.
Living as an ex-pat in Dakar has given me insight into the harsh realities of urban life in a developing country which wouldn�t have been possible in only a few weeks. As the days roll into weeks and I become accustomed to life here, I am continually amazed by the enormous socio-economic disparity that is visibly apparent in daily life. I would like to think I won�t not get used to this.
Haves and have nots...
On the face of things,
In the have category, there are politicians, diplomats, businessmen and the intellectual elite. Then almost everyone else supposedly falls into the second grouping and lives without adequate health care, spacious accommodation, secure employment or a regular electricity supply. Factually, there is some truth in this.
As a member of the have club, I often wonder about the ethics of living a life of a (comparatively) very high standard, relative to the country in which I live. For example, last weekend as a group of twenty fellow ex-pats, (mostly staff of UN agencies) we hired a catamaran for the day to take us around a few islands, swim in lagoons and slurp champagne. Although this only cost us 16 quid each, it is worth remembering that the mean monthly Senegalese salary is only double this. So there I was, kicking back on the foredeck, topping up my tan, when a wooden boat with three local fishermen pulled alongside and started begging, claiming to have not caught any fish that day. You�d be surprised how the other catamaran dwellers responded.
Another perk of the have club, and this might also be because I am a white man in Black Africa, is being a regular point of focus for pick-pockets, con artists and rip-off merchants in the markets. And can you blame them? If always absolutely skint, why not �redistribute� the wealth of someone apparently far richer? I came to think of this when I got mugged (at knife point, I might add) a few weeks ago. Walking along the road with a bundle of shopping from the market, and talking on my mobile, three young men jumped from behind a wall to forcibly requisition my belongings. Justifying mugging would be hard, understanding it would be easier.
Back then to having and not having. Which group really has what? Materially, yes, I have much more than most Senegalese (I�m aware of the generalisation, though) but otherwise? Is being able to eat out every night, pay someone to wash your tailor-made clothes (I have two maids, yes, two.), and get smashed on imported booze really an advantage? Or, is living in a warm familial atmosphere, eating together every mealtime, looking after the rest of your family and taking pride in the sustenance of cultural values worth more? It depends on your sense of value, of course. With that in mind,