Friday, July 11, 2008

Being an Old Africa Hand: the First Steps

I have spent a total of four weeks in West Africa, two weeks in Mali (my honeymoon), and now two weeks in Senegal. On these trips, one sort of person I met was the Old Africa Hand, the outsider who had really put in the time in Africa, learned the language, suffered the stomach flu, traveled around, who really knew something. They were a varied bunch, none of them resembling Graham Greene characters.

Four weeks is a necessary but trivial start on four years, or whatever it takes to achieve Old-Africa-Handage. It takes time. West Africa is complicated. Difficult. Different. That steer up above - he's just standing across from our hotel in central Dakar. A little strange. Some tips, from my own experience, and borrowed from others.

One can visit Senegal to go to the beach. This makes no economic sense for Americans, but is not so crazy for Europeans. ("Italian? Espagnole?" asked the touts at the resort town of Saly. American? They're incredulous. Americans don't come here).

One can also go to see nature (on the left, a green-faced monkey at the Bandia nature reserve, overlooking our lunch). Our half day in a pirogue in the mangrove swamps of the Siné-Saloum Delta made me wish for a week. During migration season, every species of Asian and European migratory bird passes through a national park on Senegal's northern border. But West Africa is not South Africa, and not Kenya. Nowhere close.

One goes - I go - to West Africa to meet people. To see how they live, to see what they do. To talk to them, hear their views of things. So the language problem is critical. If you don't have any French and are understandably nervous, go to Ghana. "West Africa for beginners," an Old Africa Hand calls it.

Don't be nervous, though. There's a solution. Go with a group. At a minimum, hire a driver. In Bamako, in Dakar, you can struggle your way around with cabs (next time, I'm learning how to use the public transit. Next time). But to leave the big city, you need a car and driver. Specify that you need a car with seatbelts. Specify that you need a driver with English. He may cost more. He's worth it.

As a tourist, your driver becomes your best friend. He knows everyone, he knows everything. Just ask him. You want to have tailored shirts made - he'll take you to the fabric stall, get you a price somewhere between tourist and local, then take you to his cousin who is a tailor. Just go shopping without him, and tell him how much you paid - the look of agony!

Perhaps you will feel conflicted, not used to hiring servants. That's good. It will be one guilty feeling among many. The developing world is a difficult place to visit for many reasons - be sure to look up per capita income and literacy and schooling rates before you go. But your driver (and your hotel manager, and any number of other people) are also ambassadors to their country, a country of which they are very proud. And you're paying them. It all works out.

Senegal and Mali are poor, unhygienic (expect to be sick, feel lucky if you're not), and badly maintained. The air in Dakar is appalling, and at any time a truly hideous odor may cross your path. The souvenir sellers are endlessly irritating.

I wish I understood why I like the place so much. I'll go back whenever I can.


  1. Not like Graham Greene characters? Aww, you've ruined a dream.

  2. I'm sure the Greenelanders are around somewhere. Actually we met a drunk Italian at a nightclub who might qualify. He had run a construction business in Senegal for ten years, having left Italy because it was too corrupt! (!!)

    We were waiting to hear Cheikh Lo play mbalax for four hours. The Italian had come in just to talk to the bartender, and because whiskies were three dollars. He left before the music started. He would be back, he said, once the music ended (which would be around 4 or 5 AM).

  3. Ahh, that sounds more like it ;). From what's going on in Italy these days his story doesn't sound too far-fetched, sadly. Your posts about your trips has really stoked my wanderlust. So pleased to see you had a great time!

  4. Your comment reminds me of another tip. Senegal and Mali don't fare to well on corruption measures (see, for example). But as a tourist, there won't be any problems. They're not like Nigeria. If you try to open a business, who knows.

    If anyone wants to disabuse me about Nigeria, feel free.

  5. I went to Bandia too! And the Djoudj migratory bird reserve. I didn't think I'd find birds all that exciting but it was beautiful. I think I would still find the East African game parks quite exciting but those two reserves fulfilled my animal dreams quite nicely.

  6. The Djoudj bird reserve is high on my list for my next visit, whenever that will be.