Total Pageviews

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mykel's Africa Blog
Chapter 15: Death in Dakar and Rags to Riches

Travel is like anal sex. You can either fight what's happening and feel the pain, or relax, open up and enjoy it. --Mykel Board

I write this lying on the bed of Landing, my second Gambian couch-surfing host. It's about 2 in the afternoon. So far today... I slept until nine... went to the bathroom a couple times... drank several cups of tea... watched my host make GANA, a kind of fried cake for his step brother to sell on the street, earn some cash.... went back to sleep for a bit... had some tea with the neighbors... went back to sleep for a bit... drank some bottled water... played some spider solitaire... went back to sleep for a bit... sat in the sun while my host drew water from the compound's well and used it to wash my dirty clothes. Then, I went inside to sleep for a bit. You get the idea.

We planned to leave here at noon to see the crocodiles. Gana, as it should, comes first. This life is so different from what I'm used to... so different from my previous host who was non-stop hustling (quite a character, you'll learn more later).

Before we go back to Dakar, say hi to Landing, my host and gana maker:

The Gambians call making anything with flower and dough “baking,” no matter what the process. They call cleaning themselves... even using a rag and a small tub of water... “taking a shower.” Boiling water for tea or food is “cooking.” Army boots are “combats” Ah, English... and Sapir-Whorf.

And here's a close-up of the “baking”:

Let's leave The Gambia right now. Go back across the desert... head north... leave English (and Mandinka, and half a dozen other languages) behind and go back to French and Wolof. Back to Senegal, Dakar, Ouseman, and my Senegalese family. 
This is the family that cooks for me... actually they cook for the whole family-- that includes me. Rice and grilled fish... every meal... with or without bread...with mint tea or “green” (actually brown... but green out of the box) tea.

I used to love fish. Now, it'll take me a mouth before I can put another piece of our fine finned friends into my mouth.

In Segegal: for food it's rice and fish. For EVERYTHING else, it's family. Men can have up to four wives. They usually have at least two. Everyone is a brother, sister, step brother, step sister, step father, step mother, cousin, brother's second wife.

Another discovery, one of the people here in Ouseman's house is the maid. Even the poorest people have someone to clean and cook for them. She's originally from the Gambia... early 20s, pretty with a kind of sly haughtiness that... er... excites me. She's here every day, preparing the meals, sweeping the floor, burying wood to make charcoal... the schvartze.

Ouseman wants to take me to meet his grandfrere, older brother. Like in Japan, brothers and sisters in Senegal are always older or younger brothers and sisters.

GrandBro' lives in the countryside... near the beach. We'll go to the beach, have a peaceful time, relax... just enjoy life in the countryside.... away from “the ghetto.”

Of course, getting there takes taking several taxis to Way-the-Fuck Out in Senegal... coming from Way-the-Fuck-Out-the-Other-Way. Ouseman's grandfrere lives with his (the granfrere's) extended family in a half-completed house, near Mbour, south of Dakar. Yeah, I pay for all the transportation.

After saying hello to everyone, I'm invited to eat with the whole extended family. Guess what smell wafts out of the house.

I don't want to minimize the hospitality of the Senegalese. Though poor, they'd share their last meal with you. All guests are honored... though being a WHITE guest may involve other customs. One of the frustrating things is that I can never find out.

Every twenty seconds asks: You feel bad? You tired? You hungry? Maybe it's the only English they know. Satan help me if I ever say yes!

Actually, what gets to me most here is the lack of a warm shower-- or hot water at all. When my bike-tripping friends in Strasbourg told me of their travels, they mentioned a website: I laughed, thinking the name sounded more pornographic than hospitable. Now, I wish I could find one.

In New York, I complain because my shower turns cold after 10 minutes. Until now, I've never realized how precious those ten minutes are. I can't shave here either. The “bathrooms... usually a simple squatter shared by the whole house or, in The Gambia, shared by the whole compound. There are no mirrors in the Senegambian houses I visit... except maybe for one... attached to the back of a piece of furniture in the living room. Shaving's impossible, I'm starting to look like the dirty old man of my reputation.

Ouseman introduces me around. I forget all the names and their relationships to him. Not that I could sort it out anyway. It's breakfast time. They all squat on the floor around the fish and rice... digging in with their hand... right hand only. From somewhere they produce a squat stool... and a spoon. They must be for foreign guests.

Ouseman visits with his family, spends time talking with each of them. Big brother gives me a tour of the house. He's raising chickens on the roof. Looks like he's got a hundred teenaged chicks (I'm talking poultry here)... squeezed together in a closet on the roof... a space smaller than the tabletop now type on... I donno... How can you talk about animal rights to people in poverty? I don't. Also on the roof is a pigeon coop... like the one in On The Waterfront. There are only two pigeons in it.

The view from the roof is an interesting one. I can look down and see that while Ouseman's “ghetto” home had running water inside (cold only, and often shut off at the valve), here the water comes from a large well in the back yard.

In the bathroom is a sink and a toilet... neither connected to any water... just porcelain pieces stuck over holes in the floor. BYOW.

There are other concrete buildings around... all in a state of partial construction. Hang on... more later... lunch is ready. Guess what's for lunch.

After lunch, Ouseman spends more time with his family... lots of time... I play with the kids... take a nap... more play... more nap. It's about 4 PM. So much for the beach, I think. Ouseman is conversing with the family.... it's time for the first dinner. Guess what's for the first dinner.

About six, I do something like throat clearing and mention the beach.

Of course, Mykel,” says Ouseman. “Let's go.”

So we go off to the beach. It's a nice beach, uncrowded... pretty... cool. I take off my shirt, shoes and socks. The locals laugh.

Il veut bronzer,” says Ouseman's older brother.

To be like you guys,” says I.

We walk for an hour, the other guys don't seem so thrilled by the sand or the water. They're bronze enough, I guess.

After an hour, it's back to the concrete house. We sleep there until late next morning. (As is usual, other people share a bed so that I can have my own.) Before I know it, it's breakfast time. Guess what's for breakfast!

Then back to Ouseman's house. The process of returning means waiting for a taxi...more than an hour. I don't understand the system. It's something like: first you have to look at the license plate for a possible ride. Then you wait for the driver to shout the name of the city. Then you run and catch the cab, which may already be full and therefore reject you. The hour wait is normal, I later find out, but at the time, I'm obviously frustrated.

You tired?” asks Ouseman.

Fuck yeah,” I don't answer.

[REMINDER: In my last entry I wrote about the power... my power. How rain follows me like a lost puppy... how I brought rain to Morocco after a 7 month drought... how any candidate I vote for loses... And there's more: I turn girls into lesbians... guys straight... my being 5 minutes late will make the most random public transportation punctual... to the second. I've got the power... but Dakar is the first time I'm responsible for death.]

SCENE SHIFT: N'darry, Ouseman's younger brother, is taking me on a private night tour of the town. It's my last night here before I change couch-surfers. I'm moving closer to the city center, a place where it's easier to get to the station where the taxis leave for The Gambia. I'll be staying with a French family... white people.

Here, I'm the only white guy in town. That's the way I like it. Little kids look at me... most say Salaamalechem and giggle when I answer Malechemsalaam... Teens just smile and look. I wave when I pass. They shyly wave back.

N'darry is telling me how dangerous the place is. How I need to be on the lookout... how something can happen any minute...

I'm a security guard, Mykel,” he says in English much better than my French. “Security is my business. I used to work at the Japanese embassy. I know about these things.”

That's N'darry on the left. Well, it's the motorcycle on the left, but THEN it's N'darry. That's me in the middle, Ouseman on the right, and his sister sitting down.

N'darry and I now walk through the dark streets of the town. The open-air market is still open, though a few shops have closed up. 

[Note: When I came to Africa, I read that it's best to tune your daily life to the African daily life. Up with the roosters... to bed with the sun. Whoever wrote that had the right idea... wrong continent. In Africa... at least the Africa I've been living in... it is so oppressively hot during the day that people stay inside and sleep. They work a bit in the morning. Those who work the markets stay out all day... others siesta: from 10AM to 6PM. Stay inside... if you're rich... you may have a fan to help with the heat. Actual LIVING starts at 7PM (some offices first open at 6PM) You go out to enjoy yourself at midnight and stay out until sunrise... Like New York in the 70s-80s.]

My aunt died,” says N'darry. “We have some things to do.”

When did she die?” I ask.

About 14 hours ago,” he says.

I figure he means 14 DAYS. It's easy to get confused in another language.

You mean this month?” I ask.

I mean today,” he says. “The funeral is tomorrow.”

I killed her,” I don't say. “My curse spread to your family. I did it!”

I'm sorry to hear that,” I say.

My parents will leave early tomorrow,” he says. “You can go with them and they will leave you in town.”

No,” I tell him, “funerals are private affairs. I don't want to interfere with the family.”

I will tell my parents that,” says N'Darry.

The next morning, around 6:30AM, there is a knock on my door. I groan a come in.

Mykel,” comes Ouseman's voice from the hall, “it's time to get up, we have to go to the funeral. Bring all your bags.”

I stumble into my clothes, grab my bags and join the family in a search for a cab big enough to take us all. I expect to pay for the cab.

Fifty-fifty,” says Ouseman's father. “I want to be fair. Fifty-fifty.” It's the first... and so far the last... gesture of financial egalitarianism I've seen in Senegal (or in The Gambia... where, by the way... I learned today that “do you want to stop for breakfast?” means I want you to buy me breakfast.)

They drop me off at the Radisson hotel... a fancy shmantzy place with a private beach. It's where I'm supposed to meet Magali, my next couch surfing host(ess).

I pay seven dollars for a cup of coffee and small bottle of water. There I sit... and read... finish Tropic of Cancer... I'm about two hours early for the rendezvous. In one hour, Ouseman shows up.

I just want make sure you meet your next host,” he says. “You fine?” I smile and buy him a $4 Fanta.

About 20 minutes after the appointed time, Magali shows up. She's a white French woman, in her 40s, I'd guess. Sprite, handsome.

Mykel,” she says. We do the two cheek kiss thing. “Don't you just love this place? It's expensive, but so elegant.”

It's very nice,” I tell her.

I introduce Ouseman. They speak in French awhile. I ask her if I can buy her a cup of coffee.

No,” she says, “that's all right. The driver is waiting for us outside.”

Can we drop you somewhere?” she asks Ouseman.

He speaks to her in French. She nods. We go off to the giant SUV in the parking lot. The chauffeur puts my bags in the trunk. I get in the front seat. Ouseman gets in the back seat. We're off. They drop Ouseman off someplace. I head to Magali's place, not far from the Radisson.

We get out in a little court of big houses. Magali introduces me to the guard in front of her house. She unlocks the gate. We walk through a courtyard, past the swimming pool, and into the house.
It's always nice to get comments to these entries. Please leave one. You can also contact me on Facebook or at If I'm traveling, however, I may not be able to answer your email very quickly.

This is the 15h entry of my travel blog for this trip. Here are links to the past entries:

Episode 1 here (Before leaving New York 1)

Episode 2 here (Before leaving New York 2)

Episode 3 here (Before leaving New York 3)

Episode 4 here. (Before leaving New York 4)

Episode 5 here (New York to Paris)

Episode 6 here (Strasbourg Party Time)

Episode 7 here (Ryan Air)

Episode 8 here (Back to Paris)

Episode 9 here (Death in Tangier)

Episode 10 here (Resurrection in Tangier)

Episode 11 here (Monkey Business in Gibraltar)

Episode 12 here (Entering Senegal from the rear)

Episode 13 here (Killing Me Softly)

Episode 14 here (The Road to Dakar)

1 comment:

Marianne Lipka said...

Thank you for sharing your adventures and thoughts about cultural peculiarities. I like your language, very catching. I am curious to read the next chapter. See you some time. Marianne Lipka