Stranded on Tin Can Island

Our household goods and car are enjoying their last night on Tin Can Island, a tropical paradise for 40-foot containers off the coast of Lagos.

Buxsailor tracking table

Our goods should have arrived in Rotterdam last week, but as a result of congestion at the port, they had a bonus ten days of cocktails and afrobeat on Tin Can island, dodging pirates and acting inconspicuous … as only a 40-foot container can.

God knows why our shipper in Dakar put our stuff on this ship — it stops at every lampost round the Bight of Guinea before turning round and heading north to Europe. It’s no wonder M. Calasans of CATT déménagements has stopped replying to my emails — honte à toi, Patrice !

At least we know where the ship is now, thanks to fascinating tracking sites such as this.

Of course, given our paranoia experience of double-dealing African officialdom, we cannot be sure that our container actually contains our goods; it is perfectly possible that one or more Senegalese services “rerouted” our goods before the container was sealed. It wouldn’t be the first time a container was “washed overboard”.

What we can be sure of is that baby #4 will be here before our baby goods, so we’ve started buying and borrowing the basics as best we can: bath, blanket, bibs and bed.

The “B”s are covered.

Now, has anyone got a pram going spare?

Deep in it

Just heard that our stuff, including essential babyware and car, will now be leaving Dakar around the date it was supposed to arrive in the Netherlands. Apparently the delay is due to congestion in the port. The whole coast of Africa must be gridlocked if it takes two weeks to clear the way to port. I reckon the more likely causes are either incompetence or corruption — either our agent has no backup plan for these types of situation, or he forgot to pay off a key bureaucrat in the chain of exporting goods.

I’ll be glad when I don’t have to deal with this sort of crap. It was the same in Jamaica, by the way, trying to store and ship our stuff. Sure it got done in the end, but only after hours of emailing and skypeing every few days, wheedling and conniving, trying to explain what should have been understood from the start. It’s exhausting.

There really is a difference in culture that is almost insurmountable. And the difference comes in the education, both at home and at school, between the traditional style (“because I say so!” “don’t hit your sister” WhAcK! “Memorize these unrelated data”) and a more modern style (“… otherwise you’ll get your shoes wet”, “tell me why you hit her”, “do a project with your group”). You get the drift. And the results do come through in adulthood. The former culture is submissive, non-collaborative, always seeking an angle to promote or at least protect their own position, lacking initiative; the latter is reasonable, can handle negativity, can empathize with the customer and behave in such a way as to maximize the customer’s position, etc.

But for me, the best thing about being here is sleeping through the night. I don’t know why, but in Dakar I rarely slept the night through, usually waking at five am, worrying about one or more of the problems that needed to be dealt with.

Here, I sleep through … I may still be exhausted but it’s my alarm that wakes me, not my worries.

Edit at 9 am next day: Strike through “I sleep through”.
Reason: Sitting up with baby JuJu from 12:30 to 2:30 am. Choking in snot. beurrggh.

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I feel like Donald Trump

My cellphone runs flat each day. The battery is fine; it wears out because I spend most of my waking hours with the phone pressed close to my ear. Callers always seem to be surrounded by fighting couples with screaming children, stuck in heavy traffic outside a mosque with a new 5000W PA from the Saudis … either that or it’s a sign of my aging that I can’t filter sounds any more.

Hey, why beat about the bush: I hate cellphones. I hated regular phones already. Why do I have to be always available? I already get annoyed by the salesperson who answers another customer on the phone when I’m in the midde of a purchase. Doesn’t the person who’s actually, physically in front of you trump the other who couldn’t be bothered to quit their office/house/bed?

But I’m digressing to soon.

Why do I bother to spend so much time on the phone if I hate it that much? Sales, baby! I’ve discovered (yet another) new talent: wheelin’ ‘n’ dealin’! Buy low, sell high. Or in our case, buy tax free, reduce by 20% for six months’ use, bite your nails and count the days, then reduce by another 10% and bam! Reel ’em in!

What the hell am I talking about?

We’re moving on.

We’re clearing out.

Purging.

Downsizing.

I made a little website to sell our excess stuff — how the hell did we end up with three couches? — and have had 10,000 hits and 1,000 follow-up calls. While I was talking to one “customer”, I had two other callers lined up and an SMS on the side. It has been completely crazy and a hell of a thing to manage, with people coming by at all hours with wads of cash (:D) and others getting annoyed that I’d already sold the cutting board with an inbuilt drawer with four knives … Please stop calling … it wasn’t so great (actually I barely used it; I thought it was crap).

But it’s all good.

We’re leaving this place.

It’s the last time.

I’d say it’s for the kids — #4 due in April! — but it’s for all of us, truth be told.

Tired of corruption, incompetence and religious intolerance.

Seeking independence, respect for others and for the community, streets that get cleaned, people who respect their environment, bicycles, and eating food without worrying about the after effects for the rest of the evening.

Sorry Senegal. The spirit of Teranga (hospitality) passed us by. We leave with a feeling on unrealized potential on your part and our own. We would have liked to have enjoyed you more, and we would have liked the many wonderful people we have met to be able to fulfill their dreams.

Unfortunately we were all ultimately ground down by the chicaneries and nepotism, the hands-off, scratch-my-back, close-one-eye, grease-my-palm, pay-your-dues, know-your-place, kiss-my-ass, can’t-lose-face attitude that permeates all activity in Senegal.

(… to be continued … when I get off the phone…)

Bara the Wifebeater

It’s not the name he would choose, and no one dares use it to his face, but with his empire in our street reduced to his wife’s chop shop, Bara has little left to show for himself except his frustration and his fists. Yet at the peak of empire, the ruler of Rue 103 was a respected entrepreneur, running a general store from a one-room shack, a popular table-football club and a busy brickmaker’s yard. But he was squatting on land too valuable to be left to a poor man without connections, and so last month a bulldozer razed the vacant lots and a team of labourers quickly knocked up a wooden fence around the perimeter. After that, work stopped until ownership was settled between various well-connected claimants, downtown in the air-conditioned offices of lawyers paid to do what they’re told.

The brickyard used to be a hive of activity: a constant traffic of horse-drawn carts bringing sand and gravel and taking away ready bricks; one man mixing the concrete; two others filling the brick mould, scraping off the excess, carrying it to the edge of the yard and tapping it out to join the lines of other bricks baking in the sun. Each gesture repeated a hundred times; each man could anticipate the other’s actions and match his own in a smooth series of movements that was as choreographed as a ballet. It was hypnotic to watch under a white-hot sun.

Bara supervised horizontally from a cardboard mat in the shade of a lean-to by the wall. He fiddled with his radio and dozed until the worst of the heat had passed. Then he would stand and stretch, and inspect the pile of reject bricks. “This one’s ok! Fix this one! It’s good enough!” His workers sorted through the pile in silence, adding chipped and split bricks to the waiting carts.

Then Bara would straddle his most coveted object, a black and dented scooter, and ride loudly down the rutted lane, nodding to his peers and ignoring the others. Where he went, I don’t know.

At dusk, he returned and pulled the boys from the table-football, giving their places to the adult clients eating at his wife’s chop shop. The adults made more noise than the children ever did, living out their lost ambitions of glory on a battered wooden table and eleven player pegs. The cries and protests continued until after dark — a wonder since there was no light to play by.

Bara retired to his wife’s table and shouted for his food. She served him at arm’s length; unfortunately, Bara’s arm was longer and never failed to reach out and slap her, even while his right hand was already scooping up rice from the bowl. One smack was enough to make a point — I’m the boss.

With the loss of his other activities, Bara has turned to wifebeating full-time, chasing her into a corner and ignoring her screams or the calls from her customers. Disgusted by the violence, fewer people frequented the place, preferring to eat in peace in the hot, tarpaulin tents recently set up at the end of the street. And now, in Ramadan, there are no customers at lunchtime at all.

Which leaves Bara his final venture, renting out a tall ladder to his neighbours, including me. For the equivalent of a day’s wages, he lent me the ladder for a few hours so that I could install an air-conditioner for the kids’ bedroom. Others shook their heads when I told them the price, but none could get Bara to budge — he knew it was for me and he knew I would pay.

I don’t mind the price, really I don’t — it’s only a question of time before another rich person dispossesses him of his sleeping yard. And the worse it gets for Bara, the worse it gets for his wife. That I mind.

Managing discontent

The title of this post refers to C. Wright Mills’ unflattering description of the raison d’être of trades union leaders (learn more …). It’s a phrase that has stuck in my head since studying sociology A-level 22 years ago (OMFG!) — I ended the year quoting Prince Kropotkin on the ideal of anarchism as akin to pursuing the sun as it sinks ever out of reach beyond the horizon … oh happy days!

Now of course I have to pay my own electricity bills, which implies less idealism and more hard graft — hell yeah!

In Senegal, the quality of the electricity is very poor: it fluctuates in a most alarming way, sending our fan into a hyperbolic cyclone spin cycle or powering down to a mere whisper of a breeze. In the weirdest situation, the current falls to the point where only one socket works downstairs — from which I run an extension into the kitchen to power the fridge/freezer. Even more bizarrely, the upstairs power at these times is unaffected, allowing us to run two split air conditioners and all the lights we desire.

The quality and reliability of electricity is an issue that plagues many West African states (learn more (in French)). In short, the problem comes down to a lack of planning. The lack of investment in infrastructure for a period of many years means that the transmission is inefficient; yet more basic, the state does not have the foreign exchange to buy the fuel necessary for the power stations.

So what are the consequences? Instead of planning for a gradual upgrade of the electricity grid or preparing a realistic plan for generating foreign exchange, the managers of the electricity company, SENELEC, are forced to cut off sections of the population for several hours at a time in a sequence that has as much to do with psychology as with technical capacity. It would be fascinating to attend the meetings in which the non-provision of a basic service is planned out to carefully take into account the psychological cracking point of each neighbourhood. The question is not how the limited supply can be spread fairly, but how long a given population can be left in the dark before they take to the streets. To complicate matters further, the technicians and managers must make sure never to cut off any important member of the ruling government party, nor any leading member of the opposition, for that matter, for fear of providing motives for rallying anti-government support. And one final point: do not flip the switch during an important football match, or else the mob will come and pull you from your permanently air-conditioned office (read more …).

It’s a real casse-tête chinois, as they say in French, meaning a tortuously difficult puzzle. One wonders if it wouldn’t be easier to plan to avoid such a situation occurring in the first place; sadly that is one of the major shortcomings of life in Africa: the laissez-faire attitude to problem solving, where the problem will be ignored until it is too late to solve it without calling on resources that are also lacking as a result of poor planning. The short term, quick fix, half-arsed botch job is the norm here. Concrete is made from illegally mined beach sand that contains too much salt, which is then mixed with insufficient quantities of cement, to produce a porous wall that can literally be rubbed away with your hand. And our neighbours wonder why their basement is flooded every time it rains.

Curtis Mayfield’s curious line suddenly makes sense in this context:

Take nothing less,
Than the second best.
Move on up

Enfin, we come back to the word graft, used above to mean hard work, but now in its sense of bribery and corruption. What follows is an illustration of why the electricity supply is not working, and why it is not only due to a lack of government funds.

When we moved into our house on 1 April, I was advised to see Mr F. at SENELEC in order to facilitate the reconnection of power. I gave him 5,000 CFA ($11) and we were back on the grid within 24 hours rather than the typical 3 to 5 working days. Since then we have not received a single electricity bill. Before leaving on holiday in June, I went by the SENELEC offices and queried this situation. It appeared that we had not been put in the computer system, and therefore could not be billed. There was no sign of my contract, and Mr F. was absent that day and no one could follow his paper trail. Oh, I thought, no bills … tempting idea, until the day they catch up with you. We had had a similar experience with gas bills in Rome, where our anticipated usage was consistently underestimated for a whole year. When a meter reading was finally taken, we ended up with such a large bill that I had to pay it back in installments.

The SENELEC people reassured me that I could regularize my situation after I got back from holiday. So last week I went back, and saw Mr F. He did a quick estimate of our usage for the last six months and came up with a figure of over 500,000 CFA ($ lots). I was shocked, but Mr F. leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Sure enough he called. (Actually he hung up before I answered because he was out of credit, so I had to call him back.) Here was the deal: Mr F. could arrange for my current meter reading to be entered in the computer as my initial reading of 1 April, thereby making six months’ worth of electricity vanish. The fee for this trick was plain simple: 300,000 CFA in an envelope.

But who ends up paying for the electricity we used? We do! — through the daily power outages due to the lack of money to pay for fuel. We were without power for 15 hours last night and today!

So no, as tempting as it might seem, I’m not playing that game. We’ll eat pasta for a month and pay for what we used. At least that way I know the money is going to the electricity provider in order to continue providing me with power, rather than straight in Mr F.’s pocket.

Maybe I’m as naive as I was 22 years ago.