Thursday, March 19, 2009

It’s a long way to Banjul if you wanna leave Dakar

Yeah is a long way, such a long way! Well, the naïve idea that from Dakar to Banjul should take 4 to 5 hours, first prediction of Mame Cheikh, was completely wrong. If fact took us around 24 hours. First of all, to leave Dakar is like trying to kill Clint Eastwood in a spaghettii western. The bus system is absolutely chaotic and the adrenalinic experience to bargain one of the transports is very stressing, with herds approaching you to sell any imaginable thing, even if you are under the protection of a Mouride. We took a “sept places”, one of the several Peugeot 505 station-wagons that have been adapted to the extreme conditions of Senegalese highways. The big crazy open urban market that constitutes the outskirts of the city is never ending. Everyone moves from one place to another, but no one seems to be doing anything productive.

The sept places was not the most comfortable way to travel, and we just had one stop when Mame Cheikh asked to stop the car in order to go to pray. Nevertheless when he told me this in French (prier) I understood that he wanted to go to the bathroom, and was weird that all men in the car followed him… Whatever, I’m getting use to the pray times: early in the morning (around 6:30), at 14:00, 17:30, 19:30 and 22:00, more or less… really mark the day here and makes you to structure your time in a different way.

I never realized when we left Dakar, because there is a continuous of small cities that extends the urban unproductive trade market, but at some point we abandoned the urban area and entering in the completely plane Senegalese rural landscape, very dry and quite death, with the exception of the honorable presence of the emblem of the nation, the creature that blows up Saint-Exupery’s imagination: “I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs were not little bushes, but, on the contrary, trees as big as castles” yes…. The Baobab!!! : ) This surreal inhabitant is all over the place, like performing a frenetic dance that follows rhythms out of the human’s time perception.

The other reason why the trip was too long was because to cross the Gambia River is necessary to take a ferry after the Senegalese border, and the last one was at 18hrs, so was impossible for us to even try to take it. Then, we needed to stop in the middle of the road, in a charmless place called Kaolack. Mame Cheikh knew the owner of the local pharmacy, so our stay was free, and he invites us to dinner with him. Everyone was laughing that my only talk was about baobabs…

When we came back to sleep, I looked myself in the mirror and found something strange, almost terrifying… at the beginning I do not quite understood but later I got it. I was just with black people the whole day, and a lot of people! And it was weird to see a white person, even the well known myself…

The day after, we woke up on time for the first pray and depart to KaoSlack bus station… bus station… another apocalyptic collection of sept places, street vendors, goats, garbage, unproductive zombies, etc… In the way from Kaolack to Karang, the border, I saw the real deep Senegal: a collection of small villages with rows of girls going to take water in the wells, kids taking care of the skeletal cattle and guys fixing their huts. Sounds stereotypical and stigmatized, but was like this. Even I had seen things like that in my travels for Latin-American, here the reality was so different, and my own trip had gone so far, that the emotion of the discoverer arose in my, I felt burning from the inside the flame that fueled the imagination of pasts generations and compensated the suffers of the big travelers… and all the epiphany was interrupted at the arrival to the border.

One of those wild borders. In both sides they were amaze of my passport, first time a Chilean appear in this part of earth, at least in the memories of the migration officers (that have been there for a while). They search in the list the requirements for this weird country, that they called Kili in wolof. In the Gambian side any attempt to extract money from me was dismissed when I mentioned the Gambian Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank as my employers. The last stage of the trip was to take the ferry close to the border and cross the broad River Gambia. One hour and we were in Banjul… the real trip had just started…

Friday, March 13, 2009

Just 4 me

Yesterday I was lucky. I was trying to reach a little bar called Mississippi in the area of the Cheikh Anta Diop University where I was told professors go to get drunk but my instructions and poor French were not enough for the taxi driver. He just left me in the front door of the university, and started looking for the bar in the not too safe streets around... when I found a decent bar (in Senegalese standards) I just went in and asked for a Flag and realised that it was a little stage...

- y at-il de musique aujourd'hui??
- bien sûr monsieur...

The beer was expensive, so I was expecting a good show, and it was amazing!!! Just when I came back to my room at la maison de l'universite and read my West Africa Lonely Planet I realised that I was in just4you, the best live music place in Dakar! and the artist was Cheikh Lo (seems like everyone is called Cheikh here...), one of the most popular Senegalese artists. Look this (see how this rich guys dance with CFA bills in their mouth, that afterwards give to the musicians):

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

back to the cradle?

The last days have been intensive. Just one month ago, and under a full moon in Amsterdam I started the forth decade, a moment that I took as a checkpoint to project me in the future, review the past 3 decades, see what have I learned in 30 years walking the non-straight line of life and use past as a guide to start this new stage. I’m grateful to life that at this point I have the opportunity to ask me: what would you like to do in the next decade? and be able to perceive plenty of unexplored exciting paths.

And in this transcendent period of my life the dance of reality has decided to play one of its delightful movements. I have been transported from the mansion of ultra-rationality in Switzerland to the cradle of human foundations in Africa. Of course logic thought make essential part of the human definition, but there is a lot more: feelings, spirituality, animality, etc, to be explored and developed, and I’m decided to take this trip as a return to the source.

What am I doing here? I came to implement a survey study of network interactions among households in villages of The Gambia, as a parallel research project related with the evaluation of a Community Driven Development Project of the World Bank (we work as an external and independent counterpart - I hope so... -). Why me? The place where I’m studying my PhD has recently merged with a development institute of Geneva, and now the Economic Section has started working in issues related with the field, primarily with the hire of Jean-Louis Arcand. He has implemented several studies related with impact evaluation, mainly in West Africa, and I planning to work with this professor for the reminder two papers of my PhD.

I arrive yesterday to Dakar (Senegal), where I will stay until the Saturday preparing some necessary stuff for the trip to Banjul (Gambia's capital city). Here I met Mame Cheikh, a Senegalese PhD student of the University of Saint Louis that will be part of the project. He is a Murid, the main Islamic brotherhood of Senegal (90% of the population follow some kind of sufi order, and they are very religious, as the difficulties to find a beer can tell!!), which started in the late XIX century and is known for the fight against colonialism, the cult of work and the openness to other belief. Mame Cheikh, as most of the people in Senegal, speaks Wolof, the local main language, a skill that will be very useful in our field work, even though people in the Gambian villages speak mainly Mandinka, but most can understand Wolof as well.

OK, this is just the begining of a long, long friendship....I hope that I will have time in the future to keep this blog updated, since I feel the need to keep track of the evolution of this new adventure for myself and to share it with some of you that might be interested... a bientôt !!

Para mi gente de Chile.... perdón que me puse a escribir este blog en ingles, pero hay varios amigos con los que quiero compartir impresiones del viaje y que no podrían seguirlo en español. Para mí también es un webeo escribir en ingles y hace las cosas mucho más lentas, pero espero lo tomen como una oportunidad para practicar la lengua de Shakespeare, ya que para mí también es un desafío intentar expresar mis ideas en esa idioma… Un abrazo desde la cuna de la humanidad!

In the picture: For first time in my life someone went to take me at the airport with my name written in a sign!!!... Thanks Samba