A good day

"Discipline, Work, Success"

Things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise.
 Surangama Sutra

With its matchless landscapes, unparalleled wildlife, smiling children and the constant threat of adventure, Africa is on the face of it one of the most interesting travel experiences for those interested in something unquestionably different.  However, it is slowly dawning on me that the true charm of Africa is much more subtle, evasive and complex than any of the headline grabbing taglines mentioned above. More subtle and, perhaps, even more compelling.

To fall in love with Africa you have to find it utterly frustrating. It is never what you expect it to be, neither is it what you want it to be. The landscapes are striking, but look closely and they are covered in litter, or eroded by human intervention. The animals are dying or corralled. The smiling children are filthy and generally asking you for money. And the adventure takes oh such a long long time to get going.

The charm is there though; you just have to adjust your perspective and expectations slightly. Here’s why I had a good day today:

A Kiva borrower, Abdoulaye, a fish seller, helps negotiate the price of my dorade for dinner

Stepping out of my auberge in the pleasant, brilliant sunshine of an African morning, I was lucky enough to pick up a car quickly to take me the two kilometres into town. The car is a battered peugeot 207 and with the exception of the rally car wheel, it could almost be the one I used to drive as a 17 year old. My chauffeur is a lanky young African man, grinning at me and chewing on a stick. I grin back and look out of the window at early morning Mbour as we stop to pick up fellow travellers; a woman with a basket of goods to sell, a young man in a brilliantly white polo shirt.

My coffee vendor recognises me as I step out of the battered car. He grins at me too, a brilliant shock of white toothed happiness. By the time I arrive he has spooned the two tea spoons of Nescafé into a plastic cup. No sugar. It took us a while to get that right, but now he high fives me as he pours in the hot water. “Pas de sucre”.

Early morning is definitely the best time of day in Mbour, I love walking through the sandy streets as the iron doors clang open revealing the dark stores within, the goods and wares stashed behind iron grilles and piles of rice, barely visible in the dim interiors. My second car takes me further into town, swerving slowly around the giant puddles left by the rain and chewed up by passing lorries.

8 am and my colleagues are arriving. Amadou, my Kiva colleague and I cross the road to a small corrugated iron room where our breakfast lady awaits us. Everyone has a breakfast lady here in Senegal, they should be unionised as an essential service. “Salaam Malakom”, we greet our hostess and fellow diners, a young woman and an older man sitting on wooden benches laid out along the walls. “Malakom Salaam”, they greet us in return. Today I have what I always have, half a baguette filled with a spicy dark lentil stew, “Ndiame”, and a café touba, a rich cinamon infused coffee.

The UIMCEC chauffuer takes us the 30 kms out to the village of Thiadia. The Credit Officer here, Jean-Luc has been waiting for us with a list of potential Kiva clients to meet. There are eight in all, but we spend so long visiting each of them that we only visit three. The first is a young woman who rents out chairs for events and parties. She started the business with a micro-loan to buy 25 chairs. Now she is on her third loan and has a 100 chairs and two tents.

Drinking fresh sweetened milk with Kiva borrowers, (L to R: Amadou, Jean-Luc and the shepherdhess)

The second borrower is a livestock raiser, a widow and mother of six children. The older children are out with the cattle and goats helping them find food. None of them go to school. I sit on the bed in her single room and she gives me sweetened fresh milk to drink from a thermos flask. Through the interpretation of Amadou and Jean-Luc We talk about the economics of animal husbandry, the lack of any veterinary services or a vaccination park. I have seen the figures, I know there is no room to lose even one animal.

We leave the herders and walk on through the village, through the sandy streets, towards the home of our third borrower. Much of the courtyard is in the shade of an enormous Mango tree, its deep green leaves providing welcome contrast to the washed out pastels of sand and concrete. The family is gathered in the shade of another tree near the house, talking quietly or sleeping in the heat of the day.

It is lunchtime and we are invited to join the husband and wife for lunch, rice and fish eaten communally from a large bowl. We wash it down with cold water from the well. They are Christian and for some reason this touches me as we pause to ask God’s blessing on the food. After lunch the young daughter and son hitch a donkey to a cart and drive us out to view the project they are working on. Our donkey valiantly pulls us through the dusty fields, through the playful baobab trees, towards an area fenced by bushes and rope.  This is the first field enclosure I have seen here and I comment on this unusual aspect. Our host is ambitious.

Playful Baobabs

Inside the land has been turned into a kaleidoscope of different projects. No less than four wells provide irrigation for small plantations of ground nut bushes, mango trees, courgettes and other vegetables. The project is a family affair and all four members are keen to show me around. Everyone else here grows “Couscous”, the father tells me, because their fathers and their grandfathers grew it. But it’s not worth anything, so why should he grow it? With the profits he hopes to make from the pigs he bought with his Kiva loan, he hopes to buy more pigs to start a business here on his land. Ultimately he wants to breed high value sheep for civil servants and get rich. It strikes me that the principle consumers of high value goods here are civil servants. Another sign of corruption.

Our friendly UIMCEC chauffeur appears speeding down the main road in his large white 4X4 and we take our leave of the family and head back into town. The industry and determination of the people I have met have touched me no less than their creativity.

That evening, tired after walking under the African sun, I slip into the pool and revel in the sensation of being utterly surrounded by water. A rare enough event in this sun parched land.

Timbo in the Baobabs!

People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong.
Why not try and see positive things,
to just touch those things and make them bloom?

Thich Nhat Hanh


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Tales of Thiès

My room in Thies, after a particularly hot 'bikram' session

Thiès, it would appear, is not conducive to blog writing. Senegal’s second city with a population of c.270,000 (according to Wikipedia), situated some 70 kms East of the capital Dakar, Thiès is still a busy town inspite of the demise of its raison d’etre: the railways. One train a day manages to chug the short distance to Dakar and back, but the rails leading North, South and East are sadly overgrown, while rusting carriages rot in their siding graveyards. This is a shame because Thiès could really do with a raison d’etre.

I arrived in Thiès exactly one month ago to work with U-IMCEC on their Kiva programme in the area. The Fellows have a plan to blog about our efforts to live under the poverty line in our respective countries.  I should really have jumped on this chance as my accomodation at 20,000 XOF for the month (or 85 pence a night) would have made the rest of the experience easy. I have no problems eating rice and fish twice a day at 5op a plate, but living in a small cramped room on the first floor trapped between the diesel fumes of a major road and the smell of drains from our waterless bathroom was an experience I would happily not repeat.

We are now approaching the hottest season of the year here in Senegal and Thiès, being utterly landlocked and surrounded by desert, is the place to experience la chaleur! Embracing this I downloaded Bikram Choudhury’s yoga class from itunes, waited until the hottest part of the day and then attempted to do an hour and a half of yoga without a mirror. I did manage to sweat a lot and was beginning to revel in Bikram’s new, cheap “torture chamber” before a savage mosquito assault left me with an infected foot and effectively put an end to my yoga.

The mangos in Thies are unbelievable... they almost make it worth visiting!

Sadly my time in Thiès also corresponded with one of significant change at U-IMCEC, with many staff changing roles and the head of the office moving to take up a post at HQ in Dakar. I seemed to slip through the net and spent my days alone, sweltering in the office during interminable power cuts before (normally) giving up and jumping in a cab to take me into one of the town’s central restaurants and cafes, where under gently swirling fans and with European style coffee or very cold beer (depending on the hour – well, actually, often it didn’t), I would quickly forget any attempt to experience life below the poverty line.

Thiès is small enough for “Toubabs” to meet easily and regularly and as well as a number of new and dangerous Peace Corps friends (Peace Corps is surely a misnomer, those guys are way more dangerous that marines), I became good friends with fellow Kiva Fellow Sherrise from New York. In amongst afternoons spent lounging in Cafe Pamanda, we  managed to get away for some great weekends, including a memorable trip to the beautiful seaside town of Saint Louis where we rented beachfront bungalows with en suite bathrooms, air conditioning and  the noise of breaking waves to replace the thundering of overworked and under-maintained Senegalese lorries.

The morning after the riots: cleaning up the burnt out tyres from the roundabout outside my flat

(For more on the Thiès riots, see my Kiva blog post at: http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/2011/07/06/a-senegalese-spring/)

It was also Sherrise who perhaps best summed up the squalor of my living arrangements. Having accompanied me for some moral raising dibiterie (bbq’d lamb, its really great, but you can get it all over Senegal there’s no need to come to Thiès), I sat re-bandaging my swollen foot chez Chateau Young. “No wait”, Sherrise exclaimed, drawing my attention away from my troubled limb, “is that a cloud of diesel fumes coming in through your door?” It was.

Sherrise and I take a piroque ride in the bird sanctuary outside Saint Louis. If only Kiva had a partner there...

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A Toubab in Rufisque

This is my friend Francoise

This Sunday Francoise invited me to a party to celebrate the Confirmation of her cousin in the town of Rufisque, about 30 km from Dakar.

This is my friend Cathy

Cathy is Francoise’s sister. I met Francoise during my first week in Darak. Since then she and her family have made me feel extremely welcome here in Senegal. Rosine, Francoise’s mother, taught me to make Yassa (see previous post), while Noel her brother is a social entrepeneur with whom I’ve had some great conversations.

Rufisque provided some great opportunities for some photos!

Rosine and I, sharing a beer

Rosine has given me her surname, so I am now known as Tim Sambu. There was a party going on around us…

And the Senegalese do love to dress up…!

Beaux gos...

There were lots of children, who loved the camera. I came back with 315 photos and a sore trigger finger!

Having maintained a slow pace all day the party didn’t go on too late, inspite of the entreaties of my new friend Jean… As darkness fell we wandered through the streets to the house of a friend of the family, where I shared their son Michel’s bed and was woken up at about 5 am by the loudest rooster in the world. But it was a great day!

Cathy, Marie-Therese (Aunt), Yours Truly, Francoise

And as we were walking home this morning, guess what I saw….

There you are little chap!



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A Receipe for Chicken Yassa!

Chicken Yassa, ready to go! Yum!

I was at my new friend Francoise’s house this weekend, watching a cookery programme with her Mum when I expressed an interest in Senegalese cuisine. “I love cooking too!” her Mum said, “I will teach you to make yassa!”

Two days later I received a call from Francoise early in the morning. It was a bank holiday and I was still asleep. “Would you like to come over for lunch, my Mum’s making yassa?”. Sleepily I wondered if I had understood, as I knew Francoise was working that day. But I had it right, her Mum had invited me around for a cooking lesson!

I arrived carrying an extremely heavy watermelon in the midday sun and had to be sent for a shower before we got going…

Chop and mix the ingredients for the sauce

To prepare the sauce:

1. 3 large onions

2. Loads of garlic

3. Lime juice

4. Chillis! (Lots if you’re me)

5. Salt and pepper

Marinade the chicken overnight in lime juice, garlic, salt and peper and a little mustard and then grill or bbq…

BBQ chicken is best!

While the chicken is cooking, heat oil in a pan and cook the sauce ingredients. Then prepare to add magic…!

La Chef!!!

Put the cooked chicken in with the onions etc, add water and stock cubes and boil vigorously for about 20 minutes and voila!

I had three helpings and then collapsed on the coach where I slept for the rest of the afternoon. In the evening Francoise came back from work and we had yassa again for dinner. Then, with another Senegalese power cut paralysing the city around us, we sat in candlelight and exchanged stories from our childhoods, Francoise and her Mum telling me tales of growing up in the Cassamance, the region in the green South of Senegal.

Later on Francoise’s elder brother Noel came back from church and we tried singing a few songs in English and dancing around the sofas, until eventually a bed was found for me and I woke the next morning to find the power was still out and I was late for work!

Noel looking ready for the catwalk! Dressing up for church is serious business!

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Working Animals, Microfinance and Conservation

In the developing world the fortunes of working animals and those of their human friends are intrinsically linked

Life as a water buffalo in the Sapa region of North West Vietnam is not easy. Buffalo provide an essential source of power needed to till the mountainous rice paddies, but for much of the year they are left to roam and forage unfettered. Winters can be hard and with food scarce, many die of cold or starvation. When they can their owners feed them, but often starvation is a real threat for the people here as well. One bad rice harvest and life in these rain-sodden hills becomes perilous.
The assertion in my previous post that there is no obvious correlation between poverty and animal welfare was a bit glib. Of course there is. When resources are scarce, people have less to give to their animals in terms of food, time and care. In remote, agricultural communities veterinary services are most probably non-existent and education on animal welfare is a long way down the list of priorities.
So what has all this got to do with microfinance?  The most obvious answer is that by increasing the wealth of families and communities, pressure on land and resources is reduced. The trickle down effect is that this water buffalo might be given a meal! And a family that can afford kerosene does not need to chop down woodland. More and more, however, conservation and animal welfare groups focus on education and sustainable interaction between humans and animals (both domestic and wild) as the only long-term solution for co-existence.
Here microfinance has a more important role than you might think! Loan Officers are not just money collectors (*1); for MFIs with a social mission they are also often counsellors, consultants and teachers. If treating a horse better will improve the longevity of the horse and so the profitability of a business, then let them eat oats!
The following two organisations are charities that I think are doing great, innovative work in the fields of education and conservation.
The Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (“SPANA”)
SPANA  is a UK-based charity working for the benefit of animals in the world’s poorest countries. Their approach is to educate and to help poor families look after their animals, creating hard-working happier animals and wealthier more secure families. In their own words:
” If an animal falls sick or is injured, then the family it supports may go hungry and fall deeper into poverty. We believe that by ensuring a working animal is well and healthy, it can make even more of a contribution to the lives of those who depend on it. “

How can we live together?

While domestic animals will presumably always be with us, the fate of the world’s shrinking wild habitats and species is less certain.
 The Cheetah Conservation Fund (“CCF”)
Amongst other excellent projects, CCF has come up with an innovative solution to allow herding communities and their domestic livestock to live alongside wildlife. Herders are provided with an Anatolian Shepherd, a sheep dog of ancient lineage from the steppes of Asia Minor. Bred to guard flocks, an Anatolian Shepherd will challenge any predator (even lions) that threatens its charges, fighting to the death if necessary. For most predators, however, a couple of barks is enough to persuade them that this meal is not as easy as it first appeared, and they move onto more traditional prey.

Is there room for me too?

How much is that doggy in the window?
Both of these organisations do great work as charities, but these concepts would be relatively easy to monetarise and would sit easily alongside microfinance or social enterprise. A micro-loan to buy an Anatolian Shepherd? Approved! The short-term economic benefits are obvious and immediate, the longer term environmental consequences are potentially invaluable.
Train loan officers to teach basic animal welfare? Healthier businesses, wealthier clients, more opportunities! Done and done!
And of course, happier donkeys 🙂
(*1) For more on the many roles of loan officers see Kiva Fellow Nila’s excellent post: http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/2011/05/26/nathans-office/


Can I guard some flocks please?

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What donkeys have to say about a culture


These sturdy ponies prance through the sandy streets of Dakar, adding a certain elegance to the local surroundings

I think you can tell a lot about a society from its donkeys. The way they are treated, the way they are dressed. What sort of work they are asked to do. For example, in the West of France, they dress their donkeys in long culottes to protect their legs from biting insects. This shows consideration as well as a certain French flare for elegance.

I should really widen my definition to include all equestrians, for here in Senegal they don’t seem to have donkeys. But this gaping hole is filled by a gallant looking little pony, that can be seen pulling light carts through the sandy streets. All the ponies that I have seen so far (and that is quite a few) have been in excellent condition, well fed and sturdy with sleek well groomed manes and hides. They seem well treated and inspite of the midday sun they pull their carts along at quite a clip, prancing elegantly past the battered Nisans and Peugeots that are pressed into taxi service.

It is also telling that there seems to be no direct correlation between poverty and the treatment of these sturdy friends. Cart drivers here in Dakar are often recent immigrants from the countryside who have come to the city to work their way up from the slums. The ponies are their livelihoods and they look after them as such.

I have spent some time trekking in Ladakh in the high Himalayas in recent years. There the donkeys are seemingly much smaller and thinner. Infact they are possessed of such a sinewy strength and sense of balance that a trip

These good natured, tough little chaps had
spent the day carrying our camping equipment
over 5,000 metre high passes

here is unthinkable without them. Again their owners make their living moving goods and accompanying trekkers through the high passes and the donkeys are their primary consideration. Before setting up camp for themselves, they first make sure that the donkeys are relieved of their loads, fed and watered.

Not all societies treat their equestrians well. You have only to read some of the rescue stories at donkey sanctuaries throughout the UK to realise this. However, those that do value them often seem to share the characteristics that these animals bring to their relationship with humankind. Loyalty, hard work, and an unquenchable spirit!

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Microfinance: Application for a Kiva Fellowship

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