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