The Pearl of Dakar Golf

“A Swedish friend suggested my husband apply for a job in Dakar. My son was already in school in Bangkok with us and I had started interior decorating. I was  focussing on marketing accessories for table settings and collecting Chinese antiques,” she recounted. “After Bangkok, our plan was to return to Denmark and open up a store dealing in Asian antiques. Our container was even ready for the move back to Denmark,” she pointed out. Life is full of the unexpected. She did not make it back to Denmark and has been living in Senegal for over ten years.

I am chatting with Ann, my hostess in Dakar. I am there for a couple weeks. As usual, I get the itch to write when I am here. Senegal does that to me……. every single time. Ann continued to share her story. “We arrived in Dakar in 2002. I was happy because I was born not too far away, in Ghana, and was looking forward to being back in Africa and exploring the continent.”

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I am heading down to Ziguinchor, southern Senegal,  but all the flights and the ferries are booked. So I end up staying almost a week in Dakar, which gives me more time to hang out with Ann. We met through a mutual friend two years ago. At the time, I was living in Dakar, but we never had the chance to really get to know each other.

“After we arrived in Dakar, we settled in the Yoff neighborhood. The whole family played golf every weekend at the Meriden Hotel, now called the Golf Club La Pointe des Almadies de Dakar. We had a good group of friends then, playing golf every weekend,” she smiled. I could see the wonderful memories of those first months Dakar reflected in her facial expression.

Ann started golfing back when the family lived in Bangkok. She practiced at the golf range and was a natural: she got good at it quite fast. Golfing eventually became an important part of her life and still is. She formed the first ladies’ golf team for Senegal! Ann the Dane, Jenny the Austrian and Binetou, the Senegalese represented Senegal for the first time internationally. The All Africa Challenge Trophy (AACT) was their first event. It is a biannual tournament hosted in different African countries. She regularly participates in individual and team tournaments, such as the Peugeot Golf Tour in France. Ann is now well known in sporting circles in Senegal. Her mission is to make sure that Senegal is always represented at the AACT Tournaments.

Interestingly, the team always represents Senegal well in their stylish golf outfits, designed by Ann. Stylish golf outfits, I hear you say. There is another side to Ann. She has a background in fashion design from Denmark and Zimbabwe. She loves jewelry, in particular pearls. When she moved to Dakar, she got the idea to market pearls. She went to a trade fair in Bangkok, her old stomping ground, where she quickly learnt how to do her own pearl designs. “In the beginning, no one wore pearls in Dakar, except the foreigners. I became known as the pearl lady,” she smiled. Now when she attends events in the city and sees women wearing her pearls, it makes her proud. Ann views her jewelry business as a hobby and really wants to use it to support golf in Senegal.

People’s lives interest me, and Ann has led an interesting one. She was born in Ghana to a Ghanaian mother and a British father. She had a grand-uncle who had a Danish wife, Lizbeth. Ann was so attached to their daughter, Nina, that she accompanied the family on their diplomatic post to Tokyo. Ann was nineteen when she left Accra. A year later, political tensions started brewing and they dissolved the post in Tokyo. Instead of returning to Ghana, the family moved to Denmark. While in Denmark, Ann met a guy and they started dating. Then the family moved to Zimbabwe for a new diplomatic posting. Ann left him behind and moved with the family to take care of little Nina. His name was Flemming.

In Zimbabwe, Ann and Fleming kept in touch through letters. “In those days, we wrote letters and anxiously waited for the mailman to come knocking, ” she recalled. Ann kept herself busy in Zimbabwe. She bought a sewing machine and  started designing her own clothes. She also walked the runway, from time to time. A year or so later, Ann returned to Denmark for a visit and Flemming proposed. They married and the couple moved up Silkeborg. She went to fashion design school and learnt Danish. Again, she was a natural and did well in the fashion world. They eventually moved to Thailand for Flemming’s job and then Senegal and so the story began…….

Onions or Mangoes ?

People move to Nigeria for three reasons – Love, lots of money or just regular money. I am here for the latter. Life outside of those three realms is pretty uneventful and requires that you make a real effort to peel off the layers of life. This is what I think the situation is when you live in Abuja. Maybe life in Lagos is different. Once you start peeling those outer layers, you can truly find interesting happenings. When you get deeper to the core, you realise that the society is caught up in Victorian times where there are unwritten rules on how to behave and act and with that comes the huge social pressure to conform. This seems to be more so, here in Nigeria than in any of other twelve countries that I have lived in. Over the last six months I have been going out and around Abuja with hope of peeling off those layers to get a real feel for life here. What I have learnt is that there are many people who think they are important, so that makes it hard to get past that layer of ‘importance’. Once you do, you just want to cry! On the other hand, there are some genuine people who are pretty cool and I just met one of them.

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I walked into the spacious, split-level living room. On my left was grey faux- brick wall with square insets for framed family photos, many framed family photos featuring the man himself. Just in front of me was a large mahogany type dining table. The lower level was decorated with a grey, brown animal fur rug and classic style beige sofas, all very tastefully put together. This was the home of Tony E. He and his wife Adeola warmly welcomed us for coffee on Saturday afternoon. I was with my friend D who had told me about Tony.

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You see, I had been in Nigeria for nine months and had not been inspired to write at all. Nothing. So when I heard about Tony, a self- made entrepreneur in the furniture business, I got excited and asked if I could hear his story, so here I was with my good friend D, who had been friends with the family for decades.

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Once we got past the pleasantries and questions about Jamaica, I began to ask him about his business and his life. He had just finished eating his Nigerian lunch, which was served by his short, male ‘domestic’.

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Tony started, “I was born in Edo State, Southern Nigeria in 1958 and grew up in Kaduna, which is about 2 hours from Abuja. I graduated from the Ahmadou Bello University in 1982, with a degree in Mathematics.”

I was indeed pleased to hear that I was in the company of a mathematician, being one myself.

ITEX FURNITURE FACTORY COMPLEX, ABUJA, NIGERIA

ITEX FURNITURE FACTORY COMPLEX, ABUJA, NIGERIA

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs Conference  Room- designed by ITEX

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Ministry of Foreign Affairs  Auditorium- designed by ITEX

 

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Zuma Rock, Abuja

“From a young age, I enjoyed repairing, arranging and making things. After seeing my father work as a civil servant with Post and Telecommunications and seeing his years of struggling on a low salary, I decided that there was no way I would be a civil servant”, he continued as if he had told the story many times before using those very words.

“After graduating, I explored many ideas and dabbled in petrochemicals, import and export and even owned a barbershop. Four years after leaving university, I became a contractor and was involved in a variety of projects dealing with building the new city of Abuja, the present capital of Nigeria.”

These were significant years for Tony. He managed hundreds of workers and construction projects and gained valuable experience and insight into doing business in Abuja.

We talked about the early years in the late 80s. ‘There were about 47 men and 137 women living Abuja, every one else lived in Suleja, a nearby satellite town, about 50km north of today’s Abuja”, he added.

I was surprised that he so accurately remembered exactly how many people lived in Abuja at that time! Remarkable memory.

Later on in 1991, he met Adeola and soon after the city of Abuja officially became Nigeria’s capital. His construction project finished and in 1996, and ITEX (short for Interior Experts) was born. In 1996, he and his family relocated to Abuja.

Tony

Tony

Tony struck me as someone who is passionate about making things, especially Nigerian things. He seemed to have always had the desire to improve himself.

In 1998, I put some money together and spent a year in Italy, Spain and Germany getting formal training in working with glass, leather, metal and wood. I brought back a couple pieces and set up a shop in my house. The showroom was downstairs, the garage the factory and I had one employee – my wife”, he laughed.

The year he had left for Europe, Nigeria was under military rule and by the end of the year it was a civilian government under the leadership of Obasanjo.

His return to Nigeria was well timed. The Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), the present governor of Kaduna state invited him to tender on a bid for furnishing the BPE.

“He put me to the test and asked me to make up a model showing exactly how I would furnish the Bureau. They were impressed with my style, professionalism and creativity. I won the bid”, Tony recounted with a smile.

This was the beginning of great things.

Obasanjo was impressed with him and gave him another challenge. He wanted his farmhouse in Ota refurbished. He wanted it done well enough so that his kids would enjoy going back there for holidays and short visits.

“The place was run down, they were farm animals living inside the house. I could not believe that the president of Nigeria could have such a place,” he recounted jokingly.

“Obasanjo said to me, ‘I will be coming in a couple weeks to see my mansion in a couple days. I hope you don’t embarrass me!’ ”

A couple weeks later Obasanjo was back with POTUS at the time. It was a real historic event in Nigeria’s history as it was the second visit by a US president to Nigeria. It is also believed to have been a high point of US relations with Nigeria.

“ They took a tour of the house. No one spoke. I really didn’t know what to think,” he revealed.

Tony had made a glass table for the center of the living room. It had different farm animals carved into it representing the various animals he had found in the farmhouse when he had seen it for the first time. While he was proud of the table, he wasn’t sure how Obasanjo would react.

“What happened after showed that Obasanjo appreciated my work and my creativity. I got to do the furniture and the interior design of the Central Bank of Nigeria- all twelve floors and four wings. I also designed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense in Sao Tome and Principe,” he stated humbly.

“That’s amazing. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own business here in Nigeria?” I asked

“ Whatever you choose to do, you have to put your heart into it and also make sure you are the master of your game.” he replied.

“What are your plans for the future?” I asked.

“I want to be the IKEA of Africa. Make good furniture more accessible to Nigerians.”

What I appreciated about Tony was his simplicity, his forward thinking, his openness- as someone who should have been wrapped in many layers of ‘importance’, like an onion, instead he was like a simple mango – refreshing.

 

Tightening Up in Freetown

“Bla…bla….bla…something….something …boyfriend”, she said just as I was about to cross the street.

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Where is Sierra Leone?

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Bakkie and her products

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The word ‘boyfriend’ got my attention. Funny really, seeing that I don’t have one. I stopped and looked around. I saw a woman sitting by a wooden table piled high with small plastic bags. The bags had all different kinds of things inside. There were a variety of powders of different colors, wooden chips from trees, sticks, pods and white transparent pieces that reminded me of quartz. She was sitting on a stool packaging these items and writing labels at the same time.

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The municipal market

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The thing-a -ma -jig to mix with water

“Which one do I take, if I want my boyfriend to fall in love with me”? I asked jokingly. I had decided to delve and see where the conversation would lead me. She reached for the plastic bag with the quartz looking pieces.

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“ You take this one, just a little and mix it with water and then put it in your vagina.” she responded with a straight face.

“In my vagina!” I repeated.

“It will make your vagina tight and sweet smelling”

“How much is it for the bag?”

“20000”

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The ocean is everywhere, down the road from the market.

“20000! That’s too much.”

“No ma’am, it will work, you will see”

“How long do I have to use it for?”

“As long as you want. Lots of women use it.”

“Let me sit down, it’s too hot”, I quipped

20000 Leones is the equivalent of about $5. That’s how much my taxi charges me per trip in Freetown. A bag of thing-a ma-jig for a taxi ride, tough choice.

Thinking to myself that my va-jay-jay would have to be so loose that it would be dragging on the ground for me to even consider using that solution. And plus…no boyfriend is ever worth that…in my opinion.

She let me sit on her wooden stool in the shade and we started to chat.

“That’s too much money. People actually pay that amount for this?”

“Yes and I have regular customers,’’ she added

“ I am now packaging for some customer in the UK and adding the labels. They bought a lot, ” she continued.

“I have been here for over 20 years. People think that this thing does not make money. I built my house and I have four children. My husband works nights as a security guard. My children are grown. The youngest one is in 6th form. I have one daughter who is at university studying medicine.”

A tall, dark young man approached her and mumbled something. He was a customer. She reached for a small plastic bag, which had some small, round, black looking woolen balls packaged individually. He handed her a 10000 note.

“What was that?” I asked.

“ That is to protect you against people who want to harm you. You sprinkle it around your house. It is the same thing we give to dogs when we want them to be ferocious.”

“ What if the dog gets so ferocious that he even attacks the people living in the house?”

“Dogs know who live in the house and will not attack” she reassured. I , however, was not so sure.

I was taken aback by her candid approach and the fact that I was sitting on the streets of downtown Freetown having a conversation with a medicine woman who held nothing back. Her name was Bakkie. She had done this all her life and had taken over from her father who had been at that very spot outside the municipal market.

“ If you work in an office you make 1million. If I sell 200,000 or so every day, I make more than someone in an office. People think that this does not make money. It does”, she confided.

“Wow!”

“ I have my regular customers, even Chinese and Indian. They come to get powders that will help them during sex,’’ she revealed.

I glanced at the wooden penis that she had made to demonstrate what the results of taking the powder would be.

“I am also a leader at my church and they have a base in Ohio. They have conferences in the US and the last time I was invited but I did not have enough money in my bank account. I have four children to take care of. I am making plans now for the next conference in 2018 and making sure to put enough money aside”, she revealed with the confidence, which only comes from a woman with a plan.

“Are you Sierra Leonean?” she asked

“No, I am from Jamaica, Bob Marley’s country.” I added.

“ Where are your dreadlocks?”

“ I used to have them, but I chopped them a couple years ago.”

“Does everybody have locks there?”

“No, less than half the people.”

“So you live here?”

“No. I am visiting a friend.”

“From Facebook?”

“No, a real friend,” I pinched her jokingly to emphasize how real a friend I had.

“ So many people have visitors through Facebook. I know a woman whose daughter got married to someone on Facebook. She moved abroad and two years later she want to divorce. This Facebook thing not good,” she cautioned.

“Yes, that’s a shame” I sympathized.

“ Bakkie, did you lose any of your family to Ebola”, I asked.

“No, I was very lucky. People even buried people as if they had Ebola when they really didn’t”.

“ I always wear long sleeve and carry my sanitizer in my handbag”, she said as she pulled her sanitizer out to show me.

I enjoyed liming with Bakkie but I had a town waiting for me to explore and taxi clocking up Leones, so I was ready to skedaddle. As I was saying goodbye she wrote her name and number for me as well as the name of her church “New Evangelical A.O.G Church”. I planned to Google it later on, of course. I thanked her for chatting with me and for sharing some insight on life in Freetown – true mix of the old ways of traditional medicine and the new ways of finding a husband …..and keeping them too!

Thanks Bakkie!

 

 

 

 

 

Change of Scenery

I have been in Nigeria for two months. I have been feeling isolated. It is as if I have not been having enough contact with humanity. That is really odd because I teach every day and I come into contact with 200 kids every day. I even know all my neighbors by name, I know what car they drive, I know when they are home and when they are not. Some times I even know where they are, when they are not at home. Anyway, what I really want to say is that I should not be feeling so isolated. This is not the Africa I know.

In the time I have been here, I have met some interesting people and what my friends have in common is that they all have something foreign about them: either they are half-Nigerian and half something else. The other halves have been Russian, Bajan and Jamaican. My other friends are outright foreign and have lived here for a while.

At times I have tried to talk with  Nigerians, that I come in contact with and who have not been introduced to me by someone else. These attempts have been an uphill battle because the usual light-hearted conversational banter was just not there. It is as if people can only talk about factual things. My dry humor has been met with blank stares. My subtle sarcasm has been misinterpreted as factual statements. I feel as if I am talking to myself. Maybe I am just not as witty as I think I am. Or maybe people just do not speak to strangers at all.

For example, once the service at my usual café was extremely slow so I asked with a smile in my voice and half- laughing,

“ What took you so long, did you go to Timbuktu?”

“ No ma, I did not” he replied.

Another time I was in the line at the supermarket waiting to pay for my groceries. It was a Sunday in the early afternoon, so all the churchgoers were there. It was definitely not a good idea to go at that time. Anyway, that aside, the electricity kept going off and the cash registers had to be rebooted constantly and so the lines just kept getting longer. I had this brilliant idea – a l’africaine. Put one leg in one line and put my other leg in the neighbouring line, so claim a position in both lines. Why? The new line was much shorter. The lady behind me, with the afro, dressed in black and white with patterns and pointed toe stiletto heels in my newly discovered line had just joined, so in fact I had been standing in my line for over an hour and she had just joined the new line beside mine. The lines were so close together anyway, what difference did it really make? Plus the man in front of me did the same thing and I seemed to be the only one who noticed. So I just followed. I was now firmly  in both lines, you know how that goes- the line that you are not in, appears to be shorter and to be moving faster. It is the international the-other-line-is-better phenomenon.

“Which line are you in? the church-going-afro lady  asked in a serious tone.

I turned to her and said “ I have split myself in two, I am half in this one and half in that one” I said half laughingly and running my right hand down the middle of my body to demonstrate the splitting process.

“You cannot be in both lines” she responded without a smile in a very serious tone.

“You know I have been standing here a while and I even showed you where to join the line” I replied trying to plead the case of my splitting in two.

“ Well since your basket is small and you don’t have a lot I will allow you to go,” she replied with almost pursed lips.

I did not give up trying to lighten the moment. I then tried to appeal to the fact that she was just coming from church and said with a smile,“ That will be your good deed for the week”.

No response.

This week I have a mid semester break and decided to vacation in Nigeria. I want to give the country a fair chance, explore as much as possible and look for the positive. I decide to drive down to the southern part of the country, South-South, as the locals say. I am in search of the ocean, so I head down to Akwa Ibom state, and plan to base myself in the capital Uyo. I chose to do the 10-hour drive, as I wanted to see the countryside and the small towns along the way.

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I pass through the states of Kogi, Enugu, Ebony and Abbia. The first eight hours, except for passing River Niger, are uneventful with uninteresting towns; annoying police check points and most-times-crappy roads. The checkpoints are fairly harmless, just policemen asking  you to subsidise their salaries in very indirect ways. The police are pretty clever too. They position themselves next to the worst parts of the road where you have to slow down to navigate the giant multifaceted craters, which spread across the entire width of the road and have rolling hills and gullies within. As you rejoice that you have made it through the crater and plan to happily move on to the next crater challenge, the policeman points at you. That is the “ pull over, let’s have a chat” sign. He will ask you for all manner of things.

“ Do you have a fire extinguisher?

“Does the chassis number on your ‘particulars’ match the chassis number on the windshield?”

“ Do you have a permit for your tinted windows?”

“It is a hot day. What are you going to do about that?”

“Are you just coming back, what are you going to leave with me?”

It is annoying, but as with anything, once you get used to it and know what to expect, it becomes a game. This game is called “ how-will-I- get–out-of–this- one- with -the-change -that- I- have- tucked-beside–the- steering- wheel –for- times- like-these-untouched”. At the end of the journey, if you have money left over you get yourself a drink, preferably with alcohol and celebrate the end of the road trip.

Back to our road trip, things start to change after Umuahaia. Umuahaia is the main town in Abbia state. The countryside becomes a splash of color with ochre red, green, deep blue and yellow houses dotted along the side of the road. The vibe just completely changed and put the town on the status of being a quaint little town surrounded by thick, lush vegetation. From then on, I feel at ease somehow and less isolated. When we get to Uyo, in Akwa Ibom the neighboring state, I am impressed at how clean and orderly it is. Even the driving is orderly – less horn blowing and cars ceding you right of way, much less aggressive than in Abuja. Humanity as it should be. I get to my hotel and the staff are well spoken, smiling, genuinely welcoming and accommodating especially when none of my credit cards work (it’s a Nigeria thing). My feeling of being at ease becomes more tangible when I chitchat with the receptionist and I can even feel my facial muscles relaxing into a smile and me feeling like ‘me’ – ready to start greeting strangers with a simple ‘hello’ and random banter. I check in and look at three different rooms before choosing one – I am really just testing to see if they are as accommodating as they appear. I could have looked at a fourth, if I had asked. They pass the test! This is the Africa I know. I will be in Akwa Ibom for a whole week, discovering what the state has to offer. So far, so good.

Memories of my Father

I just want to take my clothes off. I am home once again and it is hot, hot and dry. The last time I came home it was to take a break from being an entrepreneur, this time it is to start all over again – teaching. I always feel I need to come home before starting any new chapter in that book called Life.

So here I am in Jamaica. It is 32°C in the shade. I am spending some time with my mother who is 89 years old. She has Alzheimer’s and has forgotten her words. It is hot and I see all there is to be done in our family home. I see all the books and papers that have piled up over the half a century that we have lived in the house. I see all the upgrades that need to be made to our home but I am too hot to take it all on in the time that I have – two and a half weeks.

I decide to start with an easy task. I start looking through drawers and cupboards for anything, which can be thrown out – books, files, bills, cassettes, curtains and papers. I believe this is what we call spring-cleaning in the summer.

The waist high wooden bookcase with the glass doors has been in the corridor, which leads from my bedroom to my mother’s for as long as I can remember. It is filled with books that do not belong to me- they belonged to my father. My memories of him are a patchwork of scenes fitted together haphazardly along with anecdotes from family over the years.

My father was A. H. Brown. His mother, my grandmother was Mrs. Lily Watt. Rumour had it that she fell pregnant with my father while she was living in Cuba before she got married to Mr. Watt. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Watt used to live at 15 Friendship Lane, a small street

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off Cross Road in Kingston. I used to visit the old wooden house after Sunday school every Sunday and I remember that Mr. Watt was much older than Mrs. Watt. I can still see him sitting on the low wooden chair on the tiny verandah of the wooden house. He had a round face with age spots neatly dispersed on his cheeks. For my entire childhood, I called my grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Watt, they always seemed like a strangers I would see on Sundays.

As I was clearing out the books out of the bookcase I found my father’s notebooks on electricity and the Bennetts Reference with all the electrical terms and details on electricity. He wanted to do further studies to become an electrical engineer and Lily Watt got upset with him one day and burnt all his books. From then on, their relationship went south, or maybe it had gone south before that. In spite of the fact that his studies were cut short, he did become an electrician and worked at one of the bauxite companies in Mandeville, which was about an hour and a half from Kingston, where we lived. Because of that, he was only home at the weekends and so I saw very little of him growing up. My mother made all the decisions regarding the house, our holidays and my education. She ran the show.

I remember hearing stories about how mean Lily Watt was. My mother told me that when she was introduced to her as her son’s fiancé, instead of saying the customary, “ I am delighted”, she actually said “ I am not delighted”. That story cracked me up and I wondered why my mother still went ahead and married my father. To add to that mystery, my aunt (his sister) even advised my mother not to marry my father – but she did anyway! Ah well….love is blind and deaf.

While clearing out the bookcase, I found books which shed light on who my father was and rekindled the now faded memories I have of him. I found the biography of Wes Hall, known as the fastest bowler for the West Indies. I remember the hum of the cricket commentators on the radio with their dry sense of humour. It was like someone droning on in a hum of monotonous, unintelligible sounds. It was all Greek to me at such a young age. A. H. Brown was an avid cricket fan and I do remember him listening to days and days of this cricket drone on our transistor radio.

The next few books I came across seem to fit into a special genre- they were the Diaries of Che Guevara, books on Lenin, and ones about the Vietnam war and other World War II writings. A H. used to say ad nauseum  (that is why I remember it to this day), “A soldier never dies, he only fades away”. I recently discovered that it was a quote from General Douglas MacArthur in his farewell speech to the US Congress in 1951 after he was dismissed by President Truman. A. H. was a leftist, it seems, and interested in war. I think I might have appreciated him much more now that I am older and left-leaning myself. Imagine the colorful discussions we would have had on our verandah when I would tell him that I lived in both Vietnam and Russia. I would tell him how I experienced the remnants of the communist ideology and how I enjoyed the experience so much so that I had to visit Cuba to get the Caribbean beach–salsa version. How would he react when I would tell him that I was a fan of Fidel Castro and a supporter of the non-aligned movement of the 1970s? I know my father was some sort of volunteer for the British army in WWII. I wonder how he would react to my marrying a man from the Republic of Ireland whose family fought against the British? What about the arguments we would have had when I would tell how pointless I thought wars were?

A.H. had a sense of humour, he was sociable and loved women. I know this from the many half-siblings that I have. The last known count was about six, one was about my age. A. H. was the one who hung out with the male cousins and relatives and took them out on the town when they came to visit from near and far. He always had his buddies come to visit and spend long hours chatting on our verandah. However, in spite of the fact that he was such a cool guy, at a very early age, I saw that my father was not the marrying type. He was not a good match for my mother, who was focused, ambitious, strong-willed and independent. He just wanted to have a good time. Sometimes I wonder if I take after my father in that respect? My mother eventually got over her deaf and blind love and filed for a divorce. She kept the house.

My father died in 1990 when I was away at university in Belgium. It so happened that I was working on a project in Italy and in my rational mind, I could not justify flying home to Jamaica for his funeral. There are two things that are important about this event. One, I heard that all of his other kids attended the funeral and I did not. Shortly after his death, I received a letter from him. Apparently it was posted when he was alive but it only got to me after his death. Creepy. In that letter he was expressing his displeasure with my mother keeping house after the divorce. Ah well …… what rights do you have from the grave?

A.H. Brown you were a good laugh. I wonder how different you would have been if you had had a loving mother.  I thank you for my mathematical mind and my love for having a good time. You are now that soldier who never died, but just faded away.

 

Bullies and Dictators

Remember when you were a kid and someone was mean to you on the playground? You would tell your teacher and if she did not do something about it, you would go further up the chain to your mum or dad. Well that is exactly what victims of the Chadian dictator, Hissene Habre did.

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In 1982 Hissene Habre seized power in a coup and ruled Chad for the next 8 years. Bullies intimidate, abuse, manipulate and control others who are not on their team. Habre tortured, killed and exterminated anyone he felt could be a threat to his regime. Life can be a bitch! Someone else will eventually outsmart the bully. Habre was overthrown in a coup in 1990. He ran away to Senegal and has been there in exile ever since. He has been accused of killing 40,000 people and torturing about 200,000. This means that on average over  8 years, he killed 5, 000 people and tortured 25,000 every year. Many people were affected by the loss and disappearance of friends and family, pretty much like the situation in Chile with Pinochet in the 1980s where people just went missing without a trace.

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The kids who have been bullied go to the first grown up. In this case, the survivors who have now become naturalized citizens of Belgium took their case to the Belgian courts. Belgium, besides being known for chocolate, is also known for its use of universal jurisdiction. Universal Jurisdiction is the idea that there are some basic norms that we as human beings accept as universal and we make them part of international law so- NO to genocide, NO to racial discrimination, NO to torture and NO to slavery. Once one of these norms is violated, it is treated as a crime against humanity and can be prosecuted in a national court.

In 2005 we had Habre living in exile in Senegal, Belgium asking for his extradition to bring him to trial, Senegal refusing to hand him over and at the same time saying, “We don’t have the power to prosecute him”. The kids who have been wronged on the playground now go to an adult with more power, the daddy.

The case was then taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) where Belgium accused Senegal of violating the UN Convention against Torture and breaching its obligation to bring justice to those accused of crimes against humanity by neither extraditing Habre nor trying him. In 2012 the ICJ ruled that Senegal start the trial “without delay”.

Now daddy has initiated action against the playground bully. Later in 2012, the Parliament of Senegal finally passed a law allowing for the creation of an international tribunal in Senegal to try Habre. The judges would be appointed by the African Union and would come from elsewhere in Africa.

One year later, Habre was arrested in Senegal and charged with crimes against humanity. His trial is set to begin July 20, 2015.

I first heard about the case of Hissene Habre when I was teaching in Johannesburg. As an extracurricular activity, we had Model United Nations (MUN) where students would simulate the workings of the UN over a 3-day period. Students become delegates and are assigned countries and placed in committees, such as ICJ, Ecosoc, Security Council and General Assembly. I was one of the teachers supervising the ICJ and the case that was being simulated was Belgium vs. Senegal over the fate of Hissene Habre. I was particularly interested as I was into anything related to Senegal. At the end of the case, after hearing the arguments of both sides, the student judges also ruled in favour of him being tried in Senegal!

Of course, I was intrigued when I heard the news that he was finally going to be tried. Let us hope he does not develop ‘heart problems’ before the trial as did Pinochet. The bully should get what the bully deserves.

 

On the Move…

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The two things in life that we are sure of is change and death. I have always felt that my time here on this earth is limited. So some time ago I decided that I wanted to see the world, I wanted to teach and I wanted to write. Somewhere along the way I decided that I also wanted to start my own business, one that would improve the lives of those around me in some way.

 

A long time ago, I remember reading about the 60 year old Irish woman, Dervla Murphy who took off on her bicycle and travelled the length of Africa and wrote stories of her experiences with people she met along the way. She was my favourite travel writer. She inspired me to do the same- always be ready to pack a bag and head off and write. During my travels, I met people who have left an indelible mark on my life and have changed it profoundly. I also discovered Senegal where I eventually settled and started that business I had always dreamed of. After a year of settling, I realized that I missed my travel boots; I missed exploring far and distant lands. I also missed the excitement of teaching mathematics full time.

 

Within two weeks of this great realization, I found a job teaching in an intriguing country…. Nigeria. Truth be told, I have always been curious about this country that is so full of extremes. It produces award winning writers, ingenuous criminals, crude oil, wannabe terrorists, hardworking people, brilliant minds, possesses a vibrant music industry, a well-known film industry, and extreme wealth intermingled with extreme poverty. In the media, crazy stories about Nigeria abound. For example, think about how much organization and planning it takes to kidnap one person, much less 300! #bringbackourgirls. Then there is the restaurant shut down for serving human meat, which was in the news recently. #thisiswhyyoushouldbevegetarian. And there is also the  Nigerian, Chinedu Echeruo,  who sold his HopStop app to Apple for a ginormous amount of money. Crazy and fabulous stories all at the same time.

 

While it is very different from my adopted home Senegal, I plan to embrace the experience and appreciate the good things the country has to offer, which is what you do anyway, when you are moving to a new country. There is so much I will miss about Senegal. As the time to leave draws nearer, I will be soaking up as much as possible. Everyday I think of all the things I will miss, but it is not an “Adieu” but rather an “Au Revoir”. Hello Nigeria, see you again, Senegal.

 

 

Walking through the islands…

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It was after sunset, when we headed downtown, pass the Presidential Palace to the ‘Hopital Principal de Dakar’. It was founded in 1890 and received generous funding by the French government at the time. It belongs to the network of Great Colonial Hospitals built by the French in their former colonies. It started out as a military hospital for French citizens living in Senegal. There was a guard at the entrance who raised the boom to let us in and we turned right and continued along the circular driveway.

I was on my way to visit my friend’s father, Mr. C who was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was dreading the visit, as hospitals can be depressing places.

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Here, it was quiet and there weren’t many people around. It had a calm, peaceful, serene atmosphere. The first building was a two-storey building, a corridor on the ground floor with a balcony framed with colonial arches on the upper floor. It reminded me of a colonial style hotel in the Caribbean. As we drove around the circular road, we saw tropical gardens with gently, swaying palm trees and concrete white benches, which provided lovely areas to sit and relax. The buildings were all painted white and in colonial style with archways, long corridors and French style shuttered doors.

We easily found a place to park and I got ready to enter the ward. We climbed a few stairs and walked along the ‘Allee d’Iles des Madeleine’. This open corridor was named after a group of islands off the west coast of Dakar – Iles de la Madeleine (Isles of Madeleine). Due to their barren nature, they are rumoured to harbour evil spirits. In spite of that they are good for hikes and walks for nature lovers. It is also on the waiting list to become a UNESCO Heritage site.

Impressive that the corridors had names, so even if you collapsed you would be able to say exactly where you were and be found really quickly. In order to get the room we needed, we turned right at wooden, green box with “Boite des Idees” written in white capital letters. It was the equivalent of a Suggestion Box. Out of curiosity, I opened it to see if anyone had left any suggestions. It was full of cobwebs from the last century…. perhaps. Maybe that’s why the hospital seemed in order, they had already read the suggestions and acted upon them.

Passing the main nurse’s station we shook hands, greeted the male nurse, as is typical Senegalese fashion. We walked along the clean and tidy corridor and went right through some large, wooden formica doors. It was a room for two male patients, but each part was like a rectangular cove so each had a modicum of privacy. The walls were a crème with proper ceiling fans and furnished with a a simple bedside table. Mr. C was in the second half of the double room. He was seated on the edge of the bed dressed in black silk pyjamas. The last time I had seen him was at Mont Rolland, for his mother’s funeral. She was the woman who converted to Catholicism very late in life. His wife was seated next to him, dressed in a white cotton Senegalese long dress and head wrap. She was looking a little tired but Mr. C seemed in good spirits. We could hear his roommate’s radio playing. There was no curtain or door separating the two coves. He was listening to the latest Senegalese wrestling match. It was the season for that. This sparked animated conversation with Mr. C explaining the Senegalese wrestling scene to me, which always reminded me Sumo wrestling -african style.

Mr C, my friend and I decided to go for a stroll so that he could stretch his legs. It was a daily ritual with a father and his son. He was able to get up and walk on his own. I was impressed and heard it was the first time he was actually able to do it on his own without any help. We strolled along the corridor called “Allee d’Ile de Goree”. Goree Island is another island off the coast of Dakar. This one is inhabited, much bigger and a UNESCO heritage site. It served as the point of no return for slaves being transported to the West Indies. It is now a well-visited tourist site for those passing through Dakar. It is a 15 minute ferry ride from downtown Dakar.

Our stroll was short but pleasant and a reminder that there are some good hospitals in Dakar and this is one of them. I discovered that it was also well equipped and renown in Dakar for being a good public hospital, particularly for emergency medicine. Here’s hoping Mr. C keeps getting better.

 

Ziguinchor, charming town where time stands still….almost

It is the Easter weekend and I am back in Ziguinchor after two years and that is a long time. I first came here 10 years ago and then kept coming back once or twice per year every year after that. So a two-year gap seems a long time.

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It is a one-hour flight south of Dakar and I flew down on the Friday evening flight, which left Dakar at 17:30. As I stepped off the plane I saw K, the guy who manages the airport. He recognised me and greeted me warmly with the usual three pecks on the cheek. K and I used to party together on my previous visits. From our short conversation on the tarmac, I could see that he was the same person. He was still very tall and still very slim. My long-term Casamance friend, M-T, met me at the airport. This time she was driving an old Mercedes Benz. She was smiling and full of joy as usual. We were both happy and excited to be in Casamance at the same time. She now lives in Paris but comes home to Ziguinchor several times a year and it was a long time since we were in town at the same time.

After we got to our hotel, I dropped my bags and immediately went for a walk. I was curious to see how the place had changed in my two-year absence. There were three things I noticed right away. The main road was no longer riddled with potholes. During the rainy season it was always flooded and muddy.

The second was the new town hall built across from the old one, which was charming, but in need to being spruced up. In the last two years, Ziguinchor has a new mayor. He has built a huge house with  high walls that have generated some animated discussion. I walked all the way to the end of the main road, which leads to the main market and the Casamance River. Now there are some benches and umbrellas for passersby. That’s new.

In two years, time seems to have stood still in Ziguinchor. I recognized the same faces and the same people in the same places doing the same things. Is that stability or a sign of the times of a town struggling to be relevant? The low level rebel independence movement, the Ebola  outbreak in the neighbouring countries and the high cost of living have affected the region, especially Ziguinchor, which is far from the capital Dakar.

In the past, the Casamance  region had the highest numbers of tourists and it was bustling with visitors and artisans selling masks and paintings. I noticed the artisans were no longer there and had been replaced by vendors selling imported second hand jeans.

Let’s hope with the new no visa requirement and the lower of airport taxes, Casamance will become alive again with visitors and the like.