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!

 

 

 

 

 

Time for a Kit Kat

Let’s face it – we all need a break. Starting your own business is like going hiking on a path, which goes through the mountains. Sometimes the path is flat and you can go faster. Sometimes the path goes uphill and you have to gather your strength to climb up. When it gets flat again, you stop to take a breath and have a Kitkat. This is when you look around you and see the trees and the beautiful things that you might have missed along the way. You then also realize how far you have walked. You then think to yourself “Wow! I am almost there”. This thought gives you the courage to get up and continue walking along this path that you have chosen. Ahead of you lies more ups and downs, perhaps a bit of rain, you might meet other travellers along the way who give you tips on where to walk and what to look out for.

I am now taking one of my breaks. It has been 6 months since I started on the path of entrepreneurship in Senegal. It has been a steep learning curve and a rewarding experience. I am now recharging and getting ready to forge ahead. I am deciding which path to take and how fast to go. I feel as if I have grown as a person. Surprisingly, I think I have also developed empathy for those trying to make a living on their own. I have also developed great respect for those who have taken the plunge and are following their dreams, forging on in their journey.

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Whatever you chose to do, you will need to take a break,recharge and look at how far you have come. Give yourself a pat on the back too for having started the journey!

The 3Rs and Horses

One of the things I like about Senegal is the ability of its people to reduce, reuse and recycle. When I first moved here, I gave away my moving boxes, not realising that they were worth a fortune, (actually a friend told me , but I ignored him). People buy them and resell them. I am now looking for small carton boxes for packing Vanilla Bean muffins and went looking for boxes. There is a street downtown where merchants sell boxes, used ones. Who knows, I might even come across my own moving boxes. There is only one company in Dakar, La Rochette, which manufactures cardboard boxes. They are huge. I hear they supply the neighbouring countries, as far as Burkina Faso. If you are interested in starting a business in West Africa, this might be the one.

Everyday there is someone trotting down my street calling out in a high pitched voice, “Bladidibla, bladidibla, bladidiblaaaaaaa”. I was curious, so one day I peeked out and saw that it was a horse-drawn cart piled with garbage. It was a young guy getting everyone’s attention by calling out. He was collecting garbage from the houses with his horse-drawn cart. Everything in that cart was going to be reduced, reused and recycled. That is a small source of income for someone in Dakar – african entrepreneurism at its core. You see horse -drawn carts everywhere in the city on the streets mixed in with the general multidimensional traffic. They are transporting furniture, delivering water, food, soda and
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you-name-it. If you need a pick up or delivery, call your local horse cart, he will come a-trotting.

 

 

Starting a business in Senegal

Starting a business is a daunting experience, especially when you decide to start it in a foreign country. Here in Senegal, the government is beginning to  figure out that small and medium-sized companies are important to the country’s growth. In that light, they have set up a One Stop Shop for registering your business and the process takes about 2 – 3 days, if there are no public holidays in that time. If there are, you will need to add one week to  the pick up date you were given. This one stop shop is called APIX and is located near to the Palais Presidentiel. As far as Senegalese paperwork goes, it’s not too bad and the requirements are pretty clear. You will need a police certificate from your home country, of course. However after that you are pretty much on your own. Where do you go for information on taxes, VAT, etc? I will soon be figuring that out…hopefully not by surprise!

Finding the right people

Rama is coming tomorrow and I have to tell her not to come back. She was recommended by a friend. She came to meet me with her husband and he did most of the talking, which is not at all unusual in this part of the world. Once I had to interview a potential salesgirl and she brought her friend along! Anyway, I laid out the terms of the agreement  for Rama and she said she would give it a try. Her job was to help me in the kitchen making muffins, packaging and labeling them. The first day, she showed her packaging skills. They were sloppy and no attention to detail. Jaina, my housekeeper had to do them over and throw out the packaging. The second day she packaged the lime muffins and labeled them chocolate. On day three, I asked her to weigh the ingredients for a batch of carrot muffins. Well I checked the weight and she did not zero the scale before weighing. Another thing that bugged me is her general laissez- faire attitude. She spilled sugar and flour and did not even bother to clean up. In two minutes, I had ants coming out of nowhere to clean up! One day I saw her drink out of  a cup and put it back in the cupboard without washing it. Thank goodness I saw her in time. Old habits die hard, I guess. 🙂

Now I have asked her to come in the morning and I am going to have to explain why we will no longer be working together  in the nicest possible French. Wish me luck!