Saturday, 30 March 2013

Noticing Poverty

Upon arrival in Guinea's capital city Conakry, my truck friend Jalou [link] took me to his family home.  It wasn't so dismal; they had walls, a couch in their living room, beds in their bedrooms.  We went out to meet a friend of his and passed the local market.  A large, steaming rubbish tip sat beside it whilst the flavourful smoke mixed with the people and produce.  Fishes gathered flies as they lay waiting to be sold on the uncleaned mats on the floor, sharing the same space as fruit and vegetables which were fingered by the owners hands which had been licked clean after eating a plate of rice and sauce prepared in somewhat unsanitary conditions.  Piles of used clothes were thrown around by searching customers landing on the sandy ground or on neighbouring food stalls.  People walked or jumped across stalls in the shoes they had walked across city grounds and garbage in.  There really was no order.  But how can there be order when there is no money to support it?  These were normal people trying to make a living with the little produce they had; they couldn't afford to set up a shop or even make a stall off the ground.  All they have is the mat they brought from home which the kids probably sleep on.  Besides, all this lack of cleanliness would only affect a weak Westerner like me - Africans like this are born with stronger stomachs which become even stronger with age.

I bought a bag of water (drinking water comes in bags here, not bottles) for both me and Jalou as we sat waiting for his friend to finish work.  Some kids close by were staring silently at me.  I said 'Bonjour', waved and smiled, but they continued to stare.  Then it clicked in my head that they were thirsty.  I extended my arm towards them and it took less than one second for them to grab the water bag.  'Merci!' they shouted as they shared it between the three of them.

Later, I saw a woman with sheets of material for sale and, interested in buying some, I asked her how much they cost.  French numbers confuse me sometimes, especially anything past thirty-something... plus this had a thousand at the end (one thousand Guinean Franc is approximately one euro), so I asked her to write it down on a small piece of paper I had.  When she finished I stared down at the shaky scribbles on the paper.  This wasn't just bad handwriting; she actually couldn't write.

Another instance of meeting completely unschooled people was later on in my time in Guinea when I asked for a number of oranges, for example.  Because of my bad French accent, I would hold up three fingers to assure understanding.  More than often I would be met with a confused expression, then given the wrong number of oranges.  It took some thinking, but I finally realised that three fingers means nothing to these people; if you have had no schooling then you can't necessarily count.  How can you count three fingers to know that means three oranges?

Back at Jalou's place, in the evening I was introduced to his family who had just returned from work and school.  They were all very excited to have a white person staying in their house.  One of his younger sisters was disabled; she couldn't speak, she couldn't understand everything her family were saying to her, and she had saliva dribbling down her chin soaking her chest and t-shirt.  Jalou and the rest of the family treated her so well, giving her attention and always hugging and holding her.  They told me that there is a special hospital in Paris which could help her, but they couldn't afford to send her.  She started to dance in front of me with a huge smile on her face.  For the first time on my trip through Africa, tears filled my eyes and the lump in my throat was unbearable.  I knew that they will probably live their entire lives in hope of sending her to Europe, without it ever materialising.

Conakry is for sure the poorest place I've ever been to, the combination of the squalor of the marketplace to the complete lack of education for the poor.  It's so shocking to see that it even puts me, the most stupidly idealistic positive person in the world, in a pessimistic state of mind.  How could this ever change?  It seems impossible.  I began to forget what the West is really like after that.  Look around you... what do you have?  Poverty and the imbalance of wealth in the world is just incredible.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Trucking through wild, wild Guinea

[Photo album - click here]

"Too hot for you, no"
"Please, I'll be fine, please!"
They gave in. I lodged my foot on top of the huge wheel and climbed up the side of the truck, throwing my backpack on top of the packages which filled the large cage. I was met with twenty pairs of wondering eyes;
"Toubob! Hahaha!" a man laughed.

That was how my day began on the Senegalese border to Guinea. I had found my ride to the capital city Conakry, but just needed to make it through the border controls. Everyone else riding on the truck had an easy flash-of-ID-card passing, so waiting around for a British woman with an international passport caused delays. A young man named Jalou gladly accompanied me through each border inspection, giving me reassurance that the truck wouldn't leave without me. I wasn't the only one to blame for the slow start though; the driver had documents to show for the truck, then kept changing his mind about what time was best to drive that day. After much deliberation, we eventually set off at 6pm, ten hours after I first convinced them to take me. I knew then that this would be a long, long journey.

The sun set pretty soon after that, so I assumed there was nothing to see. I laid down flat to try to get some rest but was instead distracted by something marvellous. The gigantic trees sprawled their massive branches above the slowly moving truck and silhouetted against the light of the full moon. I laid there in awe at the beauty I was witnessing until I fell asleep late in the night.

Wack! I was awoken by a bunch of leaves hitting my face; the trees branches were too low, or the truck was too high. For the rest of the night we had to drive at snails pace, jolting awkwardly from side to side. This was when the branch dodging was easy for us on top of the truck. It was impossible, though, when the driver lost all patience, slammed on the accelerator disregarding the holes and bumps, and sped up and down the winding hills. It was so dangerous, but incredibly exciting!

By the morning, I was so tired, but again too distracted to sleep, by the marvellous sights around me. The nature surrounded the road and continued all the way to the horizon in every direction. The trees were bigger than gigantic; like there is more carbon dioxide here than there ever has been on Earth. The colours of the trees, bushes, and the plants touched every shade of green yellow, red, and blue that ever existed. Rounded hills rose up and down forming perfect lines with the blue, fluffy-clouded sky. The sun shone brightly down causing shadow in places but giving life to everything. The awesome reality of it all gave me shivers at every turn. I learned the true meaning of Mother Nature. Yes, she deserves capital letters.

Tiny villages occasionally dotted the roadside. Around ten mud-brick thatched-roof houses made up a typical village. We stopped at some when people got hungry on the truck. Jalou always took me with him to where we could get something to eat and drink. We chatted as much as we could - with my bad French and his bad English. At one point he asked if I would come home with him when we reached the city; he would like his family to meet me.

Three days this adventure lasted. And what an adventure it was! At any point I, or anybody else, could have fallen off the top of the truck, be it whilst enjoying the scenery by day or whilst sleeping by night. Nothing bad happened so, of course, it was completely worth the risk. I even made a truck family; we laughed together when anybody got hit by a branch and slept together all tangled up every night. And most of all, I got a breathtaking, three day view of Guinea's awe-inspiring nature.

[Photo album - click here]

Friday, 22 March 2013

Keep On Keeping Me

Click here to see the album of photos for this post

The huge bustle of people surrounded me at the edge of the water which looked over to the capital city Banjul. A man bent down in front of me shouting "On my shoulders!" I stepped over him, worried about whether he could take the weight of both me and my backpack. Without any problems he waded through the water, along with twenty others who had made this their job, and dropped me on the huge wooden boat where I sat exposed to the sun for thirty minutes until the engine started taking around a hundred people across the river which separates north and south Gambia.

Alighting on the other side, however, wasn't as successful. The hundred people all pushed to escape the boat at the same time; I tried to hold back but was grabbed by a man and fell not so gracefully onto his shoulders, then he dived to save my hat as it flew into the crowded water, causing a slight heart attack on my part.

A brother of my Gambian family, Ebou, lived in the nearby city of Serrekunda, so upon arrival in Banjul he came to pick me up. I stayed with him for two nights whilst he introduced me to all his friends and family. We walked the length and breadth of the city, visiting a beautiful section of the river which is close to his house, as well as passing "Big Tree" which was along the way to the long beach situated at the mouth of the river. Just like the Jonga family in Fass [link] who wanted me to stay for the entire length of my visa, Ebou also wanted me to stay longer. I had to refuse; I couldn't stay everywhere forever.

I hitched 140km, exiting Gambia and entering the south of Senegal, arriving in Ziguinchor after just two rides. The second was in a bus; they took me for free. After just ten minutes driving, a tyre punctured so we had to take refuge from the sun in somebody's back yard until the driver had managed to negotiate a ride to a tyre shop and come back to fit it. It was almost dark when he finished and we restarted the trip.

I hopped off the bus upon arrival in Ziguinchor and a small group of people surrounded me;
"The white woman needs something, how can we make some money" I assumed they were thinking.
The man with the clearest English and loudest voice won my attention. We jumped in a taxi together and headed to his place. He was a 50-something year old, unmarried man called Ibrihim. Of course, I was suspicious at first; what did he want from me? There must be a reason he is doing this? I stayed switched on whilst with him, always expecting a negative outcome of some sort, but I gradually relaxed as I got to know him more.

We walked through his neighbourhood, stopping for Palma wine and crab meat for breakfast, where we then passed people living their everyday lives; be it women washing clothes, boys playing football, and even men weaving thread using thirty metre looms. We strolled a long distance outside of the city limits, seeing the unspoiled nature along the road, reaching a crocodile sanctuary where we joked about the probability of them being plastic. A small stick thrown at the right angle caused a snap loud and quick enough to put our suspicions to the grave. In the early evenings we met up with his friends, sat down on plastic chairs in a line against a compounds wall, and faced the street and passers-by, drinking Senegalese tea and talking mainly about perspective, unrealistic businesses for their future.

After my positive time with Ibrihim, I now feel slightly ashamed of the judgements I first made about him. He turned out to be just the same as anybody else I have befriended so far on my trip through Africa; kind, friendly, and no reason for being so. Being a 50-something year old single man had nothing to do with anything. My judgement of that was only a reflection on myself. He shook my right hand and then my left hand as we parted; meaning that we shall meet again one day, then told me that I am family and can call him if I ever return to Ziguinchor.

He escorted me to a police checkpoint on the morning I left, suggesting it was a perfect place to catch traffic heading in my direction. The officers took me under their wing; they sat me under the shade of their hut, gave me a glass of tea, and asked every vehicle if it's direction was also mine. After some time, a woman officer had given up on her duties and was now re-plaiting the parts of my hair which had become loose, and the chief officer was flirting with me to the point of proposing marriage.
"Why don't you just come home with me today, then us three can go party tonight, then we will find you a ride tomorrow?" the woman suggested with enthusiasm.
I politely declined; "This is just getting ridiculous... everybody wants to keep me here in Africa!" I thought to myself.

They found a ride for me with two agricultural scientists heading to conference. One of them studied at university in London thirty years ago and had also hitchhiked around Europe at the time so had some hilarious stories so share with me. He also told me about an oil seed which grew naturally and abundantly all over Senegal which, using a machine already invented for this purpose, would produce fuel for electricity. He and his team had worked tirelessly for years, corresponding with research universities in London, but had repeatedly come up against opposition from Senegal's politicians. He said it was impossible that the country could not benefit from this, that there is too much corruption in government and too much influence from the worlds petroleum industry preventing any alternative to arise. Of course, I agreed with him entirely; now I've not only read hundreds of alternative energy conundrums, I've also conversed with a scientist for two hours about the corruption and the self-interest initiatives of government and big industry officials! As he dropped me off at a crossroads, he pointed out the window at a mud-brick thatched-roof house, shook his head and said;
"Look. And people are still living like this."

A man called Kama picked me up at the crossroads. He was an agricultural businessman, but didn't have so much to say about his work, he just wanted to party. He convinced me to stay with him for two nights, paying for a nice hotel room all for myself. He worked during the daytime, so I busied myself making most of the room which felt luxury in comparison to anywhere I had stayed for the past two months. When he returned from work, we would go out for drinks in bars which were almost empty, because of the practice of Islam in Senegal, except for a few young lost men and women. I innocently asked Kama about the presence of women; it was very strange for me to see an African woman smoking and drinking beer. The answer was that they were prostitutes. They apparently earn around ten euros a time here.
"Stay another day then the next day we can go to see my family together" he said when I told him I was leaving the following morning.
Again, another person who wanted to keep me!

As planned, I hitched to the border of Guinea the next day. I arrived just after the border closed at 6pm, so I had to spend the night in the border town. A man from the bus on my last ride that day helped me find a place to stay; inside a cafe on a make-shift straw bed. He wanted to help me get transport through Guinea in the morning, but I found it myself: on top of a loaded truck accompanied by twenty other people. Wait for this next post for more information... it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Click here to see the album of photos for the post.

Friday, 15 March 2013

My Jonga Family

Click here for the link to the photos for this blog post

This is my story of how the Jonga family generously welcomed me into their home in the tiny village of Fass on the border of Gambia where I stayed for two weeks and became part of their family.
I must start this post by thanking them.  I will be forever grateful for their time which they gave so willingly, for their kindness, hospitality, and love.
Most importantly I must mention Penda.  A 22 year old woman who spoke English very well as she has managed to finish school.  She helped me with everything; from talking to other people, to washing my clothes.  She shared her bed with me every night and before sleeping we would talk about everything in our lives.  By being so open about her thoughts and feelings, she taught me so much about life as an African woman.  I am completely in awe at how incredible she is; how strong and independent in some aspects, yet so weak in others.  She became my best friend and somebody who I will love forever.

My first full day was when I realised how different their lives were.  All the women packed into one room; there was a huge bucket of nuts to be cracked open.  They had this clever technique of smashing the small end of the shell on the floor and, as if by magic, both nuts would fall out easily.  I joined in; found it impossible.  It's a skill that comes naturally in your family genes, I told myself... like rolling your tongue... as I smashed and picked until I had a pile of nuts small enough to be embarrassed about the huge blister which had developed on my middle finger.

Penda didn't have time to crack nuts; there was some ironing to be done.  The metal structure resembled something that I would guess even my own Grandmother hadn't seen as a child.  A small coal fire inside heated the base of the rusted iron, but the lack of a protective handle gave burns to her hand if she held it for too long.

Ida, a "sister" of everyone (in Africa, a sister or brother is somebody who you have been close with for your whole life), also didn't have time to crack peanuts.  She was making hair extensions from black woollen thread, spinning them together by hand then sealing the ends on hot coal, before twisting each one into her friends hair.  After hours of work, her friend had a huge, stylish hair-do to be proud of.

Lunch was served every day at precisely 3pm.  We split into two groups of around six adults and eight children and each groups sat around a huge basin of food.  Everybody dug their hands in the basins; squeezing the juice from the rice into a block solid enough to throw into a mouth in one piece, chunks of fish were broken from the bone and flicked in front of those incapable of doing it themselves (the children... and me), and after one basin was finished a second came out.  The food was very basic due to the limited ingredients available in the village; there were maybe three or four different meals we had, every day of the week.  Most importantly though, the rice filled stomachs and it was all naturally grown, healthy and nutritious.

When the children returned home from school every afternoon, chaos would brake out as they debated which games to play that day.  They had no toys or anything that kids in the West have, yet there were hundreds of games which satisfied their bodies and minds.  I loved watching or playing with them.  My favourite was throw-the-sandal-tag.  The funniest was when they gathered sticks and erected a high-jump hurdle; when the younger kids got tired of failing to clear the jump they built their own smaller one, then when they got tired of jumping they tried forward rolls over the bar.  Their simple, innovative games entertained them for hours.

I was renamed by most, taking the name of my new "mum" Awa.  She was loud, excitable, always in the middle of games and conversation, always making people laugh, always got her breasts out for some reason or other.  I gave the family some of my clothes which I no longer needed; Awa took my pink polka-dot pyjama trousers and used them for everyday life like hanging out in the compound or walking to the market.  She was the loud, crazy auntie who everybody has at home, who all people love and want to be around.  It was a nice feeling to be reminded very day of my auntie Julie at home!!

That was the only aspect that was similar to home for me; that everybody has a crazy auntie.  Everything I saw made me repeat the same phrase in my mind; "Everything is different here".  I've left it quite late in this post to state that there is no electricity anywhere in the vicinity of the village.  That makes a huge impact on the difference of our lives.  Obviously, the main impact is the fact that this is Africa and the poverty level is dramatically different than in the West.  All things considered, it was mind-blowing to me that literally everything was different.  The iron is heated with coal.  There is only one tap for the entire village.  Water for washing is fetched from the nearby well.  The cold water bath from a bucket.  Games played by the kids, in comparison to the internet generation in our kids in the West.  The preparation of food taking hours, as bad pieces of rice are individually picked out by hand, whilst spices and flavourings are smashed with a wooden log.  Eating food together as a family for every meal, sitting on tiny blocks of wood around the basins, chatting and laughing throughout the meal.  Having time to sit down with each other, spend time with family members instead of huddling around a TV for hours every evening as we do at home.  This was the main difference I found so precious; having time for each other.

A family friend visited the compound on day; she asked if I could take her to England... she would fetch the water for me.  I giggled at her innocence.
"We don't need to fetch water in England."
"What? Why not?!"
"Everybody has taps in their houses."
Shock hit everybody's faces in disbelief at what I had just said.  Their shock made me even more shocked.
I realised that it might not be such a good idea to divulge and further information about our material life in the West.  If they were impressed about taps, imagine how mind-blowing everything else would be.
Is having showers, washing machines, computers, and electricity better than not having them?

The people of the village asked for electricity when they elected their current president in Gambia.  I told them it would be a bad idea.  What good does electricity bring? Bills, debt, distraction from TV's, and light pollution that ruins the night sky.  Oh wow, what an incredible night sky they had.  It was like the universe was bigger here than it is anywhere else, like somebody had places a huge telescope above us so that we could see all the stars that were ever in existence.

The most wonderful part of this family was their happiness.  There were always jokes going on and people were always, always laughing.  They held their laughter back at nothing; even when the 60-something year old grandma fell through the fence with a baby on her back.

My ukulele shaped bag was very intriguing for all, so I lasted just one night before I was first asked to play.  A day when everybody was at home, I played Hallelujah (by Leonard Cohen) and asked them all to join in on the chorus.  The kids especially loved it; singing at the top of their voices, their huge brown eyes smiling up at me.  This was a very surreal moment; a song that means so much to me and one which was so fitting for this family to be singing.  I honestly don't know if I've ever smiled so much before.
This sparked some musical inspiration; as soon as I had finished there were buckets brought out for drums, and people were clapping and taking turns to sing and dance.  Everybody had to dance.  Even kids just old enough to stand alone were put in the middle of the circle and told to move.  I was in tears of laughter through most of it.  We played for hours and hours.

When walking through the village, I always got a lot of attention.  Everybody would want to be introduced to me and know why I was there.  If one child saw me they would scream "toubob!" and run towards me to shake my hand.  The word was almost like a calling to other kids within the area, as they would pop up from all corners and as soon as they spotted me they would start shouting and running too.  Within less than one minute there would be a chorus all around me which I eventually named the Toubob Song.  There was, however, a particular age range of kids, maybe 1-2 years old, who must have just gotten the ability to really recognise faces and difference in them.  They were terrified of me.  A person with white skin and blue eyes WHAT THE?!  They would take one look at me and completely freak out, shaking in hysterical teas, running towards anybody else they knew.  Funny that it was only that age range; younger and they saw no difference in me, older and they were intrigued by me.

One afternoon though, I got the attention of a man who followed me and Penda all the way home.  He had only seen me once before, could speak no English at all, yet proclaimed to love me and that he would like to marry me.  The day after he came to visit me at the family compound and, for a reason which I never found out, had a pigeon in a plastic bag.  Everybody looked at him with suspicious eyes but remained polite for a very long time.  Eventually, I was sent "to the market" with Ida.  When I returned he was gone and everybody was in excitable conversation about how they had got together to tell him to leave because the Toubob is here for her own business and doesn't need to be bothered.

This was one instance which showed what they felt towards me.  They wanted to protect me from him, like it was their responsibility to do that.  There were many other instances too...
They repeatedly asked me to stay longer: "Stay til the end of your 21 day visa".  As soon as they found out it is possible to extend my visa:  "Stay til the end of your visa then you can extend it and stay another 21 days".
The sweetest thing I've ever heard... they were asking what my freckles on my arms were.  I don't actually know the full reason so I said something about the sun.  Later Penda said that some people are worried about them:  "I hope it's not where the insects have touched you?"
Ami, my sister, was heavily pregnant.  They said when the baby is born they will name it Kimmie.
What struck me the most was that everything they did for me was for no gain on their own part - no financial gain or nothing egotistical to be proud of their village or to promote their country - they genuinely just wanted me to be happy.  These people loved me and weren't afraid of showing it.

I wanted to stay forever.  I could have stayed forever.  But I knew that I must go on with the rest of my planned trip through Africa.  They didn't understand that.  I was part of their family now, why would I leave? It felt like a lifetime that I stayed with the Jonga family but in fact it was just two short weeks.  Some of the kids cried as we said our goodbyes.  All the adults cried.
"Togal, togal!" (Sit down, stay!) cried Fatoub with tears streaming down her face.  I'll never ever forget that.  My Gambian family gave me so much more than an insight into African life; they showed me another type of happiness, they accepted me into their family so easily, and loved me so innocently.
I can't end this post.  I have too much to say about my time there.  I've missed so much out.
Pffff...  Inspiring.  Humbling.  Life changing.

Click here to see the gallery of photos for this post

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Unthinking In Nature

Due to lack of efficient internet access recently on my trip through Africa, I will no longer post photos on the blog. Instead, you can follow this link to see the photos on Facebook.

A short bus ride took me from the chaos of Dakar city [click] to the chaos of one of only two roads exiting Dakar city.  My backpack and Eugene the Ukulele sat beside me as I accidentally flagged down a hundred taxis until I finally stopped a car.  When I say finally, I mean just five minutes later.  I'm obviously not tanned enough yet if I easily stand out in a jumble of people and traffic that large!

Mohammed was driving straight to Mbour, perfect for me as this was my planned stop for the night.  He bought us both lunch along the way and then tried to help me find a spot for my tent.  His worry got the better of him as he couldn't settle until he had found a place with security surrounding it.  As I was just winging it myself, I didn't object to his mind track.
"Just a quick stop to get my cheque from work, then I can carry on helping you."
We drove almost half way back to Dakar where he worked as a middle-man in a Dutch-owned agriculture business.  There were hundreds of women picking, planting and caring for the acres and acres of crops, each earning just 2000CFA (approximately 3 euros) for 8 hours work, every day of the week.  Mohammed got his cheque, but then had to cash it; resulting in a busy rush-hour drive all the way back to Dakar.  I was so frustrated at my politeness and inability to say no, until we drove back to Mbour and right into a posh hotel room for the night.

A police checkpoint was the key to hitching to Kaolack the following morning.  I just sat back in the shade as they asked each vehicle for me.  Upon arrival, I was dropped at the edge of town where I walked to the secluded beach side in the sweltering midday sun.  I pitched my tent under a tree right there on the edge of the Saloum River.

Silence was everywhere.  Only the sound of the water, the occasional tree blowing in the wind, and birds and insects singing their songs.  For me it was a time to think and to un-think.  Our minds are so cluttered with old and new information, we are always talking or listening but never really appreciating.  One final treat was on my last morning there; I brushed my teeth at the edge of the sea whilst a flock of a thousand birds flew past skimming the water.

After two nights there I moved on to the border of Gambia.  The border town was busy and loud, and I still hadn't finished with spending time alone in the nature, so I walked to the next small village called Fass.  At the edge of the village I found an empty half-built mosque which could provide shade for my tent over the next few days.  I filled up my water bag at the village's tap and bought some bread at a shop where some women were sitting outside.  They asked what I was doing and where I was staying.  I didn't tell them so much; I didn't want curious people trying to find me.  I spent the next two days looking out onto the vast, untouched landscape, thinking, unthinking, writing, reading, appreciating.

The early evening of the second day was when it all changed.  The women from the shop found me.  We talked, they offered me food, they offered me a bath... and that's when I accepted.  I had been dirty and sweaty for five days.  I couldn't say no.

My time in the nature ended there; it turned out to be more difficult to put into practise than I first thought.  People were just too kind and hospitable.

A bath and some dinner later, the Jonga family were convincing me to stay the night.  I stayed for almost two weeks...

Click here to see the photos for this post on Facebook

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Chaotic Dakar

Due to lack of efficient internet here in Africa, I will no longer post pictures here on the blog. Instead, you can follow the link to my albums on Facebook. Click here for my gallery of pictures from Dakar.

An international group consisting of a young British traveller, a rich Chinese businessman, and a Senegalese good-doer named Samba were united by the word 'help'. It began with Samba feeling compelled to serve those who were lost in this huge, confusingly busy city called Dakar. I arrived at 9pm; bad organisation meant I didn't have the phone number of my Couchsurfing host at hand and it was impossible for me to find a cheap hotel. As for the rich Chinese businessman it was the exact opposite: he was looking for an expensive hotel and ways to spend his money. Samba solved both our problems in one, so after a walk along the broken pavements and a taxi ride through the city, we were all on our way to an Asian karaoke bar to celebrate. Beers for all were bought by one (another task solved) and songs were sang which were similar in cheesiness to Gangham Style.

The morning after, (well, afternoon I should truthfully say) I managed to compose myself enough to organise meeting my CS host when he finished work. Guibril was previously a professional basketball player with a three year stint in Qatar, before quitting due to a potentially expensive injury. Most of his family now lived in the USA after obtaining Green Cards, but he had a few more years left to wait for his. From the beginning we got along very well; Guibril was a humorous and intelligent man with passionate opinions on the social and political issues in Senegal and all of Africa. Each afternoon he would begin the long process of preparing Senegalese tea and we would put the world to right in that very room.

My first day exploring the city began with a stint at the beach. Being the only white person there caused a huddle of sellers to be around me most of the time. I then took the overcrowded minibus to the market in the centre where just looking at something means you're buying it. I wanted to window shop but there's no such thing in Dakar! After too much attention I quickly learnt the skill of shopping whilst looking busy and in a rush to get somewhere.

Lucky for me, Guibril had time off work the next day so we went together to Goree Island. It has a hugely important history of being a checkpoint through which slaves were shipped from Africa to Europe and the Americas for over 500 years. The Cuban style architecture, the multi-coloured houses and boats, the gathering of artists selling their painting, jewellery and sculptures, the monuments designed in memory of hundreds of years of slavery, and the emotionally informative slavery house, all deservedly attract tourists from all over the world.
The slavery house is in almost original condition; the rooms which separated the men, women, and children, and the fit from the unfit, are all shockingly small, whilst the space used for punishment of rebellious Africans are just small enough to prevent even crouching. The "door of no return" looks out to nothing but the endless ocean and a terrifying future. Diagrams depict how slaves were fitted and shipped economically, where in the world they were shipped to and what they were used for. Drawings show the brutality used by the Europeans, the betrayal of Africans by friends or family members, as well as those courageous characters who finally stood up to the whites to save their race. Of course, everybody knows at least a little about the history of African slavery, but visiting Goree Island brought a reality and emotion to me that I otherwise wouldn't know. The special part is that now both blacks and whites and all other races now visit this place, together.

The African Renaissance Monument, taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City according to the new President of Senegal, was another attraction I visited. A guess on my part would be that it's an exaggeration, or at least a loophole was used by including the hill and steps up to the statue. Either way, it was high enough to see the landscape of Dakar, as well as struggle to take a steady photo due to the strength of the wind.
Close to the bottom of the monument, a small group of women were gathered. They were part of a movement of women who had been abandoned by their husbands and now sold handmade, natural jewellery in order to support their children through school. One woman told me her husband left her with her four children to take an illegal boat to Europe, but died on the way. She angrily said that he did it for his own selfish reasons, and that she believes their men should stay in Senegal to work hard and build their own country where their families live. I bought some coconut shell earrings from her in my support for the cause!

Guibril and I took another day trip to the aptly named Lac Rose. Three bus rides blowing copious amounts of sand from the roads through the windows into our breathing faces made the journey a memorable one. We arrived at the lake, which, believe it or not, is pink in colour (the high salt content makes perfect living conditions for this pink algae). Here, salt is extracted by independent workers in small groups then sorted into numerous piles according to size and dried in the sun, before being sold to local industries and distributors. A walk around part of the lake was enough for us, as we particularly avoided the tourist trap of the beach filled with sellers selling at extortionate prices to the rich whites.

Street kids are everywhere in Dakar. They run around in small groups with ripped, dirty clothes, no shoes, and a small tin box with some possessions inside. They hold out their hand whilst reciting their poverty speech, hoping for some money from anybody kind enough that day. Some are more creative, singing their story loudly on buses just as everybody is reaching for their bus fare.
Where do they come from? I asked Guibril one day.
They come from small countryside villages, from families that are too poor to feed all their children. A man visits, saying he can take them to the capital city, give them more opportunity, teach them the Qaran. Upon reaching the city he sends them to the streets to beg for money, each must make 500CFA to take to him at the end of every day and in return they get a place to sleep, the only place they can belong to. There's no time to learn the Qaran because they've been outside begging all day. If they don't earn enough money, they stay on the street alone all night; risking beatings and rape. There are hundreds of these "religious" men all over Senegal taking young boys to larger towns to earn money for himself.

Guibril was a great host, reminding me the importance of using Couchsurfing every so often on my trip through Africa. He is worldly, open minded, enthusiastic to learn about other people and cultures, and very intelligent; teaching me a lot about Senegalese and African culture, history, and politics. He also hosted another CS guest during my stay; Savan; a 50-something year old Belgian man who had travelled the world since his youth, either learning or working along the way. His small amount of possessions totalling one small backpack made me re-think my material needs - I am throwing or giving away more and more every day!

Compared to my confusing and busy first day in Dakar, my time there turned out to be relaxing and an important stop towards learning more about Senegal's people, culture and society. Next stop?.... I didn't actually know....

Click here for my gallery of pictures from Dakar