International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Africa
Impressions of Senegal
Nothing could prepare in advance for my arrival to Leopold Serigne
Senghor airport in Senegal, West Africa. I thought I had got a measure
of the Senegalese people from the plane journey: they had pushed
past me to get put their bags into the overhead lockers and Im
sure one of them had even sworn at me. But I was culturally ignorant
at this point; I did not know that most of the passengers were starving
themselves because of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. Mostly, their
irritability could be put down to low blood sugar.
I stepped off the
plane into a wall of humid and suffocating heat contrasting cruelly
with the air conditioned, sterile atmosphere of the plane. With each
tentative step I took down the steps from the plane I kept thinking:
what exactly am I letting myself in for?
Large black women in colourful boubous with matching headscarves leered
past me; their gold bracelets jangling under armfuls of fabric. I felt
like an outsider almost immediately: my foreign nationality was proclaimed
both from the colour of my skin, and the fact that I wore Westernised
clothes like jeans and a t-shirt.
I looked at some of the men walking past me in ill-fitting grey business
suits, with small sticks hanging from their illustriously large black
lips. One of them smiled at me with tobacco stained teeth, and I managed
a small uncertain nod back.
As I exited the airport, a strong odour of piss and sweat rose up to
greet me. There was lots of small metal fences strung together as barrier
about 200 metres from the airport doors to stop a throng of taxi drivers,
hustlers, and an intensely expectant crowd from rushing to envelop the
Not one familiar face stuck out from this eager crowd, and panic began
to set in slightly. Everyone seemed to be making come here
signs with there hands, as if they had all been waiting for my arrival.
I felt reluctant to approach them. Instead, a man in a wheelchair approached
me, his legs twisted and scorned from what I expected was polio, struck
up a conversation. "Quest ce que vous faîtes ici? Vous
cherchez un taxi?".
"No, thankyou." I replied in the best French I could manage.
"I am waiting for my friends here and they should be turning up
any minute now." I smiled what I hoped was a confident and self
assured grin until he wheeled away.
Shortly afterwards, a tall man in a baseball shirt and ripped jeans
tried to take my suitcase off to me, without my permission, and I wrestled
it back off him whilst arguing that I was not, in fact, looking for
a taxi. I decided the safest option was to sit on my suitcase until
a familiar face arrived.
It was not long until I saw my friends make their way through the crowd.
They motioned for me to come towards the metal barriers and follow them
round to the opening partition.
I was so relieved to see them, that I hugged them in a simultaneous
embrace. However, it was not long before another hustler tried to take
my suitcase from me. Alarmingly, for one modestly sized suitcase which
I could lift myself, it necessitated the help of two or three his friends
to oversee the operation and herd us towards a taxi.
Orrin negotiated a price for our onward journey, which cost 3000 CFA
(about £4). The yellow and black dusty taxi didnt seem entirely
fit for purpose, it had a smashed windscreen; and the taxi driver started
yelling when his car boot refused to shut properly.
As I climbed into the back seat, the hustlers began to hassle the taxi
driver and us for a few coins for their pains. Orrin shrugged and pretended
he didnt have any loose change, but when they refused to let us
go without being paid, the taxi driver reluctantly handed them a few
small coins from the cars ashtray.
I felt relieved as we began to pull away, despite the fact that our
driver had a near miss with another taxi and wound down the window to
air his grievances in Wolof to the offending party.
Teresa smiled uncertainly at me, as if to say "Welcome here!".
I was truly lost for words at that point. The taxi was stuffy and the
passenger footwell had been eroded partly away so that you could see
the nodulations of road as the car moved. I tried to wind down the grimy
window for ventilation but the black handle refused bluntly to be moved.
We drove from the hustle and bustle of the airport out into open expanses
of desert. I noticed a few sparse trees with black bin bags hanging
from the branches nearer to the main road. The desert gave way to a
more built up area, and despite it being 2 am there were vendors sat
on street corners selling hot café Touba from portable containers
to passers by. Women with babies strapped to their backs on upturned
buckets proffered a bunch of bananas to a man heading their way, but
he waved them away with his hand and carried on walking.
We drove through Fann, a small town, and I was shocked to see a woman
surrounded by her four children sleeping on the street, on thin piece
of carpet. I was so shaken up by this desolate image and asked rather
foolishly "Dont these people have homes to sleep in?"
As our journey continued, the answer became painfully clear: streets
full of children, men, families- all sleeping on pieces of cardboard
or just lying on the bare pavement. Most of them had no shoes on their
feet and had nothing to cover their arms, and I thought of the deadly
risk of them catching malaria. This world was poles apart from England
and I thought about how lucky I was to have a British passport and a
place to sleep at night.
We left the main road, and nearly hit a stray African dog as we drove
up an unlit residential street. The unmade road was sandy and disconcerting
protuberances of rock buffered the taxi every now and again.
We arrived outside a half built house which would be my residence for
the next 10 months. Two old men in plastic deckchairs nodded their heads
in greeting as we stepped out the taxi; and I noticed one of them had
a machete lying in his lap.
"Neighbourhood watch," Orrin muttered almost matter-of-factly,
noticing my shock.
There was no denying it, this was most definitely Africa.
There is a stray
African dog which lives in the local neighbourhood of Sacré
Coeur III, near Dakar. I imagine what it is like to live how he
lives, without restraint, free from the nauseating chains of familiarity
I have never seen
him drink any water; it is as though the air is his only sustenance.
In the heat of the African sun, the flies dance in between the patches
of mange on his fur and he raises his leg in salute to a company of
ants who teeter across the sand. Parasites are his main sources of friendship,
and he shuns all other company.
Legs pass him by, legs, legs, all day. It is rare for anyone to scratch
him under the chin or pat him on the head. They are afraid of what they
may catch. On top of that, he has been hardened by a diet of well placed
kicks and harsh words.
When an old bone or a leftover bowl of rice is thrown towards him by
a stranger, his tail wags briefly and his facial features soften into
that of an old teddy bear as he gulps down unchewed mouthfuls with his
rotten teeth. Then he curls up back to sleep. Sometimes I go past him
and worry he has passed away in dreams.
His life is his own, and the day, and the night. His belly drones with
the pangs of hunger but it is a familiar sensation, and he runs a dusty
paw over his nose before going back to sleep again under the cooling
shadow of a 4x4.
He is not spoilt, like a British dog. He does ingratiate himself with
strange hands at his masters will, he cannot do tricks,
he will never sleep in a basket of cushions and he certainly does not
receive presents at Christmas.
Tabaski is his favourite time of year, when the blood of thousands of
goats across Senegal flow as one into the soil, and he has the chance
pickings of leftovers from every household. Heads, trotters and intestines
are all welcome.
He lives in the wake of the knowledge that he is what he is, and cannot
aspire to be more of less. He can fend for himself, and the baying cats
send him to sleep at night.
© Natalie MacDonald November 2009
Natalie is in her final year of Creative Writing and Languages at the
University of Portsmouth
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