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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Africa

First Impressions of Senegal
Natalie MacDonald

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 I’m 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 arrivals.

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. "Qu’est 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 car’s 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 "Don’t 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.

The Dog

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 and routine.

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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