Sénégal

Kidira to Kaolack

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Currency = CFA
£1 = CFA 1000
US $1 = CFA 520
1 Euro = CFA 656
March 2004

From the Mali exit customs we walked a little way round the corner and found the taxi garage for cars going to Kaolack. It was 7.00pm and the next car in the queue waiting for its seats to be filled was empty. Good fortune for us to pay the fare of CFA 8000 each and to be able to reserve the seats of our choice .. but not so good in having to wait for it to fill with many more passengers .. indeed, the taxi manager said we might probably have to wait overnight.

Quite weary from our trip from Kayes, we sat at a local drinks shack, chatting to a couple of young Guinean lads who had just started their new customer service enterprise and were supervising their carpenter .. roughly cobbling together seats and shelves with a blunt saw, a wooden plane - which would be a valuable antique in the UK - a hammer and a few long nails.

A local family, three generations of which were running a restaurant, provided a meal whilst  proudly showing us their new portable colour TV. Only having its tiny aerial on a short cable, the picture and sound were somewhat abysmal and seeing as I was white and must therefore know everything about such things .. I was given the task of adjusting the antennae.

After considerable fiddling, I managed to get a half-decent balance between a fuzzy picture and almost clearly audible sound .. when previously, neither had been worth watching or  listening to.
All settled down to watch the program for a few minutes, until the local I can do better than that character arrived and .. ignoring their protests .. started moving the aerial from its delicately  balanced, optimum position. Patience is a virtue I normally possess, except when suffering from the effects of a rough and sleepless 36 hours .. so advising them to get a longer cable, put a larger aerial much higher up and to grease the sharp sections of the TV, before they shoved it up a particular orifice of the clever one .. we left them to it !!!

Our car was still empty, a modern Peugeot 504 Estate .. its coach-work and interior seemingly unspoilt .. with all its original upholstery in place and even seat belts to use. Thinking I would get at least a little comfort whilst waiting for the other occupant of the front seat to arrive, I curled up in it and fell asleep. Not too long afterwards, I was woken up by the commotion of the other passengers getting in .. lo and behold .. we were actually full and on our way. Not only was it a surprise that we were full so soon ..  evidently and luckily a bus had just arrived from Mali ..
but the seating plan was 2 - 3 - 2, just the same as one would find in Europe. Comfort indeed !

The driver's first task was to drive 200 metres around the  corner to make sure we were all officially stamped into Sénégal by the immigration officers at the customs post. In the
0.5 candlepower of a Chinese-made torch, trying to find the Mali exit stamp amongst all the others in my over-full passport, was a task in itself .. but nothing else was asked of me.
As per usual, all the African travellers were requested to part with the equivalent of one Pound Sterling, without even a pretence being made of them having anything wrong with their papers.
The arguments, pleas and protestations commenced and another half an hour was wasted before we eventually were on our way again .. all having had no choice except to pay.

 Alaghi, as tired and irritable as myself, was in fine voice .. leading the conversation in bemoaning their fate and condemnation of corrupt officials world-wide .. everyone was getting overheated. After 15 minutes of this I had had enough; "OK, are you all complaining of having to pay at virtually every checkpoint in all the countries of the area and none of you being able to afford more than the basic fare, plus a little extra for chop ( food ) ?"
Nodded agreement .. after translation .. all round.
"I, as a stranger from another country, normally don't get asked for any payment and usually get away with refusing to pay if someone does ask." More nodding.
"Is this fair ?" Vigorous shaking of heads.
"No, it is decidedly unfair, it does not happen in Europe and you have my utmost sympathies. But ... if you know that this is going to happen on every trip you make .. why not just  count it as part of the fare, bring more money with you to cover the costs, pay up immediately you are asked and stop all these time-wasting arguments with customs officials who never give way ?"
Thoughtful agreement and silence returned.

With peace at last, I settled down in unaccustomed comfort and immediately fell into a deep sleep, not stirring until we entered Tambacounda, many kilometres away from Kidira.

Factfile 31: As readers must have gathered by now, I positively hate corruption, especially corrupt officials at checkpoints, who 'bleed dry' both their own countrymen and other innocent 'brother' West Africans, with perfectly correct travel documents and who rightly expect to be given free passage under the terms of ECOWAS. At an average of 1 UK Pound per person, these people must be 'earning' a fortune ( by local standards ) every day ..  far more than most of the genuine hard workers in their own countries. Simply because they (sometimes) have a uniform and (seemingly always) uncontrolled rights to promulgate extortion and bullying on genuinely poor people, who although innocent .. seem to have absolutely no rights for redress whatsoever.
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Despite refusing to pay when my documents are correct, I don't expect to win in a 'one-man  campaign' against this total unfairness and have to accept it as another 'African way'.
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In rethinking my sweeping advice to them, as a solution to time-wasting arguments,  I have since reconsidered their position. If the traveller concerned, immediately and without argument, handed over the amount being demanded .. the official concerned would probably suspect that there was something this person was trying to hide. Whereupon a baggage search would likely be instigated, more time would be lost and both extra and higher demands probably made.
A no-win situation.
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 Brave, will be the senior official of any West African country, who tries to ensure a fair salary for these officials, sufficient to stamp out the rampant corruption that benefits the favoured few, penalises the poorest and plagues the entire area. Sadly, I doubt it will ever change !

Thankfully, the checkpoint at Tambacounda didn't involve any of us and I soon settled back to catch up on my missed sleep. The roads were mostly brilliant, with European-style white lines, good road signs and smooth tarmac and only the occasional pothole. Our driver, probably in his late twenties, was giving us a smooth ride and all his passengers were as fast asleep as I was.

I gradually emerged from my slumbers with the realisation that we seemed to be hitting a succession of deep potholes, one after the other and at speed. Opening my eyes, I looked at our driver who appeared to be wildly chewing at something similar to chewing-gum and sawing at the wheel .. making the car swerve from side to side over a particularly rough section of road.
I was just about to say something to him when I noticed that we were now going in a straight line, diagonally across the road .. at something like 100 km/hour .. heading straight for a deep drop over the side of an embankment and into a ditch. He was fast asleep !

Grabbing at the steering wheel, I yanked it over to the right, whilst shouting at him to
"Wake up!" and raining blows on his shoulder in an attempt to rouse him.

"I am awake." he shouted back. "Oh no you were not, my man!"( or words to that effect )
I said. Looking back at the road in front, I saw that we were heading, still at speed, straight for a red warning triangle some 10 metres away .. which in turn, was 5 metres in front of the enormous  rear end of a broken-down and stationary truck, looming out of the darkness !!!

Repeating the wheel-grabbing, shouting and thumping exercise of a few seconds previously, we managed to miss certain death for the second time .. but only just ! It is advised that night travel in Africa has many dangers .. previously, I had not considered the sleeping driver of your own transport to be one of them. Normally the travelling conditions in bush transport are so rough that no one manages to sleep anyway, this car was just too comfortable.

Thinking of what surely would have happened, if I had woken up 10 seconds later than I did .. truthfully scared the ess aitch one tee out of me. With my heart pumping away in shock, I attempted to get the other passengers .. by now awake but not really aware of what had nearly happened .. to engage the driver in animated conversation on any subject,  to stop him falling asleep again. Trying to convince Alaghi to translate to the others that we had nearly been killed and why it was necessary to keep the driver talking in their own language, was impossible. Bringing forth only an unimpressed "Oh yes" reply, before he started drifting off to sleep again.
When Africans sleep, every switch is totally switched off !!

Factfile 32: I cannot profess to being overly religious, nor do I have absolute faith in the ju-ju that I always wear in Africa. Genuine, not tourist-fodder ju-jus, are dedicated to many different purposes .. mine was presented to me after I was introduced to a Marabout by a genuine new friend, who is still a friend to this day, on my first visit to Africa some 15 years ago. Dedicated to protecting me from harm when travelling throughout Africa, it is a small square of paper, with a grid pattern of  squares, containing Arabic symbols .. decipherable only by the Marabout who created it. My late friend
Baboucar Fatty wrapped it in leather for me, in complete silence from start to finish as is strictly dictated by custom .. and I have worn it in Africa ever since.
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I know not what or who was watching over all our safety that night, but I am convinced someone or something was. Who or whatever, I will be eternally grateful to them for depriving the parties below of an unexpected feast for their next morning breakfast. We were so nearly history !

Despite seemingly having the weight of concrete blocks trying to close my weary eyelids,
I forced myself to keep awake and regularly check on the driver. When one of the front tyres exploded with a loud bang and he had to swap the shredded and virtually tread-less flat tyre for a not-much-better spare one from the boot .. I breathed a sigh of relief. At least this incident had properly woken him up, but I still dare not fall asleep for the remainder of the journey.

We arrived in Kaolack, the salt-producing centre of Sénégal, as dawn was breaking at 7.00am.
 
If I ever retrace my steps over the same route, it will be during daylight !