Tuesday, 22 February 2011

End of the road

Bamako, someone has said, is the world’s largest village. At almost 2 million inhabitants, it’s anyhow an urban sprawl growing at a ferocious pace - drawing in seasonal workers, Moorish merchants, Peul herders and rural refugees from the Sahelian hinterland. The new urbanites tether their goats round the railroad tracks or unfold their vendors’ mats along the city’s thronged market streets and then proceed to flog laid-off western garments, cheap Chinese gadgetry or bitter kola nuts in a cacophony of competing voices. The city centre is a place of perennial commercial frenzy, like a village market on dope.

The mega-village has another inconvenience: pollution. Smog envelops the choked thoroughfares and the crammed bridges spanning the Niger river, where swarms of Chinese motorcycles vie for road space with a horde of cars multiplying by the year. And then there is the dust. The fine red dust that is everywhere, soiling clothes, coating cars and clouding the air on winter days when the Saharan harmattan wind blows. Shake and stir: the toxic cocktail of sand and smog makes Bamako an almost unbearable place. It is nothing like I remember it from my last visit almost ten years ago.

I’m not the only newcomer complaining of sore throat, itchy nose and dusty hair. A growing bunch of migrant adventurers from elsewhere in Africa have in recent times found themselves stuck in this impoverished mega-village. To them Bamako has become a crossroads and a dumping ground, a trap or a trampoline, depending on what stage they have reached on their journey.

Some adventurers end up here after expulsion from Algeria to the no-man’s-land of Mali’s far north. From there, the Red Cross ferrets those it can to the nearest urban hub, Gao, for onward transport to Bamako. Other migrants stuck in the red mud of Mali have not yet crossed the desert – they simply lack money to continue their journey, often after having lost their savings to unofficial “fees” at border crossings. Others yet seek that prized asset, a Malian passport, which will allow them visa-free entry into Algeria. Many adventurers wait for money transfers from friends and family or else drift into a vagrant, jobless existence while nursing dreams of a distant North. The lucky ones among the recent deportees get a rest at the house of the aid association Aracem, a rare lifeline for migrants in the city.

A small group of young Central African deportees lingers outside the association's entrance. The mood is sullen. The day drags on, slow like treacle. B. is a young guy I know from previous visits: he is cheerier than most. “It was my birtday on the 10th but I haven't been able to celebrate it, no means to do it,” he says in a matter-of-fact way, just stating the obvious. His daily budget is 300 CFA (€0.45), plus a couple of cigarettes. B. sleeps on a nearby street corner, where he and his fellow adventurers unfold their plastic mats on a storefront verandah once the shopkeeper has closed for the night. Still, he looks rested. He asks if I am feeling better after my recent bout of malaria. I remark that he seems remarkably healthy himself, despite the rough sleeping and the lack of food. “It’s by the grace of God,” he says. Since embarking on his erratic journey towards North Africa and Europe in 2006, he has never been sick. “God protects us.” This protection does not seem to extend to financial matters, though – B. had paid someone for a fake Malian passport, “but they ate the money”. 

Now he seems lost for ideas: he might try to head to Algeria again, or Mauritania. We look out over the dusty, late-afternoon street as a golden haze starts descending over the city. It's a disheartening sight. The mud road is bumpy and strewn with flattened garbage coloured ochre by the dust: water bottles, old flip-flops, plastic sachets. Little children play at the shuttered shopfronts. Two small stores are still open for business, but few customers get close. The poverty is palpable. Three girls come walking past, dressed in the usual Malian sarongs, swinging their hips lazily. Another day grinds to a halt in the sleepy mega-village.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Against the the pitch-black parking lot, the neon lights of the nearby stadium make it seem an apparition, a stranded spaceship. In the darkness below, travellers scribble names and destinations on strips of cellotape, affix them onto the luggage and haggle over the price. “I’m American, I’m not used to this!” shouts an angry woman before breaking into Wolof. I step back from the hubbub and talk to our Malian bus driver, who does Bamako-Dakar three times a week. His Cameroonian colleague boasts about crossing the Sahara a few days ago, ending up in Oran in Algeria. Isn’t it difficult? “Nah, c’est facile!” People leave worn-out tyres in the sand to indicate the best desert piste, like hikers leaving mounds of rocks. And of course he gets a fake Malian passport, like clandestine migrants do – Malians enjoy visa-free entry. What about the military? “If they see you have money, it’s fine.” Speeding off in your own 4x4 is clearly a smoother ride than sharing one with 20 other migrants.

As we leave Dakar, Malian music starts pouring out of the speakers. It hardly stops – give or take a few hours of French schmaltz and a handful of toilet stops – until we reach Bamako 32 hours later. “Well, it’s Saturday night”, giggles my co-passenger, a young Gambian living in Dubai. She is off to Bamako to buy bazin batik wear, all the rage among West African fashionistas.

At the border in Kidira, the business begins. The policeman collects passports and identity cards, then ushers us into a dusty courtyard. Next to a TV showing Champions League reruns, four Nigerians have squeezed onto a bench. They talk about how much they’ll need to fork out for the passport stamp. Almost 10 euros each is the answer: Nigerians have become a honeypot for underpaid border officials across the region.

At Malian customs, the air is thick with cloying, smog-fuelled heat. Cheap Chinese motorbikes line the parking lot, driven into Mali to avoid excess bribes. A vendor offers a clutch of high-heeled shoes to the ladies, while two Moorish lads lazily try to hawk thick winter blankets. “Mauritania?” one of the Nigerians asks the boys. “I recognise people from everywhere, I’ve been to more than 10 African countries”. He was once expelled from Mauritania when trying to enter Morocco.

At yet anoter fleapit stop, officers collect 1,000-franc notes in a thick wad from all the passengers bar one: me, the rich toubab. Sure, I have a visa but my fellow travellers have the right to cross borders freely, Schengen-style, as citizens of ECOWAS countries. I pay nothing at the five stops between Senegal and Mali while the Nigerians lose 16,000 CFA each, not to mention their temper.

In sweltering Kayes I meet the aventurier. He is 23 and on his way from his Dakar family home to Egypt and then, hopefully, to the West. He scrolls over a rasta-coloured map of Africa on his Nokia smartphone, showing me his maddening route across the Sahel and Sahara. “I’m not afraid,” he says coolly, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Be careful, I say, there are rebellions and conflict in Chad and Sudan. I open the book Bilal by daredevil journalist Fabrizio Gatti and show him pictures of groaning desert trucks in Niger. “Now you have made me afraid,” he says as we board the bus. I feel a bit guilty. 

We bounce through the Mande highlands, past isolated hamlets, baobab trees and roaring trucks, and don’t stop until late at night in a border town close to Mauritania. The place is dark and edgy. Security forces in military fatigues zigzag among the stationed buses, searching and shouting and making quick money. As we approach the coal-fired grills lining the road, the restaurateurs run towards us as a pack of hungry wolves, though we are the ones who haven’t eaten for the past 24 hours. Vien ici! they shout in an aggressive, syncopated cacophony. The aventurier tucks into his plate of greasy mutton, but isn’t that hungry. His mum prepared sandwiches for his transcontinental journey yesterday evening. Once we are done, a wild-eyed man in tatters asks if he can clean the bones. Back on board, my bottled water tastes of rancid smoked mutton.

We reach Bamako early next morning, after two sleepless nights and endless stops at makeshift road barricades. “Everyone says this is the crossroads in Africa,” the aventurier confides as we roll into Sogoniko gare, more a neighbourhood than a bus station. We have Nescafé with our fellow passengers, a crowd of young Senegalese hopefuls bound for Equatorial Guinea. They are living proof that most African migration remains inside the continent, contrary to European fears about an impending “invasion”. The sun rises behind a wall scrawled full with destinations: Cotonou 32,000 francs, Gao 16,000, Niamey 31,000.

I join the aventurier in checking buses to Niger. A cloud of incense smoke rises towards us as we enter the ticket office, shrouding us and the hustlers in a thick, coughy haze. “We have a bus to Agadez but no further, after that you use other means of transport”, we are told, but the aventurier wants none of the deadly Libyan desert. We walk on in the red Malian dust that has already soiled our clothes and backpacks. “So now it has begun,” he says as we reach a big road roaring with hundreds of those Chinese motorbikes we saw at the border. It’s his first day ever abroad.

He leaves for Niamey after we have set up an email account for his travels. Next to me, a young guy is checking Facebook in Tamil. Bamako is not only a crossroads for African aventuriers – it’s also a node for Asians on pre-paid packages to Europe. If he’s on such a deal he must have been waiting for a while, I gather: the computer’s desktop background shows a Tamil film hero astride a motorcycle, riding towards us through a pink backdrop at furious speed.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Warplane blues

In the urban fishing village of Yoff, the roar of warplanes has joined the load chorus of commercial flights taking off from Dakar. Every night and morning they come, sharking in low through the haze, their motors screaming as they speed away over the Atlantic. In their wake the noise reverberates with a deep, ominous rumble. "It's the French, they are doing this because of the elections in Ivory Coast," says an academic friend as we are stuck in yet another Dakar traffic jam. "There's a warship in the port too." Nothwithstanding the Senegalese commitment to closing Dakar's French military base, the former colonial power seems reluctant to loosen its grip on the region.

More things than French realpolitik pivot round restive Ivory Coast. The country's drawn-out conflict did much to trigger the large-scale boat migration of sub-Saharan Africans towards Europe in the last decade. Nationalist calls for ivoirité made hundreds of thousands of West African flee the country they had made their home in the 1990s. Many of these decided to try their luck in Libya, where anti-migrant sentiment pushed them towards Europe. Some 400,000 of those who left the Ivory Coast were from Mali.

I am now heading to Bamako, Mali’s capital and a crucial crossroads between Ivory Coast and Senegal, between the sub-Saharan Sahel and the desert. European bureaucrats, activist Africans expelled from Europe, smuggling networks and budding migrants have all made Mali their hub, if not their home. Besides, the country has of late become a crucial hotspot in the Sahelian struggle between the terrorist movement AQMI and regional and western security forces. Mali, a gentle place with a GDP per capita of less than $700, punches about its weight on many fronts.

The question is how to get there now that the romantically named Niger-Ocean train line coughs and stutters into rusty old age. “Take a direct bus from behind the national stadium,” advises a friend, so I go there to find out more. Past hundreds of water melons stacked high for sale, a fume-choked flyover and a gathering of Peul herders with their goats stands a scattering of rather modern-looking buses. A toothless old man in a turquoise boubou approaches me. “Where are you going?” Bamako, I say. The Dakar-Bamako bus takes 24 hours, he says, call Abderrahman on this number to book a place, and whatever you do don’t talk to any of the other people who approach you here. Still, I walk on. Drivers and mechanics are lazing on mattresses in the baggage compartments. By nightfall their buses will be filled with Senegalese cloth merchants and perhaps a migrant aventurier or two. At a canopy set in the middle of the parking lot, an older man greets me with salaam aleikum. He says the bus takes 36 hours, “I don’t want to give false expectations, it’s 36 hours plus ou moins.” My guess is 40. Anyhow, soon enough the smell of fish, the stickiness of the humid sea and the roar of the French air force will be replaced with the wafts of green tea, the ochre dust and the swirling jeli music of Mali. I can’t wait.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The summer of discontent

In the city-enclave of Ceuta, I’ve been too busy to blog. Anger is stirring among African migrants, who have take to hitting folded-up pieces of carton against the tarmac in protest against the years they think await them in this minuscule Spanish slice of Africa before deportation. Until recently, the cartonazos rang out like pistol shots along Ceuta’s otherwise soporific shopping street, accompanied by chants of Africa Liberté and, of all things, waka waka. Now it’s all quiet again – some migrants were sent off to the peninsula, others detained pending trial. Leaving this tense and tiring standoff, I head for another: Melilla, Spain's second enclave on the North African coast.

So here we are. “Spanish-occupied Melilla”, as my Rough Guide puts it (to the chagrin of any English-speaking Iberian conservatives) is rather depressing, too. Rundown Art Nouveau buildings. Elegant but empty avenues, lined by shops straight out of the fifties. Streets named after long-dead fascist falangistas. Garrisons. Hawkers. Rain. Melilla – unlike its sparkling sister enclave – seems positively postcolonial: the fading grandeur and the flaking residences recall India’s Pondicherry and Cochin, or Malaysia’s Penang. It’s a town wholly at the mercy of its Moroccan hinterland, where discontent is stirring, too.

Still, Melilla tries its utmost to be Spain proper. Mariano Rajoy – the veteran leader of the country’s conservative opposition – came for a visit this week, journalists thronging round him. The TV crews also ganged up at the border to hunt angry Moroccan activists with their cameras; eventually they found a handful. Meanwhile the Melillenses shake their heads, yawn. A few of the usual suspects might be waving their banners and pancartas over at the shabby border post of Beni Enzar in protest against the Spanish leader's "provocative" visit to the "occupied" city, but that’s enough to set a whole media circus rolling, replete with roaring lions of the Spanish hard right, Moroccan politician-acrobats manoeuvring to outflank their neighbour, and the odd clown or two. Nos están toreando, says a Melillan lawyer – the Moroccans are the matador, Spain the wounded bull.

Stuck in between the sword and the bull's horns are the migrants. Sub-Saharan clandestinos have arrived in the past few weeks at a rate not seen in years, prompting speculation in the Spanish Congress about Morocco letting them through, flung like human projectiles across the water in their improbable, inflatable “toy” boats. Now the CETI – the migrant holding centre here – is working way beyond its capacity. Last week, dozens of Bangladeshis were rounded up after five years as model migrants in Melilla: deportation, presumably, awaits them. And, as in Ceuta, unease is breeding among those left behind. My summer of discontent in Ceuta might turn into an autumn of anger over here.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The slow boat to Ceuta

Ever heard of Ceuta? Nah, wouldn't think so. For the uninitiated, this is one of Spain's two minuscule African enclaves, perched precariously on a peninsula jutting out into the Strait of Gibraltar. It's a city teeming with Spanish soldiers, the odd (sometimes very odd) Spanish Foreign legionnaire, tourists pouring in on overloaded cars from the Andalusian ferry, and Moroccan day-trippers scouring Ceuta's single shopping street for European brands. "Ceuta - shopping ville" says the billboard at the official land border crossing, where tourists and workers and peddlers are ferreted through a long, fenced-in walkway. This is the only opening in what is otherwise a perfect armoury that separates Europe from Africa: a system of barriers, sensors and barbwire that runs around the enclave's perimeter, enclosing its little plazas, cosy bars and manicured beaches in a strangely Spanish bubble.

This enclave - recently branded an "occupied city" by Moroccans of the non-shopaholic variety - is where I've decided to explore the border dynamics of the new Europe in a bit more detail. The Strait of Gibraltar is, in the words of one Spanish journalist, a laboratory for the border regime being rolled out across the EU's external frontier. Gazing out over the waters, you can make out the Peñón - the Rock of Gibraltar - in the distance. "Mainland Europe", as it were, is frustratingly close for many irregular sub-Saharan migrants, who squeeze into inflatable boats to do the 14 km crossing. Some of those who are intercepted - and pretty much all are - end up in Ceuta's migrant reception centre on the outskirts of town. Others are sent straight back to Morocco. With summer kicking in, the numbers will surely rise in a seasonal flux that seems to continue despite the economic crisis that is triggering noisy trade union protests day in, day out along Ceuta's shady shopping street.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Farewell Senegal

My anthromobile rolls out of Dakar now, direction London, then to new destinations along Africa's migrant routes. Here the summer high season for boat migration is off to an uneventful start - the coastline lies calm and quiet, though in Dakar's seaside neighbourhoods discontent is simmering. The policing front brings some news: the Spanish-Senegalese patrolling agreement has just been renewed for another year, while an Icelandic contingent has joined the Frontex mission off Senegal's coast - after first unloading a boatful of charity supplies.

These months I've bumped along potholed roads with police patrols, hung out with embittered and impatient repatriees who once braved the waves to the Canary Islands, and reminisced about the heady days of border crossings and expulsions with aid workers and migrants alike. It's all still a blur, but a picture is somehow slowly emerging of a phenomenon and mode-of-being that has only emerged in full force in recent years: that of clandestinity. The 'clandestine migrant' hovers like a ghostlike presence beyond the complete grasp of the police forces, journalists, NGOs and academics who make their living off him. One thing, though, stands out clearly in the haze of half-truths and doubts that surrounds the clandestine migration circuit: the security force cooperation that has developed in response to boat departures has made Europe's southernmost maritime borders more tangible and visible than ever. Except, perhaps, for a Swede boarding his 6am plane, Schengen passport in hand, bound for Casablanca and good ol' London.

Friday, 23 April 2010

A very long journey

Mbёkё mi - hitting one's head - is the Wolof term for the boat route to Europe. A week on board a creaking fishing vessel rocked by wild Atlantic waves may prove a rather brutal headache - but it’s still a shortcut. The older, longer 'clandestine' route winds through the dustiest reaches of Mali and Niger and traverses the deadliest stretches of desert. And it might prove the more resilient of routes as sea departures dwindle in response to border controls. Instead of hitting their heads against the wall, migrants may have to dig their feet into the sands yet again. 

Those who do so are the most resilient of aventuriers. A. was once one of them, and I meet him in his family home in Dakar’s sprawling suburbs to hear about his strange, year-long adventure.

One day he caught the long-distance bus at Dakar’s port, destination Libya. He slept in the bus stations of Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey. In Niger’s northernmost city Agadez at the edge of the desert, a hustler or coxeur finds him a Landcruiser heading north; then he ‘eats’ what’s left of his customer’s money. The Landcruiser is packed with people: ‘all the time, people fight to have more space’. At night, A. huddles under the car to escape the worst of the desert chill.

But the troubles have only began: the police is on their trail. The adventurers abandon the car, hide in a cave and start marching through the desert. Tuareg bandits soon appear, tipped off by the dismal gathering’s duplicitous guide. 'They took our money, our clothes, our bags.' They tore all clothes off the migrants and made them lie naked in a pile in the sand. They ripped up soles, seams and leather gris-gris or amulets, to see if there was cash hidden anywhere. They poured out their water and scattered their gari, a Nigerian staple that was all they had to eat. They took away four women in their group: one never came back. But as soon as the bandits left, A. and his colleagues set out again. No time to lose in the desert.

The migrants came to a waterhole, shoved a few goats aside and drank. And finally, dressed in someone's left-behind, ripped-up trousers, A. entered Libya.

He laughs when recalling his time in the desert as night descends on his patio and his mum - I think it's his mum - walks by and turns on the light for us just as I begin to squint at my notebook scribbles.

A. tries to scrape together some cash in languid border villages and after a few months he has enough for a lift up to Tripoli. He's told to lie down under the tarpaulin of a truck, tucked in like merchandise: the small convoy he’s travelling in is supposedly all meant for tobacco. ‘One vehicle took the men, the human beings, the other two' - one on each side - 'took the cigarettes.'

In Tripoli, he soon found out, a migrant is more of a cashpoint than a piece of merchandise. Instead of detaining him, the police extorted bribes and kept him sleepless through night-time raids on the dingy rooms where a dozen or more sub-Saharans sleep, nationality by nationality. No place was safe. 'All the time, you hide, hide, hide.'

To find 'peace' - more than anything else - A. decided to try mbёkё mi to Italy. He paid the passeurs, only to find himself locked into a barn for a month. He waited and waited, even as other migrants started trickling off, sure they had lost their money. A. was among the last to leave, penniless and still with no boat in sight. Finally he caught an IOM-sponsored flight back to Senegal where he now sits, a constant smile on his lips, reliving the madness of the road. He’s out of work but won't do it again. Still, his smile is a hint that his adventure has not been a complete failure. He’s not seen Europe, but he’s seen the world.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Mauritania through a fence

The road winds, tired and dusty, towards the border. The cramped car lurches over holes gouged out of the tarmac and swerves to avoid sand pits where chunks of asphalt are missing. This dismal track from St Louis on Senegal's northernmost shore hugs the river and, with it, the Mauritanian border: here, where Arab and black Africa nudge each other, there's something resembling a natural frontier, not just one of those straight colonial lines drawn up at the infamous Berlin Conference.

The djinns are out in full force: the Saharan sands swirl as we drive past bone-dry border outposts and, somewhat ironically, a Red Cross camp for flood victims from last summer's rains. At times forlorn figures appear in the haze - youngsters scattering sand over the holes in the road as we pass, hoping we'll chuck them some small change. The region's employment prospects, in a rusty bucket.

Then we finally reach our destination. In Rosso, sub-Saharan Africa ends - or begins, for intrepid European overland travellers - in a dump. Rosso reeks of garbage, roars with stationed Moroccan trucks, heaves with flies and hustlers and money-changers hungrily flogging useless ouguiya for euros or franc CFA or anything that smells of hard currency.

I love the place. It's the border, incarnate. Wooden pirogues ferret commuters, commercants and - perhaps - clandestine migrants across the deceptively blue Senegal river. People bathe next to the rubbish-ridden jetty. There's little by way of border checks amid the stacks of Spanish beauty creams and Moroccan biscuits that, for whatever reason, are a hot piece of merchandise at Rosso's manic bus terminus: they taste like caked sand. A man draped in a flowing boubou tells me he's the undercover narcotics police. Another fellow in a tattered uniform sharing a bench with a mix of Moors and Senegalese is supposedly checking people's vaccination certificates. The business of the border continues in its dirty, languid and lovely way.

That's until the returnees disembark. The frantic pace of expulsions might have subsided as of late, but the Mauritanian security forces still send luckless sub-Saharan migrants across the river in a pirogue at more or less regular intervals. Once they arrive, the Red Cross - in its Senegalese and Spanish incarnations - receives them, tired and penniless, expelled for supposedly trying to get to Europe without their documents in order. Some of them linger in Rosso, without money nor ideas of where to go next.

That's the case of three Liberians I meet. They have been here for a month now, sleeping rough or in the mosque and waiting - they say - for a money transfer from an elusive relative that will allow them to go back home. But it's hard to know if that's what they really want: the road seems to have sucked them into a vortex as dirty and indeterminate as the border zone they inhabit. "It's very difficult here with an English passport," says one of them, a woman who used to braid hair for a living in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania a few hundred kilometres up the road. Anglophones - who, together with other West Africans from far afield, are referred to as ñakk in Wolof - are not all that welcome in Senegal. Nor in Mauritania, where rumour has it that English-speaking Africans are not allowed to enter by land any longer. "In Mauritania, they say you're African - 'go back!'... Then they say they are from Europe... in Nouadhibou, they can see the lights from Europe."

The soft, comforting lights of Europe beckon here too, as I enter a hotel in the next-door hamlet Richard Toll after a long day at the border. A few steps away from the flies, the smells, the rough-sleeping migrants, a group of French pensioners on a €1,000-a-week cruise are playing boule next to a manicured riverside lawn. This is where Europe's border now lies, I sense: in this grimy parody of Senegal's riches that is Rosso and its languid river.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

A field day

"Fieldwork". A word that smells earthily of soiled fingers, an anthropological incantation whose connotations of slogging it out with long-lost tribes translates oddly into most other languages. Travail sur le terrain? Trabajo de campo? What's the Wolof equivalent?

But the funniest thing with the concept is hardly its untranslatability: it's that it's neither "work" nor takes place in a "field", however much the anthropological tribe that's sprung forth from our revered founding father, Malinowski, insists on the contrary.

The field is a state of mind, and a state of utter frustration, solitude and agony at that. And it's getting to me, big time.

Today my early-morning date - a soft-spoken, boubou-draped Senegalese policeman - stood me up. It's 8am at the grimy port of Dakar: my date all gone, my brain barely awake. Like an abandoned lover I wandered aimlessly across my "field" - the cosmopolis that is the downtown Plateau district, heaving with expats, vendors, tourist guides and other People With a Purpose. Drawing comparisons between my fruitless ambles and the travails of good ol' Malinowski, sat in his Melanesian hut in the heydays of colonialism pondering the sexual life of savages is, alas, the only fun to be had for this anthropologist-in-the-unmaking. I make phonecalls - someone should write an ethnography on the perlocutionary force of dull fieldwork phone conversations, voicemails left to rot, emails painstakingly typed on French cybercafe keyboards for the sole benefit of a voracious Outlook trashcan - without success. And to top it off, the only wordly reward that my basic Wolof brings is a measly heap of beans in the downtown Sandaga market. Ah, the joys of fieldwork. Soon enough, to escape the heat, the noise, the tape-recorded sales pitches blaring out of the impromptu market stands, I desperately need to leg it back to my little suburban hideout.

Oh dear, I'm an expat. Worse: an expat without a cause and without one of those omnipresent 4x4s packing the sand hard on the sidestreets of Dakar's posher neighbourhoods.

I sweat it out on a city bus, as anthropologists enthustiastically do to get up close and personal with the natives, only to be told it's not going to my destination. Instead I'm left at the mercy of one of the minibuses roaring through Dakar's bottlenecked streets; hostage to the heat, ah, the heat, and the coughing engine, and the noise, and my funny-looking legs, jammed as they are into an impossibly contorted position. Then we stop, yet again, to wait for more passengers. The clock is ticking. Migrants, where are all the migrants, my elusive object of study? My field lies fallow and hot: I'm just a silly toubab in a packed van. In pure frustration I indulge in a simple act of passive aggression: I grind my teeth and press my head against the plastic window. Crrk, it says, and comes unhinged, the last gluey bit of rust finally giving way under the sweaty anthropologist's forehead and, as the bus hits another bump in the road, the window gladly throws itself onto the dusty tarmac with abandon. We screech to a halt, pick it up, and wait for a few long hot minutes as I do the Swede, as the Spaniards say - it wasn't my fault, was it? At least I do get the benefit of extra ventilation once the engine roars into action again.

That's my day in the field, folks. I'm inclined to blame my inner Mr Bean for all the anthropological anomie, but a frank recent AnthropologyMatters article suggests it's not all his fault. Would be happy to hear from anyone else, anthropologist or not, facing similar frustrations in that field that is the world that is the mind that is the mind helplessly locked into a world not altogether of its own choosing. Cheers.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Dakar Dem Dikk

Sandy streets, handpainted and fume-belching cars rapides, tinny Mande music and crusty baguettes: bienvenue à Dakar, a city whose airport disgorges more French tourists than you could shake an eponymous stick at, half of them seemingly with their sights set on feelgood development projects on lush Senegalese islands. Dakar is an alluring, fast-paced place brimming with leisure migrants and labour migrants, businessfolk and beggars, stoic commuters and frantic street hawkers who seem to flog as little of their stuff as their colleagues on the Canary Islands. One of them, a newspaper vendor working the city's clogged suburban thoroughfares, gets excited when I say what I study. "Eh, l'anthropologie, c'est vraiment intéressant!" He studied English and Arabic at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop university, until he ran out of money. Now he flogs smudgy papers at 100 CFA - about 10p - apiece. I say goodbye as I get on my bus, run by Dakar Dem Dikk - "Dakar to and fro" in Wolof and a motto if any for my first few days in this seething, traffic-jammed labyrinth of a city.