Published: May 22nd 2012May 22nd 2012
Savannah at dusk
on the road back to Dakar from Kaffrine
I was asked to go to Senegal for my work, which was to find out about how weather forecasts are used by agriculturalists and local forecasters. So I boarded a plane to Lisbon, with a connection to Dakar. The flight out was fine apart from North West England’s finest flatulent Scouse Stag party on board (replacing Manchester’s trumpiest between said city and the airport on the train) and the loud middle class family with screeching brats. The plane arrived close to midnight and then the fun began.
Dakar airport is full of hustlers, including the staff. Outside was confusing, dark and hassle. My transfer driver to the hotel disappeared and I was getting hassled for changing money by people who appeared to be connected to the hotel and they insisted I had to change before getting there - they were not from the hotel I found out once I was €25 lighter, and it took some argument by me (knackered after 12 hours travelling) before the driver turned up again. I was extremely pissed off, as most of the time I do my best to try and save to get by. To be honest, though, I was unlucky.
Not the easiest of starts, and problems getting the mobile phone to work on the Senegal network made communication tricky, but eventually (taking the battery out to get the credit to work helped) I was able to get in contact with the UK and my local contact in Dakar.
The hotel was fine, though next to a very sandy dual carriageway and a district which looked like it was still being built - there is a lot of that in Dakar. Inside was quiet, spacious and even being close to the runway was not so bad (in fact those 6.45 am flights over Burley are more disturbing!). Later on my contact gave me a quick tour of Dakar, visiting the beach where the fishing boats arrive and the old centre.
Next Monday I got a taxi to the airport and my contacts at the Senegal Met. Office. I had some good interviews, so all went well. The taxis are generally dodgy though - often navigationally challenged, potentially roadworthy, and occasionally with the added bonus of a diesel fume portal fitted near the gearstick. It was good that the hotel staff would go out of their way to
agree a set fare for the ride.
On Tuesday I went up to the Met. Office for the journey to Kaffrine, a small town in central Senegal where there is a demonstration project, with a forum between farmers and forecasters and experts. I was to tag along, and do the odd interview whilst there. We wound our way through the rest of Dakar, with slow moving chaotic traffic, with a short section of flyover motorway before joining the buses, donkey carts and pedestrians back on the main drag out of the city. The suburbs are notorious for the slums, much being built when Dakar was drier in the last decade, but now subject to flooding as rainfall in summer has increased in recent years and all sort of problems result.
Eventually east of Dakar the road split (no road markings or traffic lights at this junction of trans continental roads - just hope for the best when turning off!) and we headed off south east, following the coast for a bit. At first we went through the relatively lush coastal lowlands where the water table is high and fruit and veg are available at roadside stalls in most
villages. Then up a low volcanic ridge, which was much drier. Later we passing a demo by local people against speeding traffic - the crowd of villagers was policed by army guys with a mounted gun for some reason. We stopped off in Mbour, a city whose massive growth has been very recent. Then we headed east - this being the main road to Mali. Soon we passed along side a major river and there were piles of salt by artificial lagoons; these were bagged up and sold to the lorries heading inland to Mali. As we headed inland the temperature was rising, despite it being dusk - the heat of the Sahara was very much prevalent. As it got dark, we navigated a stretch of road with horrendous potholes, sending the vehicles (lorries, cars, donkeys) this way and that, with interesting result of seeing a overpiled lorry coming at you straight on. Just as the bumps finished we arrived at our auberge
in Kaolack. The lads checked if I was ok with the place - it was spartan, but clean and had air conditioning, and that would do me. Even the shower with just one tap, temperature: tepid, was
fine - just right!
Next day after a breakfast of baguette and sachet of nescafe (I had mine very dilute in view of the likely heat of the day) we set off for the next 40 miles to Kaffrine. We stopped off at the local agricultural office before joining the meeting. There was a good number of people, around 60 and Senegal TV had sent a couple of lasses who spent the next two days filming everything. I got a bit worried when they closed the doors at the start - to keep the heat in ? After a while they opened the doors, and the temperature steadily climbed through the upper 30s °C. I was lucky enough to have a translator, an American Peace Corps volunteer who has in Kaffrine working on the promotion of sustainable farming practice. This is very relevant because the soil is poor, and very sandy. The practice of burning stubble does not help, as the soil needs as much organic matter as possible. Kaffrine is in peanut growing country, and one solution is to use discarded peanut shells as soil conditioner.
Meanwhile at the conference, farmers were giving their input
into how they used traditional knowledge to try and predict the rains - often clues from early leafing of baobab trees or animal behaviour or salt ingress into the wells were signs. The forecasters were explaining about the uncertainty of the timing of the rains which is absolutely crucial. Last season was famine in many areas because the rain was interspersed with long periods of drought, ruining crops three times over. In this meeting, farmers were given a session to group together to plan their strategies for the coming rainy season. You can learn more about this brilliant initiative in Senegal at the Climate Change Agriculture & Food Secuirty web page on Senegal
After lunch I got my interview, fortunately in the shade of a tree outside, as the temperature reached 42.4°C, or 108°F in the old money. So long as I kept drinking, it was ok: the humidity was low which helped. In the afternoon there was a field trip - really to a field! This was where there is an experimental trial, splitting the land into four quadrants. One for planting according to scientific rainfall onset forecasts, another just traditional knowledge, another combining science with traditional knowledge,
and a fourth as control. We strolled around the field - slowly - it was still 40°C.
Wet packed in about 5ish and set off for the long way back to Kaolack - there being no suitable accommodation in Kaffrine. It was still hot there too, so I was well glad of the air conditioning. Next morning I stocked up on water before we set out back to Kaffrine. We had second day of the meeting and I had a chance for a second interview from a local expert.
Later on we set off on the long journey back to Dakar after a quick shopping trip for the local mango jam and I caught a glimpse of a freight train (the line to Mali still runs!). We drove fast across the savannah plain, hitting Mbour by dusk. My colleagues picked up some fruit at a roadside stall, and that kicked off an argument between the women vendors! The traffic in Mbour was chaotic in the dark, but people get through without the real aggression that you see in Europe, say, like, the drivers in Poland. The outskirts of Dakar was worse for traffic, and sometimes there were lorries
with no lights which made for an interesting visual test for our driver. After a long haul through the dark packed suburbs (road full of people walking on the fast lane, let alone the horses and carts and everything else) I got dropped off outside my hotel.
The remaining days I did some more interviews, the highlight was getting a lift in an old Red Cross 4x4, beat the taxi any day! It was at the Red Cross I was told that there were 3 million people affected by the famine and half a million needing emergency help: the rainfall had been average, but had come late, all in one go, and had been interspersed by long dry spells. The interviews went fine, though navigating round the city was hassle, as was getting cash when the hotel’s visa machine packed in. Not the best day after a long hot time stuck in a traffic jam going in the wrong direction! I’d got out of that by phoning my contact at the Met Service to direct the taxi driver. My stomach played up on that day, so you might guess I was not best pleased.
On Saturday at midnight
I took the flight back to Lisbon, once again subjected to the grief that is Dakar airport - lot of checks, lots of barriers, air-con set at 27C, and our flight at the same gate as the Madrid flight 5 minutes earlier, coupled with a shortage of transfer buses ensured our plane was an hour late leaving. Even the queue at Heathrow didn't seem quite so bad (having an EU passport helped, bad news if you did not) after Dakar, but there is less excuse for Britain! I met my parents en route at London Kings Cross station, and just to prove incompetence can be done splendidly over here, I asked at information desk in the shiny new Western Concourse about if they could tell be about the 1235 arrival from Leeds - to which I got a gracious cockney “no”. Before I could riposte with outraged sarcasm (something along the lines of what is the point of the sign saying "Information") I was directed to the old concourse for the arrivals screen. I met my folks and after a brief 40 minutes they headed off on a train to Paris and points south to Italy, and I headed north
salt evaporation ponds
by the river near Mbour
to Yorkshire and home.
So a week in Senegal, many impressions, but it is clear that Senegal really needs help to get going. It is totally dependent on expensive oil, even for power stations, which is sad because the potential for solar power (Photo voltaic and solar thermal) is huge. The transport system is overloaded and base on raods there is just one commuter line out of Dakar (and the airport is not a good advert for the country). However, once you get to see the country, it is worth any hassle. I have had very warm hospitality and a lot of help and interest in the work that I was doing from the Met Service people and their colleagues. The savannah was impressive, beautiful in parts - even during the late part of the dry season. There is a lot of hardship, but solutions are there be it simple or be it better technology. It is a pity that a lot of the spare investment cash in the world from the rich goes on things like London property instead. I didn’t really get chance to do anything touristy, but I got a glimpse of life here and some
meaning into the reasons for my work.
There are more photos below