Travels with a Dakar


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Africa » Senegal » Lower Casamance » Ziguinchor
November 11th 2008
Published: November 11th 2008
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Monday 3rd November

I spend a leisurely day floating around town and relaxing. Sitting on the verandah overlooking the Casamance river with a gently cooling breeze. It is just great. Did I say somewhere I love being on the bike?

Speaking of which the bike gets a big treat by way of a power wash and general check and tightening of bolts, it needed it. And some other maintaince. Despite the Trans Gambian Highway the Heath Robinson repair on the headlight is holding up.

Another decision today. Mark will head west tomorrow to Cap Skiring and the ocean and more particularly a TV with the U.S. elections. Geoff and I head for Tambacounda and Mali. I have just realised how quickly time is passing and want to spend as much time in Mali as possible.

Tuesday 4th November

Geoff and I leave early so that we can get to Tambacounda in good time. Geoff has a very particular reason for the early start. He wants to be on his way before Martine, a forceful hustler who has been stalking him to buy something since we arrived, takes up her station outside the hotel. Every time he leaves the hotel she's there. When he sits on the verandah she appears on the river bank. She will just not take no for an answer. I have already had my unfriendly run in with her.

^

Just as we were leaving Ziguinchor I am in front and riding slowly over a piece of road that could be used for the BMW offroad course when a child dashes out, not looking where she is going and runs slap bang into the rear of my left pannier. I cannot stop immediately so I get on a piece of tarmac, turn around and ride back. My way is blocked by a minibus and Geoff's bike which is on its side on the road and a large group of people. There is a heated argument going on with Geoff lead by a tall Senegalese in a white tee shirt. I say to Geoff that I'm going back to the incident. It takes a bit of edging forward but I eventually get through the crowd. The child is probably in shock and crying as is the mother but the child apprears ok physically. I suggest we go immediately to the hospital. There is some hesitation but a sister, who works for a Caritas project nearby, tells me, in perfect English, that the mother is worried I'll leave. As luck would have it an empty taxi pulls up and with insistance from me the child, mother and various relatives climb into it and we go to the hospital. Fortunately we are followed by the two Caritas sisters, in a beat up old Peugeot, who turn out to be angels of mercy and incredibly helpful. They translate and explain and mediate throughout the process, The child is examined and fortunately there is only a tooth cracked and it will have to be extracted, one of her baby teeth. I happily pay for the examination, treatment and medication and at the end of the process through the good offices of the sister pay the mother for the treatment that will be needed the following day together with the taxi fares to the hospital. At the suggestion of the sister I give money for food and some more as a present for the child. The mother accepts the money, we shake hands and part. It could have been worse, a lot worse but happily the child is fine.

Throughout our time at the hospital our white tee shirted friend is continually arguing with Geoff. He will not leave it alone. It goes on and on and on. It seems he thinks Geoff knocked the girl down. Suddenly and mysteriously he leaves. I am glad because immediately the tension is reduced but I cannot understand why he leaves so quietly and quickly. He does not seem the type to let things go easily.

After we have agreed that all is well with the child and mother I cannot thank the sisters enough and they lead us back out of town. We are on our way again somewhat shaken but at least there was a good outcome.

The N6 to Tambacounda is not the N4, that glorious piece of tarmac that brought us from The Gambia to Ziguinchor. It is potholed and for much of the time it is not possible to do much more than 15mph. Some of the time we use the piste that has been created at the side of the road by the buses and trucks. The countryside is much the same as our road into Ziguinchor to begin with though we rarely look at it. The villages now are poorer. There are some shops where you can get water, canned food and bread but there are no places to eat or have a coffee. We stop in Samine Escale for water and a break. As usual Geoff has a bunch of kids around him within seconds and happily entertaining them.

^

Back on the road but not for long. We are pulled over by yet another member of the Gendarme's finest. This is the first check we have encountered today. His manner is unusually brusque as he demands our passports.

"You must come back to the station. Now."
"What's the problem?"
"Turn around and come to the station now"

Another local motorbike pulls up and is told to clear off. Our escort climbs on to a passing bus and we return to the Gendarme station in the village we have just passed through. We are told to park our bikes and sit. In the soaring heat of the early afternoon we sit in the entrance of the station with three or four others. We are dripping with sweat, no not perspiration, sweat and the smell of the toilet is pretty high. A few others have been arrested and one is unceremoniously shut into a cell. This is starting to feel unnerving. Various officers ask us questions and then a bombshell drops. We understand mention is made of a dead girl.

"You must wait. The chef is coming from Ziguinchor"

This IS serious.

The time drags on and the heat soars as do our worries. Conversation between Geoff and I is sporadic. After an hour and a half of desultory discussions between us, the officers and they with some unknown person over a radio, we are told to ride our bikes back to Goudomp where we will see the chef from Ziguinchor to make a statement. About what?

"Pas problem, a reconstruction of the incident this morning and you will be on your way" we are reassured.

We are not reassured.

A completely surreal ride takes place with two gendarmes perched on the back of our bikes on our dry sacks with rifles held aloft. The younger of the two wants to go with Geoff because I am old. I accuse him of discrimination. The older of the two perches happily behind me. Geoff roars ahead over the dreadful N6. The young gendarme waves everybody and every vehicle aside as we roar through villages until we reach Goudomp. Not surprisingly the chef is not there. What is there is a Mitsubishi double cabbed pickup with three serious looking gendarmes. There are no smiles. We are told by the local corporal to park the bikes outside the station which is down a dirt path. The bikes will be safe. Nobody will touch them. We just need to go to Zinguinchor to make a statement and we will be back he reassures us.

We are even less reassured.

With our passports and bike documents, jackets and camelbacks we are told to get into the cab.

This is REALLY serious.

As soon as we are seated a gendarme climbs in beside us with his rifle and handcuffs us together.

This is REALLY, REALLY serious.

There is no conversation, there are no smiles apart from when the sergant, driving the vehicle, hits a particularly bad pothole and our heads bang against the roof of the cab. He smiles then.

Thoughts race through my mind. This has to be linked to the accident this morning but how? Apart from the mention of a dead girl no other explanation has been forthcoming. I don't think we will be seeing Tambacounda tonight or anywhere else pleasant for that matter. The cells we have seen so far don't look like the place you'd want to spend a minute in let alone a night. On the way we pick up a bike, a bag of charcoal and three melons. Well, you can see the sense to it. As my mother used to say "never a wasted journey!"

Finally we arrive back in Ziguinchor and are driven to the gendarmerie a block away from the hotel we started our day from. It feels like a lifetime away now. After a brief unsatisfactory interview in French which we both sensibly say we cannot speak, in French, we are driven to battalion HQ. Our sergeant has a brief word with the commander and we are ushered in and politley asked to sit down. M. Louis Maisse Nbaye is a youngish and charming commander who speaks excellent English. To our horror but not surprise the bombshell is confirmed, however pleasantly. They have received a report that a young girl was fatally injured by a motorbike and the rider rode away. It is the father of the child who has made the allegation.

Deep breaths.

We recount the incident and suggest that the hospital is contacted and the sisters are contacted as well. The commander looks at the sergeant but it would seem that no enquiries have so far been made. He rings the hospital and is informed that a young girl was admitted this morning and discharged with an appointment for tomorrow. Relief flows through me. At least nothing has subsequently happened to her. But we are far from being out of the woods. We describe the sisters from the Caritas project and it transpires that M. Mbaye knows them. He makes another phone call and is promised that the sisters will contact him. Even more relief.

The family have been summoned and told to bring the child with them. While we wait we chat amiably. M. Mbaye is a well an intelligent and well travelled man and were the circumstances different it would have been a real pleasure to talk to him. But I am still worried and the prospect of a night in the cells, and worse, while reduced, has not entirely disappeared.

As time passes and the family do not appear it is clear that M. Mbaye is becoming impatient but he is diplomacy and tact personified and never expresses this. We receive word that our guardian angels, the Caritas sisters, are on their way. Finally the family appear and are ushered in. Mother, child and father as well as a sister and an older man who I do not remember seeing earlier. And surprise, surprise our friend in the white tee shirt smiling broadly. He suddenly becomes the eminence grise (or in this case blanc) to me. Various gendarmes are allocated roles to interview each of the witnesses but I am particularly interested in the exchanges between M. Mbaye and the father. He is skillful and in my limited understanding of the interview with the father he struggles to respond to many of the questions and looks toward his wife, who has already made a statement, produced the money I gave her and the medication I bought at the pharmacy. He is requested by M. Mbaye to answer on his own.

"Who paid for the treatment?"
"Don't know"
"Who paid for the medication?"
"Don't know"

During the course of the interview the father's mobile ring. He answers and talks. Again not a sign of anger from M. Mbaye at this total lack of respect.

Outside the room the sisters are interviewed separately.

When those interviews are concluded it is the turn of Geoff and myself to make our statements. Geoff completes his statement. It is read back to him in English and he agrees. And then it is my turn. M. Mbaye listens to my account before committing it to writing and just as he starts to write my statement the electricity fails. A regular occurance in Ziguinchor. In the eerie light of the laptop screen on his desk we are back to small talk. Geoff offers a torch but the batteries fail! I ask M. Mbaye who made the allegation that the child, clearly alive and well, was mortally injured. He tells me that it was the father though he now denies he said it. The gendarme who took the complaint is certain he did.

A torch is found so I hold the torch aloft while M. Mbaye writes my statement. At the end he reads it back to me translating it into English and I am asked to sign. It's a difficult one because effectively I am signing something I have no way of knowing what it contains. But I trust him so I sign it.

He then sees the family while I wait outside with Geoff and the two sisters. I find out a lot more about their lives and work. One is from Benin but has lived in Senegal for a long time. The other sister jokes with her that she is Senegalese but she insists she is Benin. A kindred spirit. The other is Senegalese. She has a niece in Edinburgh a mile away from where Geoff lives. Unsurprisingly Caritas has become my favourite charity so if anybody has any spare cash the Caritas project in Ziguinchor could do with it.

The family come out of M. Mbaye's office and he talks to them publicly. In essence he tells them there is no case. The father starts to protest and is cut short. His mobile rings yet again and he starts to answer it. It's too much for the sergeant who barks at him to stop.

M. Mbaye tells us we are free to go. He continues diplomatically to say it may have been a misunderstanding. We shake hands. How do we gat back to Goudomp? M. Mbaye talks to the sergeant about making an arrangement tomorrow. I give the sisters a great big hug and kiss and we swap email addresses. We are driven back to Hotel Perroquet where we started our day to a welcome, a fish brochette and more than one beer. Nothing ever tasted so good. It beats spending the night in a Senegalese jail from where I might well have been writing this had it not been for my two guardian angels.

All our gear is still on the bikes so I peel off the a stinking tee shirt, socks and underpants and have a shower, lie down. Geoff comes in and I am just about to say that I don't think I'll sleep tonight when zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry folks no photographs. I'm not allowed to photograph public officials or buildings!

Remember all donations to CARITAS, ZIGUINCHOR, SENEGAL.

Wednesday 05 November

As arranged we leave the Hotel and walk the block to the gendarmerie and our appointment at 0900 with our sergeant. When he arrives he ushers us in to his office. We are not done yet! A book is produced and more details taken from us. It becomes clear that we are not here for transport to Goudomp but for a reconstruction of the accident. Not out of the hands of the gendarmes yet though at least we are not accused of unlawful killing. We are driven to the scene of the accident and various measurements are taken. We ask how we will get to Goudomp and are brought to the Gare Routiere. These are our transport arrangements!

After such a long time in West Africa I finally become a fare paying passenger of the transport magnate Alhamdoulilahi! We are first on the bus to Goudomp and allocated the privileged front seats. It takes an hour for the bus to fill its complement of 17 passengers. The gare is a hive of activity and everything is for sale from stalls and hawkers. Watches, sunglasses, fruit, food, soap, towels. Anything you would need for the journey. The bus rolls forward, two wires are crossed and the engine sparks into life. We have lift off. Well, we have forward motion of a sort. The bus is a wreck. The windscreen is a criss-cross of cracks, seats are torn, everything is being held together with string and rubber bands and every 20 minutes or so we stop to have the radiator filled. I have seen so many of these buses broken down at the side of the road that I will be thankful if we make Goudomp.

^

Progress is painfully slow and I am thankful that I am normally travelling on two and not four wheels. Trying to miss the potholes on four wheels is an impossible task and we lurch forward at perhaps 10mph from one pothole to the next. Our snail's progress has one advantage. It gives me time to observe the courtryside. There is far more wildlife than I had been aware of. I see monkeys and deer and a myriad of birds. The road is alive with people. Children going to and from school. Women, mainly women, working in fields or carrying loads on their heads along the road. Villages and compounds are continuous.

^

^

We are dropped off at the gare in Goudomp and walk in the heat of the midday sun to the gendarmerie. One thing about motorbike gear, it's great on the bike but it is not the best thing for travelling in. I think my tee shirt and socks are looking for a way to escape and my feet, which are clamped into offroad boots and haven't been able to move in the bus, are aching. Our bikes are exactly where we left them. Not a thing has been touched. The young gendarmes crowd around us and hear our story. We start to get ready but no, we cannot leave yet, we have to see the corporal in charge and sign a release statement. He finally comes and we sit underneath a tree, the best place in Africa, where he laboriously writes our statements. I think he asks me how many children I have and I say two. He looks at me curiously. Two? Wives? Eh, no. Children. Smiles all round. He has two wives and is very proud of his daughter at university. We sign our statements.

He is suffering dreadfully from indigestion and has to stop frequently to belch and apologise. I give him some indigestion tablets and hope they work for him.

We are finally, after 24 hours, back on the road and on our way east. If I could have done a wheelie I would have.

The road gets worse as far as Tanaf and the turn off to the Guinea Bissau border which we have been running parallel to and north of for the day. It is hard work on the bikes trying to take a decent line. We stop at Tanaf and I take out the camera. Yet another young man on the make tells me I cannot take a photo but he will happily take one of me and the bike. I put the camera away and take another deep breath. He tries to engage in conversation. I ignore him. He goes away loudly complaining to others around.

Again the countryside has changed. The road to Kolda is great and it is a joy to be bowling along. I reach 50mph and think I am flying! We have lost the lushness of the Casamance river basin. The area is wooded and there are lots of cattle again. There are no pistes at the side of the road and the vegetation crowds in threatening to envelope it.

I know we will not get to Tambacounda either today so we stop at Kolda and book in to the Hobbe hotel. It has a swimming pool but I think we deserve it and after some negotiation I agree a price. We plunge into the pool, have a shower, have a beer, a meal and just enjoy life. Free men, we hope.

Thursday 06 November

A leisurely breakfast and a late start and we are back on the N6 to Velingara and Tambacounda. It's bumpy but mostly free of potholes, but not always and they can catch you out without warning. We stop at Dabo to buy some water without success and then Geoff gets a text from Migo. There is a problem with his bike and he will not be going anywhere for a while. He is stuck in Ziguinchor. Mark will stay with him for a day to give moral support and internet access and then follow us. The major problem is that Migo does not know what the problem is.

We carry on to Mampatim where we come across a super highway worthy of a wealthy European country. Smooth tarmac, wide verges, lines at the side and the middle of the road. We cannot believe it. It lasts for 30ks or so and then it is back to our much loved N6. Compounds and villages are mostly hut construction. Millet continues as the major crop we see from the road. And the occasional monkey. We get to Tambacounda mid-afternoon which gives us enough time to explore hotels and auberges and negotiate. We settle on the Hotel Niji as the best option. Not great, but the best for the price.

I having a beer and catching up with writing when a young man sits down beside me.

"My name is Mara, I am and artist and I call in at hotels in Tambacounda" he tells me.
"I have three of your paintings" I tell him.

He looks at me quizically and then a slow light dawns. He cannot remember my name but remembers the bike from two years ago when I was in Kedougou. He then remembers my name. Weel, he's got his priorities right. He is delighted to see me and I him. He has more paintings to show. I start by saying I cannot buy. I have no room on the bike. Well I have to start discussions somewhere. Who am I kidding? As Humphrey Bogart said "Of all the bars in all the towns....." or something to that effect.

How can I not buy a painting? Mara's opening gambit is to give me a painting. I say I will be back later and we can talk then.

Chez Francis is our choice for an evening meal. The beer and food are good and cheap. We both opt for an omelette, Geoff because he had a pretty awful hamburger at 1600 and me because for the first time on the trip my stomach is feeling slightly delicate. Coca Cola is my drink for the day. It kills everything.

A walk in Tambacounda a night introduces you to the bug population of the universe. Street lights are almost obliterated by the number of insects dancing around them. There are flying insects, jumping insects, hopping insects, hop, skip and jump insects. In fact one might be forgiven for thinking that the insect Olympics were being held in Tambacounda. Walking along the street in flip flops gives you the distinct impression of crunching over a carpet of bugs. And, you have to miss the frogs!

I return to the hotel and the news from Migo continues to be depressing. No further forward diagnosing the problem but he is researching and in contact with a dealer in Germany. Mara arrives later and we talk of his work, how it has developed and yes, I buy another. Was there ever any doubt?

I wake a two a.m. No sign of Geoff. I wonder where he is. Should I go to the gendarmerie? No, not a good idea. Has our white tee shirtted friend from Ziguinchor got mates in Tambacounda and taken revenge? Wracked with indecision I lie there. The door crashes open.

"You OK?"
"Shorry mate".

He's alright.

Friday 07 November

We split up to do various bits and pieces before our road to Mali and agree to meet up at the roundabout. I eventually get to a service station to refuel when a 1200 GSA pulls in. Jean-Marie comes from near Avignon, speaks great English as well as quite a few other languages. He is touring around. He wants to go to Mali but was told it would be very hot. We talk. Why not tag along with us? OK. We are on our way.

The road to Mali is probably the best we have been on since Northern Mauritania. The countryside is heavily wooded to begin with and becomes drier and drier the further east we go. There is a lot of timber and charcoal waiting for collection at the side of the road. Charcoal kilns are everywhere. While there is some millet production much of the land is for grazing. All morning as we head east we run parallel to the main railway line between Dakar and Bamako. This is savannah country. There is lots of controlled burning of the dried grasses. There are fewer vultures about. We stop at an amazing flowering tree but none of of the children know the name. They do tell us there is an elephant near by!

I have noticed that on newer roads and good surfaces there is a tangental increase in the number of accidents, skid marks, wrecks at the side of the road. Either people go mad on good surfaces or the vehicles can't take it

^

Then we have the border to cross. The police/pasport office is in the most out of the way place in Kidira but there are no hassles and anyway, armed with our fluent French speaker, we are less likely to cause a diplomatic incident with our pidgeon French. We leave Senegal without stopping at customs. Jean-Marie thinks that stopping at checkpoints only leads to trouble! However Geoff does have to go back to the Senegal Douane to get his carnet stamped. Entering Mali across the Senegal river at Dibole is simple. Both sides of the border are graced with similar border towns with lots of commercial activity in a basic, run down, dusty and grim setting but the bridge over the river is still impressive.

Once across the border there is, believe it or not, a peage. There is a discussion amongst officials as to whether bikes have to pay. They are not included in the list of tarrifs. We go through for nothing. To begin with our road to Kayes is very heavily wooded with many species of tree including accacia but the most dramatic is the baobab tree. They rise like sentinels amongst lesser mortals with their giant trunks. Many seem to have small crowns almost as if they had been given a crewcut. Much of the grass has been burnt and the landscape is as flat as a billiard table. The nearer we get to Kayes the hotter it gets, the smaller the trees, the more stunted the growth of plant life. We are running close to the Senegal river which waters the area. Near Kayes millet production as opposed to grazing takes over yet again.

We stop at a service station to refuel and are treated to slices of melon by the friendliest of people. Kayes is hot, incredibly dusty, run down and full of life. We find accommodation for the night and take a walk downtown. The dust rises in the evening sunset like a pall over the whole town. You breathe it, it gets in you skin and hair. Your clothes are caked. It almost seems to add character to the noise, music, cars, mopeds and trucks all of whom take no prisoners. Apart from one patisserie there seems little in the way of eating establishments. Jean Marie does a lot of the enquiring and discussing and it is interesting to see that he has as much difficulty as we have talking to local people. Well, not quite but there are lots of misunderstandings based on both culture and language. Food seems expensive here. There is one price for Toubabs, us, and another price for local people. There are stalls selling barbecued lamb, fish etc but we've not yet figured out the system. We return to the hotel, have a meal and a beer and swap a few stories. My jaw drops. Jean-Marie hasn't figured out yet where to put the water/coolant in the bike. Difficult with an oil-cooled bike! Somebody, at last, who knows even less about bikes than me!

Saturday 08th November

After a coffee and an indifferent bun at the overpriced patisserie we leave Kayes. The dust is just as bad in the morning as it is in the evening. We cross the Senegal river which is alive with activity at this time of the morning. People washing, small piroques getting ready for the day, it seems like all human life is there. If it's not in the river it's on the bridge.

^

The road is good. Too good in the sense that our day is going to be a long one and there is little to keep me awake and concentrating. Well, that's not quite true to begin with. Although we are back to scrub savannah there are still the baobab trees which symbolise West Africa for me. Buildings are both round and square and almost universally made of red mud blocks. There are lots of people making them, usually by waterholes. Birds of prey are back with us in great numbers and many of them lounge around the road - roadkill can be pretty gargantuan here with the occasional dead cow in evidence - barely getting out of the way as I roar by.

Then hills. Hills! At first they are small, barely bigger than the undulations of yesterdays roads. Then they grow in size until finally I crest a pass at 342m. OK, I never said they were the Highlands or Connemara but, in a landscape that has rarely risen above 40m since my visit to the Adrar region in Mauritania, they are something.

^

They stride easily along the side of the road, a stick across their shoulders held casually by both hands. Even the young children already have the same gait. Their dress varies but most commonly they were a long blue overshirt and three quarter length black trousers. A black hoghli completes the outfit. They look as if they could walk forever. Slender and not an ounce of fat. They are the herders of cattle, sheep and goats and are, as far as I am concerned the kings of the road. I wait by a bridge while a transhumance of animals cross. Each flock is controlled by a herder. Each is seperate. It is a magnificent sight.

^

By mid afternoon the temperature is 44 degrees centigrade and concentration is now becoming really difficult. The good road has its disadvantages, at least when I was negotiating the potholes on the worst stretch of the N6 there was no way I was going to fall asleep. Now it is different. The road and heat combine to create a torpid effect. Waving to the people I pass is one way of battling fatigue. We agree we will try to get to Bamako and see if the Catholic Mission can accommodate us. With our excellent translator Jean-Marie we get us to the Mission and, though full, they can accommodate us. Geoff and Jean-Marie erect their tents in the courtyard and a bed and mosquito netting is set up for me. In the courtyard! I don't suppose it will rain tonight.

After the statutory beer we explore the various roadside stalls and what they have to offer. I go for the fish, potatoes and lentils. My total cost for dinner and bed is 2600CFA or about 3pounds!

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