“Gee Sam,” I hear you saying, “here you are with less than 24 hours left in Senegal, and you haven’t been keeping us posted on your whereabouts, activities, and audacious exploits. Where you been?” So. I went to the Casamance, and since then I’ve been saying my goodbyes.
La Casamance is the big chunk of Senegal that exists south of the Gambia, or for the more visually inclined, it’s where Pac Man’s lower jaw would be as he gobbled up the Gambia river and the narrow nation hunkered on its banks. Historically traded back and forth between French and Portuguese colonial administration, The Casamance is the traditional home of the Diola people, the majority ethnicity in the region who constitute only 4% of the overall population of Senegal. In 1982, Diola extremists formed the separatist group MFDC to protest ethnic marginalization, and the rebels led a low level but violent insurgency against the Senegalese army from 1985 until a relatively stable ceasefire was negotiated in 2004. The MFDC has been dormant since then, but in 2010 a shipment of small arms from Iran believed to be destined for the Casamance was seized in the port of Lagos, Nigeria, and there are still a lot of guns and robbers floating around down there. Everyone I asked about the Csamance told me the same two things: it was gorgeous at this time of year, and don’t drive anywhere at night. I decided I had to go, my final voyage in Senegal.
My friends T.W., S.O., A.D., M.F. and four Senegalese friends of ours bought round trip tickets on the majestic 500-passenger capacity Aline Sitoe Diatta, a vessel that combines the reliability of German engineering with the excitement of Senegalese maintenance. The trip is a sixteen hour haul down the Atlantic coast and then up the mangrove-choked banks of the Casamance river to the town of Ziguinchor, and because I had bought the cheapest ticket available I spent my night dozing through a squall in room full of rows of seats that looked kind of like coach class in an airplane. I woke up early in the morning, went on deck, and found that the lashing wind of the night before had given way to a humid breeze. I could hear birds crying in the forest alongside, river dolphins leapt in the wake of the ship, and on the banks of the river I could see villages of thatched-roof huts and fishermen pushing brightly colored pirogues out into the water. It was amazing, indelible. At times in Dakar I’ll see a donkey cart next to a Landrover or someone boiling water in the street over a woodfire and think how old-fashioned and out of place such things look in that rapidly developing metropolis, but here I was the one that was anachronistic and out of place. Part of my fascination with Africa was sparked by reading Heart of Darkness in freshman year of high school, and colonialist overtones aside, for the first time I really understood Marlow’s enthrallment and awe as he watched the riverbanks unfold beside his steamboat slowly churning up the Congo River.
Ziguinchor was exactly like I had imagined it—old, colonial, and slowly crumbling. We had checked into the finest hotel in town, but arrived to find that due to a reservation confusion our rooms were not available. Our Senegalese friends claimed that they knew another hotel, and when I asked one of them about it he said that he spent all of his nights in Ziguinchor there. I quickly found out why. The building was, in fact, the largest nightclub in the Casamance, but they also happened to rent a few rooms. For $15 each my roommate T.W. and I got placed in a concrete-walled chamber literally 2 yards away from the door of the nightclub that opened up to the hotel. We dropped our bags and headed out to Cap Skirring, rumored to have the finest beaches in West Africa.
We drove two hours from Ziguinchor in a rented minivan through thick jungle interspersed with broad flat estuaries. Cap Skirring, it turned out, had wonderful beaches and nothing else—it wasn’t tourist season, which meant that every hotel, restaurant, and bar in town was shuttered. The only roundabout in town was blocked for 10 minutes by a congregation of over 200 muslims doing the evening Salah of Ramadan, and after the road cleared we headed back to Ziguinchor. Cap Skirring and all of the towns and villages we passed through were eerily quiet—whether it was the somnolence of a tourist area out of season or the ghostly emptiness of a region recovering from civil war and conflict I couldn’t say. Quiet, quiet, quiet.
Back in Ziguinchor we treated ourselves to the finest restaurant in town for dinner, French cusine on a jetty stretching out into the river. Over a plate of Steak au Poivre Congolais I got to know our Senegalese traveling companions a little better. First, there was O., who lives in San Diego currently and owns bars and nightclubs in California and North Carolina, shipping enterprises in France, and a variety of stores and houses in Dakar. He is a millionaire in American dollars, whereas in comparison I am only a millionaire in West African Francs. He insisted on paying for the whole dinner and a lot of other things besides. There was also B., who works as assistant director for commercials for an advertising company in Dakar and is like the Don Draper of Senegal. His most recent production was a hugely popular advertisement for sheep fodder. There was B.J., a banker who was serving out his contract for a Senegalese bank in Ziguinchor before he returned to Dakar for a promotion, and lastly C., who wore a Miami Heat flatbrim, an Ed Hardy t-shirt, and lectured me on the finer points of wine appreciation. “Red wine must always be served cold,” he said, “because then it is both tasty and refreshing.” Later in the night he warned me never to drink wine through a straw, because it isn’t classy and only a Nigerian would do that. That night I got what sleep I could as Senegalese dance music pounded from the club across the hall.
The next day we woke up, visited a local Batik artist, and got back on the boat. It rained, the trip was long, and we pulled into Dakar at 6 AM the next day. Now you might be thinking it seems a little foolish to spend a bunch of money and take a 32 hour round trip by boat to spend a grand total of 28 hours in the Casamance, but I don’t think it is. I like boats and I love to travel, and often I feel that I have to try everything that is possible or different from what I’m familiar with. The money I spent for an entire weekend traveling to and around the Casamance is about the same as I pay for the 6 hour train trip from my home in Boston to my college in Philadelphia, with a lot more excitement and adventure involved. I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me to travel comfortably and make plans in advance and go on vacation in places that haven’t recently been under a travel ban. I’m at the age where I want good food to eat and nice drinks to drink and beautiful things to look at right NOW. It’s a big world out there. You’ve got to go see it before it shrinks.
And so now I’m back in Dakar. My last few hours here read a little bit like Goodnight Moon. Goodbye mosque. Goodbye gym. Goodbye to my cat, so black and thin. And adios to Paco the barber. I’m packing up, buying final gifts for my family and friends, walking around Yoff for the last time, and calling clients and friends to say goodbye until my phone credit runs out. Home tomorrow. Au Revoir Dakar.
Ramadan started on Friday. There was a definite buzz in the city on the days leading up to this, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—clubs and bars were crowded with people getting up to shenanigans before the holy month, fruit stands stopped restocking so as not to have a rotting surplus over the course of the fast, my gym changed its hours and is now open from 8PM to midnight to allow the devout to continue with la musculation, and any plans I made for the coming month were rendered conditional with a vague “inchallah, because of Ramadan it’s hard to say…” My city transformed overnight; Dakar’s throbbing pulse has slowed down to match the churning metabolism of its inhabitants. This year Ramadan coincides with the beginning of the rainy season, and so the skies are low and cloudy, the dusty streets are packed down except for occasional gusts of stinging sand, and NOBODY is outside. The beach is empty, the markets are bare, the snack bars are shuttered, and only the mosque is constantly humming with chants and visitors.
I was excited about the beginning of Ramadan, even though I really didn’t understand it. On Thursday evening my host mother said to me “tomorrow you will fast with the family”—it might have been a question but I really don’t think it was. That night I hauled my mattress up on the roof to under the stars and new crescent moon that marked the beginning of the holy month, and then I was shook awake by my host brother at 4:45 AM to have breakfast with the family. I tottered downstairs, had a half a baguette with margarine spread and coffee, and then went out the door to go fishing before the sun rose and the day got hot. After a few hours of thrashing the waters of the Corniche with K.S., a half-Senegalese, half-Italian kid of 11 who lives in my neighborhood, I took him back into town to buy him breakfast. He chose an impossibly elegant air conditioned French pastry shop and ordered the most gorgeous croissant I’ve ever seen in my life. Glistening with butter and flakier than a snowstorm, he insisted on offering me bites of it that I refused until I felt my willpower beginning to weaken, after which I excused myself, went to the bathroom and washed my hands for 10 minutes, and came out to collect him right as he was swallowing the last morsel. We went back to Yoff, I dropped him off at his house, and then strolled slowly across the 4 lanes of deserted highway that separated his home from mine.
I got back to find the family ensconced on the couch reading the Quran quietly, to themselves, in Arabic. I joined them, for lack of anything else to do, and as my angry stomach roiled inside me I sat there and thought 1) I was very hungry, 2) I had no idea why I was fasting and 3) that croissant must have been incredible. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made: Why would my Muslim family choose to impose these privations on themselves for a month? My fast was optional, a cultural experience, but theirs was a ritual sacrifice designed to purify the mind and direct the soul away from temporal thoughts and concerns. Or so I’ve been told. I didn’t get it: I wondered why would discomfort direct your thoughts away from the physical realm, and why would Allah advocate this ascetic anorexia? Finally my host mother told me she couldn’t concentrate with me fidgeting and gave me a French-Arabic copy of the Quran to look through.
And so I found this, Ayah 185, Sura 2, a translation of which I’m including here: “The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran; a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (of right and wrong). And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.”
I liked that. As I read my stomach settled and instead of feeling hungry I felt a little sharper, a little more aware of how my body was aligned and the space it was occupying. In the statement of purpose of Ramadan I found equal parts comfort and provocation: Allah wants you to be free from hardship and also hungry, an apparent paradox yet I could begin to see how we can be simultaneously ravenous and at ease. I think that might be what Ramadan is all about: it’s less a question of giving up food as it is a matter of acquiring hunger. Not eating is a means to an end, the end being a reaffirmation that one can go without, a link to famished holy men receiving unearthly visions in desert caves, a renewed appreciation of one’s own pulse and inhalations and exhalations, and finally the sense of unity and brotherhood that comes from knowing that everyone around shares your snappishness and frustration but also the newfound appreciation for your needy shell of a body that can go a whole 12 hours without refueling. Perhaps you may even be thankful.
To go a whole month without eating during daylight hours in Senegal in July is a luxury my job prohibits me from affording. Fasting imposes a universal lethargy: if you don’t eat, you need to learn to move slowly and stay in the shade and speak no more than necessary. Our clients are much easier to find these days: they all stay at home, and I hop around like a well-hydrated, well-fed jackrabbit visiting them and keeping business ticking. We’ll see. If I have a slow day, I may fast again.
Swing to this
Yesterday on a hot lazy Sunday afternoon I went down to the beach of Parcelles Assainies Unite 15 with my friend Eman to play soccer with a bunch of Nigerians and Ivoirians he knew. “No foul” one guy warned me sternly, wagging a sausage finger in my face, which I assumed meant that you had to play fairly. It didn’t. It meant that when you were fouled you weren’t allowed to call it. We spent a few hours down there playing and swimming and then as dusk fell we trekked up into Parcelles to catch a bus home to Yoff.
We didn’t make it up to the main road because a wrestling match was on. Myself and about 20 other guys clustered outside the plate-glass window of a beauty shop to watch the much hyped tussle between two Senegalese legends, Modou Lo and Gris Bordeaux. The tv screen was smaller than the display of some American smartphones. Senegalese traditional wrestling, laamb, has more in common with Sumo then with American grappling: two enormous guys with a physique akin to that of the Michelin Man enter the arena with their coaches, supporters, and spiritual guides, roar challenges to each other and perform frenetic war dances to the accompaniment of a battery of drum beats, and finally step into the pit for the fight itself, which last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes. Opponents are allowed to punch or hold, and the match is over as soon as somebody lands on their back or with all four limbs on the ground—single bout, no rematch. I watched with bemusement as the two fighters heaved and thumped in the narrow cadre of the grainy screen, until the pixellated blur that was Modou Lo surged forward and landed sprawled on top of Gris Bordeaux.
There were 3 seconds of silence and then the neighborhood erupted. Dancing boys and girls streamed out of houses in the sandy alleyways around us, taxi drivers started whaling on their horns, the moan of vuvuzelas picked up frequency, and like skittish meerkats the shop owners around us scuttled back into their boutiques, dropped down their iron grills, and starting fixing on padlocks. That should have been my first indication of what was coming. Unbeknownst to me ignorant self, Parcelles was Modou Lo’s hometown—he still owned an apartment in Parcelles 19, less than 500 yards from where I was standing. The neighborhood had been hyping for this fight for days, and as I watched banners unfurled from the top balconies of mosaiced buildings and shirtless teenagers coated in sand like shipwreck victims and sporting warpaint that would make Braveheart jealous started sprinting through the street letting out barbaric yawps and banging pot lids together. And then, it started to get hectic.
I thought that this was just the euphoria after the victory and that after the kids had calmed down the neighborhood would get back to normal. I wished I had a camera with me, and then almost instantly became glad that that I didn’t. Battered cars with people hanging out the windows hooting and banging on the doors with sticks went squirting through the billowing dust on the road, teenagers on mopeds schussed between them bleating their horns and turning squealing fishtails, and PEOPLE, young old, male female, everyone, turned out in the street spinning and dancing and chanting Modou Lo’s name. Three quarters of the neighborhood was wearing shirts or tank tops with Lo’s scowling face on them, and the rest carried posters or just banged pots together to show their allegiance. In the space of 5 minutes the streets went from being empty to holding a wild and anarchic parade, and I was the only white man in Parcelles. From a rooftop nearby, someone started launching fireworks.
I thought this was awesome. I just wanted to stand and watch all the chaos unfold and see the teenagers joyfully crashing their vespas into each other, but it quickly became clear that Parcelles was uncontainable. A river of people started coursing through the streets towards the victorious fighter at Demba Diop stadium, occasionally parting like the Red Sea as aficionados with sparking road flares held in the air ran through illuminating the dim streets with brilliant light. I was witness to parade entropy, Senegal gone wild: two little kids not more than 14 years old rode a terrified cantering carthorse bareback through the streets holding a sputtering roman candle as the horse’s hooves kicked up sparks on the pavement. Eman and I hustled.
It took me 45 minutes to move about 1000 yards through Parcelles as the crowd picked up frenzy; rumor had it that Modou Lo would be coming back to thank his acolytes. I eventually got out of the neighborhood on a car rapide (which are neither cars nor rapide) that was so full that when it was eventually time to get out Eman and I had to swing through the window. Lesson learned: root for the home team, and expect the unexpected.
I read once that a quarter of what medical students learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate, and I’m beginning to be concerned that perhaps the same is true for political science students.
In Political Science theories about informal economies, illicit economies, and the “economy of affection” have been in vogue for over 20 years now, but it wasn’t until I started traveling—first in Uganda, and now in Dakar—that I came to realize to what degree the economy as represented by traditional metrics is divorced from the day to day life of people at the base of the economic pyramid. Dakar is a city that positively pulsates with growth and expansion: the neighborhood that I live in consisted of sand dunes and huts 30 years ago, and the autoroute arteries that pump the lifeblood of taxis and long-haul trucks into center city are a form of bypass surgery for the sandy roads plugged with donkey carts and wheelbarrows that knit my neighborhood together. There’s a lot of money to be made here: in the Sine-Saloum delta I saw the sprawling weekend home of a cement tycoon, and if there weren’t eager customers there wouldn’t be outposts of Celio and H&M and tony gelato stands that cater to the nouveau riche of Dakar, foreign and local alike.
The fact is, the economy of “the streets” is bizarre and unclassifiable. My job puts me in regular contact with entrepreneurs who can realize 200% profits on their investments with a loan of only $750. The other day I met with a client who had fallen behind on payments who had given me cause for concern: every time I called him he named a different enterprise he was engaged in and a different client who owed him money, which led me to believe that he was trying to defraud our NGO. Every time I met with him he was engaged in an entirely different project: the first time he talked of nothing but sheep that his cousin was taking care of back in his village, and gave sweeping estimations of how much profit he stood to realize when he eventually sold the lambs. On my last visit to him he directed me to an ordinary shipping crate next to a highway in a landscape punctuated by cinderblocks drying on the outskirts of nearby cement factories, and with the pride of a renaissance sculptor revealing his latest masterpiece he threw open the doors to reveal to me that the whole container was packed with auto windshields: Peugeots, Renaults, Toyotas. A plethora of brands were represented, and he explained that he bought the glass in China or Dubai for $50 a plate, and then resold them in Dakar for up to $200. He promised to make a repayment soon, as soon as his next enterprise started turning a profit: an umbrella shop that his cousin ran down in HLM.
What I’m getting at is that a lot of people here make a living off of a lot of very unusual industries. I mentioned that when I first got off the plane at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport I was surprised to have been approached—nay, overwhelmed—by men hawking 2 liter bottles of shampoo, but truth is stranger than fiction and I regularly encounter people carrying even more bizarre combinations of merchandise. The other day I was sitting stalled in traffic in a taxi when a man came to my window holding a Scrabble board, a sack of limes, and a hammer. He told me that if I bought the Scrabble board, he would throw in 2 limes for free. Billy Mays could learn a lot here.
I’m uniquely privileged to be able to see the economic world through my clients eyes. We have for example Monsieur A.D., who explained to me that he works 6 days a week from 8h to 20h—I’ve been to visit him at “work,” and his job consist of drinking tea and chatting with friends while he keeps an eye on his cell phone kiosk and occasionally sells a pair of headphones. Another client I met with, D.P., explained that his business consisted of selling Polo and Lacoste perfume out of a backpack. He assured me that all of his products were original and also that he sold perfume for $3 per bottle, which I pointed out simply didn’t add up. “Yes it does,” he said, “I sell Lacoste and XXL perfume, made and bottled by the Original Company Ltd., China.” His business is doing great, and he’s perfectly on track for repayment.
To get a sense for what my job as Client Relationship Manager with Zidisha is like, call a student in Buenos Aires who speaks only Spanish over a cell phone with a bad connection while in a taxi with bad brakes and a windshield that has more cracks than glass that is swerving through a maze of donkey carts and Land Rovers and try to explain how to do an algebra problem that she will read to you over the phone. Also there’s another call incoming and your phone is low on credit. Also, it’s 95 degrees out.
Today I had a meeting with a new applicant who had a stellar history of credit, a stable business selling dried fish and shellfish, and who had clearly taken the time to dress up for our meeting—she was wearing a scintillating green boubou that probably involved more square yards of fabric than all of the clothes I own combined and jewelry made from cowrie shells. I thought that this was my lucky day—the perfect client!—until we hustled across the highway to the cyber café, installed ourselves at a station, and she said “you know, this is the first time I’ve ever used a computer in my life.”
This actually happens a lot. Even though our entire lending platform is online and borrowers are expected to post updates every 6 weeks or so, I still encounter a lot of borrowers who can barely turn the computer on and who enlist their 15 year old nephews and nieces to type applications for them. With no nephew in sight, I put my hand over Mme N.’s on the mouse and began to walk her through the application. I wanted to suggest that she take some time to consider our parameters and start the application at home, but she insisted that we begin right away. It took us one and a half hours to read through the borrowing conditions and to go through boxes requesting name, DOB, ID number etc. with a time out while she recovered from the strain of typing letter by letter and I set up an email address for her. That was the easy part. All clients write a solid paragraph explaining their personal background, and we worked together to write out what region of Senegal she was from (La Casamance, a southern region characterized by poverty and civil war), her education level (a bit of high school), and what she did with the profits from her seafood business (spent them on her children’s school fees). I asked her to write a little about her personal interests and she repeated again that she worked at the seafood stand and put her profits towards paying for school and buying books and pens for her three children. But what do YOU like to do? I asked, and she told me that really all she did was work and hope her children could stay in school and succeed. Zero percent of her income or time went to entertainment.
This is my way of explaining that I like my job, I love my job, a very great deal, and also that it’s challenging and time consuming and requires me to draw on reserves of patience that I don’t think I have and by necessity find that I do. Every day I check our active clients list in Senegal—we have about 50—and if it looks like it’s been a long time since any of them have posted a comment, I call and arrange a meeting and go to see them at a cybercafé to ask about their business and help them write a message to their lenders. Later I follow up on their message with my own detailed report. Probably 2/3 of our clients type with one finger, but still take time at the beginning of their message to greet their creditors, wish them a good day, and thank them for their contributions. While arranging meetings, traveling to meetings, and working to help clients clarify their thoughts and share them takes a lot of my time, my priority is chasing after clients who have fallen behind on payments and are in arrears. I call to get an understanding of how their financial circumstances have changed—sometimes their business plans take longer than expected to succeed, but it can also be something unexpected, like one client who was arrested on a business trip in Mauritania and had to pay his way out of jail, or another woman who was diagnosed with cancer and spent her loan on the treatment—and we work to agree on a date when they can make a payment. Sometimes they don’t answer the phone, which is when I use a different SIM card that I bought with a number that I use only for calling clients who won’t pick up for my recognized number. If all that doesn’t work, I go to their houses and meet with them and work with them to devise a solution for repayment and explain their options for reducing payments or requesting a grace period. I also work with new clients and am on hand to help them write applications, I review all submitted applications and email requests for more information, and forward finished applications to our verification partner for activation, all while fielding angry calls from impatient callers wondering why they haven’t been approved yet. I have a grant from my college to be here, but I’m responsible for paying all my own expenses: travel, transport, lodging, cell phone credit, internet time, everything. My phone is always on and I take calls all through the week and weekend.
I do this because I think I work for the best damn microfinance service there is. No other group offers lower interest rates, affords as much choice and dignity to its clients and links members of the developed and developing world together on shared profiles that allow honest moments of sharing and shows snapshots of lives that are truly inconceivable to those who don’t experience them. In the end this work empowers the most proactive and ambitious entrepreneurs in Dakar to access capital and build businesses that they would never have been able to otherwise. I can’t say that I’m always conscious of this, but at times I truly realize how uniquely privileged I am to be able to straddle these two worlds; to come from a family that can afford to lend money through NGOs like mine and then also to be invited into homes in HLM and Parcelles Assainies to drink mint tea and see the inauguration of a new sewing machine or chicken coop. A lender in the USA or Europe who lends as little as a dollar can see their loan’s application in real time as borrowers upload photos of the improvements they’ve made to their shop and painstakingly write posts explaining how many cell phones they’ve sold this month. I love to see how the big picture knits together; how a small contribution by Western standards can have a very significant impact here.
Zidisha is an evolving organization that is always improving, and during my tenure here in Senegal we’re seeing something of a transition from being a small organization that can afford to spend a lot of time individually with borrowers and meet them at their homes to being a more substantial operation that expects more independence and technological savvy on the part of our borrowers. In addition to the ubiquitous clients who type S L O W L Y we still have active clients who aren’t even fluent in French. I was really frustrated one day when a client who had a agreed to a meeting in advance didn’t show up after I took a taxi half an hour’s ride away to his neighborhood, but when I met him the next day it was instantly clear: he spoke only Wolof, and a helpful neighbor had to come in and translate so that he could eventually articulate his comment and write it in French. One challenge to doing business is that clients try to tell me what they think I want to hear: agreeing to meetings that they don’t understand, telling me they’re 5 minutes away when really they’ll be another hour, or most obstructive of all, the clients in arrears who insist that they’ll make a payment “tomorrow” three days in a row. Our ideal client would have a history of credit, a clear business plan, the means to continue paying back a loan even if their project fell through, fluency in French, and the ability to navigate our website and post comments without being prompted, although that specific permutation of requirements occurs rarely. From a Western standpoint our website is self-explanatory to the point of being repetitive, but here it’s new and unfamiliar. My job as Client Relationship Manager is to bridge the gaps of understanding and to facilitate the lending platform.
It’s fascinating. I predict now, in writing, that peer-to-peer microfinance is the way of the future; that platforms like Zidisha’s have tremendous potential to unite investors and entrepreneurs in mutually beneficial relationships, a potential that is only beginning to be tapped. I go down to the cybercafés with the mamas and the grandmas and help them type a sentence or two about how their business is growing, and the stations next to ours are packed with precociously technological kids uploading pictures to Facebook from their cellphones minutes after they take them and chatting with cousins in Burkina Faso and Belgium. In ten years those kids are going to turn from doing Which Twilight Character Are You? quizzes online to filling out applications for loans—I estimate that an eligible borrower who knows how to type and upload documents could write a successful app in 30 minutes. I don’t think I’ll be working this same job when that time comes, indeed, my prediction and my goal is that this job as liaison to the web site will soon be obsolete. Times are changing fast. Let’s capitalize on them.