Here I am in Burkina Faso.  It was a long trip to get here: Boston to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Niamey, and finally Niamey to Ouagadougou.  The approach to Ouagadougou is breathtaking: the plane soars 20,000 feet over the Sahara, but because there are no rivers or rock formations to contextualize the terrain, you feel like you’re skimming over the surface of the earth.  From that aerial vantage point you can almost see the horizon peel away at the edges hugging the curvature of the earth, but you can also see human habitations in the desert far below: dark rings of goat corrals with ocher rooves next to them; two or three of these clustered next to a green well or oasis.  When we took off from Paris the pilot was scrupulously bilingual, making all announcements in French and English, but as we got deeper into the Sahel the announcements were primarily in French.  As we approached Niamey, in Niger, the captain announced our cruising altitude, the time and temperature at our destination, and the length of our layover before continuing to Burkina.  Then there was a pause, a crackle of static, and, in English, “uh…this is Niamey.” And that was all.

Burkina Faso is wicked hot, although admittedly I’m not the most objective judge of these things.  We got off the plane into buses that carried us literally 50 yards across the scorching tarmac into the immigration and customs building.  I had to fill out a form saying that I had no Ebola symptoms, which was stamped with due gravitas before I was ushered on.  I’m glad they let me through, because I’m pretty sure that the punishment for failing the form is a month of quarantine in Presque Isle, Maine.   I collected my bags, met the driver who had been dispatched to meet me, and rolled to my new apartment in Ouaga 2000, a new neighborhood in the southern part of Ouagadougou.  My apartment is swank and fully furnished, and is also the only finished building in a 100 yard radius.  This neighborhood is comprised of buildings under construction, sprouting rebar sprouting from dusty walls, and my gleaming white compound stands Ozymandian in the middle of it all.  It’s an interesting neighborhood to walk around: there are people everywhere who live in the concrete shells of buildings under construction, but also finished houses behind high walls with humming air conditioners, mirrored windows, and flowers tumbling over the walls.  One of my neighbors has a horse so white it’s almost transparent, who stands in a paddock in front of the house flinging hay in all directions.  My apartment is a nice space: I have a galley kitchen, living room, bedroom and enclosed bathroom.  There’s a gas stove, running water, small TV, furniture and kitchenware included…it’s decadent.

I went out to eat for my first night, and ended up in the outdoor garden of a nightclub called Le Select.  I was the only patron apart from a group of French girls, and the bar showed Nigerian music videos on a projection screen that lizards crawled across.  There are lizards everywhere here: there’s one dangling from my window screen right now as I write this.

Ouaga is a really spread out city, and my apartment is 8 kilometers from the city center and 4 kilometers from the office where I work.  There are few taxis and everyone gets around by moped so (Mama, close your eyes while you read this next part) I bought a motorcycle.  I went to the Moto lot intending to buy a little moped, but they were having a huge sale to clear out stock for new models.  I bought myself a brand-new Rato motorcycle (described as RATO-homme in the flyer), chili red with a digital gear display, cargo rack, five gears, electric start, high and low headlights, and all kinds of amenities that I didn’t see on the Ugandan boda bodas.  The bike’s quality is about in line with its low price, but it’s heavy and feels solid, and rides smoothly on the corrugated roads around my apartment.  I am the only person on the road who wears a helmet.

I like it here a lot.  This is a dream come true for me: I have a good job at the heart of a fascinating economic development research project, living in a fine apartment in Francophone West Africa.  The people I’ve met are kind and gracious, I can zoom around the city under my own power, and I’m warm and dry.  What’s not to love?  In the coming weeks I’ll fill you in on the details: my apartment, the places I go in town, life on two wheels, my work etc.  Next week I’ll be traveling to the field for two days, working WAYYY up north in Burkina about 20 miles from the Malian border.  I’m excited to get to work and do what I came here to do.  Send me emails and comments, and let’s keep in touch.

How Noah Felt

            I knew it was going to rain today from 30 miles away. Standing on the balcony of the Hoima Resort Hotel (which is definitely a hotel in Hoima, although it hasn’t yet realized its potential as a resort destination) I could see roiling black clouds forming over the green mountains in the North and rolling closer. The rain was a solid wall of water, and I watched in fascination as the red dirt turned instantly to mud in a clean line as the rain swept across the landscape. Then the storm was on me, and in the instant before I ducked into my room it soaked me as quickly as if I had jumped into a river.

            I’d never experienced a rainstorm like this, never. In no time at all it was everywhere at once. The room smelled like rain, all sound was drowned out by the heavy drops drilling into the zinc roof of the hotel, and looking out my window I saw that the mountains where the storm had concentrated were now obliterated by gray sheets of water pouring from the overflowing gutters. The power cut out as soon as the storm hit, and I was alone in a gray room feeling as if I wouldn’t be capable of pushing my door open against the onslaught of water. I turned on music on my laptop, and found that even with the volume turned all the way up I could barely distinguish the lyrics of the music against the white noise of water on the roof, the deck tiles, the sodden ground. I got off the bed to look out the window and sloshed into an inch of water: the gutters had backed up and the room was flooding. I unplugged everything in the room, stuffed a rolled towel under the door, and lay down on the high ground of my bed to think.

            After a little while the storm slackened, and I heard someone rapping on my door. I opened it to find a man wearing a shiny pink raincoat over a double breasted suit, who flashed a brilliant smile and said to me “Good evening sir. Shall I push you out?” I hesitated, scrambling to remember if I had paid for that nights stay and trying to think what kind of bouncer would wear pink raincoat, when he hefted a squeegee and said “I am here to push water from your room.” I stepped aside, and he came in chuckling and clucking and started to splash the water under my bed in the general direction of my door. “You will observe that there are very few mosquitoes this time of year!” he chirped gleefully, wringing out a sodden rag. “And the weather is not too hot! The rainy season is the finest time to visit Uganda!”

            He might be right. As I lay in my bed I thought about all of the people I worked with in the villages of Hoima district, and wondered what the rain sounded like on their palm-thatched roofs as they lay in bed themselves and waited out the storm. After the dapper man had reduced the standing water in my room from an inch to half an inch, I pulled on my boots and wandered downstairs to see what else was happening in the hotel. I saw groups of men drinking warm beer by candlelight, women laughing and emitting billows of steam outside the wood-fired sauna, and expats cranking their battery powered radios to tune into the BBC world service. I stood outside and thought about how few mosquitoes there were, and how it wasn’t too hot out.  The moon shouldered its way through the clouds, and bullfrogs announced their presence in the new constellations of puddles that had just formed in the cassava fields, and then came the night.

La Casamance/ Au Revoir Dakar

“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.


I liked this article a lot and maybe you will too.

The king of Mbalax

Swing to this

In like a lion, out like a laamb

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.

It’s Simple Economics

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.


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