Monthly Archives: May 2012

Gotta Keep Moving

“Gee Sam,” I hear you asking, “besides getting atrocious haircuts and eating a lot of carbs, do you do anything else in Senegal?”  Yes.  I work.

I’m currently one of two Client Relationship Managers for (, a groundbreaking peer-to-peer microfinance service that connect lenders in developed countries with borrowers in developing countries via online profiles that display descriptive posts and photos.  If you want to see what the future looks like, click that link.  My job is to move all around the city of Dakar and environs signing up new borrowers and helping them activate their profiles, making sure that people who have loans out are keeping on top of repayments and are posting frequent updates to the people who funded them, and generally being on hand to address any problems or questions that come up.

The advantage to this kind of work is that I get to meet a lot of fascinating, highly motivated entrepreneurs–we currently have about 50 loans out, with dozens more waiting to be funded.  In only 3 days of work I’ve already had the opportunity to meet a Congolese civil war refugee who has established himself as president of a handicapped association and wants to start a telemarketing service to sell shoes and boubous, a cancer survivor who had to use her first loan to pay for her treatment, recovered, paid it back in full, and now owns a successful restaurant that opened last month, and met a single mother who has used microfinance to benefit from economies of scale to dramatically expand her business of delivering medical supplies to the direly understocked emergency rooms of Dakar hospitals.  Besides its primary function as forum for borrowers and lenders to meet, the Zidisha platform also brings to light some riveting stories.

My job also entails a certain degree of tedium.  In the week before I came to Senegal I alternated between reading up on the history and principles of microfinance and going fishing for hours at a time. As much as my job calls for familiarity with the website and thorough knowledge of Zidisha terms, it mostly requires PATIENCE.  A visit to a client never takes less than two hours, not including the time I spend stalled in traffic and waiting for them to arrive at our rendez-vous.  One key precept of the organization is that clients must type all of their updates themselves, and today I spent half an hour helping a client search with one finger, letter by letter, until he had written a two sentence long update to his lenders.  It was exhausting for both of us, but at the same time I think he felt a significant sense of accomplishment by the time he finished.  He told me after that it was the longest statement he had ever typed in his life.

So that’s the job.  I make a lot of phone calls, explain the same things many many times, ride in a lot of skeletal taxis that have been battering through Dakar traffic for decades, and finish work tired.  Check out the website, read some of the loan proposals and personal stories, and maybe lend someone five bucks.  If anything goes wrong, I’m over here to recoup your losses.  Let me know how much you invested and I’ll just take something of equivalent value and bring it back to you.

This kind of thing is gonna be big.  Let me know if you want to learn more.


Mama Africa’s House

I’m here.  My host brother Cisse  and co-intern Stephen met me at the airport on Friday and dragged me and my bags through the  suffocating crush of people offering taxis, hotels, phone cards, shampoo (???), or just begging and whisked me away to Yoff, where I’ll be living for the next 10 weeks.  My room is large and pretty comfortable, on the ground floor of the building.  I was welcomed by Mama Africa, Matron of the Maison, who holds court on the ground floor and welcomes a slew of youths who may or may not be her children, and also friends, family, and passers by.  She’s agreed to teach me a phrase of Wolof a day, so I should be pretty near fluent in only about 7 years.

It’s been tricky to explore the neighborhood– Yoff/ Dakar is much more hectic and busy than Jinja (or Paris) were.  Nevertheless, people here are amazingly friendly.  I went to visit a fabric atelier downtown today that Stephen was familiar with because he had once been challenged to a wrestling match by the owner, and because we arrived at lunch we were invited to join them.  We ate spicy rice and balls of fish from a huge platter, everyone clustered around and digging in with spoons.  Dakar, from what I’ve seen today, is a mix between the extremes of luxury and hustle– there are gyms, pools, and shopping malls that rival those of the Us in terms of facilities (and prices), but also the refreshingly familiar hustle of Sandaga market and the taxi driver negotiating astronomical fees for a ride in one of their battered hulks.  I ended the day going for a swim in the big waves of Plage de Yoff, and then sitting on mats and talking with fishermen outside their huts on the sand.  Black coffee was served.  Islam was discussed.  Details to follow.


Also, I got a haircut.  Haircuts are often my most memorable/ enjoyable experiences in countries that I visit, and so I took my wooly mop of hair over to Paco’s Barbershop.  I negotiated the price down to 1000 shillings, and then then my coiffeur cranked the reggae, hiked up his sagging jeans, and started shearing off my hair like wallpaper.  I squeaked in protest but was drowned out by Bob Marley.  Eventually, after practically shaving the sides of my head bald and leaving the top intact, he stopped in consternation.  At this point his brother came in, took the clippers(they didn’t have a single pair of scissors), and tried to salvage what he could.  It was hard to tell what was happening–there was a fan mounted above my head and one pointed at my face, so I was in a wind-tunnel of flying clippings– but after 45 minutes he spun me around and showed me his handiwork.  I looked like a backup hoodlum in a French rap music video (see song below).  The top was normal, but my sideburns were cut close and shaved into a point, and the coiffeur kept assu8ring me that I was “tres cool” and “hyper style.”  I’ll upload a pic as soon as I can.

As I left they told me that Akon had also had his hair cut there.  I wonder what he paid?




Jusqu’ici, Tout Va Bien, Jusqu’ici, Tout Va Bien…

I’m in Paris!  I got here at 6 AM on Tuesday, having flown through the night and slept hardly at all.  I was fortunate enough to have time to nap while AirFrance scrambled to find the bag that I had checked–apparently the bag had been loaded onto the plane I was on, but the ground crew in Boston “loaded the bags into the wrong part of the plane, so it will take much longer to bring them up.” This sounded odd to me, as were repeated assurances that my bag was “in transport” or “only 20 minutes away.”  Whatever.  In the end I got the duffel, paid a ridiculous fee to store it at the airport for 4 days, and equipped with only my backpack and my meager wits I got on the RER to center city.

Well, it was wonderful.  I surfaced in the heart of Paris, with Notre Dame looming over me and the Fontaine St. Michel bubbling away, and immediately it felt like home.  I knew exactly where to find a store to buy a phone(, works til tomorrow), knew exactly where the ATM was to withdraw money, and having done both of those things I decided to walk to the Sweet Briar office in the 6th Arrondissement to visit my old study-abroad program.  It was great to meet up again with friends from the program and meet a couple of the new students.  My friend Chris and I went off to Montparnasse to drink coffee, and eventually met up with Jacques and set off across the city looking for food.  Walked 4 kilometers, ate nothing, but it’s all good cuz I like walking here.

In the afternoon i got caught by the RATP for riding the metro without a ticket, and had to pay an enormous fine on the spot, because they made clear to me that the punishment for riding without a ticket was a 25 year sentence of hard labor in the Pyrenees with hardened criminals.  They don’t catch you often, but when they do turnstile jumping is not taken lightly.  This was the first time I had EVER been checked.

That night I went to revisit my wonderful former host family in the 5th, where we drank a glass or three of champagne and talked about the recent election, their upcoming trip to Brazil, and Eastern European geography.  I also met their current homestay student, a Venezuelan named Federico, who happened to be high-school friends with one of the interns I’m about to work with in Senegal.  Crazy coincidence, really nice guy.

Finally I went off to meet up with Ah Ouh Puc, the club ultimate team I played with while I was in Paris.  Over the course of the night about 20 of them came out to the bar where we met up to say hello again and wish me a bon voyage in Africa.  I nearly WEPT to walk into the bar and see a whole table of 15 people jump up to greet me.  Stiff upper lip, however, and we had a raucous night that reminded me of the LAST time I said goodbye to PUC in that same bar and had a hectic adventure that will have to be recounted elsewhere.

So that was day 1, in Boston for dinner and in Paris for breakfast.  Since then I’ve been hanging out with my Brazilian friend Gui, who’s hosting me in his really nice apartment a mere 500 baguette-lengths away from the Bastille.  He and I and a flock of his friends have been going out and exploring Rue Mouffetard, Place Contrescarpe, and other places that used to be my neighborhood while I was here.

And tomorrow I fly to Dakar.  For a while I was nervous that landing there would be a major shock, because Paris is so overwhelming and different from what I’ll encounter there.  On the other hand, this brief stay here has prepared me pretty well for new adventures.  I’m once again familiar with the feeling of being completely on my own, at once free and self-sufficient but also dependent on my friends for places to stay etc.  The simple acts of moving around the city and feeding myself here is good preparation for being adaptable and self-sufficient in Dakar.  I can’t wait.

What’s the Plan? (Boston—> Paris —> Dakar)

I’m in the midst of a packing frenzy.  On my last trip to Uganda, I decked myself out with bales of durable, wicking and wrinkle free outdoors clothing from REI and North Face in preparation for the heat, dust, and rough handwashing that my clothes would have to endure in East Africa.  As it happened, I ended up showing up for my first day of work looking like SafariSam, with multi-pocketed hiking pants, a shirt marketed to Appalachian trail hikers, and a pair of hiking shoes on my feet.  The Ugandan interns, meanwhile, went out to do fieldwork dressed in preposterously glamorous outfits, mincing on high heels and wearing flowing white cotton scarves around their hair. My easy-washing preparation paid off–the Ugandans came back spotless despite an hour-long trip in a bouncing 4X4 acros the countryside, while I came back coated in a curiously unshakeable red dust.  Lesson learned: it’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it.

For this trip I’m preparing more sensibly, packing clothes that will look good, be comfortable, and wash well in the more metropolitan setting of Dakar.  I’m packing lightly: a laptop for work, some books, first-aid kit, and plenty of ultimate discs to distribute (pro-tip: Ultimate is the most portable sport EVER).  It’s not too stressful, however.  I have a better idea of what to prepare for than the last time I went to Africa, and if I forget anything then I’ll fend for myself once I arrive in Senegal.

Before I arrive in Dakar I’ve built in a flight layover in Paris, where I’ll spend three days staying with my awesome Brazilian friend Gui, who I met last semester studying at the University of Paris.  It’ll be great to be back in the city again– friends that I studied abroad with are just wrapping up their spring semesters and I’m looking forward to hanging out with them during the day.  It’s pretty cool to go back to Paris for a tourist length of time (just 3 days) but still feel like it’s a sort of homecoming, giving me an opportunity to revisit the friends, gardens, cafes, bars, and streets I became acquainted with during my time there.

From Paris I fly directly to to Senghor airport in Dakar, which conveniently is only a few kilometers from where my host family lives.  My host family plans to meet me at the airport and see me home, which is convenient because although I have contact numbers to call I won’t yet have a phone to call them with.

3 continents in a week!  It feels great to be preparing to travel again.  Every time I leave the country it gets easier to pack up, mostly because I take less and less stuff with me.

And finally… some incredible Senegalese hip-hop.  Check these guys out.