A Memorable Arrival

In last week’s column I wrote about my journey aboard an Air Afrique flight from Johannesburg to Dakar in Senegal. Those who read the account will remember that things did get ever so slightly out of hand and that I got arrested upon my arrival at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport just north of Dakar.

We arrived late and the person responsible for organizing my pick-up visa had already left the (airport) building. Just like Elvis.

The official in charge confiscated my passport and two of his junior colleagues escorted my to a room for the night.

The room was slightly better furnished than the average jail cell, but far short from anything resembling a hotel room.  It had a bed and a matrass covered in sheet plastic but no bedding.

The shower had only cold water but hardly any pressure meaning that it was a “dripper” rather than a shower. No shampoo or soap and no towel either. Which would not have been a problem if my luggage had arrived.

As it turned out, they off-loaded our luggage during our stopover in Abidjan to obtain our new flight number and boarding passes. And never loaded it back on.

Given the humidity, heat and the duration of the flight, I had to wash my only outfit. Well, rinse it under cold water is probably a better description.

The customs officials must have deemed me a serious flight-risk as they checked on me every 20 minutes.

The next morning at about 11 o’clock, my visa carrier arrived and I was allowed to leave but without my passport as they could not find the person with the key to the safe. And still no luggage. Little was I to know that I’d be wearing and washing the same outfit for another three days. At least I had nothing to declare at customs.

Our first stop was at an impressive compound somewhere in one of Dakar’s suburbs. The driver gestured that I should stay put and disappeared into the compound. When he appeared about ten minutes later, he had a huge smile on his face and three plastic carry-bags in his hands.

In downtown Dakar he dropped me off at a hotel, hand me the carry-bags, shook my hand and disappeared. It was clear that I was to stay at the hotel but beyond that, I was clueless.

In my room I realized that was nearly 24 hours since I last could communicate with anyone. At least I had access to a telephone to let the folk back home know that I was fine.

And I had money. Three plastic carry-bags full of CFA francs. Value in hard currency: about US$ 1,500. Even at today’s exchange rates it amounted to more than 1,000,000 CFA francs.

So where does one hide that amount of money in a hotel room without a safe? The answer: everywhere you can. The air vents, the cistern, the kettle and pillow casings all were stuffed to capacity. I enquired at a local bank, but without a passport there was no chance for opening an account.

Mafe (Groundnut Stew)

And all the while, I could not get hold of the people with whom I was supposed to connect with. I could not get past the switchboard as none of the operators could speak English and the two days I had been in the country had been too short for me to learn French. The hotel staff could not help me either as they had the same problem. Only in their case it was compounded by a general lack of enthusiasm.

On day three I received a phone call from back home. As it turned out, my host institution called to inform everyone that I never arrived and no one had any idea as to my whereabouts. Understandably everyone panicked.

Later that evening I bumped into a young albino man with a wide-brimmed hat saying “Support Kenya Tourism”. This was the first time in nearly four days that I’d seen anything I could understand. I just had to ask: “Are you from Kenya? Do you speak any English?”. Then came the sweetest answer: “Yes, off-course”.

The evening got even better, very soon. It turned out that he was in town to attend the same summer school as me. And that, all attendants were staying in the same hotel as me! To add insult to injury, the compound at which the driver stopped that very first day was the host institution.

We soon moved into a nice suburban house and aside from having to cope with regular power failures and interruptions in water supply, we had a most productive and enjoyable stay. I received my luggage after a week and my passport the day I left the country.

Lea, our cook, had a real challenge cooking for people from all across the continent. East and Southern African’s wanted “pap”. West African wanted yams or fufu (yams and plantain pounded together). Some wanted meat, others wanted fish. And no-one wanted macaroni. Yet the one dish that made everyone smile was groundnut stew or Mafé.

Originally a dish from Mali it is no popular all over West Africa.  You could do this with lamb, chicken and even fish. Add whatever vegetables you prefer. Okra, cabbage, eggplant and sweet potato are popular choices. Serve with “pap”, yams, rice or fufu and be thankful that you do not have to fly Air Afrique.



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