SUB-STANDARD CUSTOMER SERVICE WITH STANDARD BANK – SOUTH AFRICA

standardbankI  was truly hoping that it  would not come to this but sheer frustration and a lack of any other options has brought me to this point. I have never in my life experienced such a callous and inconsiderate banking institution whose customer service has been less than below par.  I have been seriously considering changing banks after it took no less than two months for me to get an emergency banking card while travelling in west Africa in 2012, but I decided against it (foolishly) thinking that perhaps something will change… this time I am left hungry and destitute in another country because standard bank has no customer CARE services to speak of.

I arrived in Senegal on the 28thof 2012having  told them that I would be travelling to Senegal for some time and would need to have easy access to internet banking, and asked them to change all my notifications to on email.  On the 3rdof January I went to a local mall C plaza to withdraw money and my card was retained (swallowed by the ATM) thinking nothing of it I followed up with the local bank to have my card returned.  The bank told me that they had my card (VISA DEBIT CARD) but since it did not have my name on it they would require standard banks verification that I was indeed the authentic and legitimate card holder. After several calls and emails  every day for about 7 days  the local bank had still not received any correspondence or communication from my bank despite my having provided them with the necessary information via email and  by telephone.  On the day that I eventually got my bank card back the lady who was “assisting” said to me actually said “So what do you expect me to do?” I was angered by that and told her that I expect her to provide the local bank with all the relevant information that I am the legitimate the bank card in their possession is mine as I had no other card I could use to access my funds.

After faxing my Proof of Identity and spending a least three to four hours back and forth   with a local banking consultant I got my card back. The lady who was helping me even managed to say “hurry up its knock off time” After I had spent almost two weeks trying to get the issue resolved.  I answered all the security questions did everything I could to prove that I was not a fraud but a customer in a foreign country trying to gain access to my funds.  She then gave the banking consultant the go ahead to give me back my bank card after which she told me everything was fine.

My bank card was retained on the 3rdof January; I only got it back on the 10th from the local bank. In desperate need of money, I went to another bank to withdraw money and again my bank card was retained.  I called my bank again to find out what the problem was and after being referred to this one and that one and that one I was told that it was a hot card, but no one could explain what hot card meant. I asked for the bank to call me back as I had not enough credit available to stay on hold and they repeatedly told me, consultant after consultant that they are not able to do that.  With my card declared illegal I had not use for it.  On Friday I spend not less than two hours on the phone, trying to find a solution to my increasingly frustrating situation, after explaining my story to no less than 6 different consultants who each referred me to someone else for assistance, I was told that I could not get an emergency bank card, as I would need to transfer funds from one account to another in order for an emergency bank card to be issued for have emergency funds sent to me via other financial institutions. I would have to transfer the money myself via internet banking in order for them to help me. I again explained my situation to yet another call center agent saying because use my bank card had been blocked I could not make the necessary transfers on the net otherwise I would have save myself the trouble and did that the first time around.   She then transferred me to someone else who I had to explain my whole story to again, by this time it was three hours on the phone and I had run up a phone bill I could not even afford in the hope that I would finally resolve the situation  at the end of it. The lady then put me through to another consultant who deals with internet transfers; the man on the phone answered and kept me on hold without anyone picking up my call for at least 20 minutes until I could not hold on any longer because my phone bill was beyond affordable.

This week I called again on Monday to find a solution to my problem, I asked the consultant again to please call me back and he told me the same story they cannot make calls to customers, I explained my story from the beginning and the consultant told me that they cannot help me I would need to go to my local branch to get the issue resolved! I almost creamed at the poor guy saying I am in a foreign country in west Africa Senegal he told me he understood and would forward my query to my local branch and have them call me after I had given him all my details I waited for a call.  The bank still hasn’t called me back and I have no more funds to make the call to try to get access to my money that I worked hard for it is inexplicable that the treatment I have received at a bank that claims to be a leading bank in Africa, they don’t even know where Senegal is.

I may have stayed with them out of blind sense of loyalty.  I  really  don’t care anymore if the bank cares about its customers or not. A ll I want is for them to give me all my two cents and let’s call it quits.  I don’t know what else to do. Calling and  emailing has so far been fruitless and left  me with little options on what to do next since I don’t have loads of money to spend all day on the phone speaking to 10 different people  with whom I have to repeat the same story again, answer the same questions with not solution at the end.. I am still waiting for a call.  I am left trapped unable to do my work and live my life because of no one seemed to resolve the problem. There’s a simple solution.

Can someone at standard bank please give me a call??? It’s an AFRICAN NUMBER  ( DAKAR SENEGAL  WEST AFRICA) 00221773384105   I repeat  – 00221773384105  and please  give me access to my money and I promise NEVER to call  Again.

Regards

From a very disappointed customer.

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Every Day is Tea Time in Senegal

tea making time
tea making time

Tea time in Senegal is not quite the rushed job we 21st century on the run career focused, busy, busy all the time people are used to.  It’s not just about boiling water and a tea bag and a rushed gulp on the run while chasing a deadline or making it on time to that very important urgent meeting in town.  The first time I drank Senegalese tea was last year in January 2012, while on a sudden pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba.  The Magal (Commemoration) of Touba is an annual pilgrimage observed by half a million followers, disciples and devotees ofCheikAhmadouBamba (exiled Senegalese Revolutionary, Spiritual leader, similar to Ghandi of India, Martin Luther King of the USA, and Mandela of South Africa).   Mouridms, which I hope to later, write about when I have learnt more about the religion, put simply is based on orthodox Islam and Sunni Islam.   I had decided the day before to go and experience it and since I was in the country for a holiday, embarking on a spontaneous pilgrimage did not seem at all out of the ordinary. For me it was an adventure, an opportunity to experience an element of the city that turned out to be one of the very important aspects of Senegalese life, as important as the art of making tea.  It had been a long and hard dayof negotiating thousands upon thousands of bodies who walked, shuffledand pushed ahead in a one way, two way straight lines to the Main Mosque and its surrounding holy buildings. I was told by my guide and many others that not many people make it to Touba, and getting there is considered a positive sign that one has a good heart, or that your heart is in the right place.  After losing my guide amongst the throngs of people pushing and shoving against each other and eventually making it to the main mosque, where we walked barefoot on the hot marble floor I was not quite sure what the whole fuss was still about. After my guide went to pray, we ventured to the holy city’s vast library which was of more interest to me. However by the time we got there it was so hot and crowded that I was barely able to see a single book or Holy Scripture on display.  Fatigued, parched and in semi delirium we decided to rest under the cool shade of the library grounds.  Not having been on a pilgrim before I didn’t understand the force and passion with which people shoved and pushed their way through as if trying to make it through the pearly gates of heaven, I was grateful for a moment of peaceful contemplation.

On our way back to our compound, I had a very interesting encounter with what I call the Islam police for lack of a better word.  I was wearing pants( Allandin style)  and though my guide had assured me that it would be perfectly  fine and acceptable  to wear them to Touba,  we soon found that I would have to be detained and forced to pay a fine, and wear something more appropriate.  It really felt like I was playing a role in some ancient epic however the sharp sound of lashes against painful whimpers meted out to others found dressed inappropriately, or breaking a code of ethics according to Muslim (sharia) law brought me back to the seriousness of my situation. After what felt like years, I was released and had to change right there and then into a huge canvas which I wrapped around my body. They would confiscate my pants, my one and only and favourite pair, so we negotiated until I got them back and we were well on our way to our campsite.  We found our meal ready to be eaten – I was famished – after a tiny nap, it was time for tea.  I looked at the whole set up with interest; a small coal-fired stove, small shot glasses, sugar, mint, water, Chinese green tea and a group of friends.  It was time to make tea. I was too tired to  pay focused attention on how they made it,  but what did catch my attention was the  constant pouring of the tea from one small glass cup to another, the waiting, the pouring, the shaking , the tasting  and then eventually the tea, came in a small cup. I was puzzled by all the effort just to make one shot of bitter-sweet tea. In reality it does not take that long to make but for one who is unaccustomed to its ritual nature, it can feel like forever.

After that experience of tea drinking in to Touba I began to notice mostly men and women making tea around the city of Dakar.  If, like me in the beginning you are not living with a Senegalese family, it can be easy to miss this essential part of Senegalese life.  My guide, who soon became a close friend, invited me to tea on Sunday at his home and it soon became a habit of visiting him for tea.  I would watch him with keen interest while he made cup after cup, distributing it to me and other tea drinkers in the house in order of seniority.  I never once tried to make it, still thinking it was a lot of effort for such a tiny cup.  Then one day after having moved in with a Senegalese family through a local journalist I met while covering the pre-election violence I decided to try to make it.  It looked simple enough.  The journalist friend, who is now my partner,was the tea maker in the family, which meant that his tea was the best, and he did it with such ease I was sure I could make it too.  My first lesson began with him, in the comfort of his room which smelled of perfume and Senegalese incense, and Luciano – his favourite reggae singer singing in the background.

adding sugar to the mix
adding sugar to the mix

 

 

 

First you need to prepare the fire on the small portablebrazier using charcoal. A task which seems easy but actually making a fire in a small brazier does take some practice, especially when one is used to just flicking a switch to boil water. Then when the fire is ready, you should already have your tea, water, sugar and mint if you want to make the tea more fragrant ready – preparation is key.  Pour a full shot glass of tea into the teapot and bring it to boil slowly over time until the tea leaves open and create a thick-seaweed looking substance.  After about 20 or so minutes of checking in, pouring a little water here and then, it’s time to put in the sugar, and it can vary depending on your taste. Senegalese use a lot of sugar in their tea.  Shake the teapot mixing it together and leave to boil. After another ten minutes or so, taste the tea, if it needs more water or sugar then you add a little more ofwhatever is needed and then leave it to boil again. After some time or after the sugar has completely dissolved into the liquidtaste it again. If the taste is suitable, pour the tea into one glass and thenbegin makingthe foam.  Pouring tea alternately into each cup until there’s enough foam in both glasses, about half the glass.  After you are satisfied with the foam, pour the tea back into the tea pot and leave it to heat up again, while cleaning the glasses to make sure they are not sticky to the touch and the foam is not tampered with.  When it’s done the tea is ready to be served, two glasses at a time, each person has a glass to themselves. The foam making procedure will have to be repeated if there are more people around. And that is just the first round; the same process of making tea is repeated three times.  Others often stop at two rounds  either because of time, a shortage of ingredients or laziness (being tired)  but the general rule is three cups per person, which can make tea time a whole afternoon event. The practiced hand can make three rounds of tea in an hour, a less practiced hand like mine well… I just stop at two. Typically tea is served or made around three o’clock in the afternoon, usually after lunch.   The first round is usually stronger, and the tea gets lighter with the second, third or fourth round. Even then there’s always room for improvement, there is always a second, third or fourth chance and then still tomorrow is another day.

 

making the foam
making the foam

The first time I learnt how to make tea; I wanted to do it alone by myself. I pulled such a sweat and I don’t sweat easily, I was sure I would never be able to master the art.  It was clumsy, awkward more than anything very uncomfortable.  My hands were charred from making the fire, and the heat of the liquid from making the foam, there was sugar, tea leaves everywhere, the glasses were sticky, my state of mind was just as messy: I was really anxious, frustrated and apprehensive that even after I had been pouring and pouring tea from one cup to another I did not end up with foam on both cups, the tea had made its way to the floor.  More over my hands and arms were trembling and becoming numb from the hand motions of pouring teal from one cup to another – it was a mess. I made tea three times in a span of two months and literally gave up on making tea after it took me the whole afternoon and the better part of the evening to get it together. It was hard labour for me.

It was really an incredible thing for me to realize that I struggled with something that seemed so simple and effortless for others to do.  I left Senegal in May of 2012 thinking that at least I had tried to make tea and would  make it for friends and family back home, show-off  the new skill I had acquired even though I was still not confident in my ability to make it. Back home the usual anxiety of being back got a hold of me and even though I sometimes thought of making tea, I dismissed the idea using all manner of excuses. I convinced myself that I even if I wanted to, I could not since I did not have the things I needed like shot glasses and even incredibly the small brazier to make the tea, even though it was perfectly possible to do it on an electric stove and there was never a shortage of shot glasses in South Africa.  But in retrospect I think the truth was, I was afraid of failing, of trying to show off my new skill and then embarrassing myself because I was not quite good at it, so I never once tried.  I did speak about “being able to do it” though.

I have been making tea again since my return to Senegal this year.   This time I started off as one who actually does not know how to make tea and allowed another new friend to show (teach) me how to do it.   The lessons I had learned the first time around came back and I realized the fundamental truth about life that I had chosen to ignore. That in order for me to improve my tea making abilities, I have to practice making tea every day.    This tea making for me says a lot more about ones’ state of mind than the actual tea itself. The texture, the taste, the consistency the thickness of the foam speaks volumes about where your mind or heart is at while you make the tea.  I found myself focusing on making the perfect foam because it looks aesthetically pleasing while neglecting the substance, which is the tea itself.  So sometimes the tea would be too sweet, too bitter or too weak depending on the state of my three Ps and an F;Patience, Persistence, Positive thinking and Focus. When I worry or am anxious about something while making tea it will show up in the end result in the cup.  Also with this kind of tea making, since you’re making it for others, you get immediate feedback – it’s okay, it’s good, it’s great, no comment. Then I found a new area of focus or worry other than making the tea. Do they like my tea? Is it good enough or bad and getting discouraged or encouraged depending on what people say.  I have found myself not wanting to make tea because I fear people won’t think it’s good and if the tea is not good, it means the tea maker is not good either. So I judge and condemn myself on other peoples’ opinions be they true or false, looking for praise, affection, applause and an award for my labored efforts and not finding it, I stop myself from continuing to learn and to grow, because I don’t make tea like someone who has been making tea every day since they were ten years old.  It’s more than fool hardy to do this to myself.  A recipe for failure if there was ever one.  Perhaps this has been the lesson I needed to learn, that contrary to what I have convinced myself to believe; In order for me to do something well, I have to be willing to do it badly. So if I am not willing to fail when trying something new or learning a new skill, I will never learn anything new, because we all learn by doing, repeating the same thing every day, seeking counsel from others who have done it before, until we know how to do it well and that Failure – that thing I fear with all my heart – is an essential and almost unavoidable element of success.

When I am not focused on the task at hand, when I am thinking about what I should have, could have been doing,  if I’m day dreaming, in a hurry to go somewhere, am unhappy or angry about something and allowing those emotions to take over –  I won’t make good tea. As the tea maker you know if you have been focused or not.   So more than anything tea making is a form of meditation, of mastering the mind and its propensity to make anything and everything else more important than the task at hand the now moment.  In other words there are many ways to pray in this world, in Senegal many pray five times a day, kneeling to face their true north in open and unashamed acknowledgment that they are not GOD, others make tea, others build, make clothes, sing,shop keep you name it, it’s not really important what you do as long as whatever you do is done as a prayer, worshipping the creator by serving others. It does not matter how fast or much of it you do, it’s the quality that’s important, and quality can only be determined or improved with daily practice, patience, persistence dedication, positive thinking  and focus. Virtues, that money whether you have it or not, can never buy. How’s that for a cup of tea?

The end product
The end product

 

FED … UP

The fire is till burning
The fire is till burning

26 Saturday January 2013; The Fed Up youth movement of Senegal or Y’en a marre celebrated its one year anniversary last week with a press briefing auditing some of the promises made by Senegal’s new president MackySall.  Their audit however was not nearly as controversial as the current National Audit instituted by President MackySall on all former government officials and ministers who served under former President AbdoulayeWade’s government.  Assertions by one of the outspoken youth movement leaders that the basic cost of living in Senegal (Dakar especially) has not only remained high but is increasing at a very fast rate, were met with emphatic nods from journalists in attendance.  During his 2012 presidential campaign President MackySall promised that he would immediately reduce the cost of basic foods such as oil, rice, sugar, gas and electricity and so forth once he assumed power.    He called a meeting with retailers, suppliers and merchants in the country within the second or third week of his presidency in 2012, which increased confidence levels in him as he was seen to be genuinely trying to do something to fulfill his many promises.  He found himself already stuck between a rock and a hard place. Rice, Oil, Sugar are all imported basic foods, never mind gas and the rolling electricity problem whose infrastructure  has not been upgraded since Abdou Diof’s Presidency more than 20 years ago. Abdoulaye Wade during his presidency did make attempts at attending to the large electricity   infrastructure problem in the country, assigning the problem  the problem to his son Karim Wade to sort out. But even for Wade  the dream and promise of honour  and glory at the end of a very long and hard political career, equivalent if not higher that the statue of Liberty took hold and infrastructure investments in the country changed  from upgrading public infrastructure for the greater good to investments glorifying  Abdoulaye Wade. During the turbulent pre-election period in Senegal, people’s anger against Wade was reminiscent of a beautiful and long love affair gone bitter-sweet.  “We could have erected a more splendid monument for former President Abdoulaye Wade, in honour of his vast contribution to the development of this country, he would have been honoured and revered throughout Senegal, but he went and built it himself and forgot about us poor people” On trader remarked last year during last year’s almost daily protests in downtown Dakar ahead of the elections.

Abdoulaye Wade in the end used Art to cement his legacy and turn some of his biggest fans against him. The Rennaisance Monument, it’s forward looking Idealism, embodied in the bodies of the nuclear family greeting new arrivals in the city does not mirror the country’s’  lived values  by the majority of its Muslim citizens.  But Art is Art and Senegalese respect the Arts.    And I am quite fond of this work of Art by one of the female protestors, demonstrating in real terms what they mean by the cost of living being too high.

 

Life is expensive
Life is expensive

Detractors of the Senegalese Fed Up youth movement, formed in January last year in protest against former President Abdoulaye Wade standing for presidential elections for a  third term,  say the group of MC’s Rappers and Musicians really just took advantage of a political gap to sell their records, make money and gain free and unprecedented  publicity for their work.   I am a still dancing to one of their catch phrase songs – Gurgi Na dem” which was sung by all and sundry.  The song echoed a sentiment shared by many Senegalese that it was time for 84 year Old Abdoulaye Wade to make way for a younger leader to come into power.

Make no mistake,  Abdoulaye Wade  is a visionary much like  former South African President Thabo Mbeki who both hoped that they would be in the forefront of realizing that dream held by so many of Africa’s Brightest stars and Leaders, a United Africa, moving to was peace love and prosperity.  Mbeki Mbeki hope to realize this through  in his New Plan For Africa’s development NEPAD, Abdoulaye Wade also had a similar plan for Africa’s development, but seemingly both could not work together to make that possible, even though both countries have more in common than meets the eye.

MackySall is still a very strategic man, turning attention away from the more complex problems of high food prices and the tensions in the Casamance region in the North; he institutes   a national Audit into former government officials and ministers, investigating corruption in all government departments.  But his plan at grabbing the tempting low hanging fruit of justice could soon turn against him.   Abdoulaye Wade’s party  PDS (Senegalese democratic party) has written to the regional body ECOWAS complaining that the country’s Justice System was unfairly targeting  government officials and ministers who  are close to Wade in the national audit, while Macky Sall and his friends, who have all held positions under Abdoulaye  Wade Government have been so far exempted from investigations. Politicians and citizens are in agreement, an audit into the country’s public administration departments is necessary.  “ But all former government officials and ministers without exception should be investigated including President Macky Sall and his allies who all served under Abdoulaye Wade’s government” said one senior political journalist in the country.   ECOWAS has agreed to looking into the issue, though, this does not meet that the audit will be suspedent while Ecowas does its work.  Already Abdoulaye Wade’s Son has already endured three days of back to back interrogation into his financial conduct while he was in government and however noble his intentions are Macky Sall’s National audit risks being seen as just another  political revenge tactic which has nothing to do with solving the country’s many problems.  Sall was expelled from Abdoulaye Wade’s PDS Party in 2008 after he called Karim Wade to account for over spending in parliament.

Fed Up youth movement taking interviews  after  protest in 2012
Fed Up youth movement taking interviews after protest in 2012

 

For its  part Yan’nemmar  says it is encouraged the international networks it was able to build in the last year, and is looking forward to making yan’ammmer a sustainable movement which will continue to speak truth to power and mobilize and call  the youth the  action where necessary. Youth unemployment was one of their concerns during the elections, and just a walk through down-town Dark one can see an increase in street merchants trading everything from shoes, clothing, books, art and crafts, second had high fashion, Senegalese’s fashion, sunglasses underwear, belts, shoes, coffee (nescafe), coffe ( Touba), water, tea , tooth brushes, it’s like downtown Jozi on a Bigger scale.  At the same time, there’s been an increase in cars on Dakar’s already busy streets,  huge expensive  land  Ravers  the kind of luxury cars I see on TV  are  becoming common sights  in Senegal, so are the number of street children who rush to the cars with begging bowls asking and  demanding money from their richer fellows.  A sight which makes it impossible to deny that there is growth and development in the country or that poverty is increasing in the number of beggars everywhere.  Two sides of the same coin. It’s a life’s philosophy that is made so clear and palpable in almost every aspect of Senegalese life, which reminds me, it’s time for tea, that bitter-sweet liquid that is an essential part of the fabric of Senegalese life.

WHATSART.

Mali Money Mali Money….. MALI!

Malians Demonstrate outside RTS ( Senegals National broadcaster)
Malians Demonstrate outside RTS ( Senegals National broadcaster) 2012

Friday  18 January 2013.

Mali made headline news in Senegal this week; at least one would think so from the news on  news channels in the country. The Malian Crisis which started in earnest in 2012 intensified this week  leading to an announcement by its parental country, France that they will be sending troops to  the embattled country as a matter of urgency, in a couple of days in fact.  French officials  said the situation in Mali is now completely unacceptable in a speech he gave to a seemingly disinterested audience at the United Nations (Security Council meeting).  Close to 2000 french troops are now in Mali  after initial air  strikes to diffuse the threat by jihadists attacked,  the BBC reports today that Islamist fighters  have withdrawn from two towns in central Mali.   A year ago (2012) France was just as passionate and unwavering in its position not to intervene in the Malian crisis as they have recently proclaimed regarding the current crisis in Central Africa.  There,   calls by the government and it’s citizenry to France “Our brother, mother” to intervene were met with a stern no!  France would not be sending troops to Central Africa to help its government diffuse the encroaching terror of the rebel groups () which is taking over the country. Even though France has troops deployed in Central Africa, they are only there to protect their own interests, they announced to the media.

So now with France agreeing to send troops to Mali, one has to wonder what has changed.  France clearly has interests in Mali which are now being threatened hence the announcement to send troops there. To an untrained eye, France had every reason to intervene in Mali last year;  when the army which deposed then President Amdou Tumani Toure, was losing the battle  against the Taureg fighters  who have now taken control of key towns and cities including the historic town of Timbaktu in the Northern parts of the country declaring the north an Independent Azaawad state governed by strict Muslim Sharia law.  Fighting ensued between the break-away army groups led by Captain Amadou Sanogo – they wanted a new leader, whom they hoped would be decisive in augmenting more fire power to the  country’s army to defend its sovereignty.  Captain Sanogo announced that though they were willing to defend the country from the Taureg Rebel groups they had no ammunition to do so successfully. They were losing men in battle.  TFM, the second largest media group in Senegal, screened a mini-documentary by the television station’s chief editor Bacar Ba this week.  The film showed images of a new group of armed Jihadists saying they are fighting against French Imperialism in Mali.   The film was followed by a panel discussion which discussed some  of the issues at play in Mali.  What is the role of France, Islam,  and the Arab influence in the country, the role of ECOWAS including the role of Senegal is in the whole debacle.   Mali and Senegal as we say in isiZulu “Abantwana boMontu “(they are of the same parent: France) and before they were granted their independence circa 1960,   they lived together as a unit under the Malian Federation.

So if anything, Senegal has more of an interest in restoring peace to its sister country which it borders to the east.  However, Senegal has not pronounced much on what action it’s taking to assist in the unfolding crisis, Blasé Campoare Burkina Faso’s president has been playing a central role in peace negotiations there.  In reality, Senegal has sent more troops that any other country within Ecowas,  ( 500 according to news reports here) panelist during the discussion also agreed that Senegal was key in stabilizing the crisis Liberia and in fact too many other countries on the continent including the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Senegal it would seem has also adopted the policy of quiet diplomacy which one hopes will have better results than that of South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In other news that have left me feeling a little cold; the airwaves are abuzz in Senegal following South Africas refusal to grant 10 Senegalese  journalists visas to travel to South Africa for the African Cup Of Nations (AFCON)  which opens tomorrow. I am saddened by their refusal. Football is important in Senegal, much like the desert needs the rain,  let alone the strained foreign relations that will happen as a result. South Africans  will in the future now require Visas to come into Senegal ( reports say from, July ) something which they never required before. One hopes for the sake of  Africa that the issue will be resolved without any permanent damage.

ON AIR!

LIFE: IN THE TIME OF WAR.

Dakar, Senegal: 2012  Before the dust settled.

09 Wednesdays 2013. Dakar, Senegal.  What to write after ten or more days in a country that has  occupied my mind  for the last two years solidly.  Dakar Senegal.  What is it about this place that has so ensnared my mind? That has made everything seem a little mundane if it had no link to Senegal .  A Year ago  in December of 2011, I packed my bags for a month-long holiday at an invitation from a  friend.  I was more than lethargic when I arrived. As the taxi drove through  the main highway from the Airport to the city,  I watched  the horizon, nothing was visible , dust-covered  evening. It was a thick brown fog that  was like  a  concrete wall hiding the  outline of the city.  I wondered why it was so important for me to be there.  I was on holiday, and the reason I was on holiday in Senegal was in the taxi with me. In the days that followed my host asked me what I thought of Dakar. At that point I honestly didn’t know how to  answer that question. I even wondered if I had an answer to begin with. I had not seen the city for one, having spent most of my time sleeping in bed or online searching for things “Dakar” to do. When I was not sleeping in the first few days of my arrival; I took walks around the neighborhood  to acclimatize myself to the newness and foreignness of the place. But as I walked I found little pieces of Barcelona, I found pieces of New York,   pieces of Kenya, Uganda, some pieces I imagine to be decidedly French, even though I have never been to France. I found to my amazement that the city had representations of  almost every major city in the world that I have had the opportunity to visit  and yet it was still nothing like any of them.  So after a long pause recalling the images from my morning and afternoon walks I answered: “It’s  like every city  I’ve been to and none that I have been to at the same time”   She nodded as if in agreement.  After the first five days of sleep-walking and through some connections I made through friends  I decided despite my inner protestations to be on holiday on not on sleep-holiday was during the day  as if I slept. Sleep oh. For the past 6 years I have had a sleeping disorder I didn’t know about which required me to drink enough alcohol to knock me out sleeping pills had become a no-go zone since I once tried to commit suicide by drinking pills after my grandmother who raised me died, in 2006.   otherwise I just could not sleep.  I had to be lulled to sleep, radio television, music book, anything…the opposite of that was sleeping during the day when sleep comes,  even that was sometimes hard to achieve, the TV had to be on, a radio something, I could read till midday, not that I slept of much, the only time I could sleep really  was during the day, with said TV/radio/music on… often I would just sit in bed not wanting to do or go or see anyone or anything – I just wanted to be left alone sometimes. I had to wake up and face this country I had chosen as my ideal destination for a holiday.   One forgets – at least I did, now less so – that Senegal is  mostly desert land,  full of sand and dust everywhere.  I was reminded  this morning while cleaning the new space I have just moved into.  Keeping yourself and your household dust free in a place where water is a very precious commodity can be a never-ending full-time  job.  So in the month of December 2012 I woke up from  my sleep-walking to go to St-Louis, an old French-Colonial-Slave town five hours north of Senegal’s capital city Dakar. I booked into a B&B and caught a set-place (seven seater) Peugeot Station Wagon to one of  Senegal’s most famous tourist attraction. I felt  completely and utterly nostalgic about the drive down  to Senegal;  again, it reminded me – hauntingly  – of  another  time and  place I once lived in but just couldn’t  put my finger on it. Could I have traveled this road once before?  Could I have been to Senegal before and not even known  about it myself? Why was my core, my heart  nudging  me about this foreign place that was once so familiar and strangely new at the same time? The drive down was peaceful as if I was in a time capsule, or on an airplane  where worrying about anything is futile, in transit as it  were or better still – No where.   My feelings and emotions were amplified my emotions (feelings) were amplified, the nostalgia was enough to make me want to cry, but I gratefully  fell into a lulling sleep instead. In St-Louis the air was decidedly different. The town itself felt abandoned – a ghost town – in December. People moved languidly and slowly under the scorching heat.  The sandy streets made walking seem like a marathon challenge.  Others sat in the dark shops from where  they sold touristy things to the few tourists that were shuffled around in horse driven carts.  I tried to imagine what St-Louis must have looked like back in the  1800’s under French occupation.  A place inhabited by french explorers who made their money selling people  and other commodities to countries  across the Atlantic. I kept looking for those quint and picturesque images that so beautifully describe my holiday destination. I re-read  descriptions of the wonderful St-Louis, and immediately wished people could write their feelings.  It is a beautiful place – but  I felt lost.  For me St-Louis, like Goree Island in Dakar had not changed much…. well they had changed considerably but the founding principles of the place, the  country and continent had still not changed. There are no obvious chains on anyone walking around  in St-Louis.   Slavery has long been abolished as we all well know. Indeed there are  no similarities. However the principle of people as commodities enslaved by the insatiable quest for power and money by those in power  have not.  I returned from St-Louis refreshed despite  my initial misgivings about the place.  On Christmas day I had the opportunity or pleasure of swimming at a place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the River Senegal (Oceane et Savanne). My host and I were the only brown people in the entire holiday strip, except for those who were serving the  guests.  I let my mind forget about the “glaring inequities” of it all  for a while, and chose to enjoy the beauty of nature and land which was given to us all humans and animals to enjoy equally though not every one is in agreement about that.

Back in Dakar, I walked into Riots, protests and daily demonstrations which made the otherwise quiet and peaceful country Headline news on all major international news channels.  I had not come prepared to work, in fact though I made mention of it in passing conversations, it was not the one thing that was upper most on my mind. What I had in mind was a chill session of heart, mind, body and soul, full of dancing and making love in the simplest ways, meeting new people, discovering new things –  as one does when on holiday. But the journalist in me could not watch a story happen right in front of my door step, literally and not write about it.  So I started to report on the pre-election violence/demonstrations  in the country and soon after the elections went ahead peacefully and a new leader was elected by popular demand, I found work at a regional radio station based in Dakar, where I spent the rest of my time working 18 hour days with barely  enough room to eat, sleep and wake up again for the next round. Though the work was fulfilling it had become like a heavy chain around my ankles, I’m  sure not so different from those worn by the slaves of yesterday. I worked seven days a week, I had no time to spend the little money I earned,  which was also just fine with me since it was enough for room and board.  I finally decided to return home in May, to put things into perspective – who goes on holiday for a month and ends up coming home six months later? So many have, and I needed to be sure.

The first six months in Senegal now in retrospect was a haze of  dust, smoke and tear gas.  My tears which came often (every two days or so) were a useful tonic.  In the last six month back home I spent a large amount of time trying to find work so that I could return again to Senegal, what for this time? ‘My internal questions were echoed in the faces of my friends and family.  As if to say okay baby, you have had your adventures, you’re not growing any younger and to top it all off, you have been living from suitcase  for a whole year – imagine 365-  days without unpacking a single thing! I still did not have an answer for this question. Until today.

On my walk from my new place to the a local shop to go on the net. It dawned on me. As clear as day – what Senegal reminded me of. What this place was about, is about perhaps.I started to ask myself this question more seriously this time when after  three days in the city I found myself again without access to money, through no real fault of my own. The back and forth from bank to bank between Johannesburg and Dakar, and my inability to anything at all this time round, nothing made me ask what was this big pull to move to be here.  I began again to ask my self the question why am I here?  Change at anytime or place is never easy, to decide to live in a place whose national and official language you don’t understand, whose customs and way of life are on polar opposites to your own, where so much is forbidden, where so much is mis-understood by you, to come to this place – again – Is one of the most challenging decisions I have ever had to make in my life. I weighed them up, the pros and cons of staying. The pros and cons of leaving.  And I decided on Senegal.

I met an artisan in St-Louis who asked me why I was  in Senegal or St-Louis. I said for a vacation. He asked me what was I looking for? Hoping to find in Senegal. I said love. Then he made me a heart-shaped necklace I have never worn with the words Senegal St-Louis on it.   I have been asked this question many times back home and here. I have asked myself this question openly and in private, in my prayers and in my laughter… what is it about this place? So….

There’s one other place I failed to recognize in Senegal in my many walks. And for the life of me this place is everywhere here…. in the language, french and Wolof,  in the religion and culture…and in the sights and smells. I was in this place during a time of war back in 2006 and I never expected to find, Beirut, Lebanon in Dakar, Senegal!

It’s the coffee sold in small tiny cups at street corners, it’s the people who continue to live and move on as if there are no rockets flying down  causing ripples through the dark roasted liquid. It’s the passionate way the people speak. It’s the way in which Islam the national religion – finds its way  seamlessly through french culture mixed with a decidedly cosmopolitan circular life where people from all corners of the world meet,  engage and love each other. It’s in the taxis,the cabs, yellow and black, in the images of Sheick Amadou Bambar in Senegal and Hassan Nasrallah in Lebonon. It’ in the calls to prayer throughout the day, it’s in the convictions of the people of what is right and what is wrong.   Love in a time of war is something else. Life in a time of war makes one grateful for every little thing, even the most basic things one feels grateful just be able to do them. Struggling to find oil, water etc, does not seem much like a struggle when you could die at any second or moment through no provocation of your own.  Every conceivable human emotion reactions is heightened – in the face of imminent death, living from a suitcase feels like duplex luxury hotel in one of the richest capitals of the world,you choose.

The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollh War – changed my life. I just didn’t know  how much.  As if I was literally courting trouble;  the dust had just settled in Senegal when I arrived in South Africa to a  massacre so brutal I was sure I landed in 1976  Apartheid South Africa. More than 34 striking mine workers were killed openly for the entire world to see.  Images of that massacre are still being  screened  here in Senegal.  I didn’t go to the scene of the incident this time, even though the journalist in me so wanted to go there and report on the aftermath.  In response to the Marikana Massacre, I did a series of interviews with conflict journalists/reporters,  asking them to share how stories of conflict/war/violence reporting has  changed their lives or affected them.  I had been with one of them on assignment to Lebanon.  I asked him to share a memory or  a story, an incident that changed his worldview.  He described the most vivid claustrophobic scene I have ever heard in my life. He  described a burial scene, at a Palestinian refugee camp, at a spot which had been hit by Israeli rockets, just a few hours ago, for the second time. You could hear the drones circling the skies like vultures searching for a target – and you were it. He told me he felt like he was trapped, and would be buried along with the rest of deceased, because we were literally the living dead. He told me that when he got to his hotel room he noticed he had aged considerably just from that one day out of a whole 34 days  that we had been reporting on what is was known in Lebanon as the July War  – Lebanons’ Hottest summer.   But what surprised me more than anything was not the scene he described or his real-time aging process there-after, but that simply I had been there with him, standing at that exact same spot. I had been there at that exact same spot and I didn’t even remember it. I was not drunk or high – my brain just couldn’t deal with the reallness of my mortality.  The drive to St-Louiss was the drive to Lebanon from Jordan via Syria. It was nostalgic because it was a dangerous thing to do at the time. Israeli rockets has not left the Syria-Lebanon border untouched.  Our taxi driver was playing Julio Iglesias, my parents and our favourite singer… I called my father on the spot, to say I was on my way to Lebanon, driving past the Syria – our taxi driver was playing  Julio Iglesias, I loved him.  The second time I called my father was when I had been standing outside the balcony of a room my fixer had organized for me to stay. I had been watching the view from the city, when a rocket went down shaking the very foundations of the building and balcony.  I don’t know why war still seems so glamorous. I can’t even remember how I managed to sleep that night.

So in an utterly strange way, Senegal now makes complete sense to me. Perhaps its  my minds’ way of  trying to re-write that story – change the past. I don’t want to be a martyr to this or any other war, worst of all I don’t want to be a martyr in my own life in whatever small ways.  Oh now I remember… I came to Senegal because I wanted to write about country, its people its history, culture etc.  But after the dust has settled in Senegal, life has gone back to a normalcy I have never quite experienced before – my foreignness is more pronounce, my decision to return even more daunting . After the dust has settled and after a year of living my life out of a suit-case going from couch to couch, place to place, living on rough  side of life does not make sense. I want my life before Lebanon back, the familiar  comfort of home  surrounded by my books, freshly cut flowers, coffee… friends and family.  It’s as if after all this time , five years precisely since I was in Lebanon, someone forgot to tell me that: –  ” Honey the war is over, you don’t have to live out of a suitcase, or run for your life, be poor or be ill not every thing is an emergency, not everyone you love is going die right this minute or the second you don’t see them, YES YOU ARE ALIVE, and you deserve to live just like everyone else including those who have died. It’s okay, It’s not you’re fault.  The war is over, live life make it all count now by living your BEST LIFE NOW.”

I am crying now, and Its A-OKAY with me, Because yet again I forgot to mention the  one other important reason that led me to  Beirut, Lebanon and Dakar, Senegal. LOVE.  Love for my work and a love for another human being.

And it is here in Dakar Senegal, that I learned how to walk again, sleep again, eat again, laugh, cry, trust, believe again, hope again, love again.

I have been scared to say I’m in love in case it does not work out… I’ve been scared to admit that I Jedi Ramalapa am a LOVABLE person,  I forgot in all those years (6 years), that My mother loves me, My father loves me, Oh my sisters and brothers love me, I have friends near and far who love me.  I am loved. Forgot what love feels like. everything, my humanity, their humanity and I am sorry.

There’s one other person… I love  who I know loves me more than I can ever imagine….

All I can say I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get here, I love you and I know that you love me too.  You are the only One I want!

I love you baby.

 

OVER THE EQUATOR: Crossing the Line.

equator02 January, Dakar Senegal. Funny how no matter how many times I have flown to and from everywhere around the world, not once did this thought ever occur to me.  The thought was prompted by the pilot in charge of SAA flight, 207 on the 28th of December 2012. We were delayed (grounded really) for over an hour at the OR International Airport in Johannesburg. A  first for me.  There was something wrong and providence made sure that I was seated on the window seat with a direct view of the source of the problem.  The pilot muttered something about a part getting stuck in the left-wing engine of the plane while they were checking to see if there is enough oil or some thing along those lines. While that was happening,  water was  guzzling out of the engine, it seemed there was an oil leak too as two pick up trucks pulled over onto the tar mark, with sacks of soil.  Men in emergency flat jackets poured the soil  on the ground – a technique used to absorb oil spillage. One of my first reports as a journalist involved an oil leak over Barry Hertzog, the driver had lost control of his oil truck  hit the curb an accident which flushed oil down on empire street, and stalling peak afternoon traffic.  A  man in a paper-thin white jump suit looks closely at the tool box left lying on the ground , his colleagues join their heads with him they laugh, shake heads  and the whole thing does not seem so serious. The pilot fills  in the blanks.  We are still delayed, now waiting  for a spare part, so we are waiting for the spare part, but first we need another part to remove the  part that is still stuck inside the area of the engine  where the problem is, after it has been removed, the new part will be lodged in, and then since we have also lost some fuel, they will pump the plane with more jet-fuel, just to be sure. It’s a one way eight-hour flight with one stop. My destination. The procedure could take  anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes.  The pilots’ reports which were  frequent, every ten minutes or so, were prefaced with unfortunately. With that there are  a number of questions floating through my mind, will we ever set off? Can’t we just change planes, what a lot of work that will entail, how long will it take? Worse still what if we do take off and then the problem is not properly fixed? For sure I would have been extremely nervous had it not been for the view from seat number – 64k.  The  the technicians working on the plane didn’t seem vaguely worried.  If  body language is anything to go by they could have been putting up balloons for a child’s first birthday party.  Pa de koi.  The irrational part of me reasoned that  perhaps this is my opportunity to make a decision about my life, approach the cabin crew and tell them I am now getting off because I am not sure if I will make it to my destination, there seems to be a problem, which so far was quite well communicated to the passengers on board, but I for one would rather be on solid ground.  Glad I nipped that thought in the bud.  Because in no time all was cleared and we were well on our way to the sky.  There goes my chance of getting out of  the plane.  Sure there’s really nothing to be done now.  I have said my loving goodbyes. I am at peace.

So once we reached cruising altitude, our very informative pilot tells us. “We expect to have a fairly good flight, with the exception  of some turbulence expected over the equator”  Now that is something I have never paid attention to before.  I will be crossing the equator, that imaginary line we learn about in geography,which separates the world as we know into two parts. The Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Regions closer to the equator generally  don’t have a change in seasons as the area around the equator remains more or less in constant relationship with the sun.  It’s an imaginary line.  We use it to understand where we are in the world, who we are when we are. Sailors of old make jokes about it, but it  was (is) still a right of passage.

“The Earth’s gravitational pull is slightly weaker at the Equator due to its equatorial bulge. The slightly weaker gravitational pull and momentum of the spinning Earth makes equatorial regions ideal places for space launches. It takes an enormous amount of energy to launch a satellite or other spacecraft out of the Earth’s atmosphere. It takes less energy (rocket fuel) to launch in lower gravity. It also takes less energy to launch when the spinning Earth is already giving the satellite a push of 1,670 kilometers per hour (1,038 miles per hour)”.

There was a lot of turbulence over the equator, no more than can be expected  on any flight no matter how long the duration.  My heart landed with me as we hit the tar mark in Dakar  We made it.  So I am  left with no doubt still even now. I am alive and happy to be so.  I thought I would write something more on the Esoteric side of things, something deep and enlightened about the equator once I started to think about it.  But I guess I have left my profoundness back in the Southern Hemisphere.  Here on the other side, the city was empty, the Great Magal of Touba, an annual pilgrimage of devout Muslims coincided with the new year celebrations. So everyone was in Touba, okay not everyone but most people and everything was about the Magal of Touba. It’s an important annual pilgrimage for Senegalese people.    I was glad I was not among the millions of people who go there to pay tribute homage to Senegal Spiritual and Revolutionary leader Ahmadou Bamba.  It’s a different world.  Last year I went after the New Year celebrations and came back  having lost my worldly attachments  to beauty, youth, dignity and most importantly money. Because I didn’t go this time, I expected nothing of the sort to happen, until of course I tried to draw money at a local ATM – the bank card didn’t come back.  This time though, I let it go without a fight.

Words fall out of my fingertips, and I am still even now trying to say something quite profound.   It takes less energy to launch a space craft on or near the equator. Less energy to get things done.  Less energy to be me. Why should we resist… why should I? Makes me think, many of us have  flown over the equator more than once in our lives and yet we have never given it much thought.  I suggest we coin a new term ” I am over the Equator with…. ” fill in your choice of words.  Because however the turbulent our crossing over the equator(was)  is – it is also the center, the core,  the perfect  circle, always constant and in harmony with the Sun.  However imaginary, crossing this line  is  far more conceivable than going over the moon.

I for one am Over the Equator In love!