QUIET DIPLOMACY : MY SECRET LOVE AFFAIR WITH WEST AFRICA

30-LOVE

” You will look back at this and be proud of yourself, you will come out of this stronger and wiser” said my  older sister – looking lovingly at me in the plane. We were on an  early morning  South African Airways (SAA) flight  to South Africa from Senegal in what is arguably the most  extraordinary life-changing experience of my life.  I was surprised she didn’t  shout and scream at me  or ask  ” what were you thinking?!”  I was in tears, barely able to say a word without crying. She looked at me lovingly though with the kindness I didn’t think I deserved. She smiled and laughed with that sweet giggle that seems to go on forever… when I heard her laughing  I knew that everything would be okay … eventually. I wasn’t  crazy and I had not imagined things.  Having her sitting next  to me  eased my nausea.  I was so heartbroken  I was sure I was going to throw up  my heart, crushed to pieces like  shards of  glass in a pool of blood and gore all over the airplane’s floor – I was so hurt. I couldn’t for the life of me  understand how my best laid plans could have gone so horribly wrong.  Why I had to leave. Why my dreams came crushing down on me like the like the twin tours, on an ordinary Sunday.

We went through all the  different scenarios on the flight home. I kept going over and over what had happened. I had to make absolutely sure for myself that I had made the right decision to go home.  She assured me I had.  Still  I wasn’t sure that leaving Senegal, the country of my  re-birth  made  for a bright idea. But I had doubts, many doubts in fact about a lot of things and needed someone better skilled in the art of diplomacy and crisis management  to help me figure things out.

IN HER FOOTSTEPS…

I was there in part because of her, my sister.   She doesn’t know this because I’ve never had the courage to tell her. She was (is) my inspiration – she was (is) the reason I wanted to do TV reporting and not just on any old subject. But on the subject of African Politics or should I say the  Politics of Africa.  I used to watch her  religiously on  Television as she reported from one country after another. She would come back briefly, and I would joke with her  little just to see her smile or  offer to make her coffee just to be near her. I admired her work. I admire who she is. But she was always busy and always on the road. In the early 2000’s working as a radio journalist I often  read up on the Organization for African Unity ( OAU) the formation of the new body the African Union, the formation of  the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)  the PAN African Parliament,  South African Development Community (SADC).  And  tried as much as I could to keep myself informed about issues relating to Africa’s re-birth, though at the time I thought I had no practical use for the information. I always made a mental note to research any story or country she reported on. If I had an idol in TV  journalism she would be the first  Ms MS, then  Christiane Amampour  and Paula Slier.  She made journalism  beautiful, lyrical, a moving living, tangible history lesson. My love for her was intensified by a common vision and life purpose. It has been my best kept secrete love affair, until now, because I’m telling you.

So that is why when the opportunity presented itself back in  2011 to visit  Senegal in West Africa I did not hesitate.  Up until then I had not travelled to West Africa or Senegal and had no experience of the region. I called everyone but her  letting them know I was leaving.  I knew that the best way to learn anything is by doing (experiencing it) at least that has been the best way  I learn.  Though I had planned to  visit  Senegal  for a month-long holiday,  at the back of my mind I was prepared to stay for as long as possible and thus do some kind of “soft launch”of my free-lance  career as a  West African Correspondent. So I packed accordingly. I was prepared to give my all in pursuit of  a dream. Purpose.

WAAW!!!

The first six months were a whirlwind romance. I could not have hoped for a better landing.  It was full of exciting adventures  and nights filled with milk and honey on cloud nine. I mean I could not believe how beautiful the Senegalese  were. Inside and out. I found myself a new home, I loved the language, and enjoyed the general lifestyle, the tea, food,  dancing, the art, reggae, fabrics, fashion,  I didn’t have to wear a watch as calls to prayer would tell me exactly what time it was, fish and rice were abundant…the beach was always around the corner, the streets were a sight for sore eyes: colourful, bright and full of  well toned men with lean muscular bodies,  similarly tall skinny, well-shaped women in colorful dresses and elaborate hairstyles. There was a  gentle harmonious, peaceful rhythm to Senegal that made living and being alive there a pleasure.  I made a million and one radio sound-scapes and documentaries in my head.  I could step right out of my room into a cab or car-rapid, I could turn a corner and get tea or coffee at less than a rand a piece, airtime was being sold at all corners…fruits, vegetables everything I could think of was at my fingertips.  All of it made absolute sense to me. I was HOME. Even the things I would not ordinarily “agree” with or “accept” back in South Africa would not bother me so much here in my very own paradise.  Even their working hours – late nights – were more in tune with the natural rhythm of my physiology.

DOUBLE- SPEAK

South Africa and Senegal at the time still enjoyed a cordial diplomatic relationship even though relations had soured  bitterly  under former Presidents Abdoulaye Wade and  Thabo Mbeki  who were engaged in a  protracted  tug of  war over who had a better plan for Africa:  President Abdoulaye Wade with the Omega Plan  or Thabo Mbeki with the  African Renaissance.  Eventually it was agreed that both documents  which had slight differences be merged into  one plan  called the New Plan for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).  A plan  which President Wade later  became one of its  fiercest critics accusing the body of wasting money in talk-shops  instead of putting NEPAD’s plans into actions on the ground in other words implementing, this despite him being a sitting chairman of  NEPAD.  Never the less South African citizens during this time did no require visa’s to enter the West African nation famous for its friendliness. Which is another reason why it was an easy choice for me.

SENEGAL CHOSE ME….

By February 2012, three months in the country I was working as a free-lance  journalist for  South Africa based media houses, I had already auditioned and landed the job anchoring a  Weekly current affairs TV show called E-mag on Radio  Television Senegalese (RTS). I was also working as a producer and anchor for a  local regional radio station, West Africa Democracy Radio (WADR)  funded by OSIWA. I was having a great time actually. I knew – despite the many  obstacles and challenges which faced me each step of the way, I knew in the pit of my stomach that  I was meant to be there.
Senegal Celebrates it’s Independence on the 4th of April – my birth date. We were meant to be.

I was just about to say “I do” when my mother called to say I should come home before I make any major decisions.  I agreed. And soon found myself back home in South Africa, unsure of  how to proceed with my vision. I found work  and decided in my heart that I would save up and let everybody know that I was going back.   I kept this dream alive everyday and  worked hard with a single-minded  focus of going back “home”. Making sure to plan everything better this time. The first time I went at the invitation of a friend – armed only with a dream in my pocket and nothing else.  This time would surely be better…

DARE TO INVENT THE FUTURE…

” Are we not cool with anyone?” A friend of mine, Visual Artist Breeze Yoko recently asked on his facebook page. He has just been selected to be part of this year Invisible Borders Trans- African  – an art led initiative, founded in Nigeria in 2009 by a group of passionate artists mostly photographers with a drive and urge to affect change in society though art. The artists  are meant to travel around the continent creating and thinking beyond borders.  Yoko lamented “South Africans need visas for almost all the countries on this continent. Out of 11 countries I’m passing through, i need a visa for all 11. What the fuck is that, are we not cool with anyone?  Nigeria – Benin – Togo – Ghana – Cote d’Ivoire – Liberia – Sierra Leone – Guinea – Senegal – Mauritania – Morocco. Then who are our friends, tell me who? In South America a lot of the countries don’t want a visa from us… but my own continent, why mara why?”

MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE…

After Seven months of working in South Africa, I was finally ready. Already relations between South Africa and Senegal were  becoming quietly hostile.  And despite admonitions from home to refrain from going back to Senegal, I was intent on going despite what anyone said.  News of the 2008 Xenophobic attacks against African foreign nationals in South Africa were a hard pill to swallow for many Africans who still held the country in high esteem. But the Marikana Massacre in which more than 50 protesting miners were killed by police, left many stone-cold, and revealed just how much Apartheid had destroyed South Africa’s humanity, the nations’ psyche. We were not well. I couldn’t explain this on my arrival in January 2013 to my family in Senegal. Visuals of the killings were a common sight on many television screens.  But it was South Africa’s refusal to grant visa’s to 10 Senegalese journalists travelling to South Africa to cover the  Soccer confederations cup that broke the camels back. Senegal’s  newly appointed  President Macky Sall  wasted no time announcing that South African citizens  be required to apply for  visas to gain entry into the country. By then at least two South African women had been found dead under mysterious circumstances in Senegal.  The South Africa Embassy in Dakar warned.

MONEY TALKS

Nigeria – Benin – Togo – Ghana – Cote d’Ivoire – Liberia – Sierra Leone – Guinea – Senegal – Mauritania are all part of the 15 countries which make up the economic Commission of West African States or ECOWAS, which Senegal was chair.  I soon found out that South Africa had no  real economic (commercial – trade)  ties with Senegal, through an unfortunate banking problem.  French West Africa was not a priority for  South Africa’s economic /foreign strategy.  With no other common interest – including political solidarity – the only way to gain investment from South Africa ( seen throughout the continent as a wealthy nation) was is charge its citizens who wished to travel there an entry fee. Are you sure you want to come here?

France a long-time  investment partner with Senegal has now become South Africa’s 3rd largest trading partner  – taking away much-needed investment from Senegal which depended on its former benefactor.  Though the country is now diversifying its investment portfolio to include China and North America ( Canada and the USA).

BUT MONEY CAN’T BUY YOU LOVE…

The lack of money was the sole – main – reason I came back  the second time. In fact it was not so much the a lack of money  per se,  but a technical – red tape – problem of not having access  to the  money I already had. I had a cash flow problem which made trying to do  business (anything) in West Africa nearly impossible.  The South African Embassy …. turned me away when I went to  seek help. All I had been my passport. ” I’m sorry we can’t help you, we don’t make phone calls for people here, we cannot assist you with that” said the woman behind the glass  panel.   It slowly began to sink in, that if they could treat their own citizens like this, what about other Africans? I was persona non-grata. My South African friends had long turned their phones off. Numerous calls through banks to South Africa, brought no joy, they could not assist me with a small technical problem. ” You have to come into our offices….go to your nearest branch”. I am in Senegal West Africa – I repeated like a crazy woman for nearly two months only to be met with ” where is that? just go to your nearest branch.” There is no Standard Bank Branch in Senegal.

AT LEAST WE ARE STILL FRIENDS…

My Senegalese Brother’s and Sister’s held my hands in support, paid for my rent, bought me food, airtime and provided me with what they could to help me survive at great personal cost.  They remained hopeful, but the stress was tearing me apart and I didn’t want to see them suffer like that for me. So I decided to swallow my pride and concede defeat. Go back home to my nearest Standard Bank Branch.  In all my life I have never experienced love like I found lived and experienced in Senegal. Everyone from street trader to Bifal, contributed with a cup of coffee here, bus fare there,  to help me  survive on a daily basis. They loved and accepted me without any questions, loved me through thick and thin, and never turned me away even when they had all the power, ability and reason to. I learnt a powerful lesson about myself, my birth country in Senegal, that Power and Love Equals Peace. It was not Senegal or the Senegalese that let me down. It was my own country. South Africa that didn’t care or seem to care an inch about my well-being. I have thought things through and looked at my story from all possible angles, everything I did wrong, all my mistakes and all the subsequent events that followed from that and I always reach the same conclusion.  I guess hadn’t had the time to realize just how much that incident hurt me.I have been going through the motions of living ever since.

POWER + LOVE = PEACE

I love Senegal with all my heart. This land of the  Baobab, the Lion, of Milk and honey. This  the country made me more of who I was, and showed me my all weakness and  all my strengths and loved me despite  of what I could or could not offer.  With all my imperfections: they told me: you are strong, we believe in you, you can make it.  I honestly cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I never knew love like this before.  No money in the world can ever replace the  life this place breathed into my lungs into my very being.

To quote French Writer and philosopher Anais Nin who once said :“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.”

Three years ago I threw my dreams into space like a kite, and found all of the above in  Senegal.

“I do”.  Now and forever. You will always have a special place in my heart. Thank You for the love  and all the  hard lessons.

My sister was absolutely right!. I am stronger and wiser because of you.

Peace.

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