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Senegalese ‘hospitality’

St. Louis to Dakar to Saly

Coming into Dakar on the new A-1 we are greeted by traffic and the back of water stained concrete buildings. We were looking for the port where we needed to get the carnet stamped for our car. Surprising we found it with little trouble, stopping several times in the middle of highway traffic to ask directions, and once on a street corner, where we were asked for a cadeau in return for help. Go figure.

We pulled into a restricted area in the port where we were immediately stopped by a nice policeman and pointed in the right direction. He was kind enough to halt traffic for us as we crossed a busy street into a parking lot. Rick goes off to deal with the carnet but is back a few minutes later. They are sleeping he says, they’ll be open again at 3. It’s 1. Of course, he’s unwillingly acquired a ‘helper’ who insists the task of getting the carnet stamped is completely impossible without his expertise. The helper suggests we have lunch while we wait. We aren’t hungry so we order coke, but the helper unabashedly orders steak and fries and puts it on our tab. He insists on taking our money to the cashier when its time to pay, and takes a cut of the change. Meanwhile, while Rick was away I’ve attracted a crowd of men wanting to sell me shoes, phone cards, a car wash, or simply nothing – they just want my money. I opt for the car wash, which is inexpensive and impressive given there is no water. But upon paying I’m asked for extra money, for rice. We come to understand that ‘for rice’ means ‘give me something for nothing because you are foreign’.

The constant wanting (I’m failing to convey its enormity) is so much that we try and turn it into a positive, by making a list of the lovely people that haven’t demanded money for nothing. The list is short – Laurent, the arrowhead nomad, the fish-woman and her medicinal friends, the man that helped dig us out of sand – three times, that policeman who stopped traffic for us, Simon – an English speaking Senegalese who helped us with directions to our next haunt. I guess it depends on your perspective. In the same space of time in our world, we’d be unlikely to find this many people that helped us out of the goodness of their hearts, but also, unlikely to find as many vultures trying to scrape the meat from our bones.

Carnet stamp achieved, wallet a little lighter, we head out of Dakar same day on our new quest – to find monkeys! Niokolokoba Park is in Eastern Senegal, a couple of days drive, so we make our first rest stop in a town called Saly, searching for a hotel called Safari Club that Simon, one of the people that didn’t ask us for anything besides to practice his English, had recommended.

In Saly we can’t find Safari Club so we ask for directions. Our first mistake. Two super friendly guys, Arona and Ebu, leap into our car and tell us they know of a great hotel. Of course they do. We don’t need help – there are plenty of hotels here, but as one place is as good as another to us we take them up on it, thinking this will at least get them some commission from the hotel owner.

The first hotel they take us to turns out to be a demolition site. Perhaps there was a hotel there once, but now it’s sewage and rubble. We know another! they say and navigate us to a place called Blue Africa that is so inviting and our beach swim so warm and relaxing we end up staying an extra night.

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However, we can’t seem to get rid of Arona and Ebu. Arona goes on and on about how he’d be a great guide to help us get to Niokolokoba park, and when we get there his friend is a park guide that will be able to help us. This is bollocks of course. Finding the park was a straight shot on the N2, the only times we needed to turn were to swerve out of the way of the monstrous potholes. And in the park there are already assigned guides, at a fixed price. Still, our new friends are very pleasant and helpful. Arona helps us find the beach – not hard as it is 5 meters in front of the hotel, he helps us avoid the rocks – not hard as they are rocks and tend not to wander around much, he helps watch our towels while we swim – not hard because towels don’t have legs, and he helps us negotiate the room price down from 30,000 CFA to 26,000 CFA – also not hard as the posted price was 26,000.

For all this helpfulness after several hours of tailing us like shadows they demand 10,000 CFA. I am thoroughly annoyed because I don’t mind paying people that are helpful, but I do mind paying people that are forcing something on me that I could very well do myself, like the challenging task of walking to the beach and having a swim. I try to keep an open mind, as they are so very friendly, and take the opportunity to learn a little more about their way of thinking.

They rave on and on about Senegalese hospitality, how it is the best in the world. ‘Teranga’ it is called. Arona implores us to partake in this wondrous hospitality tomorrow for lunch. It will cost you nothing, he says. We the Senegalese, we love English people, you have a good heart, we ask for money now so we can buy rice tomorrow for your feast, but tomorrow, nothing. We just want to welcome you to our beautiful country because you are beautiful people with good hearts. He tells us they asked for money now because they were helping us. That was a job. And they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t need it. Tomorrow is for pleasure, for hospitality, when you invite someone to your home it is personal, the relationship is more important to us than money, the job and the hospitality are completely separate. I try and explain how we are used to either people doing things from the goodness of their hearts and not wanting anything in return, or, if it is a job that does need money the price is agreed upfront. And, the fact that there will be a price is acknowledged, unlike this uncertainty here, trying to understand whether people are just being friendly (tip: they aren’t) or whether they want something (tip: they do).

Oh crap, a bird just pooped on Rick and I while I was writing this.

We find it hard to refuse the invitation to lunch. Arona is practically begging us, and Ebu tells us he is a fisherman and will catch fresh fish from the sea tomorrow morning. We don’t want to be rude and we do want to experience more than the somewhat removed perspective we’ve had thus far. I foolishly give the chances of them asking for more money 80/20 (foolish, because there’s no chance involved at all, it’s a surety), but hope that that’s just my jaded viewpoint based on unrepresentative encounters to date. I prepare gifts of fun school supplies and books, so we don’t turn up empty handed.

1pm the next day and the feast is on. First a band, Arona’s friends, beating on drums and singing and dancing. They make me dance and I feel like a spaz, but I do it anyway, I don’t want to be rude. Two small boys join the fray, rocking and rolling, boogying, hips and feet in every which direction. The lead singer takes a break from drumming and starts to whoop it up, he thrusts his hips and arms back and forth, shakes his booty in my face, his shorts dropping off his butt to reveal red underwear, USA street style.

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Then tea. We make conversation, the village chief’s son comes to talk with us, his English is decent enough for pleasantries and he seems a stand-up fellow. Then lunch. One of our best meals to date – four kinds of fish – delicious, not barracuda, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, eggplant, couscous, and an aphrodisiac for Rick! To help with that baby you know.

Then gifts, a necklace for me, a bracelet for Rick. A woman braids a strand of my hair. By this point I know it’s a long con. More gifts – those hideous masks that some people like, a man and woman kissing, to bless our new-found happiness. You are just married? In Mauritanie? Oh this is wonderful you good people, this calls for a celebration. We will arrange a feast on the beach for you tonight, fish, shrimp, prawns, lobster, rice – all fresh. You will be the center of attention.

This is just about the worst thing one could say to introverts like us.

And then the rub. We’re drawn into an alley away from the feast and a ledger is produced. A book of wonderful comments from other tourists about this gang’s Senegalese hospitality and a number written next to each quote, the number of euros these good people donated ‘to the village’. I call it the suckers bible. As I pretty much suspected this would happen I’m not too upset, yet. I begin the verbal back and forth with the chief’s son and agree on €30 ($40). It’s all very polite. Arona still wants us to take him to the park “for free, I have a friend there I want to see”. Arona, just breathing the same air as you costs us money, nothing you do is for free. That’s fine, we had a good lunch, learned a bit, had some fun, it’s an experience, and hopefully it really does help the village. I give my gifts, we take what they’ve given us, and bid each other goodbyes for now.

So why am I so annoyed? Because later, in the car, i find out that behind my back they separately went to Rick and took advantage of his kind nature and told him he needed to pay €50 ($70), which, because he has a hard time saying no, he did. I felt it was thoroughly manipulative and deceitful and leant me to looking back over the events of the past few days and dedicating the next blog post to detailing exactly what I think of Senegal and its so-called ‘hospitality’. If you love Senegal, just skip it.

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