Thursday, 11 February 2010

Dakar Dem Dikk

Sandy streets, handpainted and fume-belching cars rapides, tinny Mande music and crusty baguettes: bienvenue à Dakar, a city whose airport disgorges more French tourists than you could shake an eponymous stick at, half of them seemingly with their sights set on feelgood development projects on lush Senegalese islands. Dakar is an alluring, fast-paced place brimming with leisure migrants and labour migrants, businessfolk and beggars, stoic commuters and frantic street hawkers who seem to flog as little of their stuff as their colleagues on the Canary Islands. One of them, a newspaper vendor working the city's clogged suburban thoroughfares, gets excited when I say what I study. "Eh, l'anthropologie, c'est vraiment intéressant!" He studied English and Arabic at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop university, until he ran out of money. Now he flogs smudgy papers at 100 CFA - about 10p - apiece. I say goodbye as I get on my bus, run by Dakar Dem Dikk - "Dakar to and fro" in Wolof and a motto if any for my first few days in this seething, traffic-jammed labyrinth of a city.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

My friend the people smuggler

"Ah! You're writing about the pateras." J's smile lights up the rain-swept Gran Canarian patio. "I know of some French journalists who went to Western Sahara, made a documentary there, they even took the boat to the Canary Islands, filming everything. If you want, I can help organise something. I have contacts. You could make good money with a film." He used to make good money too - J's line of business used to be people smuggling. But his story belies the usual stereotype among politicians and journalists of "unscrupulous traffickers" - he helped two brothers do the crossing, and then went himself. He knows the routes, how to evade paying bribes to the Moroccan security forces, how to quick-inflate a zodiac boat, how to steer the course from a beach in Western Sahara to Gran Canaria's shores in 24 hours. And he's happy to serve up stories about his journey, genereously peppered with the bravado of a jetset-style clandestine crosser.

But among many of those he and his ilk have ferried across the waters, a taboo seems to surround the crossing. A Senegalese man I meet says he never asks fellow countrymen how they arrived. But if some of them were ever to trade insults, it might sound like this: "I arrived in Spain with a visa, but you, you almost died trying to get here." There's a word for those who have come by sea: wa gaal gi, "boat people" - cayuco people - in Wolof. And I get the feeling it's hardly a compliment.

Meanwhile, my "smuggler" friend revels in memories of his once so profitable business. The situation has changed mucho, mucho - it's not the same, the police is everywhere, people have started realising that fortunes are not waiting for them on Spain's shores. He's looking for work himself, but nada. As I leave, he tries his sales pitch again: "I still have a zodiac in a garage in Morocco... I could inflate it, you could write a story, just give me a call! You could make lots of money!"