Saturday, September 17, 2011

Employing a nation with useless security jobs.

Go to an airport in Africa, particularly Nigeria, and expect to have your passport checked at least five times. It’s not clear why. Sometimes there will just be a guard or airport employee standing in a hallway, inspecting passports, without it actually being a security checkpoint. Airline tickets are checked, double-checked, and triple-checked. Bags are searched at least twice by hand.

It’s particularly maddening that there is no “secure zone” as in the U.S. Each time you arrive at a new location, you must proceed through almost the same rigmarole of presenting your passport and having your bags searched and swiped for explosive power. Most searches are superficial at best, however – they have a lot of people to process – so I doubt they could find anything you were intent on sneaking something past them.

What bothers me about the whole scenario is seeing all the people standing around, doing nothing. Apart from mosquitoes and soul-crushing poverty, security/government officials seem to be the only other thing in abundance in Africa. I can see why those positions are so coveted; not only can you extort bribes, but also you get to stand around and do nothing. It’s entirely unnecessary and ineffectual.

Mali featured a new career path I had not yet seen: house security guards. Many places had them. Not like your average American security guard with proper training, cuffs, and the other tools of the trade. The only trait needed to qualify for a security guard in Mali is a pulse. And a chair. Now, I’m not commenting on whether they make a difference -- my guess is they do – but it’s intriguing to see how virally it has caught on in this city, but not others. (I’m also not knocking security guards; many of the ones I have met are quite nice.) It makes sense how people can afford it: manpower is extremely undervalued because of the surplus in supply. Still, it sets up an unfortunate scenario where people dream to become a security guard so they can sit around and do nothing. Not exactly a setup to drive economic activity and innovation.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chance encounters.

I'm getting pretty good at introducing myself to strangers. This pleases me, as I have made rewarding connections in this fashion. Also, normally I'm quite shy about so joining a group at random, so this marks a big improvement.

If it weren't for being social, I would not have heard about Yeredon, the school for dance and drums. (This happened about a week ago.) If I hadn't heard about Yeredon, I would not be the proud owner of a djembe.

That's right: I bought a djembe. And a sweet case to go with it. Photos will be posted tomorrow. Learned the rhythms to four dances so far, which should be enough to get me started as accompaniment for some African classes back home. (I wouldn't expect to get paid -- just show me the rhythms and I'll play for you for free. This seems to be a common arrangement.)

My drum instructor (on the right) playing checkers with a local drum student.

After my drum lesson today, I went to La Relax, a patisserie/restaurant in the Hippodrome district (an area of Bamako popular for its discotechques). Rather than sit by myself, I caught the eye of two foreigners that were about my age and asked if I could join.

People I meet here are endlessly fascinating. So far it's been an even split between research workers, Peace Corps volunteers, and non-profit interns/employees. The two women I met today were of the last category; one works in co-op development and the other works in gender equality. They hail from Quebec. The Canadian government is sponsoring their work here through funding development non-profits in Africa. The woman in gender equality will be here for one year, taking a break from a Master's in international development. They have both traveled around the world extensively (although not together -- they just met recently). We enjoyed sharing our experiences, talking about travel, and commiserating over challenges of life in Bamako.

Sidenote: It's probably due to the circles I run in, but there seems to be a large ex-pat / foreign aid worker community in Bamako. Given the high level of development for a West African city, this shouldn't surprise me; Cameroon and here are probably the most popular francophone countries. Still, it's been interesting to encounter so many white people. A very different experience from Brazzaville, where I would only occasionally meet a Frenchman with a passion for African music. I've enjoyed many engaging conversations about the nuances of international development. One thing is for sure: it's not for me. I am not ruling out the possibility of working internationally, but I would almost certainly go batshit crazy working for the prototypical African NGO. Too much crap dealing with politics, social dynamics, inertia, etc., both among fellow workers and the management staff.

By the end of our 2-3 hour dinner chat, we were exchanging phone numbers and making plans to meet tomorrow. They're getting together with other friends for a nice dinner (goat cheese ravioli! mmmm...) and then tentative plans to hit up Le Diplomat, one of the dance venues in town well known for its live music.

Had I not made eye contact and said "Hello," I would still be searching in vain for some company tomorrow evening. I don't like going out to these dance places by myself -- I get too stuck in my own head. Also, it's easier to rally for an outing at 11pm when there are other people involved.

Yikes. One day left in Africa. My emotions are mixed. Definitely ready to go home, see all my friends and loved ones, get back to school, etc. This has been an amazing time. It is the transition to a different kind of life that has me not entirely gung-ho about the return. I have grown accustomed (relatively) to the traveler's life. To living in Africa (relatively). Oh well. There's a time and place for all things. The time for this chapter of my life rapidly draws to a close. I am glad that I can close it with nothing but contentment and awe at this incredible experience.

Taxis know best [addendum]

On my way back from drum lesson today, my taxi driver picked up another lady. She had come out of a bar. We drove around the block and stopped in a back alley. After some discussion, she paid and got out; this was evidently the location of her hotel. She seemed a little confused (and drunk).

As we were backing up, I chuckled. The driver said something about her not being right in the head (I’m guessing).

Then I asked him how much she paid. “1000,” he replied.

We got a good laugh out of that one.

(1000 CFA, or about $2.50, is a modest price for a taxi drive and would be enough to take you for 10-20km.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Taxis know best: economic and negotiation theory.

Payment for taxis -- like everything else on this continent -- is determined through haggling. The cost depends on where you're going, so costs end up falling into tiers based on the zone of your destination. A trip to the NE district across the river will run you around 2000 CFA (~$4.25), while a hop down the road can cost anywhere between 200-500 CFA ($0.50-$1.00).

Taxis are so inexpensive that arguing over price would seem silly, but it's more the principle of the matter: it's about defending against the assumption that all foreigners are saps and should be charged 3-5x the normal amount. Just this morning, a driver quoted me 1500 CFA for a trip that should cost around 300 CFA. I laughed at him and eventually talked him down to that amount. The amusing part was that he told me that I should be paying 500-1000 CFA, that I don't understand how this all works, that he's taking pity on me because I'm a foreigner and cutting me a deal. (At least, I'm assuming that's what he said.) Sure, guy, whatever you say. You know best.

It is important to not be ashamed to take back money given to a person when there is a disagreement about the final price. Take this morning's ride as an example. Originally 300 CFA, I handed him a 500 CFA coin expecting change at the end of the ride. He argued that it should now be 500 CFA because I misdirected him slightly. When he wouldn't budge, I just took back the coin and handed him exact change. He smiled at me appreciatively, respecting the street smarts I've developed in negotiations.

One must be wise, of course, to set a price before getting in. This would likely be a common mistake of foreigners accustomed to being presented a fair and set price at the end of the trip. Your negotiating position is severely undermined once they have rendered a service for you. In negotiation theory, this pertains to your BATNA, or Best Alternative To Not Agreeing. Before you ride, you can always walk away and hail another if the taxi driver demands an unreasonable price. After you ride, that luxury is no longer possible -- unless you want to incite a fight and possible arrest. The act of walking away is a powerful hand to force in negotiations, especially in Africa. People consistently set higher prices for foreigners, taking all whites to be rich people, but they are more than willing to settle for 1/3 to 1/2 the quoted amount. After all, it's either get paid less or not get any business. It's leveraging the internal greed and desire of the person providing services. The cost of conducting business and the value of manpower is so dramatically undervalued, it's pretty easy to negotiate a significantly lower price.

This differs considerably from almost all retail businesses in the U.S., where if you're not willing to pay the price, too bad and you can go somewhere else. When you think about it, this is an impressive phenomenon. Businesses eradicated individualistic thinking for the sake of keeping prices high. That this standard developed without outright collusion strikes me as remarkable. As long as haggling is the M.O. of transactions, costs can fluctuate based on factors such as charisma, bargaining power, and personal economic stability.

But I digress. I was talking about taxis.

Taxis all know where everything is -- until you get in the car. Five minutes later, they're pulling over to ask for directions. This behavior does not exactly inspire confidence in the navigation abilities of the driver. After all, they are just asking any random Joe (what would be the African equivalent of "Joe"?) on the street, who may be equally clueless or acting on vague recollections. I am torn between not saying anything in the hopes that eventually we will reach the destination, and risking the suggestion to ask directions because I have a feeling they're not going the right way. It doesn't help when you don't speak the language, so you are powerless to argue with the taxi driver for a discount when they get you hopelessly lost. A taxi ride that takes twice as long as normal will still cost you the same amount. (This happened to me; a 45 minute trip turned into a 1:30 ordeal.)

One other aspect of taxis to note: they stop on personal business all the time. Without even asking, they will pull over to buy gas, purchase some milk, or stock up on phone credit. Most take a couple minutes, but they add up. I was tickled by the thought of a taxi driver in New York trying to pull the same stunt; the Wall Street executive riding shotgun would probably rip him a new one. Time is such a fluid and undervalued notion in Africa.

Enough talk of taxis and economics. It's time for my dance lesson.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I was going to post about my adventures in Dogon country.

Instead, I'm going to lie down and hold my stomach. It's not happy with me after eating some street vendor food for lunch.

Who thought rice with peanut sauce could be so threatening?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

On muscle soreness and mosquitoes.


It was just about the only thing running through my mind during my lesson, I was so distracted by the throbbing ache in my neck and shoulders. They have never been worked so intensely. West African dance involves an inordinate amount of throwing the head up and down, often in conjunction with circling your arms.

Making circles with your arms isn’t so bad, you might think. But try doing it, say, 100 times in a sitting, and get back to me. And do it while swinging your head up and down.

By the end of the session, my muscles were so spent that I literally (literally!) could not sustain the motion for more than 10 seconds at a time.

The timing works out quite well. My head is full of new movement, my muscles are completely exhausted, and now it’s time for a break from dance. Now is the ideal time to head off to Dogon country.

My adventure begins tomorrow with 12+ hours of travel to reach western Mali. From there, I embark with a guide on a hiking trip through rural Mali, visiting the mysterious cliff villages of Dogon country. Days are spent visiting towns and trekking to a new village, and nights are spent with the locals. My guide will hopefully be Assigue, a man who works at The Sleeping Camel, speaks English proficiently, and was born and raised in the area.

Still deciding how many days I want to spend out there. Three at the max, but maybe just two. It’s a conflict of desires, between wanting to learn more dance and wanting a more in-depth Dogon experience. We’ll see how it goes.

All this fun does come with at a hefty price, of course. But that’s why I scrimp and save money throughout the year – to enjoy excursions like these.

One final note: I’m getting fucking tired of mosquitoes. Seriously. Mali has broken me. I think it’s because they’re active ALL GODDAM DAY LONG. What the hell? They’re only supposed to come out in the evening in troves that blot out the sun. Instead, here you are assailed relentlessly by the tiny vectors from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed (and while you sleep, as well).

Perhaps the most aggravating part is when they bite you through your clothes. There is something downright unfair about their ability to penetrate garments. Then you’re left ineptly rubbing at folds of a pant leg in a vain attempt to get on a good scratch. It also confounds the usual follow-up application of hydrocortisone cream. I suppose it’s a good thing; my one tube is nearly spent. Need to make it last just 11 more days.

Wow, 11 days. That’s not long. Hard to believe I’ve been in Africa for three months now, and my journey is rapidly coming to a close.

Monday, September 5, 2011

New (back-dated) posts.

A couple other posts have been added retroactively. Browse through the recent August and September entries. Included: getting solicited for bribes, and a reflection on the culture of giving and economic disparities in Congo.

"Andre! You are very intelligent!"

That was what my dance instructor, Lassy, exclaimed. He meant that I pick up new material quickly.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

I can understand his excitement. It is always a pleasure to work with a focused student that takes your dance seriously. And that’s what I do with African dance. I ask him to dance it fully, to not dumb it down, to not present the “American version” as we call it. “Malian. Give me Malian,” I say. This makes him tremendously happy, because he can teach the dance the way he loves the dance: full of energy.

There are definitely moments I wish to settle for just the American version. African dance is hella intense; constant footwork, jumps, and quick upper body movements. It almost (almost) feels like Insanity, except that it lasts two hours.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

The day after my first lesson, my shoulders were so sore I could barely turn my head – and that was even with extensive stretching, plenty of water, and a few bananas.

(Photo credit: Eric Helgoth)

It's not as obvious in this low-resolution image, but you can see the grimace of effort on my face and my shirt turned translucent by sweat. By the end of a session, my shorts are saturated -- dripping. I can actually wring them out. It's... kinda gross.

As luck would have it, one of the fellows staying at the hostel is a photographer. He jumped on the opportunity to take dance shots of a white guy learning African dance – and doing it pretty well. I'm thrilled to have semi-professional photos of me learning the dance.

(P.S. Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I did not have much opportunity for computer work while in Congo -- there was no electricity at the house, and trips to the cyber cafe typically only lasted an hour. I'm playing catch-up now.)

For more photos, visit here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Missing the U.S.

When someone asked what I missed about the States, this was my response:
Ice cream, fast internet, cooking for myself, not being assaulted by mosquitoes, bacon, Thai food, Netflix, and air quality regulations.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Cultural clashes: a reflection on my Congo experience.

I originally composed this in reply to Muisi-kongo, my Congolese dance instructor, asking of my experiences in the Congo and the people I worked with. My response took on a greater seriousness than she probably expected, mostly because all of these thoughts had been bouncing around in my head for many days. I thought it appropriate to reproduce it for the blog, with some edits.


Overall, my experience was fantastic. I would not trade it for anything. It felt like a pilgrimage to study the traditional movements and rhythms from local artists.

There were some interesting cultural clashes that cropped up during my stay.

Being hosted by people of a lower economic class than yourself can create unexpected challenges. I became keenly aware of the fact that I do have money (even if it’s not much by American standards). They try very hard to make you comfortable, yet there are some things that cannot be accommodated easily, e.g. having a hole in the ground for a toilet. But in an effort to be graceful and humble, you mask your thoughts and reactions and try to be grateful that there’s even metal sheeting to offer some semblance of privacy.

It was startling to be waited on so attentively by my hosts. The most stark example was when I had just taken an outdoor bath and was lounging around outside. I neglected to wash my sandals, however, so parts of my freshly cleaned feet were smudged with dirt. One of the women noticed and sprang into action. “This won’t do,” I assume she said in Lari (the local language). She grabbed a bucket and a rag (which was really just a scrap of a rice sack) and proceeded to wash my feet. And then wash my sandals. I didn’t know how to respond, caught as I was between emotions of surprise, embarrassment, gratitude, and shame at having some old woman wash my feet when I could so easily do it myself.

“Hosting” is a much more serious commitment in Congo than in the U.S. They feel shame if they do not provide everything for their guest, or find that their guest is uncomfortable. One time while sitting outside under a tree, enjoying a relaxing afternoon of reading and munching on a loaf of bread, I was presented with a plate of oranges. I accepted them gratefully. Later on, I found out the impetus for the gift: the mother was shocked to see me just eating bread for lunch. (This was early on in my stay, when I was still so enamored with the taste of real bread.) Feeling ashamed that her guest was not receiving adequate provisions, she had one of her children go buy a couple oranges for me.

I am a person that does not like to create demands. I am grateful they even provided a roof over my head; the last thing I wanted to do was make them wait on me. And thus an unintended dynamic was created, where I was made uncomfortable by their relentless efforts to make me comfortable. Suddenly I had to be always conscious of how my actions were perceived, to not show any signs of disappointment or need. As a person that does like to have my alone time, this pressure began to wear me down quickly.

Another big challenge was money. I needed to adjust to the Congolese notion of giving and hospitality. Pretty much everything is shared in Congo. Whenever a person has something, e.g. a piece of bread, and you happen to be standing there and looking at them, e.g. conversing with them, they will offer you a piece. This happens all the time without fail.

It also extends to random, unsolicited gifts. This sometimes made me uncomfortable, receiving food gifts (e.g. some oranges, a loaf of bread, avocado, etc.) when I can far more easily afford it myself, but accepted them with sincere gratitude.

I struggled with this principle on various levels. It took me a while to adjust, but I made a definite effort; by the time I left, I developed the habit of buying extra of whatever I was purchasing (bananas, crackers, etc.) for sharing. While they were all considerate about not pressuring me, I could tell that do to otherwise would be considered selfish.

It was an easy adjustment for inexpensive items like bananas – what’s another $1 spent on my friends? Treating myself to something nice, be it cheese or a dinner in the city, however, became an increasingly expensive endeavor.

A culture of giving is quickly complicated by a disparity in economic strata. I try to keep a relative perspective about gifts: a gift worth $5 from a poor individual signifies more than the same gift from a millionaire. However, I still struggled with pangs of frustration when every dinner out automatically doubled or tripled in price because there were others in my company. I could afford it, but I am a student and it’s not exactly like I have money to throw around. Sometimes the culture of extreme giving had a reverse impact on me, driving me to seek isolation so I could just pay for myself and not worry about others.

When a $10 dinner at the snack bar becomes a $30-40 event because there are people with me, it’s hard to justify spending money on nice things. It made me feel like I had less control over my own diet, because street vendors were suddenly the only affordable option. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to being financially responsible for someone else, and that made me feel burdened, uncomfortable, tethered – essentially everything opposite of the feelings created by traveling – and that is why they were so unwelcome. It was also frustrating because I had just emerged from rural Nigeria. There were the wonders of a city dangling before me – restaurant food, dairy, meats, ice cream – and I effectively could not enjoy them because I was so self-conscious about the fact that the people in my company could not afford them; while if I bought enough to share equally, I was paying 3-4x as much and could hardly justify the expense. Either way, the pleasure was largely subverted by the cultural complications.

I do believe that the universe has a way to give back to those that give. Even so, there were times I felt like people viewed me as a rich white guy that could be squeezed for gifts and food. That’s frustrating, because I’m not rich; I must carefully conserve money just the way they do – I just do so at a different economic level. The fact that I do have money and I could theoretically give and give to them, however, made me realize that I wasn’t truly sharing what I have, and that made me feel selfish: because I was protecting my status quo. Every day, I was faced with this quandary in some degree: just how much am I willing to give? It’s easy to ignore the common street mendicant, much harder for your new friends that you see every day and care for.

Africans appear fundamentally different than Westerners in this regard; any person with money automatically (and willing) bears the responsibility of financially supporting his extended family and even friends. I wonder if that’s part of the reason capitalism has not particularly succeeded in Africa. The moment a person catches a break with a good job or opportunity, the windfall of fortune is instantly diluted, which reduces the likelihood of reinvestment to climb the economic ladder. It paints a more nuanced picture of the challenges to emerging from poverty; a single person cannot escape because they must try to bring along everyone else.

The extreme socialism – for lack of a better word – made me realize my ingrained capitalist principles (e.g. what’s mine is mine because I bought it with my money and my status is mine to protect because I got myself to this point through hard work), even when I fancy myself a giving individual. This was not exactly a comfortable realization, but hey – that’s what crosspollination of cultures is for, right?

I also did not realize that when someone asks if they may join for dinner, it means you’re paying for them. On several occasions, I was asked by Manasset if so-and-so could join, and I’d say of course, thinking their company would be welcome; little did I know that I just increased the multiplier on my bill. This is one of those other unusual circumstances where the culture engendered feelings of isolation; I had to be willing to cover the expenses of others unless I wanted to be by myself.

On to the people…

Goga is a superb dancer. When he shows a movement, he does it with full energy. I appreciated this, because it gave me more visual information to learn. He was also fairly expensive; he asked for $40/day (usually about 2 hrs of work). At one point, he expressed to me how he struggles to make enough money to pay for his mom’s hospital bills and eventually got around to asking if I would buy him a cell phone. This made me extremely uncomfortable; I like the guy, but I felt like that crossed a line. Again, it presented me with that undesirable conflict: just how much am I willing to give? Technically I could afford to buy him a cell phone, but…

Clavert, the drummer, is great. Good teacher, speaks English reasonably well, and is just fantastically laid back. I liked that aspect of him most: no drama, just friendly and happy to teach. His pay amounted to about $20/hr.

The other drummer, whose name I can’t remember (he was the other guy Pierrick tried to set me up with, he wears dreds and gets around on a mountain bike), was less pleasant to deal with. The one time we had a lesson, he showed up 30 minutes late and proceeded to not work with me because he was busy drumming for the dancers at the dance company. (In essence, he was trying to work two jobs at once.) He also complained about wanting pay for my dance “performance.” Manasset conveyed the story to me: Manasset spoke on my behalf, saying he’s a friend and this isn’t a performance, that he would do the same for Manasset if asked. The drummer replied yes, but this is different because he’s (I am) a white guy and has money, so he wants to be paid. So yeah, he’s not on my good list.

Manasset is a great tour guide. His English is approaching fluency. He is gregarious and energetic. He is trustworthy. He sincerely wants to make everyone happy and create harmony. He is also tremendously forgetful, has an abysmal sense of time, and has yet to be able to prep guests for culture shocks (read: the money/giving issue). All that said, I like Manasset a lot and consider him a good friend.

I did my best to cover all his expenses while he was with me. For that reason and that fact that we were friends, I did not pay him. Again, I struggled with this decision. In the CouchSurfing community, you find people who are tremendously giving and would never accept monetary compensation. In the Congo, it’s clear that a person won’t directly ask for compensation but perhaps wants/expects it. As a student, this created a dilemma between saving money and expressing to him my gratitude. I think it would have helped if my relationship to him was more clearly defined at the beginning. As he was thrust upon me, I didn’t feel like I was hiring a guide; rather, I was making a friend. If he saw himself as a guide, though, I think defining up front that he expects to be paid would allow me to decide whether to contract his services and, if so, for how long. While my French is nonexistent, I do know how to get by and may have opted out to save money.

As a translator, he was generally helpful for coordinating lessons, handling logistics, etc. In social situations, however, he became mostly useless. He needed constant prompting to translate either direction. He has not yet developed the habit of passing ideas back and forth between two languages, and I sympathize with this fact; speaking two languages is only part of the skillset required to be a translator. He is still learning and I tried to offer him constructive feedback and reminders.

Manasset is still learning about the differences between Congolese and Western cultures. He took for granted, for example, that I understood the implications of saying that someone else could join us for dinner. He is learning and this will probably improve with time, so that he can better prep future foreigners. He was good about helping me haggle to get local prices, but did not inform me that haggling also applies to friends, i.e. the teachers. This created some drama, as I would present a wad of money that I was under the impression would be fair, and the teacher would get upset at the discounted rate.

Manasset, for all his energy and playing at being a professional tour guide, is still a young adult of 19 years old. This means he hasn’t developed a solid time management strategy or a system for tracking engagements. I often had to advocate for myself, which was a bit challenging when Manasset was unclear with what social events were happening or when people were expecting me to show up or how long it would take to accomplish a certain goal.

Waiting until the end to discuss money was a source of endless frustration for me. Perhaps it’s the capitalist in me, but it seems silly to render services and then talk about money without so much as an estimate beforehand. It creates an unpleasant power/bartering dynamic, where you owe him something, but he’s somewhat at your mercy to take what you give. It can leave a person feeling cheated, disrespected, etc. I don’t like that. It also doesn’t allow me to weigh the decision to actually partake of their services; as a person that constantly runs cost/benefit analyses in my head (I’m an engineer, what can I say?), this lack of upfront information was endlessly vexing.

All of this said, I realize that it’s how Africa works and there’s little that can be done about it: part of the cultural experience.

Despite the inordinate thought that I’ve given to these cultural differences, I am profoundly grateful for my experience and would not trade it for anything. The challenges taught me much about cultures and myself. I am so awed by the generosity of the Congolese and how Manasset’s impoverished family treated me like royalty. I was humbled by the experience and the opportunity to learn the culture and the dance in such an authentic way.