Category Archives: Senegal

Make ‘em Laugh

Previously I had reported that many in Africa have trouble grasping what I think is a rather straightforward name, Bill. Finally, I have incorporated a little joke into my personal introduction that guarantees memory. “Hello, my name is Bill. Like Bill Gates or Bill Clinton. Except Bill Gates has more money than I have and Bill Clinton has more girlfriends.” Not only does this guarantee memory, it also guarantees a laugh. I authorize any of you who wish, to use it in Africa when you want to people to think you are a funny guy.

I have finished my work training farmers in two small villages near Tambacounda in eastern Senegal. Some rode 12 miles on horseback to participate in the multiday class. The ones without horses walked, all to learn marketing, negotiating skills, and business planning. After wrapping up with the farmers, I met with the management of their farmers’ cooperative to provide them with advice they had requested regarding organizational improvement. For example, I recommended that they establish staggered terms (like our US Senate) for their board of directors. But, perhaps most importantly, I advised them to listen to the needs of their members. In true African strong man tradition, they were more likely to lecture the members than to listen to them. I passed along a nugget of wisdom I had learned years ago: “Always listen; one never learns anything with his mouth open.” I’m pretty sure they listened.

After the meeting we drove past a dozen eight year old boys kneeling beside the highway. They were dressed alike in white shrouds and were wearing white hoods. They hoped that passersby would contribute a few coins to their community project. And they were undertaking a community project because they had just been circumcised. In this part of Africa male circumcision is a very crucial maturation and cultural milestone. Culture aside, I have seen recent research that shows a 60% decrease in the likelihood of circumcised African males to contract HIV. Put me down in the supporter column.

The Gambia (official name) is a country that is proscribed by a river, two river banks and not much else. It is surrounded by Senegal, save only for its river mouth opening to the Atlantic. I visited The Smiling Coast of Africa (official nickname) after my work in Senegal. Many were smiling in this pleasant narrow country. Not the least of whom were the middle-age European women dating on the arms of young local Gambian men. Age differential: easily three decades, maybe more. I met a German guy who described this as, “The world is upside down.” While I haven’t seen this dating situation elsewhere, I suppose it is little different than older men dating generations younger women. So, no judgment passed.

There are lots of Bumsters in Gambia. These are unemployed young men who hang around the hotels and restaurants…unless they are the select few dating older European women. They are not dangerous, just annoying. Whenever I walk down the street they accost me, selling something or offering unwanted (and unneeded) guide services. They always have a shtick to open a conversation. My favorite: “Hey boss, good to see you again. Yesterday you said you would buy one of my wood carvings.” This was highly suspect for many reasons, but primarily because I had just arrived in country that morning.

Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country and, as such, permits a man to have four wives. A local bumster gave me some valuable life advice: “Four wives, four troubles. One wife, only one trouble. Stick with one, Mister.” Good advice from the Smiling Coast.

One of my favorite stops was St. Louis in northern Senegal. St. Louis was France’s first colonial town in West Africa and became the capital of the entire region. The town is built in a style that is reminiscent of a more dilapidated New Orleans. But here you get the French-African feeling as opposed to the French-Cajun feeling.

In St. Louis I walked into a local hotel from bright sunshine outside. My eyes had not adjusted to the unlit lobby so I was effectively blind for a few seconds. But I strode in purposefully just in case someone important was in the lobby. In full stride my foot hit a six inch high impediment jutting from the floor. Losing balance, I stumbled forward coming precariously close to a face plant. However, to ensure that I didn’t tumble to the ground, I executed what we call in basketball, the jump stop: springing slightly off the ground then landing squarely on both feet simultaneously. My right foot landed solidly on the lobby floor. My left foot landed with an alarmingly loud splash in the lobby fountain. (The impediment was the fountain’s retaining wall.) This sound startled the two, now visible, employees who gasped in unison. Then there was dead silence. And then they burst out laughing. I am pretty sure they weren’t laughing with me. To deflect attention from my bungle, I attempted some lame joke about having found the swimming pool. Sadly, my command of French made this comment totally unintelligible. They could not grasp my clever interjection. They continued to laugh while I retreated to the sunny street outside. I just love making people laugh.

Honoring Richie Valens

Time to visit a new country and this time around it’s Senegal.

I am working with a farmers association that goes by the pithy name of Agricultural Society of Advice in Supplying, Production and Marketing for the Agreement of the Associated Groups in Senegal. But since Senegal is a Francophone country my client is more commonly called Société d’Approvisionnement, de Production, de Commercialisation et de Conseil Agricole des Ententes des Groupements Associés du Sénégal. Equally memorable. If this were a branding assignment I believe I would be able to tighten up the brand name a bit. But instead, this is an organizational improvement task.

Senegal is Africa’s westernmost country, found on the tip of the West African bulge. I arrived late at night in Senegal’s vibrant capital, Dakar. Vibrant I think – – I arrived near midnight, went straight to bed, woke up early the next day for the seven hour drive east to Tambacounda where I am based. I will check out the reports of Dakar’s vibrancy once I complete my work and my post-work travels and return there.

I have arrived near the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the annual harvest. Senegalese sometimes call this the hunger season. The current crop is not yet quite ready to harvest and last year’s crop has been totally consumed. The storerooms are empty. Consequently, the World Food Program is providing rice, split peas, and cooking oil during the nearly two month long hunger season leading up to the fall harvest.

From my base in Tambacounda we drove one hour down the highway and then about 10 miles through the bush to the village of Touba aly Mbenda where heavy overnight rains had collapsed the mud brick walls of three homes. Farmers don’t have an easy life here, but they are nevertheless a happy lot. They live close to nature, have strong family and religious connections, and lead a simple, but perhaps challenge-prone life: shortage of food, crumbling homes.

I began my work by meeting with 30 association farmers to conduct an assessment of their organizational, management, and business needs. I created a set of probing questions in English. For example, “How are your association leaders selected? And, what changes would you make to the selection process?” My Senegalese colleague, Yaguemar, translated the questions into French, based on the assumption that some of the farmers had been taught to read French but not Wolof, Senegal’s primary indigenous language. Most Senegalese are Wolof speakers, but not readers. Literacy is less than 40% in Senegal and certainly substantially lower in this rural region.

We split the participants into three groups to discuss the questions and thereby tell us their organizational needs. A literate person in each group took these questions and verbally translated the French into Wolof for the rest of the group. As the groups discussed our list of questions, I wandered from group to group where I recognized an occasional French phrase and not a single word of Wolof.

I suspect the long chain of translation – – English to French to Wolof and back to English (for my benefit) – – diluted the message a bit. Nevertheless, based on the results of the needs assessment, I spent several days training and a couple more days giving advice. After all, I sort of make a living as a management consultant.

Each morning after training we would break for lunch and afternoon prayers (Senegal is 95% Muslim.) Lunch was, every day without exception, a mound of rice with some spices, a bit of eggplant and red pepper, and a scrawny roasted chicken on top. We would eat communally by right hand from a rice filled dishpan. The flavor was actually pretty good; it’s just that, at one point, six consecutive days eating rice from a dishpan lacked variety. And with up to nine of us around the dishpan with a single chicken, the protein component was meager. Think about it, when was the last time you ordered rice and 1/9 of a chicken?

Every morning and afternoon a helper from the village would wander through my training class passing out jiggers of hot sweet tea, hard candy, and kola nuts to the participants. The kola nuts are a mild stimulant and hunger suppressant. The helper, passing randomly among the attendees, served to disrupt the class’ attention. As did the ringing cell phones. Farmers are poor, but most have cell phones, and I learned it is a cultural imperative to keep your ringer on at all times…even if asked nicely by the trainer to silence it.

After my stint in Touba aly Mbenda, I repeated the needs assessment and training drill in a second village, Bamba – – maybe the inspiration for the Richie Valens classic. But I doubt it. Bamba’s main crop is peanuts, Touba aly Mbenda leads with millet. But both serve lots of rice.