West African Trip
It’s a long way to West Africa from Dayton, Ohio, in miles and culture. We stayed in one of the few high-rise hotels in the city, just a few blocks from the open market in one direction and a few blocks from the silver market in another.
In our first foray onto the city’s streets, Randy Losey and I were besieged by a group of about six or seven adolescent boys, one of which tried to reach into Randy’s right front pocket to take his wallet. We had been warned to be very cautious about our personal items, to put them in places not easily accessible to pickpockets. It was pretty funny really. Randy had his hand in that same pocket and he just pushed his wrist outward, against the boy’s wrist, and the boy could not get away. The boys caused quite a scene to be sure until a local adult man came up and scolded the boys for trying to steal. They apologized to Randy and went away. The man also made an apology to us and explained a bit about what goes on in this city for families and kids in particular.
Many other young men, probably between ages fourteen and twenty came up to us with bracelets and necklaces on their arms. They would come up to us in ones and twos, gauging if we were American or European, and begin speaking to us in English, French, or German, saying “My friend, my friend, welcome! I have a gift for you.” and extend a hand to you. If you took their hand to shake, they would expertly flip a bracelet or necklace onto your wrist. As you looked at it, they would begin to tell you of a relative who had gone to a US city and how much they had enjoyed the trip, etc. Then, you would thank them for the gift and then came the pitch for money, not to pay for the “gift” but to help fund a trip or some other venture they were supporting. The rule was, “If we give you a gift, then it is appropriate for you to give us a gift, preferably paper money.” It doesn’t take too many of those encounters to learn how to become oblivious to the vendors around you. Once away from the hotel a few blocks, the streets became more like any town or city, just people going from here to there.
There were no pubic washroom facilities in the city. There were walls, gutters, a few trees and such, but no public restrooms. This became painfully and embarrassingly clear on an early morning walk Randy and I took to see the ocean on the west side of town. We left the hotel before sunrise to avoid all the vendors and made our way about a mile or so to the Atlantic Ocean. The streets were quiet with just a few trades people making there way along with carts or tools to shops or storefronts. When we approached the beach we were impressed by the size and numbers of black-rock boulders lying in jumbles from the street down the 30% slope about 30 to 40 feet to the beach. We found a steep pathway among the 4 to 8 foot in diameter boulders and began the decent to the seemingly deserted beach.
With the first few steps we became painfully aware we need to be mindful of just where we were stepping. The rock boulders were not the only “obstacles” on the slope. My heart saddened to know that not only were we “in” the public bathroom, it was in full use by many others, who were considerably distressed at our presence. We didn’t continue our journey to the ocean but opted to respect the local culture and conditions and leave quietly, unobtrusively back up the incline.
By then the sun was up and as we made our way along the streets we came upon a man with a cart - full of fresh, warm, handmade French bread loaves. The aroma of those eight inch, crusty, hand-crafted loaves was better than any perfume invented by mankind. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that only being there can ever make it real to your mind. The setting was perfect.
I’m not sure what the ARIA mission was while we were there, perhaps Trident testing. If pressed, I’m not sure I could tell you the route taken to Dakar, but it was likely through Ascension Island. We spent about five days in Senegal I think.
On one of those days I made my way to the open market. I was told I could find some bargains there and to never give the asking price – always haggle it down. What a culture shock for this northern Michigan farm boy, but I was so glad to be there. I wanted to soak it all in. I walked among the fish tables, blood and guts on the floor, flies in the air, and a smell like no other. The hog pens I had cleaned as a kid couldn’t hold a candle to this aroma. But, it was real, it was life for these people. They had no choice, that is, those with money had no choice.
I remember buying two long shirts, embroidered from the neck to the waist with intricate needle work, for $20 each. I probably could have gotten them both for $10, but I didn’t. I still have those two items, however mine is a little tight these days.
One evening, Randy, I, and Robin Wheaton made our way through the city to the US Embassy. Two things stand out about that walk. The first happened on the way there. In Dakar, as in many of the cities we visited while on ARIA mission, homeowners often fence in their homes with concrete, stone, or some other type of masonry wall, sometimes eight or more feet high, complete with metal spikes, shards of broken glass set in mortar, or some type of barbed or bladed wire. Some had more than one type of deterrent. Locked metal gates barred the way to the walk or driveways. Many are protected additionally by dogs. We didn’t know this final detail as we went walking along the street. We were typical GI’s walking along, three abreast, talking and joking, just being tourists. Randy was walking next to the wall. I was on the street side. Both of us were of fair stature. Robin in the middle, a bit smaller. As we were about half way over the drive of this one home, at least two very loudly barking and vicious sounding dogs came lunging at the gate. Randy made a good choice to move quickly to his left, away from the dogs. I on the other hand seemed frozen in my tracks. Robin, in the middle, was nearly squished. When we could breath again, we laughed at what had happened and how scared we were. It must have been a pretty funny scene to have seen.
The second memorable thing was what we came across just outside the embassy gates. Between the curb and the sidewalk was just sand, no grass. There in that between space was a man sleeping, a local. He was on a grass mat and there was another grass mat rolled out beside him. On it, perhaps all of his worldly possessions, a pipe, some chew sticks (wood stems from a plant with mild narcotic like action we were told later), a necklace and a few other items, perhaps a small wooden box included. This is one of the reasons I walked the towns and cities we visited, to see what was real for them.
Another stark reality of the city was cripples and beggars. We saw several men on platforms of wood, perhaps 14 to 16 inches square, mounted with metal caster type wheels underneath. The men, some with truncated legs, some with no legs, made their way around using the backs of their hands, their fists as it were, to press against the pavement or earth and use their arms to propel themselves along. Some of them begged. They had no other form of support. Near the hotel, on the other side of the street was a blind lady. She sat on the sidewalk, her legs out toward the street, her back against the wall, two small children crawling over her, playing around her. Her cup for alms sat at her side. Her eyelids were matted shut. Flies were everywhere, on her, on the children. There is no way to walk away from those sights without being forever affected. ARIA was my portal to much of the reality of the rest of the world.
Poverty, ignorance, disease. We are all brothers and sisters. I need to do my part in helping to overcome these maladies.
There was more to the trip, like a visit to the silver market where one of our crew traded a nice pair of pilot type sunglasses for a fair amount of worked silver. I didn’t buy any silver jewelry, even though it was intricately fashioned and pretty. It looked too much like the solder in my tool kit back at WPAFB to get too excited. However, I did buy a hand fashioned walking cane which I was assured was crafted from difficult to work and expensive ebony wood. I didn’t want to believe what some of the crew said about it being mahogany rubbed well with lamp black and/or black shoe polish. Later, when my young son broke the cane while playing with it at home, mahogany it was to be sure. Oh well, the twenty bucks was well spent anyway.
Would I ever go back to Dakar? Yes, if there was a way to help alleviate some of the ignorance and poverty and to again taste those French loaves.
Neil A. Hendricks