Thursday 6 June 2013

o : Dakar

Hotel Magic Land


Dear o,

“Everybody is corrupt here,” says Salef, as he folds a thousand-franc note into the yellow infraction notice.  “The police, the gendarmes, the politicians, everybody.  This is why we cannot have development in Senegal, or in Africa.”  He shakes his head and looks like he’s going to spit, and then returns to the police officer who is waving traffic through the roundabout.  Salef waits diligently to approach, pats the cop on the back, calls him chef, smiles widely, jokes around in their shared Wolof tongue, and hands him the thicker notice while glancing sideways.  The cop tosses the notice back without even opening it.  Not enough money for the bribe.

We’re in the bustling peninsular city of Dakar a week.  We planned the stop from the beginning to get visas for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to see the sights of the former capital of France’s African empire.  A very tall, and very unnoticed, speed bump in Nouakchott has lengthened our stay so we can find and install new roof bars and rack, which were damaged beyond our power to repair.

The roundabout cop that stopped us has written out the yellow ticket because we made a u-turn.  When we drove by I asked outside the window if we could turn, he said no, then pointed to the dirt road adjacent and made a u-turn loop with his hand.  We took the road, made the turn, and came back.  He commanded us to pull over, asked for my license, and walked away to sweat me out.  He could have just written out the ticket and sent me to the nearest police building to pay the 6000 or 10,000 francs – but he wants the money for himself.  He doesn’t care how long it takes, so long as this exchange doesn’t outlast his shift.

We’ve been pulled over dozens of times since entering Senegal.  Usually it’s just a harmless check for our documents, and a few questions about where we’re going and what we do for a living (I’ve been told to never say I’m a journalist, which I’m in a way becoming).   The first Senegalese cop who sent us to the side of road outside of St. Louis asked us for a cadeau (gift), but in the same meek sort of way he must have done when he was a kid eyeing westerners.  Other blue-uniformed authorities allude to it, or search for something wrong: a slight traffic demeanour, a missing document, whatever.  Salef agrees that our roof full of stuff and our white skin suggests that we probably have money, and we’ll probably give some to save us trouble.  I always refuse, and until now, we’ve been let go.

Salef is the fresh-faced, charming employee of the EMG repair shop who is helping us find the right parts, and the right labour.  He’ll get a cut of the sale, of course, and we’re happy about that.  He’s smart, educated and friendly: the future leaps from his eyes.


You get the feeling that the future has been in Dakar for a long time.  A nerve-centre of the slave trade was on Gorée Island, a short tour-boat ride from Dakar centre-ville, where now giant rusted cannons share the width of camera lenses with avenues of island art, a dusty concrete sculpture to the memory of slavery, and a legion of pot-smokers.  This post-colonial island is meant in part to show how Africa has moved on from a tragic past.  When in 1902 France relocated its African capital from St. Louis to Dakar, they did so in the spirit of a new era of post-slavery freedom.  This was to be the centre of the continent's rebirth, where Africans would control their own destiny, make their own way, build their own world.  Much of the city is modeled on the European dream, with wide boulevards and big roundabouts and a spattering of cafés and boulangeries.  There are bronze, stone and iron statues all around: an open hand weighing the scales of justice, a tall athlete blowing a horn of victory.  All are triumphal, patriotic, optimistic.  And all seem somehow empty, or misjudged, or ironic.

After independence in 1960, Senegal continually tried, failed, and tried again to be the example par excellence of real, accountable, progressive African democracy.  In 2010 the gargantuan Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, constructed in cooperation with North Korea, was completed.  It is a 52m tall big man holding the waist of his slender woman in one arm; and with the other, his baby, who points out and up to the future, so forward it stretches the whole structure.  The monument dominates the landscape with forceful promise, but it doesn’t feel new at all.  Not just because the style is a rip-off of the 1950s Soviet Union, but because the promise itself is old.   That promise isn’t false or even unrealistic – it’s just been here far longer than living memory.

We are staying, embarrassingly, at Hotel Magic Land, located right in the heart of the city’s amusement-park-by-the-sea.  The park is only shy of ten years old, but like the Renaissance Monument, it feels decades older.  It was the cheapest central lodging we could find with safe parking, and it came with free breakfast, so we swallowed our adult pride and signed up.  The park has been open to visitors since we came, and we have been the only visitors, if only to walk by the empty, shut-down rides to get to the hotel room.  The director of the hotel assures us that the place livens up when the kids get out of school, but I can no longer imagine the plastic pirates, painted-on clowns, goose pen, ferris wheel or popcorn stands with real people taking part.  Magic Land doesn’t feel like it has a place in Dakar, or Senegal.  It seems like someone else’s idea for the nation’s future, forced onto the coastline, built up and turned on, and rejected.

I prefer the dancing in the street, the teenagers who contort and dance as they walk to school, the streetside sandwich vendors, the taxicabs with the admittedly-creepy blonde wigs dangling next to the exhaust, the omnipresent music, the omnipresent laughing, the motorists who curse in an epileptic sign language, the handshakes, the colours, the deep sense of touch.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe the kids love Magic Land more than swimming on the sea right beside it.  Maybe the people in the low-lying huts near the Monument wake up and get inspired by the navigating baby.  Maybe I should admire not just the premise of Africa’s renaissance, but its execution too.  Maybe corruption isn’t everywhere.  Maybe it’s all getting better.


I ask Salef what’s going on with the cop.  He says he wants more, and he’s making us wait.  The cop doesn’t care that we think he told us it was alright to turn.

I say I’ll pay the full fine, at the police station, to make sure he doesn’t get a bribe.  But Salef tells me that at the police station they’ll find more ways to get money, and I might end up paying 30,000 francs instead of the few bills of a bribe.  I don’t respond.  He slips a second thousand-franc note into the notice and walks to the cop.   The cop accepts it, hands back my license, and we’re off.

Salef is happy, and says we got away cheaply – 2000 francs instead of the minimum 6000 for a u-turn infraction. But I’m driving angry; my palms are sweating against the wheel and my free hand is tapping, punching, the outside of the truck under the hot sun and in the midst of hotter traffic.  I imagine what it would be like if all fines went straight to the public coffers, and all public spending went straight to where it should.  But how can we decry the corruption, commiserate over it, rail and rally and rage against it  and then, when it’s convenient, embrace it for a few thousand francs?  The injustice and my part in it is choking me.

Sure enough, just a few minutes later, there is another intersection, another cop, and another command to pull over.  “Ça va?” I ask the chubby-cheeked officer.   In French he demands my license and I give it to him.   He demands my insurance and registration and I give it to him.   He demands my passe avant, I say it’s in my passport which is at the Guinean embassy.  He pulls out the wad of yellow papers and walks back to his post.

Salef starts to say something to me but I won’t listen.   I get out and slam the door as hard as I can.  I storm around the truck and walk in front of the speeding traffic who have to stop for me, and confront the officer.  Are you giving me an infraction?  Yes.  Why?  No passe avant.  It’s at the embassy, am I not supposed to give my passport when I apply for a visa at the embassy?  I’m yelling at him now.  He’s not looking at me.  In the corner of my eye I see Salef in the truck, and he looks nervous.  I don’t care.  It’s bullshit, I declare.  What about a photocopy?  No.  So what should I do?  Have a passe avant. It’s bullshit, I say again.  I go back to the truck, take out our overburdended folder with all of our documents, and bring it back, intending to deluge him knee-deep with paperwork.  I pull out the registration, the insurance, the carnet de passage

He takes the carnet, looks it over, and hands it back with my license.  “Passe avant?”  I ask.  “Passe avant,” he confirms.  He salutes me, and I walk away, speechless.

I get back in the truck.   Salef says what he wanted to say when I rushed out: “This one is doing his job. This one is not corrupt.”

“So they’re not all corrupt?” I ask.

“Not today,” he says, and looks ahead.  I drive us away.

Between the man and the baby in the Renaissance Monument, Salef is definitely the baby.  So which way is he pointing?



Fishing boats in one of Dakar's bays.
Magic Land is in the background.

The Monument de la Renaissance Africaine.
It may not look enormous in this photo, but bear in mind:
inside the man's head is an observatory.

View of the development-halted park from the steps to the Monument,
with the African continent on its own on an incomplete globe.

View from the elevator-accessible man's head of his woman's face, at the Monument

The Slavery Monument, Gorée Island

Not the infamous Door of No Return, which is at the museum nearby,
but another vacant port near the rocks, Gorée Island