Saturday, August 25, 2012

Postcard From Dakar and beyond

Alone with others and two headed yellow dragons

'Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.' (Mark Twain)

I am back in Senegal, eight months since my last visit. I am still in the capital Dakar and again at the Cafe Sportif, this time with my friend Benedict. Benedict means blessed. Benedict was married to Belinda last year after an engagement of around seven years. Weddings here are not cheap and I think he must have been saving up. On Benedict’s office desk I noticed a fold to stand up calendar with his and Belinda’s wedding picture printed on it.

Last January, just six months after they were married, Belinda said she wanted a divorce. Benedict hadn’t seen any warning signs and felt sure they could work things out but he went reluctantly with Belinda to the magistrate. Belinda didn’t give any concrete reasons; she just said that she wanted a divorce. The judge told them to try to sort out their differences and come back in six months. So the six months has passed and all this last week Benedict has been tense but hopeful like waiting for medical results that you know may change your life, you have to wait and there is nowhere to go. He loves Belinda and to please her he set her up in a small business selling cloth. Yesterday they went back to the court; she said she still wanted to divorce; so the judge divorced them on the spot. Benedict came back to work in the afternoon, he looked at me, gave a slight side shake of his head eyes to the floor. He told me today that when he went home last night he found Belinda gone along with everything they had, not even a coffee cup remained.

Today is Saturday, we are here for lunch. Benedict chooses a small steel topped table overlooking the half moon bay not much bigger than a soccer field. On the sand between us and the water around twenty people are mirroring the exaggerated calisthenics of an instructor and to the left side of the bay on a small rocky cliff, blow the faded multi coloured awnings of a squeaky rusty run down amusement park.

Benedict says “God is good and everything will be fine, he will make everything good”

He smiles, his lips tremble and sad beagle eyes fill with tears. We focus on the pulling apart our chicken legs and Benedict begins to sob quietly. There seems nothing weak about this, nothing pathetic, just a man finding himself lost and in this moment all he can feel is something tight in his stomach and as he breathes out the breath catches in his throat, a sob and it bends him forward, his eyes water and he has lost any sense of identity beyond sadness. Only later does he name that feeling as betrayal but now he is spinning in confusion and alone and the breath keeps catching. And from this place of aloneness more than anything he feels helplessness and any action seems worthless. He can lash out, he can blame the other , reach to God or give up and he holds this all and it doesn’t matter who he is or who he is with he feels utterly alone. And now or a little later he feels his heart broken and then realises it was broken all along, long before now. Sooner or later all men come to know this and then they forget, again and again. I have been to this place before and I know there is nothing to say.

Together we look for answers out to the sea, to the bubbles in our beer and shiny sinews on messy chicken bones.

Benedict smiles, his face lights up, he shakes his head and says, “But God is good.... God is ALL ways good.............and everything is posseeble in Seneegaal” And the twinkle has returned to his eyes and he has sidestepped his sadness for now.

I am thinking there should have been more instructions for broken hearts. But then again instructions are not always that useful. Like the man who went into my friends pharmacy to buy “more of that anal deodorant”, he couldn’t remember the name but said it had instructions on the packet that read ‘push up bottom to use’ . Even good instructions can be confusing. My friend Michael Duncan once told me that the reason that God gave us the Ten Commandments is not that He wants us to behave, so much as He wants to give us a set of instructions to protect others from us. That sounds reasonable to me.

I look across at my friend and wonder who is really in control of what? Benedict definitely thinks that what he is going through is God’s will. I am less sure. It is the middle of the day, already prickly hot and a bead of sweat rolls down the centre of my back, Benedict and I agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I order another cold beer that is so good I almost weep in gratitude.

I am here to provide the next round of mentoring and training for some of our staff who are carrying out a new program to stimulate small enterprise development in twelve of the regions we are working in. I made sure we weren’t going back to Velengara.

Two days later we are in a car with no air conditioner. To open the window is like a blast from a giant hairdryer; window closed and it feels like a sauna and smells like camembert cheese and vinegar. We pass huge Boabab trees, so impossibly big that you could raise a family in one. I think of childhood stories of the Far Away Tree. Some trees look like enormous pieces of broccoli. In places the scrub is clear and there are salt pans. Vlliagers let water flood shallow lakes and containments like rice paddies and then when the water evaporates they harvest the salt. Along the roads there are stacks of white 30kilo sacks lined up and owners waiting to bargain with middlemen.

We arrive in a small community somewhere out of Kaffrine. I am listening as various producers talk about their business challenges. A man stands, pale blue Caftan with a Muslim that looks like a mosque all on its own, he is middle aged, face dark, proud and sun beaten like an like an extra in a fifties Saladin movie. He says his business is harvesting salt, he bought some land and in the beginning things went well and he was getting a good income. But now things have changed and his business is encountering many problems. And for the last two years he has barely make enough to feed his family. I ask him what the main problem is.

He says : “ My difficulty is the yellow two headed dragon that lives my land”.

“How big is this dragon?”

“ it is very big and yellow and has two heads and very powerful and ziss is my problem”

I didn’t do the dragon module during my MBA and so quickly get a brief from my trusty field staff.

“ So are these dragons real?”

“They could be”

“No I mean are there real dragons?”

“It is posseeble”

“But Benedict (Benedict is a very devout Christian) it doesn’t mention dragons in the Bible, neither on the ark or as any other kind of being. “

“Well you can’t say zey exist or zey don’t exist but it is posseeble, yas?”

“Benedict do believe in Dragons?”

There is the distinct inaudible but very clear sound of shuffling

“Yas it is posseeble....everything is posseeble in Seneegaal ”

“No Benedict do you believe personally?”

“Yas it is posseeble”

“So what do these dragons do?”

“Zey cause de very bad luck, very very bad luck”

“So what can you do to get rid of them?”

“I am not sure, but we can pway, we can always pway” and Benedict lights up, as though delighted with such a simple and profound answer, as though it was his own unique discovery in that moment .

Every man has dragons and every man must slay his own, and I know I am still struggling with mine and this salt harvester is looking at me like I have an answer brought across the seas. But I have to lie, I tell him that I am sorry we don’t have dragons where I come from so I can’t advise him. Only the second part of this is true.

Oh, and the funny thing is that six months after all of this, Belinda returned to Benedict. Everything is fine, they are happy and Benedict tells me that he was always sure that God would work it out.

(November 2011)