nichollsretirementproject

The Day We Nearly Lost our Children (1- ‘voleur’)

One afternoon in sunny Dakar, Linda was bringing our two children, Tom and Kate, home from school in a local taxi. Tom would have been about seven years old and Kate about five.

As she did every day, Linda was wearing around her neck a small and not very noticeable gold chain, of which she was very fond. She was sitting with the children in the back of the taxi. Now,it’s possible that things are different nowadays but at that time at certain times of the year, the temperature in Dakar, combined with the humidity, could be pretty punishing and Dakar’s taxis did not have any form of cooling other than that gained by the simple expedient of keeping the windows open.

As the taxi stopped to turn into the road where our house was located, a thief reached in through the window, grabbed the chain from around Linda’s neck and ran. Linda, acting on a powerful combination of shock and outrage, jumped out of the car and pursued the thief down a side street shouting “voleur!”

Seeing a white woman haring down the road in hot pursuit of a thief was the most exciting thing that had happened in our area of Dakar for a long time. Passers-by quickly joined in the chase and the miscreant was soon brought down. By the time Linda caught up with him, the gold chain, now broken, had been retrieved and she found herself in the bizarre position of having to intervene on the thief’s behalf to prevent him from being beaten to half to death by the exultant and over-excited crowd.

Having satisfied herself on that point, she suddenly realised that she had effectively abandoned our two children to the mercy of a random Senegalese taxi driver several streets away. She started to rush back to where she had left the taxi.

While all this drama was unfolding, the poor random taxi driver had suddenly found himself in sole charge of two bright-eyed, expatriate children, one of them, Tom, eating a kiwi fruit.

Once he had realised what had happened, he turned his taxi around and followed Linda’s tracks along the side road. By the time Linda had recovered her chain, calmed the baying mob and saved the thief’s life, the taxi was waiting for her, with two anxious faces in the back, to complete the journey home.

Tom has never eaten another kiwi fruit to this day. And this incident occurred nearly thirty years ago.

Hundreds of them are sleeping out in the open!

I would hate you, dear Reader, to get the impression that my work with OXFAM in West Africa was a constant round of cocktail parties at the Embassy and hob-knobbing, over intimate dinners, with Princesses and Presidents, even though, I must confess, there were moments where I was glad that I wasn’t being followed by Daily Mail journalists looking for an ‘anti-charity’ story.

There was plenty of serious work going on, day-to- day, all over Senegal and neighbouring Mauritania, none less than the day my phone rang in the office and I found myself talking, once again, to the indomitable wife of the British Ambassador, whose marmalade President Diouf had so enjoyed. No pleasantries, no chit-chat this time, just the ominous words “Robert, you’ve got to do something!”

Madame Ambassadeur had just been on an official visit to the north of Senegal and had returned along the road that ran parallel to the Fleuve Senegal, which was, and still is, the actual border between Senegal and Mauritania. What she saw, from the comfort of the ambassadorial Land Rover, had shocked her. She had witnessed a migration of hundreds of bedraggled, desperate families making the crossing from what was left of their homes on the northern bank of the Senegal River to the safety of Senegal itself. They were fleeing for their lives after a widespread and coordinated outbreak of communal violence. When Madame Ambassadeur saw them, they were literally sheltering under trees and there they were destined to remain. There was no other shelter for them.

The Senegal/Mauritania border is one of the borders between the Arab north of Africa and the black-African south. The same kind of border exists right across Africa including between the Sudan and South Sudan, as readers of this blog in the early years may have realised.

For hundreds of years, the border between Senegal and Mauritania had been more of a useful conceptfor map-makers and the writers of geography books, rather than a serious reality on the ground. The availability of water from the river had encouraged the development of farming on both banks, but nomadic herdsmen had for centuries relied on the water of the Fleuve Senegal to water their animals. Many of those who engaged in farming on the Mauritanian side were not Arabs but black Africans, mainly from the Pulaar/Fulani ethnic groups. Most of the time, this mixing of ethnic groups did not cause too many problems. Then, one day, a fight broke out between a small group of black Africans and a group of Arabs in a village on the northern bank of the river. Four men were killed.

I can’t even remember which side suffered the casualties, but the impact was dramatic. Gangs of Arabs, aided and abetted by local police forces, began attacking black-African farmers and their families on the northern bank of the river. Much blood was shed and entire villages were emptied as their inhabitants fled and tried to seek sanctuary across the river. The immediate aftermath of these attacks was what Madame Ambassador had witnessed.

In times of trouble, word spreads fast and within hours a very serious situation had developed. It was a situation that was destined to occupy a lot of OXFAM’s attention in the months that followed.

It is obviously dangerous to talk in racial stereotypes, but, without oversimplifying the situation, I think it was true to say that although both countries shared the same religion, there were distinct differences between the Mauritanians and the Senegalese. And the effect of these differences soon found their way to my desk.

In the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, there were thousands of Senegalese living and working mainly as plumbers, mechanics, electricians etc, often using skills that they had learned as migrant labourers in car factories in France.

In the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and in many other Senegalese towns, there were thousands of Mauritanians who for many years had earned a living by running small shops and often lending money to their Senegalese customers when the need arose.

A Senegalese colleague once explained to me how difficult it was for a Senegalese to make a success of running a small business, particularly a food shop. Owing to the strength of family ties and loyalties, a Senegalese shopkeeper would have great difficulty in refusing credit to a relative, even a fairly distant relative, who has come upon hard times and cannot pay for the food that he needs to feed his family. That is not a good model upon which to build a successful small business. For Mauritanian shopkeepers in Dakar, on the other hand, any similar expectations to help out family members were a long way away to the north and therefore much easier to ignore.

The violence that broke out in the villages along the Fleuve soon spread to the respective capitals and other towns. Senegalese were attacked in Mauritania and Mauritanians suffered the same fate in Senegal.

I became acutely aware of this when I arrived at the OXFAM office one morning just as an angry Senegalese mob had decided to attack and ransack some small Mauritanian-owned shops just across the road.

The Mauritanian shop owners were cowering inside their shops as, in the nick of time, the Senegalese police arrived and tried to calm things down. As the situation deteriorated, the police decided to deploy tear-gas in order to disperse the growing crowd. This pernicious, invisible gas floated gently in my direction just as I arrived at the gate to my office. The effect was immediate. The stinging in my eyes was extreme and the overall effect paralysing I could hardly move.

My anxious colleagues guided me into the office, sat me down and poured water over my face to try and wash the teargas out of my eyes. Gradually the pain subsided and I could start to think again..

We turned our attention to the crisis unfolding on the Fleuve. At a hastily convened team meeting we decided that our immediate priority was to provide shelter for the people who had fled across the border. My Deputy, Abdou Sarr, was despatched to the bank to withdraw funds, with which he bought up most of the stock of black plastic sheeting that was available in Dakar. Within a few hours he was driving north with our biggest vehicle full of plastic sheeting, rope, tools and a reserve of cash with which to buy jerrycans and cooking utensils from local markets on the Fleuve.

Thanks to Madame Ambassadeur’s urgent phone call, OXFAM was the first organisation to bring any significant relief to the traumatised people who had fled across the border. More importantly, we were able to provide valuable early intelligence to feed into the relief efforts of other, larger organisations over the following days.

Inter-communal violence is a terrifying thing because it feeds on itself. There is a wise, old adage that says that “Rumour can be half way around the world before the Truth has got its boots on,” and so it proved to be. Violence against Mauritanians in Senegal and Senegalese in Mauritanian escalated to such an extent that both countries had to go to extraordinary lengths to protect the lives of the up-rooted citizens of the other country. An airlift started to be organised by the Senegalese Air Force to evacuate Mauritanians from Dakar and repatriate Senegalese being held in Mauritania.

Having lived in Senegal for several years I was reasonably confident that those Mauritanians that were being held in holding stations in Dakar would be properly treated. I did not have the same confidence about the fate of the Senegalese trapped in Nouakchott.

With some timely support from the British Embassy and a few crucial phone calls between the Embassy and the Senegalese Ministry of Defence, I got permission to hitch a ride on a Senegalese Air Force Herculese transport plane from Dakar to Nouakchott with a planeload of very anxious Mauritanians, who were very relieved to be returning to their homeland. It was a well organised and humane operation with no animosity being shown towards the departing Mauritanians, at least not in my hearing.

The flight took less than two hours and having landed at Nouakchott Airport, the ramp at the back of the plane was lowered and we were able to disembark; 120 Mauritanians and me!

As we walked across the tarmac, we were met by members of the Mauritanian Army who were handing out cartons of milk to all of the disembarking passengers. Befuddled by the whole experience, I found myself gratefully accepting the gift of the carton of milk, rather than declining it in favour of a Mauritanian fellow passenger – a really strange experience. I had absolutely no need of a carton of milk, but didn’t have the presence of mind to refuse it.

I spend two or three days in Nouakchott just acting as an impartial witness to what was going on. The Senegalese refugees had been gathered together in football stadiums and at a conference centre and as far as I could tell, they were being treated as well as could be expected under the circumstances. I certainly saw no signs of abuse or mistreatment during the hours that I was at the various sites. My guess was that the authorities in both countries were trying to dampen down tensions for fear of the impact that any further outbreaks of violence might have on their compatriots in the other country. Enough blood had been shed.

One of the worst things about this conflict was that it was so mutually damaging to both sides and seemed to bring advantages to no-one. Mauritania lost many of the skilled craftsmen that it needed to keep the place running and Senegal lost many of its shopkeepers and, more significantly, many of its sources of small scale domestic credit. Presumably someone gained somewhere, but it was not easy to identify any winners from where we were standing.

As a postscript to this story, it appeared that my name was mud with the Head of the Senegalese Air Force when I returned to Senegal because I didn’t present myself in his office to share any military intelligence that I might have gleaned as I walked through Nouakchott Airport and its surrounding streets. Apparently that had been his expectation when he gave me permission to fly!

Oops! Sorry, Sir! Maybe next time!

I shouldn’t be telling you this….

In my last post I talked about having dinner with, amongst other people, the President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, at the British Embassy in Dakar. I know that normal protocols demand that conversations at such events should remain confidential, but I have decided that the time has come to ‘tell all’, and reveal all of the details of my exchanges with the Senegalese President.

Before I do so, there are one or two other stories that deserve to be revealed in this ‘no-holds-barred’ report.

I became aware of President Diouf even before I took up my job with OXFAM in Dakar. My loyal readers will be aware that African leaders do not, as a species, have a very good reputation. Particularly in the 1980s and 90s many of them were well-known for their corruption, their lack of respect for the rule of law, their abuses of human rights and their habit of doing away with inconvenient rivals, think Amin, think Moi, think Mobuto. Some of these reputations persist even to this day, think Museveni, think, until recently, Mugabe.

Abdou Diouf was different. A few months before I was due to take up my job in Senegal, a petty criminal was arrested by the police for stealing a car. He was taken to a cell at the central police station in Dakar, where during the night, he was beaten to death!

The country, up to and including the President, was outraged. This was completely contrary to Senegalese custom and practice. Physical violence is not part of the Senegalese psyche. Responding to the protests of the victim’s family, the President sacked the entire police force, all 6000 men! Law and order was handed over temporarily to the rural Gendarmerie. The people of Senegal applauded! For years, the police had been known to be corrupt, with bribes being taken everywhere. Anyone who drove a vehicle on the public roads would have their own stories of being stopped by the police and having to pay ‘informal fines’ to be allowed to proceed.

Abdou Diouf stopped all that. 6000 police officers were sacked. They were all investigated and 4000 were re–employed. Police corruption came to a stop. During my five years in Senegal I was only stopped once by the police – and that was when I was flagged down and asked if I could take an injured woman to hospital.

My other story relates to a State visit that Abdou Diouf made to Britain, in about 1990.

The visit of an African President to Britain, especially a president from a part of Africa that few people in Britain had ever heard of, did not merit inclusion much coverage in the British press. It would certainly have never reached the nine o’clock news on television.

In Senegal, it merited a half hour prime-time programme. Every detail of the visit was covered on the daily news broadcast.

We saw the train that brought the Senegalese President into Victoria Station. We saw the band of the Grenadier Guards strike up the martial music as part of the welcome.

Then we saw President Abdou Diouf descending gracefully from the train in all his splendour. A very tall, slender man, resplendent in a magnificent, traditional Senegalese ‘boubou’, a long, flowing, one-piece garment that covered him from head to foot in fine, silver cloth, adorned at the front with ornate embroidery.

There to meet him, standing on the platform on the other side of the red carpet, was this rather unimposing, old lady in a pink outfit, carrying her handbag slung over one arm. This was Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Head of the Commonwealth and Defender of the Faith. It was the most gripping thing I had seen on Senegalese television for months!

Anyway, back to the Embassy dinner and my interactions with the Senegalese Head of State, in whose country, OXFAM had for many years been doing some very good work, which I was keen to outline. I had made sure that I was properly briefed on the history of OXFAM’s programme before I arrived in the country, the number and scale of the projects that we had funded and the impact that our work had had on people in the poorer areas of the country.

The President arrived at the very last minute and was introduced to the other guests just as we were about to go into the dining room to take our places for dinner. The Ambassador introduced me to the honoured guest. I said, in impeccable French, “Bonsoir, Monsieur le President,” and the President went into dinner.

At the end of the evening, when the President announced that, having tasted Madame Ambassadeur’s marmalade ice cream, the time really had come for him to leave, I once again had the opportunity to engage him in conversation on some relevant development issues. I remember the exchange as if it was yesterday. It amounted to “Au revoir, Monsieur le President. Bonne Soiree.”

And that, as they say, was that!

Perks of the Job 2. In the Presence of Greatness.

So there I was, sitting quietly working in my office in Dakar when the phone rings and I find myself talking to the wife of the British Ambassador. “Ah, Robert,” says Madame Ambassador “I’m glad I caught you. We are giving a small dinner party for the Princess Royal next Friday. I wondered if you and Linda might be available.”

We knew that Princess Anne was due to visit Senegal on her way to an official visit to the Gambia in her capacity as patron of the Save the Children Fund. Indeed we had already been invited to the official ‘Garden Party’ on the Thursday of her visit.

Linda and I were introduced to the Princess at the reception in the embassy garden before the royal personage went off to shake the hands of the assembled dignitaries and other members of the small British community.

But dinner at the Embassy was quite another matter. So, the following evening, in best bib and tucker, and uncomfortable new shoes that I had had to buy in Dakar market that afternoon, we turned up at the Embassy, clutching our rather grand and exclusive invitation.

Monsieur l’Ambassadeur and Madame Macrae had invited sixteen guests, arranged around one table. The table plan represented the cream of British and Senegalese society… and us!

Linda had pride of place at the foot of the table with, on her right, General Seck, the head of Senegal’s Armed Forces, his chest dripping with medals and, on her left, Princess Anne’s Lady-in-Waiting, the Honourable Dame Shan Legge-Bourke, the mother of ‘Tiggy’ Legge-Bourke, who was later to become the nanny of Princes William and Harry and, later still, personal assistant to Prince Charles.

I found myself at the other end of the table, seated next to Mme Abdou Diouf, the wife of the President of Senegal, and opposite Mme Mochtar Kebe, who was the wife of the Senegalese Finance Minister and worked for Citibank in Dakar. Mme Kebe, ably aided and abetted by Mme Diouf, spent most of the evening trying to convince me to move OXFAM’s bank account from our existing bank to Citibank, a suggestion that I steadfastly, and. as it turns out, very unwisely resisted. But that’s another story….!)

Princess Anne was seated next to the President and opposite the Ambassador. She was in fine form! She had spent the day in St Louis, the former capital of Senegal, four hours north of Dakar, visiting a fishing community (for reasons that now escape me). She had had a wonderful time and seemed to have spent most of the afternoon gossiping with a group of fisherwomen who, it would seem, had no real idea who she was, other than a random visitor and a woman. From what I was able to glean from the other side of the table, the conversation between the Princess and the fishwives had been raucous, ribald and rude and certainly not suitable for the delicate ears of any of the gentlemen in the room!

Each place-setting at dinner had four fine glasses, one for water, one for red wine, one for white wine and the fourth for champagne. Now I have never been a Royalist and have always questioned whether the eye-watering cost of the British monarchy and its sprawling and ever growing royal family was a justifiable use of the British public’s hard-earned money. However, by the time I had progressed through the red wine (that had been patiently waiting for me in its bottle since 1978), and the white Gewuerztraminer and was nursing my second glass of champagne, I could feel my staunch Republican sentiments receding gently into the comfortable alcoholic haze that was gradually engulfing me.

Two other snippets of conversation from the evening remain in my befuddled memory.

The first was during the cheese course. A full, perfectly ripe Stilton had been flown in specially on the Queen’s Flight, along with the Princess. (Well, you have to amortise the cost somehow!) It made its way anticlockwise around the table. It was, of course, in perfect condition and was presented on a wooden board with a knife, a fork and a spoon.

Linda had already had to struggle to contain herself when Mme Legge-Bourke actually voiced her despair about how difficult it was to get good staff these days to work on her extensive country estate in mid-Wales. The expression, “You just can’t get the staff, you know!” entered our family lexicon that evening and has been used at moments of frustration ever since.

Then the cheese board arrived in front of the Honourable Lady-in-Waiting. One horrified, honourable eyebrow was raised and the princess’s companion was heard to utter the immortal words “Oh, my God! Someone has been spooning the Stilton!”

It is to Linda’s eternal credit that she kept a straight face as she used the cheese-knife to help herself to a modest piece of ‘safe’ cheddar and passed the cheeseboard on to the humourless General Seck and his medals.

The second memorable exchange was between Madame Ambassador and Abdou Diouf, the President of the country.

At the end of the cheese course, the President announced that the time had come for him to take his leave.

“But Monsieur le President,” objected Madame Macrae, “You haven’t yet tasted the marmalade ice cream with ginger sauce. I prepared it myself.” President Abdou Diouf, with great grace and good humour simply replied, “Dans ce cas, il faut que je reste.” The bodyguard was sent away and the President stayed for dessert!

He knew better than to get on the wrong side of Madame Macrae!

Perks of the job. (1)

Being the representative of OXFAM, as a British organisation in Senegal, had its unexpected advantages. Chief amongst these was that my name appeared quite often on the invitees list of the British Embassy.

Personally, I never understood why Britain maintained a fully staffed embassy with its impressive mansion and lovely lawns in Dakar. I am sure that they would have found it difficult to explain to the average British tax-payer what the purpose of the embassy was, but ‘mine not to reason why’.

Like much of West Africa, Senegal was a former French colony and France still had considerable commercial, political and diplomatic influence in the country. There were enough French people working either in the port, the embassy, as consultants to the government or as representatives of numerous commercial companies to sustain a French theatre, a French primary school and local supermarkets that would stock a bewildering array of French cheeses and other Gallic delicacies.

The only reason that Senegal was important to Britain was strategic. The port of Dakar, sitting conveniently on the westernmost tip of Africa, was a useful re-fuelling point for shipping, and we first became aware of this when we received an invitation from the British Embassy to a cocktail party on board the Royal Yacht Britannia, which had happened to be passing Senegal and needed some fuel.

The Royal family was not on board so the Captain decided to throw a party for anyone that the British Embassy saw fit to invite, – Senegalese government officials, diplomatic representatives of other friendly nations and anyone else connected with British organisations, which, in practice meant the representative of British American Tobacco (BAT) and me.

We were greeted by a group of charming young officers, all dressed in spotless white uniforms and were soon plied with wine and canapés. We mingled, making sure, in my case, not to mingle anywhere close to the representative of BAT, whom I considered to be close to the spawn of the devil. His entire working life was spent trying to get ordinary Senegalese people hooked on a product that he knew would further impoverish them and damage their health into the bargain.

At this time, tobacco companies in Senegal used marketing tactics that were truly disgusting. For example, they would travel into the remotest parts of rural Senegal in huge converted furniture vans that, on arrival in a village, would magically open up into an improvised disco, complete with loud music and flashing multi-coloured lights. Remember that many of these villages were decades away from receiving electric light so it was the equivalent of Martians landing in the middle of a British town. People would come from miles around to share in the excitement. “Hey, it’s a party!” And if there was one thing that the Senegalese cannot resist, it’s a party!

Once the crowds had assembled the tobacco company reps would start handing out free cigarettes to anyone, of any age, who wanted them. As the lights flashed and the music blared, a deal would be struck with a local shopkeeper or village chief to ensure that once the rolling disco had packed up and moved on, there would be plenty of cigarettes available for sale in the village. And so people who hardly had enough money to feed their families were being hooked on a product that, at best, would make them less physically able and at worst would give them a disease which Senegal just did not have the facilities to treat. How tobacco company reps sleep at night, I will never know.

So back to the Royal Yacht. As the evening wore on I talked to various people and eventually found myself face to face with the Captain of the ship, whose name I regret I cannot remember. Suffice it to say that he was perfectly charming and during the conversation he revealed that he would shortly leaving the Royal Navy to take up a new career as a solicitor in a small town in the Home Counties. The Navy had kindly paid for his Solicitor’s training as part of his resettlement package. He was set for life.

In 1968, at the tender age of 18, I had applied for a commission in Her Majesty’s Navy as an insurance policy in case I didn’t get the qualifications to get into university. I spent two full, hilarious days at an ‘officers’ selection weekend’ in Portsmouth and, much to my own surprise, was actually offered a commission, which, once I had got my A-Level results, I decided not to take up.

As I stood on the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia on that warm Dakar night, half way through my fixed-term contract with OXFAM, after which I had absolutely no guarantee of further employment, my new-found Captain friend revealed that he was 42 years old.

Funny that, so was I.

Little did we know what awaited us!

We set off north towards St Louis in good order and in good spirits, with our millionaire sitting comfortably in the back of our Toyota Corolla.. Four hours later, Abdou and I decided that it might be a good idea to stop for lunch at the Hotel de la Poste, which was about the only decent hotel in St Louis and had the great advantage of having reliable electricity and, more to the point, a telephone and telegraph office that worked most of the time. (These days we would be talking about a hotel having satellite television and Wi-Fi, but the 1980s were different times!)

After we had finished lunch, P. decided that it would be good to send a telegram to his wife just to let her know that he had arrived safely. He knew that she was anxious about his entire venture, going off with total strangers into the unknown reaches of Africa and he wanted to reassure her. Again, no problem. He wrote a telegram that read simply “Thirsty, hot, happy. If problems, contact OXFAM.” (Remember these words, dear Reader. They will return to haunt us!)

We continued on our way to meet up with our project partners where we planned to change into their all-terrain vehicle for the last couple of hours of the journey to the village where we were due to hold a meeting. Ha! Little did we know! When we arrived at the project base we were greeted with the news that their spacious Hilux, which we had been expecting to use, had broken down and was awaiting the arrival of some vital spare parts.

What were we to do? We were expected at a village meeting that afternoon and we had our millionaire who had come all the way from the UK to see ‘OXFAM’s work on the ground’. So far, all he had seen was the inside of the airport, hundreds of miles of tarmac, the Hotel de la Poste and a lot of sand! There was no way of letting the village know about our transport difficulties and we knew that they would have made extensive preparations for our visit with our honoured guest. After discussion with our project partners, Assane and Sall, it was decided that there was only one solution. Having lost valuable time searching for extra petrol for our now empty tank, Abdou, Assane, Sall, our millionaire and I finally wedged ourselves into the Toyota Corolla and off we set!

We crossed the river on a small and rickety ferry and drove for a couple of hours through the bush. Then the trouble started. One of the less wonderful characteristics of this part of northern Senegal is the presence of some pretty formidable thorn bushes. Suddenly our vehicle started to lose traction and we realised that we had picked up a puncture.

No problem. We were experienced at this sort of thing. We had a spare. All five of us climbed out of the car, we changed the tyre and all five of us packed ourselves back in. We eventually reached our destination late in the afternoon. We were greeted a couple of miles short of our destination by outriders on horseback dressed in flowing white robes, who escorted us into the village. There followed a weighty, welcoming meal, mainly consisting of roast goat, enthusiastic speeches from the village dignitaries and much laughter and dancing from the women of the village. Finally, as dusk was approaching, we were able to visit the project itself to see the progress that they had made with their irrigated crops. And so finally, as the light began to fade, we were free to leave.

Travelling at night in the ‘bush’ of northern Senegal is never a good idea. All the tracks look the same in the dark and navigating your way around thorn bushes by the light of your headlights is a recipe for disaster. We got lost several times and, on one occasion, had to ask for directions from some passing herdsmen who were making their way home with their animals in the pitch darkness. And then things got complicated.

With five of us packed into a car built for four, and our senses of humour starting to wear thin, we finally found the right track and set off to cover the final 40km back to the ferry. Half an hour later we began to feel that familiar sinking feeling of another deflating tyre. We had driven over another thorn bush and picked up another puncture. But this time it was on our spare wheel!

It was by now very dark and there were with no signs of life anywhere near. There was nothing for it but to lock the car and set off on foot in search of help: Abdou, Assane, Sall, the millionaire and me and a container of water.

Before long we were very relieved when we came upon a compound consisting of a small cluster of straw-roofed, mud-walled huts, surrounded by a fearsome thorn fence. In the middle of the compound there was a bed enclosed by a white mosquito net strung up between four wooden poles. We called out, addressing ourselves to the mosquito net and pointing out our plight. A woman’s voice from within the mosquito net replied in terms that Abdou chose not to translate for my delicate ears, but the gist of the message was that she did not appreciate being woken in the middle of the night, her husband was not at home and there was no way that she was going to come out of her mosquito net at the request of some strange, disembodied voices calling to her out of the darkness. So Abdou, Assane, Sall, me and the millionaire, by now with half a container of water, trudged off into the night.

Eventually, we came to a village where we located a house, outside of which stood a single horse-drawn cart, known in French as a ‘charrette”, similar to the ones shown in the picture below.

Senegalese charrettes

It was now about 11 o’clock at night. We explained our predicament to the head of the family and asked if he would lend us his ‘charrette’, just so that we could get to the ferry and back to our base. He looked at our weary, dust covered party, with two Europeans in it, and said he would be more than happy to make his charrette available – for the modest sum of £20.

I would have been very willing, indeed grateful, to accept this price but Abdou and Assane were true Senegalese and were constitutionally incapable of accepting the first price for anything. There followed nearly an hour of bargaining, during which time the millionaire and I lounged on mats and cushions provided by some of the scantily clad womenfolk of the household. (Editor’s note: Having lived for three or four years in Africa, the sight of ladies wearing little or nothing above the waist was not anything to be particularly surprised about. If, however, like our millionaire, you have spent most of your adult life managing the family’s fortune and poring over stock market reports in the UK, Switzerland or the Channel Islands, that is quite a different matter.)

Eventually, a price was agreed, hands were shaken, friendly banter was exchanged and a surly, sleep-befuddled lad was hauled out of bed to drive the charrette. Abdou, Assane and Sall took our newly hired cart and rode off into the night to find the Toyota Corolla and retrieve the flat spare tyre. Meanwhile, as the honoured, if somewhat unexpected, guests of the household, the millionaire and I were left to recline on our cushions, while the womenfolk served us a meal of millet and milk.

All too soon, (in our view, at least), our colleagues returned with the deflated spare wheel and we all climbed aboard the charette, Abdou, Assane, Sall, the millionaire and I, with a surly lad taking the reins of the sleepy, reluctant horse.

Now I don’t know if the surly lad resented being woken up in the middle of the night, or whether he just had a teenage grudge against the whole world, but he whipped the poor horse and took off, like a bat out of hell, into the night with the five of us hanging on for dear life behind him.

We had been hurtling though the pitch dark bush for what seemed like an eternity, holding on grimly to the sides of the charrette, when Ben Hur on the reins drove us straight into a tree stump. Up in the air went Abdou, Assane, Sall, the millionaire and me. Down again came Abdou, Assane and me, with that uneasy feeling that all was not well and that unemployment might be closer than we thought.

In an untidy and very dusty heap some distance behind us was Sall and our millionaire. Fortunately, neither of them was hurt and, as luck would have it, the millionaire had landed on top of Sall, rather than the other way around. We climbed back onto the charrette, remonstrated with the surly lad and continued our journey at a less frantic pace. Fifteen minutes later – another puncture, this time on the charrette!

“No problem,” says the surly lad. “I have tools, two small tyre levers, a spare inner-tube and a pump.” Al Hamdulillah, Praise be to Allah. It seemed that the only thing the surly lad didn’t have was the strength to remove a tyre from a charrette with two small tyre levers.

It took Abdou and me over an hour to get the old inner-tube out of the charrette wheel and put the replacement one in. And then we pumped, and we pumped and we pumped … and nothing happened! By now it was about 1.30 in the morning. Our millionaire had found an old goat-skin on the back of the charrette and, using our spare wheel as a pillow, had gone to sleep on the side of the track. Sall was nursing his painful shoulder which he had gallantly used to break the millionaire’s fall and Assane was dozing.

I think it stands to Abdou’s eternal credit that murder was not done that night when the sullen lad admitted that he had had no idea if the inner tube that he had found on the charrette was any good or not. He’d just found it there and didn’t know where it had come from.

So abandoning the surly lad, who refused to move from his broken-down cart, we set off again into the night: Abdou, Assane, Sall, the millionaire and me and about half a pint of water.

We walked for over an hour until we found another homestead. It was now about three o’clock in the morning. Once again we called out from beyond the thorn fence and asked for help. The head of the household, somewhat surprised to be woken at such an ungodly hour, took one look at us, ushered us in, fetched some mats which he laid out on the ground and all five of us collapsed into an exhausted sleep; Abdou, Assane, Sall, me and the millionaire, all sleeping on a mat like kippers in a tin.

Even now, the fates were not finished with us. To add insult to injury, a couple of hours later there was a mighty dust storm and we all woke up at about an hour before dawn with dust blocking every available orifice!

Further negotiations were held for the use of another charrette, this time with a competent driver, and we finally reached the ferry off the island at about 8.30 am, weary, dust-encrusted but otherwise unharmed.

Survivors’ picture. From left to right: Abdou Sarr, Assane, me and a competent driver.
No sign of Sall or our millionaire!

Having got back off the island and on to the mainland, the rest of the visit, including several other village meetings, passed off without incident and we began to make our way back to Dakar. Once again we decided that it would be politic to break the journey at the Hotel de la Poste in St Louis and once again P. decided to take the opportunity to touch base with his wife, this time using the hotel’s phone.

Knowing that these things always take a while to set up, Abdou and I went into the dining room to order dinner. A few minutes later our millionaire walked in, grinning from ear to ear. He had just finished talking to his wife, who three days earlier had received the telegram that P. had sent as we set off on our trip.

The telegram that he had written had said “Thirsty, hot, happy. Contact OXFAM if problems.

The telegram that his wife received read “Thirsty, not happy. Contact OXFAM – is problem.”

P’s wife had, not unreasonably, gone into full panic mode. She rang OXFAM in Oxford demanding to know what had happened to her husband. They had no idea at all, so suggested that she phoned Dakar. She phoned Dakar and spoke to my other deputy, Christine who, of course, was also not aware of our adventures but was able to reassure her that OXFAM was well known in the Fleuve area and that if there had been any problems, there would have been plenty of help at hand. Thanks to the wonders of the St Louis telephone exchange, P was able to reassure his wife that, despite what he later described as the ‘comic opera aspects’ of the trip, he was fit and well and had had a wonderful time. She was mightily relieved!

Her relief was as nothing compared to my own as I delivered P, showered, rested and in one piece back, to Dakar Airport for the flight back to Europe.

A few weeks later we received a letter from P. thanking us very warmly for the adventure that we had given him. He thought he had learned a lot and was impressed by the work that he had seen in the villages. He did, however, have one recommendation, that he felt could improve the quality of our work with rural communities. He thought that the people in the villages did not pay sufficient attention to punctuality and he felt that if we agreed that a meeting should start at a certain time, then we should insist that the villagers arrive at the meeting on time!

We took his recommendation under advisement!

It’s not every day you host a millionaire!

You don’t meet many millionaires when you work for OXFAM, but given the amount of money that P. had donated to us, I was convinced that he must have been one. So as I stood at the Arrivals gate at Dakar airport late one evening, waiting for him to clear customs and baggage reclaim, my mind was conjuring up all sorts of pictures. Obviously he would be wearing gold-rimmed glasses and a smart suit that would have resisted all creases on the six hour, Air France flight from London via Paris. He would definitely have matching designer luggage and would probably come striding out ahead of the crowd with that sense of urgency, importance and entitlement that comes with great wealth.

The arriving passengers filed past me, Senegalese and Europeans, families, holiday-makers, serious businessmen wearing sharp suits and furrowed brows, all glad to have arrived safely and been released from their aircraft seats. No-one reacted to my little sign bearing OXFAM’s logo and P.’s name.

A plane-load of passengers walked through the Arrivals hall on their way out into the warm African night and I was on the verge of giving up and assuming that P. had simply missed his flight. Then I spotted a solitary figure wearing baggy corduroy trousers held up with braces, a crumpled, open-necked shirt and a four-day growth of beard, shuffling through as the very last passenger. He had a large stack of newspapers under one arm and a battered hold-all over his shoulder. This was my millionaire!

The pile of newspapers, most of them open to the financial pages, had been a little light homework for P. to help him while away the flight. Those investments wouldn’t monitor themselves, after all! Contrary to all of my expectations, which I confess were coloured by my own limited experience of, and utter prejudice towards, rich people, P. turned out to be an unassuming, rather shy and very likeable man. After a good night’s sleep and a change of shirt, we were ready to set off on our next adventure, heading north towards the Fleuve again.

Abdou Sarr and I had decided to take P to visit a large agricultural project that we had been funding for some while along the Senegal River, the Fleuve Senegal. We had arranged a meeting with a couple of village groups on one of the big islands in the middle of the river. We thought that this would give P. a good insight into the type of terrain that we had to negotiate and the type of isolated, rural project that we were funding.

We had a choice of vehicle in which to travel and, unwisely as it turned out, we chose to take our Toyota Corolla rather than our big, macho Hilux. The Corolla was a comfortable saloon car with 4-wheel drive for emergencies and we chose it because the first half of the journey, past the old colonial town of St Louis and on to the project base, was on a tarmac road. We knew that the project partner would have a robust, double-cabin Hilux that we could use for the second part of the journey where there was no road and we would have to follow unsurfaced dirt tracks. No problem, that’s what we tough, rugged development chaps do all the time!

So far, so good! Off we set, Abdou, the millionaire and me.

… and talking about the Fleuve…

In the early 1990s most of OXFAM’s funds came from donations from the general public in response to appeals, the network of OXFAM shops and fundraising groups, occasional happenings like Liveaid and Bandaid and, increasingly, matched funding from the British Government and the EU. There were very few high-value individual donors, most of whom probably felt more comfortable donating to more establishment charities like Save the Children or the Red Cross, who didn’t have such a high-profile, anti-poverty campaigning presence. But there were exceptions, and one such exception was P.

P was a very interesting man who had become rich beyond his wildest dreams through a combination of circumstances that would have made a good basis for a feature film. As a young man, he had had no money, no ambition and no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He left school early with no real qualifications and drifted from job to job. He got temporary work on fairgrounds and spent some time working as a circus hand, erecting and dismantling circus tents and other equipment. Eventually he drifted to Australia where he earned his living in a variety of ways, including a period working as a sheep-shearer.

Then he met a young woman who was similarly spending time in Australia for no particular reason and the two struck up a relationship that eventually led to marriage. So far, so unremarkable.

What P. didn’t know , when he met this young woman, was that she was the heiress to a considerable fortune built up by a Swiss pharmaceutical company. Unfortunately, although the young woman had many admirable qualities, money management was not one of them and P. soon realised that she was vulnerable to having her fortune ‘managed’ away by corrupt or incompetent advisors, of which there was no shortage in her orbit. P. found himself taking on the role of manager of the family fortune, based in Switzerland whose tax regime was attractive to those with large fortunes.

Eventually, P and his wealthy wife moved to the Channel Islands where the tax situation was even more favourable, but P. started to feel that he should be doing something worthwhile with his steadily growing wealth. He decided that he would calculate, each quarter, the difference between the tax that he had been paying in Switzerland and what he was now paying in tax haven of the Channel Islands. He would then donate the difference to OXFAM. Once the calculations had been done, that difference amounted to tens of thousands of pounds!

After letting this arrangement run for a while, P became curious to see for himself what kind of the work his donations were helping to fund. He asked OXFAM Head Office if he could visit some projects. Head Office went into a complete spin.

Most of OXFAM’s overseas Field Directors or Regional Representatives were serious, dedicated people who had come to OXFAM from a development background and were, for the most part, highly skilled in identifying, monitoring and evaluating projects where OXFAM’s funds were spent. They were not fund-raisers. They were fund-spenders. Many of them had little interest in where the funds had come from and the last thing they wanted, or were prepared to accept, was ‘development tourism’, i.e. wealthy people from the rich North traipsing around their areas just to see ‘the work on the ground’.

At that time, I was pretty unique within OXFAM, having come into overseas development from a fundraising background. I had spent spent seven years steadfastly raising funds for OXFAM in the UK. Head Office knew they were knocking at an open door when I was asked to host a visit from a ‘superdonor’.

I agreed to the visit and Abdou Sarr and I sat down to plan an itinerary for our visitor. Little did we know the adventure that awaited us!

It’s all in the way you sell it.

Before my little rant about Britain cutting itself off from Europe, (after which I now feel much better, thanks) I was writing about my years working for OXFAM in West Africa in the late 1980s/early nineties. In particular I was talking about some of the work we did with communities living along the Fleuve Senegal who needed to get water out of the river to irrigate their fields. After protracted discussions with several of these communities, it was finally agreed that OXFAM would fund the purchase of floating pumps as long as the communities agreed to do the necessary work on preparing the land and organising the farmers to ensure that the new water resources would be properly shared.

Once the pump had been bought and delivered, it was my job, along with Abdou Sarr, to visit the communities to check that everything was happening as planned and that there were no snags that we needed to know about.

On one such visit something of a surprise awaited us as we made our way to the river bank to inspect the new equipment. As we arrived at the top of the steep river bank we saw not one, but two, floating pumps! One was connected and merrily pushing water up the riverbank into the fields. The other was just sitting there doing nothing! How, on earth, did that happen?

It transpired that about six months previously the village had received a visit from the President’s wife. I can’t remember why this particular village had been singled out for this honour, but my guess is the Madame Diouf’s family may have originally come from the village. Anyway, as a parting gift, the President’s wife very generously donated a floating pump ‘to the village’. And therein lay the problem.

By suddenly presenting ‘the village’ with such a valuable resource, Madame Diouf had inadvertently sown the seeds of division and discord within the village, the result of which was that months later, the pump had never been used.

The word ‘village’ can be very deceptive because it conjures up images of a place where people live happily together in close proximity, sharing what they have with their neighbours and supporting one another through life’s trials and tribulations. It suggests a rural idyll where good-hearted ‘country-folk’ live together in harmony, with a common purpose, tending the land for the benefit of all. In this particular case, nothing could have been further from the truth.

As soon as Madame Diouf’s pump arrived, the arguments started. Who did it belong to? Whose fields would it irrigate? Who would maintain it? Who would pay for the fuel? The village leader tried to claim it for his own because a) he was the village leader and b) he had arranged Madame Diouf’s visit. Other people in the village objected strongly. Village meetings were held and the arguments grew louder, more rancorous and more bitter. The result was that, six months later, not a drop of water had passed through Madame’s pump!

Suddenly, all the hours of sometimes frustrating discussions with the farmers’ groups, talking about the possible provision of a pump and how it would be used, started to seem very worthwhile.

Happy New Year?

Ever since I can remember, I have stayed up until midnight to see the New Year in. Every year it has been an opportunity to have a glass of something warming, to bid the old year farewell and to welcome in the new one.

Last night was the first time that I can remember feeling in low spirits on New Year’s Eve. I bitterly regret Britain’s manipulated decision to leave the European Union. It goes against everything I believe in. I am ashamed of our perfidious government that has steered the country out of the Union and I am still angry that the British public was led to make such a momentous a decision on the basis of glib, jingoistic slogans, soundbites. The image of the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, driving a road digger through a fake polystyrene wall bearing the words ‘Get Brexit Done’ is one that I find completely shaming.

My respect for my own country has been damaged and my belief in democracy severely shaken since I have witnessed how easily politicians have been able to manipulate public opinion by appealing to basic xenophobia. I am not sure whether I will bother voting in future. I feel a deep sense of shame as I hear senior Conservative politicians saying that British young people will be able to stride around the world like ‘buccaneers’ making trade deals, freed from the trammels of the EU.

During the final stages of the negotiations with Brussels, the British government actually deployed Navy gunboats to protect ‘British’ waters from French fishing boats! Workers of our nearest neighbour were threatened with military action! And then we have to listen to a smiling Boris Johnson droning on about how we will always remain best friends with our ‘European neighbours’ after we leave the EU. Watch this space.

Within hours of the Brexit deadline we were already accusing France of being intransigent and obstructive over the paperwork they require UK trucks to produce as they pass through Calais!

In Britain we wish each other a Happy New Year. In Germany they wish each other a good ‘slide’ into the new year. I wonder how far Britain will have to slide before we realise what a monumental error we have made. Thank goodness that, whatever happens, we can always blame the French!

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