And pray what is Cape Verde? A stinking place?

attributed to King Charles II (1630-85)

At the westernmost extremity of the African continent there is a long peninsula of volcanic rock that juts out into the Atlantic like an inquisitive finger. Nearer Brazil than it is to Europe, Cap Vert is the first green land that Portuguese mariners saw after having passed Cap Blanc and the wasted Saharan coastline. On it is Dakar, burgeoning capital of the Republic of Senegal. A couple of miles to the leeward, and barely visible through the smog that hangs like a pall over the Bay of Saint Bernard, is the isle of Gorée.
   In many ways, Gorée is the spiritual heartland for the millions of blacks around the world who descend from West African slaves. For over three centuries, control of the island was fiercely disputed by the Europeans, for it came to be the world's most important slaving entrepôt, where 'black ivory' captured all over the region was taken before being shipped off to a new half-life in the sugar cane plantations of the New World. Although slavery was nothing new when the Europeans arrived on the scene, it is they who elevated the trade to unprecedented levels. Under the Europeans, there was a regular demand for cheap labour, and every level of the trade, from the hunts to the transportation and selling of slaves, was more highly organised than ever before. Shortly after the breakthrough of Gil Eannes' rounding of Cap Bojador, Portuguese caravels captured a caravan of Sanhaja nomads, who were brought back to Lisbon for inspection. A few years later, an entire cargo of slaves was shipped back, and very quickly the Europeans acquired their taste for slavery, and for the easy money to be made from it. The Dutch, who came after the Portuguese, called the island Goede Reede, the Good Harbour, which in time became Gorée. Finally, in the year 1677, both Gorée and the isle of Arguin (near Nouâdhibou) were captured by the French, which signalled the start of a long period of rivalry with England.
   By the close of the fifteenth century, one thousand slaves were being transported each year from Arguin alone, and throughout the following centuries, a steady flow of between 2,000 and 3,500 slaves was being exported annually. From the first transatlantic slave cargo of 1513, to the trade's demise in the nineteenth century, some 24 million people were forcibly taken from their homes, to be sold or bartered like little more than sacks of flour. It has been estimated that of these, almost 20 percent perished on the cramped 'floating coffins' that were the slave cargoes, before even setting foot on the American continent. They suffered variously from disease, shortages of fresh foodstuffs and water, and the frequent lashings that the traders sardonically called 'exercise'. The coffins continue to be washed up on the beaches of history: racism, inner-city riots in Europe and America, bigotry in West Africa, extreme black militancy, the Ku Klux Klan... Almost all of today's white on black, or black on white, racism can be traced back to the violence of the West African slave trade.
   So much for Gorée. Dakar, meanwhile, remained a small and tranquil Lébou fishing village until 1857, when the French decided that it would make the perfect site for a new port to serve their rapidly expanding colony. From its nineteenth-century population of 2,000, by 1926, having taken over from Saint-Louis as the capital of French West Africa, it had exploded to over forty thousand. Ten years later it had almost reached six figures, and by the time of Senegal's independence, Dakar contained almost one third of a million inhabitants. It is now estimated that of its one and a half to two million inhabitants, over half are under twenty years of age. The great majority live in squalid and overcrowded slums on the outskirts of town. Alluring tales in the vein of Dick Whittington - of great wealth, luxury and gold (like Timbuctoo's ancient legend) - have attracted migrants in their thousands to this great neo-colonial whirlpool: intense, dynamic, sophisticated, but above all, wretched. There are so many mouths to feed and so little food. Or money. Dakar has a reputation fast approaching that of Lagos, the Nigerian capital. It is dangerous, dirty, and stage for the enactment of a thousand travellers' tales of woe and despair. Like all big West African cities, Dakar has become something of a jungle, the false idol of Western wealth and prosperity. Most of all, it is a city of dregs, like Nouâdhibou a dead end peninsula, only larger and more primitive in its solutions.
   From its humble beginnings, Dakar has matured to be one of Africa's most westernised cities. It boasts wide leafy boulevards that would scarcely be out of place in Paris, lined with whitewashed apartment blocks like those of pre-war Beirut or Damascus, and modest skyscrapers that try but fail to reconcile the twentieth century with traditional Africa. Like every other African city, there are half-built or abandoned structures everywhere, some with their facades fallen away. Dakar is a strange and powerful place, a monster by any standards - poised, lumbering, and tumourous - at once enigmatic and blatant. Although the combined history of Dakar and Gorée, like Saint-Louis, mirrors that of Senegal, the city itself is a world apart. Dakar, with its veritable army of grotesquely deformed beggars, lepers and cripples that weave their way through indifferent crowds, is certainly not the Senegal of smiles and graceful figures that I had come to expect. Dakar is a land of scowls and limps, while Senegal is a land of honesty and kindness. In Dakar, often ill-gotten wealth lives alongside dehumanising poverty. Dakar - not surprisingly given its cataclysmic growth - is a monstrous anomaly, and in all honesty deserves to have an entire book allotted to it rather than the few fleeting impressions I can offer here. The city is every inch a capitalist's capital, the product of post-industrial dreamings, devoid of any veneer to wash over the system's failures. The markets are full of computers, air ionizers, and even electronic sunglasses. The streets are choked with diesel fumes, smog, pollution and ramshackle cars. In the sky, there are vultures as well as doves.

* * *

It was evening when I arrived in Dakar, and the airline offices around the Place de l'Indépendance had already pulled down their iron shutters. My hunt for cheap accommodation failed miserably. A room in even the cheapest of fleapits cost upwards of ten thousand CFA (£20), seven day's budgeting for me and one tenth of the annual per capita income. The hotels Provençal, de la Paix, Indépendance, and du Prince were all full. The Grasland, a celebrated old brothel at the intersection of Grasland and Raffenel, was also complet. Being seen to live in a hotel (or a brothel), or even attempting to find one, means that you've got more money than most, and even my fruitless search attracted the unwelcome attention of the usual motley band of hustlers, offering almost anything from friendship to weed and fake gold dust in return for my money (or my camera). Many others cannot be bothered with the patter, and just snatch and run before the poor bewildered tourist has even had time to realise what has befallen them. The patter was much the same as in Fès, only more threatening.
   'Pssst, pssst... you on your own?' they ask gleefully.
   'Hey, you want yamba? Good grass, pas de probleme. Good quality, follow me, follow me.' Once, when I didn't, he came back and I heard insults.
   'Toubab,' he hissed. 'Toubab, you are all the same. Lots money, no money. You are a bourgeois dog. Those who have no time are already dead.' Then, he spat at my feet. I couldn't even ask directions without having demands for CFA thrust at me. It is not the fact that Westerners are rich per se that angers Africans, I was told by Papa, but that their wealth is not shared. The Baye Fall alms-collectors were the worst, and on several occasions threatened me with their clubs, and even when I did cough up, still showered me with insults and curses. Dakar is not a place to flaunt one's wealth, with the exception only of well-guarded neo-colonial aristocrats, diplomats, and government ministers who glide around town in black, chauffeur-driven limousines. Neither is Dakar, to put it bluntly, a good place to be white in. Perhaps it is not surprising - given the past - that I experienced continuous racism. The era of the slave trade was in effect the true Dark Age for Africa, a time when Europeans of all nations convinced themselves that 'whites' were a superior kind of human being, and that it was their duty, therefore, to 'civilise' the Dark Continent. For too long, Africa has been the epitome of savagery, and the victim of unforgivable distortions wrought by imperial historians (who conveniently forgot the glorious empires of Ghana, Mali and the Songhai, which were in many respects much more advanced than their European counterparts).
   The once widely read and respected 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who had taken it upon himself to educate his son in the marvels of the world, wrote to him in 1742: 'The Africans are the most ignorant and unpolished people in the world, little better than the lions, tigers, leopards, and other wild beasts...' Indeed, most colonists considered Negroes too retarded to have created their great empires on their own, and therefore believed that contact with the supposedly more intelligent Hamitic-speaking North Africans was undoubtedly the real cause. In fact, it was the Negroes who had always been more culturally advanced than the infiltrating desert nomads. The Neolithic revolution began well before the Arabs or Berbers had even heard of the place, and as the prehistoric rock art of the Sahara shows, the first cultivators of the then rich Sahel had been black.
   The darkest thing about Africa, of course, has always been our ignorance of it. As the Nigerian poet Chinweizu puts it in Colonizer's Logic: 'These natives are unintelligent - We can't understand their language.'

The thing I found hardest to understand was why so many of Dakar's inhabitants seemed to consider anything European as being inherently superior to the products of their own culture. Every day, I would see men strutting about aimlessly, bedecked with personal stereos, which were invariably mere pretence for they always lacked the money to buy batteries. Perhaps I am unwittingly conforming to the petty tourist mentality of wanting to see 'elsewhere' as 'authentic' or 'unspoilt'. Perhaps my attitude betrays the vain hope that Western consumer culture isn't as strong as I fear, that it will not after all conquer the world. But, on reflection, I find little ground for such optimism. It was distressing to see the extent to which so many Africans have discarded, and to some degree also forgotten, their indigenous cultures and values, and have looked instead to the so-called First World for their guiding principles. Almost anything that I cared to mention regarding England or Europe was treated by many Dakariens as Gospel. Indeed, they seemed to expect nothing short of it. There was nothing I could say to dissuade them from believing that Europe, America, capitalism and even Margaret Thatcher were the best things to have happened to the world. In the main, the citizens of Dakar strive to dress like us, eat like us, smile like us and, ultimately, to be us. It is a vicious circle. Sembène Ousmane, a celebrated Senegalese writer and film director, made the point in The Last of the Empire:

Look at the inhabitants of the towns, Saint-Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, Gorée ... Because of their long period of contact with Europeans, they thought themselves more 'civilized' than the other bush Africans living in forest or savanna. Their arrogance grew when they alone were given the vote and considered French citizens... They began to parody [the Europeans], and acquired a pretentious mentality... These alienated, rootless people, enslaved from within... were unconsciously the most faithful and devoted servants of the then prevailing system of occupation.

Similarly, Ben Okri (author of the brilliant Famished Road) writes:

The oppressed always live with death... And yet they often think of their victors as their standard of aspiration... They have not as a people learned as yet how to snatch historical confidence. (13)

To my mind, the developed world is in many ways the most primitive. Corporate giants continue to export condemned and otherwise illegal products to Africa: dangerous fertilizers and pesticides, tainted foodstuffs banned from sale in Europe, and medicines whose side-effects far outweigh their benefits. While I was in Dakar, a political storm was only just breaking over a secretive and illegal shipment of high-level toxic waste from Europe to Nigeria. The Pentagon, Downing Street and the Kremlin have always been guilty of supporting inhuman dictators, and not just in Africa, and seemingly with no thought for the people that they help to condemn. One of the many reasons for this is the money that we make from Africa. For example, of the foreign aid 'donated' to Senegal each year, over thirty-five percent is returned to service the interest due on debt repayments. It is a situation both sick and absurd, and yet Senegal is relatively well off in these matters. Other nations have to return twice the amount that they receive in aid.

Still, I suppose that there is some hope in all of this. The Africans - if I may generalise just once - are an exceptionally optimistic people, even in the direst of circumstances. They have to be. Ex Africa semper alquid novi remarked Pliny: there is always something new from Africa. There is a Bantu proverb that compares Africans to a ball of India rubber. The harder you throw it to the ground, the higher it will rise.

* * *

I decided to try the Cathédrale du Souvenir Africain and its adjacent mission on the Boulevard de la République, in the hope that - like Papa in Saint-Louis - they might help my search for accommodation. Unfortunately, as I'd been warned, come my to be seen by the relevant official I was wearily told of the large number of similar requests that the mission received every day, of the lack of space, of under funding, et cetera. At the time, my selfishness determined that I saw these quite valid reasons merely as excuses. My unreasonable reaction was an early omen of the problems that were to beset me later on... I did, however, have the good fortune to meet two young West African refugees, one from Ghana, the other a Liberian, who were so pleased at being able to converse in English with somebody else that they kindly offered to put me up for as long as I wished. Along with another young refugee, a Guinean who spoke only Fulfulde and rudimentary Portuguese, we walked back along the west coast of Cap Vert and into the Medina.
   Taking its name from the Arabian refuge of the Prophet Muhammad, Dakar's Medina was hurriedly erected to house survivors of a disastrous plague that swept through much of the country between 1914 and 1915. Though temporary in nature, its population has - perhaps ironically - never ceased to increase. Its streets, set in a grid of right angles, have been assigned numbers rather than the dignity of names. Many alleyways are almost impassable because of sand and rubbish, and occasionally, dangerously sharp splinters of glass and metal catch the feet of the unwary. Elsewhere, there are flame-gutted husks of cars and vans, their tyres salvaged, along with broken bricks and lumps of mortar, to keep down roofs. Where there is tarmac, it is shattered and uneven, with murky puddles in its many potholes. The low compound-houses sandwiched in between the streets look as though they have been squashed flat by the heat and humidity. Many are spartan in the extreme, with canvas awnings or corroded sheets of metal for roofs, and crumbling unadorned walls that seem never to have been plastered or painted. Other walls bear oddly polite graffitied notices reading 'URINER INTERDIT S.V.P.', which were largely ignored, as I could tell from the smell. Infrastructure and facilities are woefully inadequate. Parts of the Medina are shrouded under a jumbled mesh of telephone and electricity wires, even though few dwellings are actually connected. Many streets are unpaved, and in winter, the Medina tends to be flooded with a noxious mixture of rainwater, mosquito larvae and sewage. Everywhere, great ridges of waste lie festering along the lengths of the wider streets - sometimes still smouldering from fires - around which grubby children scramble and play. Even official publications refer to 'insalubrious and un-integrated quartiers,' yet the government is powerless to do anything about them - it has no money.
   At the end of one alleyway, hidden amidst a clutter of cracked Evian spring water bottles and rusty cans and plastic bags, was a solitary cardboard box, under which lived a scabby ginger cat and her three remaining five-day-old kittens. The father, a one-eyed tom, prowled around at the entrance to the alleyway, kept at a distance by the claws of the mother who, I was told, had killed and probably eaten her three other offspring.

The refugees lived in a makeshift compound in the more squalid northern fringe of the Medina, a squatter camp that has for years been earmarked for demolition. It has only been 'saved' by a lack of resources for building a healthier alternative. We arrived as a chill wind blew in from the Atlantic. Dozens of women armed with tin buckets and plastic tubs milled around a standpipe beside a solitary flame-tree, suckling toddlers from large floppy breasts, and yacking amongst themselves. For the most part, I was to be pleasantly surprised by the cheerful resilience of the Medina's inhabitants, who would respond to a friendly greeting with graceful smiles and offers to sit and talk for a while. The cliché, 'blitz mentality', comes to mind.
   For the refugees, however, life here was another story. Their compound was, by already low standards, one of the more rudimentary. The bathroom, especially, was repulsive in every sense of the word - a dark, slimy cubicle that I will only say was festering from top to bottom with maggots. Thin sheets of cardboard served as partitions between four largely unfurnished rooms, with four or five people to each. Whereas in Nouakchott, even the poorest had managed to adorn their walls with pictures and images culled from magazines and old newspapers, these rooms were utterly bare but for a coating of mould. The contrast, I think, served only to further entrench the refugees' isolation from the world outside. The floor was covered with equally mouldy PVC, ripped and shredded, exposing crumbling cement foundations that were infested with cockroaches and wood lice. The only window in the room was broken, which let in the stench of a stagnant well, in addition to nocturnal swarms of mosquitoes. My hosts could not even afford smoke coils, although that was the least of their worries. None of them had eaten properly for five whole days, and as a result, they suffered from frequent headaches, sudden foul tempers, stomach aches, bad skin, bad eyes, and alternate spells of light- and heavy-headedness. The Guinean actually threw up the first meal I bought him, because his stomach wasn't used to food. Nor was there any electricity, and as candles were too expensive, when they had been studying at Dakar University they had worked in the dark.
   I say that my hosts had been studying, for all three had recently been expelled, and their grants from the United Nations suspended. Slowly and painfully, over several days and usually over lukewarm bowls of mafé meat stew that I bought them, they explained the events that had brought about their presently hopeless situation. I listened to their stories with increasing disbelief. They painted sad and gloomy pictures that made me more miserable than I had felt for a very long time. What follows is the little I remember or can reconstruct of these tales, for I was later, in rather unfortunate circumstances myself, to lose my diary and all the notes that I had taken. Above all, the three stories - whether true or otherwise - serve to illustrate, even symbolise, the tragic fates that have overtaken many West African countries in the pioneering period that has followed independence, which as I write, is barely thirty years old.

I begin with the Guinean, whose Fulfulde was translated for me by Tokpah Kennedy, the Liberian. Guinea stumbled rather prematurely into the international limelight in 1958, with Ahmed Sekou Touré's celebrated snub to the visiting Charles de Gaulle: 'We, for our part, have a first and indispensable need, that of our dignity. Now, there is no dignity without freedom... We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in slavery.' It was a sentiment much applauded by other Africans at the time (with the exception of Francophiles such as Léopold Senghor, and the Ivory Coast's Houphouët-Boigny). As a result, the French, piqued at being humiliated by such a small and insignificant country, abandoned Guinea in much the same way that a swarm of locusts would leave a once green pasture. Files and documents were burned, aid was cancelled, vehicles destroyed, and anything of value that wasn't nailed down was taken away, including by some accounts even the light bulbs from government offices. The country and its economy was left in ruins, isolated, suspicious, and with precisely six university graduates to its name. Yet, aided at first by Stalin and the Eastern Bloc, and then from 1962 by the Americans - who feared Guinea becoming another Soviet cold war satellite - the country painfully began to pick up the pieces of its shattered past.
   Progress was slow, however, and perhaps as a result, Touré resorted to dictatorship, in its time one of the harshest and most draconian regimes in all Africa. The Fulfulde-speakers of the Fouta Djalon, especially, were prime targets for Touré's paranoia and the fear of the 'Permanent Plot', and were subjected to much the same treatment as the Jews and dissidents of the USSR. In 1966, inspired by the Chinese example, Touré led his country into a miserable 'cultural revolution', which was essentially a wholesale purge against degenerate intellectuals, bureaucrats, and other potential troublemakers. 'Enemies of the State' were discovered with alarming frequency, and terror became widespread: torture, mysterious disappearances, summary executions, and detentions without trial. The country plunged into a dark and sinister twilight from which it has still not properly recovered. Even the refugee, who was still only in his twenties, remembered the terror, and called it 'a nightmare in sight of the sun'. Salvation for Guinea and the refugee's family should have come in 1984, upon the despot's long awaited death, but if anything, the situation since then has degenerated still further. The price of food basics - rice especially - soared, as did hunger, as the shroud of famine drew closer. Starving, the Guinean abandoned his family and fled Conakry, once hailed as the Paris of Africa, to seek a better life elsewhere.

The Ghanaian was called Richard, a tall and amiable young man with the exquisite offbeat English accent that all cultivated Ghanaians seem to possess. Ghana, the first African country to gain independence, has, in stark contrast to Guinea, long been able to pride itself on a broad reaching and high standard of education. Many Ghanaian children are taught from an early age to speak several languages, which undoubtedly goes some way to reducing intertribal tension, something with which Ghana, like Senegal, is little affected. Richard, by his account, had been at the top of the class throughout his childhood, something that enabled him to study legal science at Accra. There was every prospect of his going on to becoming a successful businessman or even politician.
   So what had gone so horribly wrong, that I now found him half-starving, one and a half thousand miles adrift in the slums of Dakar, and with little hope of escape? He was, after all, from that tiny and privileged minority of Ghanaians rich enough to afford servants and even a BMW. In supreme irony, it was his very intelligence that was his downfall. The problem was that he'd been recruited at university by the secret police - to become a spy, in other words - and initially this was more than he had ever dared dream. It meant plenty of money, and golden prospects of rapid ascent up the political ladder. Both his father and uncle were government functionaries, something that seemed to ensure a bright future. The young Richard was also an idealist, and admired greatly the style and politics of Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had come to power at the second attempt in the coup of June 1979, and who had envisioned a 'moral revolution' based on socialist principles. The subsequent ideological purges, albeit small on an African scale, did not seem to worry the young student. After all, it was all for the good of the nation.
   Richard's military training lasted two years, ending early in 1983. By then, however, something had changed. Rawlings had been in power for barely four years, during which time the continued stability of the country (which had once seemed inviolable) seemed rather less certain. Rawlings himself engineered a third coup on New Year's Eve, 1981, ostensibly to stamp out corruption, and several other attempts followed in short succession during 1982 and 1983. For Richard, there was to follow another year of more specialist training before he was to become a fully fledged secret agent, yet suddenly he got cold feet. As he explained: 'What if there is to be another, but this time, successful coup? I would be seen as an enemy of the new state. My family would be compromised. My life would be threatened...' Furthermore, if he is to be believed, Richard began to dislike the prospect of spying and informing on his own people. This was not part of the caring socialist society that he had hoped for, but what could he do? He knew too much simply to refuse the career that awaited him. He had come too far. And so he ran, far away from Ghana, towards any place where Ghanaian agents wouldn't be able to find him. And so it was that I found Richard in Dakar.

Tokpah Kennedy, lastly, was the Liberian, and in many ways his situation represented what Richard feared had he stayed on in Ghana. Like Richard, Tokpah's family had for a long time been involved in government. From what I can recall, Tokpah said that his father had been high up in the Ministry of Economics, possibly even the minister himself, and had been financially as well as politically powerful. The government at the time was that of William Tolbert, who presided over something of a family empire. But Liberia, as it has recently shown, is one of the least stable of all African countries, racked with tribal conflict (even outside the bloody confusion of its civil war). Every government since independence has, without exception, been of a tribal nature, and there seems to be little room for power-sharing or tolerance. In consequence, its frequent changes of government have all had a significant element of blood-feuding to them. There is a coup d'état, then a purge and endless reprisals, repression, atrocities, and even genocide. By the close of the 1970s, the economy was in a mess and the cost of rice, as in Guinea, had risen beyond of the reach of many.
   April 1980 was one of many black months in Liberian history, for it saw the coup d'état that brought to power the tyrant Samuel Doe. Tolbert and most of his supporters were murdered, along with Tokpah's family. His father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, all were killed. Their bodies were dumped alongside Tolbert's in shallow coastal graves, the same graves into which Doe himself would be thrown ten years later. Tokpah, the only member of his family to survive the massacre, fled initially to Sierra Leone. That country, however - like Liberia - is one ravaged by drought, and Tokpah found it hard to survive. So he decided to take a risk by smuggling a small quantity of diamonds (a commodity with which Sierra Leone is well endowed) into Senegal. Tokpah was lucky, and found himself with enough money to live on for a whole year. The second time he tried the ruse, however, a couple of years later, he was discovered at the border and thrown in jail. His passport and papers were confiscated. Finally, last year, he escaped to Dakar, stowed-away in an onion lorry.

Like Richard and the Guinean, Tokpah had found help at the door of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Their stories, however, do not end with their flight to Senegal. Until a few months prior to my meeting them, they had been studying at Cheikh Anta Diop university - half a mile from the compound - with their fees and living expenses footed by the UN.
   February 28, 1988 - the day of my departure from Manchester - was also the date of the Senegalese presidential and legislative elections, in which the incumbent Abdou Diouf, Senghor's successor, was duly returned for another term in office. The ballot, however, did not pass entirely without incident. In the tense atmosphere that preceded the elections, students and pupils all over Senegal went on strike to protest about a disciplinary measure taken against a student in Thiès. To the dismay of Diouf, the protests quickly took on a political slant, and soon embraced a score of other grievances. They protested at the lack of teachers, at the lack of basic equipment, and then at the declining state of the economy. They protested about the spiralling cost of food and then, spurred on by a rash of similar protests that had broken out throughout North and West Africa, they protested against the government. I saw graffiti in Dakar proclaiming 'Death to Diouf' and 'Wade for President', and everywhere the letters S-O-P-I [the opposition alliance] scrawled beside big Vs.
   The government responded to the protests with a number of heavy-handed police raids on the university campus. Then, when disappointed opposition supporters took to the streets after the first election results became known, more tear gas followed, in addition to looting and burning, the stationing of tanks on the streets of Dakar, three bomb attacks, the arrest of Wade for incitement (he claimed to have been defeated by a rigged poll), the declaration of a state of emergency, the imposition of a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and the suspension of the three refugees, who, rightly or wrongly, were suspected to be ringleaders of the violence.
   The aftershocks of all this were still very much in evidence, despite the emergency decree having been lifted three weeks previously. Many of the Medina's inhabitants - not least the refugees - were loathe to venture out of their shacks at night, and when I once inadvertently mentioned Wade, I was urgently and anxiously told to shut up for fear of government spies and informers. As a result, and in desperation, Richard had started entertaining ideas of fleeing to Libya, where he had heard he would be able to train as a terrorist commando, with all the benefits of good pay and a Libyan passport, and even the possibility of reaching Europe. Although I'd heard similar stories in Morocco, in Dakar there seemed to be more substance to the rumoured Libyan connection. Jerry Rawlings himself was well known for his friendly rapport with Ghaddafi, and in Senegal, the leader of a militant Tidjiana sect, Ahmet Khalif Niassa, had been exiled to Libya at the end of the 1970s for allegedly plotting an Islamic revolution. In 1987, Libyan bombers were arrested in Senegal in possession of detonators of the same type that were used to down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, and in the Gambia, three coup attempts (1980, early 1988, and 1992) also had alleged Libyan links. The problem for Richard was how to get there. Even if he had the money, his refugee papers restricted his movements to Senegal.
   Tokpah was more pessimistic about the future, and placed what little remained of his faith in fate and religion. 'My dear brother Jens,' he wrote later: 'We are starving here. We are hungry. Brother Gaye, you are my loyal brother, I wish I was not here. I wish that you could help me. I pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to deliver us from our present situation.' For the most part, I did not how to react, now that I was actually face-to-face with a 'starving African'. What could I do? Give money? I could afford a little, but my hosts preferred that I bought them meals with it. I once even considered giving them all my money, but then I'd be as stuck as they were, and there were so many other people in the same position. I suggested buying them a charcoal burner, since most of their money disappeared into eathouses, but they said that they wouldn't be able to afford the fuel. In any case, they wanted to get out of Dakar. For them, acquiring a stove only represented their inability to flee.
   'This place is truly evil,' said Tokpah. 'It is the Devil's Paradise.' Even their university friends had, without exception, disowned them. Dakar really is a city that sucks in people so that they can never escape. There was also an irony in my own situation, for I had discovered that I could not afford any of the flights back to Europe, and would therefore have to cycle on to Banjul (capital of the Gambia) where, I had been told, flights were much cheaper. Having intended to stay only a few hours in Dakar, I had ended up staying almost two weeks.

On the morning of Friday, 17 June, Richard and Tokpah had reached breaking point. They resolved to visit the office of the UNHCR, and to remain there until they were either granted an audience with Abdou Diouf himself, or given transportation out of Senegal. The Guinean tried to dissuade them (they had previously been ejected with a warning not to come back), but Tokpah and Richard just pushed him aside and strode purposefully away. What happened next, when they reached the office, is unclear, for I never saw them again. When I went to the police station the next day, I was brusquely bundled away by two officers who said that it was none of my business. At the UN, I was refused entry and was told that the refugees had smashed up the office, ripping out telephone and electricity cables, and that they had been fighting with the guards. Tokpah himself wrote me, half a year later via the Red Cross, that he and Richard had been imprisoned for two months, that they had been beaten up by the jailers, and that they had both fallen ill, although he didn't say from what. I replied to the letter, but heard no more.
   The Guinean came back to the shack in the evening, so scared that his cheeks had leached to a pale yellow-brown. His skin was covered with a film of oily, grey sweat. I'd never seen a man so scared. He said that there was nothing that I could do, and that I should leave the next day. Never in my life had I felt so helpless.


Chasing the Lizard’s Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle
Copyright Jens Finke, 1996-2003

also by Jens Finke
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