Friday, April 4, 2014

This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes

In order to bring a month’s supply of food with me I had to limit the number of clothes I packed so my greatest stress has come from wardrobe rather than food scarcity.  I had intended to buy lots of clothes here so I didn’t anticipate that limiting my wardrobe would cause problems.  I guess I am lucky to have missed all the frigid weather in Atlanta this winter, but it is cooler in Saint Louis than I had anticipated.  I didn’t bring enough warm clothes so there have been many days when I longed to be let loose in Walmart for about two hours so I could buy undershirts, long-sleeved turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm socks.

My present wardrobe contains three hoodie sweatshirts and four cotton cardigans.  Since I usually have to layer the hoodies over the cardigans to stay warm, keeping my outerwear clean and presentable is a challenge.  Very few people in Senegal have washing machines.  Electricity is often uncertain and the cost of such appliances is prohibitive for most of the population.  In almost every tailor’s shop you will see foot pedaled sewing machines that are 60 or 70 years old but I have not seen anyone using antique mechanical aids to do the wash.

Yet such machines certainly existed.  If you study the patent record, you can find all kinds of mechanical machines for agitating and wringing out clothes.

 Illustration for an 1870 washing machine (US106137)

Why didn’t people here adopt such machines back when they started using mechanical sewing machines?

Illustration for an 1892 clothes wringer (US471924-0)

My conclusion is that sewing became mechanized because tailoring and dressmaking are male professions here whereas women do the wash at home and families with even modest means hire laundresses.  There are so many illiterate, unskilled people from the countryside looking for work in the city that you can have your laundry done by hand for less than it would cost to do it yourself at a coin laundry in the States. 

Of course, you will have to wait at least two days to get the laundry back.  Even the richest people don’t have dryers here so your clothes may have to stay on the line overnight.  Rubbing and scrubbing the fabrics by hand puts much more stress on the fibers than our high tech washing machines so several of my garments came back shredded or they got lost and didn’t come back at all.  The crisis point for me came Christmas week.  I had sent almost all my clothes out to be washed not knowing that the laundress would be traveling out of town to attend a religious festival.  She fell ill when she got back and didn’t return my clothes for a week.  Having to wear the same outfit continuously for 5 days was the last straw.   

Scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing out two loads of clothes by hand took the better part of a whole day so I bought a washing machine and paid the plumber and electrician to come install it. 

I still have to navigate around the uncertainty of whether the water pressure will be high enough to run the machine on any given day and whether the neighbors will be occupying the clothesline when I get ready to hang up my wash but now I would agree with Hans Rosling that the washing machine is the greatest invention of the Industrial Revolution.

Friday, March 28, 2014

You Never Miss Your Water

 Despite dire warnings against drinking the tap water in Senegal, my first week in Dakar I forgot and rinsed my toothbrush in it.  When I realized my mistake I shuddered in horror and tossed the toothbrush in the trash.  Since then I have paid anywhere from 500 – 1,500 CFA for a 1.5 liter bottle of water. At 2 liters a day drinking water was costing me about $12 a week.  Eventually I found places to buy water in more economical 10 liter jugs but when a broken sewer pipe caused a two week water shortage in Dakar, the supply of 10 liter jugs dried up all over the country.

            Saint Louis centers on an island in the middle of the Senegal River so there is water all around.  Yet, during the dry season, the city can go for months without receiving a drop of rain.  Shifting currents drive salt water from the ocean into the river, turning its waters brackish so the city draws its water from inland sources rather than the river.

            The urban master plan of 1828 imposed an orthogonal grid on Saint Louis.  After his appointment as Governor in 1854, Louis Faidherbe had the sewer lines installed and then subdivided lots on the island for homes and businesses, yet 21st century Saint Louis suffers from deferred maintenance issues.  The city has been upgrading the storm water drainage pipes to reduce the risk of flooding but the construction has not improved water pressure.   

This ruined water tower two blocks north of our apartment is one reason water pressure is so precarious.

            Water service cuts off without warning for hours at a time so most households try to keep a reserve on hand. The most affluent citizens add electric pumps to their reserve tanks so that they can enjoy uninterrupted showers when the flow of city water slows to a trickle, but living on the 4th floor without a pump makes it even harder for water to reach our taps in a steady stream.  Washing my hair has therefore become an ordeal because more often than not, the water cuts out just when my hair is full of shampoo.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Provisions for a Picky Eater

My African ancestors apparently came from regions in the rain forest where the tse tse fly makes it difficult to raise dairy animals.  Senegal however is part of the dry Sahel region bordering on the Sahara desert where herding sheep, goats, and cattle provides important food sources.  As a lactose intolerant vegetarian, finding provisions abroad has always been difficult.  In 1988 I was supposed to spend the year as an English language teaching assistant in a Parisian lycée (high school) but after three weeks of searching for an affordable place to live I had exhausted my peanut butter reserves so I gave up and came home.  This time around I came with a 30-day supply of nut butters in individual packets and a two-week supply of home baked graham crackers.  

I had not eaten white flour in years but when the crackers ran out, I resorted to buying French baguettes from street corner stands like this one:

None of these stands looks very clean and it is almost certain that by the time you get your baguette home, an army of flies will have walked on it.

“Your diet will change,” predicted my friend and colleague, Michael and it has – but only in having to accept conventional rather than organic fare.  In the most affluent areas of Dakar, the French grocery chain, Casino, does offer some organic products so I trek there from Saint Louis to stock up on muesli, organic tomato sauce, organic unsweetened soy milk, and organic whole wheat pasta.  Fresh organic produce is unheard of.  Nothing much grows during the rainy season, which lasts through July, August, and September so the selection of fresh produce was rather limited when I arrived.  I was able to get conventionally grown apples and carrots even though most of them are flown in from South Africa.  Now that the weather is cooler, there is a wider variety of produce available.  I have bought eggplant, lettuce, radishes, peppers, cucumbers, and green beans. 

 Green beans, peppers, and onions with rotini

Although I brought organic beans, rice, and quinoa, I wasn’t able to prepare any meals with them until we moved into our apartment.  This is the first hot meal I prepared after we got our stove and refrigerator hooked up:

 Beans and rice on a bed of lettuce

Our stove is kind of scary.  It connects to a tank of propane gas.   

You open the tank, turn on the burners or the oven, and then use a match to light them.  I had always been afraid of lighting matches before but I have acquired the knack here. 

Senegal is a major exporter of peanuts so they are plentiful everywhere and many street corner vendors sell grilled cashews and salt roasted peanuts.  Unfortunately American-style peanut butter is not common.  I found some 100% peanut paste in a shop that caters to expatriates here in Saint Louis.  It didn’t taste like any peanut butter I had eaten before. 

Still it isn’t bad in peanut butter and honey sandwiches.  While the Zena company produces a variety of jellies and jams with local fruits, they are all made with sugar so I probably won’t get to have a proper peanut butter and jelly sandwich until I get back home.

 Peanut butter on Wassa crackers with apples and carrots

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Main Chance

            "I don't drink.  I don't even smoke," said 21-year-old Abdulsow Laoubé when I explained that in the U.S. turning 21 means you can legally buy alcoholic beverages.  Instead he is focused on earning money to help his parents and younger sister.  

           Everyday he comes to the city center to sell goods on the street.  He is a very good salesman -- persistent but gracious and quick to read a prospective client’s needs.  Indeed, young Abdulsow comes from a family of merchants who sell all kinds of goods.  Two of the statues he offered me evince the grace of the African woman as celebrated in Senghor’s poem, “Femme nue, femme noire.”  


Another is a re-interpretation of Rodin’s thinker while the last one represents a woman in a traditional dance posture.  

There was also a fine black mask with a comical mien, but having arrived in Senegal with over 100 pounds of electronics, clothes, and organic provisions, I was reluctant to add any more weight to my bags.  I thought about all the boxes and bins I put in storage before I left and decided to pay for a few minutes of Abdulsow’s time instead.  He told me his goal is to work in France or the United States one day so that he can send money home to his family.    

            Abdulsow clearly has a strong Senegalese identity.  A native of Dakar, he roots for the soccer team in the Dar es Salaam neighborhood where he lives.  When I asked him about his favorite music artists, he did not mention any American hip hop stars.  Instead he named Youssou N’Dour.  N’Dour, born October 1, 1959 would be closer to his father’s generation, but Abdulsow appreciates N’Dour’s mbalax style.  He also admires Bala Gaye, king of the Senegalese wrestlers yet his dream would be to facilitate arrangements for les zembés (sons of Senegal) to work abroad.

            In 2005, the World Bank reported that about 4% of the Senegalese population was living abroad.  Remittances to Senegal from expatriates may increase per capita income by almost 60% as compared to households that do not have a member working abroad.  So with the overall unemployment rate standing at about 48%, to young Senegalese like Abdulsow emigration seems like the main chance.  Yet the financial crisis of recent years has thrown many Senegalese living abroad out of work and tightened borders against new immigrants.  

             Although thousands of Africans have drowned trying to reach Spain or Italy in small fishing boats over the last two decades, most of the young people I have encountered share the dream of seeking their fortune abroad.  Young Senegalese regard the U.S. as an El Dorado, yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released in November 2013 indicate that one in every four African American youth aged 16-25 is unemployed.  Indeed youth unemployment has reached crisis proportions worldwide.  Market forces alone will not maximize the potential of youth as contributors to economic development, but by investing in infrastructure improvements that create public works jobs, offering training and apprenticeship programs, reforming education so that students emerge with marketable skills, and facilitating access to capital and mentoring for young entrepreneurs, government policies could ensure that youth with their eye on the main chance can realize their dreams.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Phoning Home

  I spent the summer of 1988 on a University of Arizona study abroad program in Guadalajara, Mexico.  In those days, placing a long distance call from Mexico to the U.S. entailed trekking to the telephone and telegraph office, standing in-line, submitting the call request, then cooling my heels for as long as an hour until an operator could connect the call.  I wrote a lot of post cards and letters that summer.  Twenty-five years later, Nicholas D. Kristoff has observed that “More people worldwide now have cellphones than toilets.”

    My first night in Senegal I used the free WiFi in my hotel room to send my brother a Skype video message from my iPhone indicating I had arrived safely.   If I had been willing to pay the roaming charges I could have dialed directly from the phone.  Unfortunately T-Mobile does not have coverage in Senegal.  Getting them to cancel rather than suspend my service was as sticky as breaking up with a boyfriend even though I was not on a contract.  Getting them to unlock my sim card was another roadblock.  “It will take at least 14 days,” the customer service rep explained. 

    My iPhone5 can supposedly accept sim cards from a variety of international carriers but I couldn’t afford to be without a phone for 14 days so I walked into a Sonatel store in Dakar and walked out half an hour later with a prepaid phone.

   For a little less than $20 I got an Alcatel candy bar handset that has a radio and a built-in flashlight along with an Orange sim card.  While the fee per minute varies, calls to other Orange subscribers within Senegal are inexpensive.  Many people here keep sim cards from several different carriers on hand.  I observed my seatmate on the Air France flight that brought me to Dakar swapping out sim cards as she placed calls to various people before take off and after we landed.

    Africa is the mother of telecommunications technology.  Long before the period of European contact, the Yoruba people had designed hourglass-shaped drums that could mimic the intonation patterns of their spoken language.  Drummers hold talking drums under their armpits and vary the pitch by squeezing the tension cords attached to the two drum heads.  The sound waves carrying talking drum messages can travel 4-5 miles, far enough for another drummer to relay the signal to the next village.  18th century Europeans observed that talking drum messages could travel faster than a courier on horseback.  Fear that drummers would rally "flash mob" slave revolts led North American slaveholders to ban African-style drums and drumming, yet Africans and their descendants carried on their percussive traditions by stamping their feet, clapping their hands, and creating vocal percussion riffs that evolved into present day beat boxing.

  Although the telegraph, telephone, and radio eventually eclipsed the talking drum, according to Paul Bright, Africa is now the second largest mobile phone market in the world with 600 million subscribers.  While smartphone penetration is currently 3-17% of the population on the continent of Africa, Jon Evans of Tech Crunch predicts that:
when the smartphone revolution hits the developing world, that’s when things are going to get really interesting, because it will also be their computer revolution and Internet revolution, all at the same time. (­‐phones­‐are-­‐not‐the­‐future/ accessed 7/24/12)
In other words, the "mothership" is about to drop 500,000 megawatts of P. Funk power and I am jazzed that chariot finally picked up my signal and swung down to let me ride.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Africa, Atlanta, and the Aéropostale

(Bust of Jean Mermoz in the Jean Mermoz Museum, Saint Louis, Senegal)

When I left Atlanta for Senegal on an Air France flight operated by Delta Air Lines, I thought that Aéropostale was just the name of a retail outlet.  Although the exploits of Jean Mermoz and other Aéropostale aviators rank with those of the Wright brothers or Charles Lindberg, I had never heard of these cockpit cowboys who pioneered an airborne equivalent of the Pony Express.

Mermoz was born in Aubenton, France in 1901.  He joined the army in 1920 where he demonstrated keen aptitude as a pilot despite his distaste for army discipline.  After his discharge, he struggled to find work before landing a position with George Latécoère’s airmail service in 1924.  Mermoz started as a mechanic but was soon promoted to pilot, braving the Pyrenees in Breuget XIV bi-planes that had been demobilized after WWI.

(Model of the Breuget XIV in the Jean Mermoz Museum, Saint Louis, Senegal)

With a frame of lightweight aluminum tubing, the Breuget XIV was fast, agile, and sturdy.  It had a maximum cruising speed of 150 kilometers per hour at altitudes up to 6,000 meters.  These features enabled it to perform well as a bomber.  Although Breuget XIVs equipped with radios and cameras gave good service during the war as reconnaissance planes, the models Mermoz and his colleagues flew as they pushed the airmail service from Barcelona to Casablanca and then on to Dakar lacked most navigational instruments considered standard today.  The open cockpits further subjected pilots to temperature extremes during flights that stretched the Breuget’s range of 900 kilometers to the limit.

(Jean Mermoz and his fellow pilots stayed at the Hotel de la Poste during layovers in Saint Louis, Senegal.  He spent the last night of his life in room 19.)

Mermoz, who once quipped that dying in bed would be an accident, cut a colorful figure in the towns along the Toulouse – Saint Louis route.  In 1926, he crashed in the Mauritanian desert and was captured and held for ransom by nomadic tribesmen.   The following year while testing routes over the Andes, he improvised a take off after a forced landing in the mountains by deftly steering his plane like a bobsled as it coasted down three descending peaks until it gained enough speed to remain airborne.  Then in 1930, only three years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight from New York to Paris, Mermoz extended the “spirit of Saint Louis” in a 21-hour flight linking Saint-Louis, Senegal and Natal, Brazil. 

(Model of the Latécoère 28 in the Jean Mermoz Museum, Saint Louis, Senegal)

Mermoz made this flight in a Latécoère 28-3 seaplane christened Comte de la Vaulx.  The plane’s 12 cylinder Hispano-Suiza engine gave it a maximum cruising speed of 222 kilometers per hour and a range of 4,685 km – more than four times the distance the Breuget XIVs could travel.  Where transatlantic mail service had once required several weeks for delivery by steam ships, Aéropostale pilots flying Laté 28 craft were able to cut delivery times to four days. 

(Bust of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, celebrated author of Le Petit Prince in the Jean Mermoz Museum, Saint Louis, Senegal)

While Georges Latécoère had sold 93% of his company in 1927, his dream of connecting Europe, Africa, and Latin America with airmail routes had finally come true.  Marcelle Bouilloux-Lafont, the Brazillian-based French businessman who bought controlling interest in the Lignes Aériennes Latécoère renamed the venture la Compagnie Général Aéropostale but retained Latécoère’s planes and the celebrated pilots like Mermoz and his friend, Antoine de Saint Exupéry who were instrumental in establishing commercial air routes in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.

(photo by Jorge Castillo/ castlerockstamps)

Commercial aviation was a growth industry during this period so Latécoère faced stiff competition when negotiating air routes and mail contracts with various governments.  Similar to the experience of fledgling airlines like Delta in the U.S., airmail contracts made it possible for carriers to offer regular passenger service.  Builloux-Lafont therefore had a hand in founding several airlines that became ancestors of contemporary passenger airlines, among them la Companhia Aeronautica Brasilieira, Aeroposta Argentina, Aeroposta Uruguya, and Aeroposta Venezolana.

After the stock market crash of 1929, however, the French Ministre de l’Air declined to honor agreements with Bouilloux-Lafont renewing his exclusive airmail concession and line of credit.  Unable to find a partner willing to infuse more capital into the business, Bouilloux-Lafont filed for bankruptcy in 1931.  In 1933 the Ministre de L’Air combined several airlines into Air France, which then bought the Aéropostale’s remaining assets. 

(Today the Sky Team airline alliance flies to more than 1,000 destinations in 178 countries.  Photo by Mathieu Marker, Wikipedia Commons)

I was born on Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, OH so on return trips to my hometown I have visited the National Air Force Museum, the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial, and the John W. Berry Sr. Wright Brothers Aviation Center in the Carillon Historical Park.  The exhibits in these venues focus primarily on U.S. aviation history and downplay the contributions of French aviators like Jean Mermoz whose plane disappeared 800 km off the coast of Africa in 1936.  Now I know that the sacrifices of pilots like Mermoz charted the way for me to land safely on the mother continent. 

(Aéropostale pilots took off and landed their seaplanes along this stretch of beach outside Saint Louis, Senegal, thus it is known as the Hydrobase.  Photo by Erin Saint Peter)