Wednesday, 18 July 2007

First impressions

Finally! I’m here! Most of you won’t know what its for, but I’ll come to that later.

Should have organised more from home really, like a place to stay on the first night. I did, after all, land past nightfall. With a lost luggage (note to self: never again pack guidebook in checked in luggage) disaster, I didn’t leave the airport till about 2 and was at the mercy of touts, as I had also failed to give Advait my flight details. Ended up in a non-AC’d dorm with a bunch of Indians. Great way to start.

Enough of the nitty gritty, and to the impressions. First is that everything, and I MEAN E V E R Y T H I N G is laid out for numbers. Masses of people. Everywhere. It struck me on the first day after my unfortunate arrival when I thought I’d experiment with the Mumbai train system. Quite aside from the fact that I had to use considerable force against the reluctance of existing passengers to accept me by the side, it’s the design of the haphazard system to deal with the vast human traffic that got me. To cope with it, they don’t only need one bridge in one spot, but, in the case of Goregaon Station, at least 5.

So I have accepted my fate. Here at least I am not an individual, but miniscule fraction of the bigger picture which now adorns my wall. Thus I am happy to live in a residential settlement I would have considered hell in Europe, namely the New Mhady Colony, surrounded by apartment blocks that all look the same. Since we are here about an hour from the centre on the southern tip of peninsular that is now Mumbai (before, apparently, it was several islands), it should not have been this way. But because of the sheer numbers, it is inevitable. By way of consoling my self I climb onto the roof of our bungalow (what a luxury) from where I can see vast areas of shrinking open green. There are ten of us here, and although I am certain that none of us will be here to witness it, I have been assured that in a while none of what is in our site will remain this way.

A quick word on my colocataire’s maybe, before I fall into a light half sleep, the only kind the heat, humidity, and the lack of an A/C permits. They are of the new Indian variety, all my age (+/- 2 years), engineers, driving the 24 hour Western IT economy, and happy to do so. Things are changing though, and Alok, my dinner partner tonight, is working for a French company investing in India. Most are happy to be here and are certain that, after a stint with their companies abroad, they would return home. This is where the music’s playing. They are also living as cheaply as possible (3 to a room, all apart from me – spoilt git!), so that they can send money home – tradition in a modern world.

All said I’m now exceedingly happy. Living with great people, in a great house, with a great, interesting job, in a new country. Let the games begin!

Thursday, 10 May 2007


Bought myself a camera before leaving. Nothing snazzy. Digital and unbreakable. First such experiment since my parents & chalet Caroline folk scared me off the box by building a proverbial wall between situation and them. Just picture six adults with camera's in front of their faces while the "subjects" look for Easter eggs in the snow. But seeing as there must be such a thing as "responsible" cameramanship, I decided to go for it again.

Sadly it was stolen after a couple of weeks here (much like the mobile). Don't blame anybody but myself to be honest. But thought I'd give you some of the ones so far, having just noticed a terrible neglect of the same.

Markets... everybody knows I love markets. This one's clean. But there's dozens of them in Dakar. Fish, spices, tourist stuff, Chinese imports... you name it. My personal favorite is the fabric market (marche HLM), with at least 300 tailors in it. The astonishing thing is the tendency to cluster. According to Porter its a sign of a healthy economy. But here it makes no sense. For instance I am just having a travelling case made covered in old tin cans. The stuff is original, and great. But if you want it, you have to go to one specific part of town to look for it. Makes no sense if you ask me. Why don't they spread out?

Ever wondered why some African fabrics shine. Well, this labour is why. Pence per meter. Crazy! Somewhere near the HLM market mentioned above.

Fishing in Africa

Dead fish


Lots of dead fish. This stuff is killed, smoked and sent to landlocked places like Mali. Reminds me of spending a few hours on the back of a pick-up truck laden with the stuff in the north of Mozambique. Never smelt like that before...

Me with catch. I don't think I'll ever do it again though. They didn't kill the thing. Just let it choke and suffer. Horrible!

Baas with penis extension. He's the flatmate out here. From Luxembourg. Engineer.

Rhino, White Rhino. We did the token safari in the tiniest little park outside Dakar on the way to Sine. It was a sad sight. None of the animals were from here, and to "entertain" they raced the hyena's with the 4x4. Not cool!

Chilling in the middle of nowhere. This cleared piece of land will soon be a Formula 3000 racetrack. I mean HDI of 155 or so and having an international RACETRACK? Whats going on. But I guess they should build on competitive advantage that the Paris/Plymouth/Lisbon/Amsterdam/Barcelona-Dakar rally has brought.

Pirogue (traditional, colourful wooden boat they have all over the place) by Senegalese sun set. That's supposed to be a pun. There's no sunset here. Nearly always hidden behind a thick veil of water vapour rising from the ground. The depth of colour here is slightly disappointing. Looking forward to India in that respect.

Me fooling around on front of said pirogue.

Pretty flower

Eleni & Baas at breakfast. Don't they look happy?

One of the colourful car rapide's that I still consider the most effective means of public transport anywhere. Its free market working beautifully. They are trying to get the things off the road. Will be sad to see them go.

Me in said machine.

Later that day, standing on the street not really knowing what to do, we saw a huge crowd trying to get into the university campus. Followed, obviously, but weren't let in. After a climb through the gate we encountered this. A gig of a famous Wolof band (don't ask me WHAT they were called) with people hanging from every possible spot. Managed to push our way into the back of the crowd (god, I'm happy I am tall) and took in the whole thing. My first real insight into Senegalese style partying (I'm pulled into the expat crowd most of the time). Small groups of dancers breaking away everywhere. Lots of man-on-man t-shirt pulling stuff going on. But not in the homosexual kind of way!
(NB: I have come to think that we Europeans need some reeducation to get the pervasive homophobia out of us. At first even I was shocked by how long men hold hands at a greeting here. They are not scared of touching. Bit like women in the West. Now I do it all the time. Same with dancers. At first I thought 1-on-1 man-on-man was a sign of Muslim society not leaving enough women for everybody or something like that (I know its ridiculous). Now I know its just another way for men to relate from what I used to. - If you think that is sexual you should see what they do to the women. Its like a dry-hump greeting.)

Lutte (Wrestling) teams preparing for a hot fight. Shame I caught so little of it on camera.

dancing way of life

I've referred to this before. But since dance is everywhere, I can't help but do it again. Though Eleni's special insight is a mine for understanding and depth, you can see it on every street corner, on the beaches, in the classroom. It seems like Senegalese bodies are bursting with unrestrainable dance. Not only that... They are GOOD at it, and I mean really good. Its a feeling and ear for rhythm that lets them penetrate the polyrhythmic music like a knife warm butter; straight to the bottom of things. No movement seems out of place, calculated, or unnatural to the naked eye. Attempts to explain abound, and border on racist at times. The one I like the best however is that they grow up with it. Because music is everywhere. Was just reading the bio of the Baobab Orchestra, which said something about the first president Leopold Sedar Senghor, poet and cultural connoisseur, under who's reign art flourished (god I know little about the history of the country I'm in). Is it him or how far does this rhythmic upbringing go back?

Anyway, obviously loving the insights Eleni has in store for me. Exceptional experience with the dance she is studying with. A highly pregnant women who lives in a compound of about 18, all of whom do nothing and sometimes dance (More on that later). It's more like a hang-out den, punctuated by wild flying of arms and some high-pitched, loud laughs at the inability of the toubab to learn the steps. Those are themselves a copy from the music video's, which makes me wonder how connected they really are to traditional dance. But since Eleni keeps on talking about sexual dances & the man/women divide (basically women dance in private, men think they are showing off - and sometimes i tend to agree with them) and seeing the similarity between them and circumcision dances we saw in Sine Saloum (photo to follow), I don't really doubt it. Again its a question of untrained eye witnessing something incredible and new. Check out the video to convince yourself (eleni on the right):

Obviously became the centre of attention as unmarried toubab. Shame really. Everybody! wants out of the country, whatever way they can. (More on that later too)

Yunus's gilded splinters

Was reading a BBC online article the other day (nb: no. 1 waste of time... general news websites). Its about Yunus's political hopes, and his failure to present a viable opposition party because he
"discovered that I couldn't motivate enough people to put together a team powerful enough for such a daunting task"
(From Spiegel interview: "Ich habe festgestellt, dass ich nicht genügend Menschen motivieren kann, um ein schlagkräftiges Team für eine so große Aufgabe zusammenzustellen.")

Of course the news itself is sad. It looks as though Bangladesh could really do with some renewal in its politics to bring in trust and progressive learning.

But whilst reading the article something entirely else sprang to mind. I have been reading Banker to the Poor, his Autobiography (exceptionally easy read - story telling with nuggets). In it he mentions one particular episode, the opening ceremony of the newly independent Grameen Bank in a rural area, during which he:
"Looked out over all those women seated in their colorful red, green, ocher, and pink saris - a sea of saris - these hundreds of barefoot borrowers who joined our celebration. They had voted with their feet. There was no doubt about their commitment and their determination to break free from poverty. It was a beautiful spectacle"
Comparing this to a comment in the BBC article, which said that:
"Correspondents say that many people questioned whether he had over-estimated his popularity in rural areas, where his bank's high interest rates are disliked."
I wondered whether all was not rosy in the BOP/Microfinance space. Whether we are really listening deeply, or once again imposing conceptual solutions. Of course the history of Yunus's movement discredits this line of thought, being practical in origins. But can we really not do better than being the lesser evil?

What's up?

Not much, to put it bluntly. I said when coming here that it was for jobs and to examine BOP reality. Well, I noticed pretty soon that the former was a no go (even though I put extra effort in after noticing how high the quality of life is here). The main blame is with my need to remain in control (ie. I still feel unable to give my CV to somebody and “hope for the best”). Anyway, being in Intellecap’s second round and having a shot at the BOP impact assessment probably lets me off the hook on that one.

What do I mean when I speak of BOP (Base of the “economic” Pyramid – pc!!!) reality? Well. Its life really. Finding out who’s providing what for the poor… and what they demand. Old examples (BOP 1.0) include shampoo in single use sachets or the small Wrigley’s packet (see pic). Despite language barrier, I am trying to see what’s out there in the 2.0 world. Mobile Banking would certainly be one of them. But this seems a little unattainable for the BOP community non? I did here that there were some pilot projects out there? Can anybody help?

Best part of the 2.0 world is the “deep listening” requirement. I’m taking that seriously. Hanging out with as many locals as will hang out with me (although the rich world of Dakar and the middle class neighbourhood here somewhat inhibit me on the poor front). That means in short many evenings spent on the local basketball court (… these guys are good). Also the French course at university is doing its part of putting me in touch with locals. Although they are mostly from other West African countries and have come here to study language with an eye to university admission later.

Lately shopping has become a big feature, as well as a colonial style search for root causes. Im sure there’ll be more on that later.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

all together

One question that has rattled me in BOP theory is how on earth you want to do all at once: Protect the environment, end corruption and develop markets & standards of living. In many cases it seems outright contradictory, especially for the first two.
The answer to the first problem is usually technology. Hart in Capitalism at the Crossroads advocates building entirely innovative infrastructures, taking us for instance completely away from a reliance on oil by selling only hydrogen cars in emerging economies, and building a supply chain to match. The sad truth is that development of such infrastructures it peu a peu, and based on the cheapest available technology. Both speak against such innovative solutions. This seems to be the case with TATA's $2000 car. From PSD Blog:

Four wheels at the bottom of the pyramid

Following $3 software and a $100 laptop comes the $2000 car. With the transport market at the BOP estimated at $180 billion, no carmaker can afford to laugh anymore. BusinessWeek writes:

The key is India's low-cost engineers and their prodigious ability to trim needless spending to the bone, a skill developed by years of selling to the bottom of the pyramid. "You have to cut costs on everything—seats, materials, components—the whole package," says Tata Group Chairman Ratan N. Tata.

[…] emerging markets, which held little appeal for the major car brands even 10 years ago, now offer a volume bonanza that can make even cheap cars profit spinners. In India alone, some 1.6 million motorcycle and scooter riders are likely to buy a car over the next five years […]. India's auto market is set to double to 3.3 million cars by 2014, while China's will grow 140% over the same period, to 16.5 million cars, according to J.D. Power Automotive Forecasting. That kind of demand makes dirt-cheap cars viable.

Seems therefore that we can't look to developing countries to come up with solutions. They are probably more likely to benefit from our efforts to manage a transition. There is some truth in the comment made by one of the "Big Global Warming Lie" guys who says that the Environmental protection is in direct opposition to development. Any comments on this point would be welcome.

Its a similar story with corruption, which any attempt to do business in the poorest countries (and the rich too, in many cases) is likely to support. The usual answer to this is that corruption is everywhere. A convenient one-liner Reuben Abraham used on me at Doing Good and Doing Well. True to an extent, but that doesnt excuse the extent of it in some places.

getting scared

I am seeing dangers around more African corners these days. I don't know why. Cant say I'm getting old despite my gray hair. Maybe its the company. Or maybe its just some rational thoughts finally finding their way to my brain. Truth be told, after seeing this in front of the university its not surprising that I feel a little wobbly on the back of Baas' scooter.

Have the same, hypochondriac reaction every time I've got diarrhea. "Malaria" is always the first thought. Must say that I really did think I had it after a trip to Hell the other day. Hell looks like this:
Sunny Sunday. Slight Hangover. Went to the beach to hang out and kitesurf but were let down by the wind. A tip from a "friend" led us to another place (Hann) with wind but also with the most disgusting, smelly collection of dead Algae I have ever seen. There were kids playing football, but I wonder who had broken their nose as the stench unbearable. The water was black with waste, oil in touch. Vultures were picking out dead fish from the "sea" at will. In all my time I've never seen anything like it. Never even got to take a pic, I was so distraught. And that's the spot of the Dakar Sailing club???!
Sick for the rest of the day with the smell stuck in my nose. Squirted fluid essence up it, but to no avail. Still in shock...

the beauty of symmetry

The tribal urgings, the polyrhytmic drums, the traffic, screams and life... and then this? Not exactly what I had been expecting, but beautiful to see.

In truth the story takes a sad ending. Firstly, if you think about it, there's probably a thousand more efficient ways of getting stuff on a roof of a building than using 10 men to ship it up. Also, once the Tubab (Woolof for white man) came along, everybody stopped, shouted for money, and then took a while to get back into the work again.
Nevertheless, it shows energy, coordination, stamina and proves that Africans can very well work together...

early questions

so... I have some catching up to do. Two interesting concepts hit me when I first got here.

One is Distance. Well, actually it was Vonnegut, who's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater I was reading in my first days here. Reminded me of some other New York rich kid book (can somebody pleae remind me of the name. very famous?) the second time in Kenya, and reading Pakenham's Scramble for Africa just before at Enkosini. So on one hand you have contrast, on the other the opportunity to create a more intensive experience by reading how locals lived, the musical history, or whatever else tickles your fancy. Makes me think why we bother with the former at all? Truth is, I think (remind me to do a rant on the post-modern thing), if you take it beyond the old holiday book (which I am not really capable of anyway), that distance puts a subjective element into the moral evaluation, which you are not really bound to get at home. Of course you are still going to identify with characters etc. but you always do judge in relation to something, and here the contrast is so big that that something becomes like a disney film... totally fictional.

The second thought was, naturally as I dont have one, on Home. My dreamy stroll through Shoreditch (thanks Ems) in search for just the right place to have my things made me realise that I really dont need one. Travelling around as one is at the moment, we can make ourselves at home anywhere, maybe with the help of strangers such as Baas in Senegal momentarily. This raises a few interesting questions. Why do we think we need a home? Where does that urge come from? The comfort we get from security of home/lover/friends&family is a natural answer. But can't you get that another way? I am coming to believe that Home is just an old-age mothers wisdom that doesn't hold in the modern, global world any longer. Lets see how long I stay happy with that...

first timers

Some may say I'm starting early, for some its too late. Though I don't really like the idea of publicising myself, and am a little scared to be laughed at, a Blog does make sense for three reasons.

Firstly, working my way in to the pro-poor enterprise story is at best windy, at worst exhausting. Documenting this journey is the best way to send signals to others doing the same thing.

Secondly, it makes my travel-updates for those at home a lot easier. (Starting rather late, three weeks into this trip.)

Thridly, it will probably make me research some of my ideas... (I want to say "a little more deeply" but in truth its probably "." - Reminds me of Dr. Smiths comment: "Bright kid, if he learns to use his head before opening his mouth")