There’s a lot of critical stuff that is written about the international aid worker scene, a group of people I guess I have joined lately. Some of that is justified. But to focus on their merits, they are often an interesting bunch of people inhabiting a very odd globalized world. The norm is that your partner comes from a completely different country, and they live in a third country as well. This month I spent time with a Brit working in Sierra Leone who calls home a place she rents not far from Mexico city. While in Dakar a couple of weeks back I spent a very pleasant evening with a Quebecois working in Senegal who lives in Buenos Aires.
They are more familiar with the good places to eat in Kathmandu or Kinshasa than in the capital city of their country at birth, and they generally can link themselves to any other aid worker in any other part of the world through a mutual intermediary: ‘Oh you worked in Haiti? You must know X, who I worked with in Goma’ etc. In some ways, they often resemble their poorer, younger cousin, the ‘backpacker’, but with the years they are keener to look out for safer, family friendly places, and often need to put down roots somewhere, whether it’s buying a place in Latin America, or a coastal cottage in Vietnam, while they continue to make a living in the latest L3 humanitarian emergency.
Saturdays are strange affairs in Freetown. For a start, most of them are spent in the office, though it’s an enjoyable and relaxing time and I’d say only close to 50% of the time spent on my day job. There’s something about being in your office in a T-shirt which already puts you in a different mood.
Things start with social media, and then quickly move on to my RSS reader (Feedly). If I’ve missed a weekend through travel, then it can take several hours to read through 250+ blog posts, and even that’s going fast. I then head to the Saved folder where I’m trying to gradually clear back all the posts I’ve saved for reading later.
Then it’s email, small jobs, writing to friends, bits of admin (including today an hour or so spent cancelled my credit card because some fraudster is buying expensive wood flooring and EasyJet tickets with it in the UK).
On the one hand, maybe I’m wasting my time when I should be out and about, especially considering I live minutes away from some of the world’s finest tropical beaches. But another part of me says that at least while my family aren’t here, I’m keeping on top of things, investing in learning about hobbies like photography, keeping across events in Abidjan, and doing a bit of extra regular work in what is still classed as a global humanitarian emergency.
They were fumigating the office this morning, so I did at least delay my arrival, which gave me time to head out on my new mountain bike. It’s been a while since I rode so I was a little unsteady and in a minor incident ended up with some cuts.
Downtown Dakar on a Sunday evening waiting for the doctor to arrive for my medical clearance to depart. Yes, we need to be declared medically fit to travel BACK to Ebola-land. The doctor is late so I step out for a stroll in the evening light.
Standing outside the clinic I hear the sound of the ocean to my left and drumming to my right. I try to get closer to the latter. From a few new luxury apartments around the clinic the homes quickly become tightly packed and make-shift. There are lots of people outside – I’d find it odd to see anything else, though of course such a situation would be unusual in northern Europe. There are goats with impressive horns tied up to drainpipes, and children play marbles in the sand. I think about the time when the most impressive thing in the world was a marble the size of a table tennis ball (a ‘biggy’). I see a man on a street corner that I realise I would have taken for a drug dealer in Paris but here is almost certainly just waiting for a friend.
I walk past families out for a stroll, young people chatting. I cross narrow streets, and arrive at a cul-de-sac where about 30 women are seated in a circle on plastic chairs. In the middle are three male drummers tapping out a rapid beat. As the inspiration comes, the young women, dressed in shiny batik and full of laughter, get up and dance, raising their feet as high as possible in rapid jumps. Off to the right, the men sit in a circle and enjoy the evening, looking distinguished. A little girl who must be about three or four years’ old stands by my feet carrying two small wooden seats. She keeps trying to say something to me as I tower over her, but I can’t hear what she’s saying above the drumming. I smile back and respond but neither of us know what the other is saying. I stand at a distance though not too far off – not wanting to intrude, but wanting to show my appreciation and openness by not standing too far off. I resist any urge to take photos.
Back at the clinic I check and the doctor is still not there. So I turn left and cross the road to the seashore. Wooden canoes are parked in the middle of the road and along the pavement. This is the fish market in the centre of a wide bay. The catch hasn’t long come in, and men sort it in the boats while onlookers observe. Between the boats and the sea, women sit next to organised piles of fish – everyone has a different type and a different size.
At the clinic the doctor arrives nearly two hours late. My dinner date is cancelled. An American friend who moved here two months back tells me about his apartment. His wife first described it as being in the centre of a rubbish tip – next door a plumbing shop has a fine collection of broken toilets, while rubbish is burned nearby wafting up fumes. But from other perspectives, Dakar is described as a clean and secure city. Depends what you’re used to.