Well, my launch night went pretty well I reckon. I sold plenty of books, met old friends and new friends and there was masses of positive energy in the room. I’ve transcribed my intro below to give you a taster – I probably missed a few bits out on the night as I just blabbered without using notes.
Afterwards, my good friend Neil Gibb hosted a q&a, where we discussed why you shouldn’t burn nappies in Senegal, the pro’s and cons of polygamy and benefits of some local herbs. I’ll be editing and posting some video footage at a later date.
So, strap in and here goes:
I’m a failure… (long pause)
I used to do loads of public speaking and, like most people, hated it. I hated it so much, I went off to Africa six years ago so that I never have to do it again. And yet, here I am again.
I’m kidding of course. It’s incredible to see all of you from different parts of my life. I feel like I’m at a wedding! There’re old guests who stayed with me in Abene, people who are coming to stay soon and that I’ve never met until tonight, online friends from Gambia, my old director from StreetShine, my family, a future employer (breaking news….Bradt Guides) and school friends – including a couple that I haven’t seen since 1988 who found me online having read my book. They’ve just sent me this picture of the last time we’d met -our end of school ball:
I also need to thank Stanford’s. I feel so honoured to be standing in this legendary bookshop where many years ago I bought my first ever Lonely Planet (India) and where I’ve spent hours browsing travel literature and poring over maps.
And then there’s Neil. We met more than ten years ago in Brighton as our respective partners at the time were friends. When both of those relationships went tits up, we supported each other and followed each other’s journeys: his to Australia and mine to Senegal. Neil came to visit me back in March, when he posted this incredible blog. And this one.
Neil’s going to host a q&a after I’ve read a few vignettes from the new book. I’m a little anxious about this interrogation – it feels like I’ll be at a job interview, except I’ll have 50 people watching me. Which reminds me of when I had to undertake a driving test in Senegal….
“Apparently I just had to drive to the end of the street and back. I should be able to manage that, but even if I didn’t, I’d already passed. Or so I believed.
Not so fast, toubab. I found myself outside a large, decaying, colonial French building, with wooden slatted shutters, tired yellow-ochre paint and black damp marks creeping up the walls. Under a large banyan tree stood about 200 men, all waiting as a bloke at the front shuffled through papers and called out names.
“Lamin Diabang, Yayha Deidou, Mohammed Diatta, Semen Feenson…”
I stood by the crowd of young men, wondering what the hell was going on. It seemed to be barely organised chaos but, one by one, we were called forward to perform a three-point turn in front of everyone else. Some people received a cheer and others not. I couldn’t work out why, as they all seemed to be doing the same thing.
Finally, I was called. I was feeling the pressure of several hundred people watching the only toubab’s every move. It’s just a formality, I thought, executed a perfect three-point turn and got out of the car, expecting a cheer.
“Bad luck,” said one guy as I returned to the throng.
It appeared I hadn’t indicated when I was reversing. I was unaware one should indicate while making a three-point turn, so I guess it’s a French thing.
Senegal is a serious country. Officials tend to abide by the rules and, as atoubab, it’s hard to bend them like the locals do, unless, of course, you know a man. In theory, this is fine by me, as I don’t like bowing to corruption. The inherent corruption of public institutions such as the police, the civil service and the law is a major bar to development and progress here.
In practice, however, the downside of my high-minded morals is that I can’t get anything done. More than one year after the driving tests I still wasn’t 100% sure whether I’d passed or not.”
I’ll read the next bit as the guy mentioned is in the audience. Chris, the lawyer, visited in May of this year, which shows how up to date the book is.
“A lawyer from London has arrived to stay at our guest house. He’s seen our prices and decided to travel in West Africa, so he probably isn’t expecting five-star luxury but I occasionally feel a bit self-conscious about what we’re offering. I have to remind myself we’ve built everything from scratch in the bush. And besides, we only charge just over £10 per night, including breakfast. Although simple and rustic, it’s clean and comfortable.
So, the lawyer is looking around and I show him his house. It’s just a simple mud-brick hut with a straw roof. The walls are plastered with oyster-shell cement.
His eyes widen.
“You have enough oysters here to build a house from the shells?!”
Perhaps I am rich after all.”
Many people have commented that I look miserable on the book cover. Well, I see the book as an enquiry into whether I can really hack it in West Africa long term. I might present a positive outlook to everyone, but the reality is I’m like a swan – calm on the surface but frantically flapping underneath. I encounter many problems – cultural issues, tropical illness, getting lost (literally and metaphorically) and so on. So, it wouldn’t have been a good representation for me to be beaming on the front.
“I’ve always maintained that if you think adventure is dangerous, you should try routine – it’s lethal, but now I wasn’t so sure. Not for the first time in Africa, I felt very small, very humble and very naive. I couldn’t believe that here I was in November, when I could quite easily have been curled up under a nice thick duvet in bed in Brighton, having spent a lovely evening by my fire with a good bottle of red wine and a bowl of hearty and delicious stew. Perhaps I’d have watched a great film with friends and be looking forward to a relaxing weekend with walks on the Downs, darkness falling in the late afternoon as we retreat for a couple of pints of real ale in an old thatched cottage of a pub.
Instead, here I lay, alone in the darkness: damp, covered in mud, stinking and exhausted, with mosquitos whining, malaria imminent and bound to be robbed, or worse, by rebels. I listened to the jungle noises: the crack of branches, the croak of frogs, owls hooting, insects chirruping, splashing noises in the surrounding bogs. Could I hear voices? Was that the sound of footsteps? Dogs howled unceasingly in the distance, and I had the impression that something very bad was lurking in the forest.”
So as not to leave you on a total downer, here’s what a typical night in Abene is like:
“As darkness falls, we do as man has done for millennia, and sit by the fire, alternating staring into the flames with looking up at the incredible starlit sky. Africans don’t put their kids to bed early; everyone just lives to the rhythm of the day, as we’re not bound to the nine-to-five lifestyle. Often there is a little drumming, when Khady and the kids will dance. Gulliver takes after me with his natural rhythms, whereas Alfie has a more unique dancing style, like his mother. Or should that be the other way around?”
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