Saturday, 20 December 2008

Ever wondered how Fair Trade really works? Going nuts in Burkina Faso

When you buy Fair Trade products how much really goes to the people who produce it? Do poor people actually benefit? How does it work?

I'd always wanted to find out so I went to the Wouol Cooperative in south-western Burkina Faso. It started the year I was born: 1980 and in 28 years they've done a huge amount. Not only do they make the best dried mangoes I've ever tasted, as well as delicious cashew nuts, they've also got a nursery with pineapples, jiatropha for biofuel and other plants to help farmers diversify - by growing different things they're less vulnerable if a particular crop does badly because of the weather or pests.

Next year they're hoping to pilot an insurance project (the weather's unpredictable: droughts and floods are really common so they've developed a grain bank to help in hard times - they want to expand this into a more comprehensive insurance scheme). They've even bought a minibus which they hire out and use themselves to do concerts and dances!

A volunteer set up their website and took great photos:

Working for Oxfam and Peace Child International I've visited a few development projects and this is a really good one. They take volunteers too.

Before coming to Wouol I hadn't realised that each cashew nut has to be cut up and cleaned by hand. Watching how much work it takes I've vowed to no longer wolf down cashew nuts in big handfulls without chewing properly. They take so much work to cut up the least I can do is enjoy them rather than seeing how many I can get in my mouth at one time.

The ladies sit in big open rooms to cut the nuts up. It's dusty work so they wear face masks.

No one wants dusty nuts so all the workers take their flip flops off before going into the factory.

After the nuts have been roasted this is where they get brought to be separated out.

Marie-Louise Sourabiu has worked at the Cooperative for over a year. She has a small farm and 3 children and the money she earns helps pay for school, medicines and household expenses. "We have a small farm but cannot grow enough to feed the family all year round. The money I earn makes a big difference: there's only farm work for 4 months of the year, but the cooperative is open all year round".

Despite looking like an untrustworthy second-hand car salesman the women at the Wouol cooperative were happy to show me their fine collection of fair trade cashew nuts. They're sold in shops in the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain.

Nuts are sent abroad in these air-tight 10 kilo plastic bags and then re-packaged into smaller bags in Europe. It's more difficult than it sounds. EU health and safety rules on imported food are complicated, quality demands are high and it's taken a long time and a lot of work to set up these fair trade links.

These are some of the nut-based products Marie-Louise and the other women make (89% of the cooperative employees are women and it's not just a job there are also educational courses). There's nut oil for cooking, cashew nut butter (tastes like peanut butter but less sweet) and a collection of nuts in small bags for nibbling - these are the best.

This lady is collecting the nut husks (shells) which are gathered up and used to make compost which they fertilise the fields with.

The ladies at work de-husking and cutting up the nuts.

These are the nut husks drying in the sun before they get gathered up for compost. There's not a shortage of compost in the village (there's plenty to go round) so a lot of it gets sold to neighbouring villages.

Dried mangoes are big business for the women of Wouol, but I was there at the wrong time of year so all the mango drying presses were empty and sad looking: that's why they're starting to grow pineapples. They can make dried pineapples during the periods where there are no mangoes!
Cashew nuts are brilliant because they keep for up to a year. This allows the women to work on their own farms when they need to as well as concentrate on mangoes during mango time. Before they got the drying machines there was always the same problem with mangoes: loads of them for a couple of months and then nothing for the rest of the year. Because they go off so quickly and are so squishy it's practically impossible to export fresh mangoes to Europe from Burkina Faso.
The nursery where they grow different plants was amazing. So was their way of looking at things. Fair Trade has helped these people help themselves. Education is one of the central aspects of the cooperative. Farmers are being taught new skills, women are empowered by what they learn at the cooperative and earn their own money. Antoine Sombié is the President and one of the founders, "the cooperative is one big family. We work out our problems together. We want to preserve our way of life but we don't want hand-outs. The weather is changing. It is less predictable. We want technology and information to be able to create a better future for our children'.

Schools in England are already learning about the work of Wouol.

These partnerships matter and make a difference.

When Harry Met Danny in Dakar

Harry, Zander and Dan on the balcony in Point E. With a ladder.

Harry and Danny outside the local eatery. Chez Ass does a good line in dodgy meat products available at all hours with flies. Danny has his post-Chez Ass face on. Harry enjoys his meat.

This was a beautiful moment. Neither man has a fondness for trousers.

Tourism is Life – Drive Slowly: Travels in Nigeria

Little about my week in Nigeria made sense. There is no reason why any tourist would visit Abuja, regardless of traffic speed but signs with the slogan above line the endless motorways.

This is a “planned” new town that makes Milton Keynes look like Venice: big roads everywhere but too few junctions so turning across traffic requires crossing the swampy central reservation, resulting in cars getting stuck in mud and being pushed into the fast lane. Traffic lights are common but none work so everyone drives really fast and plays chicken at junctions. Someone I met said their friend had decided to leave Nigeria when they were driving through a dodgy part of Lagos and saw a body lying in the road. Someone had been run over but no one stopped to move him and so the corpse became an increasingly slippery speed bump.

The Nigerian Space Programme on the road in from the airport had flocks of sheep grazing outside it and little obvious activity inside. The European Space Programme in Belgium has cows surrounding it but it also has a massive satellite, which Abuja doesn’t – apparently the Space thing is a left over from the Cold War. The impossibility of walking anywhere is American, but the food at the hotel, and elsewhere, was reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Ten dollars for breakfast that takes an hour to come and bread that’s hard and tastes like sugared cardboard.

I had a colleague from Oxfam’s Nigeria office staying with me in Dakar. The first time she cooked for me it was disgusting and I had the shits for a week. Foolishly a week later I accepted her offer to make me eggs for breakfast when half-asleep and hung over. I vomited before finishing them and thought it was just her lack of skill and hygene. My week in Abuja taught me otherwise. The only nice food was at Wakki’s, an Indian restaurant modelled on an East London curry house circa 1988 with kormas and vindaloos: English Indian food. You can also buy Hob Nobs and Ribena. However, as my French colleagues pointed out at each meal they left better food in Senegal than we did in Nigeria. Our internal meeting was held in French and after 3 months in Francophone West Africa I've got used to speaking to locals in my bad French. Abujaians were bemused by me getting cross at their unhelpfulness in French before apologising and speaking English.

Abuja was constructed as an inland capital to relieve pressure on Lagos. Like Brasilia and Rio, Washington DC and New York, Canberra and Sydney Abuja is the geeky, ugly sister with nothing going on beyond Government and assorted lobbyist groupies. It was built in the 1970s and 80s, which were cruel decades for architecture. There are still empty lots around the place along with a massive ugly concrete cathedral and a gold-roofed mosque. While we were there 400 people died down the road in Jos - victims of Christian vs Muslim ethnic tension. Everyone I asked about it said it was nothing and everything was back to normal.

Judging by how the buildings are weathering the ravages of time quite a lot of the construction money got nicked. This is something Nigeria is famous for: from spam emails to oil revenues since independence corruption’s been the big problem. Nigeria should be Africa’s India or China: there are a 140 million people in a country smaller than Tanzania (which has 40 million). A quarter of Africans live in Nigeria. There are more than 250 ethnic groups. Their music and literature are amongst the best in Africa. There’s something intriguing about the place. Across Africa you think: there’s so much potential if only things worked properly. In Nigeria this is even more pronounced because there are just so many people and Nigerians are so enthusiastic. It’s the weird contrasts: Nigerians are acknowledged as the best business people in West Africa and yet the country doesn’t work very well. In Abuja airport there are lots of smartly dressed folks with iphones tapping on laptops with designer glasses in the dark because the power’s gone again and the swanky, brand new Virgin Nigeria planes are all hours late for no apparent reason. Why doesn’t it work? Who’s nicking all the money? Why do 50 million people go to bed hungry? Why do they import so much food? Why do all the rhetorical questions stay the same?

I met a guy who runs an events company. He organised the African MTV awards last week. Trevor Nelson presented them. It only got a few hours behind schedule due to power cuts. In the capital of the world’s 8th biggest oil producer there's often only mains power for an hour or two a day. His business is doing well because Nigeria’s a massive market and there are opportunities: it’s just difficult and expensive to get things done because the infrastructure’s rubbish (he reckoned in his business that was a bigger problem than corruption). He said he prefered Abuja to Lagos because it’s not dangerous but admitted that it’s very boring.

Apparently the new President isn’t corrupt, and the last one was much better than anyone before him. The problem’s that in a federal system corruption works on many different levels and to win an election even if you’re honest you have to cheat otherwise you’d lose.

Unsurprisingly I didn’t get any closer to understanding how you get anything done in Nigeria after a week. But I got the feeling that a lot of people who’d been there a lot longer had no idea either.

PS – Back in the day there used to be fur parties (rooms would be air conditioned to be so cold you’d have to wear fur to be able to handle it even though it was 35 degrees and humid outside). That’s messed up.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hugo and Ciara are getting married!!!

When your best friends get married it almost feels like you're getting married. I danced around the Oxfam Nigeria office when I heard the news. All week I've been in a good mood because of it, smiling inanely and imagining them all happy and excited. Hatch, match and dispatch: this is when we look to religion; these are the moments that matter most. Much of 21st century living would be incomprehensible for a visitor from hundreds of years ago but in committing ourselves to one person in the sight of God and all those closest to us we do something powerful that they would recognise. The only bigger thing that happens in life than getting married is having kids and hopefully the former leads to the latter.

I'd been trying to reach Hugo for days on the phone with no success due to the failures of Nigerian telecoms but it was still exciting finding out by email.

Then today Hugo asked me to be his Best Man. I did another little dance in my sitting room. If he were a loser with no friends I would feel less honoured but the fact is he's got a fair number of very close friends. I was hoping to be some sort of usher or something and I hoped I might be his best man but we'd never discussed it. When I asked him 2 months ago whether marriage was on the cards soon he dodged the question.

I was pretty sure it would happen but following that chat in the woods of Gloucestershire I thought it wouldn't be any time soon.

Living abroad for 4 years separates the sheep from the goats: the best friends from acquaintances. Many fade away but those with deep roots hibernate: infrequent big gulps of time together keep you going until the next time.

Being a best man draws a line in the sand: this guy has my back and few achievements in life (finding your own wife hopefully being one of them) match that. Success is about more than a job: it's about finding and keeping people in your life you love and are proud to be friends with. You choose your friends and Hugo and Ciara are in my top tier. It's great to know I'm in theirs too.

Over skype Ciara said she'd approved of Hugo's choice of Best Man and he interrupted her and said "it was my decision, you're opinion had nothing to do with it". That meant a huge amount. I was there the night they met, I was the person Hugo said "I think I really like this girl" to, for the next 4 months I shared a tiny flat with them where they had a huge bedroom with a balcony and I had a windowless, damp cave with a single bed and mould on the walls.

I spent a lot of time on the sofa listening to loud music on my own.

But that was nearly 7 years ago and the fact that we've stayed close enough for me to be his Best Man, despite living overseas, makes me proud.

I hope I'm up to the task. I don't know where I'll be living in 6 months, I don't know what to have for lunch let alone who I want to spend the rest of my life with and I've never even been to a stag do and now I'm going to organise one.

Happy days.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Scootering Burkina Faso

What do you do when you notice the key has fallen out of the ignition of your scooter and there's 70kms of dirt track in both directions to the nearest road?

I had no idea so decided to press on.

The chances of me finding the key were slim to none and looking for it would require using up precious fuel and increasing the chance of it getting dark before I reached a town.

Until noticing the loss of the key I'd been enjoying my scooter tour of rural Burkina. Getting out of Ouagadougou hadn't taken long (follow the main road to the end and keep going) and the main road to Mali and Timbuktu was empty save for the odd lorry or speedy Mercedes which blew me towards the ample verges. I'd stopped a few times and driven off the road to sit under baobab trees and reflect on how hot and quiet it was in the middle of nowhere.

Being driven in a NGO 4x4 to visit projects always involves big distances and long journeys. I wanted to travel slowly and see what it was like to do what a lot of people on the side of the roads seemed to be doing: very little. Occasionally a man would head to market on a scooter like mine unbelievably laden with food, boxes and in many cases live chickens (I counted one guy with chickens on long wooden poles that were attached to the handlebars and back of his scooter).

My sub-baobab chilling was given a slight edge by the difficulties of restarting the scooter, the broken fuel gauge and not knowing how many petrol station there were in Burkina's bush. These occasions expose how my enthusiasm for solo adventure is undermined by being a terrible worrier: there's no point heading off on a dodgy Chinese scooter if you're going to spend the whole time worrying about what a Dutch lady said over dinner ("I've heard stories of bandits knocking people off their motorbikes and stealing them - I thought you should know").

I guess that's part of the buzz: terror gets mixed with adrenaline and you overcome the fear to enjoy roaring along an empty road far from everywhere, getting strange looks from the occasional chap on a bicycle and stopping in little villages to talk to people who think you are crazy. Compared to many parts of the world West Africa, at least the arid Sahel, is a pretty safe place to do this kind of thing: the heat and the emptiness are more scary than the people.

When you arrive in a 4x4 people always tell you what's wrong with where they are. When you arrive on a scooter they ignore you. Normal life along this, and I'd imagine many other dirt tracks across the Sahel, is pretty normal: the track was lined with trees for much of the way, a bit like France. Every 20kms there was a water barrage. For more than 20 years this has been the law when building a new road: you have to build a little dam to capture water during the rainy season so that people can then use it through the rest of the year (they've been switched on to how to deal with climate change than most of the bozos in cities). There was blissful shade sitting by the trees and children splashed in the barrages. Maybe in the dry season life here is awful. In years when the rains fail I'm sure it gets really bad here. But this was November: the rains and the harvest have been the best in years. For the time being life is good. Pootling through shady clearings worrying was pointless. My bum was beginning to hurt but it wasn't so bad. Periodically I'd get off the bike, stretch the dodgy knee and sore behind and get back on keeping one hand on the throttle all the time to avoid getting stuck.

Because I wasn't sure if the scooter would restart if I stopped it I kept going till I reached the main road in Kadougou. I had planned to spend the night there but without a key I didn't fancy it. A mechanic aged about 12 stopped the engine so I could fill up with fuel - I shouted at him for trapping me in Kadougou but he managed to get it started again. It appeared I didn't need a key to restart the engine after all but if I was to get back to Ouaga before dark I needed to get a move on.

Off I went on a good, if pot-holed, road. Pot-holes on a scooter are no joke: one big hit at speed and it's all over so you go slowly, get into a sort of slalom rhythm and remember to next time insist that your scooter has mirrors and indicators to aid interaction with other traffic. Approaching the outskirts of Ouaga at sunset my shadow spilled out ahead of my puny scooter, a speedy Mercedes zoomed by with a Barak Obama bumper sticker and I was absorbed into honking, chaotic urban traffic. My arse at this point was in agony: it felt like a dwarf family was squeezing my buttocks with unforgiving small hands. Chinese scooters are not designed for long-distance off road travel.

Apart from singing along to 'Back for Good' in a pool hall in Bobo with the producer of a zombie movie set in West Africa (it's a road/buddy/horror movie: like Thelma & Louise with zombies) this was my best day in Burkina Faso.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Motorbiking in Mali

I am sitting in a sweaty hut in suburban Bamako being assaulted by Celine Dion. What is it about the owl-faced old goat that makes her horrendous bleating so globally popular? Malian music is melodious and generally lovely yet the Queen of Wail marks the only contribution of Western musical culture to Africa. Tis sad indeed.

I have been in Mali for 10 days during which I believe the highest temperature in the world this year was registered, above 50°C in the shade. On a number of occasions, particularly on the long bus journey to and from Bamako to the distant Dogon Country I suspected the true temperature in my pants to be at least double that and it has been interesting to see the effect of heat on my stuff. Toothpaste and shower gel for example have just melted and using them in the evening has felt a bit like applying hot wax to both mouth and body.

Mali also suffers from endemic malaria and the first European to make it here, a most excellent Doctor from Peebles called Mungo Park, like everyone else who tried to explore West Africa until the mid 19th Century suffered horribly from tropical diseases before being hacked to pieces by angry Africans not far from where I am now on the River Niger.Fortunately unlike Mungo Park I came adequately prepared for the extreme heat. Unfortunately I left my deoderant on the plane (thinking it prudent to apply before disembarking in Mali). The next afternoon I left my sun cream beside the pool of the 5 star hotel I couldn't afford to stay in and the following evening I left my mosquito repellent in the restaurant where I had dinner. I managed to track down some fairly useless mozzie spray but due to the ethnic make up of the population sun cream is not much in demand. As any trip on public transport quickly makes obvious deoderant is not either. I have therefore stunk, burnt and itched.

The conference on EU – African Trade Relations which was the ostensible cause of my trip continued in an interesting though slightly pointless fashion. I discovered that the French trade unionist who helped organise the conference had already written the Final Declaration before our arrival. The prospect of French trade unionists teaching Africans anything about anything seems dangerous, unless it is how to protest loudly about everything and drive animals down major highways. There were at least many knowledgeable folk at the meeting who provided a range of ideas and perspectives missing from discussions in Brussels. After many weeks worrying about what the hell I was going to write about I at least now felt I had some sort of a plan for the report I am doing on this subject.

After a visit to a cotton factory (yes, the cotton is good, no the machinery is not. High energy and transport costs as well as prohibitive US subsidies continue to destroy millions of livelihoods across West Africa in an industry that could be competitive) and a bit of spiel inviting stakeholders to give me their views for my report – as usual no one wanted to talk to me so I had to corner people and make them – I decided I’d had enough of Bamako and it was time to journey unto the undiscovered lands in the direction of Timbuktu.It was perhaps unwise to try to identify too closely with Mungo Park and also Alexander Gordon Laing (another brave Scot who in 1825 became the first white man to reach Timbuktu) as they both died in Mali due to the heat, disease and hostile locals. While the first 2 are still present the third factor has changed completely. Despite being the fourth poorest country in the world not one child in Mali has asked me for money and on every bus journey someone has offered me some fruit and been happy to chat away without wanting anything from me apart from friendship. I went to the national stadium to watch a football match by myself and felt completely unthreatened discussing World Cup prospects with a large group of guys. The football was crap though.

Eventually I made it to the Dogon Country where I hoped to bump into some friendly tourists who would give me a ride round in their 4x4. This has always worked for me in the past (Ethiopia, Morocco, Lesotho) but sadly from a lift point of view off-season meant not one tourist. This made my experience more authentic but also meant a fair amount of waiting on the side of the road in overpowering heat. It is always unwise to try to travel quickly in Africa but as I had little time that was what I had to do and so eventually found myself on the back of a dirt-bike which belonged to a friend of a friend of a friend of mine with a guide who claimed to know the remote cliff villages of this most untouched part of the world extremely well.

At first the road was fine but soon descended into desert. Biking on sand is very difficult. It is more difficult when it is 45° and you have a 13 stone Englishman plus his 15kg rucksack on the back. After the second and quite nasty half fall (he managed to stop before the bike rolled completely from under us) Amadou informed me that it was easier to stay upright if we went faster. Amadou’s physics were sound but growing increasingly woozy in the heat I wasn’t sure my balance was up to much. The heat and total absence of shade or shelter made the decision for us and we continued unscathed to Indè, a village on the edge of the scrubby Sahel where villagers in more dangerous times had built huts high up into the side of a cliff that rises for no apparent reason from endless desert that stretches all the way to Lake Chad, wherever that is.These cliff villages are truly amazing as are the people from the villages. They ask tourists to make small donations to a village fund which builds roads, schools and medical facilities for villagers. In Ethiopia these stories were a cunning way of ripping off tourists but here you can see the new schools and questions about nicking the money are met with blank looks. The lack of exploitation despite the obvious arrival of tourists was most heartening and I played football enthusiastically with the local kids.

The next day Adamou and I ambitiously attempted a 20kms round trip on foot along the desert floor, up the cliff to a village on the plateau above, before walking back to Indè, the motorbike, and a 3 hour ride back to where the next day I hoped to find transport back to ‘civilisation’. We set off in good spirits at 6am carrying nothing but water, bread and enough clothes to protect me from the sun, due to the continued lack of sun cream. All went well, and atop the cliff I found a bored Malian teacher playing scrabble by himself with a large French dictionary. No one else in the village could read and I suspected Begnimatu had not been Kassoum’s first choice as a teaching post. Having never played Scrabble in French before I took a good 20 minutes to produce ‘lac’ while Kasssoum produced ‘fumeur’ and other words of great length effortlessly. I did manage to get a triple word score with ‘herb’ which partially salvaged my honour.Until now all had been well but it was the walk back that ruined me. Mali’s soil is mostly iron making it a most effective oven in combination with thick dust clouds that prevent the sun’s rays from escaping in the hot season. The heat encloses you from above and below cooking anyone foolish enough to move during the day. Encouraged by Amadou I felt that although walking through the afternoon was tough if Mungo and Alexander could walk round here for years being assaulted by bandits and without anti-malarials, food or much water I could surely manage an afternoon.I was wrong. Arriving back at the bike I wanted to collapse but we had promised to return the bike to the friend, of a friend, of my friend who needed it the next morning so set off. I didn’t feel too bad until we started the half falling off thing on the bike. Then I really wanted to stop but it was too late and we headed on.

Arriving back in Djiggiboomboom I revived slightly and attempted half of a tuna sandwich. I woke 2 hours later for an extended, all night session of shouting down the porcelain telephone. Next moring, still unable to keep water or anything else down, and in a village that lacked any sort of medical service or proper road I realised my only contact with the outside world was my mobile which had reception though the village had no electricity. Brave, world-weary African Explorer that I am I phoned my mum. Armed with her expert advice (and Aunt Sally’s urging to apply wet flannels to my ankles and eat ginger – the former proved easier to do than the latter and was most effective) I set off for the long journey back to Bamako and my plane home. 4 Immodium guaranteed safety in that regard during the trip but it was most inopportune that the only bus left at 1pm and i had full body shakes. However, with the bus going along the breeze, though hotter than a dragon’s arse, kept me going. The 2 hour stop in a petrol station at 3 was thus the real low point as it was still far too hot, there was no breeze and the smell of petrol was over-powering.

Eventually we continued and through slight delerium and revelling in my body melting gently into the disturbingly absorbant seat we continued, stopping every 30 minutes for police checkpoints (identification svp etc), loading on and off of goats, chickens, sacks, barrels of what appeared to be petrol (surely not a good thing to keep on the roof of a bus travelling through the desert?) until eventually arriving in Bamako at 5am, a mere 16 hours after we had set off from a village about 500kms from where we’d started.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Burkina’s for Barack: Obamania in Ouagadougou

Burkina’s for Barack: Obamania in Ouagadougou

“If Obama wins America truly is the country where dreams can come true. He will be the world’s president”. Issaka – known to his friends as ‘le delegate’ is playing the guitar outside Ouagadougou’s only 10 pin bowling alley. His friends playing cards are equally enthusiastic “I like him because he is intelligent and he’s an African, like me”, said one wearing an Obama T-shirt with “Hope” written above a heroic profile of the man every Burkinabé ( I’ve spoken to wants to win today’s election.

On the radio in all the knackered taxis I’ve taken since arriving in Burkina Faso last week news reports have followed closely the final days of Obama’s frenetic campaigning. Thousands of miles from swing states the prospect of President Barack excites people. The excitement is tempered by recognition that in one of the world’s poorest countries, landlocked in the Sahelian interior of West Africa south of the ever-expanding Saharan desert, an Obama Presidency is unlikely to make much difference. “I like him but if he wins I don’t think he will change things here”, said Maiga, as we sat four across squished in the backseat of a twenty year old Renault taxi with a top speed of 20 miles an hour.

Sub-prime mortgages have had little impact on Burkina Faso – chronic poverty, unemployment and high food prices are far more pressing. “We want liberty to enjoy our lives as free men under the stars”, says ‘le delegate’. I played “the times they are a’changin’” badly on his guitar but none of them had heard it. Bob Marley was our only shared musical hero. Everyone sang along when I played the chorus of “Redemption Songs”.

The bowling alley is run by a Frenchman and the Burkinabé, according to Issaka “don’t like bowling: it is Babylon”. On the night that Senator Obama declared “we are one day from changing history” Issaka and his friends dance outside the bowling alley, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and playing traditional warabé tunes on an old acoustic guitar, the repeated chorus is “au revoir mes amis, demain sera meilleur, nous dancer, et fait ooh la la”.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

cold turkey - ill-advised motorbiking in Turkey, 2006

27 October 2006 – Cold Turkey

This place is cold. I am in Capadoccia where for centuries everyone lived in caves due to the interminable cold. Apparently when it isn't freezing everyone stays in caves due to the heat.

It is very beautiful but from a motor biking point of view I would have done better to come here a few weeks ago, before the hills were covered with snow. It would also have been clever to bring more warm clothes. Since arriving every article I own has been on my person at all times. My flip flops mock me from the bottom of my rucksack where they remain unused (swimming trunks have been used under jeans as poor man’s long johns). The wisdom of always bringing a second pair of trousers is apparent as I sit writing in a towel waiting for my jeans to dry on a heater. A hat made from the wool of several sheep has helped somewhat but does unfortunately limit blood supply to my brain.

Inspired by Ewan McGregor's motorbike ride around the world I have attempted to visit all local sites of interest on the back of a 200 cc Ramzey, a brand I had never heard of and whose performance and reliability will not be giving Yamaha directors cause for alarm.

Attempting to find cross country routes, an objective not without difficulties in a region renowned for its bizarre rock formations and deep canyons, I have suffered from engine trouble, my chain falling off, the visor from my helmet snapping off at high speed and the lid of my luggage storage unit also flying off causing much swearing from a Turkish man whose donkey narrowly avoided decapitation. These incidents, notwithstanding the justifiably aggrieved donkey owner, have demonstrated the friendliness of Turks as each breakdown has been fixed by the first passing vehicle. Nor would anyone accept payment, not even the guy who got covered in engine oil and rained on for 20 minutes putting the chain back on. This was something I could have fixed on my own as I know how to put chains back on but I didn't have a spanner to get the front panel off.

Sadly the first passing vehicle has often been a long time coming but these periods pushing the bike through mud and waiting at the side of the road have given me time to ponder the worth of carrying tools when travelling and also of knowing how to use them. The bike's rubbishness has also made hiring very economical as the bike guy has given me almost 2 days free rental to make up for my persistent technical problems.

I realised I had miscalculated when I woke up as it got light on my nightbus from Istanbul. Pouring rain, endless empty plains and a driving wind made it apparent why centuries of hordes from the east had decided to keep going when reaching central Anatonia and not stop here. From an afternoon dozing in the sun on a bench at the Topkapi Palace in sunny Istanbul I found myself alone, shivering in a bus shelter at 7am in a town that everyone else seemed to have had the good sense to leave. After a few hours passed out in a cave (hotel room) I went exploring and have carried on: through underground cities (attempts to divert from the route suggested by arrows led to me getting stuck, Pooh bear-like, in a tunnel and having to perform a lengthy, arse first, retreat into a small room full of retired Japanese people); through abandoned villages of houses carved out of cliffs, innumerable churches with colourful medieval frescoes and valleys of 'fairy chimneys'. In South America they call similar places 'valleys of the penises' and people go there to boost their chances of inception. Anyone attempting that here would probably die of exposure. Or maybe they are just more sober people in Capadoccia, or maybe cold climates inspire outward chasteness? Women wear the veil which with strong winds and rain whipping at the face is most sensible. People seem to be reasonably off in the villages: warm houses, modern tractors, much cheese, bread and tomatoes to share with those possessing broken, useless motorcycles. Tourism only seems to affect certain parts of the area although there is a certain amount of gentrification in some villages where smart Opels and Renaults are parked outside new houses built into the rock. There is still a lot of livestock living among people which is bad for bird flu but good for keeping warm. My attempts to scale the lesser trodden muddy paths were generally unsuccessful with most routes leading to sheer drops of hundreds of feet but did produce some good direction giving from people living in isolated farms on the high planes. These people were much poorer. The children didn't have shoes and wore plastic sandals with socks.

Tonight I’m taking a night bus back to Istanbul. The buses are brand new, spotlessly clean and very comfortable. For no good reason they stop every 2 hours for half an hour at bus stations where no one ever gets on or off. All this serves to achieve is to make sleep impossible but it does provide regular opportunities for bus washing which happens everywhere with much enthusiasm.

I’ve been in touch with the office of his All Holiness Bartholemew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, and hopefully will find someone to talk to me about Byzantine history tomorrow. It is sad that none of the Greek Orthodox people who built these incredible churches are here any more. Many of the frescoes have the eyes and faces scratched out. This was done by Turks shortly after 1923. When asked about what I do saying I work for the EU has been a good way to start conversation. The prosperous parts of Istanbul are very European but out here feels a long way from Brussels. No one I’ve met has been much bothered about the EU or whether Turkey joins. It seems to me that they’ve got to, not least because we promised they could ages ago and to turn them down now would be a massive snub from the only Muslim country that seems to like us and is able to demonstrate that you can be Muslim without rejecting European culture. It might have been better if Europe had never promised full membership as a possibility but we did and someday we’ll have to come good on that promise if only to show other Muslim countries that we don’t think we’re better than them. It’ll be a long time till areas like Capadoccia, and even longer for the non-touristy parts of eastern Turkey, have similar standards of living or life expectations to the rest of the EU. Maybe they never will and the acceptance of those different from us will fundamentally change the EU. No one likes what we’ve got at the moment so maybe that would be a good thing. An EU which helps stabilise the Middle East would be better than a constitutional union that burns money on subsidised agriculture and pointless Eurocrats like me.

The worst thing about the intense cold is that it reminds me that winter will soon come to my ice-box of a flat in Brussels and I’ve yet to discover a reliable wood source. I burnt a whole tree that was chopped down in a friend’s garden last year and fear I must return to the thankless task that is skip-hunting and balancing bags of logs on my crossbar.


Questions that weren't asked on last night's "Question Time - Leaders Special".
1) Mr. Kennedy no one trusts Labour anymore, no one likes the Tories either. This is the best chance the Lib Dems have ever had and most of your candidates are campaigning on local litter collection issues. You are the only leader who offers hope but where is your vision? Why can't you get more people to like you?
2) Mr. Howard if Tony Blair is such a liar, and we all agree he is, why have you failed to lay a glove on him during the course of your leadership?
3) Mr. Howard, more soap in hospitals, tax revenues going up but taxes going down a bit if the economy does what you expect, allowing teachers to shout at bullies without being sued: these are your big ideas. They hardly set the pulse racing do they? Is this all you have to offer?
4) Tony, can I call you Tony? Thanks. Tony, we all loved you in '97, you were a pretty straight sort of guy. When you go to international meetings we are proud you represent us because you are cleverer than George, less greasy than Silvio, less French than Jacques and cooler than John Major or Thatcher ever were. Now we all think you are a liar. Where did it all go wrong and what might you have done differently?
5) Tone, for that is your name, mate, you keep on saying you had to make a decision over Iraq, and you did, and that is your job. 90 years ago Winston Churchill saw a threat, decided to launch a pre-emptive attack and it didn't go exactly as planned. That was Gallipoli and even though he made his decision, like you did, with the best possible intentions, he got it wrong and so resigned. We all think you got it wrong. Why won't you resign?
6) Finally "Big T" everyone knows apathy is a major problem. The Sun have called this the most boring election campaign ever. More people my age voted in Big Brother than will do in the General Election - in part because it is more entertaining. A big, Saturday night debate between you, Howard and Kennedy would be great TV. People would watch it who don't engage in politics normally. Also you'd be really good at it. Your mate George does them and he can't even talk properly. What are you scared of?

I feel better now.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Africa fears contagion from rich world's money woes

By Pascal Fletcher
DAKAR, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Diery Gueye doesn't have a bank account, a car or a house of his own, let alone a mortgage.
He hasn't heard of the global financial crisis that has sent markets tumbling and forced governments in the rich developed world to divvy up hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out collapsed banks and try to calm anguished homeowners and savers.
The only crisis he knows of is surviving day by day in his native Senegal, where the 45-year-old labourer barely earns enough to feed his wife and three kids and rent a room.
"It's tough ... sometimes I don't have work for two or three months," he says, speaking in the local Wolof language.
Welcome to Main Street Africa -- sprawling cities of dusty pavements, armies of poor and unemployed, chaotic traffic and bustling markets -- a world away from Europe or the United States in levels of individual wealth and of expectations.
In Senegal and across the world's poorest continent, millions in overcrowded cities and the remote bush eke out an existence on one or two dollars a day. Death, hunger and disease are the daily lot of many, especially in conflict zones like Darfur, Somalia, eastern Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo.
While African governments and educated elites are following the global banking crisis closely, the vast majority of their people have little grasp of sub-prime mortgages, toxic assets, bank bailouts and trillion dollar financial rescue plans.
But many do understand that when the rich world catches a financial fever, the planet's poorest may end up hurting too.
"I don't really know what it all means but I really hope that poverty here doesn't get worse just because they have problems," said Rose Camara, a Guinean housewife in Conakry.
"If the rich countries have problems, then that's going to end up coming here. You can count on it," said Ali Tapsoba, a garage worker in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou.
The debate is open on just how much Africa and its people will feel the pain of the financial turmoil in the rich world at a time the continent's economies had been growing at their fastest pace in decades.
There are those like Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade who believe the crisis will be "limited" for Africa, where banking systems and markets are poorly developed in many countries.
"This is marginal for 'deep Africa'. We're talking about 700 million peasants, poor people. For these people, as long as they have something to eat, they're not doing badly," Wade told Radio France International this month.
The octogenarian leader, who faces protests at home over power blackouts and high food and fuel prices, believes financial solutions alone will not solve the North's crisis.
Declaring "the survival of the world's growth is in Africa", he recommends Europe invest in African infrastructure projects, which he says will boost both European industrial output and African development, creating jobs in both continents.
But many, from the International Monetary Fund to the African Union, fear the developed world's credit crunch may choke aid, trade and investment to Africa, straining vulnerable economies already hurting from high food and fuel prices.
"The poorest countries don't have 700 billion dollars to bail out failing banks. The money invested in these problems in the North just isn't there in government budgets in developing countries," said Alexander Woollcombe, Food Security Advocacy Adviser of Oxfam GB's West Africa regional centre.
Major charities like Oxfam GB are expecting a fall off in aid donations. The British group is trimming its budgets by between 10 and 15 percent for next year, based on projections.
Oxfam GB has drawn up figures showing just how far $700 billion earmarked by the U.S government for a financial rescue plan could go in helping to solve the poor world's problems.
It says this is enough to eradicate all world poverty for over two years, based on a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calculation that it would take $300 billion to get the entire global population over the $1 a day poverty line.
The $700 billion could clear -- almost twice over -- the $375 billion accumulated debt of the world's 49 poorest nations.
According to Oxfam, the U.S. bailout figure is worth about 7 years of annual global aid levels ($104 billion in 2007).
The United States is also planning to inject $250 billion into its banks following European rescue pledges totalling more than $1.3 trillion.
Some analysts believe the predicted slowdown in world demand may cool off rocketing high food and fuel prices which have been throttling many poor food- and fuel-importing African economies
"So what we lose on one side, we could win on another," said Kalidou Diallo, assistant director of economic and financial studies at Guinea's Finance Ministry. But he and others say flagging demand could hit Africa's commodity exports too.
If the developed West cuts aid and investment, African states are saying they are ready to turn elsewhere.
"Our door is open. We're not blocking off our yard, we expect support from wherever we can get it," Cameroon Finance Minister Lazarre Essimi Menye told French radio.
Africa, he said, was already working with other major partners, like China. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: (Additional reporting by Diadie Ba in Dakar, Saliou Samb in Conakry, Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou, Tansa Musa in Yaounde; editing by Ralph Boulton)
© Reuters 2008. All Rights Reserved.

US government put up US$700 billion to bail out financial institutions in one day, on 3 October, total global development aid for 2007 was $104 billio

GLOBAL: Donor response to food crisis inadequate, agencies say

Just US$1 billion of the US$20 billion pledged by donors to boost agricultural growth has been released DAKAR, 16 October 2008 (IRIN) -

Food security experts say international donors’ response to the world’s food crisis has been inadequate when compared to interventions to contain the global financial meltdown. “Huge financial resources have been mobilised by the international community in a matter of days” in response to the global financial crisis, wrote Teresa Cavero in a report by the international NGO Oxfam released on 16 October – World Food Day. While the US government put up US$700 billion to bail out financial institutions in one day, on 3 October, total global development aid for 2007 was $104 billion, according to Alexander Woollcombe, food security advocacy adviser at Oxfam in Dakar. This year’s food crisis threw an additional 75 million people into hunger and poverty in 2007 according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The World Bank estimates there are currently 967 million malnourished people in the world.FAO says the financial crisis, following on the heels of the food price crisis, could deepen the plight of the poor in developing countries. Remittances dropping FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf stated in a 15 October news release: “Borrowing, bank lending, official development aid, foreign direct investment and workers’ remittances – all may be compromised by a deepening financial crisis.” There are no precise numbers yet about the impact of the financial crisis on developing countries, said Josef Schmidhuber, senior economist at the FAO’s Global Perspectives Unit, but he noted that when industrialised countries face a crisis, fewer people work and fewer remittances are sent to developing countries. “We’re already hearing noises from Mexico that fewer remittances are being sent back. These [remittances] are more important than credits and foreign direct investment,” he stressed. Mexico receives $22 billion in annual remittances, and Bangladesh $4 billion, according to Schmidhuber. In Haiti and Honduras remittances make up over 20 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Response ‘a slow trickle’ The FAO’s Schmidhuber said donors promised $20 billion in aid to agriculture at the Rome FAO conference in June 2008, but according to Oxfam, five months on just $1 billion of this has been dispersed. Oxfam’s Woollcombe said this is partly because “it takes time to distribute cash for agricultural production. The problem is it is not clear when or where it is actually coming.” The UN has estimated that $25 billion to $40 billion is needed to lessen the impacts of high food prices on developing countries. “With the new commitments of the financial crisis, I would not be surprised if we don’t get much more than the trickle that has arrived so far,” said Schmidhuber. The UK government’s commitment of US$ 1.4 billion pledged at the Rome meeting still stands, said Matt Wells, spokesperson for the UK Department for International Development (DFID). “Yes, there are challenges we are all facing, but we are continuing to call on other donors not to let the economic crisis deflect the fact that we need to remain focused on supporting those most in need,” Wells told IRIN. Building up resilience To boost vulnerable people’s resilience to crises, Oxfam and the Washington DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) stress the need for donors and international finance institutions to support ‘social protection’ such as aiding access to health and education, which they say will have a knock-on boost on their food-purchasing power. Such measures could include targeted cash transfers, nutritional interventions, and fee waivers on targeted services, according to an October World Bank report ‘Rising food and fuel prices: addressing the risks to future generations.’ It is the erosion of the global food system's resilience that underlies the food price spikes, according to Steve Wiggins, research fellow at the UK-based Overseas Development Institute. The world needs to replenish severely depleted global grain reserves, which have dropped from 30 percent to 19 percent of annual grain use, Wiggins said. “Rebuilding stocks would help to calm nerves and restore the resilience of the global food system.” See related story: Cereal banks in NigerFAO’s Schmidhuber said as an alternative to real grain reserves, which are expensive to build and keep up, ‘virtual grain stocks’ should be developed; developing countries would purchase the right to buy at subsidised prices. He said such alternatives would lead to a more efficient market that could also protect poor communities, adding that export bans and subsidies in the developed world distort markets and discourage production. Progress is being made on both sides, he said. “We are starting to see a convergence between the developing and developed world as they shift these opposing approaches.” As the FAO’s World Food Security Committee discusses these and other challenges in Rome from 14 to 17 October, Schmidhuber said governments should start by taking a simple step. “They need to do what they’ve said they are already committed to doing, and deliver the money.”

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Vampire Bats in Dakar

The first time a giant vampire bat swooped towards my head I squealed like a child, splashed and ducked my head under water. Unfortunately a group of boys saw me and were still laughing when I came up for air. Apparently fruit bats are harmless and only eat flies but they’ve a 4 foot wingspan and look like rabid killers. Quite why it’s OK for them to swoop towards innocent swimmers in Dakar’s (and apparently West Africa’s) only Olympic-sized pool isn’t clear. People are used to bats in Dakar. At sunset the muezzin’s call to prayer disturbs huge clouds of them from the main mosque nearby. They take off in scary black swarms (flocks?) towards the sunset as women prepare supper, men pray, boys play football and girls do whatever little girls do – chat mostly and play. All on the street. It’s a good temperature to be out of doors. There are always power cuts so it's too hot inside. Everyone chats. No notice is taken of the clouds of bats flapping noisily overhead or the spectacular sunsets which turn the air a translucent orange. It’s just recompense for a day spent hiding from the heat of the sun. The weirdest thing about working in Dakar is that in my flat and office I could be anywhere (hot) on earth. It’s easy to forget it’s Africa and so my post-work explorations feel like being teleported from a ‘normal’ working life of emails into somewhere much more exciting. It doesn’t make the emails more exciting though.

Sunset’s a good time to be in the pool. After a day sweating in the office the water is refreshing and turns pink, then orange, then red. The boys larking around on the high diving boards (proper 10 metres high ones) get kicked out and are replaced by Senegal’s national swimming team. They’re training for the African Championships in South Africa in December. Lamine says he’d like to go to Europe. I launch into my spiel about it not being that great, especially without papers. ‘I don’t want to work there, I just want to swim’, he replies.

The only medal hope Senegal has is training in France. The guys here, despite what looks like a great facility, haven’t a chance. The team (mostly boys although some girls do swim) charge up and down each night with huge shoulders and tiny waists being shouted at by an enormous man in a billowing white Bou-Bou – the traditional Senegalese male outfit which is a large shiny robe of any colour that reaches to the floor and is accompanied by pointy leather slippers. No one pays any attention to me doing one length for every four of theirs. This is a relief as I am terrible at swimming. My attempts at backstroke or front crawl cause me to sink after, at best, four strokes. I can’t even do granny breast stroke as my dodgy knee won’t bend properly. Mostly it is an odd form of doggy-paddle on my back that propels me slowly up and down the pool. Looking up increases my peripheral vision thus reducing the chances of unforeseen bat attacks. It also allows me to watch the stars come out and the moon rise.

I’ve always hated swimming pools. They’re stuffy, smell, are too full of people and I’m crap at it. Always have been. Aged 7 I went to swim camp in Virginia. It was awful. Everyone else could already swim. I came last in every race. Foolishly I remarked to the teacher that when I looked through my goggles at the bottom of the pool I seemed to be moving in slow motion. “That’s coz yer darn slow boy” he replied. At the end of the week everyone got a swimming certificate apart from me. Out of 30 I was the only one who failed, “I wanted to pass yer son, butcha got understand I couldn’t”.

Arriving at boarding school aged 13 I walked into my room to find a 6 foot man mountain lifting weights. I had a blue blazer with brass buttons, bum-flaps and grey flannel trousers. He was a week younger than me but had a Kurt Cobain poster, an electric guitar, Hugo Boss suit, swam for Great Britain and within two weeks was shagging a girl in the year above. Although Millfield had an Olympic-sized pool I only went twice. After the Christmas holidays in 6th form he asked me what I’d done, “ate a lot, watched telly, you?”. He pulled out a silver medal from the World Swimming Championships. Good bloke though, probably saved me from getting beaten up. I did his GCSE coursework a few times. Inexplicably we thought a good idea for a house skit was to do a jungle version of ‘Unchained Melody’ with me singing and him MC-ing. 25 teenage boys disagreed loudly. Tough crowd. It wasn’t a good idea but that kind of experience brings you closer. Every day for 10 years he got up at 6am, swam, did weights or circuits at lunch and then swam from 4-7. In Sydney there was 0.1 of a second between Olympic silver and 5th place. He came 5th.

In Dakar, the pool is surrounded by a massive grandstand which I’m always relieved to find empty, a wall with palm trees above it, a gym and a building site. Angry sounding men in white suits do martial arts while others lift weights to the mellow Senegalese rhythms in the gym. Occasionally they break out loud techno. The building site is part of a recent Dakar-wide construction and house price boom. The credit hasn’t crunched as apparently it is paid for in large part by laundered drug money. Lower bonuses should mean less cocaine but drugs seem resilient even in a downturn. As someone once said “dope gets you through times of no money better than money gets you through times of no dope”. Despite this there doesn’t seem to be much of a drugs scene here or the violence that usually comes with it. Nor is there much drinking, as you’d expect in a Muslim country. Maybe these bad things will come but there’s little sign of it yet and it would be a disaster if it did: West Africa’s struggling on every development indicator going and they don’t even have wars to explain why this is happening. Political stability is Senegal’s main asset. Without it the country’s stuffed.

People are laid back and inclined to take things as they are. ‘Inshallah’ (God willing) gets used a lot when it comes to what’s going to happen. Civil disobedience is rare (except for after football matches – Senegal drew with Gambia last week causing riots – it was the first time for over 40 years that they’d failed to beat a country whose borders mark the distance British cannons could fire inland from the Gambia river 100 years ago).

However, the daily power cuts across Dakar are causing real anger, not least because electricity bills are extortionate. The grid’s not very good so loads of power is lost within the system and it simply can’t provide all the power Dakar needs. So someone sits in an office and flicks power off and on between different parts of town. Sometimes this is good (this morning it went off at 8am forcing me out of bed in time to get to work) but it wears you down when it’s every day (I want to sleep now but it’s roasting) and last weekend there were mass protests-cum-riots. They worked: since then that part of town hasn’t had a single power cut and we’ve had more. Maybe we should riot. Power cuts make you more social: you have to go outside. The last few times it’s happened I’ve gone swimming: it’s peaceful in the dark. You just have to watch out for the Vampire bats.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

World Food Day

Did anyone notice? It was a pretty big deal for me.

Oxfam organised a meeting of Senegalese NGOs with a nice man from the Senegalese Government's agriculture ministry to talk about the impact of high food prices, what Senegal is doing about it and what else it should do.

We got about 25 people, Senegalese and international journalists and NGOs, agricultural experts as well as donors. It was strangely similar yet different to similar launches I was involved in with Oxfam in Brussels: it's always easier to talk about something than it is to do it. There are far fewer people scrutinising what is going on here I guess because there's just not so much money to do that kind of thing.

The panelists knew what they were talking about and it was interesting to hear different views on what should be done. The Government guy was pretty game and answered questions more directly than many EU folks do. He did say that everything was going amazingly well however.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

West Africa's Capital Crunch

“My worry about this financial crisis is that when times are hard people turn their eyes away from the struggles of others. It is the loss of solidarity I fear”. Maguette Fall, Gandeol, Senegal.

Last week I travelled around northern Senegal visiting villages where Oxfam works to improve food security. In Bagonde and Baélé people are pastoralists: they trade their goats, sheep and cows with millet and rice from nearby (a few hours by foot or donkey) markets. Soaring food prices have had a devastating impact: the cost of rice has doubled in less than a year.
“I used to sell one goat for a big bag (50kgs) of rice. Now I must sell two. If the situation does not change all my animals will be gone”, said Bilaly Moussa Ka.

Occasionally the radio of our Citroen minivan (setting off I was pleased not to be fulfilling the cliché of NGO worker in white 4x4. By the third time I had to push sodding Citroen out of sand so hot it burnt my feet through flip flops I was less pleased) would splutter to life bringing snippets of BBC World Service or Radio France International. Every time it did the news was of fresh catastrophes on world financial markets that felt totally irrelevant. People in Bagonde and Baélé are experiencing a capital crunch, not a credit one. Their losses are not on paper but in the diminishing size of herds built up over generations.

Many people are chronically food insecure: even when times are good they don’t produce enough to feed themselves till next harvest: if it’s not the high price of rice, it’s drought, or floods, or pests eating the crops. Birds have been the biggest problem this year. Apparently lobbying by Japanese bird NGOs stopped their Government donating bird-scarers to Senegal. Plastic bags on sticks are not effective scarecrows but that’s all they have. As the villagers cursed the brightly coloured, beautiful birds which have decimated their crops I tried to cover binoculars and ‘Birds of West Africa’ book with my Panama hat.

“Crisis” is a constant state of being here so they are used to coping. However, each year that they do makes them less able to deal with “crises” in the future. Only eating two meals a day with smaller portions, selling firewood even though it destroys the topsoil they need to feed their animals takes its toll.

The rains this year were the best since 2000: the grass is long; animals and children run around having a good time. Those in the village able to afford seeds are about to harvest their millet. “With what I have planted I hope to be able to feed my family for at least two months”, said Amadu Diallo. “Of course I worry about the future”, he responded tersely when I asked him.

Ultimately Amadu will have to do what he and so many others have done before: migrate to where there’s work: Dakar, Cote D’Ivoire, Gabon or Europe. Many in Bagonde and Baélé already rely on money relatives send home to stay afloat.
It’s not everybody though, an hour down the road I met rice farmers by the river Senegal who talked enthusiastically of buying machinery, expanding production and irrigation systems and finally competing with imported, Asian rice. They’re thriving on high food prices.

In Bagonde and Baélé it felt insensitive to ask people about the credit crunch: why had I travelled for hours down dusty tracks to villages with no electricity to ask about something which bore no relation to their problems?

Humanitarian or financial: these crises are man-made. They happen because no one asks the right questions or takes action early enough. There’s growing concern that the credit crunch will cause aid budgets to be slashed and development to slip off the political radar. The people of northern Senegal aren’t a humanitarian disaster yet, but they’re getting there, as are millions of others across the arid Sahel belt south of the ever-expanding Sahara. Turning our eyes away from the struggles of others risks storing up bigger problems for the future.