Monday, January 14, 2008
My Journey to Senegal
By: Lamii Kpargoi
On December 12, I started a journey to the Republic of Senegal for the purpose of attending the 3rd Regional Workshop on ICT and Media Issues in West Africa.
As I headed back home, I took some time to reflect on one of the most challenging travels that I’ve encountered since I started traveling outside my home country – Liberia.
In order to get my readers to fully appreciate the challenges that I encountered on this journey, I have decided to tell my whole story, or at least the most of it, from the beginning.
I received an email from a trusted friend advertising this ICT workshop for Dakar, Senegal and I told myself why not apply and get yourself in the technology circle of West Africa, after all you can never tell what opportunities this my bring.
So off I went to try to meet up with the application deadline. I had to write a short article on ICTs and Governance, submit my CV, a letter of recommendation, and provide proof that I worked in the media sector of my country.
After submitting all these documents, I was informed in due course that I had been selected for the program, and arrangements for my travel was been made. This was when the real trying times began.
An email from one of the workshop organizers informed me that they were having “difficulties” arranging/finding a flight for me from Monrovia to Dakar. She then suggested that I try to find alternatives. I quickly replied, not knowing the actual reality at the time that I was arranging my flight with Slok Air, the only air line that is authorized to deliver passengers directly between Monrovia and Dakar. But it turned out a short while later that that airline had been grounded for some reason that was and still is not clear to me.
So I set about finding alternatives with just a few days to go to the conference/workshop arrival date. I went to every airline or travel agency available in Monrovia. And the answer I got from all of them was either that they could not make the flight or would have to route me through places as far a field as Narobi to ones in the region like Lagos, Accra and Abidjan.
While this search was on, I received another email from my friend who earlier put me on the workshop trajectory informing me that a mutual friend was also due to attend the same event. He gave me his contact number and I immediately called him and we started collaborating on getting to Dakar.
After evaluating all our options, we eventually settled on traveling through Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast via an airline called Aero Contractors and then flying from there to Dakar on Air Senegal. I purchased my ticket in Monrovia from the Air Senegal local agent while my friend’s Air Senegal ticket was procured electronically by the conference organizers.
So we departed Monrovia early on December 12 for the Roberts International Airport. We boarded the Aero Contractors flight bound for Abidjan at around 11am and by 12:30pm we were at the Félix Houphouët Boigny International Airport in Abidjan. We waited for about three hours for our connecting Air Senegal flight; and departed Abidjan around 4pm arriving in Dakar pretty close to 7pm.
We were to be picked up by someone at the airport but there was no one at the Panos sign. So a very friendly policeman assisted us by calling the workshop organizers at the Panos office on his mobile phone. The overture of that policeman was one of the very few instances of benevolence we encountered in Senegal. It is worth noting that though the Senegalese people are generally friendly, when it comes to commerce they will often times prefer cheating you then being friendly.
Dakar is a beautiful place of merchants who, in 90% of the cases set about to extort exorbitant amounts from unsuspecting buyers especially foreigners. I had an interesting and annoying experience with a taxi driver on the morning I departed. I will save that bit for last.
Anyway someone was dispatched to meet us at the airport and take us to our hotel in central town – the Hotel Faidherbe. This hotel is just a few blocks from the harbor and the Independence square. The rooms are generally nice and clean. Its upper floors have a great view of Dakar’s harbor – a view that is a sight to behold at night.
So we were finally in Dakar. My second visit by the way and my friend’s first. It was Harmattan and as usual the nights were cold and windy. By the time we collected our keys and rode the elevator up to our rooms it was about 10PM. So we just went to bed in anticipation of the next morning.
Day one of the conference was quite interesting as we quickly set about meeting new friends. Bill Jarkloh, my Liberian colleague and I met a charming South African at breakfast. Alette Schoone, a lecturer at Rhodes University in South Africa was friendly and along two intellectual Gambian exiles (Sheriff Bojang and Mamodou Jaiteh) sat in the hotel lobby discussing the situations in our various countries and the continent.
The workshop, which was geared towards discussing Information and Communications Technology in the West African region, commenced with an opening ceremony at which a representative of the Ministry of Information of Senegal, the Head of Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), and the Head of Panos Institute West Africa (PIWA) spoke. All of them underscored the need for paying attention to new media in the sub-region.
So for three days, from December 13 to 15, we discussed a wide range of topics from citizen’s journalism to blogging. A lot of us even set up blogs at this forum.
At the end of each day’s activities, which ended around 6PM, Bill and I walked around the neighborhood. On the second day of the workshop we walked down the road from the hotel and came across a nightclub called Club African. While approaching the area, I kept having this nagging feeling that I had been in that neighborhood before. And surely I was right. In December 2006, the year before, I had visited Dakar for another conference. On the last weekend of that conference, my colleague and I and two Liberian compatriots of ours who reside in Dakar visited this same nightclub. So here was I walking on the same street and going to the same club a year later.
Dakar seems to be virtually crime free. We walked late at night in some times dark areas and never got mugged or threatened. We inquired of this with a senior Liberian colleague of ours from the West African Democracy Radio (WADR) and he told us that for the over five years he had stayed in the country, he had never experienced crime.
To be continued