Bernard Pollack and Danielle Nierenberg embarked in October 2009 on a journey to visit almost every country in Africa. Their mission: to dispel the idea that Africa is only about conflict, disease and famine. They’re meeting with farmers, workers, NGO’s, and governments to tell stories of hope and success in agriculture. So far they’ve visited more than 130 projects in 17 countries, writing daily about African-led innovations that offer sustainable ways to alleviate hunger and poverty. Please enjoy a week-in-the-life of Bernard and Danielle of Border Jumpers in Dakar, Senegal.
Sunday (Dakar, Senegal)
It’s Sunday. Very early Sunday morning: 2:00AM. We are just leaving the hotel to go check out some live Senegalese music and go dancing. We had to nap earlier in the evening to have enough energy to get “dressed” up (clean jeans and a wrinkly shirt for Bernie and the only dress Dani packed). First we tried going to Youssou N’Dour’s (famous local DJ) nightclub, Thiossane, but he was apparently on tour in Europe, and it was closed. The taxi brought us to another place that was, at 2:30AM, just opening its doors. Around 3:00AM people were finally arriving, and by 3:30AM the dance floor was packed.
Over the last week or so, we’ve fallen in love with Senegal. Not just with the music, but with the people, who are not only friendly, but who also have the incredible smiles that only belong to those who are truly alive.
Monday (Saint Louis, Senegal)
We woke up early to take a taxi to Saint Louis (a six hour drive from Dakar) to meet with Matty Demont, a researcher at the Africa Rice Center. He explained how farmers and consumers in Senegal are coming to rely on more local varieties of rice, instead of importing it from other countries. Because many Senegalese have in the past considered local rice as inferior (lower grade, containing stones, etc), they used to buy imported European brands—which can sometimes cost them up to four times as much. The Africa Rice Center is working closely with farmers across Senegal, improving not only the processing and quality of the rice, but also marketing and helping improve incomes of rice farmers.
Saint-Louis is a fun stop (and with newly paved roads from Dakar, a pleasant one). You can smell the seafood a few kilometers away, and the fish market is a sight that should not to be missed. We stayed at a terrific budget hotel, La Louisianne, with an amazing view of the Saint-Louis river.
Tuesday (Dakar, Senegal)
In Senegal, decreased consumption of locally produced foods has led to a weakened local economy, as well as rising poverty levels and health problems. You will notice right away the amazing growth in “fast food” signs and an increasing number of chain restaurants offering unhealthy choices. Worse yet, as more people flock to cities, there is a growing loss of cultural knowledge and agricultural biodiversity. So we visited with “Mangeons Locale,” an organization bringing knowledge about how to grow, cook, and prepare local foods to classrooms across central Dakar. The classroom lessons they offer are focused on introducing the children to local breeds and varieties, culinary traditions, and the food communities in the region and are followed by cooking sessions.
That night we grabbed a bite to eat at L’Institut Français, which is probably the only restaurant we found in Senegal with tofu on the menu (we are both vegetarian). Danielle and I took turns trying local juices, including Bissap, which is a mix of sugar with dried red flowers of Hibiscus sabdariffa, a kind of hibiscus plant. It tastes really good, a bit more like a sweet tea than juice.
Wednesday (Dakar, Senegal)
We paid a visit to ActionAid Senegal, meeting their country representative Moussa Faye. Faye spoke passionately about their work supporting groundnut farmers, who often get paid peanuts (pun intended) because of profits largely benefiting middlemen, processors, manufacturers, and distributors. ActionAid is helping farmers access markets, and even helping them process the groundnuts into paste and peanut oil. We’ll be joining them next week for site visits to meet with farmers and processing facilities over the next couple of days.
We love our hotel in Dakar, called Kingz Plaza. It is costing us only 25USD/night and includes free air-con, satellite T.V., hot showers, and WiFi. Most importantly the place is clean, friendly, and safe (in Sacre Coeur III, about four kilometers from center city). Best part is that they even have a DVD catalogue of hundreds of movies in the lobby (and players in each of the rooms). Before falling asleep each night we pick a different favorite. Tonight: Mr and Mrs. Smith.
Thursday (Ile de Gorée, Senegal)
We left in the morning to visit Ile de Gorée, an incredible island with cobblestone roads lined by colonial buildings. It is just a short 20 minute ferry from Dakar (only $10 dollars roundtrip). We visited “the House of the Slaves,” a painful reminder of the past. We learned that slaves were forced to walk to their prisons from all over West Africa. And once they arrived, hundreds were packed into dark dungeons with little food and water. The ones who survived were then herded on to ships, leaving behind their homes, their families and their culture forever. For every one slave that made it to the United States, at least four others died somewhere along the journey. The island has a neat (albeit expensive) crafts market that offers tons of incredible souvenirs, such as sculptures, musical instruments, beads, and jewelry.
Afterwards, we spent the evening catching up on our writing, and enjoying the noises of the city from our balcony.
Friday (Dakar, Senegal)
We wake up every morning to venders screaming outside the windows. This morning it was “poisson, poisson, and poisson!” We spent the day bouncing between meetings, including with the International Federation of Journalists. While we’ve been able to place writing about projects we’ve visited in mainstream American and international press, we’ve faced difficulty penetrating local African press. One important factor is that most of the coverage we see about agriculture in Africa, comes from wire stories from Associated Press and Reuters. In general, journalism is often not a profession learned in schools and the low-pay, minimal benefit, short-staffed jobs lend themselves to people taking bribes for stories. Everywhere we travel we try to meet with journalist unions and associations to get advice on how best to interact and build relationships with the African press.
Saturday (Dakar, Senegal)
We certainly can’t afford the 400 dollars a night it takes to stay at the Radisson Blu in Dakar (they have the largest pool in the city overlooking the Atlantic Ocean). So we did the next best thing. We arrived with suntan lotion and bathing suits in hand, walked into the hotel with confidence, took a few chairs with towels in a private bungalow, and pretended to be guests. It worked, and we spent the entire day reading magazines under the sun, swimming laps in the pool, and enjoying the amazing sounds of the ocean. The Hotel had no idea, but got their revenge when we found out that each beer (local) costs a hefty eight dollars a bottle. Every night at the Radisson guests also can enjoy live swing music along the water, who knew the lives of the rich and powerful can be so much fun!
Danielle is co-project director for the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet and both Danielle and Bernard are blogging everyday at Border Jumpers. Check out their site for their latest African adventure!