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Politely fleeced by sinners from Senegal

Winter has broken out here in Dakar, and it is a beautiful thing, because the temperature has dropped enough for me to feel slightly chilly. This precipitate drop meant a trip to a local market called HLM to find a fleece or windbreaker type of garment to fend off the cold. The trip to the market was an experience because of the novelty of items for sale: there was fresh coconut to drink (complete with an unparalleled adrenaline rush, as it was prepared by a local guy wielding a fright-inducing little cleaver in mid-air), ready-made boubous in fantastic colors galore, kola nuts, balls of incense in glass jars, bin bin or elasticized beads worn around the waist, and the little flimsy pieces of fabric called betios worn by women to lead their men into temptation.

Since there is no real public transportation here, I waited for a cab. Living where I do, in the Embassy district right across from the Club Med, it is understood that you never ride with one of the local cabbies, as they are small-time swindlers: they automatically assume you are filthy rich and charge accordingly. Within seconds, however, I was approached by a man in a handsome blue boubou offering to take me all the way to the market and back (given the appalling state of the roads, you have to calculate at least a half an hour each way). The best part was that he would even wait while I shopped: an hour or two was no problem, and he would do this all for 4000 CFAs, or a mere eight bucks.

This was an incredible bargain, as the trip would probably take a minimum of three hours, so the Senegalese friend who accompanied me on the excursion double checked to make sure I hadn’t misheard before we got into the cab. Everything seemed clear and off we went. But you know the saying that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is? When we returned home, I handed the driver 5500 CFAs, which according to my (admittedly poor) math skills included a generous tip, given the amount that had been decided upon before embarking on this excursion. When the driver then began speaking to my friend in Wolof, I assumed he was pointing out that I had given him far more than he had expected. It is rather a good thing that I have not yet learned Wolof, because I might have used a few choice expressions on my new acquaintance, who, as it turns out, had the gall to protest that I had not given him nearly enough money! My local friend reasoned with him for about a full five minutes. Once he had explained the context to me I was furious: why even waste time talking with such a dishonest lump of humanity? Why not just tell him to take a long walk off a short pier?

During the first week of my stay here in Senegal, there was a similar incident in which a very hospitable-seeming man insisted on showing me his native village of Ngor, only five minutes away by foot, so that I would finally get a realistic impression of the way people lived here. Close by, yet far from the manicured lawns of the Club Med, he would show me huts, goats and chickens, Koranic schools and baobab trees. We went on a companionable walk, at the close of which he pointedly asked for a ‘contribution’ to help feed his family. No violence, no threats, as the Senegalese are a peace-loving people, a quality which makes their country one of the most stable in the African world. Simply invest a bit of time and faux friendliness, then wait for your mark to do the right thing.

Both ruses are undeniably good ones: the tourist, inevitably white and self-conscious because of it, feeling slightly guilty about his privileged First World existence anyway, will generally tend to believe that yes, the misunderstanding was entirely on his side, and besides, what’s an additional few bucks when this guy probably has a family of ten to feed. So, gritting his teeth and not wanting to make a scene or be the ugly American/Briton/German etc., he reaches into his pocket and everyone parts as friends, the tourist blissfully unaware that he has just been, quite literally, taken for a ride.

Once you are aware of such scams, however, it is impossible to return to the innocent state of existence in which you believed that everyone was kind and friendly and chock-full of Senegalese hospitality, or teranga.

And then you may become angry and bitter as I am feeling just at present, counting down the 21 months until my contract here ends and I can go back with relief to a country whose criminals at least have the integrity to rob you at gun or knifepoint.

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