Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Eye Books
Product Dimensions: 14 x 1 x 20.3 cm
"This book is the closest thing I have read to an outsider understanding our culture." Kemo Conteh, Gambian Development and Governance consultant
Chasing Hornbills charts Simon Fenton’s further adventures in Senegal. Now a father, and expanding his business interests to include a taxi firm and a restaurant, he continues to face the everyday frustrations and exhilarations that made Squirting Milk at Chameleons such a compelling and entertaining read. The Accidental African of the first book has become more deliberate!
But as his understanding of Senegalese life and culture grows, so do questions about his future. Will Simon settle permanently in his adopted home, or will be give up and return to his old familiar life?
One of the hardest things for a toubab to get his head around in Africa is lack of privacy and personal space. It's not unusual for someone I hardly know to turn up at my house, park themselves in my hammock and not move for the rest of the day, although I've discovered that my very realistic looking rubber snake solves this problem.
In the West, the rights of the individual are seen as the most important thing. In Africa, people are not that important. An individual is seen in terms of his or her relation to others - as a brother, a father, a son, a Muslim, a Diola and so on. Perhaps this explains why birthdays are rarely known and not celebrated. Each of these relationships carries cultural obligations and expectations which are more important than individual rights if Africans had a free choice.
It was when I realised this that I could start to understand the clash of cultures when people want to impose Western values, and can't understand the thinking that rejects them - the right of a child to go to school as opposed to helping in the fields, the rights for somebody to be in a homosexual relationship rather than to marry and produce children within the community. It isn't necessarily right, but I think helps explain. Then you can throw into the equation the belief that failure to maintain traditions of ancestors brings bad luck.
It's somewhat ironic that what I love about living here is the freedom from expectations and obligations of my own culture.
Child weddings - This still goes on here and it's not uncommon for an old man to take on a young girl as a bride. We once employed a young girl called Oumey - she was around 20 years old and divorced, having run away from her husband, a man old enough to be her Grandfather.
I was disturbed when I discovered that this was also happening under my nose. Khady kept ignoring a number that called her phone multiple times. I asked why she didn't answer and she told me it was an old man who was chasing after Jumbo. She's the girl we adopted and is 13.
Preparations for a trip I was due to undertake began with a trip to the village of Baila, a hot dusty place half way to Ziguinchor. Like most places in the Casamance, Khady has family there.
She had explained that I needed to go and take a shower there. This will allegedly provide me protection and give me an opportunity to make a wish. Khady wants my trip to be successful and bring us good business opportunities. Me too.
As usual, I figured if nothing else it could be an interesting experience, so on Sunday night we set off, staying at her aunt’s house for the night. In the morning, after breakfast, we went to the home of an old witch - sorry, I mean an old "spiritual lady" who, with a toothless grin, lead us down to the river.
It was a beautiful spot and about 20 or so people had gathered - as usual, me being the only toubab. I had assumed the process would be similar to previous experiences, but it wasn't. A bunch of old women tended the fetish - a smoothed tree stump at the base of a sacred tree. It was well swept and covered in offerings - sweets, biscuits, cigarettes, milk and so on. I was told to strip down to a pair of shorts and then, along with Khady and the other 20 people, entered the river. Everyone crouched, water to our shoulders, closed eyes and thought about what we wanted. Then we swam (at least I did) or waded (African's don't seem to do swimming) downstream to an archway of wood that protruded from the water’s surface. One at a time we approached the arch, made our wish (again) and dived through it - three times each. Not a problem for me. Rather amusing to watch everyone else coughing and spluttering.
After this we had to all go and sit by the fetish shrine. Khady can sit all day on the floor, back straight, legs out stretched. Me - 2 minutes is more than enough. And the ants were vicious - I'm still itching. Each of us had to pay our fee - a rather extortionate 100 cfa (about 12p) and then the old ladies chanted our names and wishes; the third time I'd had to make it so it had better work. I was near the front of the queue but the chap before handed over 2000 cfa and pulled out a list of 20 people to be blessed. Meanwhile I was squirming around in the ants, back aching and sore.
Eventually it was over, or so I thought. As I made to leave, I got dragged into a cubicle where an old granny ladled green leafy liquid all over me and made me drink some. It was quite tasty. Then she tied a red cord around my waist.
I am well and truly protected and expect great things.
The first of these tests was the interesting ritual described above. The second was no less bewildering.
A month after the theory test, on a dreary December morning, I was back in Ziguinchor once more for my practical test. 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 a toubab, 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 hadn’t received the licence, Fitty was no longer taking my calls, and I still wasn’t 100% sure whether I’d passed or not.
Omar the driver then told me that there was an official Senegalese policy for toubabs not to be issued with driving licences. This was due to the fact that a Senegalese licence was valid in France, so French drivers who’d been banned in France were buying licences in Senegal. Rather than investigate any French drivers, they simply stopped giving out licences to all toubabs. They still took my money, though.
"Fenton's love of Senegal, its people, and West Africa shines through in every paragraph, despite his regular frustrations with officials and family... Truly, this book deserves a wide audience. In my mind it's an absolute winner and a gem. Worth every one of the five stars I'm giving it. Roll on Book No.3"
A five-star review by travel writer Grant Leishman
The launch of Chasing Hornbills