Last Thursday, we went back in time about 70 years to the days before the trans-Atlantic telephone cable. From about 11 am onward, it was not possible to make a call back to the States, or anywhere else outside Senegal for that matter. No Internet either. Smoke signals and passenger pigeons still worked, but only for those with the expertise.
It made us feel a bit isolated and slightly nervous. After all, shutting down phones, radio, TV and other comms is a key ingredient to any good African coup.
But this information blackout turned out to be the result of a labour strike at the country’s main telecom’s company (yes, French owned), instead of the handywork of a military junta with presidential ambitions. And it lasted only about 24 hours.
Still, it contributed to the general feeling we have here that, much of the time, we’re just camping out. For the last several weeks, for example, the electricity has been cutting repeatedly for hours at a time forcing us to enjoy romantic candle-lit dinners and conversation instead of catatonic TV marathons. Not too bad, actually. The only problem is that, when it gets hot, it is tough for us and the babies to sleep without a fan. (Note to self: invent Senegal’s first battery operated fan).
Actually, there are some other problems. The frequent power outages in Senegal have triggered protests by the people here. Small-time entrepreneurs like mechanics, fish-mongers, tailors and others who need power to make a living have complained bitterly about deteriorating basic services. Those who can afford to run diesel generators have been buying lots of fuel while watching their profits shrink. Others have simply shut down to wait for the end of the rainy season, when the power cuts tend to ease off. Finding fresh meat, fish, and cheese is sometimes difficult. Getting your beard trimmed can be risky.
For most Senegalese, though, the telecoms blackout on Thursday went unnoticed. It hit instead the moneyed expats and larger companies and aid groups that have chosen Dakar as a West African base over civil war-scarred Abidjan. Inconvenienced multinationals and NGOs don’t tend to tug at the heart strings. But when you’re trying to coordinate aid to ease the Sahel famine, or you’re trying to move several tonnes of whatever from Accra to Cottonou, a day cut off from the world is a serious issue. This is something Senegal may need to consider, after recently publicizing its hope of becoming West Africa’s communications hub.
Anyway, we’re hoping the labour action is over and the phones and emails keep working. But if a long stretch goes by without a new blog update, keep your eyes peeled for smoke signals on the horizon.