There’s something about being in a brand new country that makes you open and willing to think the best of people, sometimes to the point of eyepopping naivety. Yesterday, my first day in Senegal, was a case in point. I arrived in the afternoon and in the evening I ate in a Moroccan restaurant with an family from the International School. After that I strolled down to Pointe des Almadies, which I had heard was the westernmost point of Africa. I went on my own down an unlit street, heading towards the sound of waves crashing on the rocks.
Out of the dark comes Ali Bho – a young man in his early twenties who wanted to tell me all about his life and ask me about mine. He was celebrating, he said, because his wife had just given birth to their first child, a baby boy. He had just been down to the sea to pour milk into the water, which he claimed would guarantee that his wife would always have enough milk for the baby. He said that the naming ceremony was the following day and that he intended to kill twelve fat goats for the hundreds of guests that would be coming.
As for me, I cooed and clucked and wowed at all the right places. I rejoiced with him about his newborn baby.
I’m so happy, said Ali Bho, embracing me. I’m happy to have a baby son and I’m happy to have found such a kind open-minded new friend. I’m in the silver and gold business, he added, and I’m so happy that I’m going to give you a large amount of silver as a gift.
No, I said. No, really, that’s fine. Your friendship is enough, Ali.
I insist, said Ali, switching from French to English. This (snapping a tight silver bracelet around my left wrist) is for you and this (another one on my right wrist) is for your wife and this (an even smaller bracelet) is for your daughter Liberty. I would not usually give these things to a stranger, but I am so happy tonight and you are such a kind and friendly person and it is clear you love Senegalese people.
I do, I do, said I. Thank you for your gifts. Je ne sais meme pas quoi dire. I don’t know how to thank you.
I’ve got to go now, said Ali – all I need from you now is your contribution to my naming ceremony. A little gift for my baby son. Some English money, perhaps, so that my guests and I can drink to your good health.
And that’s when I realized that I’d been had.
I think your gifts to me really have been too generous, I said. I cannot accept them. May God bless your baby and your whole family, but please, let me give you back your silver bracelets…
Back and forth we danced. I was trying to take the bracelets off my wrists and he was trying to put them back on. And all the while I was thinking, when I next go for a walk in the dark in an unfamiliar West African capital, I must bring at least a modicum of street-wisdom.
So anyway, that was that. Once I’d disentangled myself from Ali and his generosity, I went down to the Pointe and ate a plate of cockles and listened to the waves.
Today I’m teaching at the International School of Dakar. Four sessions on two subjects: ‘How to write a picture book’ and ‘How to research an adventure novel’. I’d better go and get ready.