May be by the time you read this piece I would have arrived in Freetown. But the journey has not been as easy as that sounds. To say travelling within West Africa is a nightmare is an understatement. With unscrupulous border guards, travelling by road means throwing through the window the ECOWAS protocol of free movement of West African citizens and subjecting yourself to harassment at border crossing points. Doing so by air does not necessarily spare you the intrigue and complexities. Apart from the huge expenses it involves it can be tortuous.
Take the following for example: travelling from Freetown to Bamako is more expensive than travelling from Dakar to Rome. Obviously there are far more flights linking West Africa to Europe than linking countries within the sub-region. This is due to the fact perhaps that there are more passengers on the Europe route. But take how many hops one sometimes has to make in travelling from Freetown to Bamako. A recent trip to the Malian capital meant I had to overnight in Accra (or in Dakar), proceed to Abidjan for another night and then Bamako. On my return leg of the journey I had to again spend two nights in Abidjan. All this 50 years since the region became independent.
Talking about colonial mentality makes one cringe at what is happening at some West African airports. Dakar is an airport where health officials are, or pretend to be, very strict in ensuring people coming into the country are vaccinated against cholera, yellow fever and other WHO recommended diseases. They insist on a Yellow Card. But that is on paper like the paper itself the card is. Like in Freetown where one can get a Yellow Card without being vaccinated at all, in Dakar $ 10 can do it for you. A Gambian journalist recently insisted on getting her money back because the officials simply agreed her request to get the card without the vaccination. Her argument was that if the authorities were concerned about the health of their people which is what the Yellow Card should be about, then they should insist on vaccinating people without the card and not only collecting money and issuing them with the card. But if that incenses you, here is what incenses me more.
Every time I have arrived at the Dakar airport, and I have passed through here at least ten times in recent times, the health officials have insisted on a Yellow Card, which I have always produced. But that has only been when I have travelled through here from another West African country. On Saturday I arrived at the airport from Madrid, Spain. Despite having warned a friend I met on the aircraft to be ready to part with $ 10 for not having a Yellow Card, we arrived and there was no mention of let alone request for the card. When I enquired I was told that they were only asking passengers coming from other West African countries. If this is not stupid and racist by Africans against each other, nothing else can be. A mixed race lady, Senegalese paternity, ferociously nodded in agreement when I fumed at this.
Talking about paternity and just from Spain the home of one of the world’s top football leagues, brings me to one of the most talked-about events in the world at the moment football. No not the world cup in South Africa but some African footballers having it tough with or about their father. On Sunday I visited some old pals here in Dakar, a place I once lived and worked I have a few of them here. And we were discussing the Champions League final and came the issue of Michael Essien as a major talking point. Well both because he cannot make it to the World Cup for Ghana because of injuries, but also because of another reason. His recent controversy for allegedly shacking what many believe is his responsibility to his dad.
But before we could go deep into that conversation, my Senegalese friends had their own Essien to contend with. You must have heard of the celebrated African Footballer of the Year the Senegalese El Hadj Diouf who pursues his trade in England. Diouf’s father is NOT Diouf. He is one Mr Jalloh. Because his father apparently did not tend to him and some would say abandoned him to the mum, he chose the surname of someone else some say his uncle others say his stepfather.
A child taking their stepfather’s surname is not rare in the world one may argue. Probably the most celebrated one is the former US President Bill Clinton whose father’s surname was Blythe. His father died months before he was born and his mum got married to Clinton, hence his surname. So many would argue that a child raised by their stepfather could adopt his surname if their biological dad no longer lived. My Senegalese friends would not want to hear that. On the contrary, they argue, it is in fact the more reason why keeping the late father’s name is necessary.
But Senegalese, very intelligent people and having the most intellectual president in the world in the person of Abdulaye Wade, can be argumentative over everything and anything. They even justify the issue of what I believe is child enslavement. Thousands of children are all over the streets of Dakar begging for alms in whatever form. Called the Talibays, they are not allowed to bathe and they are obliged by their marabous teachers to bring home 500 CFA, about $ 1 daily. Failing that means succeeding to get the wrath of a cane. But my Senegalese friends have always defended that as a part of their culture. So when a good number of some of them denounced El Hadj Diouf’s denunciation and abandoning of his father, regardless of the dad’s treatment of him, I was surprised. “Il est son pere” (he is his father) one of them bellowed.
Now Michael Essien came under a bit of a flack recently in Ghana over his apparent lack of proper attention to his father. The story goes that the ageing former Account Clerk looked after young Michael up to the age of 9 years and abandoned him to the mum. The old man has a sore on his foot that is said to be eating him up. He cannot even afford a few hundred dollars from his son’s weekly earning of around $ 100,000 to see a doctor and has had to rely on traditional treatment if you believe the Ghanaian media. His house is dilapidating. He starves. A newspaper in Ghana picked up this story and Essien rang the state-run radio up to refute all the allegations saying he had built a house for the dad and that he sends for him regularly. A group of investigative journalists went to the father’s home town and spoke to him. According to them they met the herbalist treating the old man’s sore, and an uncle who the dad says built the house. What Essien did was to fix a portion of the house where the father lives. And even there, he uses a bucket for a toilet.
But Essien’s mother is living the life of an African First Lady. In absolute affluence. I am not sure which side of the divide you are on but one of my Senegalese friends put it some how thus: the fact that your father even slept with your mum, obliges you to look after him for the rest of your life. No matter what he may have done or not done to you. And a lady conversationalist could not disagree more. Citing Senegal where she says many men are abandoning their paternal responsibility, she thinks Essien is right to mistreat his father for not caring for him when he needed him.
You probably have heard of Mario Balotelli the very impressive 19-year-old Inter Milan striker. He was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents who apparently sold him out on adoption. He refused to play for Ghana and still refuses to pay any attention to his parents who attempted to claim him after he had achieved superstardom. He feels betrayed that his parents could have treated him the way they did and has refused to have anything to do with them. I wonder what your take is on that.
But you also remember the Swedish footballer, Martin Dahlin who in 1988 became the second black player to represent Sweden by being a part of the team that finished 3rd in the 1994 World Cup and he scored four goals in the tournament. Dahlin’s father was a Nigerian who abandoned him and his mum. When he was later informed of his paternity he denied it. The mum confirmed it but he would have nothing to with him. The mum later admitted that her companion had told her that he was Cameroonian until she later discovered through some documents that he was in fact Nigerian. By Umaru Fofana