29 Mar

In Senegal there are various micro-credit and savings schemes in place since the 1990s. While they originally received assistance and seed money from international NGOs and other bodies, they now run themselves. Last Thursday I visited one called PAMECAS (they tend to have rather long names and acronyms in French) in Guediawaye, a suburb of Dakar. Because these small solidarity banks maintain what they call ‘social funds’ with parts of their profits, some micro-credit members — or bank ‘clients’ — have decided to set up health insurances schemes with these. (Such funds had already been used for things like improving local schools, scholarships, and even sending people on pilgrimage to Mecca.)

Where I went to find out a bit more about such a scheme however was the nearby city of Thies. This journey began badly but ended well. It began with my walking to the gare routiere, or bus station, which I discovered upon my arrival to be not so much a station as a vast open field of oily, black, garbage-strewn mud, chock-a-block with rattletrap or entirely broken down buses and cars, its many features threaded together by bands of unoccupied youth and wandering vendors of everything from toy cell phones to bananas, and from cushions to bottles of water quite obviously refilled from taps. I was asked several times where I was going, and since I could see no signs, no wicket, no person in charge, and certainly no building, I finally said ‘Thies’ and was directed to a bus. This was all well and good except that the bus, a white vehicle with welded bench seats and square holes cut into the metal panelling for windows, didn’t leave until it was full. And it didn’t fill because for just a couple hundred extra francs, passengers could take a station wagon called a 7-Places (for the 7 seats available) and leave right away.

For several hours the same vendors and lots of new ones came by, thrusting sunglasses, or eggs in a plastic bag, or cards of cheap jewelry inside the windows at we hapless and stationary passengers. Behind us, a group of mechanics sat and waited on a bench for another bus to break down. The sun rose and grew even hotter. And so I waited from 9 am to 12:30 to finally leave.

Which we did at last, plastic flaps pulled down over the windows to keep out the flying sand, even as mechanical problems had our driver stop about four or five times en route to check underneath the hood. This meant that I arrived in Thies at the worst time possible, about 2:30, just before prayers on a Friday, with every shop closed — including the one where I was supposed to meet the women from Wer Werle mutuelle de sante.

I walked across the dusty roundabout, towards a sort of wooden shed with a Nescafe sign, thinking I might get some coffee, and met a man with a briefcase bulging with information about the health benefits of aloe vera — and a Canadian-manufactured product he soon hoped to start marketing in Senegal — who was the only French-speaking person there. From him I learned that: a) there was no coffee, b) there was Coke, but it wasn’t cold, c) the pharmacy would never re-open today, d) all phone booths were also closed, but e) I could use his cell phone to make a call. This got me in touch with Madame Diake Mbengue, who grew so frustrated with my complete incomprehension of the directions to her house that she walked up a couple of blocks and found me. This is where my day began to take off in a much better direction, or probably it was with the man and his cell phone, even if he did charge me a thousand francs to use it — ‘that’s okay, isn’t it?’ he asked politely, ‘I’m not being méchant?’


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