Senegalese go into hiding for Obama visit

africaobamaOrdinary Senegalese are drawing lessons from the past and leaving nothing to chance so that they avoid “foreseeable” embarrassing circumstances during President Barack Obama’s visit, which commences on June 26.

Enduring long hours in traffic jams while waiting for high profile visitors to pass through, being unable to hawk their wares freely in the streets and being virtually “held prisoner in one’s house” are some of the embarrassments they recall from the 1998 visit of former American president Bill Clinton.

Many businesses particularly in downtown Dakar and its peripheral districts have already started recording low sales due to this anticipation. “We’ve virtually been closed for a week now,” says Doudou Keita, a garment seller in Guelle Tapé, a few kilometres from the city centre.

Mbaye Ndiaye, an economist formerly employed by the Trade ministry, says the visit will cause losses of several million dollars, especially to the informal sector “who will take months to recover”.

“While the Americans are capable of making our country a better place, Obama is also capable of making our small businesses in Dakar poorer,” argues Ndeye Diop, a doughnut and coffee seller in a conversation with her colleague.

Assuredly, Ndeye’s colleague Bintou Diagne retorted in English with a native accent “Yessi, e can!” It was a play on Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan: ‘Yes we can.’

These “unforeseeable” embarrassments have led thousands of Dakar city dwellers whose neighbourhoods are being “bunkered” to return to their villages until Obama – nicknamed “the big cat” – goes away.

Barack (which means ‘shack’ in Wolof) “should have lodged in a shack to show solidarity with the majority shack dwellers here”, leading comedian “Kutia” insistently jokes on television about Obama, who he calls the “White House rent payer”.

Pickpockets and prostitutes

Since the announcement of the date of his arrival, the thousands of street beggars in Dakar have visibly disappeared and gone underground.

The same thing has happened to the noisy hawkers on the streets of the capital, most of whom were mistakenly picked up by police during a clean-up against pickpockets classified by security agents as “persons with the propensity to cause embarrassment”.

This category also includes both licensed and unlicensed prostitutes who made good profits during visits by less high profile statesmen whose delegations frantically sought out their services.

But for Obama’s visit, they are among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the tour, which has been extended from 48 to 72 hours beginning this Wednesday.

“No matter…some of us can still harvest from Obama’s field”, says Aisha Konaté, a sex worker with nearly two decades of experience and who boasts of having contacts capable of roping in “high profile” clients to her private abode

For a week now, the national television “RTS” has been clocking Obama’s upcoming visit with the Senegalese and American flags displayed on the top left corner of TV screens, and the inscription “D-Day 3 days to go,” or whichever days are pending.

The youthful face of Obama has for two weeks been very visible on a billboard on one of the tallest buildings along the Place de l’independence main square in Dakar.

And elsewhere, especially at the heavily secured Leopold Sedar Senghor International airport, several giant Senegelase and American flags are flapping high in the sky around photographs of the two heads of state. –