The Scams of Dakar

“I will eat you alive.”

The young Japanese tourist stared at me helplessly as the customs guard grinned and said something that I didn’t understand. I would have helped him had I understood at all what in the hell he was saying, but I didn’t. In Dakar, tourists are separated and fleeced in an ever so friendly way. This is not like other African megalopolises I have visited, indeed there is a civility to the fleecing, but a fleecing is a fleecing whether you’re smiling or crying after it.

Out into the glaring crowds. A few police to keep the order, and a throng of black men in brown striped shirts surrounded me and started in; the game had begun. I was expecting this, said no thank you, I’m fine, please go away. Which they did, for awhile. Yet one guy stuck around, hung around me while I stood behind a cordon in a line of Senegalese waiting to change money. It was there that he pulled out a very official looking card that stated he worked for the airport as an information guide, which I assumed was a good thing. Hangers-on usually don’t have fake IDs, and I usually trust my instinct these days. He must work for the airport then – that means I should be able to trust him, marginally.

Of course, I had never been to Senegal. After my money changing he was still there, waiting. Of course, this should have been in a sign, but when dealing with scammers you rarely get the time to really ponder all of the signals; you need to act, and act quickly. I hesitated for a moment and then followed him out into the night, where he found me a taxi. Good, I thought. Things took a turn for the worse when he hopped in the back.

I knew that wasn’t right – that told me immediately he was a scammer of some sort, and I opened the door in the moving taxi and motioned to get out – in most countries that I’ve done this, it’s enough of a drastic action that the taxi driver will slow down and things will be renegotiated. Yet here, the scammer kept yelling at the taxi driver to keep moving; this wasn’t a robbery, I knew that much, but I wasn’t particularly interested in handing this guy any money.

Conversation ensued. I told him I didn’t need him to go to my hotel with me, and didn’t need him at all. He agreed he’d just leave a few kilometers away from the airport. Indeed, he did, but not after a raging argument with me about money, and how much of it he should get.

These guys are aggressive. Far more aggressive than the last rip-off artists I had to deal with, in Armenia, two months ago. He demanded 3000 CFA(about 5 Euros) for his time, which I flatly refused, and began arguing politely back. As a Canadian, my mild-manneredness is both a blessing and a curse. It helps me diffuse a lot of otherwise intense situations by responding with a very quiet voice, and that often leaves people looking for a reason to pound me into the ground very confused as to what to do – he’s harmless, why touch him? Yet this guy knew he was in the wrong, and he knew the louder he yelled and the more he cut me off when I tried to say something, the faster I would just try to get rid of him with money. On the other hand, I’m rarely blunt enough to get rid of people quickly, and try to work my way out of these situations with as little bad blood as possible between me and the opposition.

I tried arguing; but a tactic I would discover more and more in Senegal was being cut off when I tried to explain things, reason the price out, discuss why things shouldn’t be the way they demanded. They would just simply cut me off and repeat their last statement: “I helped you, you give me 2000 CFA!”

“but you—”

“I helped you, you give me 2000 CFA!”

“you didn’t—”

“You give me 2000 CFA!”

And then I try another approach, which is what he wants, and the disjointed argument continues –

“I’ll give you 1000 CFAs.”

“1500! I helped you!”

“no, 1000.”

“1500! I helped you!”

“Fine. 1500.”

I had been duped by his fake ID. After all of my travelling, I can still get scammed. Really, I don’t think any amount of travelling is ever enough to protect oneself against all scammers – you can create flat out policies of never dealing with the locals, but that is stupid since you’re probably travelling to get to know the locals in the first place. Yet, I’ve met travellers like that – aggressive, belligerent, mean, all of these things can bite you in the ass later on. I’m not a super-cheap traveller, I don’t mind reimbursing people who help me. But slimy scammers get on my nerves.

I finally got to my hotel and the squalid room was a ridiculous € 24; Dakar is, in fact, one of Africa’s most expensive cities. No budget accommodation, no value for money whatsoever. I had only arrived here since a visa for Mauritania seemed like a real hassle to get back in Canada and thought a day or two in Dakar wouldn’t be too bad an idea, I’d see one of the continent’s major cities and it has good flight connections back to Europe, much easier to get in and out from here than Nouakchott which is only served by Air France three times a week, when the airport isn’t closed as a result of the coup attempt. I entertained the idea of heading out to see Dakar’s legendary nightlife that night, but my fatigue got the best of me and I just plain passed out before I could figure out where to go.

Sunday morning; I’ve been travelling without a watch for about 4 months now and have found the experience interesting. I don’t know what time it is, just that it’s light out and something must be open. I was wrong – Dakar is absolutely empty on a Sunday, all day – from the travel agencies, to restaurants, to supermarkets, to the banks; this is especially strange for a country that is 80% Muslim, yet the Catholic minority exercises enough power that shops must honour this requirement to be closed not only on Friday but also on Sunday. Productivity is not one of Senegal’s strong points. So out I went, wandering around.

A few people chatted to me, interchangeably in English and French; I was wandering around aimlessly, looking for anything that was open, anything worth seeing; the Place de L’independence is hopelessly dull, the president’s mansion has one sole guard in front of it in ceremonial costume, and the streets are empty. In most cases, when in a city with scammers lurking, I’ll duck into a shop or restaurant to lose them. But this was not possible in Dakar on a Sunday – there was just nothing open. There was nowhere to be but out on the street, in plain view, with the scammers on the prowl.

I had been ready for this – indeed, the tactics used in Dakar would have to be good for me to be fooled. And guess what – they were good.

“Ah, you know me – I’m from your hotel,” the man stated, smiling softly; he didn’t look familiar, but hey, last night was a blur from my jet-lagged self and it may have very well been possible. He said he was heading home from work, and we walked together talking about Senegal, Canada, and he took me to some tourist sites, around in a circle as I had meant to walk anyway; so, there was little reason to part ways. Had he tried to tug me in a direction different from that which I was going, again, I wouldn’t have gone. But ah, he is an adept at these sorts of things; mild manneredness simply did not cut it when dealing with individuals like this.

Again we walked, and headed toward the largest market in town. It was slightly bustling, but not very; we walked amongst empty stalls, he greeted one large fellow whom shook both our hands. It all seemed to stem from large African friendliness. Indeed, these men seemed harmless, the entire place a harmless third world atmosphere. I asked him if he wanted money; I was up front that his help was not necessary, and I would not be reimbursing him for showing me around. “Ah, all I want from you is a postcard,” he said, smiling. Throughout our encounter he would highlight that fact, and that relieved me. A verbal tranquilizer, and I only realize it now. Few beggars, few touts; he walked with me, and eventually, predictably, led me to a fabrics shop.

Inside it was quite impressive, and I pretended to be interested, just to be nice. They said they were funded by UNESCO and some other projects to keep these people employed. Another fellow led me around, showing me all manner of crap with typical West African patterns, puffy backpack bags and small hand pockets, shirts, and traditional clothing. Anything that sort of caught my interest, they set aside. Then we went across the street and began to negotiate a price.

This shit wasn’t cheap. Unlike other African textiles I had bought over the years, these prices were high. I didn’t have much cash on me to begin with, after all, I was intending to do an afternoon of street wandering. He wanted something like 50,000 CFAs for the whole lot of stuff that I did not even want; I notched my assertiveness up a notch and told them I only wanted the small pocket bag; he wanted 15,000 CFAs for it, which I told him was ridiculous. I eventually got him down to 5000 CFAs, about € 8.3, and ended it at that. The shop owner stormed away, clearly disappointed. I smiled; these people take me for yet another typical tourist, which I am not.

But in other ways, I am. The fellow whom I met on the street continued his wandering with me, and invited me into a bare African bar. Another fellow from the clothing shop had joined us on our street walk, me flanked by these two touts. Yet their demeanour was not as such; they were trustworthy, calm, and not persistent. A huge difference from the tout I had to deal with back at the airport, these seemed much more the type of Africans who are just friendly and curious about foreigners in their town than the ones out to fleece me. So I played along.

Sitting down at the bar, some fellow approached us, and he handed me a small wad of paper; I felt a lump in it. He smiled and said “here is my gift to you! I have had my first child, after five years of marriage. It is customary in Islam for a man to give a gift to the first stranger he sees, based on his profession.”

My first thought was that he had handed me a small wad of drugs and was colluding with the police to get me arrested; he picked the wad of paper back up, opened it, and staring back at me was a glistening lump of solid gold.

Of course, my first thought after that was that it must be fake; yet I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable as to what real gold looks like, as opposed to fake gold, painted gold, brass, yellow metal, and so on. This looked real. I also considered where we were, in Africa, and it is far more likely to be real gold simply since Africa’s resources are based more on pure original metals than fake ones.

We chatted for awhile about Senegal and Canada, exchanged addresses. The other two showed me some traditional Senegalese toasting methods, and it all seemed like a very typical meeting between tourist and African lower class urbanites. He said that tomorrow he would be having a celebration that would go on all day for the new baby, with hundreds of people to come wish the new child well, and he would name the child then. He then invited me to the ceremony – perhaps, knowing full well, that if I’m a tourist and want to experience the culture, what else would I say? I could show up for a small period of time, I offered.

Being goaded by the other two men, who told me this was a very special gift, I began to become quite convinced. The object looked real, the man who handed it to me seemed real. The two other men, one of which worked at the shop and I automatically assumed wasn’t a scammer, looked real. It was all very convincing; so when the man who handed me the gift got up to visit the washroom, and the original man I had met on the street began to tell me that I should give him some sort of financial recompense to help with the celebration tomorrow to celebrate the birth of his child, I felt obliged to help. Help being the operative word; not a gift, not a scam, not buying anything; I was helping this man with his celebration, since knowing that families here are poor but must perform their traditions as required, regardless of the cost. All of this made sense to me, and most importantly, did not at all seem like a scam.

He told me that I should give the other man about 30 or 50 thousand CFAs to help him buy food, like a bag of rice, to help out with the celebration. The other man came back; this was where I could find out for sure if these people were scamming me. Indeed, the other man came back and looked at me expectantly; perhaps this should have been enough, and it is all and well for me to sit and write this now, looking back on it; yet then, his look seemed expectant of someone mild mannered like myself. The first man, who told me that I should compensate him, said to him, “so I believe this man has a gift for you.”

I told them that sorry, I was out of money. After all, I had bought that little pouch for 5000 CFAs and being too smart to wander around with too much money on me, was now officially broke. All three of them looked quite shocked, and also quite sad. I read the mood, and they definitely seemed disappointed.

The operative word here is disappointed. Had they seemed angry, aggressive, confused, or concerned that the situation was out of their control, I would have known right away. Before Senegal, my experience with scammers was always that they will become aggressive or frustrated if the situation seems to be unfolding out of their control. Yet they seemed real; so I offered up the next possible step, that I would go back to my hotel and get some money for them. They liked that idea. We hopped in a cab together, I told him the name of my hotel(ah, retrospect…. I should have had the first man I encountered name the hotel…. Hindsight is always 20/20 as they say), and we drove there. “We are waiting,” the original man said.

Being quite convinced of the situation now, I handed over 20,000 CFAs, about € 34; lower than what he had suggested, but too bad for them; I knew the price of money and that was a sizeable donation already. Also, if the wad of gold he had given me was real, that was still a great deal for an ounce of real gold. Of course, they never actually -said- it was gold, or anything, other than jewelry. In that they are right; I have yet to do any testing of the metal. And at this point, what difference does it make? I’ll put it in my travel treasure box; there’s a story behind it, that should be enough.

I handed over the 45000 CFA notes and immediately saw him tuck one aside for himself, and hand the rest to the other guy. I didn’t seem to mind that he was taking a cut for himself, after all he had spent the morning with me showing me around.

And, that was that. I agreed to meet them all at 10am the following day for the celebration, as they called it, and went back into my hotel room. But not before being hit up by a young fellow from Guinea, who showed me his passport, his pictures of his drums, and told me he just wanted to visit and chat at his shop just around the way. That seemed odd, since I told him I wasn’t going to buy anything anyway. I suppose he assumed that I might change my mind if I would just go there, but for me, I wasn’t having it. I thanked him but told him I had work to do in my hotel room.

I felt good about the situation; I thought, also, that I was out too early and the travel agencies might open up later in the day. They didn’t. But on my second foray out of the hotel, a larger man started walking with me, chatting. He seemed friendly, more real; he seemed concerned, interested, spoke reasonably good French but often I had trouble understanding him because of his accent.

Indeed, as an aside, the French accents in Africa are hard for someone not fluent with the language. He asked me once, “TeeVee Espagne?” to which I responded no, I didn’t watch TV while in Spain. He repeated: “TeeVee Espagne?” and I looked at him, confused. Finally, in his broken English, he said “You – live – Espagne?”

Ahhhh – he was asking “Tu habites Espagne?”, though, it didn’t sound like that at all. Also, the Mauritanian consular officer asked me twice, “KanTee ParTee?”, and I just stared at him. Finally he said “WHEN – you leave?” Ohhhh — “Quand tu partis?” Sheesh. I would have never figured that out.

Anyways, this guy seemed real. He also said he knew a lot about Mauritania, and I told him that I might be going there; after I sorted out some info about plane tickets to Sierra Leone and Liberia. We sat in a taxi, and he pulled out of his pouch some letters and pictures from other tourists. He was a guide.

We spent the better part of the afternoon sitting around, him and his friend who spoke very good English, chatting about guiding and whether or not I needed one. His English speaking friend was definitely smarter than him, and more calm; my schedule wasn’t set, but their prices seemed reasonable. 20,000CFAs for two people, including his own food, accommodation, and transport, and it seemed agreeable. I agreed to meet him tomorrow and chat about the thing a bit more. Also that afternoon both of them told me that I was indeed the victim of a scam about the celebration, and it would be best not to go through with it as certainly they were just setting me up to extract more money. I had my suspicions, and actually hesitated of telling these two guys about the thing, as I was expecting them in fact to tell me that I had been duped. Perhaps I just wanted to stay comfortable in my bliss that Africans actually wanted to be kind to me here. Silly me.

I was not very keen on a guide, but if the price was right I knew he could draw me in closer to African culture than otherwise. As a white man, you are always on the outside looking in on these situations; with him, it would be easier to hang out in typical places and get the African experience. It would be less an anthropological trip and more of an interaction with the real local culture.

The following morning I left early to find out if the travel agencies were open; they weren’t, and had they been I would have never seen the guy again. As I left the hotel the man who I had met on the street first the day before, followed me and told me that he was there to make sure that I would be at the celebration, to which I smiled cynically and said “you bet I will be,” and told him I had other things to do first, so I was off the hook. He was trying to walk with me, but I went determinedly in a different direction and he, trying not to look too obvious, let me go.

So back around to the hotel I went, and there he was, waiting; my guide, that is. I was suggesting to him that perhaps he could go with me to the celebration, he was a big guy so perhaps a little violence could ensue and I could get my money back. He suggested against it, despite my best efforts.

As for him, if the price had not been reasonable I would not have gone through with it. I was also trying to scare him, make him hesitate, as those sorts of things bring these scammers out of their usual zone of control and into my own zone where I see them for who they really are, and not the effrontery, the mask that they bear for the foreigners they aim to deceive. He sat beside me in the travel agency as I inquired about prices to Freetown and Monrovia; I had thought that people in West African countries would be well aware of the situation in Liberia, but he proved me wrong. He was blissfully unaware of the problems, merely suggesting something under his breath about “la guerre, la combate”, but otherwise he was still interested in pursuing a journey with me. So off we went to the Mauritanian consulate so I could secure a visa.

The consular officer was bumbling around somewhere far from his desk so the guide helped me find him. I filled out an application, handed him some photos, and he spoke to me in broken French. Then on a calculator he punched in the amount I needed to pay for the visa: 33,500 CFAs. That seemed pretty damned high, since my 5 year old guidebook put the price at only 4000, but I suppose it’s possible. At any rate, how can I argue with him? Can you bargain with consular officers? If I was being ripped off, is there any way for me to know?

The visa would be ready at 2pm. So, we went back to the guide’s house. He seemed happy with the situation, but I still had some reservations. First, 20,000 CFAs seemed quite high for the region, even for two people. Second, I had told them I would be journeying for 10 days when in fact I was only going to be there for 7 days. So when he asked me again if all was well, I told him yes, 105,000 CFAs was fine for a week. He got angry – 150,000 was what he wanted, and that was that. I told him that seven days at 15,000 CFAs was 105,000, and not 150,000. He told me to wait, as his English speaking friend would be getting back soon.

When he did, we spent two hours renegotiating the price. At one point, almost relieved, I had them finally accepting that my budget could not include a guide. And I could leave on amicable terms with these two. Yet somehow he figured in that it would be enough; I told him I did not want someone else dictating my eating habits, and I would pay my own way for food. So 7 days at 12,000 CFAs, I said. “Is that enough for two people, and enough for him to save money each day?” I asked.

“Yes, that is enough,” he said calmly. Ah, good. On top of that he would get 15,000 CFAs as a financial gift as well. I would give him 50,000 CFAs now, and 50,000 later, in Nouakchott. It sounded good to me, and we agreed.

Certainly both of these people were concerned about the scamming that went on in Dakar. They tried their best to present themselves as genuine businessmen, as knowing how the western business mind works. You present a product, offer a price, and that is open for negotiation. Once the deal is agreed, you can’t change the price. If something comes up along the way, then it is the merchant’s problem to fix and not the customer’s.

The guide was, indeed, helpful. Everything he did I could have done myself, but it was fun to hang out with him, and he knew his stuff reasonably well. He enriched my journey, and although unnecessary, his help was welcome. Not once after our agreeing on the price did we have a dispute, and I treated him to several beers and cokes over the course of 5 days. Even upon our arrival in Nouakchott, after I handed him the other 50,000 CFAs, did he not ditch me, as I was half expecting. He was usually concerned for my well being, although this diminished upon our rearrival in Senegal.

In retrospect – again – perhaps he was a little out of his element in Mauritania. He said he knew the place, and he had many Senegalese friends who worked in Nouakchott and we hung out with them, but he was well within his stomping grounds in Senegal. Touts couldn’t even get near me in Mauritania or Senegal, but upon our rearrival in the Senegalese border town of Rosso his attitude had changed. This was day 5.

Touts were indeed hassling me, and he was more interested in his cigarettes. We went to the same tea house as we did on our first time here, and he had given me 10,000 CFAs as I needed 1000 to pay the police to stamp my passport(now….. was that a bribe? It seemed odd to me, at least); he disappeared for a few minutes to change the 20 US dollars I had given him in return for the CFAs. He came back with a 10,000 CFA note and a somber look.

Earlier, in Nouakchott, we had agreed that since he wanted to buy a rug there that I would give him 25,000 CFAs in Saint Louis when we got there and he would reimburse me when we returned to Dakar. So he had bought the rug, and now he was showing me the 10,000 CFA note and telling me that it was all that was left of the 100,000 CFAs that I had given him.

Not only did he want the 25,000 we had agreed upon, he also wanted 40,000 more for food and for “mes petites jeunes, ma famille” back home in Dakar, so they could eat. I acted shocked at all of this – first of all, we had agreed on 100,000, basing that on hours of negotiation and constant questioning of whether it was enough. And not only was it supposed to be enough for 7 days, but it should have left him with 15,000 at the end for himself. Yet now here he was, telling me that he had blown it all, and he wanted more.

I tried several tactics to get to the bottom of his motives. He had been generally good to me, but now he was back at square one in the trust department with me. I asked him where it all went – the hotel in Nouakchott was more expensive than he had anticipated, he told me, and he needed to spend more on that. I found that odd as we had slept on squalid mattresses in a communal room for Senegalese shift workers – how could that possibly cost more than he anticipated?

Just as with the tout, when I offered an alternative, he would cut me off and repeat what he said last. “Quarante mille CFA!” he persisted. So after those, I had to pause. He tacked on the fact that I should think of his hungry kids – so I paused and thought. To diffuse these situations, as always, I slowed the conversation down. To speed them up adds emotion, gets him worked up, and since he was a bigger and louder person than me only the reverse could work. So I took long pauses between when he said something and I did – I acted shocked that this had happened. However, I did not get angry.

Getting angry did cross my mind. I’ve learned to apply and remove emotion as necessary, to get through these situations. However, I have been angry in Africa before and it has never provided a positive outcome. A waitress came over with some Senegalese tea, which I had been drinking incessantly for a week, and I refused it.

I told him that the 10,000 CFAs was all I had as well; there was nothing left. We had already been through this in Nouakchott, since I told him the same thing there when he asked if I could forward him some money in Saint Louis since he would not have enough if he bought that rug in Mauritania. I told him I would, but he would also have to reimburse me for the 5 dollars’ service fee that the card company charges.

So again, he told me I would have to use my card to get all this money. To him, and often to many Africans, there is no time but the Present; the past is gone, the future does not yet exist. All he knows is that I can walk into that little room, put in my plastic card, punch in a secret code and voila! Instant money! Shower him and his family with unfathomable gifts! Never mind that I will have to pay it later, or that it would mess up my finances for this year’s later trips, to him this did not matter. My welfare did not matter; or at least, not as much as his own. After all, I can always get more money, but what about him?

There was no way he was getting an extra 40,000 out of me; even if he had in fact blown all of the money, and his body language and facial expression did seem real, that simply showed me that he was ultimately an incompetent guide and I should have nothing to do with him from now on anyway.

Yet I need to consider this as well – if I stormed out of this empty restaurant, perhaps he had set something up. He greeted many people when we first passed through here, and it was quite possible he had set up some sort of trap that I would get robbed with force if I refused to provide the extra cash.

So, considering that, I asked him what time it was. 4:30pm. I asked him if it was possible to get back to Dakar by the evening. “Oui, mais ou est-ce que tu dormir?” he asked. Where would I sleep, he wanted to know – nowhere, I told him, I’d take a flight out.

With my tickets, there is no such thing as a change penalty. Africans(and most people in general) think that plane tickets are rigid things that cost a chunk of money to be changed. Not in my world – I use this to my advantage, since I can skip town at a moment’s notice if I feel like it. Or to get myself out of spending another 24 euros on a shitty hotel room.

“Allons a Dakar,” I told him. He began to sip his tea, and get ready. I just picked up my bag and walked briskly out of the tea house, never looking back. Okay, I looked back once, about 75 metres later, and saw him slowly heading toward me. Another young fellow asked me where I wanted to go, and I said Dakar – he pointed to the Peugeot by the gas station. I hopped in – there wasn’t room for him. The car full, I was worried about letting my bag sit in the back, but a girl smiled and said that it’s okay. I paid the 5500 CFAs to get back to Dakar.

The kid sitting beside me on the long taxi ride asked where I would be going in Dakar; I said the airport. He nudged me when it was time to go, I found a taxi driver and a reasonable price to the airport. The kid hopped in the back.

“Tu vas ou?” I asked him, inquisitively.

Only a few blocks along your way, he said. That sort of gift I can handle – after all, he helped me find the closest place for the shared taxi to stop so I could get to the airport, and in return he wanted to get dropped off about 2 kilometres away. A modest gift like that for a modest bit of help I can handle.

But so often in Africa the people there want everything from the white man – it’s never a dollar or two, it’s a hundred dollars or two. It’s never a small favour, it’s references and a plane ticket to Europe. It’s always the world, and they always seem to get angry when you don’t give them the world. I am always ready to help out these people with modest requests, but rarely are the requests modest – and I am just left with them being angry at me since I don’t meet their ridiculous demands.

However, I left Senegal reasonably unscathed. The four flights back to Europe that evening were populated by hundreds of people with their Senegalese guides helping them check in and fill out their paperwork, Europeans sporting those African backpacks and clothes, one guy who bought two dozen wikker pots and needed each of them wrapped individually. Twenty-something tourists carrying around Senegalese musical instruments and wearing full length West African clothes; the whole check-in area was awash with people who were far happier than I, and had spent far more money than I.

Dakar is not a bad city; but I can recommend many other African cities which have better food, cheaper and nicer accommodation, and friendlier people. Being the only country in West Africa that a Canadian can get into without a visa, it was an obvious first entry point for me. But in the future, the hassles of being there far outweigh the hassles of me getting a visa back home.

So long, Dakar – I won’t be back. But there are plenty more from where I came from.

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