Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Saturday, 29 January 2011

How to survive in Senegal: Lessons from a top 'fixer'

By David Goldblatt

Street market in Dakar
Without a local facilitator or "fixer", travelling journalists can find it very hard to get a story or to connect with people

A journalist in a foreign country often needs the help of a local "fixer" who knows the ropes. Once in a while you meet someone who takes fixing to the level of an art form.

Reporters get the glory, producers do the work, but fixers make it happen.

They find the people, make the calls and do the translating and the talking but, like Dady our fixer in Dakar, they do so much more.

Lesson one was how to deal with rogues.

On several occasions, Senegalese said to us, as if it were a well known proverb, "You know, this country is full of thieves and villains."

No kidding.

When Dady finally appeared, she cut an imposing figure, resplendent in traditional robes, Islamic prayer beads and a large, radiant, orange turban and a cross look

On Rue Pompidou, the late night drag in downtown Dakar, a 100m (330ft) walk brought us - in rapid succession - a very persistent fake Chanel pedlar, a man who held the shirt he was selling too close for comfort, another who grabbed my leg claiming I was about to fall, and the crazed bonhomie of the sidewalk jester who opened with the gag: "You don't remember me but we met at reception."

By then we were ready to repel all boarders, because Dady had shown us how it should really be done.

'No nonsense'

The first rule on arrival is to change a small amount of money at the official rate and then, at one's leisure and in daylight, change more with street traders offering a better rate.

David Goldblatt with Dady
Dady has a wide repertoire of skills

What you do not do is change money at night, outside the airport with someone you think is connected to your fixer but may not be.

That is what we had done and we acquired an entourage of bag carriers and advisers into the bargain.

When Dady finally appeared, she cut an imposing figure, resplendent in traditional robes, Islamic prayer beads and a large, radiant, orange turban and a cross look.

A single glare scattered the gang as she admonished John, my producer: "Have you been changing money?" She shook her head in despair - amateurs.

Two minutes out of the airport, John realised he had been short-changed by 200 euros (£170) and began wondering whether the BBC expenses regime would bear this loss.

Dady was having none of it.

We returned to the airport where she mobilised the police and put airport security on the job. She found the gang, persuaded one of them to spill the beans and brought the culprit to the cops.

The money was returned.

'Silver-tongued networker'

Dady could pull this kind of stunt because she was sharp, brooked no nonsense, knew how things worked and because she was connected.

Dady, as passenger in car, covers her eyes
(In Dakar) your car is bound to have character

Lesson two: Work those connections.

She relentlessly greeted old friends on the street, took new numbers from new people, used up and replenished her stock of grace and favours.

Keeping it in the family is the supreme networking strategy.

In our short time in Dakar, we stopped at the houses of four of her relatives, eating (and paying for) lunch at two, showering at one and taking a siesta in another.

Lesson three: Driving in Dakar is an art, master it!

Your car is bound to have character. Ours had a dodgy starter-motor but Dady had the knack - leaning over from the passenger seat, turning the key with just the right feel.

When that did not work, she could rustle up a crowd to bump-start the thing.

Amid log-jams and crumbling roads clogged with wildly erratic drivers, she demonstrated insouciance but she had other modes too.

Once while on her mobile phone, she shunted the car in front, bending our bumper and their boot.

She switched to theatrical rage, swatting aside a traffic cop, the crowd of onlookers and surrounding irate drivers who had the temerity to suggest that there was a conversation to be had at all.

If there needs to be a conversation, then take note of lesson four: Be ready to bargain.

Dady could not resist.

Map of Senegal

Of course there was extensive discussion over the things she really intended to buy and she cut us and herself some good-looking deals.

But she would also haggle over the stuff she did not want: Sets of knives, religious pamphlets, bootlegged CDs or a huge brown and gold clock bearing Koranic verse.

I think she did it to keep her skills sharp and to perform her civic duty - keeping traders honest.

Lessons one to four were about surviving. Lesson five was about thriving: Know where to eat.

She took us to midnight dibiteries (meat restaurants) where we feasted on trays of roasted goat, shady gardens where they were serving Moroccan couscous and to only bakeries where the croissants were up to the mark.

A silver-tongued networker, tough-minded trader, imperious queen and the Michelin guide to Dakar, Dady was our fixer but, above all, she was an education.

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Country profile: Senegal
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