May I begin by apologising for my failure to get the latest Senegalese blog instalment ‘over SenegalJan2the line’ in time for the end of the January transfer window. Unfortunately I haven’t been the only one underwhelming the readership of these pages and the supporters of Newcastle United. I can’t remember a time I’ve been more apathetic about a side in our black and white stripes. Wonga on the front of the shirts, Sports Direct lurking in the background of the stadium behind them and players in them who are canny enough but do little to enthuse me. This is eighth. Don’t get me wrong, the club has been in many more perilous footballing and financial positions in its history. It’s the fact that we’re doing nothing but floating, drifting through a season, killing two of the most precious things in the world: time and hope. This is stagnation. At the risk of making this sound like a recent party conference: We can be so much better than this.

Anyway, before I start stepping on the toes of Peter Sagar’s wonderful Political Football blog, I’d better start talking about Senegal. The LSFP (Ligue Senegalaise de Football Professional) is now in full swing and has reached game week 8. The most recent match I attended is probably the craziest match I’ve ever seen in my life (and bearing in mind who we support…). Relegation battlers Yeggo from Dakar took on reigning champions Diambars from Saly at Stade Demba Diop. It was the first time I’ve managed to see the league’s top side and I wasn’t left disappointed. They passed the ball crisply and the movement of the forwards was a cut above anything I’ve seen up until now (which I would, generously, describe as Conference standard). Diambars kept the ball and dominated Yeggo who quickly became frustrated and starting kicking lumps out of their opponents. It was miraculous that at half-time it was only 1-0 to Diambars and both sides had 11 men.

The second half exploded into life when Yeggo equalised controversially. Their goalscorer rolled in a loose ball after a really ugly (but honest) collision between striker and goalkeeper. It left the Diambars keeper needing treatment and then stretchered off with a neck injury 8 minutes later. It also left his manager ‘gannin light’, to put it mildly, which saw him receive the first sending off of the evening. This was nothing compared to what followed when Diambars retook the lead through a goal that was given, cancelled out by the ref and then reinstated following consultation with the linesman who (rightly, for my money) argued that an off-side attacker wasn’t interfering with play. If only he’d reffed the Man City match! The Yeggo players swarmed around the officials before three of them removed their tops and stormed off in protest. They were confronted by a bloke in an immaculate, white bou-bou (traditional Senegalese dress) who turned out to be one of the Senegalese Football Federation board. He literally clipped all three of them round the ear and sent them back on, had a word with the ref and the match was restarted another 8 minutes since play had stopped! At this point I’m rubbing my eyes in sheer disbelief at what is unfolding and imagining the scenes if this had happened in England. Just as it seemed to be settling down a 22-man brawl is sparked off by one of Yeggo’s brutish defenders taking exception to a challenge and jabbing the nose of the Diambars left winger while he was clambering to his feet. To cut a long-story short, another 8 minutes later and the fourth official is out to announce the most optimistic ‘2 minutes of added time’ I have ever seen. Despite the 90 minutes of protestations interrupted by football, that was probably the most disingenuous decision I saw all day! The bloke from the FSF had obviously ‘had a word’. I couldn’t help wondering ‘imagine what would happen if these lads drank!’

At this point you’re probably wondering what the crowd were like amidst this madness and I’ve deliberately kept it separate as the crowd culture I’ve found in Senegal, or at least in Dakar’s Stade Demba Diop, is one of the biggest differences between going to the match here and back home. There are few local replica shirts, there are no ‘chants’, although there is usually a band that follows each side, equipped with an array of percussion instruments who bang out a rhythm that ill-befits the slow-moving football on show. People are generally there just to watch a game, discuss tactics, bemoan poor play and be entertained. They booed the players who attempted to walk-off, they tutted at the frequent playacting and they applauded attractive attacking football. In a way it’s football spectatorship in its purest form, with people attending out of a love of the game in its most stripped-down, eleven v eleven form. No SkySports-manufactured soap-opera amongst what is generally a neutral crowd. That said, I can’t decide whether I actually like it – I love it’s understated, natural feel, yet it feels alien to ‘the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging…’ I was brought-up on at St James’ Park. I’m hoping to see the national stadium in the next few months as apparently its renovation is almost complete and it may take over from Stade Demba Diop in hosting each weekend’s league football in the capital.

Back over Christmas I travelled north to Saint Louis, a place I’ve mentioned in this blog before as where I lived during my first stay in Senegal. Its postcard image is undoubtedly the Pont Faidherbe, the city’s iconic bridge which crosses the Senegal River. Its streets and colourful wooden buildings are also remnants of a previously affluent period as colonial capital of French West Africa. Nowadays it’s a place generally in decline, or at least stagnation, a little rough around the edges, despite maintaining its charm. The fisherman’s village is a sight to behold with over 4000 pirogues (beautifully decorated Senegalese fishing vessels) moored alongside the river, which is illuminated by their bright green nets. On my nostalgic wander along the quayside I got talking to Moctar, a local fisherman who told me with sadness about the difficulties faced due to major companies overfishing local waters and the general decline the area and its trade has experienced. He also spoke at length about his involvement in what I have discovered over the past five months is a shocking and tragic reality in modern Senegal: the illegal trafficking of local people to Europe by boat.

Desperate for a perceived ‘better life’ and assuming that this can be found by reaching Spain or its islands, thousands of Senegalese people over the past few years have been attempting to cross the Atlantic by pirogue. To do this, Moctar tells me that they pay up to 500,000CFA (over £600 and a huge amount of money to the average working person here) to secure a place on a pirogue. As a fisherman struggling to make ends meet, Moctar was contacted and agreed to captain two voyages in recent years and from what he told me, it’s miraculous that he is still alive. The passengers, few experienced on water and most unable to even swim, brought 7 days-worth of food and water to sea. Yet their journey ended up taking 13 days, in which time a variety of illnesses from sea-sickness to diarrhoea gripped them, causing horrific conditions on the boat. Moctar told me of his desperate attempt to cook rice in salt-water once supplies had ran out which stuck in his throat and burnt him. When the pirogue was recovered by the Spanish authorities off the coast he told me how he was ‘waiting to die’. Tragically, he states the mental legacy of the voyage, the memories of having to throw dead bodies overboard and sit amongst mourning families hurts him more now than that physical pain did. 93 people were in his pirogue yet only 34 survived the voyage. It is estimated that over the past decade more than 5000 West Africans have died attempting to cross the Atlantic to Europe.

This horrific feature of Senegalese society is slowly being tackled as authorities are tracking down and prosecuting those on the mainland who organise these voyages and make massive profits in the process. If you’d like to get a better understanding of this tragic trade, which, to my mind is totally uncovered in our media, I strongly recommend a recent film by Moussa Toure called ‘The Pirogue’. It is a brilliant portrayal of this topic but also is a vivid snapshot of everyday Senegalese life and frankly a fantastic film - If you’re interested in contemporary African culture it’s a must-watch – even if you don’t understand Wolof! To help you out with a first phrase: Ba benen yon! (Until next time!)