Dakar, Senegal is the westernmost point on the continent of Africa, located in a subtropical region about fifteen degrees north of the equator. The city is the capital of the country of Senegal, a former French colony that gained its independence in 1960. Dakar itself is located in an area that has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was a part of a series of prominent African kingdoms or empires over the last ten centuries, including Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. Portuguese explorers arrived in 1443 to establish a permanent colony, although ancient Phoenician and Greek explorers had already explored the region two thousand years before. The Portuguese colony flourished for about a century before it was taken over by the Dutch, then by the English, and finally by the French in the seventeenth century, and it remained a French colony until independence in 1960. The centuries of European colonial rule was largely marked by natural resource extraction and the slave trade until the mid-nineteenth century.
Today Senegal is one of several West African nations in the semi-arid Sahel region to the south of the Sahara Desert, an area marked by a rich art and musical culture, but also by poverty, political instability (although not as bad as in other parts of Africa), and a largely agricultural economy. According to the 2007 CIA Fact Book, Senegal has a per capita Gross Domestic Product of $1800, about five percent of the $40,000 per capita GDP of the United States, although this is at best a rough comparison because many Senegalese are more likely to butcher their own animals than to buy meat in a supermarket. Another interesting facet of Senegal is that probably half of the population is under the age of twenty because of high birth rates and an average life expectancy of about fifty five to sixty.
I spent a week in Dakar supporting a conference in February 2007, so during my infrequent breaks from work I got to do a little sight seeing. Since I had a very limited exposure to Dakar, the following will represent my experience rather than an exhaustive description of all that the city has to offer.
When I first arrived at the Dakar airport I realized immediately that I was no longer in the West, or the “developed” world right from the moment that the Air France Boeing 777 that I was on abruptly hit the tarmac hard before forcing itself to a stop, almost against its will. After we arrived near the terminal, we left the plane walking down a portable stairway past its massive engines to the concrete parking apron. The night sky was illuminated by harsh tan lights that seemed to be from another planet. The warm air smelled of earth, not a fresh clean smell, but more of a smoldering compost pile like odor. There was only one or two other airplanes in the airport at the time, and both were rather large international aircraft as well.
After some sort of a “deal” with the customs agents (that probably involved a passing of a handful of the local currency, the Communaute Financiere Africaine franc, or the CFA), we left the terminal toting our luggage on carts. The brief ride across town showed me a small part of Dakar, but nevertheless it was a totally exotic land. My eyes were glued to the window of the air conditioned bus as we passed dusty half constructed concrete mansions or apartment buildings, small cell phone stores, Western Union offices, tiny street side markets that sold fruit, and the occasional restaurant or night club. The edge of the road disappeared into coarse sand mixed with garbage that seemed to cover most of the city. So there were elements of modernity mixed in with a rather arid climate and traditional markets and street life. Most of the modern buildings appeared half constructed and were not illuminated, as if perhaps an overly ambitious building craze took off a couple years ago only to stagnate, leaving large numbers of half constructed buildings.
Eventually we came to our hotel, a huge complex that dominated Point Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa that jutted out into the Atlantic Ocean. The hotel was luxurious with a golf course, tennis courts, a marble lobby, a swimming pool, and huge mahogany conference rooms primarily used by international organizations like UNICEF, soccer teams, corporations, and government agencies. I spent a fair amount of my meager free time walking along the beach staring out at the waves of the Atlantic as they washed up against the half constructed concrete structures adorned with strings of laundry in the nearby suburb of Ngor.
A drive through Dakar revealed a typical large city with high-rises, traffic jams, and street markets, but I could immediately tell that I was on a different continent just driving down the narrow potholed street on our way downtown. The terrain was different; dusty neighborhoods with sand and dilapidated cars along the street overlooking the cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean. Elaborate stone houses and condominiums peaked above thick walls while markets, herds of goats, and crowds filled the debris strewn area between the street and the walls. Periodically I would see a horse or ox drawn cart plodding down the street with cars dangerously swerving into the other lane to pass them. Occasionally a run down but colorful microbus would drive by, filled with passengers, even a few standing on the back bumper and hanging onto the swinging door.
The streets wound past a soccer stadium, towering mosques, and spectacular views of the Atlantic, if you could ignore the piles of garbage. As we got closer to downtown the neighborhood shifted from walled estates to tenements with narrow streets and crowds. The evidence of poverty was there, especially in the outer parts of the city where the narrow garbage strewn streets cut through dark tenements, but I wouldn’t say that the people were necessarily living in despair. I would see the periodic beggar with a baby strapped to her back, standing next to the busy street holding out her hand to the passing air conditioned Range Rovers and Mercedes, but more often I saw people dressed in colorful clothes, sometimes hauling loads on their heads, perhaps on their way to the market or to family gatherings, or maybe running one of the street vendor stalls that were all over the city. A lot of the energy was put toward just about any activity that brought in little more money or more opportunities for survival, but also with a bit of dignity.
The entire city of Dakar seemed to be a giant market place because every street had corner vendors selling a wide variety of products ranging from fried fish or iced drinks to used shoes. And during the afternoon rush hour, a major arterial street became a de facto market when the traffic was stalled. Hundreds of boys and young men would wander between the gridlocked cars selling just about any item imaginable, including soap, sandals, electronic goods, CD’s, phone cards - essentially the street became a drive-through Wal-Mart every afternoon during rush hour.
The most aggressive markets were those that catered to tourists. I visited one of such market near our hotel. After walking through a dilapidated neighborhood with scrawny dogs and piles of smelly garbage along the road, we came to a market that consisted of about twenty shops built on the edge of the rocky shore. None of the shops were all that large, maybe the size of a closet, but they were filled with ebony and mahogany carvings of African animals, masks, distorted statues of people, touristy t-shirts, and drums.
As we entered, the shopkeepers immediately came to life, surrounding us and tugging at us to enter their shops, sometimes two or three at once. I remember a woman grabbing my arm and pulling me towards her little stall. “Don’t you want to go into my shop? You just look around, what do you want? Do you like this, elephant?” They spoke in broken English, and doubtlessly also in broken Spanish, German, Dutch, and perhaps even Japanese to try to entice tourists to enter their shops. Once I showed even the vaguest interest in an object, they began to pressure me. “What is your price – twenty thousand CFA for this elephant, made of ebony,” which is about forty dollars. Then you had to respond with a counter offer, or you had to firmly and repeatedly tell them that you were not interested. Often I would respond with something from the other end of the spectrum like one thousand CFA (two dollars), which they would reject immediately, and even looked a bit insulted, but then they would offer a lower price like sixteen thousand. They would also play other tricks, like trying to place it in your bag or even just handing it to you and refusing to accept it back.
After bartering for a few minutes I might finally get them to drop to a price like five thousand CFA (ten dollars). I would then have a problem if I realized that I had only a ten thousand CFA note in my pocket. I would then have to negotiate further to ensure that I would actually get change back. Also, I couldn't just save myself the trouble and take two at that price, because such a suggestion initated a brand new round of bartering. Usually if I held out long enough, they would pull out a five thousand CFA note to show me that they were willing to make change. Meanwhile other shopkeepers start hitting me up with other offers as well, especially now that they knew I had that note in my pocket, and at this point, everything cost five thousand CFA!
Often two or thee shopkeepers would simultaneously accost me with offers, sort of like a weird dance with different merchants rotating around me with some sort of statuette or t-shirt trying to get me to make an offer. And when my small group left the market with armfuls of statues, drums and small bags (I could never leave a market empty handed), an entourage followed us down the street carrying statues and xylophones, still trying to get us to make offers.
Aside from presidential palaces, embassies, beaches, a national museum, and markets, the main tourist attraction in Dakar is Gorée Island located in the bay near the Port of Dakar. This island was one of the collection points for slaves bound for the New World in centuries past. This site actually has received considerable international attention in recent years with visits by Presidents Clinton and GW Bush, Pope John Paul II, and Danny Glover among a host of other politicians and celebrities.
This rather small island is a dry and rocky promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean across the bay from the high-rises of downtown Dakar. It retained a considerable amount of its past, especially the eighteenth and nineteenth century colonial buildings painted pink, orange, and yellow. Most of these were inhabited by artists and poor families that made their living from selling artwork and anything else that they could find to tourists. The island also featured an exclusive girl’s school and the remains of French gun emplacements from World War II. The only vehicles on the island seemed to be colorful longboats that were pulled onto the shore between fishing excursions.
The most widely known site on the island pertained to the slave trade, a stone colonial style building situated on a rocky shore that was supposed to have been a holding place for slaves before they were shipped from Africa to the New World. Guides emphasized the cramped conditions in stone chambers on the bottom floor of the open air building as they pointed out which cells held men, women or children. They also emphasized the ominous doorway at the back of the building that led to the sea, perhaps the final portal that slaves passed through before boarding a ship for the Americas.
Some critics suggest that Gorée Island was actually only a minor slave area in comparison to the larger scale centers in other parts of Africa including Ghana and Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean, and that much of its reputation as a slave center has been exaggerated, perhaps driven by a Senegalese trait of industriousness that allows them to capitalize on even their own darker past. However this is an argument of semantics, since Gorée Island through considerable international attention has become a memorial to the three century long slave trade between Africa and the Americas and Arabia. A hundred foot high cone shaped monument financed by the United States government during the Clinton era emphasizes this role.
Dakar is one of the largest cities in Western Africa and it appears much like the international media images of a poor city with horse drawn carts and herds of goats appearing on the streets while dilapidated old microbuses and beat up yellow and black taxis served as the primary means of public transportation. This city is also a major port and distribution center, a national capital, a giant traditional market, and a historic center for the slave trade.