My trip to Senegal started oddly. The best available flight between Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal was on the national carrier, Air Senegal. The only other options were a 40 hour bus ride or ridiculous and expensive flights to hubs like Istanbul or Paris or Addis Ababa. The flight on Air Senegal was direct and cheap, so I booked it without a second thought.
Boarding the airplane, a Boeing 737-500, I noticed that of the 50 or so passengers, only 4 were not white, and 2 of those were part of a 30 person basketball team from South Africa. Then I noticed the flight crew were all white, speaking English with odd accents and wearing tags attached to necklaces with Blue written all over it. They were Romanian, and the plane had been leased from the Romanian company Blue Air, which explained the accents.
The lease issue aside, the flight was uneventful and 3 hours later we landed at the very modern airport where Immigration, Customs and bag retrieval took less than 15 minutes. The ATM dispensed Senegalese currency (the CFA) and the taxi driver only charged me 50% more than the official posted rate. The road to Dakar, a modern highway with toll booths, lanes, a basketball stadium at one end and neither people nor animals venturing onto the road, was a pleasure to drive for the 45 minutes it took.
My hotel is in the center of Dakar, in an area known as The Plateau. The streets are straight, traffic lights abound, but are routinely ignored, high rises of up to 10 stories were on all sides and there must be regular garbage collection as I saw no rubbish lining the roads like in Ghana or Ethiopia. I walked around frequently, finding a 40 minute circular route taking me past the Presidential Palace, beside the major market street and along the main avenue named after the first president, Leopoldo Seder Senghor, which is now lined with banks.
Walking felt safe in this area of Dakar. I’m not sure if this is due to the large contingent of police officers, many directing traffic, private security guards at every second building or the good-nature of the Senegalese, but I never felt threatened. Certainly vendors tried to sell me everything under the sun – fruit, made-to-measure clothes and sunglasses seemed their favourites- and beggars asked me for money, but none were persistent. Finding a safe path presented more of a challenge. The sidewalks served as makeshift parking spots, perches for beggars and temporary stalls for artists, shoe salesmen and mannequins, everything except pedestrian walkways. For that, I and most others, walked on the streets, but the cars were quite tolerant of this, with gentle toots on the horn to warn us they were coming from behind. Not what I was used to, but it worked.
Now for a little history and, as I’ve just come from Ghana, its easiest by comparison. Like Ghana, little was written down before the Europeans showed up in the 15th century and, like Ghana, it shares an ugly history as a slave trading center by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. The land was finally obtained by France in 1895 during the great African land grab by Europe in the late 19th century. The French administered it, built railways, mined its minerals, taught the locals to make baguettes (there’s a lot of good bakeries here) and imported decent French wine. The slave trade was abolished in 1848, but the French stuck around until 1960 when the country was, peacefully, granted independence.
It has remained a democracy, more or less, since. No civil war or invasion has occurred on its soil, although the 2012 elections caused riots when the President tried to run (illegally) for a 3rd term. But he was ousted and accepted the election results. Senegal is one of the few African countries where incumbent Presidents have been voted out of office without the eruption of violence. The press is free and human rights are more or less respected, as long as one isn’t homosexual.
It is also largely Muslim and completely French speaking, except for the uneducated who tend to be mostly rural women. Of a total population of 16 million, about 2.4 million live in Dakar and more and more are flocking to the large cities. Fishing and farming were the traditional livelihoods; both are alive and well today along with some gold mining. Unemployment stands around 15%, education is free but health care is not once you are over 6. Since extremest Islamic incursions in neighboring Mali, civil war in nearby Ivory Coast and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone a few years ago, refugees have flooded in. Historical tribes – 14 of them – including the Wolof, Bamara and Fulani, live in peace. A large ex-pat community from France, between 25,000 and 50,000, live in Senegal, mostly involved in small business enterprises, although the largest mobile network (Orange) and bank, along with the mobile money system are French operated.
A 20 minute ferry ride from Dakar is Goree Island, a former slave trading post, current tourist hot spot and a Provence lookalike. The houses are painted in pinks and oranges and burnt yellows, the alleys (there are no cars and no streets) are cobblestone and bougainvillea grows along stone fences.
It’s quite beautiful and would be peaceful but somewhere, sometime long ago someone decided tourists must love musical instruments, specifically the kashaka, which Wikipedia describes as two small gourds filled with beans connected by a string carried by young salesmen “clacking” (that’s the sound they make) them together ad nauseum. See a tourist, “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK.” Another ones comes by and “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK” again. Really annoying.
On to the tourist sites and foremost is the former slave trading center. Having just visited Ghana and seen the horrendous conditions slaves were kept in awaiting transport, I was struck by how much better the slaves in Senegal had it. Their rooms were ventilated, well lit and the slaves were allowed into the courtyard for an hour each day. Food was generously distributed so the slaves could achieve the minimum weight of 60 kilos. A male slave was worth a gun, a female a bottle of wine and a child, but a meal. Of course, I recognize comparing slave hovels is like debating which is the more humane method of conducting an execution, but the slaves here seemed to receive better treatment than those in Ghana.
Pretty views were the reward for climbing to the highest point on the island, where 2 USA built cannons stood. The movie, The Guns of Navarone, was filmed here (don’t ask me why an island in the Atlantic substituted for one in the Agean, but it did), artists show off their wares and the port area is ringed by restaurants offering meals much cheaper than in Dakar, But a few hours on the island were enough for me.
On my return ferry ride, I sat on an outside bench and was surrounded a few minutes later by a class of 10 years, all wearing their school uniforms, navy blue jumpers for the girls and sweaters for the boys, all with light blue shirts underneath. To my delight, and that of most of the other passengers, they began singing. They were obviously a well practiced choir and serenaded us with their favourite songs. I understood only the French version of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. After 20 minutes, the singing ceased and the kids started playing Rock, Paper Scissors. Probably the most authentic moment I had in Senegal.
I spent 7 days in Dakar, mostly in the Plateau region, seeing the major sights. Quite frankly, there weren’t that many. A presidential palace, a Catholic Cathedral, a dodgy (for Westerners) market and the Chamber of Commerce building. The French constructed a railroad from Dakar to Bamako in Mali, some 1300 kilometers away. Back when I visited Mali in 2006, a train left the Art Deco station in Dakar and usually arrived in Bamako about 3 days later.
Today, a bus says it does the run in 2 days, but a week is more likely. The train hasn’t run since 2007, but a new high speed line will link Dakar centre with the airport, inexplicably built 45 kilometers away. The trains have been purchased but sit idly by while construction on the track continues.
A day trip to the Pink Lake:
I seem to be landing in countries with pink lakes; Senegal is my third after Australia and Bonaire. The two I have seen were beautiful and the one in Senegal is considered a must see highlight. Thus, I booked a full day tour to the Pink Lake, with stops at a Fulani village, a ride on the sand dunes and lunch in a resort. I was the only one going, as February is not high tourist season in this country.
The temperatures had been glorious so far; sunny and between 25 and 30, so I was unpleasantly surprised when I awoke the morning of my tour to a haze. I checked my weather app, which showed “dust” for the next few hours, the first time I’d ever encountered that indicator on the weather network.
I met up with my guide, who explained it was a sandstorm, blowing in from the Sahara and out to the Atlantic When I mentioned the forecast was for it to blow over (pardon the pun) in a few hours, he shook his head “no, it is probably here for a couple of days.” He was right, of course, and for remainder of the day, and the following, Dakar was subjected to a continual barrage of wind and sand.
Needless to say, the view of the lake was less than spectacular. Wooded boats moored to the beaches refused to go out in the wind and the salt workers were mostly enjoying the unexpected day off. On sunny, hot days, the algae in the lake turn it a pretty pink, but today it was little more than a browny mess. I stood by the lake for the obligatory photograph, unsmiling lest more sand grit got between my teeth. It was clear my inner Lawrence of Arabia is deeply buried; the blowing sand was uncomfortable to say the least and we still had an exciting dune ride in an open jeep beside the Atlantic Ocean to get through.
It turned out to be about 15 minutes of pure discomfort. Yes, I jumped out at the ocean and snapped a photo, then told our guide and driver I had seen enough and could we go to our next, indoor attraction, please.
Well, sort of…it was the Fulani village where we were greeted by the chief, his two wives and a bunch of their children. He walked me around the village – to the community area where disputes were settled by the male elders (women could not be elders), to the new water wells, inside the children’s sleeping hut and to a kitchen where only a few pots and piles of millet indicated its purpose. The village tour ended at the inevitable souvenir store with the promise that all proceeds went to the school, but as my tour had already included a contribution to the village, I declined to purchase anything more.
The day was a bust, unless I add “surviving a sandstorm” as one of my bucket list items that could now be checked off. As our restful 2 hours by a resort swimming pool was not going to happen, we instead stopped in at the Tortoise Sanctuary, where dozens of giant tortoises live well into their hundreds. Although not as big as the Galapagos ones, they were still a lovely sight and the sand storm was quickly forgotten.
The Museum of Black Civilization:
I thought I would save the best for last – the Museum of Black Civilization. Opened in 2018, paid for by the Chinese and housed in an impressive looking building, I was looking forward to a telling of black culture and contributions from an African perspective, not the usual (for me) European one.
Alas, it was not to be. Aside from the exhibits being mostly in French, they were limited to posters explaining the migration of people out of Africa, and African contributions to medicine and mathematics. Upstairs, in one of the few rooms with anything in it, was a collection of Senegalese art recently re-acquired from a Frenchman. Most of the rooms were sadly empty. What a missed opportunity to highlight ancient African civilizations in Zimbabwe and Timbuctu or Ethiopia’s unique architecture or Benin’s bronze statues or lots of other African achievements. It’s as if all the funds were spent on the building, with nothing left for the interior. It was not the ending I was seeking for my time in Africa.
Next: Lagos (Portugal, not Nigeria)