Sand-swept streets, evening prayers and giant mangoes. Welcome to Dakar.
After nearly thirty hours of continuous travel and no sleep, I finally arrived at the newly constructed Blaise Diagne International Airport on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. Shaking off the looming exhaustion, I quickly set to work, passing through border customs, exchanging my USD for West African CFA, notifying the airport personnel of my lost suitcase, purchasing an in-country SIM card and finding a means of transportation to the city, located a good 65 kilometers further north. Settling on a reasonable price with the first taxi driver I came across, I threw my backpack into the trunk and eased myself into the passenger seat, comforted by the warm night breeze and the thought that my nearly two-day journey would soon be coming to an end.
During the ensuing hour-long drive to the city, my taxi driver and I made small talk in a lazy mix of French and Wolof, a national language and the de facto lingua franca of Senegal. I asked him about what it was like growing up in Dakar and how the city has changed since his childhood. He told me that in his youth, Dakar was little more than a backwater port city, with only a handful of paved roads and few opportunities for work. However, in just last two decades, all of that has changed. Following the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, which led to the migration of development organizations from Abidjan to Dakar, the city has ballooned into a frenetic metropolis of over three million people, buzzing with the promise of boundless opportunity and the relentless rhythm of the Mbalax beat.
A view of the Dakar suburbs from the Collines des Mamelles. Smoggy downtown Dakar, known as the Plateau, can be seen in the far distance.
As we neared what I believed to be Oakam, the neighborhood where my Airbnb was located, I gave my host a call to clarify the exact location of the apartment. Apart from the central embassy district and a few select chichi neighborhoods, there are no street names, signage, or obvious home addresses to indicate where you are going in Dakar. Instead, the Dakarois use landmarks, such business names or a distinctive bend in the road, as reference points to give taxi drivers a ballpark idea of where they want to go. For example, to get to my current apartment, I tell taxi drivers the name of the district where I live, Liberté 6 / SEPRAS 2, and then the name of a three-story clothing store located on the adjacent street.
Arriving outside the Airbnb, I hastily paid the cab driver, grabbed my belongings and walked across the sand-swept street to greet my host, who welcomed me warmly with a handshake and a “Bienvenue, mec.” Once inside the apartment, he gave me a quick tour of the digs and the keys to the apartment before bidding me a good night. Uselessly tired by this point, I jumped into the bathroom for a quick cold shower, furiously brushed my teeth and then dive-bombed, head first, into my bed for some cosmically deep sleep.
Basketball courts just down the street from my old apartment.
A quick word about my week-1 living situation. Anyone who has used Airbnb before knows that they can be hit or miss, especially if you are looking for the cheapest options available. In the case of my first apartment in Dakar, it was resounding miss. What made it bad wasn’t just the families of cockroaches and mice living in the kitchen, or the fact that there was no mosquito netting, toilet paper, trash can, warm water, nor cooking gas. More than anything, what made it bad was the sheer gloominess of the place. For starters, there were no windows in the apartment, except one in an uninviting side living room that no one used, and the apartment’s main atrium had been covered over with a tarp to prevent dust from raining down into the apartment from the construction work on the neighboring house.
My roommates were also two of the most insular people I have ever met. Joan, a shy web developer from Germany, was in Dakar for the month to explore each neighborhood of the city by foot. When he was in the apartment, I often didn’t know, silently keeping to himself in his room, only coming out occassionally to use the bathroom or grab something to eat from the fridge. My second roommate, Adelle, was visiting from Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where she had been the owner of a large chicken farm – that was until her husband of 18 years died suddenly in a horrific car accident several weeks before out meeting. Adelle had subsequently sold her farm and all of her belongings and booked a one-way flight to Dakar, where she planned to mourn in our Airbnb for three months, drinking and smoking away the days.
The real nail in the coffin was when I came down with food poisoning a few days after moving in. In retrospect, it was probably the Thiéboudienne I ate for lunch while exploring the Plateau. I remember sitting there in a gerryrigged tarp tent, scarfing down air-temperature fish and rice with a group of grizzled construction workers thinking to myself, “this is probably going to end poorly”. It did. (Caution: the scenario described below is not for the weak of stomach!)
The Monument de la Renaissance perched atop the Collines des Mamelles as seen from my old neighborhood.
Completed in 2010, the Monument de la Renaissance commemorates the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence from France. At 49 meters high, it is the tallest statue in Africa.
The harrowing food poisening episode started at around midnight when I was violently awoken by a wave of intense nausea. At first I thought it had something to do with the nightcap I had shared with Adelle earlier in the evening. However, it quickly became clear that the mounting queeziness was something far worse than a mere hang over. I’ll spare readers the details of the ensuing eight hours of agony, except one particularly dire moment that came at around 5am. At this point in the night, I had long run out of matter to expel from my body and had adopted the bathroom floor as my sick bay. I was learning over the sink with my throbbing head cradled in my hands, when a sense of total resignation washed over me – a sort of coming-to-terms feeling with my current predicament and what was sure to be my imminent end. I distinctly remember imagining myself laid out cold on the vinyl tiling, ISOS card in one hand and a bottle of antibiotics in the other.
Fortunately, it never quite came to that. At around 6am, Adelle came to my aid, making an emergency run to the local pharmacy to pick up anti-nausea medicine and several bottles of water. For those readers that may be concerned (i.e. mom), as of the writing of this blog post, I am feeling much better, though my stomach will probably remain somewhat messed up for the rest of my stay. It’s all part of the “topicalization” process as my Senegalese colleagues like to call it. It’s best to just get used to it.
Street cats and junk in Oakam.
Back to first impressions of Dakar! For me, one of the most distinctive features of the city is the ubiquitous sand that blankets the streets like orangy-gray frost heaves. From cars and mango stalls, to my laundry and beard, nothing is safe from the stuff. Sometimes even the sky is coated with an inpenetrable overcast of orange sand clouds.
Another prominent aspect of Dakar is the constant hustle of the Senegalese people. Everyone here, whether they are 7 or 70 years-old, is constantly looking to make extra cash. As a foreigner, or “toubab” as they’re called around here, you can’t walk two minutes down the street in certain neighborhoods without being honked at by several taxi divers, called over to check out someone’s shop, or asked to donate money by a group of koranic students.
Bargaining is also a major part of life here in Dakar. Every taxi ride and fruit stall purchase is a test of one’s haggling acumen. Thus far, my shining moment in bartering came a few days after arriving in Dakar, when I bargained down the price for a beautiful brown, black and white cotton blanket from 60,000 CFA or about $100 to about around $30. Apparently, the vendor was impressed enough with my skills that he invited me to celebrate the end of Ramadan with his family. I never did get that call, though!
One of the many beautiful colonial-era buildings on the île de Gorée.
The highlight of my first week in Dakar was without a doubt my visit to the Île de Gorée, or Gorée Island, with my colleague, Laura. Located 2 kilometers off the mainland, Gorée Island is most famous for having served as the largest slave-trading center on the African coast from the 15th to the 19th century. Today, Gorée serves a major tourist attraction – Obama visited several years ago – and a powerful reminder of the human exploitation that took place there. The island was distinguished as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978.
l’ïle de Gorée
The architecture on the island is striking, characterized by the stark contrast between the elegant houses of the slave traders and the crumbling ruins of the slave-quarters. In fact, apart from a handful of beautifully refurbished colonial buildings, much of the island looks like a post-apocalyptic landscape straight out of Mad Max.
A WWII cannon converted into an art gallery.
Gorée is also home to an amazingly prolific artist community.