Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Trip to Dakar, Senegal - 2001

I'm back in Bamako, sitting on my sofa in my dusty living room (windows were left open since I left and that awful fine dust has managed to cover everything). I'm tired, but have decided that it is best to write this before the images from Dakar, Senegal are no longer present in my mind.
As you may know, I won airfare to Dakar, the capital of the West Africa country of Senegal. I took advantage of our extended Thanksgiving weekend to make the trip.
Senegal and Mali are neighbors and were at one time part of a united country. In some ways they are similar while in other ways, they differ drastically.
Dakar is the westernmost city in Africa, jutting out into the ocean. Many Europeans come to visit the city, taking up its beaches and reasonable climate. Dakar felt quite francophone to me - much more so than Bamako or any other Malian city. The French did have a much stronger presence in this seaside country, and this feeling still pervades. Although the local language (Wulof) could be heard, French was spoken everywhere. In contrast, Bambara is the preferred and dominant language in Bamako.
When I arrived in Dakar, I immediately noticed the difference in architecture. There were many tall buildings which were close together. Most of the buildings in the residential areas were 3 and sometimes 4 stories high. Everywhere there was building construction, using the typical cement bricks. Finished homes were painted either white or in lovely colors which contrasted the bright blue sky. Flowering bushes overhang walls and entryways to the house and front yard. Wooden doors (often arched on the top) complemented the entryway.
We (Chantal, the computer teacher at the American school in Dakar) took one of the city's many taxies to her house, a flat in one of the growing areas of Dakar, not far from the airport. The paved road was divided, with two lanes of fast-moving traffic on each side. Missing were the many motorbikes that dominate Bamako traffic. Local transportation vans, taxis, and cars made up the majority of vehicles on the road. Horse-pulled wagons were also common, but less so on the busy roads. Some goats and sheep were also present in the residential areas, but less prominent than in Bamako.
Colorful (bright blue and yellow with painted designs and sometimes with images of the singer Madonna in the windows and American flags painted on the hubcaps) local transportation vans known as "car rapides" stopped frequently and provided a cheap way of getting around town, with others going in between towns. Like the bachee's in Bamako, the local transportation vehicles were crowded, with people sitting shoulder to shoulder. A young man or two would cling on to the railing as he stood on the rear bumper of the vehicle, opening the door for passengers and alerting the driver of the need to stop as he pounded on the frame of the vehicle- a practice that made me wince at the thought of what could easily happen if the youngster lost control.
On my first full day there, we took a taxi into the downtown. It was very crowded, filled with people and vehicles. French colonial buildings intermingled with more modern buildings. Men and women spread out their wares on the sidewalks or walkways, hoping to sell their items such as watches, shoes, produce, and sunglasses. Men wore clothes ranging from suits and ties to older western clothes to the flowing gowns and skullcaps. Many young men wore the brightly patterned African cloth printed in Senegal. Typically these young men were trying to sell these lightweight patterned pants or other items made with the cloth to passersby, especially any white person they could find. I did buy one, but bargained hard. Women also tried to sell me things but were more polite about the matter, accepting "non, merci" as an indication that I didn't want to buy anything. Cars parked on the sidewalks - yes, there's sidewalks here! Shops selling a variety of items abounded. We walked into a few of the ones nearby who were selling wooden carvings (including Bambara and Dogon masks/sculptures) and other items from around Africa. We also went into a few galleries, which presented paintings done by local artists, some of which had a definite Western influence and others which had a more African feel to them. Downtown Dakar is quite cosmopolitan (for African standards) and fast paced, contrasting with the more sleepy feel of Bamako. I also noticed more beggars in the city - something mainly concentrated in one road intersection in Bamako. And another new addition in Dakar - parking meters!
We went back downtown at night, hoping to attend a Senegalese traditional band, but we had to settle for a small group playing a variety of music at a bar. Throughout the city, you could use a telecenter to make a phone call or surf the internet at one of the many cybercafés. Cell phones are cheap in Dakar, and everyone seemed to have one. Not in Bamako!
Even outside of the main section of Dakar, it still felt more cosmopolitan and developed. Although you could find the bumpy unpaved roads that are so typical of Bamako, most of the streets in Dakar were paved. As a result, vehicle speeds were higher. Noticeably absent were the open sewers that are present in Bamako. Convenience stores connected to modern gas stations were hot stops, providing a selection of goods probably better than the two main grocery stores in Bamako. I often saw local women wearing pants- something virtually unseen in Bamako. Other women wore dresses and serapés around their heads, but the patterns and colors didn't seem to be as vibrant as in Mali.
Some things were similar though. Garbage, especially plastic bags and bottles, were dumped everywhere. Street lights were present in more areas, but weren't working. Instead, policemen directed traffic. Women eagerly displayed their huge piles of watermelon and other produce to sell. As a car rapide or other vehicle paused for passengers to get off, the women would descend on the vehicle, pushing their produce to the windows, hoping to get a quick sale. In seaside areas, women would also sell fish, with the smell permeating the air. Boys and young men played soccer everywhere, just like in Bamako. As in Mali, the women and girls did the hard work while the men did more of the resting.
On the second full day Chantal and I took one of the brightly painted wooden boats to the island N'Gor. After walking around the island and observing the seascape as well as the new building construction, we swam off of one of the beaches. Only being to the ocean once before, I once again enjoyed the increased buoyancy provided from the salty water. I could see small fish in the clear water but they did not tickle my feet. After a while we would lie on the beach under an umbrella. I had to be especially mindful about the amount of time I spent in the sun and especially in the water, given my fair skin and red hair. Unfortunately, even with sunscreen, I still managed to get sunburned. I suspect that the antimalaria medication has something to do with this increased sensitivity to the sun. After a relaxing day and fish meal, we took the boat back to the mainland later in the afternoon. That evening we had a meal with some of Chantal's friends, including two teachers from the school.
On Saturday Chantal, her boyfriend, and I drove out of Dakar and into the country. Buildings became smaller and more spread apart. More animals could be found alongside the road munching on whatever greens they could find. Baobab trees and other sahel plant life began popping up with increasing frequency. After driving for a little over an hour on the well-paved road, we turned onto a potholed (but still paved) road until we arrived at the home of a former teacher of the school. She gave us a wonderful tour of her impressive garden and landscaping, identifying the myriad of trees, plants, and bushes which were carefully selected as part of a grand vision. With already a few small brick buildings completed (round in shape with a conical thatched roof), she envisions the area being a retreat place where people can come and stay, immersed in nature and its many sounds. I especially liked the 350 year old baobab tree that dominated a large space and commanded respect. I was also happy that I finally saw the plant from which the red drink bissop is derived.
Driving on from there, we went to a hotel/restaurant for a wonderful meal. It was a challenge driving up the narrow sandy path to the hotel area, but we had a great view of the ocean. I had a pasta dish with a scrumptious sauce made from tomatoes, onions, spices, coconut milk, and probably other ingredients. The architecture of the hotel/thatch-covered restaurant reminded me of the work by Gaudí, with an extensive use of mosaics in a fairy-tale style construction. I especially liked the incorporation of sea shells and different-colored local rocks which were carefully arranged to form patterns. Brightly colored ceramic tiles were also incorporated into designs, again each meticulously and thoughtfully placed. I hope more artistic and entrepreneurial projects such as this will sprout and succeed. It would add to the beauty of the area and provide needed income.
In the evening we strolled around the area around Chantal's residence. The breeze and sidewalks made the walk a much more enjoyable experience. More action was going on since people observing Ramadan were now able to eat, but the side streets were still rather quiet.
All in all, I enjoyed my stay in Dakar. It was a rather low-key vacation, with time for reflection, reading and simple enjoyment. I have digital photos of the trip if anyone's interested. Just drop me an email and I'll send you a few.
Tomorrow, and it's back to school!

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