7. Dakar


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Apr 11th, 2011
7. Dakar

There’s a cold wind on deck on Dakar day, when I’m up early to see the first sight of land for 3 days. Through the mist there is a distant shoreline with many buildings and high-rise blocks. Closer in, there is shipping in the roads, mostly fishing trawlers and small cargo carriers.

An island detaches itself from the land – this is Gorée Island, a famous historical slave station and fortress defending the port. A ferry carrying people from the mainland pulls up to a long stone wharf. We sail closer in, going to the right of the island, very slowly and carefully through scatterings of narrow 2-man fishing skiffs.

Gorée Island from the Dakar docks. About the same as Robben Island!

We dock at around 9:30, but only manage to get down the gangplank at 11.
First impressions: dry, dusty, dirty. It’s already hot, and as we exit the enclosed port area we hit busy traffic, lots of battered black-and-yellow taxis, (one of which has the full Mercedes regalia welded on, grille, emblem, the lot). There are potholes in the roads, cracked uneven pavements, etc.

The ship’s info desk has given out a rudimentary street map (taken off the internet) which is no use at all, so we try to find a ‘Tourist office’ where we plan to get more info on the town. As I speak some French, I am the designated communicator. I ask a guard at the Hotel de Ville which way to go – he is clueless – but a young man offers to show us the way. Jeans, sneakers, daypack, dreads: he looks like a student, and has those fine, rather arabic North African features. He introduces himself as Abdul, and tells us he attends one of the three universities in Dakar. He leads us up the main street, which is lined with tatty trees, jams of traffic, and vendors taking advantage of the used-to-be wide pavements to sell sunglasses, phone cards, watches and underwear. We arrive at a large and dusty central square – (there are four of us, the other couple are Scottish John and June from the ship). There in the unswept plaza is a small booth with a Tourist Information sign on it. A startled woman behind a tiny counter greets us, a little flustered at actually having customers. We ask for a tourist map and guide to the town, which after some digging she produces. But she wants US$5 for it, and we decline.

The fountain in Independence Square, Dakar

The square (Independence square) has a central fountain which is empty and cracked, the mosaic work falling off in patches, trash and dust piled in each corner of the basin. Our small group is quite conspicuous and we draw the attention of hawkers who have soon surrounded us like a pack of insistent children. Some are insistent children. We edge away as fast as possible, but are soon joined by a tall dark stranger – I mean, Senegalese, who says he will escort us and make sure we aren’t hassled. Abdul tags along too, possessively. What would we like to do? Change money, we say, and then visit any places of interest that may be nearby. Maybe the central market? (we have heard it is an interesting place to visit).

They oblige, the tall one leading us past large commercial banks with a shake of his head, saying they will rip us off, he knows a place which offers a fair rate. And he does. We get CFAs 500 to the US$.

Next, we go, chatting, towards the Presidential Palace. There are carts selling green drinking coconuts, and as I now have some CFA (central african francs) I buy one for 100 francs, and drink it. Very refreshing. No-one else wants to taste. but I reckon if you can peel it or open it you’re pretty safe.

The presidential palace is, well, grandly presidential looking in a colonial-french-architectural kind of way, and is guarded by what looks like a human toy soldier in a bright red jacket.

Then it is onwards to the Art Museum. Mamadou (for that is the name of our tall Senegalese guide, whom we have tacitly agreed will need a tip at the end of the day), takes us towards an imposing looking modern building, in front of which is a central traffic island adorned with a modern sculpture. The sculpture, says Mamadou, is a monument to the freedom of the Senegalese people, and represents equality between men and women, because they are the same size and share the flag.

The Freedom and Equality statue - new art museum in background

A rather grand poster outside the museum announces that the special exhibition running currently is Ancient Art of Africa. Because John & June seem quite keen (we of course have seen endless African art back home), we go in. Well… Whoever the curator of this special exhibition was, they must have taken the budget and made off with it, after having dotted items at widely spaced intervals along the walls of one floor of the building. There are some tribal carvings and the occasional ceremonial mask from various random tribes around west Africa. Some items aren’t even in display cases. The tags propped in front of each exhibit are typed on small pieces of card. Honestly, the african ethnic display in the national gallery in Bulawayo has far more depth and interest than this. A swizz, is what it is.

Abdul, Mamadou and June in front of the grand Art Museum

After this adventure into Dakar’s vibrant ethnic culture, we wander off down more dusty dirty streets in the direction of the ‘new church’, which Mamadou wants to show off to us. The people we pass in the streets are wearing all sorts of outfits, but many have on the west african ‘pyjamas’ with flat circular hats. Others wear islamic-looking robes. The women wear anything colourful, but mostly have long skirts.

The ‘new’ church is quite impressive, but it is closed, we can’t go inside. School has just come out and the square in front of the church is thronged with kids in uniform.

It is noon, and I notice small boys and women weaving through the crowds carrying vertical stacks of stainless steel covered bowls. This, apparently, is a lunch delivery service. Sure enough, we soon see stall holders and other street-employed people, eating what looks like rice or chickpeas and meat stew out of the bowls. One group beckons, inviting us to share their lunch. Others suddenly start washing their feet right there in the street, then whip out a small mat and start praying to Allah. Quite a few muslims in Senegal, then.

Having lunch in the street - dishes delivered to your market stall daily...

From time to time there are hawkers carrying hand-made wicker cages full of tiny fluttering birds. These are small, like finches or waxbills but I don’t recognise the species. I anxiously enquire if these are for eating……? Mais non, non, says Mamadou, these are for praying with. He explains: when you pray you have to make a sacrifice, so you buy a little bird and let it go with your prayer. That sounds nice, but I worry about the daily living conditions of these poor little captives. There is no water in the cages, for example.

But here we are, seeing the real Senegal up-close and personal, in contrast to the excursion passengers, who will spend the day inside their air-conditioned coaches. Funny little old local buses push through the traffic from time to time, handpainted all over with animals, patterns, names and other uninhibited flourishes. People are polite enough not to stare at us, there is no hostility and at no time do we feel threatened.

Mamadou leading the way to the market

Mamadou says he will show us the market next. Are we vegetarians? Because there is meat in the market and he would not like us to be offended. Abdul rolls his eyes and stays quiet. Off we go through streets that become steadily more and more crowded with pavement stalls. I purchase a simple cowrie shell necklace from a particularly charming and persistent lady Dakari.

Squeezing past the ever more crowded stalls, which are a rainbow of T-shirts, jeans, shoes, sunglasses and embroidered clothing, we finally face the dark doorway to a large building. “Here is the Dakar market”, says Mamadou with dramatic emphasis, “follow me and don’t take photos. The people don’t like.”
Inside, hundreds of grimy stalls are crammed together…. strange colourful fruits and vegetables, sacks of many unfamiliar varieties of grains and beans, roots and dried squiggly things that might be mushrooms, squishy things in little plastic packages, clothing and bags and even a traditional herbalist’s counter full of unmentionable and mysterious twigs and leaves and powders. All is dimly lit, the spaces between stalls are hardly wide enough for two or three people abreast, and I wonder what it must be like at rush hour or Saturday morning. The stalls have such a superabundance of merchandise, piled and crammed round each space, that they look permanent. One is forced to conclude that the stalls never close, or at least, the owners must sleep there at night, as it would be impossible to take everything away each night. A soundtrack to this modern souk is provided by the radios – an important soccer game is on, every stall has the volume turned up to the max, so it is cheerfully noisy. Then the smell hits us.

We turn a corner and are confronted by a charnel house. This is the butchery section of the market. Freshly plucked, pathetically thin looking chicken bodies are laid out on ancient, cracked and filthy stone or in some cases marble counter tops. Blood and fat, cuts and carcases of goat, possibly beef are displayed in a revolting, gorge-rising shambles. Stall holders brandish wicked grey steel knives as the Dakari housewives prod and pick and haggle. A bucket of guts brims over. Skinned heads and root-snaggled tongues. Horror and stench in an unventilated twilight zone. A vegetarian would have fainted by now. I don’t remember flies, but there must have been some. We cover our noses and avert our eyes. I’m trying not to breathe and I feel a sort of atavistic panic rising in my throat. We urge our guide to go faster, we want out, out. June catches my eye – she is a waxy shade of green.

At last we reach the other side where the deathscape recedes and there are fruit and vegetables again. We squeeze through a side entrance, to be faced with a landscape of shanty-town rooftops, and a flight of stone steps leading down into them through an even darker portal. We balk. Incongruously, a tiny kitten plays at our feet, its owner, swathed in robes, sits at the top of the steps. I think about the rats that must swarm in this market during the night. Perhaps this kitten is the offspring of a market cat? It will need to be tough to survive here.

Mamadou explains that it’s quicker to reach the open street this way, through the dark maze, as the only other way out is to go back the way we came. Perfectly safe, he adds, come on, follow me. We go once more into the breach. This time we don’t even look at the proliferation of stalls, just push through to a distant shaft of sunlight promises to be the exit.

By the time we emerge into the fresh air once more, my estimation of Senegalese culture has dropped somewhat. There is a lot to be said for Pick ‘n Pay and municipal hygiene regulations after all.

Abdul is concerned….. “You don’t like, no?” he enquires, “Why?” I tell him in tight-lipped french that where we come from, the markets all have to be very clean, and things are usually wrapped up and kept in fridges. “Oh well, he replies, “this is the real life for us.” He seems a little put out.

Now we are led to Mamadou’s special ‘factory’ where, he says, we can buy everything we have seen for clothes and nice bags, at special cheap cheap price. We enter another covered market area. It’s not what one would term a factory, but yes, here are artisans with sewing machines, making the colourful tops and pants and fabric bags and hats that we have seen all over the town since we arrived. It seems to be a kind of co-operative. A leather worker with an electric punching machine, toils by the light of a few naked lightbulbs. We relax and start to browse around… but every time I pick up an item or show interest and try to find out the price, Mamadou intervenes. No, he says, don’t ask prices, you must put it all together and then we negotiate a price for the lot. After a few of these episodes, I get frustrated and decide to leave. Suddenly the lights all go off, it’s a power cut. I am pursued in the dark down the aisles by shouting merchants as well as Mamadou, and have to be rescued by James. I never do find out if I would have got bargains or not.

Everyone eventually calms down and, since it is way past lunchtime, and the four uptight europeans are all tired, hot and thirsty, we demand that our guides take us somewhere nice and clean please, where we can have something to eat. The two Senegalese confer for a bit and they say they will take us to the lagoon, to a very nice place by the water. We say yes, please, the lagoon – sounds as though it might be quite close to the ship, handy for getting back.
A ten-minute trudge (past more pavement vendors) brings us into a much more upmarket area of the town; buildings are relatively new. Sure enough, we are soon delivered to the gates of Le Lagon, (literally, ‘the lagoon’!) a very pleasant-looking restaurant on the beach. Here we say goodbye to our guides, tip them generously,  and re-enter civilisation as we know it. The place has a big-game fishing theme, there are beautiful tables and a cocktail bar, sparkling silver and linen; a wooden pier juts out into the shallow bay, with umbrellas and tables. The men order local draft beer, which is called ‘Flag’. June and I have a Kir (white wine and grenadine syrup with lots of ice). Ahhh. Plentiful roasted peanuts are served.

The deck at Le Lagon, whew

I step down to the beach to paddle and to my surprise, the water is ice-cold.
When we leave, we notice that the steps from the street to the restaurant are lined with brass plaques bearing the names of famous visitors. Ernest Hemingway, Boris Becker. Margaret Thatcher. Angelina Jolie. I even spot Morgan Tsvangirai and R. Mugabe’s name – probably from an AU summit.

Looking at the brass plaques with John & June

Names of Brass and brassy names at Le Lagon, Dakar

Walking back to the ship, along the sea road, there’s a view of Gorée Island, and then the docks and the haven of our clean cabins and hot baths and hygienic suppers. But we had ourselves a little adventure, as we compare notes with those who took the tame coach tour, we feel we have indeed touched darkest Africa.


  • Steve B

    12 Apr 2011

    Hi Jan – Well, another addict! Brilliantly written … I cannot wait for the next installment. We will also be variously in Germany, France, Italy and finally England in June so we’ll email our itinerary with the hope of meeting up in one of these less exotic, but extremely clean places. :-)
    Love to you both from G&S (not the operatic duo). x

  • I loved this chapter. The quest for somewhere, “nice and CLEAN” reminded me of my experiences in India

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