Senegal

Trip Start Jun 02, 2003
1
33
41
Trip End Dec 31, 2006


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Flag of Senegal  ,
Thursday, March 3, 2005

Nangadef! That means "Are you there?" in wolof, one of the principal languages in Senegal. Last Monday, I got into an airplane for the first time since I came to Africa, settled into my seat (that I didn't have to share with several other people!), and flew across to Dakar, the so-called Paris of West Africa. I stepped off the plane into surprisingly frigid (for me) weather and realized I was completely unprepared, having brought only sleeveless and short-sleeve tops.

My first night in I ordered food (for delivery!): a tomato and mozarella panini and a nutella crepe. Heaven.

After taking care of business, the first item on my agenda was to equip myself for the "wintery" nights. I headed for the market. I held my head high and walked confidently through the streets in an attempt to avoid having guides or street sellers attach themselves to me. In Dakar, the sellers are very aggressive, trying to make their franc just like everyone else, but there are so many of them! They have to really work at it. As a result, they encroach tourists and foreigners like ants attacking a picnic spread. My walk, combined with my African dress, paid off for the most part. I managed to avoid harrassment up until the moment I began to look interested in something. My search for a sweater and a pair of old thrift store jeans (yes, all the clothes you donate to Goodwill end up being sold in the streets of Africa. I am currently wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch sweater) led me to a completely different market in the end.

I was warned first. "Oh, marché Colibane, watch your bags." "Put your purse under your dress." "Don't take any money out in the street; go in the shop." So, as the screachy, colorful, old bus rambled through Marché Colibane, I nervously looked around wondering what I had gotten myself into. Was that man a potential thief? What about that one?

I held tight to my belongings and walked purposefully down the road avoiding the men hawking their t-shirts and pants and glancing sideways to find a stand that interested me. Finally, I saw it. Old American jeans and sweatshirts advertising universities or basketball teams, church functions or brand names. The men who worked there happened to be Fulani. I made conversation as they climbed on top of mounds of giant bags full of all the things even The Salvation Army couldn't sell in enough time. They dug half-hazardly to find me the perfect sweater or sweatshirt, for as desparate as I was, I was unwilling to take one that said "A Tiger fan till I die!" (Sorry Colorado College folks!) Eventually, I selected an old bland sweatshirt and the A and F sweater. I charmed the salesmen into giving me a good price and inviting me back to lunch the following Sunday, which I said I MAY be able to come back for (I didn't, though, in the end). Then, one of them escorted me through the market, which in the end wasn't at all frightening (I don't know what all the fuss was about), and over to the buses that would take me back to the center of the city.

Dakar did feel sort of like a Paris of West Africa, though it was definitely still Africa. The center of the city had small, tree-lined, cobble-stonned streets and colonial looking buildings that felt like Europe. The streets led to beautiful "grand places" with green grass, benches, and fountains. I experienced a bit of culture shock wandering through these parts, but my feet always led me back to the Peace Corps bureau, which was located across from the Grand Mosque in the Medina quarter, which felt very African indeed.

Senegal is an extremely Muslim country, which means that the streets become significantly less trafficked at prayer times. Cars will stop at the nearest mosque or wherever they are, and hundreds of people will gather in the mosque grounds, the street medians, and the sidewalks to pray in unison. It was a beautiful site, though my photos didn't turn out so well.

At night, I would eat dinner or fall asleep to the incredibly beautiful and relaxing sound of Muslim mystics chanting the Koran over loudspeakers. I always thought that the Grand Mosque was just playing a cassette recording until one night I turned a corner looking for the telephone place and saw a group of Muslim men sitting cross-legged on mats in a circle with some microphones in the center and chanting. I was enthralled.

Despite its strong Muslim faith, Dakar is a hip, happening place that is much more, dare I say, Americanized than the other places I have visited in West Africa. While I was in Dakar, I connected with an old friend from Benin, a Senegalese artist/trader named Tidiane. I met up with Tidiane and his friends a few nights to have dinner and chat. I noticed strong differences between the way that Tidiane and his friends interacted and the young people that I know in Benin. Dakar has had much more western influence, and this was obvious.

One night we went to a club called Skyner to go dancing. The nightlife in Dakar is quite happening. Things don't really get going until after midnight, which was a little difficult for me (I'm turning into an old lady already!). We ate dinner at 1:30 a.m. and didn't get to the club until at least 2 in the morning. I was horribly underdressed. Dakar folks dress to the nines. We danced to all sorts of music, and I got into a cab to come back at 6:30 a.m.

I did most of my exploring on my own, though. I visited the Ile de la Gorée, a gorgeous, tiny island about a twenty minute ferry ride from Dakar. There, I went to the very unexciting IAN museum, which mostly displayed archaeological findings. Then, I wandered around the entirely pedestrian island. It is obviously a tourist mecca. Cobblestone pathways reminiscent of Venice. Small, flowered enclaves. Short colonial buildings that made me think of Rockport, MA. Incredibly stunning views of blue waters and cute fishing boats. I climbed up to the fort part of the island that was essentially covered in paintings, jewelry, and other works of art. I bought some souvenirs and then tried to figure out where the sounds of drum beats were coming from. From the very phallic memorial (don't ask me for what...I can't remember), I gazed down at some teenagers drumming and dancing. Later, I went down to watch more closely. The dancing was amazing...wild, swinging arms and hair, leaping, stomping... the drumming fast and frenzied. I really, really loved the Senegalese dances, perhaps more than Benin's dances. From here I watched the sun set over Dakar in the distance. I had missed the earlier ferry, so I had to wait an hour or so for the next one. I watched the dancers until they stopped and then headed back down to warm up with a hot chocolate before getting on the boat.

In Dakar, I also happened to do some job research. One night, the taxi I was in with Tidiane and his friends went by Dakar's Suffolk University campus, and I spontaneously decided to go there the following day to see what I could find out. I am interested in working in the study abroad field, and I thought they may have some positions available or be able to point me in a good direction. Spontaneity paid off. I met the Director of the university who had happened to host some Benin Peace Corps volunteers the week before for the West African Softball Tournament. He was very helpful and put me into contact with a woman around my age who helps run a study abroad program in Dakar. I met with the woman, who was extremely helpful. She told me some good websites to go to, and one night she showed me another side of Dakar's nightlife by taking me to a restaurant/jazz club called Just 4 You. The music was fabulous. She also put me into contact with another person who works for Africa Consultants International at their Baobab Center. The man who works there runs various study abroad programs. He, too, gave me some good advice. If anyone is interested in finding out what the Baobab Center does, check out www.acibaobab.org.

All good things come to an end. A week after I arrived, again the plane took off for Cotonou... with me in it.
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