Senegal: Tumult and Hospitality
Senegal: Peanut Stew, Pirogues & Mbalax: Everything fits, everything allows
By Urban Nilmander
Hot, dusty, chaotic, no directly interesting sights, annoying hustlers, broken sidewalks and traffic infarcts every day.
The face of Senegal is all about the people. Open, smiling, generous people, an explosion of colors, fantastic food and a music scene among the best in the world. It's magical and tough at the same time.
We sit with a couple of Flag, local beers, on the terrace of the fairytale Hotel Sokhamon in Dakar to watch the sun go down.
A cool breeze blows in from the sea, while an airplane descends for landing nearby. In the background you can hear Pape Dioufs hit song Casse Casse. It's the first day of a tumultuous month in Senegal.
Dakar´s beauty, a city that pours out of the Cap Vert peninsula in a jumble of villages and former French colonial societies, has nothing to do with its architecture. From the air, the capital looks like a metropolis on the move.
Cars speed along a four-lane highway along the rugged coastline. Cranes dot the seaside, building luxury hotels and conference centers.
On the ground jobless young men line the new highways, trying to make a living by selling phone cards, cashews and Chinese-made calculators.
Streets and squares come alive with people dressed in explosions of strong, bright colors in an endless variety of patterns. Or hip-hoppers with cool goldshaded sunglasses, executives in long white robes and Netbooks in their hand or Rastafaris in long dreadlocks. Everything fits, and everything allows.
The beauty of Dakar merges entirely with the city's residents and the atmosphere they create. Swede Teresa has lived and worked in Dakar for two years. The most important
I have learned is that it is not dangerous to communicate with someone you do not know. Senegalese are welcoming, hospitable, smiling and open, she says.
And hanging over everything in this 2-million city is pulsating Senegalese music on highest volume. In the weekends the music pounds out all-night in an almost infinite number of music venues and nightclubs.
Tourism is not really on the agenda in Senegal. From the first meeting with the taxi-drivers at the airport in Dakar trying to quadruple the price to the multitude of hustlers around Place de Independence who try every trick in the book to lure white tourists.
But hey, this is Africa! It's the organized chaos that is the very reason to travel 6000 km south. Or was it the weather? Some travel for picking up, Senegal has long been known for feminine sex tourism.
Many people are here for the music. Senegal in general and particularly Dakar vibrates with music.
Heavy, throbbing mbalax (pop music with traditional roots, marketed to the world by Youssou Ndour), really good rap, reggae, salsa, samba, jazz and singer / songwriters. A few listed below.
For those who want a musical experience beyond the expected, go to the djembe festival in Ábene in southern Senegal. Eight days around Christmas with drums, dancing, and various known and unknown artists in a small village by the sea.
I sit and talk about life in Senegal with my friends Abdou and Djibril in Dakar. Abdou has returned after many years in England, and believe that certain things have been difficult to return to. Senegal is a wait-culture. Everything takes a long time and it's been hard for me to adjust to, he says.
Djibril has studied philosophy and is now working in three different hotels in Dakar. I want more people to come here, but then we have to get better taking care of the tourists, he said. It's all about expectations. I had never set my foot in Senegal before and had significantly lower expectations, I thought chaos would be much harder.
And if tourism is not on the agenda, generosity is.
Again and again we were invited to share the meal on the large barrels Senegalese use to eat together. Just as often, we were helped to find an address by someone who walked with us thorugh half Dakar. Without wanting to be paid. Sure, it's poor and injustice is blatant. But Senegal is a stable democracy and has not that misery that can be seen elsewhere in Africa. Most people are friendly, curious and generous.
"Please Join Us!"
One day in Dakar walking along the beachfront, Le Corniche, we ran in to an art exhibition with the art group Tangalmenthe. Walking around looking at art, sculptures, furniture made of used washing machines, handmade fabrics a voice called out.
"Hey, are you hungry? We are having lunch, please join us."
We gathered around a big plate on the ground together with the artists and ate a lovely mafe, a meat stew with delicious peanut butter sauce and hot chili. Two other visitors also join in.
"We´ve just taken over this spot by the ocean. We´ll see if can afford to keep it as an art exhibition place," laughs Gaelle kCiss, designer.
Generosity again. And nobody cares if you buy anything. Just enjoy and have fun. And eat when you´re invited.
If you're in to beach life Senegal is like a wet dream. If you look, you´ll find that almost lost hippie and backpacker feeling. Sure, you have to put up with bunches of curious children and one or other Rastafarian who calls "Where you from?". But then you can enjoy the miles and miles of golden sandy beaches.
A small piece of Saly in the middle and Cap Skiring in the south, with direct flights from Europe, that's all. And the tourism that has emerged lately is more about the extravagant nature of the deltas and mangrove areas. Or bird-watching.
Or you could do as some French tourists, traveling solidarity. The organization Cauris sells trips that includes working with simple jobs in a small village, painting a schoolhouse or putting up fences. The village makes the food and gives you somewhere to sleep.
Since last election, the National legend, musician Youssou N'Dour is the Minister of Tourism. But so far, he has kept a low-profile to develop tourism.
Ile de Goree
A beautiful trip from the chaos of Dakar is of course Ile de Gorée. A car-free, green island that's half an hour away has recently become a World Heritage Village and the old colonial houses are now being renovated. But the reason to go there, as white Europeans anyway, is to be thoroughly ashamed.
In a small pink house thousands of black Africans crowded, starved, died and were shipped with boats across the Atlantic. 20 million (!) were forced aboard boats like cattle by the Dutch, Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.
Those who didn´t survive the journey, six million, were either thrown into the sea, died of diseases or were killed when they arrived. Ile de Gorée was just one of many shipping locations but today it is an important symbol of the white man's cruelty.
Many blacks from the United States today make pilgrimages to the island.
Boat to Ziguinchor
A few days later, we take a big passenger boat from Dakar to Ziguinchor in the Casamance province. Sixteen hours south along the mangrove-filled, flat coast and through the long river full of leaping dolphins to the dusty provincial capital.
And of course. Without knowing it, one of the country's most famous musicians, Baaba Maal, performed at the Franco-Senegalese Cultural Institute (found in each town, they always have interesting exhibits and good music).
We were supposed to travel further north but this concert cannot be missed. Sometime at 2 o'clock in the morning, the concert ends. Two hours of traditional music with roots in northern Senegal and then suddenly, the blue-eyed Baaba Maal throws his shoes, his scarf, opens his shirt, and stands up. In the background, two guitarists move in.
The volume and the tempo rise by 200 per cent.
Audience on Stage
The audience leaves their seats, and one by one they jump up on-stage and dance with the band and Baaba Maal.
Three weeks later, after a dozen concerts, we have learned two things. One is that anyone who appreciates a musician rushes forward and throws a little money note in front of the artist or in the guitar's hole.
Number two, nothing is really good until as many as possible in the audience are up on-stage. And another, that Hi is Na Nga Def in Wolof. (Sounds like Jerry Jeff).
And the constant sound Waw, waw, waw, does not mean that something is awesome but just yes, yes, yes.
We end up in Kafountine, a small fishing village where tourism consists of a few hotels, the visitors are a mix of beach hippies, birdwatchers or participants in drum and dance classes. All around in the jungle-like areas down to the beach djembe drums sounds from morning to night. At one of the jungle sites, a German woman learns African dancing.
Here comes the next lesson. The house we live in has a constant flow of people. They sit down and talk for hours, get little Attaya, strong tea, and move on. Replaced by new visitors, more talk, more tea, etc.. Visits runs from early morning to late evening.
"This is Africa. It is important to sit down and talk, all become part of the same family. You cannot say no to a visitor," says my friend Pape.
At the same time, he sees the problems.
"It happens too little. Too many people are content to sit and talk all day. We need more people who dare to invest," he said.
Maybe so. And perhaps new technologies become a shortcut. Senegalese, like many other Africans, jumped a long chain of technological development and went straight into the future.
Each Senegalese has at least one cell phone and it´s more than usual to see young people with computers and iPads on their knees. The culture clash is when you see a young woman sitting on the ground cooking as people has always done, then get up and answer on her cutting-edge smartphone--it becomes almost comical.
Back in Dakar there are more concerts. The last night before an early morning flight, we hear Pape Cheikh at the legendary club Just4you. A magical ending to a magical month.
Waw. Or Wow.
Getting to Senegal
The best is to check out some of the French or Belgian airlines, Brussels and Air France. Delta also flies to Dakar, as well as Spanish Iberia from Madrid. It is also possible to fly from Malaga via Casablanca.
There are discussions between the newly formed Senegal Airlines and French Corsair about a collaboration.
There is always the possibility to fly to Gambia and travel from there into Senegal. Remember that you need proof that you have taken the yellow fever vaccine. Get malaria tablets too.
The trip costs from 650 Euro to 1100 depending on distance and time of year. Best time is in the winter. 2014, the new major airport in Dakar is supposed to be ready and able to receive 3 million tourists.
Getting Around Dakar
In Dakar the taxis are yellow (always agree on price before the trip). The fantastically colorful buses funnily called Car Rapide (cannot be much slower). It is possible to travel through the country in the so-called Sept-taxis (car for seven people) but it can be tedious and usually takes much longer than what they say. You can also rent a taxi. A fantastic way to see the southern part of the country is to rent a pirogue, a boat, and cruise around the mangroves. To some places, Zighuinchor for example, you can fly.
Food in Senegal
In four weeks, we ate three times a day in all possible environments and had no stomach problems. The food to try is Thieuboudienne, fresh fish with root vegetables and rice, national dish. Or Yassa available with chicken, meat or fish, a divine sauce with lemon and onion.
And not to miss, Mafe, is a beef stew with potatoes and root vegetables with a sauce made of peanut butter and hot chilis.
In Dakar don´t miss Africa's most westerly point, Les Almadies. Have lunch at one of the small barbecue places almost in the sea and try lotte (good fish), shrimp, oysters or even sea urchin.
With such a long coastline fish is the main ingredient in most dishes. All well seasoned, some really hot. Local beer is Flag and wine is served almost everywhere. Do not miss the various fruit drinks, Bissap, Bouye, Ditakh and Gingembre.
Naming eateries in Dakar is almost impossible. For Senegalese kitchen try La Veranda, Chez Loutcha or Keur N'daye, all in Plateau. For seafood and a great view of the Ile de Gorée try Lagon 1, a pier restaurant.
More French but with clear Senegalese touch are the food at La Piazza, Le Bideew and Le Fourchette.
Le Patio and Alkimia in Les Almadies are high class places.
The hotels are too expensive and poor in general. If your taste is not so demanding, there are lots of cheap sleeps and if you have a big wallet there are always luxurious options. Middle class hotels however are not as well equipped.
Some good options in downtown Dakar are Plateau Residences (good for long stay), Hotel Farid (with brilliant Lebanese restaurant across the street) or classic Ganale Hotel. There are also nice hotels north of the airport, but then you need to take a taxi to the clubs and markets.
Worth a special visit, preferably for a drink at sunset is the Hotel Sokhamon. An unlikely fairytale castle by the sea. In Zighuinchor try Flamboyant Hotel.
There is an infinite amount of music to check out in Senegal, in all styles. Orchestre Baobab, Omar Pene, Thione Seck, Baaba Maal, Ismael Lo, Cheikh Lo now belongs to the veterans but often perform at various clubs. Newer name are Viviane Ndour, Alione Disposal, Pape & Cheikh, Pape Diouf in pop music.
Good singer / songwriters, Les Freres Guisse and Paco Diaz.
Reggae, hip-hop and zouk; Demba Dia, MC Solaar, Daara J, Pee Fioss and Positive Black Soul.
Some clubs to check out; Just4you, Le Must, Villa Krystal, Nirvana, Le New Africa, Institut Francais and Papayer Night. Ask locals what is going on.
Fabrics. All possible patterns in all possible colors. A must. Best place is the Marche des HLM but the fabrics you can find everywhere.
Arts / crafts. Village Artisanal Soumbedioune is a kind of handicraft village that has pieces made of wood, metal, jewelry but also art. The whole area around it is filled with shops where you can also find the great objects of recycled Coca-Cola cans. Look out for the the small workshop where world-renowned designer Ousmane Mbaye makes furniture from recycled oil drums.
The central market Marché Sandaga is for those who has traveled a lot and can put up with constantly being attacked or embroiled into a store.
Urban Nilmander is a Swedish freelancer working mainly for magazines and newspapers in Scandinavia. His stories have been published in Grand Designs Magazine (UK), EasyJet Traveller (UK), BThere (Brussels Airlines), Casa y Estilo (US), Residences (France), Casa D (Italy), Haeuser (Germany).
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