5 Days in Senegal
“Hey wanna meet me in Senegal?”
It was 3AM, and as I set my 3rd glass of wine down on the table, this was the message that appeared in a bright blue bubble on my phone screen. After researching flight prices from Seville to Dakar and realizing that I could fly to West Africa for under $160, I thought, why not? Excited by the possibility of adventuring somewhere new and encouraged by the wine, I replied, “Okay, I’m coming!,” and that was that — in a few days, I was en route to Senegal.
When I landed in the tiny airport in Dakar, my eyes were drawn to the flag waving in the distance, greeting newcomers to West Africa with the classic Pan-African colors — red, gold, and green. In the dimly lit arrivals lounge, I didn’t find a sign directing me to the immigration queue for foreigners but then again, I believe I was the only foreigner on the plane. A brightly dressed Senegalese woman smiled and ushered me in front of her in a language I didn’t understand.
In many ways, Senegal reminded me of my two previous destinations, Morocco and Tunisia. All three countries are former French colonies with similar coastal terrain and large swaths of land dedicated to mostly arid desert; their cuisines are different, but equally flavorful and their cultures are connected by a mutual belief system in Islam and a love of all things Bollywood-related.
As I walked around the city of Dakar, I felt like I was back in Ghana, where I had once spent a summer living and volunteering over eight years ago. That trip to Accra had been my first time out of the United States — my first time on a plane, in fact. To a wide-eyed 18-year-old who had never even been out of New England, the developing world of West Africa offered newness and excitement everywhere and my nervousness instantly gave way to childlike wonder. Although some of the novelty of traveling has given way to nostalgia, arriving in a foreign land still makes me giddy. But unfortunately for me, unlike Ghana, English is not spoken in Senegal — French is the official language and Wolof is the most widely used. Sadly, I didn’t make any progress with my French skills during my time in Morocco and Tunisia, but I had gotten quite good at nonverbal communication, i.e. pointing and wildly gesticulating. In Senegal, the one word I did learn, and frequently use, was Wow which means Yes in Wolof.
Beaches & Goats
Since Senegal is on the Atlantic coast, we decided to hit the beach along with the locals and, oddly enough, the city’s entire sheep and goat population. On Sundays, I learned, shepherds bring their animals to water to bathe them as part of a cleansing ritual since goats and sheep are often used as sacrifices in Islam. There are many traces of Islamic culture in Senegal, from the mosques in every neighborhood to the absence of pork in the cuisine and the use of the phrase incha’Allah at the end of every sentence; but the manner in which Islam is practiced here is more open and liberal towards women and other religions, a reflection of the Senegalese people.
Gorée Island & The House of Slaves
A 20 minute ferry from Dakar — that surprisingly left on time — transported us to a tiny, colorful island called Gorée. The bright, relaxing atmosphere here created by the mingling sounds of ocean waves crashing against the rocks and birds chirping nearby stood in stark contrast to the island’s dark past as a prominent slave trading post. As we strolled past locals along the walkways selling quirky paintings and various art pieces, it was hard to believe that the infamous House of Slaves was lurking not far down the path.
This otherwise unassuming pink building on Gorée — a euphemistic name considering that it is Dutch for good harbor — has become a widely recognized memorial for the Atlantic Slave Trade, which claimed the lives of tens of millions Africans. It’s unclear how many slaves actually passed through The Door of No Return. Perhaps millions. Perhaps thousands. Maybe none at all. Unlike Nazi Germany, which kept meticulous records of each individual that passed through its gates, the slave traders through Africa left no such documentation, allowing the memories and identities of so many to disappear into the unforgiving depths of the Atlantic. And that is perhaps one of the greatest crimes of all. On this side of the Door, the rolling waves of the ocean were no longer peaceful. They sounded ominous. I spent most of the ferry ride back to Dakar ruminating over the vast scale of human exploitation that had taken place in Senegal’s past and the subsequent economic & political shadow it casts to this day.
A Jazz Festival in Saint-Louis
Our next stop was Saint Louis, another colorful island 4 hours from Dakar that, like Gorée, is also famous — albeit for a more uplifting reason: it’s home to West Africa’s annual International Jazz Festival taking place that weekend. I am by no means a jazz aficionado but it was impossible not to enjoy the great music, food, and cheerful atmosphere of the island. My friend and I were staying with his Senegalese friend, Mamadou, an incredibly talented bassist who also happened to be performing at the festival. Mamadou and his family, with characteristic Senegalese hospitality, generously hosted us in Saint-Louis.
Senegal’s amazing cuisine seemed to generally involve some sort of meat atop rice or couscous mixed with vegetables and cooked in a unique blend of herbs and spices — including habanero peppers. I’ve had habanero sauce on many an occasion, so I didn’t think twice about eating the real thing but this proved to be a mistake because Habanero peppers, I learned, are one of the hottest in the world. Realizing my error, I quickly swallowed the pepper and tried but failed to maintain a poker face as tears welled up in my eyes. In the following seconds, I believe I discovered my esophagus for the first time as the pepper burned its way down to the volcano that was now my stomach. The episode lasted only a few minutes, though I think my body temperature rose a degree or two over the course of the day as I digested the deceptively innocent vegetable. I made a mental note to never eat habanero peppers again unless I’m suffering from hypothermia.
As I strolled down a tiny street of Saint-Louis, watching a group of young boys playing football barefoot with a tiny plastic ball while smooth jazz notes filled the air, I felt that — unlike those chili peppers —there was nothing more chill than Senegal and its people.