The unexpected architecture of a coastal African city

I created this photoessay documenting the architectural landscape I saw during my visit to Dakar, Senegal. I don’t think people get to see a presentation of African countries that is not only positive but representative of skill and innovative aesthetic design often enough. I hope this shows you the city in a way you might not have expected.

Photos are at the end of the essay. Please share with attribution.

I arrived in Senegal at 8:45pm, the plane had taken off an hour late, and the sun was just setting as we landed on the tarmac, the tires hitting the ground one after the other rocking the plane from front to back. Bonjour, welcome to Senegal.

Picked up by a family friend we left the airport and proceeded to the street, walking along what is normally the breakdown lane but was instead being utilized by waiting taxis, pedestrians and discarded vehicles. Calling cards were being sold and a variety of panhandlers milled about, asking strangers for rides and inflating the currency exchange rate for commission. As we negotiated a taxi price and pulled onto the rode the city hummed. Boys ran barefoot across four lanes of high way, ducking in between vehicles without a care, drivers switched lanes by lurching their arms out of windows to represent hand signals. I wasn’t sure if the turn signals were actually broken or if the drivers knew they’d just be ignored, but it was obvious that the safest way to change a lane was to just begin, a combination of asking for permission and forgiveness in one gesture.

As we turned onto side roads the cars didn’t lessen but the amount of people on foot doubled. By now it was nearly 10pm or perhaps much later, I wasn’t sure, I’d forgotten to adjust my wrist watch and my phone was buried deep in a bag. Intermingled with goats and horses, people sat in front of their homes laughing, talking loudly, smoking cigarettes, and sipping what I would later come to know as a local favorite, a home-brewed Moroccan tea called Atai. When we arrived at the apartment building, the lights were out, the current cut for the night. I wouldn’t get to see the facets of Dakar until morning.

The earth in Senegal differs across the region, ranging from creams and tans to rich browns and deep oranges. The colors are beautiful, each building striking, every textile dynamic. But in between the vibrato of colors are heaps our trash. Trash is everywhere, not hidden or placed in piles, just everywhere. In between every grain of sand, blowing past food stands, under the feet of children as they stride barefoot. This place is beautiful in many ways, but you cannot miss the fact that it is literally suffocating under the weight of its own pollution, so ingrained in the landscape, that it’s seemingly invisible to the citizens.

The night I left Dakar I was hours early to the airport, I sat uncomfortably in the vinyl chairs as mosquito’s buzzed around my head and more than anything I wanted to leave. I wanted reprieve, from the heat, from the suffocating pollution, from the intensity that had followed me for every second of my trip.

I only really fell in love with Dakar in hindsight. Not too long after I left, I realized I wanted to go back. Back to the coast, to that very intensity I’d fled. To the culture, the kindness and the warmth that can contributed to so much more than just the desert heat. Dakar is the absolute definition of dichotomy. It is brilliant, dazzling even, to look at. And in the same respect it is heartbreaking, broken and impoverished. It is that incredible juxtaposition of a stunning visual language and haphazard infrastructure that make it a gem, but one that very much needs caring for. Like so many African cities it is teeming with potential, the skeleton for beauty already there, so visible, so evident, built on the skyline.