A city called Dakar

Forming a triangle with the organized chaos that is called New York and the wine-loving Paris, home to the first African president to be inducted to the Académie Française- this high place of French intellect-, and one of the few West African cities to have its own fashion week, Dakar is an endearing schizophrenic peninsula.

I first discovered Dakar in late 2003 as I was heading to cover presidential elections in neighboring Mauritania- Mauritania is to Senegal what Batman is to Superman, an inseparable relationship between alter egos. I spent a few hours in Dakar and I felt something. I went to Nouakchott, covered the elections, but left two days earlier so that I can spend a weekend in Dakar because, like I said, something happened. And I spent the whole weekend walking, opening my eyes wide to see all that I could, opening my ears to hear everything, and my nostrils to smell everything. I said to myself I can live here.

A year later I came back for a training and was voted “tour guide” for the group. It would take another four years before I came back, this time to stay and live.

The capital city of Senegal, Dakar is a city of contrasts, making for interesting conversations among newcomers, long-established foreigners and the Dakarois themselves. Here, the most expensive SUVs share the roads with donkeys and horses carrying fruits and others goods; some young men and women may have a hard time with French vocabulary but they are among the greatest salespeople in Africa. The city is seeing new roads, bridges, hotels and a new airport in the years to come but, according to an opposition newspaper, it ranks second, after Lagos, Nigeria, in power cuts. Every sentence is punctuated by Inch’ Allah this Inch’ Allah that [“If God is willing” in Arabic] but I have a feeling that next to the mosque and the church, many have marabouts who orders you to sacrifice a lamb or put a chicken’s feather under your kitchen’s sink if:

  1. you want your business to prosper
  2. you want to give birth to a girl
  3. you want your uncle to be nominated minister in the next cabinet
  4. all of the above.

In one of the many one-way street named after some French political figure, you can eat a very good Sushi but friends warn me against the quality of the water from the tap.

A few days ago, a friend told me that Dakar is hard to understand. I told him that I disagrred, that I believe it is only reflecting its influences, possibly the consequence of the triangle with New York and Paris. Indeed it is this soul searching that makes the city and the people so endearing- if you come with an open mind.

Because of its multiple, competing facets, you have to come to Dakar with a good dose of cultural sensitivity, open-mindedness and high tolerance for frustration. My Senegalese and non-Senegalese friends have told me that they are impressed at how I appear to enjoy Dakar. I told them yes I enjoy Dakar, and quickly add that it is not an innate trait but rather a conscious effort to understand and enjoy this city. It means accepting dinner and lunch invitations where you have to sit on the floor and eat with your hands; it means attending birthdays and baptisms where traditional singers sing and praise you and your family, in return you “shower” them with a few bills; it means anticipating “scams” and other “my son is sick, can you help with the hospital bill?” tricks. Once you’ve passed these first tests, you are on the right path to falling in love with Dakar.

Another key, valuable test is purchasing your first good: a pair of shoes, a piece of fabric, a blender, anything.

View of the famous Goree Island, a major slave por which saw millions of Africans deported to the Americas. Credit: Y.Edoumou

Any Senegalese market, store, shop is a real-life test in negotiation and psychology. Senegalese salespeople are tenacious and convincing with a single objective in mind: getting you to buy that good. All of us non-Senegalese have made the bitter experience of our first purchase (without a Senegalese friend), feeling pretty good about the price we paid, and then finding out two blocks away that you paid three times too much. So the first skill to acquire is to accept that no matter the price that you are given for any good, you can begin your bargain by dividing the said price by three- that’s a tip from . The seasoned shoppers know that the best times to buy are early in the morning- the first customer is said to bring good luck for the rest of the day- and at closing time as shop owners could sell you things at knock off prices to cap off the day. Mastering the art of Wakhale — bargaining in wolof- is a paramount skill.

I love Sandaga market, the main market in Plateau. I go there to buy phones, fabrics, or Thiouraye the perfumed incense that is ubiquitous in many Senegalese households that those who don’t know think of it as some kind of fetish. There’s also the Soumbedioune fish market where I often go on Sundays- the idea of a single man who doesn’t speak the lingua franca buying fish is so bizarre, but I love it. I’ve always loved places like markets because that’s where real life, that’s where you feel the heartbeat of a nation, that’s where you will know if a revolution is coming. Soumbedioune also an artist village where visting westerners can buy necklaces and “typical” Senegal crafts for friends and family back home, or more astute art lovers who are looking for a rare piece of art. If you like shoes and handbags made out of animal skin- like snake- you can find it here.

And you can forget the people, like Colette my housemaid, a feisty little woman from Casamance.

And then one morning you wake up, you do not remember your first few months but you realized that years have gone by. Your son now plays the Djembe- the small quintessential Senegalese drum that is tucked in the armpit- in a local band; your daughter is married to a famous lutteur; and rather than taking up a new position in new York, you resign, stay in Dakar and open an African art gallery.