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Photo by Elke Schmidt, Senegal Bridge Year Program.

Dakar Travels #1

This new year, I’ve taken a lot of time to explore Dakar, and I wanted to share some of my stories with you. Some experiences have been profound, some not. Some fun, some uncomfortable. Sometimes I do touristy things like a local, sometimes I do local things like a tourist. This is (arbitrarily) the first of my Dakar travels.

The unfortunate background to our first tale is that Sophie had to leave Senegal early. In light of this, during one of our days off, we decided to take an adventure, exploring a side of Dakar we hadn’t seen before. This included going to the wonderful Espace Maam Samba, a fairtrade boutique associated with an NGO that seeks to revitalise Senegalese villages faced with desertification (Berte, one of our instructors, works with the NGO). There we bought some gifts and spent a little while chatting with the women working at the boutique. After spending a little too much money, we headed towards the sea, trying to figure out how to get to the Ile de Ngor. We walked down some small sandy alleys, tall houses on either side, asking for directions on the way, and just as we were getting skeptical we saw a stunning beach brimming with pirogues, busy with fishers, tourists, vendors.

We stood for a moment, stunned by the array of colours, the sheer quantity of boats and the beautiful view out to the island and beyond. And as we stood, a pirogue floated calmly towards the shore, then suddenly a flurry of activity as a large group of men and women, previously sitting untroubled on the beach, leapt into action, hauling the boat onto shore and examining the catch of the day. Having soaked up the atmosphere, we returned to our mission, crossing to the island. As we walked along the beach, I found myself hauling a boat on to shore; it felt only natural as it landed right in our path. Continuing on, we found a man selling return tickets to the island, and as we sat waiting for the boat to come, we saw a few groups of foreign tourists come and take private boats to the island. Sophie and I preferred to wait for the cheaper, more communal option. That gave us time for a little chat with a sunglasses seller called Babacar, who impressed us with his English as we impressed him with our Wolof.

Eventually the pirogue came, giving us the cue to don our life jackets and scramble in. Not wanting to get in the way, I hopped on and made my way to the back so that others could come aboard. Once I was seated, I realised that I had lost Sophie (not the tallest among us), for whom the high-sided boat was not so easy to climb as it was for me. Fortunately someone more considerate than myself helped her clamber up, and the boat began its short yet exciting journey to the island. With our feet in the sand on the other side (and a rogue sandal rescued from the quietly thieving tides), we sought to explore. Wary of an offer of a ‘free’ guided tour, we decided to find our own way around the small island.

It wasn’t long before we bumped into a local artist. Though we were at first wary, we engaged openly with him, and I’m glad we did so, as we ended up spending a long time talking, with him telling us about the island as well as his home in the southern Casamance region of Senegal. As we parted, he gifted us bracelets, telling us that though he may not travel far, his art will. I assured him that we take his name with us, and reccomend his traditional art to our friends. Barely ten paces along the island and we felt it rude not to chat with a lonely artist at work. After a brief chat about music of all types, Senegalese mbalax, disco, reggae, we took a seat at the tip of the island, looking out to the humblingly vast ocean. Dakar being the westernmost point in mainland Afro-Eurasia, the atlantic here feels particularly vast: sitting there on the Ile de Ngor, only the ocean kept us from being on the beaches of Honduras. At the same time, it really is a world away. There on the cliffs of the Ile de Ngor, with waves crashing on the rocks beneath us, was a spot ripe for reflection, and we sat there for a long while. Eventually came time to move on, and we took a stroll around the picturesque island, taking in some incredible buildings, one house covered in seashells, a Christian school that looked like Noah’s Ark, and many less incredible but still beautiful creations.

Eventually came time for our return. We sat on the beach, waiting for the next pirogue to come, eating beignets (a wonderful doughnut-like treat). While not all of my time here is spent going on fun adventures like this one, I have found them to be perhaps some of my most valuable time in Senegal. Seeing the beauty of the world is a treasure in itself, and I encounter a lot of thought-provoking experiences, good and bad. The space that these adventures have given me simply to think has been so far priceless. Days like this one make me realise all that Senegal has to offer. Often in the West, there are incredibly simplistic views of Africa, not helped by some of the de-humanising ‘humanitarian’ advertising campaigns we see. But this country has great wealth that goes way beyond economics. It’s in the art, which abounds in quantity and beauty in Senegal. Even the buses here are a psychedelic explosion of colour inspired by some of the country’s richest and oldest cultural traditions. It’s in the folk traditions that have been built up and preserved for centuries, underpinning community life and providing wisdom from generations past to generations present. It’s in the landscape, from the plateaus in Thies that emerge from nowhere and disappear just as quickly, standing over vast flat plains; to the lush, green waterfallls that dot the mountains of Kedogou; as well as the peninsula of Dakar, where we were sat. And of course, the intrinsic wealth of everyone here. This is a wealth that we have all had the benefit of experiencing in our homestay families, as we are welcomed with open arms, and we encounter it on the street so often with all the incredible people we meet. All of these experiences mean that by the time I leave Senegal, I’ll be a lot richer than when I came.