21 August 2007

Senegal - Country 91

Country 91 is Senegal and many months have passed since my last article and country 90. Senegal itself is quite amazing and Dakar is a constant flash of bright colours on the bodies of very dark skinned people. For those who may not know where Senegal lies on the African continent – it is at the western most point in all of Africa and Dakar is at the most western part of that peninsula. Over one million people live in on a small piece of land. Since I arrived two weeks ago, I am starting to become accustomed to the crazy drivers, bumpy roads, pushy vendors and people sleeping on the streets.

This is my first journey to western Africa where most people speak French and when not speaking that language they are speaking Wolof, the native tribal dialect. Six years of French nearly 35 years ago has provided me with some ability to express myself if not understand what’s being said back to me. Multiple visits to Paris have provided some French language survival skills such as the ability to say “Donnez moi un coca s’il vous plait” and “Merci.” The problem comes when I know a word in French but my brain thinks of the Mandarin Chinese equivalent and that is all I am able to express. The Mandarin I learned was overlaid directly upon the French inside my brain.

As I walk the streets here in Dakar I spend a great deal of time doing what I love most – watching people. Every day women dress in what I would describe as typical African dress --a beautifully colored dress with a matching headscarf. It would be the equivalent of an American woman wearing a ball gown to work. The colors are often jade green or dark brown but then there are the bright pink, red or turquoise gowns that are just stunning when juxtaposed against spectacularly black skin. That is what I have noticed most here in Senegal - the extreme darkness of the skin. Obviously there are lots of people here who are not necessarily Senegalese whose have lighter skin, but my eye seems to catch and then concentrate on those people with the darkest skin. It’s like when you buy a red car and all of the sudden all you notice are red cars. I don’t have dark skin but in the USA you never see such a concentration of jet black people.

Dakar itself is like most cities in the world, overcrowded, lots of pollution, lots of cars going every which direction, but it sits by a beautiful Atlantic ocean which sets it apart from most of the world capitals. The coastline of Dakar is quickly disappearing as hotels and apartments are placed haphazardly without any consideration for urban planning and for the local fishermen and residents who access the sea. I run along the Grand Corniche, a boulevard and main artery of Dakar which follows the sea’s edge and meanders along the northerly direction in Dakar. There are only three beaches along the 4-mile stretch which provide free access to the sea and the rest of the shoreline is controlled by hotels, restaurants or, in the case of the one I frequent, a health club. It is unfortunate that that the most beautiful part of Dakar is being developed at a breakneck pace without much consideration for the future.

Just off the coast of Dakar is the island of Gorée which is the Holy Grail of African slavery; Africans were quarantined here from many countries and shipped to the Americas, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and beyond. I recall seeing an episode of a television show, the Amazing Race, where the contestants were to visit Gorée and place flowers on a statue which commemorates the tragedy of slaves. There was one couple of African descent for whom it was a particularly poignant visit. I am sorry that I am unable to visit Gorée on this trip and hope to return to Senegal at some point and have another chance to see it. This is the port from which the protagonist Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s Roots was shipped to Annapolis, Maryland in the US, so I have seen both sides of the journey.

Dakar is a vibrant city with vendors on every street selling mobile access cards, peanuts, coffee, shirts, newspapers, fingernail clipping and filing, shoes and African charms. There are many shops as well but it would seem that there are two levels of commerce within Dakar most likely defined by cost. People don’t make much money here, 1 in 5 earns less than a dollar a day, and Dakar is expensive. I could live on $300 in Macedonia per month and here my $300 lasts 10 days. I quickly learned to purchase sodas on the street to save nearly $1.

There are little creature comforts that every traveler seeks, especially those who spend extended periods of time overseas. For me it is the Herald Tribune and Internet access. If I have access to both I am fine and can endure all the other relative hardships – I say that with tongue in cheek. Unfortunately the Herald Tribune is ridiculously expensive here in Senegal. Aside from always being a day behind, it costs the equivalent of $6 adding to the burn rate on my $89 per diem. Internet access is not cheap either, at least at the hotels which make it a premium item. I was spoiled in Macedonia and Montenegro by the low cost of everything, even the Herald Tribune. Who knew!!

As I prepare to complete my assignment in Senegal and convince the powers that be that ubiquitous access to Internet in the rural locations of Senegal is a necessary element for its development, I realize that it will be a long time before most people will be able to afford it even if it were available.

Senegal is a beautiful country with a rich history. People come here for a vacation which provides a different glimpse of the country than it does for me who came here for work. I would love a chance to see more of Senegal, and perhaps I will another time.