Dakar: embodiment of the true African essence

With their awesome West African hospitality and colorful vibe, Dakarians, are pleasant people and good company. Its long sandy beaches, beautiful blue ocean and dazzling colorful traditional garment makes Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a unique disposition of a typical African city. Yet again, Dakar is much more than long sandy beaches; Goree Islands—one of the strategic points in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade for centuries—has historical significance. Recently, Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter traveled to the intriguing West African city and experienced exceptional things.

With a lively and bustling street, Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is one of the most beautiful cities in the Africa. Its visually distinctive city walls adorned with graffiti art, green areas, colorful public buses, remarkable architecture and colorful outfits of the community give Dakar a dazzling look. One of the chief seaports in West Africa, Dakar, like many African cities is a city of contrast,  is a place where one encounters animals negotiating their way into traffic next to expensive luxury cars. The city is full of life with its street vendors, brightly colored fabric outfits, loud music and people going about their business.

Gifted with a long, sandy beach, it is refreshing to see a large group of youngsters dipping for a swim after school. Dakarians enjoy frolicking around the beautiful white sands and spectacular blue ocean beaches. Similar to South African beaches, the ocean surfing scene has been recently flourishing.

The prominent award-winning Senegalese film, Tey, has captured part of this beautiful scenery. The lead actor, one of the prolific poets, Saul Williams, was a smashing hit at the Colors of The Nile International Film Festival in Addis Ababa.

Its natural beauty is not the only attraction for Senegal. Especially, those from the academic world, know Senegal through its prominent pan-African leader Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was the first president of the Republic of Senegal after independence. Leopold Sedar Senghor was one of the intellectuals behind the concept of Negritude. In post-colonial Africa, many intellectuals have stressed the importance of decolonization and deconstruction.

The Negritude movement is an intellectual movement which emphasized  black cultural identity, African characteristics, values and aesthetics. Apart from his political career, his widely-acclaimed poetic work, which put his name in the league of one of Ethiopia’s prolific playwrights, Poet Tsegaye Gebremedhin, was one of the things that the Senegalese leader was recognized for. Developing a close relationship with Sedar Sengor, Tsegaye was one of the few Ethiopians who pursued the concept of Negritude. He was also a visiting research fellow in African cultural antiquities at the Chiek Anta Diop University formerly known as the University of Dakar.

In addition to Sedar Senghor, one of the Senegalese scholars and Egyptologist, Chiek Anta Diop, is another intellectual who has close ties with Ethiopia. Diop wrote about the civilizations of Ethiopia and Egypt in the sense of black civilization. With my visible fascination with Dakar when an exciting opportunity presented itself to stop over in the city for a few days, I had to jump on it. This opportunity was to attend the period session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, with its secretariat based in Banjul, Gambia, a country almost encircled by Senegal. The Reporter was invited to be part of the NGO Forum that convenes twice a year just before the ACHPR sessions.

We departed from Addis Ababa airport on April 1st on board Kenyan Airways to start a journey which was full of  many transits and stopovers. Before reaching Dakar, we stopped in Djibouti and Abidjan and transited via Nairobi.

My first encounter with Dakar was while I was enroute to Banjul. The intricate flight schedule had me boarding a Brussels Airlines plane to fly to Banjul from Dakar. If only the things were that easy. Apparently, my arrival at Dakar coincided with the subway bomb attack in Brussels which resulted in the cancellation of all Brussels Airlines flights including my fateful flight to Banjul.

Since the alternative that was proposed was to stay five more days in Dakar and fly with Arik (Nigerian Airways) which would see me completely miss my scheduled meeting, I opted for plan B: crossing the Senegalese-Gambian border in a car. Luckily, I managed to secure some companionship at Dakar, people who were heading to the same meeting, and we decided to give the road a try. Although it is quite  a long commute, the mode of transportation also had its own perks such as the opportunity to get the glimpse of Dakar, the border region and the countryside of Senegal.

With the majority of the population following Islam, most towns in Senegal leading to the border of Gambia are punctuated with beautiful mosques standing adjacent to each other. The melodic prayer of the Azan that emanates from the mosque grabs one’s attention immediately. That did not end there to access Banjul. Our vehicle had to be loaded on the back of a ferry a cross a river.

But it was clear that I had from little to no time to really get to know Dakar. So, after finishing the forum in Gambia, I decided to do just that and started to look for flights to Dakar. This was not as easy as I had imagined either. The returning trip to Dakar was also another hustle.

To begin with, the two cities, Banjul and Dakar, had no direct connecting flights. One option was to use the same bumpy road and crowded ferry to cross back to Senegal. The other alternative was to contract a Royal Air Maroc flight back to Dakar via Morocco.

Though it was only a 45-minute flight from the Gambian capital to Dakar, we were forced to go north to Casablanca in order to again fly back to Dakar. After hours of transit and flights finally, we arrived in Dakar.

Through my traveling, one thing I learned is how it is not easy to travel with Ethiopian passport across the continent. Rather one has to be determined and ready to pass through interrogations, unnecessary questions, scrutinization and strange glances.

For me, Dakar was one of the exceptions. Starting from the immigration personnel, Dakar proved to us what they really mean by “teranga” in wolof (one of the mainly spoken language in Senegal), which means hospitality. Hospitality is something that the Senegalese identify themselves with.

Though I found out later that it is possible to enter the country only by receiving visa upon arrival for Ethiopian citizens, again another rare occasion, to be on the safe side, I secured my visa from Addis Ababa before my departure.

It is not only the immigration officers, but the security guards at the airport gate who uniquely smiled and greeted us. It was clear that for the Senegalese, hospitality was a culture and part and parcel of their national identity.

Dakar welcomed us with a warm, cool weather. Accompanied by a Kenyan friend who was also part of the workshop, we waited for a cab to take us to our hotel. Some would readily assume that I spoke French and start a conversation in French; which I did not, of course. Our encounters were filled with unexplainable polite smiles and a lot of nods from people. One of the major source for African slaves labor which was shipped to shores of Europe and America, the Senegalese widely speak French as a remnant of the settler colonialism practiced mainly by France up to 1959.

Thinking about the language, we walked to the cab area and looking at us a cab driver approached. Suddenly a tall, gracious, Senegalese man came and told me that I should take his cab.

He offered lengthy explanation in English as to how the other cab we were looking at was not safe, that it was overpriced and other reasons which I could not comprehend. Once you are in a strange land you follow your guts, and depend on the strangers to guide you, I advised myself. Strangely, similar to an Ethiopian name Kebede, the cab driver was named Kebe. We waited for Kebe in the parking before he pulled in front of us.

A blurred line between niceness and flirtation is another thing common in Dakar. Another tall man approached me and said something in French to which I responded by saying I don’t speak French. He then said “Ethiopia?” amazed how he would discern my nationality I said “yes”.

Though our reservation was at a different hotel, Kebe suggested we try another one. We trusted his judgment and we went to “Fatou”; 15- minute drive from the airport. The highway and commuting in Dakar seems a bit complicated. Our cab seems to go back and forth and only to end up on the same road which we were on in the first place. To his credit, Kebe tried to explain but it was difficult to understand.

The communication was not also easy in Dakar, even at the hotel where one would expect language to less of barrier. After a brief exchange and with little understanding on each side, the receptionist showed me an elegant room with its own sitting salon and told me the price is 51,000 CFA Francs close to 88 USD.

I agreed to take the room but the story changed after a couple of minutes and I was hurled out of the room as it was reserved for another guest. I resisted to move to another room but finally caved in. Then conversation changed again and the receptionist informed me that now the price has risen to 65,000 francs. Though I was furious, I had little language skills to express my feelings; what is the point of expressing anger if the other party is not understanding you, I reasoned with myself and kept my cool.

Finally, after negotiations the price became 55,000 CFA franc close to 95 USD. What they say is true. You learn something new every day. I didn’t know one can bargain the price of a hotel room, and yet I did.

We arrived in Dakar late in the afternoon and during the evening we went out for a ride in town. Dakar is so vast especially for a passerby like me who wants to navigate the city for a couple of days. I wanted to interact with the Ethiopian community there; so, I thought to myself that there could not be a better place than an Ethiopian restaurant to do that. I knew that wherever the destination, Ethiopians could not stay away from their injera, Ethiopian restaurants by extension. Feeling good with my intuitive skills we headed to Lalibela restaurant in Dakar, located at Pointe E, Rue, Louga, and Road 3.

Located on a terrace of a small building, the interior decoration of the restaurant that featured the fusion of Ethiopian and Senegalese traditional artifact was breathtaking. The greenery in the restaurant, the placing of the artifacts, its rooftop view gave it exquisite scenery.

The place, populated with diners but not too much. After a little while, it was filled with a flock of foreigners. The owner, who has been away from Ethiopia for more than 17 years, is clearly nostalgic of her country.

Married to a Senegalese man, she moved to Dakar and had two children before the marriage ended. The divorce was messy, according to her. However, she was forced to stay in Dakar because she did not want to lose custody of her daughters. For someone who lived there for close to two decades, she is a bit sour about Senegal and the people in general.

 Her brother and a woman who works for the Ethiopian embassy in Dakar were rather excited to see another Ethiopian in the restaurant. We talked about politics, infrastructure in Addis, and also laughed at a couple of jokes. They were generous enough to offer to host me next time I was in Dakar.

The next morning, Kebe, who transformed himself into our tour guide, laid out his plan for our trip to Goree Island. Kebe is usually on time and talking about his top musicians. We started our trip to Goree Island early in the morning. Popularized by its traditional storytellers named griots, music is a big part of the fabric of the city. One of the prominent musicians, Yousou N’ Dour, who owns a nightclub in Dakar named Thiossane, is a popular figure in Dakar.

Senegalese hip-hop is also big. According to a documentary film entitled Democracy in Dakar which highlights the hip-hop scene in the city, this particular genre of music is socially relevant and has a big place in resistance and political dissent.

 Living in the same city, one can have a different reality and experience. The gap in the standard of living was quite apparent in Dakar. Passing through the roads one can see from any side the tallest statue in Africa named African Renaissance Monument, a 49-meter-tall bronze statue located on top of one of the twin hills built in 2010. A source of controversy among Senegalese, the statue consumed 27 million USD.

Fortunately, the ferry ride to Goree Island was completely different from that of Gambia’s. We chose the upper compartment of the ferry to have a better view of the sea. Finally, we reached the Goree Island, which is 18.2 hectares in area and is located two kilometers away from the main harbor of Dakar.

With a population of not more than two million, Goree Island was used as a temporary slave shelter during the Atlantic slave trade. Most of the main buildings in Goree were reconstructed structures with the main ones being ex-slave houses. The house of slaves and its Door of No Return in on Goree Island is a museum and a memorial to the brutal Atlantic slave trade.

Historians claim that the first record of slave trade which dates back to 1536 is recorded in Goree Island and was conducted by Portugese, the first Europeans to set foot on the island in 1444. According to the tour guide, an estimated 20 million Africans slaves passed through the Island between the mid-1500s and the mid-1800’s. Categorized into women/men and infants, more than 30 slaves were chained and shackled in 8-square-foot cells with only small slit window facing outwards. These slaveholding warehouses kept the slaves inhumanly until they were shipped across the Atlantic.

The living conditions of the slaves were atrocious. They were deprived and overrun with disease. Especially for women, the torture and repeated rape by the slave owners was difficult to bear. There were also the rebellious, who are locked in small cubicles under the stairs, where seawater can sip through stepping up dehydration. Contemporarily, the island is the attraction of hundreds of thousands of tourists who take pictures of the slave house; especially the small door of no return which is adjacent to the ocean.

Walking the grounds of where millions of African ancestors’ blood has been spilled, colorful paintings stretched on the hillside of the gravel road catches one’s eyes.

The hill is a place for The Baye Fall people. Looking at their dreadlocks, someone can easily mistake them for Rastafarians. But they are far from it. The Baye Fall brotherhood is a Sufi Islamic sect founded by Mame Cheikh Ibrahim Fall.

It was a disciple of one of the iconic figures in Senegal, Cheick Amadou Bamba Mbacke, a freedom-fighter during colonial era and the founder of Mouride brotherhood. His disciple, Ibrahima Fall, would later become the namesake of the sub-order, the Baye Fall, as well as the architect of a system of sustainable economics. Ibrahim Fall stressed the importance of humble lifestyle and manual labor.

Many of them follow a very simplistic way of life. Touba is the holy city of the Mourides and the Baye Fall. There in the Touba area the final resting places of founder Amadou Bamba and Ibrahim Fall. They paint with sand and showed us their artifacts. They suggest to me that I should become Yaye Fall (women Baye Fall). Back in Dakar, one of the expensive cities in the continent, we went around to explore the cities which many say is similar to many European cities. On our final night we went to a restaurant near the beach and indulged ourselves in some fish and Boab juice before heading out to Nairobi and then Addis Ababa. However, as I leave, I could not help but feel that still there is a lot that I have not seen in Dakar and maybe and just maybe another brush at Dakar will be appropriate in the near future.