Senegal Part 2: St Louis to Dakar

We spent our first few days in Senegal near to St. Louis. After the rigours of crossing the Sahara it was nice to be able to relax (and have a beer!) The outskirts of St Louis is mostly densely populated slum housing and rubbish strewn streets. The centre of town which is located on an island, is much prettier with its faded colonial houses and bright pink trailing bougainvilleas. 

Tailor in St. Louis, Senegal

From St Louis, we headed to Dakar. In St. Louis the breeze from the Atlantic ocean had kept things so cool I had actually worn a jumper at times. The change in climate as soon as we headed inland was astonishing. After less than 20 minutes of driving we were drenched from head to toe in sweat and the water in our camelbak was too hot to drink. Until this point we had only really noticed the heat when we stopped, when the bike was moving there had always been a pleasant cooling breeze. Now the breeze was so hot it felt like being blasted with a hairdryer. On the way to Dakar we passed fields heaped with stinking rubbish, one sight in particular that will stay with me was passing 20 or so trees at a busy and very windy intersection, on their bare branches hung hundreds of plastic bags, like some monstrous fruit. 

The contrast between the quiet, emptiness of Mauritania and the vibrant, frenetic pace of Dakar could not have been greater. Dakar is a city which is packed full of life, and music. The sounds of mbalax (a popular type of Senegalese music – made famous by Youssou N’Dour) fills the streets, blasted from hundreds of radios. Buying croissants in the morning I would find myself lingering in the Boulangerie listening to the music, so infectious that the staff danced their way from the counter to the tills, soaking up the atmosphere and the smell of freshly baked bread.  Dakar is the opposite of London (or indeed most other big cities), everywhere you go people want to stop and chat.  It is also a city that is full of contradictions; extreme wealth coexists with abject poverty, brand new range rovers cruise past horse drawn carts and gangs of street kids in ragged clothes, rattling empty margarine tubs. 

Cleaner, at the African Renaissance Monument, Dakar

We stayed in Yoff Plage, in an apartment we found through Airbnb. The day we moved in was an apt reminder that in Africa it is generally a bad idea to expect things to happen  the same way they would in the West. For example, people tend to have a different conception of timeliness and personal space; busses arrive when they feel like it and depart when it is physically impossible to fit anyone else on them. Our airbnb host shared this laid back approach to punctuality, leaving us waiting in an empty car park for 2 hours. When he finally arrived to meet us, we squeezed into the back of his car alongside a roll of carpet, curtain rails, brackets and other assorted tools and household items for the two minute journey around the corner. At this point alarm bells should probably have rung, but we figured the contents of his car would be for some future DIY he intended to do at a more appropriate time, a Sunday afternoon perhaps, or really any time when he didn’t have paying guests. Within minutes of arriving his friend turned up armed with an electric drill and it became clear that the apartment was far from ready and that they both intended to crack on with the DIY whilst we sat awkwardly on the sofa wondering if we ought to offer to help. Unfortunately neither our host nor his friend seemed particularly proficient at DIY and it was not until 9pm, some 3 hours of ear splitting drilling and hammering later, when they finally departed, leaving several wonky curtain rails and a hastily constructed double bed in their wake.

Despite the rocky start we loved our apartment, located down a quiet and sandy side street, 5 minutes walk from the beach. Yoff plage was the perfect antidote to the chaos of central Dakar, laid back, free from hassles and with remarkably few other tourists. We returned time and time again to our favourite shack on the beach where they sold the best Yassa Poisson (fried fish in a delicious spicy onion sauce). Yoff Plage is a great spot for surfing (whilst there I took some lessons). It is also a great spot to  people watch, during the day musicians and Sabar dancers gather there to practice, horse drawn carts race back and forth across the sand, people sheer sheep in the shallow waves. During the evening Senegal’s fitness craze is evident, the beach is filled with aspiring footballers and wrestlers (wrestling is Senegal’s biggest sport), every spare bit of sand taken over by makeshift football pitches and joggers, many of whom for some unknown reason jog only backwards.

There is a lot to do in Dakar, from visiting the African Renaissance Monument, the somewhat controversial statue which dominates Dakar’s skyline, to visiting the infamous slave house on Goree island. I have to admit that I found our visit to the slave house disappointing, many of the exhibits were being redesigned and so it may be better in the future, but I didn’t feel that I learn a great deal and it was difficult to have any emotional reaction to a place like that when it was so packed with tourists taking smiling selfies. One of my favourite days in Dakar was spent visiting the tiny N’gor Island, although only a 5 minute journey by pirogue it felt worlds away, the water is beautifully clear and perfect for swimming. We had a fantastic lunch of fresh fish and calamari, eaten at plastic tables plonked in the sand, while the waves swirled around our feet.

Goree Island

In Dakar we were once again reunited with Chi, he had also found himself a room through Airbnb with Todd, an American climate change scientist who had been living in Dakar for around 2 and half years. One Friday night we were invited to watch Todd and the Senegalese band he plays with perform at a bar in Greater Yoff. I had not known what to expect but it turned out to be the best possible introduction to the Senegalese music scene. The band Todd plays with, Leer Gui (meaning ‘the light’) are all extremely talented musicians and some of the kindest and most welcoming people you could hope to meet. The band comprises Aminata, who sings, Ken, who plays the guitar and Babacar, who plays the cajon (a kind of box shaped drum). Todd plays the Madolin. We arrived at the bar far too early, as we later discovered nothing really gets going in Senegal until after midnight. The band started out playing beautiful, melancholic songs. From around 11pm the bar began to fill, dramatic entrances were made by women in traditional African dresses, chunky gold jewellery  and towering stiletto heels. The younger women, in their early 20’s, went for a more casual look  of tight jeans and low cut vests. The pace of the music picked up and by 1am nearly everyone was dancing. The dancing was riotous and completely uninhibited. One song, which was clearly a favourite amongst everyone in the bar, prompted someone to grab a chair and pull it onto the dance floor and twerk around it (I decided to sit that one out). It was strange  after spending so many weeks in Morrocco and Mauritania where the role and expectations of women are so different to see women being loud and overtly sexual. Although 94% of people in Senegal are muslim, is a relaxed approach to religion that prevails, perhaps due to the influences of Sufism.  

Lady selling baskets, N’gor Island

Leer Gui invited us to their gig the following evening at a fancy restaurant in downtown Dakar. The night before we had been the only white people in the bar, now the situation was reversed. Before this audience the music was paired back and quieter and I felt it was missing some of the vitalility it had before. The beat of the cajon drum which had been the persistent driving force behind the songs was muted. We ordered an extremely expensive beer and perused the menu.  Mafe,  a rich peanut stew made with meat or fish is available on every other street corner in Dakar for around 500 CFA (65p), here it cost 6000 CFA (£8). When it came the food, like the atmosphere was bland. It lacked the punch of the dishes served for a fraction of the price local restaurants. It confirmed something about travelling I have often thought; paying more does not get you better food or better music or a better experience, it just gets you a watered down, blander version, nicely packaged and made more palatable for tourists. 

Aminata invited us all to dinner at hers the following day. She lives with her partner Ken, who is the guitarist in Leer Gui. Todd, Chi, Leon and I gathered inside their small two room apartment, the first room served as a living room, dining room and bedroom, with a mattress on the floor, a TV and two plastic chairs. The second room was a little bigger than a cupboard, with just enough room for a fridge and a propane stove used for cooking. The toilet was outside.  Aminata told me accommodation is very expensive in Dakar; they are very luckily as the landlord is a friend of her sister. 

After several glasses of red wine and a delicious dinner of fried fish and salad which we ate from a shared plate, Aminata and Ken told us the story of Leer Gui. They both come from Thies, a city around 70km outside of Dakar. Originally they had been part of a much larger band. Aminata told us she left home when she was 16 to join the band and they had travelled to Cassamance, a province of Senegal in the South of the country. At that time Cassamance was very dangerous, the people were fighting for independence from the rest of Senegal, often they would be playing for bandits, fights would break out during their gigs and it was not uncommon for people to be killed. They decided to leave and travel to The Gambia. It was a very hard time, the musicians split into two separate bands but they pooled all of their resources. If one band played they would share the money with the rest. Often weeks would go by during which they could only afford to eat a single meal of bread and ground nut oil each day. They would play at different hotels. Sometimes they would play on the ferry which goes between Dakar and Ziguinchor (a city near the border of Gambia). One day they had been due to take the ferry, but arrived late. On that day the ferry sank, more than 1800 people were estimated to be onboard and only 64 survived (the death toll was higher than the Titanic). Everyone knew that their band played on the boat and so many of their friend’s believed they had drowned. This was in a time before mobile phones and so it was months before some people heard they were OK. Eventually they landed a gig at the Sheridan, the hotel liked them because they were professional, they turned up on time and did not try to hassle the guests. It was comparatively well paid but they could not pay their own music, instead they played covers of Bob Marley and Lionel Richie. They wanted to play their own music and so after 11 years in The Gambia they decided to return home to Senegal. Aminata told us that it is much harder trying to play their own music, but that they are happy. Being a musician is her and Ken’s full time job, they play on average 2-4 gigs each week but it is difficult to make a name for yourself in Senegal without money. Youssou N’Dour is still extremely influential, he has artists who he promotes and they will do well. He has a club and TV channel. If you have money you can slip someone something so you can appear on TV or play in his club, but if you don’t have the money, you just have to try your best and wait to be invited. For now, this is all that Leer Gui can do.

From left to right, Chi, Leon, Ken, Aminata, Ruth

We marked final night in Dakar with a farewell meal at Todd’s, with Ken and Aminata. Our friend Chi cooked a delicious feast of Chinese food; roast chicken and 3 different stir fry’s of pork, beef and prawns. I made bannoffie pie (a traditional English pudding made with Bananas, toffee and cream). We ate in Todd’s garden under a giant mango tree and afterwards Ken, Aminata and Todd played music and sang (I joined in with the occasional Bob Marley song). I felt very sad to leave the following morning, reflecting that it had taken me months, if not years, to feel as at home in London as I felt in Dakar in a matter of days. 

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