Touch of West Africa: Dakar, Senegal

December, 2008

Dakar, Senegal is an 8-hour flight from Atlanta on Delta.  It’s a world away.  I can’t be sure I knew what to expect.  What I do know is that dragging heavy luggage full of promotional materials and making my way out of the airport in the gray hour before dawn was an ordeal.  I was hassled and hustled at every turn, and even securing a cart implicated that I provide a tip.  I am hard-pressed to believe that anyone was ill-intentioned.  It was just unnerving at the time to have taxi drivers touch you, speak quickly in French, and pull your sleeve in hopes of securing a customer.

I was concerned this was going to turn out to be like my visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where my arranged pick-up never showed and I took a taxi.  However, East Africa is an entirely different story.  Due to my unusual look, I often get mistaken for Ethiopian.  Plus, there is a large Indian diaspora in East Africa, so I am usually considered local until I talk for more than 10 minutes. Even then, neither my identity as a foreigner nor my nationality is obvious because I have a soft accent, which I attribute to considerable time spent in both in India and London.  Here, I was a little frightened.

Eventually, I got packed into a car sent by the conference organizers.  Despite having a pre-paid reservation, Hôtel des Almadies was overbooked and I was told to wait.  And wait I did – for almost half the day.  The receptionists were mean and indifferent.  What I and my colleague of East African origin found most shocking was that the staff would turn around and be sweet as sugar to the white patrons.  What a strange turn on racism and postcolonialism.

Almadies is the former Club Med and a hotel in decline.  One could see vestiges of former grandeur – a grand, spacious lobby that crossed a wide length, winding stone walkways, and an enormous breakfast and dinner veranda.  Beyond the veranda were green spaces for tennis, croquet, and walking, and a bar with outdoor seating around a pool with a fountain at its centre.  The ocean glimmered like a horizon.  And yet, the hotel resembled a ghost town.  While walking on the beach with my colleague, we saw boats and kayaks in disrepair and disuse.  We were alone.  I could see the place as it may have been before, filled with couples and children cavorting on the sands.

Prior to leaving Atlanta on December 1, 2008, I saw a rare astronomical configuration at its peak – the convergence of Venus, Jupiter, and a thin crescent moon.  The phenomenon, known as a planetary conjunction, persisted over the next few days.  Every time I walked out of the veranda towards the pool area at nighttime, I’d look up and see the stars growing further and further apart, the moon brightening.

I had the fortune to see some of the city of Dakar on my final day.  The moment we left the conference/UN/5-star area, the atmosphere changed.  The previous evening, we had met a lovely woman in the lobby, a hair stylist who worked at the hotel.  The next day, when my colleague and I were negotiating fares with cabbies to go into town, the same lady saw us and picked us up.  She took us back to her flat, introduced us to her children, and called up her own driver on a Sunday to see if he would escort us to the marketplace, Sandaga, and then to Gorée Island. We were overcome by her generosity.

We bargained and bought at Sandaga.  I purchased a tiger eye necklace.  Everywhere we went, people were delighted that I was American in light of Obama’s recent election.  At a textile shop, one of the tailors wanted to shake my hand once I told him I had shook Obama’s hand.  It had been a while since it’s been cool to be American abroad (which in addition to not wanting to be perceived as a tourist, was a reason I’d purposely conflate my identity abroad, often presenting myself as Indian first, except at airport Immigration).  We ate shawarmas and conversed in French.

After that we went to Gorée Island by ferry.  Dakar, like Tangiers, is a shipping town with containers and barges filling the coastal waters.  Coming up on the island was a creepy experience, reminding me eerily of Alcatraz in San Francisco.  However, there were no sharks.  There was actually an annual swimming competition around the island.

I am from the U.S. South.  I have seen the plantations in Savannah and Charleston, palatial residences with Roman pillars, antebellum houses and shades of slavery and cotton production in both my hometowns:  Jonesboro and McDonough.   I have seen old slave quarters.  I have read narratives of the depths to which we dived in pursuit of economic dominance.  It was valuable and moving to see the other side where it all started – where the British, French, and Portuguese operated the slave trade.

We walked around the island and saw the World War II British cannon at the top and the private girls’ boarding school.  I bought a sand painting.  Then we descended and explored the inhumane slave houses and the door that led directly out to the ships – the point of no return.  Elite West Africans were also involved in the trade.  How could one human being do this to another?  How could you do it your own?  Maybe the answer is either that or let it happen to you and your family.  In a situation like that, I’d like to think I’d fight to the last, but who knows what one would really do?  Fear perpetuates hate.  Pockets of resistance and savior stories are too few and far between.  Intervention always comes too late.  None of it is excusable.

The emotional weight of all I’d seen hit on the short journey back to the mainland.  I didn’t speak for a while.  That night, at the airport, my travels of the fall finally caught up to me.  I had been going almost non-stop to Africa and Europe since that June.  I had a connection to Boston through Atlanta, but I canceled it at the airport.  I was about to collapse, my face bitten all over by mosquitoes, when I exited the terminal in Atlanta, but spent a wonderful next week at home.  Of course, my short time in Dakar was just my first experience with West Africa (besides Morocco).  Each country, like Europe, is totally different from each other.  Next I’d like to visit Mali, Ghana, Nigeria . . . .

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