The Dark Continent Gets Darker: Dakar & Noflaye, Senegal

Cow hides on their way to market in Dakar

April 30, 2019, Dakar, Senegal — I knew nothing about the Republic of Senegal except my friend Holly had been here on an African drumming program several years ago and, though I’d seen photos of her with drums and drummers, we never talked about Senegal, per se.

Our Shore Excursions manager called the four-hour tour I picked ‘the most authentic look at local life.’ In South Africa, I had been to two native villages, one Zulu and the other Xhosa. They were both ‘show’ villages constructed to give visitors a look at the native culture of a particular tribe. My Senegalese ‘Village Visit with Folklore Performance’ tour took me to the real thing, an ‘authentic look at local life,’ which looked like this:

But there was much to see before we arrived at the Wolof tribal village of Noflaye, an hour and a half inland from Dakar.

Getting off the ship, the pier was jammed with vendors. We were warned they would be very assertive. I didn’t shop... I shot.

Leaving downtown across a bridge... there was a Jersey barrier between the cars and the pedestrians, but no sidewalk. You’ll note the billboards are in French, the official language. The lingua franca is that of the Wolof tribe, who make up 41% of the country’s 15 million population.

Out on the highway, cheek by jowl with trucks. It was on this stretch — still in the city — I saw my first horse-drawn cart. First of many that day. Didn’t see many private cars once we left the city proper. I wish I’d had my camera ready: Along the highway we passed a bright blue and white boxy little cement building with this word hand painted in blue on a white wall: Morgue.

Passepartout, have you learned nothing since you set foot on African soil 24 days ago?

Mauritius. Madagascar. Mozambique. Namibia. Senegal. This is Africa. Though it still has troubles, South Africa is not this Africa. As our Cruise Director said, ‘This is Senegal… not Epcot.’

History in a nutshell — You know this already: The Portuguese found it in the 15th century (the so-called Age of Discovery), and colonized it in the early 16th. Then came the Dutch. Then the Brits, all competing for trade. France arrived and established the city (and first capital) Saint-Louis in 1659. In 1677 they ‘relieved’ the Dutch of the busy slave trading center of Gorée Island, in the bay at present-day Dakar.

In 1619 the first African slaves were sold into the U.S., and Senegal became one of the major slave trading ports (along with Sierra Leone). This went on from the 16th to the mid-19th century. Spain and Portugal had first sent slaves to the New World. Between 1300 and 1900, one third of the population of Senegal was enslaved; usually they were war captives. By the time the U.S., Britain and France abolished slavery, some 12 million black Africans had been shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean. One out of 12 died en route. Another 12 million, including captives from tribal wars, were enslaved by Africans and used as forced labor, or sold to other Africans.

Several thousand slaves passed through Gorée Island, leaving Africa forever through the ‘Door of No Return’ in the slave market building known as the ‘Maison des Esclaves.’ When France abolished slavery in 1850, they expanded from the coast into the interior. Eventually, they turned most of this gigantic Cape Verde peninsula into French West Africa.

In 1902 the capital was moved from Saint-Louis to Dakar, which had been founded in 1887. I’m told Dakar has an impressive City Hall surrounded by beautiful green gardens. I did not see either. I did not see any greenery in the city except sad trees and the potted plants for sale along the highway — evidence that someone somewhere has something green to look at. There is a Corniche, the ocean road cut into a cliff around Cape Manuel, which I did not see either.

Road shots as we continued towards the Wolof village. This seems to be where they sell ‘detached pieces.’ Spare parts? Scrap metal?

Stairway to nowhere. I should confess, because you may have noticed by now: I had a self-induced camera malfunction that caused my shots from the bus to be blurry. In Senegal’s official language: Merde.

There is DIY wall and house building going on everywhere. In towns. In vacant lots miles from anyplace. Frankly, many don’t look very stable.

Cattle and goats free range along the roadside.

Local transport. Wait at the ‘Arrêt Mini-Bus’ sign.

One of our lecturers, a political science professor and analyst (‘political science: how people act when they seek power’), calls Senegal ‘a country with elements of hope.’

The climate is tough: 3 months of rain, 9 of sun. Coastal temperatures aren’t too bad, but it can reach 50C inland — 122F. While there are rainforests and jungle across the middle of West Africa, this part is semiarid and ‘Sahelian’ — between the Sahara and the South Sudanese savanna.

Our Senegalese guide, Mayssa, born and raised in Dakar, told us that fishing (seafood) and tourism are the major industries. My other source, Wiki, lists mining, cement, artificial fertilizer, chemicals, textiles, petroleum — and tourism. They export cotton, peanuts, cashews, salt, phosphates, iron, zircon — and oil, discovered offshore. Unemployment is either 9.5% or 30%, depending on your source.

Mayssa proudly told us that his country — independent from France since 1960 — has never experienced a coup d’état. In post-colonial Africa, this is a miracle. Their form of government is a unitary semi-presidential republic. The 17 ethnic groups are able to live in what Mayssa called ‘peace and harmony.’ E.g., Muslims and Christians are buried in the same cemetery.

He also said, ‘Africa is not poor — it has a leadership crisis.’ Next-door, the formerly British and currently stable country named The Gambia has had the same leader for 22 years.

One lecturer had showed us a poster: ‘Africa is not poor. Africa is being looted.’ The continent as a whole is filthy rich with diamonds and minerals — commodities that the rest of the world wants, and will invest in infrastructure to get. E.g., Chinese highways and bridges.

I did not see this but I’m showing you the bronze Monument of the African Renaissance, on a hill above Dakar…

It was constructed in 2010 to commemorate 50 years of independence from France. The tallest statue in Africa (164 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty), it was designed by a Senegalese but constructed by North Korea — which is why the faces on the figures are more Asian than African. At a cost of… wait for it… $27 million dollars.

Several times, Mayssa stressed the importance of education, which is free up to age 16. Six years of what we call elementary school are followed by 6 years of high school. If the graduate passes a test, he or she may enter (and pay for) university for another 5-7 years, depending on the course of study, then get a PhD.

That sounds good. But in this country of 15 million people, let’s talk about literacy. UNESCO states that Senegal’s literacy rates are: Youth (15-24 years old) 69.5%, Adults (15+) 51.9% and Elderly (65+) 21.5%. The list of UN member states calculates it as 55.7% overall, when you combine Males at 68.5% with Females at 43.8%. When I asked our otherwise excellent tour guide, ‘What is the literacy rate?,’ he had told me 70%. I deduce that is not representative of the entire population — only the young males.

This is a high school complex closer to our destination village. If a village has no school — as is the case with Noflaye — students walk miles each way to get to one in another village.​

​While private schools are available for those who can afford it, a public school classroom has one teacher — and up to 80 students. How many more schools could have been built, how many more teachers could have been hired for the $27,000,000 spent on that commemorative African Renaissance monument? If they want a renaissance — a rebirth — they should consider that.

Our ship TV has a movie that I will rent from Amazon Prime and finish at home. Based on a true story, it’s called The First Grader: After the Kenyan government makes free education the law, an 84-year-old man (who had taken part in the Mau Mau Uprising) shows up at the local primary school because… he wants to learn to read. Of course the school doesn’t make it easy for him. I think you’ll like it.

The per capita income in 2018 was $1,485, and life expectancy is 57.5 years. Around 26% of women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (a subject that has not been mentioned, or asked, elsewhere on this trip; I came across it on Wiki).

Back to my excursion: My Viking excursion bible told me I would ‘travel by motor coach into the grasslands of the Senegalese countryside.’ I know this is their dry season (nine months long) but I didn’t even see dry grass.

Shopping. There are miles of market stalls selling everything from vegetables to construction hard hats. ​

And perfume... ​

​And insurance... all sorts. ​

There is litter everywhere. Remember how clean the Namibian township was — not a plastic bag or a scrap of anything. Change is happening elsewhere: The Gambia, next door, has banned plastic bags.

But where Namibia was at least clean, they are the world’s 7th-worst country for HIV. Senegal has a very low HIV rate (recently reduced from 1% to 0.48%) and malaria is controlled by the availability of inexpensive mosquito netting. The only country on my itinerary that my Travel Clinic infectious disease doctor was concerned about for malaria was… Senegal. I have been taking my pills — and I haven’t seen a mosquito since I saw one a few months ago. But a friend told me she had been 4 hours outside Dakar in a seaside location, and mosquitos swarmed around her ankles.

As we neared the village, we passed by Lac Rose.

Lac Rose is saltier than the ocean. This is what’s left of accommodations along the Lac. ​Or maybe they haven’t been finished. There is so much un-finished construction here. ​Salt farmers (if that’s what they’re called) smear their bodies with animal fat and, with shovel in hand, jump from their boats into the shallow water. They scoop up a shovelful of salt off the bottom of the lake, and dump it into buckets in the boat. Repeat until full. When the boat gets to shore, a woman puts a full bucket of salt on her head, is counted by a counter, since she’s paid by the bucket, and dumps the salt onto the pile that belongs to the man she and the shoveler are working for.

Entering the destination village....

Where we were greeted by the chief. This is a hereditary title — his father had been chief before him.​

Disputes among individuals are disputed and resolved under this tree. They call it their Police Station. I don’t know what kind of tree this is, but I can tell you that Senegal boasts baobob trees that are 1,000 years old.

It was laundry day... you will learn in a minute what this entails.

​Charging her cell phone? By solar? The village got electricity one year ago. ​

​ The houses and huts are so small, storage is often on the roof.

In 2005, a Frenchman funded digging a well. It was dug by hand. Villagers pull up water by the bucket and carry the bucket to pots (no doubt on their heads) situated around the village. ​And must draw and carry enough water from the well to do their laundry. As Sue found out, the bucket goes a long way down and it is heavy coming up.

​Using a plastic cup to get a drink of water from one of the pots. ​​​

One family’s cooking hut. ​​

​The chief, smoking tobacco in a tiny pipe...​

For sale in the crafts hut... we were warned on the ship not to buy anything made of horn — like large display horns, horn bracelets, etc. If found, U.S. Customs would not only confiscate the item, but levy a very hefty fine — $1,000 - $5,000.

Islam was introduced in the 7th century, and today Senegal is 90% Muslim. Which always brings up polygamy: a man can have as many as 4 wives, paying from $2,000 to $5,000 each. Out in the country, ‘4 big cows’ would seal the deal, according to Mayssa, who has only one wife and is not looking for more. While I did see some women with their heads covered with vibrant patterned or colored turbans, I did not see many head scarfs in the city, and the veil is not worn here.​

On to the Folklore Performance: ​Several drummers drummed enthusiastically and many women danced just as enthusiastically. The more accurate verb would be, they twerked. It seemed to be an elimination dance: One woman would wiggle for a while, then another would push her out of the ring and take over. They invited the Viking women to join them. I don’t twerk... don’t ask me... merci beaucoup.

The finale was the ceremonial ‘Simb: Moulaye Lion Dance.’ He was quite ferocious and extremely athletic and every bit as good as the versions you can watch on youtube. He kicked up a storm... literally. Note the phones...

On the long, dusty trek back to the ship... Fruit and vegetable vendors abound. Home gardens can produce turnips, carrots, cabbage, corn, onions. Cashew and mango trees are abundant. Commercial agriculture produces sugarcane, green beans, tomatoes and melons. ​

This was, by far, the most attractive home I saw all day...​

​… then back through the lawless gridlock of Dakar to the port. Lawless because there are traffic laws — but no one obeys them. ​I saw a man selling men’s underwear to passing drivers. The young man on the sidewalk here is selling cashews and peanuts. Other vendors take their lives in their hands walking on the highway between the jammed-in lines of cars. Fortunately (for them) the traffic is so congested, it doesn’t move very fast.

​Though the land is parched and the trees all look thirsty, people do buy plants for their homes or balconies. The highway is lined with one long narrow garden center...​

​As you might imagine, I was happy to get back to the ship. But, as Heather asked a theatre full of people a few weeks ago:

‘Isn’t this why we travel?’

Yes, it is.

As Viking had done in Madagascar and Mozambique, that morning another collection of more than 50 packages went off the ship to a local charity. These were clothes, shoes, and toiletries donated by our crew. The reason they are displayed this way: At every stop, port authorities come on board for a formal welcome for the ship. Plaques are exchanged: the city gets a Sun plaque, and the Sun gets a city plaque.

Next stop: The Canary Islands. Located off the southern coast of Morocco, it is Europe — because it belongs to Spain. #

©2018, 2019 Susan Nash/PassePartout
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