Sunday along the Plateau in downtown Dakar is relaxed and quiet. The hustle of weekly traffic, shouting street vendors and vocal taxi drivers has faded into a sweet silence. Everyone has migrated to the beaches and outlying islands seeking sunny bathing spots and hearty weekend lunches under beach umbrellas. It’s a perfect time to venture out along the dusty Avenue Pasteur, walking towards the disused site of Senegal’s Supreme Court, the Palais de Justice. What was once left in decay and dilapidation has been transformed into a major contemporary art exhibition space as part of the Dak’Art Biennale, a festival of multi-disciplinary arts held every two years, with venues scattered across the city and the country. Tonight, an abandoned train station will come alive with EletraAfrique beats by DJ Cortega and multi-disciplinary artist Ibaaku as glow-in-the-dark rollerbladers scurry between fashion designers and the dancing throngs into the dawn. But before I can dance it up I have a date with Instagrammer Christian Hounsounou to stalk the shorelines of Plage de Yoff. “I try to go down to the beach every day to take photographs,” he says as waves crash, soaking us.
We dodge the soccer games played between disused tyres that demarcate the fields of play. From the city hubs all the way down to smaller villages the Senegalese take fitness very seriously. Older men and women in jogging tracksuits labour up and down the shoreline. The young and hip wear gold and red Beats by Dre headphones, doing numerous push-ups and complicated Crossfit-styled aerobics in unison, with the odd smattering of Jujitsu enthusiasts air-kicking between the running masses.
“Our social media community is growing fast, showing off talent and passion for the visual arts around Dakar,” Chris remarks as the sun dips behind buildings at varying stages of construction along the skyline. “You just need to get out and explore. Don’t hold back, what have you got to be embarrassed about? There is constant inspiration all around you, you don’t need to be spoon-fed.”
An amount of 3 000 CFA francs gets me a taxi from one side of Dakar to the other. These yellow and black bumblebees, seen all over the city, jostle for space in the traffic with the larger, more colourful, car rapides another mode of transport complete with slogans, portraits of holy men dangling from windshields and people hanging from the back doors shouting for customers.
Along the pavement you hear the ‘click-clack’ of a pair of scissors being knocked against a piece of metal in the hands of a toenail cutter, while his partner, the shoe shiner, follows at a close distance as they search for customers. I make my way into HLM, the largest textile market in the city, following close on the heels of my guide Madame Patricia. The floor is covered in glitter, fallen from bolts of shiny fabric that’s piled up to the ceiling in every direction. “We dress up to go somewhere, even if we are going nowhere,” she shouts over her shoulder. “We Senegalese are anything but unimaginative, and why should we not be? Look at all the flavours and colours we have to work with!” She’s very much on point, even if she’s just referring to textiles.
This is a globally interconnected West African city, a hub for travel in Africa and beyond. You can dine in the stylish, hip ambience with the jetsetters at Alkimia or among a sea of plastic tables and chairs scattered along La Pointe des Almadies, with plates of Poulet Yassa and Thiof fish masterfully served up from a myriad of fire-lit grills. It is elegant, cosmopolitan and bustling madness all contained within a few blocks.
A journey south
Dakar days are filled with surf and sunshine, the weather in May is a light mix of sweaty heat at the height of the afternoon and pleasant cool breezes in the evening. Travelling here a few years ago, I didn’t get the chance to do much exploring beyond the city limits, but the more I talk to new and old friends, I realise I have a great opportunity to head south, to an area I’ve never been before. The journey is simple enough, 16 hours on-board the Cosama Ferry from Dakar to the Casamance capital of Ziguinchor.
The ship weaves its way through lush mangrove-lined rivers peppered with flamingos and the odd river dolphin surfing the bow. The majority of the passengers are locals heading back to start the rice-farming season and a small group of foreigners. The Casamance is a small slither of Senegal lodged between The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, home of the Jola people, and an area prized for its natural beauty and pristine white beaches. Despite 33 years of separatist rebellion in the area, tourists have slowly been returning since the signing of a peace agreement in 2012. This is a good thing as there’s a high level of unemployment among the youth. I make my base the homely La Torutue Bleue guesthouse, on the shore of Cap Skirring, a little beach town along the Atlantic coast that’s popular with tourists.
It’s easy to fill five days with adventure; pirogueing up rivers, visiting fishermen’s islands to watch boats being hand carved and discovering a village of fetishes amidst a lagoon festooned with birdlife. You can walk along desolate beaches towards the border with Guinea-Bissau and swim in the sea under the watchful eye of a heard of Zebu. One evening I flag down a taxi on the way into town. As I get in the pleasantries start up immediately. “Hey man where you from?” the taxi driver grins at me in the rearview mirror.
“South Africa,” I reply.
“Wow, South Africa, no kidding! I used to work there. I ran a small shop in Kroonstad!”
The great story of human migration plays out in our little taxi as the driver reminisces about his time in my home country. “Goeienaand Julle, hoe lyk it,” he cheers out the window as I head into the street.
In Wolof, the language spoken by most Senegalese alongside French, “lassperou” means “to relax.” I dig my feet into the sand watching couples cling to each other as they bob in the ocean shallows, the smells of grilled chicken and shisha pipes fill the air, and Akon’s blasting from nearby speakers. Senegal is a vibrant destination that’s said to experience 3 000 hours of sunlight a year. West Africa, and Senegal in particular, is not always on tourist’s radars, especially when it comes to those of us from south of the equator. Don’t you think it’s time to expand our horizons? Do we need to look beyond African shores for tourism inspiration when it’s right on our doorstep? Senegal is just waiting to be explored, so when are you booking your flight?
This is an edited version of the article which appears in the September 2016 issue of Sawubona magazine, download here, for free.
All images courtesy the writer, follow Linda Markinova @moving_sushi