Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Chaotic Dakar

Due to lack of efficient internet here in Africa, I will no longer post pictures here on the blog. Instead, you can follow the link to my albums on Facebook. Click here for my gallery of pictures from Dakar.

An international group consisting of a young British traveller, a rich Chinese businessman, and a Senegalese good-doer named Samba were united by the word 'help'. It began with Samba feeling compelled to serve those who were lost in this huge, confusingly busy city called Dakar. I arrived at 9pm; bad organisation meant I didn't have the phone number of my Couchsurfing host at hand and it was impossible for me to find a cheap hotel. As for the rich Chinese businessman it was the exact opposite: he was looking for an expensive hotel and ways to spend his money. Samba solved both our problems in one, so after a walk along the broken pavements and a taxi ride through the city, we were all on our way to an Asian karaoke bar to celebrate. Beers for all were bought by one (another task solved) and songs were sang which were similar in cheesiness to Gangham Style.

The morning after, (well, afternoon I should truthfully say) I managed to compose myself enough to organise meeting my CS host when he finished work. Guibril was previously a professional basketball player with a three year stint in Qatar, before quitting due to a potentially expensive injury. Most of his family now lived in the USA after obtaining Green Cards, but he had a few more years left to wait for his. From the beginning we got along very well; Guibril was a humorous and intelligent man with passionate opinions on the social and political issues in Senegal and all of Africa. Each afternoon he would begin the long process of preparing Senegalese tea and we would put the world to right in that very room.

My first day exploring the city began with a stint at the beach. Being the only white person there caused a huddle of sellers to be around me most of the time. I then took the overcrowded minibus to the market in the centre where just looking at something means you're buying it. I wanted to window shop but there's no such thing in Dakar! After too much attention I quickly learnt the skill of shopping whilst looking busy and in a rush to get somewhere.

Lucky for me, Guibril had time off work the next day so we went together to Goree Island. It has a hugely important history of being a checkpoint through which slaves were shipped from Africa to Europe and the Americas for over 500 years. The Cuban style architecture, the multi-coloured houses and boats, the gathering of artists selling their painting, jewellery and sculptures, the monuments designed in memory of hundreds of years of slavery, and the emotionally informative slavery house, all deservedly attract tourists from all over the world.
The slavery house is in almost original condition; the rooms which separated the men, women, and children, and the fit from the unfit, are all shockingly small, whilst the space used for punishment of rebellious Africans are just small enough to prevent even crouching. The "door of no return" looks out to nothing but the endless ocean and a terrifying future. Diagrams depict how slaves were fitted and shipped economically, where in the world they were shipped to and what they were used for. Drawings show the brutality used by the Europeans, the betrayal of Africans by friends or family members, as well as those courageous characters who finally stood up to the whites to save their race. Of course, everybody knows at least a little about the history of African slavery, but visiting Goree Island brought a reality and emotion to me that I otherwise wouldn't know. The special part is that now both blacks and whites and all other races now visit this place, together.

The African Renaissance Monument, taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York City according to the new President of Senegal, was another attraction I visited. A guess on my part would be that it's an exaggeration, or at least a loophole was used by including the hill and steps up to the statue. Either way, it was high enough to see the landscape of Dakar, as well as struggle to take a steady photo due to the strength of the wind.
Close to the bottom of the monument, a small group of women were gathered. They were part of a movement of women who had been abandoned by their husbands and now sold handmade, natural jewellery in order to support their children through school. One woman told me her husband left her with her four children to take an illegal boat to Europe, but died on the way. She angrily said that he did it for his own selfish reasons, and that she believes their men should stay in Senegal to work hard and build their own country where their families live. I bought some coconut shell earrings from her in my support for the cause!

Guibril and I took another day trip to the aptly named Lac Rose. Three bus rides blowing copious amounts of sand from the roads through the windows into our breathing faces made the journey a memorable one. We arrived at the lake, which, believe it or not, is pink in colour (the high salt content makes perfect living conditions for this pink algae). Here, salt is extracted by independent workers in small groups then sorted into numerous piles according to size and dried in the sun, before being sold to local industries and distributors. A walk around part of the lake was enough for us, as we particularly avoided the tourist trap of the beach filled with sellers selling at extortionate prices to the rich whites.

Street kids are everywhere in Dakar. They run around in small groups with ripped, dirty clothes, no shoes, and a small tin box with some possessions inside. They hold out their hand whilst reciting their poverty speech, hoping for some money from anybody kind enough that day. Some are more creative, singing their story loudly on buses just as everybody is reaching for their bus fare.
Where do they come from? I asked Guibril one day.
They come from small countryside villages, from families that are too poor to feed all their children. A man visits, saying he can take them to the capital city, give them more opportunity, teach them the Qaran. Upon reaching the city he sends them to the streets to beg for money, each must make 500CFA to take to him at the end of every day and in return they get a place to sleep, the only place they can belong to. There's no time to learn the Qaran because they've been outside begging all day. If they don't earn enough money, they stay on the street alone all night; risking beatings and rape. There are hundreds of these "religious" men all over Senegal taking young boys to larger towns to earn money for himself.

Guibril was a great host, reminding me the importance of using Couchsurfing every so often on my trip through Africa. He is worldly, open minded, enthusiastic to learn about other people and cultures, and very intelligent; teaching me a lot about Senegalese and African culture, history, and politics. He also hosted another CS guest during my stay; Savan; a 50-something year old Belgian man who had travelled the world since his youth, either learning or working along the way. His small amount of possessions totalling one small backpack made me re-think my material needs - I am throwing or giving away more and more every day!

Compared to my confusing and busy first day in Dakar, my time there turned out to be relaxing and an important stop towards learning more about Senegal's people, culture and society. Next stop?.... I didn't actually know....

Click here for my gallery of pictures from Dakar