The African Adventure in a Nutshell

When I told my folks I’m going to Senegal, nobody knew exactly where it is, and I assume it’s not very commonly known, so here’s a factsheet. Senegal lies in the westernmost part of Africa. This former French colony has been an independent republic since 1960. Around 14 million people live in Senegal, 5 million in the capital Dakar alone. The official language is French, most people also speak Wolof and I don’t speak either.

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I went there just after new year’s. There’s no winter in Europe this year so it wasn’t much of a climate shock, but it was a cultural one. It’s amazing how you can arrive at an airport and spend an hour sorting out formalities, getting your passport checked on every step, and move through biometrical visa chaos at an iceberg pace, and still wait for your luggage to come through for almost an additional hour. Now that’s efficiency.

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I joined a Slovenian NGO working on a case and we spent our first week on the road, documenting the issues. That’s the part I’ll talk about later, because the material is still being processed. But after a week, when everybody disappeared – Slovenians went home, locals went on a holiday – and nothing could be arranged in a week that I had left, I decided to explore Dakar.

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Being an artist, photographer, writer, whatever, I went to see the Artists village. That was awesome. It’s a compound of artist studios and apartments where these artists actually live and work and the entire place is full of sculptures and paintings. It was peaceful and quiet (a huge contrast to the rest of the city) and I could enter every artist studio to see the painters and sculptors at work. Now, I’m not much of a fan of modern art and paintings, but this was something else. I was totally amazed.

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It was my first day of dealing with taxi drivers who are heavily trained in screwing you over for a fare. I was told that as a foreigner you never win. It’s impossible. The system is failsafe. And they had the upper hand because I don’t speak French, but I do know my numbers and I have a good taximeter in my head to estimate the fare according to distance.

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I never use a taxi anywhere, but here they are cheap, they are plenty and they’re easy to comprehend. Other public transport services are as chaotic as the entire Senegalese bureaucracy. You got your two kinds of regular buses, mini buses, bush taxis etc. To avoid the headache if you don’t have a week to study the other services just use that black-yellow wreck of a car. They’re everywhere, driving up and down, sometimes three in a row, but most of the time every other car is a taxi. They’re in awful condition and would never pass technical in Europe (you open the door and it almost falls off etc.), but it beats running after a bus and jumping onto a ledge on the back.

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So I negotiated a price and visited the most western point in Africa. The Point des Almadies. It was lunchtime when I got there and there are plenty of tourist restaurants by the sea there. Searching for the most western rock on the most western point of the African continent, I met Alex. He’s British and that was really cool in many ways: Language wise, finally someone spoke English. And it was proper English. And I was finally forced to speak the way I was taught. But he’s also a really cool guy and we ended up going for lunch, finding that westernmost rocks and then sat down for a drink and chat until the sun went down.

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The next day, I went to downtown Dakar. I’m sure it would be nice if it weren’t for all the swindlers everywhere. But all I needed was to get my Senegalese phone number sorted out and send a couple of postcards. It’s difficult to describe the mess in the city, because there’s nothing to compare it to here. It’s just sand on the road, sidewalks destroyed or none, dust everywhere, plastic and other garbage by the side of the road… And then I find the post office. I walk through the door that was peeling paint and was covered with torn-off labels and posters, the remains of the glue covering the door window. Inside, there was only one room and a counter with several officials, separated from the rest of the room by glass that was also full of poster and sticker remains, while the floor was littered with bits of paper etc. The mailbox was supposed to be outside. I was only half expecting a box of some sort, the kind we have here, so it wasn’t really that much of a surprise when I saw three holes in the post office wall. Above it, the half visible sign read mailbox. So that’s where my postcards went. None have arrived yet. It dawned on me later why they only use holes in the wall. Because if it were a box, it would probably get stolen. :)
I was fairly close to the center point of downtown Dakar – the Independence Square; so I walked a little further to see that supposedly nice and pretty square. Well, by African standards all right, I get it, it’s nice, but like most stuff there it needs renovation. Easier said than done, when money is scarce. I did take a picture of the square. One or two. I didn’t take many pictures in Dakar itself, because people in Senegal are quite sensitive about that. It’s not like where everybody has a camera and is taking pictures everywhere. Nobody has a camera here, nobody is taking pictures, and since people here are money driven, they probably believe every picture I take is worth thousands. I’m not exactly sure why would they be so against taking pictures otherwise.

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Anyway, there was no incident with someone running up to me after taking a wide angle picture of the square and yelling at me for taking pictures of him a hundred meters away, but as I walked back across the street, I was approached by a man saying he was a police officer. In plain clothes. I didn’t believe him of course, the square is the capitol of swindlers. Before I reached the other side of the street, there was another guy with him, also claiming to be a police officer. So I did stop and ask them for credentials. One of them showed me his ID. Fake, I thought. It was badly printed, no badge. So I took a few steps further to the security guy of a bank nearby who was already coming towards us, and I simply asked him: “Are they real?” As it turned out they were. Random check I guess. But they were pretty cool about it, they spoke English, told me it was right for me not to believe them at first. So they checked my visa, passport and of course the photos I took (didn’t need to delete any of them), and off I went. Random or not, it’s not very common. I shaved that day. After four days (my beard is in hyper growth). I figured the beard made me suspicious. :)

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I also needed to relax a bit so I took a stroll down to the beach (my hotel was in Yoff, a part of the city where there’s a nice beach). The entire long stretch of sandy beach was packed with joggers and locals playing soccer. In fact, so many of them were playing soccer that they had to share goals. What a fitness nation. Every larger area of empty space in the city is used for fitness, push ups, soccer, anything. The next day I decided to see the infamous statue of African Renaissance. The Senegalese don’t like it. Not only because the North Koreans built it and it shows, but also because it’s insulting. It represents a man, dragging a woman behind him and carrying a kid on his arm, all pointing at the horizon. The first thing the Senegalese noticed was that the woman’s skirt is too short. They’re Muslim, what were you thinking?

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The first thing I noticed was a separate ticket price for foreigners to see the inside of the statue. Higher of course. Supposedly by some measurements it’s the tallest statue in the world, but definitely the tallest in Africa, built in 2010, and it has 13 floors. The 13th floor is the hat of a man, a circular space with windows that offer an amazing view of Dakar and the bloated face of the woman he’s dragging. I admit I didn’t really see it with such critical eye. I kind of liked it for its uniqueness. And it was probably the only undamaged and clean place of all the sites. It also hosts a gallery of African art and a presidential reception room. And it’s air-conditioned! :)

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From there I had this very smart idea to see the Dakar Zoo. Even though I’ve read reviews online and they were … well, let’s just say that the most frequently used word was ‘depressing’. Needless to say that infrastructure was similar to deserted, dilapidated parks, but hey, I was used to it by then. The zoo however, was really an experience. I don’t think you can say the animals had compounds. They had cages. By far too small for them. Again very dirty and smelly (lions were feasting on some big animal), but ok, it’s a zoo. I just couldn’t get over how small the cages were. And how the visitors treated the animals. Yelling at them, teasing them, throwing them stuff, until the chimps freaked out and started throwing empty plastic bottles back at them. It was just light-years away from all the zoo standards.

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I took a stroll through the forest (the zoo is actually a part of the Forrest park). People were beginning to congregate on the forest path, jogging mostly. After a few minutes I got to a small lake, circled around a bit, then headed back when the bloodsuckers came out. Wednesday was time for the famous Pink Lake. It’s actually Lake Retba and that is the name more suitable for the lake that we saw, because it wasn’t pink. The timing wasn’t right.

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I went there with Alex and we immediately got a shadow when we arrived. Want it or not, you get a guide. He took us across the lake in a boat, not rowing, pushing. The lake is actually 3m deep. Its salinity can be more than that of the Dead Sea. 1,5m is water and the other 1,5m is salt, which is why it is used for collecting salt. So we slowly drifted across to a restaurant for a baobab juice and then walked over the dunes to the sea on the other side.

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The lake is actually separated from the Atlantic Ocean only by dunes. That was again awesome. The waves were high and currents strong, but the water was crystal clear and warm once you got past the ball freeze critical point, and the beach was golden sand and empty. We spent a lot of time there, first swimming, then drying, then strolling and collecting some pretty nice seashells, then we walked back over the dunes and took an unofficial taxi back to Dakar.

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My week was coming to an end. The only must-see place in Dakar I had left was Goree Island. That’s where the French kept the slaves in the 18th century. It was also a strategic point, a heavily armed fortress defending the city from the British. The island is full of canons that have all been destroyed after the wars. You need to take a ferry to get there. And it’s wise to have a guide on the island to show you around. There are plenty of them jumping you when you set foot on the island. But it’s even more important to have a guide in the House of slaves that is a museum now. You need someone to explain to you the rooms and happenings in the lower part of the house. That’s when the house really gets its value.

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After being almost kidnapped by the lovely women selling souvenirs, I headed back to the hotel and spent the next couple of days before leaving on the beach, watching kite surfing (and the washing of sheep and goats in the sea). It wasn’t my plan to be a tourist, but it just so happened.

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However, it’s not so easy to leave Senegal. Here’s how they check your passport. When you walk through the entrance of the airport. Before you get in line for check in. At check in. Two meters after check in (beats me why). Border control (passport, finger prints, photo). Before going through x-ray. At x-ray. Then at boarding. And then before getting onto a bus to take you to the plane. And it was quite an experience. Now it’s time to process the images from our first week to raise awareness of some really pressing issues in Senegal.