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Dakar, Our Collective Conscience

December 14, 2010

Dakar is the capital of Senegal a former French colony a small country that sits at the rim of West Africa midway between Mediterranean North Africa and countries along the Gulf of Guinea.  A hodgepodge of African populations it offers a glimpse of sorts in the form of an introduction to the Continent.  Its heritage has two major influences:  Islam, which arrived in the 11th century, and French colonial rule, which ended in 1960.  The country is now more than 95% Muslim and its neglect ridden and dilapidated infrastructure reflects a French influence.  The official language a reminder of its colonial rule is French.  However, the predominant language spoken is Wolof.   It would be disingenuous to say that Senegal has a rich history. Certainly, a lot happened there and most of it was not good. Senegal unfortunately, carries the burden of infamy associated with slavery. Otherwise, a typical underdeveloped starving country that like most never really realized the dreams of its founders. 

Senegal seems like a country that just woke up from 50 year slumber. Purpose, vision and a direction are conspicuous by their absence.  Not exactly a hot bed of commercial activity.  Business activity if any seems a clandestine affair as if the Senegalese want to make sure their business and industrial secrets do not get stolen or copied.  The only business activity I witnessed most Senegalese involved with was either selling phone cards or peanuts on the street. I suppose mobility has its advantages and the lack of overhead literally.  Lebanese seem to have cornered the market for food and restaurant business like most of the African states I have visited.  Any semblance of a rush hour is not necessarily due to the number of cars on the street and more the result of narrow streets accommodating pedestrian and automobile traffic for a brief period in the morning.  The rest of the day seems to be a slow paced flow of people and machinery.  As, I drove to and back from work it made me wonder what most people did to make a living. I still don’t know then I reside to the fact some things are better left unknown.

Oh please don’t get me wrong the Senegalese are just as enterprising as everyone else except most it seems are inclined towards the art of swindling. I say this because as I left my hotel for the first time and stepped out of the building I noticed a row of men ranging from say age 15 to 35 all leaning against a wall. Never mind I thought for they maybe there for any number of reasons that did not include my visit to Dakar.  I was wrong for they were indeed lined up against the wall not to greet me or other fellow travelers but instead they stood in anticipation, ready to pounce and extract my Dollars through any number of schemes only they knew.   Just as soon as I started to walk the greeters at the wall matched my approach to them and met me right outside the walls of the hotel. The first question they threw at me was one that raises an immediate flag with a seasoned traveler like me. One such enterprising schlemiel approached me and reminded me of our long friendship that I was oblivious to. “Hello my frang”, he said and then launched into his awkward schpeil the long and short of which was that I was being hounded to buy something from the guy or his sponsor. No amount of No’s or excuses could shake or dampen his enthusiasm and I had to literally find a way to escape which I did as best I could. This, then became a daily ritual whenever I stepped out of the hotel for anything I felt a siege mentality coming over me in effect I was now trapped inside a hotel never to venture out after dark.  Don’t get me wrong day time did not offer much respite from this constant heckling and intimidation. As a matter of fact I was one of the people who added to the statistics of being nearly mugged by two upstanding swindlers. Fortunately, I was paying attention to the security briefing that described this particular routine along with other skills of deception and deceit being employed by the wandering youth of Dakar.

Most of the buildings are in a poor state of repairs including the beautiful French architecture left over from the French colonial times.  It seems the Senegalese Government seems too preoccupied with the business of not running a Government and has left precious historical landmarks and architecture to their own devices or better yet to enterprising thugs who make money from unwary tourists.  Worry not though because the Government’s neglect is some neglected youths opportunity. It seems some enterprising Senegalese have taken over many of the city’s monuments and places of interest and maintain it or allow access to it for a price. One weekend as I was walking about I came across a beautiful yet dilapidated old French building. Upon inquiry I was told it was the railway station. I was eager to enter and marvel at the architectural details. Instead, upon entering I found people sitting around in the main platform area with luggage all over the place.  I was under the impression that the building was a tourist spot to my utter surprise I discovered that the railway station the French left behind then and now served as Dakar’s main dysfunctional railway station.  I suppose the French in their haste to bolt like most colonialists forgot to leave behind the maintenance log and tools for repair.  

Dakar’s claim to fame is an Island situated about a 10 minute boat ride from mainland Dakar. Goree Island the sight or even the name sends shivers down the spine on a hot sultry day.  Needless, to say Goree Island has a tremendous history associated with it albeit shameful but nonetheless significant with ramifications felt to this day.  Goree Island was a holding pen for slaves and represented a last stop and a place of no return for slaves collected up the coast by the slave ships from many of the West African nations and then brought to Goree Island for the final journey towards the America’s.

The holding pen is a round sort of building that resembles more a dungeon than something fit for human habitation.  Men, Women and children bound and shackled were offloaded from collector ships and then committed to the dungeon in preparation for the last journey out of Africa. It’s a sorrowful place and a sorry sight that just upon sight brings tears to many a decent folks. I indeed witnessed people standing around grief stricken just at the sight.  It invokes a tremendous amount of anger, frustration and I suppose shame and yet at the same time courage and determination to say I would do all I can to make sure this never happens again.  I felt the same emotions when I visited Dachau, Germany.   It is also a place people and children of all ages from around the World should visit and experience.

One would then think that the Senegalese Government would make every effort to preserve this important landmark of human history let alone Senegalese history to remind ourselves of the dangers of human greed and its consequences and also to remain vigilant and never let this happen again.  Besides the issue of preservation for the sake of posterity Goree Island presents itself as a significant source of tourist revenue.  A truly win, win situation of preservation and profit.

However, such is not the case as the Island has fallen into decay due to years of neglect only to be made even more miserable because of squatters. You would find them everywhere on the island and they have conveniently taken over any structure that offers shelter even in the base of these huge canons that are conveniently used as homes for the weary Senegalese.  The buildings left over from the French colonial times have fallen into serious disrepair and present all sorts of challenges for the would be adventurer. If the muck on the floors does not get you then the building itself may by crumbling on or around you.  It is unfathomable to witness the utter nonchalance and neglect of the Senegalese authorities.

But then that is Senegal. The city of Dakar is an extension of the same disregard and decay. In some respects it reminded me of Karachi. While, I have seen Karachi’s descent into decay and neglect first hand and over the years I do not have any frame of reference to make comparisons in case of Dakar. However, in Dakar I also saw a city that was down on her knees and begging for mercy from the constant onslaught of neglect and abuse of the environment.

While, I saw a lot during my trip to Dakar and most if not all of it was kind of depressing. However, I hope that the people of Senegal find their path to peace and prosperity.  Senegal is not short on resources such as underground sweet water beds for agriculture, historical landmarks, and of course the people of Senegal.  Senegal presents numerous locations as potential tourist attractions.  Most significant amongst them historical landmarks like The Goree Island of Dakar which represents the collective conscience of human history.



  1. Dan Summers permalink

    As destitute as the country may be, Senegal has been dominating the international French Scrabble scene for several years – France is second to them…. The government takes pride in it, and even promotes it in all of the schools…. Literacy is still only at 41 percent though….

    Dan S.

  2. KP from work permalink

    Interesting word picture. I have only one point of reference, and that is Cameroon. Good posting.

  3. KP from work permalink

    Interesting word picture. I have only one point of reference, and that is Cameroon. Good posting on this subject.

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