Pumping the lifeblood through Senegal’s commercial and administrative activities, Dakar manages to combine the trappings of early 20th-century western capitalism with a cultural and spiritual personality that is uniquely African. Fashioned after Paris by the vanguard of France’s ‘civilising mission’ to the African continent, Dakar is at the same time an African restatement of French architectural ingenuity and testament to the successes and failings of the French colonial policy of assimilation. The city’s equivalent of the Champs-Elysées is Place de l’Independence, where the major landmarks, government offices, private banks, hotels, restaurants and coffee shops are concentrated. On the streets of this cosmopolitan district, sharp suits make a colourful contrast with the lavish robes of those who favour indigenous fashions.
The contrast between affluent, tree-lined neighbourhoods and the squalid congestion of the ghettoised slums is, however, far from appealing. Like most African cities, poverty, destitution and filth are a frequent counterpart to the arrogant glamour of the smart buildings and flash cars.
Africa’s population boom put immense pressure on Dakar’s infrastructure, especially a road network that was planned and built back in colonial times. Even on the outskirts of the city, traffic jams can now stretch for miles, which at least gives enterprising hawkers an opportunity to exploit the frustrated occupants of stationary vehicles, suffocating in their own exhaust fumes. This is a town in which even a traffic jam can become an excuse for a bazaar.
Still, the main transport system – the Indian-made TATA buses and minivans that work the major metropolitan arteries – is surprisingly reliable. One of the city’s characteristic sights is the car rapide: rusting, overcrowded Renault vans that remain a fully functional symbol of daily life in Dakar.
The city has a buzzing nightlife. The handsome residential and business area of Almadies boasts world-class casinos and fully air-conditioned nightclubs, in which the dancers seduce pleasureseekers with sensuous moves, swaying their hips to the frantic mbalax beats of home-grown talent such as Youssou N’Dour, Omar Pen, Thione Seck and Titi.
Dakar is rich in history, with its many tourists descending on such sights as the Catholic Cathedral, the Marché Sandaga (full of exquisite leatherwork, paintings, sculpture and clothing made locally from woollen fabrics) and, a couple of miles offshore on the island of Gorée, the harrowing Slave Museum.
Despite the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, the people of Dakar find common ground in two things: the thieboudienne, a traditional dish of fried fish, rice and vegetables that no one is too rich to disdain, and the tchourie, a sweet-scented incense that is almost magical in its effect on men. Every evening, the streets fill up with its intoxicating aroma, as housewives burn it to welcome their husbands back home.
Kenya Airways flies to Dakar via Nairobi four times a week, with return flights from Dhs5,095 (including tax).
Where to stay
Le Terrou-Bi hotel (+221 33 839 90 39, www.terroubi.com)
Les cars rapides
The cheapest means of transport in Dakar is the car rapide – Renault vans that were introduced to the city in the early 1950s. Dirty, habitually overcrowded, rusty and completely out of date in almost any other country, they are synonymous with the roads of Dakar, and their endurance and ubiquity has led some to call them ‘the face of Dakar’. They generally operate along the main arteries to suburbs, though routes can change daily.
Where is it?
The western-most city in Africa, at the tip of the Cape Verde peninsula.
The dry season (December to April) is dominated by the Harmattan wind that blows sand from the Sahara into the Gulf of Guinea. When it blows hard, it can push sand all the way to North America.
The country is made up of Wolof, Pular, Serer, Jola, Mandinka, Soninke, European, Lebanese and other ethnic origins.
Catholic Cathedral, the museum of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), Soumbédioune fishing beach, the Grande Mosque, Gorée Island, Marché Sandaga.
The city is the busiest port in west Africa, thanks to a deep natural harbour. The port exports 368,405 tonnes of wheat each year, out of an annual total of 2.19 million tonnes of solid cargo.
Peanuts, fish, refined sugar, textiles.
It’s home to the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, which promotes scholarly research into the linguistics, history, anthropology and archaeology of west Africa.
Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Orchestra Baobab and hip-hop singer Akon (who gives his full name as Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam), are all from Dakar.
Slave trade history
Dakar was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast from the 15th to the 19th century. The island of Gorée, 3km off Dakar, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the role it played in the Atlantic slave trade. Tens of thousands of men, women and children were locked up here prior to being shipped to Europe or the Americas. Gorée is famous for its ‘Door of No Return’: located in the outer wall of the slave house, it was the last thing the slaves would ever see of their homeland.
Patrick Viera, who has played for Inter Milan, Arsenal and France, was born in Dakar. The city’s most successful team is ASC Jeanne d’Arc, which has won Senegal’s Premier League 10 times.
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