You’re On Vacation In this Place? — Up and down Senegal and in and out of The Gambia — Part 1
“Bismillahi,” the Indian woman exhales, breathing heavily as she takes a step up the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, the 160-foot bronze statue that has come to symbolize the city of Dakar, capital of the West African nation of Senegal. At least I think she’s Indian. “Bissmilahi,” she repeats, taking another step. From my position seated on the steps, I turn my head to observe her.
“Oh don’t mind me, I’m old.” Somehow, she has figured me for an English speaker. I walk over and introduce myself. I accompany her up to the statue, one step at a time, intermittently stopping for rest. She speaks in a British-ish accent that’s not quite something you’d hear in England, it sounds colonial, of the far reaches of the Empire. She’s in fact a Muslim South African of Indian descent. Short of breath as she is, the lady is full of chatter.
“This country is wonderful…I’m so shocked, I feel my eyes are opened, We have written Africa off, and we are from South Africa…we were so wrong..”
Yes, you and everyone else.
“We were in Mauritania, it is where you go to see the purest version of Islam, it was marvelous…Africa is marvelous, but South Africa is not so good now you see, there is a new apartheid, the whites, the Indians, now we are second-class citizens, it’s going down the tubes, South Africa…have you ever been? Oh it’s beautiful, you should go to Cape Town, we’re from Durban, you have to be very careful now, you see, with the crime…”
On and on she goes, taking heavy breaths. She does most of the talking, educating me on South African politics, the legacy of colonialism, how Indians fared during apartheid (treated worse than the whites, better than the blacks), how they are being treated in the new South Africa (poorly), crime in the new South Africa, and now she’s showing me pictures of some beautiful landscapes in the Western Cape. I pay rapt attention.This is why I travel. At the top at last. She introduces me to her son and her husband, the latter of whom is even older, has a cane ( it must have taken him an hour to get up those stairs), and is just as talkative and enthusiastic about Africa. They take my phone number and tell me to visit Durban. We part with enthusiastic handshakes all around.
I descend the stairs, stopping intermittently for selfies. I ask a friendly-seeming toubab (Senegalese for white person) to help me with a photo. His name is Dawson and he’s American. He arrived last night from Kigali, Rwanda, where he works for a healthcare startup. He’s looking to see what there is to do around town, and thought to come check out the monument, just like me. He plans to do some surfing and practice his French. He asks me what my plans are. I’m just winging it. He suggests we hang out and I suggest he take my number, but I think I’m just being polite. He seems cool but he looks like a Bachelor contestant or something. Not exactly who I expected to be hanging out with in West Africa.
“Hell yeah!” he says, in something of an excited whisper. Put it in here, man!” Is he from California?
Indeed he is. And he gives off such strong SoCal vibes. We decide to walk around and find lunch. I get to know him during the walk in the heat. I’m polite but not too enthusiastic. I learned back in college that Americans are usually impressively clueless about Africa, and seem to think of it as a single country that is at once The Lion King, and at the same time, a misery hellscape of war, poverty, disease and any cliché you can think of along those lines. Telling people in New York about my upcoming trip only evoked perplexed responses of “Where?” and “What are you going to do over there??” In preparation for my trip, I read many travel blogs written by wide-eyed Americans who had visited Senegal and had been traumatized at the unspeakable horror of an unpaved road.
Yet, I find myself softening in my skepticism. He’s intelligent, well-traveled, seems to have perspective about the history and challenges of the continent, and doesn’t seem to have a US-centric view of the world. And yet, he just looks and sounds so American. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. The casual racist comment about where we are or the locals, said with childlike obliviousness. It doesn’t come. We hike through a dirt road to what seems like nowhere until we come upon the Plage des Mamelles, a beautiful beach full of French people tanning and swimming and playing, and a few Africans. I’ve heard it said that the French maintained their control and presence in their erstwhile African colonies in a way that the British did not. I can only compare it to Nigeria and this city seems very hospitable to Europeans in a way Lagos is not. In Nigeria, the few Europeans present move around in bulletproof cars for fear of kidnapping, as they should. Dawson and I sit down to lunch after which we spend the afternoon and evening exploring Dakar, the old lighthouse above the beach, the Museum of Black Civilizations, where I promptly lose him as I lose myself in the Benin bronzes and the Senegalese contemporary art.
When I go back to the lobby a couple of hours later, I ask the staff, “Avez-vous vu mon ami blanc?” Have you seen my white friend?
“Mais il est deja parti, il y a trente minutes!” He left half an hour ago!
Oh well. I step outside and hail a taxi. “Scat Urbam.” I tell the taxi driver.
“Non, c’est deux mille!”
The taxi drivers in Dakar seem to always make a half-hearted attempt to overcharge me, but relent easily once it’s clear I know the right price. I get in and off we go. The traffic in Dakar at the twilight hour is quite something. Cars, trucks and old taxis like the one I’m in clog the dry dusty streets, there’s the odd motorcycle and donkey-drawn cart, and oh look, there’s a horse being ridden bareback past us all by a nimble 12-year old boy. Past the football pitch and on to my hostel, where I sit down to order dinner in the restaurant. The only other person other than the hostel owner and staff is a woman, dressed fancily in pink brocade, eating slowly and looking at me. I smile awkwardly.
“Venez,” she says commandingly. Come.
“Moi, je vous invite.” I’m inviting you.
Well, it doesn’t look like I have much of a choice in the matter. I take my plate of yassa poulet over and sit across from her. She looks to be around 30 but has the airs and mannerisms of a middle-aged woman. She tells me she’s been searching for a new apartment for herself and her children all day and is quite tired. We make small talk, where I’m from, how I’m liking Dakar so far. There is a playful look in her eyes, as if there’s an unspoken joke between us. I’m just happy to un-rust my French and make a new friend. Once she’s done eating, she says goodbye and rises to leave, with the all the dignity of a royal. She’s queen of at least her household, I‘m sure of that.
The westernmost point of the African continent is a beach in the commune d’arrondisement of N’gor , at the edge of the peninsula on which Dakar rests. This is where I meet up with Dawson, my lost white friend from yesterday. It’s a splendid place, white sand and blue ocean,dotted with colorful pirogues (fishing boats) of all sizes. Artisanal fishing is the dominant livelihood along Senegal’s extensive coastline on the Atlantic. I walk past the fishermen weaving their nets, and the young Senegalese men — who seem invariably tall, long-limbed and well-built — pushing their pirogues out to sea, ferrying passengers to the nearby island of N’gor. Groups of adolescent boys play football with makeshift goal posts, and vendors hawk trinkets, bracelets, art and sunglasses. I walk past them all, past the bleating sheep and the magnificent pelican, perched comfortably on a pirogue, then flying down and strolling magestically on the beach, completely unbothered by all the human activity.
I stop to take photos of a tall teenager leaning coolly against another pirogue, talking to a younger boy who must be his little brother. His name is Khalifa and I send him the photos on WhatsApp. I try to recreate his cool pose on the pirogue with hilariously lame results, because I am not as tall and long-limbed as a Senegalese. Dawson and I arrange a pirogue ride to the namesake island. After what seems like an interminable wait — and anything involving transport in West Africa always involves waiting — the boat arrives and we hand our belongings to someone onboard, running in the shallow water along the starboard side, one hand on the gunwale and leaping swiftly into the already moving boat.
So begins the most fun day of my time in the country. After stopping for yassa poulet, Dawson and I engage in the sort of deep wide-ranging conversations you only have with strangers in strange places. The places we’ve seen, the politics, the history, Africa, America. The man has lived in some interesting places. Iraqi Kurdistan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda. I’m very impressed. And he’s not even a little arrogant. I’ve met a few Germans in my travels who have traveled in Africa and they spoke so arrogantly, seemed so eager to be congratulated on their badassery and adventurousness, yet their tone always contained a thinly-veiled condescension for the people of the countries they visited. In Dawson’s case, I have to draw out his stories of getting detained by the PKK (Kurdish nationalist militants). I tell him he ought to write a book.
I feel somewhat guilty for my initial predisposition to blow him off and so I begin to probe him. Why is he the exception among his countrymen? Why does it seem that even the most privileged and educated Americans are so invested in this single most hopeless narrative of a monolithic “Africa”, a vast continent that most of them will never set foot in, outside of a few vineyards and national parks in South Africa? Many countries on the continent share similar histories and challenges, of which poverty is one, but it certainly isn’t the whole story. Here we are, in an African city, where children play football on the beach,bank tellers and taxi drivers and fisherman go to work, and young people go clubbing at night, much as they do anywhere else on the planet.
Poverty is certainly not unique to Africa. Abject poverty was the lot of the vast majority of human beings that ever lived, until around 1820. Poverty was just as much of an Asian phenomenon as an African one until just recently. In 1960, South Korea had a GDP per capita lower than that of Senegal. The economic miracle experienced by a few East Asian countries since that time has not successfully been replicated in South Asia. Yet the narrative of poverty doesn’t hold up as the single story in the minds of most Americans when you talk about India. What makes Africa unique in this regard? Dawson offers up the theory that the US is such a hegemon in terms of exporting culture that it doesn’t receive any from anywhere, and has no way of learning about the world. I think about it for a second. It does make sense. Europeans, even if definitely not immune to racism, are usually more cognizant of Africa, especially the former world powers that dominated us and taught most of us to speak their languages. But how would that explain the rest of the Americas? They are not cultural behemoths. Yet, I’ve encountered the same impenetrable ignorance in Brazil, a country full of African-descended worshiping Yoruba deities. What do these two countries have in common? The transatlantic slave trade, yes. That’s the troublesome knot to which I arrive while feeling along this thread. Yes, it is with slavery that the narrative of the suffering, hopeless African continent begins. That abomination set the stage for how the modern world developed and how the rest of the world would deal with Africa. So maybe it makes sense that that narrative is most deep-rooted on the other side of the Atlantic. The reflexive association of “Africa” with “bad” has adherents among the descendants of the slavers and the enslaved alike in North and South America; Americans and Brazilians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. A white-passing Latina co-worker of mine showed me a picture of her grandfather a few weeks ago. “Oh, is he black?” I said in surprise. “No, they say they are ‘Indian’,” came the reply with a laugh and an eye roll. She assumed I understood why her grandfather would like to believe he’s Native American despite all appearances to the contrary. I did.
After grappling with this and other fun topics over lunch, Dawson and I take a break to explore the island’s sandy streets and big houses and colorful doors. We knock on doors and dip into shops full of beautiful statues and art. We walk gingerly on the rocky shore, watching the monstrous waves crash against the rocks a few feet away. It’s a little dangerous, which somehow makes it all the more beautiful. We make our way counter-clockwise around the island as the sun begins to track lower across the sky, stopping to take many pictures. We find some kind of ropes course for a strongman competition. Dawson goes all American on me and begins to climb and swing and jump and do the Heisman. I try my best to keep up. This is what the best days are like. I’m young, I’m strong, I feel the warmth of the sun, I hear the rumble of the ocean and it makes me feel slightly drunk with energy.
We hear the sound of the djembe, and are drawn to it. An older man with graying dreadlocks invites us to come into the large compound which backs into a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There are two drums and the young man on the first beckons me to the second. He’s beating a simple rhythm and I mimic him for a couple of minutes. Happy to have not made a fool of myself myself, I get up and ask Dawson if he wants to have a go.
“Sure man,” says the cheery Californian.
He gets on the drum and begins beating complex variations, making beautiful fucking percussive music with the other man.
Who is this motherfucker?
“Have you done that before?” I ask a few minutes later.
“Oh yeah I used to own one.”
It has been a perfect day and it feels like time to head back to the mainland. Dawson suggests we finish the circle around the island. A white woman holding a dog on a leash who has been watching Dawson on the drums says, “It’s very beautiful over there. Lots of surfers.”
We head over and it is indeed very beautiful, though I see no surfers. The sun is setting straight ahead, providing the perfect background for some dramatic photos of our silhouettes on the cliff overlooking the giant waves breaking across the shoreline. We take advantage. At some point, I look over and there’s the white woman again, she’s followed us and is now talking to Dawson. I walk over to join the conversation. The dog kicks up some sand which flies in my face. I turn around to avoid it. She yells at the dog and it saunters off. She doesn’t apologize for her dog and keeps talking to Dawson. I observe her. She looks old. I don’t know if she is old, but she certainly looks old. Her skin is red and mottled, her hair is unkempt and graying horribly. Yet she looks fit, tall and broad-shouldered. She must surf. She’s telling Dawson that she’s Swiss and she has lived in Dakar for 10 years. She procures art for a Swiss museum. She has to leave soon and move to Jordan for her job and she’s unhappy about it. I notice she’s telling Dawson all this and if she’s aware of my presence, she’s doing a good job of hiding it. Oh, the ugly old Swiss woman is interested in Dawson. Maybe that’s why she and her dog are being so rude to me.
“So you’re on vacation in this place?” She asks with a quizzical expression and a chuckle.
“Yeah, just thought I”d come check it out. I live in Rwanda.” the American replies positively.
I chime in. “I live in New York.”
She blinks at me through her sunglasses.
“Well there’s a party tonight if you’re looking. It’s a reggaeton party” she says to Dawson. “It’s under the statue, the bullshit statue.” The word comes out with sudden venom, the French accent giving it added emphasis (bullsheeet), and now she finally seems to be looking at me.
Bullshit statue? The Monument de la Renaissance Africaine is controversial, certainly. It was built by the North Koreans, it looks Stalinist, its female subject is immodest in a very Muslim country, and as a public expenditure, the fortune spent to build it could have been put to better use for the citizens of Senegal.
But a bullshit statue? Surely, there are worse things. Statues of actual Josef Stalin, those palaces in Brussels built with the blood of 10 million dead and amputated Congolese men, women and children. Do those offend her delicate aesthetic sensibilities so? Yet she just looked at me like I bulldozed her apartment to build the thing.
“They do it regularly. It’s very fun.” And then she leans in conspiratorially towards Dawson and shrugs. “You know, if you want to party with Europeans.”
We maintain the facade of genteel conversation and say our goodbyes, promising to maybe check out her party in Africa for Europeans.
It’s only as we head back to the pirogue to head back to the mainland that I begin to process the interaction. I resolve to do my best to not be upset by this woman. I imagine how sad her existence must be, living for 10 years in a place whose inhabitants she despises, where the sun is rejecting her, drying her up from the inside out, reflecting the ugliness inside of her on the outside, until she packs up and moves to another place where she doesn’t belong. I think about what her face will look like once the Jordanian sun is done with it.
I look over at Dawson. “I think she was flirting with you, man. Would you go for it?”
He laughs. “No I wouldn’t.”
I wonder how much of that he registered. We have spent the whole day together. Yet in the end, we may live in different realities.