Tuesday, December 13, 2011

So Senegal…

Senegal is the last country on our West African tour. It is one of the most famous African countries, and apparently the most tourist-friendly in terms of infrastructure.

I have mixed feelings about Senegal. Admittedly, and unfortunately, Kat and I did not get to visit very much of the country. Our plans had to change rather drastically due to Ghana embassy schedule and sickness (I have to get a new visa to return to Ghana). We did not make it to St. Louis or The Gambia as originally planned, but we did visit a monastery a few hours north of Dakar and some sights to the south including ‘hedonistic’ Saly (technically geriatric hedonism -I kid you not), and Ndangane at the entrance to the Sine-Salomon Delta. We have also spent several days in the famous metropolitan Dakar, and this is where my Senegal story begins.

Before coming to Senegal, Kat and I had been living for 9 months in Ghana then travelling for five weeks through Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, and Sierra Leone, all of which are tropical lush countries. Senegal… Senegal is different. Senegal is my image of North Africa. Dakar was a feast of our eyes and ears. Everything seems different here: the architecture, colourful buses, horse drawn carts, modern highways, mosques, graffiti (good graffiti), dusty dusty streets. Dakar is not technically in the desert, but the amount of sand/dust that covers the streets makes it feel like a desert city. Senegal has the most amazing music, but it doesn’t blast it at defining decibels from every available power source. Senegal is also country of many artistic talents. From their music to paintings to sculpture to drumming and dance, the arts are alive and well here. The traditional cultural music plays in odd harmony with the counter-culture graffiti arts. There is a beauty to Dakar; it is really a mesh-mash of old and new, Muslim and French, playful and stoic.

Dakar also stinks like no other city I have visited on this planet. It is like Manhattan in the summer with a garbage strike. Not everywhere, but predicting the stink is almost impossible and when it hits I want to reach for a gasmask. Kat and I ask ourselves: why? Why does the garbage here smell so rotten? This is a cooler and dryer climate than the countries we have come from; the garbage does not seem greater in quantity from Accra, Abidjan, or Freetown. I don’t remember Delhi smelling anywhere near this bad. So that is the mystery of Dakar. Why does it assault our noses so? To be fair, they also have great incense but it is not powerful enough to overcome the former in the battle for olfactory prominence.

Besides the nasal assault, Dakar offers so much of everything, particularly in the arts. I am very…shall we say sensitive to aesthetics. Ghana was initially quite depressing in this area. Ghanaians, as much as I love them, are not aesthetically inclined and even those with money don’t really focus on crafting a beautiful world. Ghana is not alone, West African is not generally know for its aesthetic beauty, and Freetown gets a pass from its mountainous topography. Senegal, and of course Dakar, has distinctive and deliberate architecture: arched windows, spiral staircases, and the boxy two or three story white-washed buildings that I associate with north African and middle-eastern architecture. It is likely the Arab-Muslim influence and I do enjoy. Gardens! Lush overflowing gardens stand out as a declaration of defiance against the sandy streets and the whitewashed angular buildings. Flowers and decorative palms are visible over walled courtyards, balconies and rooftops. And when the sinuses are not clogged with dust or garbage stink, one can smell the sweet perfume of these hidden gardens.

The visual arts and music… While the typical ‘African Art’ can be found a plenty in Dakar, other more original and inspired paintings and sculptures are easily found. Some of the sculptures are just plan bizarre, some are disturbing, and many are gallery worthy. The music is in another class all to itself. Senegal most definitely wins my vote for best West African music. I can’t describe it to you, so if you are not familiar with it, please take my word for it. Senegalese music is worth seeking out. (I am brining tones back and I am happy to share.) The only country that I can imagine beating out Senegal in their artistic talents is Mali, a country that sadly remains on my wish list, but if I like something 9 times out of 10 I am told it comes from Mali.

The last thing I will boast about on Senegal’s behalf is the dress. Most men wear traditional Muslim long tunics and matching pants and the women wear elegant flowing dresses and head wraps. They look fabulous pretty much all the time. Western dress is rare here, even in Dakar. The good taste of the Senegalese most definitely extends to their wardrobe. Of course being freakishly tall and lanky doesn’t hurt one’s elegant appearance. This is the other mystery of Senegal…why are the people here so crazy tall??? I am not exaggerating. I have never been surrounded by so many tall men and women in my life; and Kat who is 6 feet can vouch for this. It is like the country took on eugenics to create an army of basketball players. So height, slender physic, and flowing elegant dress seems to be that perfect equation for jaw-dropping beauty. As Kat remarked: “thank goodness it is not rude to stare”.

There has been so much to take in here. We have had a great ten days. I wont miss the harassment, which I personally find worse here than in any other country I have visited or lived in, and no, I have not been to Morocco.

In my next post I will talk about the actually places we visited.