Step out of the hotel in downtown Dakar and start counting: 1, 2, 3 … How long before someone latches on to you, proffering SIM cards or counterfeit watches or sunglasses? … 4, 5, 6 … “Bonjour, monsieur. Une Rolex?”
In a dozen attempts, I never make it to 10. Traders instantly buzz around me, pitching sales in French, then Italian, then Spanish, then English. It is irritating and sometimes a little threatening, but it also provides a close-up view of Senegal’s economy in action.
The informal sector accounts for around 60 percent of the gross domestic product of this small West African nation. In Dakar, 75 percent of the workforce subsists in unofficial employment.
Streets are clogged with makeshift stalls selling anything from clothes and shoes to electrical items and specialist car parts. Amid the throng on the sidewalks — and at hotel gates — traders on foot persistently hawk their wares. At intersections, they perilously dodge the traffic, attempting to sell to passing drivers.
At times, the city appears to be teetering on the brink of anarchy, but the veneer of chaos masks an underlying order. Against the odds, Dakar works, and increasingly the government is finding ways to integrate the informal sector into the mainstream economy. A dedicated bank, the Banque Régionale de Solidarité, has been established to serve the country’s unauthorized businesses.
Given that the majority of national income is generated outside the tax system, it is a surprise to discover that Dakar is being transformed by a series of mega-projects, including a new $460 million airport southeast of the city, a $572 million highway linking the airport to downtown, a series of hotels along the waterfront Corniche, a $644 million port expansion and a proposed $2.15 billion railway linking Dakar with the northern city of Saint-Louis. Much of the funding has come from the Middle East.
Senegal is predominantly Islamic, as evidenced by the daily calls to prayer that echo across the city. However, when it comes to the worldly pleasures of life, the Senegalese take inspiration from their former colonial ruler, France. Dakar is one of the most fashion-obsessed cities outside of Paris. Even for mundane trips to the market, women dress in their full finery, ranging from colorful African robes to the latest Western garb.
Saturday nights in Dakar are legendary. The city’s nightclubs pulse with local music, especially mbalax, an infectious blend of African and Cuban rhythms. The citywide party goes on into the early hours.
The round-the-clock sensory bombardments of the city can easily be escaped. Dakar sits on an Atlantic peninsula — Cap Vert (Green Cape) — fringed by four tranquil islands, the most interesting of which is the historic Île de Gorée, reached in 25 minutes by passenger ferry.
The change of pace and atmosphere is dramatic. In contrast to frenetic Dakar, traffic-free Gorée is meditatively still. Shaded alleys wend between 18th- and 19thcentury buildings. Bright bursts of bougainvillea hang from ancient, ochre-plastered walls.
There is an unsettling underside to Gorée’s beauty. In the late 1700s, the island was a slave trading hub. That legacy is encapsulated by the Dutch-built House of Slaves. The dingy slave cells have been preserved, and the “door of no return” opens directly onto the Atlantic shallows where the slave ships used to dock.
The strategic attraction of this coast to the early traders becomes apparent when I return to the mainland and head through heavy traffic to Pointe des Almadies, where a group of boys plays soccer in a beachside parking lot. Surrounding restaurants wait for the sun to sink into the sea to herald the evening trade.
I walk across the beach to the water’s edge, and for a few moments, standing alone, I am the westernmost person on the African continent. The Dakar headland appears to be reaching out across the crinkled sheet of water toward America. It is high time for America to reach back and discover modern Dakar.
The dominant geological feature of the Cap Vert peninsula is a pair of rounded volcanic hills known as Les Mamelles — “the breasts.” A controversial 150-foot monument to the “African Renaissance” is under construction on top of one of them. Atop the other is Les Mamelles Lighthouse, built in 1864, with a tremendous view (on a clear day) of the entire peninsula.
Pointe des Almadies is an essential stop on any itinerary: It is the westernmost point of the African continent, with some good restaurants and a pleasant little beach. Perhaps the best beach in Dakar is found on the idyllic Île N’Gor, an up-market island reached by a short boat ride from Plage N’Gor. Another offshore retreat is Îles de la Madeleine, an uninhabited island and two islets declared a national park in 1985. It’s a great place to encounter sea birds, especially the red-billed tropicbird. The most famous island is Île de Gorée, which makes for a great daytrip, though avoid Mondays when most of the museums are closed.
In downtown Dakar, shopping is the main activity. There are several colorful markets, though be wary of pickpockets. The Village Artisanal market is one of the best places for buying tourist souvenirs such as wooden carvings, local fabrics and paintings. Avoid buying the carved elephant tusks sold at some of the stalls — they are illegal. For unusual art work, try the Sand Painting Factory, where you can watch skilled painters creating artworks from different colored sand collected from all over Senegal . The paintings are available to buy from $10.
Soumbedioune Bay is frenetic with activity in the late afternoon when local fishing boats return to shore; it’s an incredible sight and well worth spending an hour wandering along the sand as the boats are hauled ashore.
Info To Go
All flights arrive at Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport (DKR), 10 miles northwest of the city center. A taxi into town costs about $15. The new airport, 30 miles from Dakar, is scheduled to open toward the end of 2010.
Until the several hotels currently under construction open for business, probably in late 2009, visitors to Dakar are in for a shock. Due to the lack of capacity, accommodation is exorbitantly expensive, with room rates more in keeping with Paris than an African city.
Hotel Savana Dakar
Business hotel and barefoot resort in a seafront oasis, with a good restaurant for unwinding after a day in the city. Rte de la Corniche-Est, tel 221 849 4242. $$$
Le Meridién President
The only genuine 5-star hotel in Dakar, 30 minutes from downtown, features a 9-hole golf course, tennis courts, archery range, luxuriant gardens. Pointe des Almadies, tel 221 33 869 6924. $$$$
Pullman Dakar Teranga
The best all-around option in Dakar, the former Sofitel offers 230 spacious guestrooms, some with ocean views, and waterfront pool. 10 Rue Colbert, tel 221 33 889 2200. $$$$
Host ellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers
This harborside restaurant of choice for visitors to Île de Gorée has served up excellent fresh seafood for more than 50 years. Île de Gorée, tel 221 33 822 5364. $$
Just 4 You
One of the world’s great music venues serves up excellent seafood and performances virtually every night by local stars and visiting musicians. Av Cheikh Anta Diop. $$
Chef Michael Boussol brings sophist ication to Dakar’s restaurant scene with a French menu incorporating elements from Asia, Europe and Africa. 8 Rue Ramez Bourgi, tel 221 33 823 0606. $$$
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