Dakar: Intimacy Of Scale

Apr 1, 2007
2007 / April 2007

Like many African cities, Dakar can be daunting at first. Sticking out from Africa’s western perimeter, the Senegalese capital runs on a raucous, musical, polyglot buzz. Navigation can be tricky, since traffic is chaotic and sidewalks are occasional at best. But amid the downtown lowslung, sun-bleached streets, terra cotta rooftops and bustling markets, there is an intimacy of scale that makes Dakar accessible even for first-timers.

The compact city also offers visitors a window into centuries of African history. On Gorée Island, visitors see vivid remnants of the slave trade. Downtown, the city’s anthropological museum Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) offers pieces of West Africa’s rich cultural fabric.

Start your morning with a ferry ride to Gorée; boats run several times a day from a terminal just a few blocks north of the city’s sprawling Place de l’Independence. The island is as tranquil and charming today as its history is bloody and tragic. The stone houses are beautifully cared for and painted in a palette of soft, rich colors with flowers and vines crawling over them, the paths are paved with cobbled rocks, and open-air cafes serve cold drinks besides water.

If you didn’t know its backstory, Gorée would seem idyllic — but in truth, the island was once populated with wealthy slave traders; ships would depart from here for the long voyage across the Atlantic. A former trader’s house is open to the public as a museum, with a famous “door of no return” out the back leading to what is now open water. Apparently many of the waterfront homes here functioned similarly, with slaves (kidnapped on the mainland) crammed into ground-floor cells, and comfortable living quarters up above.

Once back on the mainland, you’ll want to check out both of Dakar’s main central markets. Walk through the colorful Moorish arch at the entrance to the graceful building housing Marché Kermel, on Rue A. le Dantec just a few blocks off Place de l’Independence, and you’ll find a lush assortment of colorful produce as well as other edibles. Wander the aisles and pick up a banana to snack on, then head into the surrounding streets for beads, wooden carvings and other souvenirs.

At the top of Avenue George Pompidou, Dakar’s other big market, Marché Sandaga, lacks Kermel’s sense of order. Vendor stalls spill over into the surrounding streets, offering a wide range of household items, from the colorful “wax” printed fabrics to bootleg CDs as well as tourist wares. As in any big city, watch out for pickpockets — you may want to enter Sandaga with a relatively small amount of cash.

Close out your day with an hour at the IFAN museum, on Place Soweto. Exhibits showcase traditional garb, rituals and carvings and other artwork by tribes from around West Africa. The dioramas are a bit dusty, but give a sense of village life. Then hire a driver to take you out to Point des Almadies, where beachfront, open-air eateries serve roast fish and French fries just steps away from the ocean.

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