Dakar rushes up to greet visitors like a rumpled West African dream: women swathed in shimmering fabrics balance baskets of lime and mango on their heads, religious men sell luck from leather pouches and taxis seem only to come with splintered windshields and a single working door. It’s hard not to love every jumbled, electric-colored minute of this city by the sea.
A tour of Dakar begins in its soul—the street. Here one sidesteps the artful dodgings of pickpockets and hawkers peddling cashews sold in old vodka bottles, full-length python skins and curling irons to take in the turquoise doors, the sounds of haggling in a frenzied mix of French and the local language, Wolof, and the putt-putting whine of mopeds that sound like mournful mosquitoes as they disappear in a polluted blur through Dakar’s back alleys. Worshippers spill onto its baobab-tree-lined sidewalks from mosques. The smell of sizzling lamb kebabs on outdoor fires rises along with the steaming temperatures.
Founded as an administrative center in the late 19th century by France, then the colonial ruler of Senegal, the city still echoes its French past. Crumbling salt-eaten white buildings with red tile roofs, long verandas and shutters look out over the sea; croissants and café au lait are typical morning fare.
Dakar’s streets are full of the neon-lit bars and clubs that have helped nurture an internationally acclaimed music scene. Senegalese modern music—popularized by Youssou N’Dour—is a pastiche of Western guitar riffs and frantic West African drumming. Lyrics scale up and down the register. The frenetic rhythm can also be felt in Sandaga, the city’s main market. It stretches for blocks: ribbons of stalls with rickety shelves; shops stocked to the ceiling with goods. Tailor-made suits are ready in a day. Mint is sold by the bunch, a rainbow of Day-Glo fabrics by the yard. Everything is for sale: pots and pans, fake flowers, wigs, flip-flops, coconuts by the wheelbarrowful.
Exhausted and shopped-out after my market adventure, it was time for lunch. Seeking out a taste of the local flavor, a friend and I found a dark restaurant not much bigger than a walk-in closet. It was crammed with locals sitting at its two plastic, cloth-covered tables, silently slurping down the one and only dish of the day, thieboudienne. Served on tin plates, it’s a meal of rice simmered in tomato sauce and topped with a piece of boiled fish and stewed eggplant, cabbage and potato. Meals are washed down with cups of home-squeezed mango juice, as thick and sweet as maple syrup.
Stumbling into the bright sunlight, it’s time to make a run for the ferry to Gorée Island—a highlight of any visit to Dakar. The island was one of many transit points in the Atlantic slave trade. A centuries-old house used as a processing center for African slaves still stands there. Now it’s a pilgrimage site and a symbol of the slave trade.
The ferry gurgles through the blue waters along Senegal’s coast—the westernmost point of Africa—to the island whose shoreline of rose- and mustard-colored houses soon comes into view. No cars are allowed on the island, a calm contrast to Dakar.
A narrow, sandy passage leads to the slave house, an imposing terra-cotta structure with a courtyard and twin curved staircases leading to the slave traders’ quarters. There, guides say, the traders would negotiate the price of their human chattel, which was held below, packed into tiny cells.
On Gorée, husbands and wives, mothers, fathers and children were separated and sent off to work the plantations of the New World—scattering across the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Walking through the stone door dubbed “The Door of No Return” they boarded the ships that led them to generations of slavery—if they survived the journey. An estimated 10 percent to 20 percent died en route, researchers say. Those who protested were beaten or killed; those who tried to escape were fed to the sharks.
“This house has to stand so future generations never forget,” says the house’s guide.
Moved by the ghosts of Gorée, it’s odd to emerge into the soft afternoon of the island’s present, with its brightly painted wooden fishing boats bobbing in the waves and children playing marbles and soccer in the sand. Around one bend an artist in paint-splattered jeans hunches over a painting in his open-air studio. He slathers the canvas with bold reds and yellows. Sharing the studio is a pair of goats in a corner shed. One leans out and looks at the drying artwork, as if trying to decide if it suits his taste. At a yellow kiosk of peeling paint, deep-fried fish balls—a local favorite—are sold, along with a choice of baobab or hibiscus juice.
Back on the mainland, after a festive ferry ride, I’m determined to catch the fish market before sunset. Rows of long, brightly painted fishing boats have been hauled onto the beach. The fish are rinsed off in seawater and piled high on a maze of tables. Six-foot-long barracudas and marlin are hawked, along with a favorite local fish called thiof, sole, grouper, tuna, shrimp, and sea urchins. Farther down the beach, locals eat the fresh catches. Fish are seared on hot coals; mussels boiled and topped with fresh lime juice. Some dip into a Senegalese favorite, urchin caviar, the urchin’s tentacles still waving.
Everything is alive in Dakar, even the food.