Dakar, once again

John Matshikiza
17 September 2008

It is a Monday morning in late February, and I find myself walking through the busy streets of Dakar, Senegal, once again.

The newly inaugurated night flight from Johannesburg landed at 3.30 that same morning, circling over the far-flung yellow lights of this city before making its final approach. It is a sight that always fills me with excitement – returning to my second home, this restless city clinging to life between two great, threatening oceans: the Atlantic and the Sahara desert.

There is little time to sleep in Dakar. Like New York, its wealthy sister city across the Atlantic, there is a perpetual nervous energy that keeps the place ticking twenty-four hours a day. But where wealth is the driving force behind the energy of New York, it is poverty that seems to drive Dakar (although there is wealth here too, albeit on a far smaller scale).

Indications of the growing wealth of this semi-desert city are in the endless building projects that sprout from the city centre to the far peripheries. On the outskirts, silhouetted against the black, pre-dawn sky by those endless white and yellow suburban lights, imposing double-storey mansions rise up, staring gauntly through the windowless eyes of their unfinished, grey concrete walls.

The will to survive

It takes a long time – sometimes years – to complete a building. There is a spurt of activity when money comes in: possibly from a relative who is conducting street trading in New York or London or Paris or Milan or Buenos Aires; possibly from a member of the family who has cornered a high-powered deal on one of the metropolitan bourses. Amounts vary. The building work has to wait patiently for the next stroke of luck in this endless African battle for survival in a hostile world.

It is that energetic will to survive that has got me up on my feet after a mere three hours sleep, keen to step out into that humming energy once more.

It is winter. It is easy to forget that Dakar sits in the northern hemisphere, and that its seasons follow those of Europe. And although things never get as bad as they do out there, and while there are many winter days when you can leave your house in your shirtsleeves, there are times, like today, when a bone-chilling wind whips in off the desert, cutting through your flimsy garments and hurling stinging fistfuls of desert sand into your eyes. The next day, the same desert could blast forth its harmattan – a hot, dry wind that leaves you howling for the winter. You never know how it’s going to be. So everyone is prepared for anything – and everyone is out on the streets, making some kind of living.

The city centre is changing. In the year-and-a-half since I was last here, parts of it have become unrecognisable, and I have to step back and get my bearings every now and then.

Both of the street cafes on the main drag where I used to take my evening aperitif have closed down. One of them, an old, yellow-tiled establishment that served, as long as anyone can remember, as a meeting point for foreign seamen, local wrestlers, prostitutes, hustlers, and the crew-cut sailors from the French naval base has been completely demolished. I feel a pang of regret – though things have to move, some things at least should stay the same. Establishments like that provide a bulwark against the uncertainties of life.

Around the corner, you start to see the logic. This is the old part of town, one- or two-storey buildings constructed during the era of French colonisation. The buildings are crumbling with decay, and bold developers have started dismantling sections of them and putting up brand new apartment buildings and office blocks. Before my very eyes, the Dakar skyline is transforming itself. But the people, so far, have remained the same. The keynote is the struggle for survival.

Persistent capitalists

A foreigner is always spotted a mile off. And it’s not that you have to watch your pockets, hope you won’t get mugged and lose your camera, your wallet, your mobile phone, your spectacles, and whatever else you might have about your person that could be of use on the open market, as would be your concern if you were foolish enough to go walking in downtown Johannesburg (although one should never feel entirely complacent about these things in Dakar, either).

It is more to do with the fact that the Senegalese are persistent capitalists who will pursue you for a mile and a half down the road, forever offering to lower the price of their wares, as long as you will agree to buy something. And the something could be anything from a pair of trousers slung over the seller’s arm to a persistently ringing alarm clock, a roll of dress fabric, a handful of sunglasses, or a sun-faded box of aspirins that is clearly several years past its sell-by date.

Which is one of the reasons why I love the place. The sales pitch is superficially aggressive, and you have to stay on your toes and be aggressive in return. But you are in constant interaction with very articulate vendors who will size you up and switch to American–English to drive home their pitch if they think you are not from a French-speaking country. And when you persistently refuse to buy, they will throw in mocking comments about your lack of humanity, and finally leave you alone.

And it is all about humanity. The man, woman or child who pursues you down the road in this relentless fashion reasonably assumes that a well-dressed foreigner has more disposable income than they do, and should not be unreasonable about spreading some of it around. After all, why did you come here if not to do business?

Not forgotten

You can’t help feeling some kind of history here in the relationship between proud local and arrogant foreigner. It is a relationship that probably reached its height during the period of the slave trade. If human flesh can become a commodity, then surely anything goes?

African communities had their systems of trade and exchange for thousands of years before, but the trans-Atlantic slave trade changed relations between Arabs, black Africans, Europeans and Americans irrevocably. Where previously there had been some form of respect between the various trading partners, the reduction of all black bodies to potential chattel slaves changed all of that.

Many people (all of them white, it must be said) have argued with me that black Africans were at least as responsible as white slave traders for the initiation and continuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with its removal of some twenty million Africans from their shores. My response has always been: who benefited most from the trade? Where the Americas and Europe built empires from the practice, every African society that was touched by it was devastated. Virtually no African village was spared the pillages of those long centuries of the slave trade.

And don’t fool yourself that any African has forgotten the days of slavery. It is as if it all happened just yesterday. In many ways, the ongoing relationship between the rich north and the poor south simply underlines that point.

I board the ferry that will make the twenty-minute crossing across choppy, wintry seas to the island of Gorée, just offshore. Gorée is tiny, less than a mile long and three-quarters of a mile wide. It is like a living museum, holding waves of African history within its narrow limits.

UNESCO has declared it a heritage site because it was an important staging point for the transportation of hundreds of thousands of slaves, their last contact with the African continent before being taken in chains to the Americas, never to return.

One cannot help being haunted by the memories lurking along the winding streets of Gorée. And yet it is, at the same time, a charming, living African village, where traders promote their wares – less frenetically than in Dakar, but with the same determination to survive nevertheless.

Je n’aime pas çe George Bush

As we cross on the ferry towards the island, two women traders, one young, one elderly, are having an animated discussion about the impending invasion of Iraq. They are in complete agreement with each other, incensed at the latest news that the United States government is unimpressed with the huge anti-war protests that have swept the world, and are determined to press ahead with their invasion regardless. “Je n’aime pas çe George Bush,” says the older woman, her mouth drawn downwards in a disapproving scowl. There is universal agreement from the passengers around her.

The cameras of the world’s press have brought images of massive anti-war protests over two weekends from more visible parts of the world: California, London, Madrid, Perth, Sydney, Paris and Rome. The more marginalized parts of the world feel equally strongly about the issue, but cannot necessarily make their voices heard.

The angry conversation between two traders heading for the market at Gorée brought home to me the deep-seated anger of the world against this renewed display of American arrogance. If George W. Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair can give a collective finger to the sophisticated world and its opinions, what more contempt must they have for the opinions of the citizens of the third world?

Insignificant as that third world might seem, it is fast becoming yet another locus of anti-American sentiment that Washington might regret not waking up to in time. But then again, America has never been much interested in debate with anybody. Today the street trader who pursues you through the streets of Dakar might well be offering an Osama bin Laden poster or T-shirt among his wares. A westerner would be incensed. But for a citizen of the third world, it is merely a sign of the times.


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