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Published: April 27th 2008
As some of you know by now I ended up spending a lot more time in Senegal than anticipated 😊 I was planning to be in Dakar only for a few days but I loved it too much.
The third day I awoke to a thin layer of dust over EVERYTHING in my room; I opened the French doors and everything was yellow--the air, the street, the sky. As the manager downstairs explained, "Dakar a été envahie par le désert"
--Dakar was invaded by the desert. Apparently the dust storm is something that happens every summer, in June and July, when the sands of Mauritania descend upon Senegal (l'harmattan
), but for this time of year it was unseasonal. There was so much dust that it made it impossible to wear contact lenses 😊 It wasn't very pleasant to wander around during the day so I didn't stray far from the hotel. I ended up going back to Chez Loutcha for dinner; dining alone in Africa is never dining alone, as people will be seated at the same table as you or immediately adjacent to you, and a conversation will always strike up.
After spending a couple of fun days exploring
the city center the hotel had to kick me out to make room for people who had reservations, so I moved out to Yoff, a fishing village on the Dakar peninsula. I stayed at the Cap Ouest, a really nice little beach hotel run by a Senegalese woman. The huge advantage is that it is right on the beach in Yoff, a gorgeous part of Dakar characterized at once by poor fishermen and their pirogues
(traditional fishing canoes) and gorgeous beach villas surrounded by tall, flower-covered walls. This is where Senegal's celebrities reside! The hotel is immediately adjacent to a few really good places to eat. La Terrasse d'Anvers--a Belgian joint as you can gather from the name--is right down the way, with a really nice terrace, no toubabs, and great mbalax always on rotation. I ended up going there frequently to hang out with the girls who work there, who always offer me part of their dinner (despite the fact that it's a restaurant, and I'm like, their client).
One of the most striking things about Senegal so far is how generous people are about food. No one will walk past me with food without offering to share
no more thiou
All that's left are the whole peppers--they cook them in the dish whole, then put them in the bowl so if you want your bites a little more spicy you take the whole pepper and smear it around your section of the bowl.
their meal with them--I don't just mean to have a bite, but to eat. One day I was tanning on the beach at the Cap Ouest and a guy walked past me on his way from the beach with something that smelled amazing. I asked him what people were doing down there on the beach, and he said there were some kids grilling fish. He had two small, whole fish on a plate, all steamy and charred on the outside. He insisted that I take some! I couldn't resist picking a few pieces with my hands, and then I said he should go enjoy the rest of the meal for himself. He insisted I eat with him but out of politeness I refused. Later on we crossed paths again and he was all upset that I hadn't eaten with him! I explained that where I am from, if someone is eating their dinner, even if they offer you some it is more polite to refuse, because you don't want to take away their meal. Not the case here! Anyway, I made up for my transgression by having some tea with him. Tea-making and -drinking here is a very beautiful and
Start of the braiding process
That's Malick's sister braiding, and his cousins supervising :)
lengthy process. The tea is poured from very high lengths into tiny, tiny glass cups in order to cool it and obtain the right consistency. Like everywhere else in Africa it is extremely sweet. The tea-maker repeatedly tests out the tea before serving it to everyone to ensure it tastes right. It is traditional to drink three cups of tea (Bruce, sound familiar?!!): the first one is strong, the second one is sweet, and the last one is watery (though if you're lucky they add fresh mint!). You sit around for quite a while before you get through the third cup.
I ended up going back to Just 4 U to hear some more live music with some friends. We were lucky enough to show up on an evening when a group called Ceddo was playing. They also sing mbalax
, and they also have traditional dancers who entertain the crowd with a particular vein of Senegalese dancing that is intended to be comedic. Afterward we went to the Casino, which is this absurd euro-trash style nightclub that charges ridiculous prices (it was something like $15 to get in, per person, including one drink). It was totally sleazy--most of the
women in there, from what I could gather, were prostitutes--so you can imagine the kind of men that were there. (I don't think anyone I was with had ever been there before.)
The next day I ended up deciding to leave Cap Ouest for a cheaper place in Yoff called Hotel Claudia. It's not on the beach like Cap Ouest, but it is brand new and the staff here are just so much nicer. The owner is a middle-aged French guy who is a total player (all he talks about is "les fi-filles"). There is a super nice guy who runs the kitchen, and they have a dibiterie
which is a traditional Senegalese grill for making grilled mutton (I know, I know, it reminds me of Seinfeld too) or "dibi." It is freshly slaughtered and butchered by a specialized dibi
chef, flavored with spices and then cooked over a wood-burning grill with onions. The wood gives it the most amazing flavor. It is really tough to eat, because it is served in big chunks containing bone and gristle--flavor country!--but it is SO worth the effort. Claudia also has a super nice terrace upstairs with beautiful views of the sea
Mosque in Malick's uncle's neighborhood
His uncle lives in an area called "Parcel"
over the tops of Yoff's villas--you can sometimes see rich toubabs sitting on their rooftops painting landscapes--and wireless access, where I spend most nights after the beach writing up my thoughts from the day and checking email.
I have been here in Yoff so long--a week, now--that I have a routine! During the day I go to the beach. I tan, dab my feet in the ocean (it is FREEZING), and watch the little boys who fish off the rocks. They don't even use fishing poles, they just use little fishing lines, but they always seem to manage a good catch. From a distance they sometimes look like they're dancing. There are also some amazing surfers here that I love watching. I made friends with the instructor for the father of this girl who is now a big surf champion. She's French but raised in Cote d'Ivoire, and apparently after winning out all the women's surf competitions she moved on to compete with the men, and beat them, right here in Dakar not long ago. The Burkina guy can recognize her from the way she catches the waves, and points her out to me when she's out there. (She's
Dakar street market
This is where we went looking for a guitar...and where I was temporarily baptised "Fatou Ndiaye."
always out there the longest, and the farthest, and she's out there every day.) Sometimes this guy with dreadlocks comes and sits on the beach and just plays his djembe drums. He sits alone, isn't performing for anyone, stays away from the crowds--he's just, like, doing it for himself. It's totally awesome to just lay there with him playing and the sound of the waves in the background. Sometimes I read my book--I am almost finished with Three Cups of Tea and I totally love it, thank you Bruce!--or the last Economist I picked up at JFK on my way over here (I'm down to the lesser articles now 😊 ).
Once it starts cooling down I head to Tefess Gui, a little restaurant right on the beach. It's so much better than Cap Ouest; they play Senegalese music and the clientele is almost all Senegalese. They make a yummy salade nicoise, and the staff are totally nice. While the sun is still out all the young men do sports on the beach (a lot of men workout on the beach at dawn or dusk--apparently, they say, the ocean froth is good for your bones, so they even run
Old slave ad
Malick's girlfriend's uncle had a painting on the wall of the famous "point of no return" on the Ile de Goree in Dakar where slaves were loaded off onto ships, and this old newspaper ad was worked into it. People here love Bill Clinton because (so they say) he cried when he visited the slave memorial there.
their horses along the water's edge to strengthen the bones in their legs). A little maman always comes by with beignets de poisson
(fish donuts, technically, although they aren't sweet--basically yummy fried dough with spiced ground-up fish inside), piment
(chile powder), and sauce (kind of like the base for thiéboudienne
(which I'll explain later!), which is onion and tomato paste). There is also a man who makes café touba
, which is a special kind of coffee made for the Mourides
--a particular sect of Senegalese Muslims--that is seasoned with vanilla and something that grows on a tree that no one knows the French word for. Then when the sun sets and it starts getting cold, we sit inside for a while, joke around with Adia, then walk back to Claudia where I get on the net. Then around 10 or 11 I eat some dibi
from downstairs--SO good--with fries and baguette. That's pretty much how my days have been for the last week, with a couple of exceptions.
One day last week, I told Malick, a musician here, that I was looking for a used guitar to take with me to Malawi (you can't find instruments there and I couldn't
bring mine with me from home). He kindly offered to ask around among his musician friends and accompany me to find one. First we hopped in a bus to head to his uncle's for lunch. The buses here aren't like the ones in Malawi--rather than minibuses that open on the side, here public transport is in much bigger, higher buses that open in the back. You climb in and--as I learned the hard way--they might not wait for you to make it all the way up before they take off! As I was midway up the ledge the bus lurched forward; I let out a yelp--much to the amusement of my fellow passengers--and someone pulled me in. The money collector runs behind the bus and hops in after all the passengers. It's insane!!! But also, totally normal. It is also very common for cars used for public transport, like taxis and buses, to dent each other and just keep on going.
So we rode the bus out to one of the neighborhoods more reflective of how most Senegalese people live and walked to his uncle's apartment. His aunt is a serious diva--a real matron with a housefull of kids,
La soupe aux pattes de mouton
It really didn't taste good! Just a meaty broth achieved by boiling offal meat and feet in water. Thank goodness for the baguette!
children-in-law, and grandkids--who is stunning and has total run of the house. She greeted me warmly with open arms and we went into the sitting room to meet Malick's various siblings and cousins. Lunch that day was "thiou" which is a rice dish over which is poured a tomato paste-based sauce, topped with hefty chunks of fish and vegetables. It is served in a huge bowl--I'm talking like a 3-foot diameter at least--and everyone crowds around and digs in. The older people eat with their hands, the younger folk with spoons. They don't cut up the fish or vegetables when they're cooking it, so you take off a little bite size portion to add to each spoonful of rice. It's a warm and beautiful way of sharing a meal and I had SO much fun. In typical African (and Czech!) fashion they won't let up when you say you're full--they keep pushing more and more food from the center of the bowl toward your corner to make it look like you haven't eaten anything (when you really stuffed your face 😊 ).
After a big lunch like that it is traditional to take a "repos" or siesta, so a couple of people in the room laid down while the rest of us chatted. Somehow the subject of my appearance came up and what started with innocent compliments turned into an all-out campaign to get me to braid my hair. I have always been vehemently opposed to toubabs getting braids; it seems so touristy and cheesy and Club Med. I told them they wanted me to do it just so they could make fun of me afterward, but they insisted that it would look nice. I eventually relented; one of the little kids was sent with 300 XOF to buy some tiny rubber bands, and Malick's sister set me down on a mat at her feet and proceeded to start braiding away. They swore it would take fifteen minutes (by now we had been at their house for about 3 hours!) but in African time that means more like 1.5 hours. She actually worked really fast, I think she ended up doing much smaller braids than she'd intended. I had to explain all of this to make clear to those of you who see these photos of me in braids and think "what a touron" (to borrow Josh's term); I know it is a huge cliché but if you're a toubab and you're gonna get braided, that's the way to do it! I had no choice, really 😊
We eventually left their house and took a taxi into a market in town to look for guitars. Malick had been tipped off about a vendor in one side street who had some acoustic guitars. Malick isn't a guitarist so I had to go with him to test them out, which meant we were given an absurd price. I really want a guitar for Malawi but his weren't that great so we passed. Dakar is so funny; there are these beat up little taxis, the doors of which don't shut and which make awful sounds, driving alongside shiny new Hummers and Mercedes down the same beat-up, pot-holed dirt roads; colorfully painted schoolbus-type vehicles alongside sleek new buses the likes of which you'd find in Paris or Rome; all of this alongside horse-driven chariots (I am serious--even on the freeway), and all of which have to make way for the odd goat- or cow-crossing. Anyway, we ended up on one of the newer buses, which was extremely crowded (it was now near 7pm, or rush hour). I finally made it back to Claudia, with braids! They felt so weird, I couldn't get used to it, though it was nice to have all my hair out of my face. You can't wash your hair when it's braided--water makes the braids come out, especially if you're a toubab--but the women here put their hair into these braids because they say it makes your hair grow faster. I still think I looked a little ridiculous with them, but people here really appreciate it when you make an effort to get to know their culture. People here always say that I need a Senegalese name, so I finally got one - Mamdiara 😊 In Ouolof, every animal is associated with a surname; for example, lions are Ndiayes, while lizards are Diops. Isn't that neat?! So if you're a Diop, you won't kill a lizard, because you're kind of like kin. Mamdiara is the most legendary woman in Senegal, like the feminine archetype here, so now whenever anyone introduces me as Mamdiara I get this whole spiel about living up to the name 😊
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