November 1, 2016:
Our day started as we docked in Dakar, Senegal, and this was the view from our balcony. It was truly a precursor of how aggressively the Senegalese market their arts and crafts!
Today, we signed up for two tours: one of the highlights of Dakar and the second one to visit île de Gorée (Gorée Island), which was one of the main slave trading centers on the west coast of Africa for over 300 years. Our city tour was first up, and we loaded into un-air-conditioned busses, and set off. One thing that immediately strikes you about Senegal is how alien you feel when you enter this overwhelmingly Muslim country (95% Muslim by most accounts). You also notice how colorful it is, with both women and men dressing in brightly-hued garb. The women, in particular, all seemed to take exquisite care with their clothes, and their garments mostly showcased the beautiful textiles for which western Africa is known. Although most wore head coverings, not many wore the full hijab headscarves, and very few of them wore burkas. This made the street scene a photographer’s dream, and most of the people we passed smiled at us. Sadly, our bus windows were really dirty, so not many of those photos are any good.
Dakar is the capital of Senegal, and our city tour showcased most of the must-see locations in the city, including the Presidential Palace, the National Assembly,. the National Art Museum, Cheikh Anta Diop (the National University), the Dakar Cathedral and the Great Mosque of Dakar, not to mention the recently completed African Renaissance Monument, which is the the tallest statue in Africa. Very interestingly, the statue was designed by a Senegalese, but the work was done by North Korean workers!???????
Dakar is located on the westernmost peninsula of Africa, and is a major shipping port, as well as home to a tremendous shipping fleet. In fact, fishing is the number one industry in Senegal, and part of our tour drove along the cliffs above the sea. We got to see a local beach which appeared to have many visitors given that it was a holiday. The Senegalese celebrate all religious holidays regardless of whose religion it is. Along the way, we stopped for a photo opportunity of Gorée Island (which we would visit later in the day).
Unfortunately, we also stopped at a craft market by the sea, which smelled like it was located over an open sewer, and the merchants almost mobbed us in their enthusiasm to make a sale. As the official language of Senegal is French, I spent much of my time just repeating, “No, mercí!” As much as I love shopping, I couldn’t wait to get back to the bus!
We proceeded back to the ship, and enjoyed the colorful street scene, including the popular form of private busses known as “donkeys”. Officially they are supposed to only hold about 12 people, but our guide told us they frequently carried as many as 25 people, and darted in and out of traffic, picking up and dropping off passengers. We also stopped at a local artists’ collective specializing in the art form of sand painting, and got to make a wish on the national tree of Senegal, the Baobab.
Back at the ship, we immediately joined the tour group leaving for Gorée Island, which can only be accessed by ferry. Given the incredible heat and humidity here, catching a little sea breeze was a welcome break! As we drew closer to the island, we could see what looked like a lovely colonial outpost, if you could only ignore its horrific past. Sadly, we couldn’t. We walked the colorfully landscaped alleys of the island while we waited to tour the restored site of one of the slave holding areas. While we waited, we viewed the offerings of several local artisans, who are fierce salespeople, albeit very friendly and good-natured. If you have ever wondered how the famed Senegalese purse sellers of Venice learned their trades, wonder no more! Their mothers are world class salespeople!
Weirdly, the island is a major tourist destination, not only for day trippers from Dakar, but also for people from all over Europe and America seeking information about their “Roots”, and there are even a few hotels on the island. Finally, we toured the slave museum, including its infamous “door of no return”, through which many slaves were transshipped onto the boats which took them to the New World.
We also had a lecture from a professor from the National University about the history and politics of Senegal. Notably, even though it is a majority Muslim nation, the Senegalese take pride in their tradition of peaceful co-existence of those of all religious persuasions. The people are also very proud of their unbroken history of democratic processes and transfers of power since independence in 1960! However, given how tired and sweaty we were, we would have completely tuned out but for the icy cold local beer, Flag, they offered us before the lecture began. It’s safe to say that we enjoyed the beer more than the lecture!
Finally, it was time to return to the ship, and Jim and I sprinted to our room to see who could get the first shower! Our long day was then rewarded with a dockside barbecue dinner and live music. After a couple of dances, Jim and headed to bed in order to get a good night’s sleep for tomorrow’s adventures in The Gambia.