A Night in Dakar

Allie Wallace - Senegal

September 25, 2012

I hate to admit it, but after two weeks in Senegal, I needed a little escape. I know, I know, I should be immersing myself in the culture, and I have been. I just needed some breathing room, a concept that is very low on the Senegalese priority list. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and take a trip to the (very European) mall to buy running pants. My fellow Fellows Jordan and Matthew, Jordan’s host brother, and an American study abroad student that lives with my host family all chose to tag along on the excursion. Leaving my house at 6 PM, I told my host mom I’d be home for dinner at 8. Little did I know that my quick escape would turn into a night on the town in true Senegalese fashion.

When we arrived at the mall, I couldn’t believe that the immaculate glass complex on the beach was from the same planet as my cinderblock neighborhood, let alone inhabiting the same peninsula. The floors weren’t sandy, the stores were carbon copies of their Parisian counterparts, and we were served by waitresses in the food court. It put my Pennsylvanian mall to shame. We found the athletic store pretty quickly and they sufficient running pants, but they were a little steep, so we decided to check around for a better deal.

Next stop: Mango. Think H&M, but a little more expensive and with a little less variety. They didn’t have running pants, but they did have an adorable pair of heels (originally $200, on clearance for $10) and a nice, easy-to-throw-on sundress, both of which addressed serious deficits in my packing. Outside Mango, a crowd was forming: mostly women, all ages, almost all African, and dressed to the nines in Senegalese and Western clothing. Matthew informed us that there would be a fashion show on the patio behind the mall that evening. In fact, the show had been organized by the host brother of another Fellow, Mai. We decided to kill time at the mall until another Fellow named Alison, Mai and her host brother and arrived to see if we could get in for free. I ran into the nearest bathroom and threw on my newly purchased dress and heels in preparation, delighted with the unexpected opportunity to break them in.

We went to the grocery store attached to the mall but they kicked us out. Apparently they close at 8:47 on Saturdays. We went to the bowling alley to meet up with another group of Fellows who was supposed to be there, but they weren’t there, so we followed the sound of American top 40 hits outside to find a small ice skating rink. At first I was appalled by the excess of an outdoor ice rink in the west African heat, but further examination revealed that it was actually a plastic skating rink, made out of a similar material to my cutting board at home. People skated on normal ice skates, back and forth across the rink. We sat for a while and tried to comprehend the strange twist the night had taken and the extreme disparity between the luxurious mall and the crumbling streets of Dakar.

A while later, the fashion show was starting and there was still no sign of Mai and the gang. We realized that if we went up to the second floor of the mall, we could buy gelato and sit on couches on the gelato store’s balcony, with a perfect view of the fashion show for a tenth of the price. It was my first ever live fashion show, and it was certainly an experience. It was nothing like the Fashion Week shows I’ve watched online. The models looked and walked like real people, the clothes were undeniably Senegalese, and the audience sat in plastic lawn chairs. Its quirks certainly didn’t detract from the glamour of the evening; they just went to show that even the whitewashed European mall wasn’t beyond the influence of Senegalese culture.

When we had had our fill of excitement for the evening and were just walking home along a main road, a taxi pulled up and Mai, Alison, and two friends of Mai’s brother got out. To make a long ending short, we got into the fashion show for free, saw as much as we cared to, went out to a restaurant, played pool, and got home at 4 in the morning, a perfectly reasonable hour by Dakar standards.

I came home in a completely different, more fabulous outfit than I left in. I was gone for 10 hours, 8 more than I had anticipated. I acquired 51 mosquito bites. I made a few friends, saw a rat so big that I initially mistook it for a small dog, and ate ice cream and cookies for dinner. Oh yeah, and I got my running pants, albeit for a heftier price than I was hoping for. After all, that was the primary goal of the evening. Maybe this weekend I’ll actually go running.

Allie Wallace