Navigating Sandaga Market

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal

October 7, 2011

I’ve been shopping downtown several times over the course of my stay in Dakar. Shopping in Senegal is a different experience from shopping in the US, and you need some specific skills to be successful. I’ve learned a lot about the Senegalese style of shopping in just a month. Here are some useful tips for a toubab shopping in Dakar’s downtown markets.

Sandaga Market, the largest in downtown Dakar
  1. When you climb out of the taxi (or car rapide) at the market and a man immediately approaches you asking you what you’re looking for, do not answer! Friendly banter is fine, but do not divulge what you are looking for. If you do, you’ll be led on an epic journey weaving through the market stalls as the man leads you to his friend/brother/uncle’s shop, which most likely doesn’t have what you wanted in the first place (although the man will insist that it is what you want, since he can read your mind). This self-appointed guide is what I call a “personal shopper.”
  2. When an undesired “personal shopper” (described above) has a respectable English “shopping vocabulary,” switch the conversation among your toubab friends to Spanish in order to keep what you’re shopping for a secret. This is why it is preferable to shop with a fellow Spanish-speaker.  Note that this tactic is not foolproof, as vendors speak a multitude of languages from Mandarin to Dutch.
  3. When bargaining, speak in Wolof. It’s like magic. Say any and all phrases you know that are remotely applicable to the situation. Many vendors are tickled to see that you’re taking the time to learn one of the original languages of Senegal, rather than that of its colonizers, and will adjust their attitudes (and prices) accordingly.
  4. When bargaining, get personal. Ask the vendor’s name, tell him yours, and above all, show off those Wolof skills! Note, however, that this can backfire and you’ll be confronted with yet another marriage proposal to respond to with Je suis fiancee. (I am engaged.)
  5. When bargaining, be patient. You’ll likely have to haggle for at least 10 minutes to reach a mutually agreeable price. Also, don’t be afraid to pretend to walk away from the shop. The vendor will either call you back or follow you and offer you a lower price.
  6. When a roving vendor pokes you with one of his wooden statues (or any other object) to get your attention, feel free to turn and say “Ne me touche pas!” (Don’t touch me!) very curtly. When he immediately pokes you again, turn and give him your best death stare. That should do the trick.
  7. When walking through the packed streets and paths of the market, watch out for the taxis and cars that push through the crowd and roll by inches from your toes. Stick to the sides of the street and be constantly vigilant!

Charlotte Benishek