What Dakar Told Me

Allie Wallace - Senegal

May 8, 2013

When my fellow Senegal Fellows and I arrived in Dakar back in September, I found the place less than hospitable. At the tail end of rainy season, its streets turned to sewage rivers at the slightest shower. Entire neighborhoods’ roads and crumbling sidewalks were inches deep in sand and garbage. Speaking no French or Wolof, I could barely stumble through the all-important greeting, let alone haggle with cabbies or ask for directions. The city seemed a grubby, grey maze of makeshift market stalls, loose goats, winding alleys and pushy street vendors. In the suffocating tropical heat and humidity, the $1.60 scoop at the neighborhood ice cream shop was my salvation some days. The anticipation of an adventure about to happen kept my spirits high, but Dakar in autumn can be pretty ugly.

Last week I made my first independent return to Senegal’s capital city. I noticed that it seemed somehow tidier than I remembered it. There were children playing soccer in the streets, fragrant blossoms on the mango trees, and less clutter lining the sidewalks. When we pulled into a neighborhood I knew, I was surprised to find it calm and quiet at ten in the morning. While the coconut carts and corn-on-the-cob ladies had disappeared, a number of modern sit-down restaurants serving Western specialties had popped up on the block. The sand and trash had vanished with the lively flocks of people young and old, lounging on street corners and doorsteps.

When I mentioned the area’s change of pace to Oumou, my team leader, she told me that, in response to a deadly fire in which rescuers were obstructed by informal street stalls, the city was doing a clean-up, shutting down unregistered businesses and stands, such as the plentiful sidewalk shacks that serve hearty bowls of fish, rice and veggies for a dollar or two. An easy and affordable lunch for the working-class, I myself had intended to grab a bowl that day, only to find that the rice ladies had been kicked out of the neighborhood.

Later that evening, as I perused Dakar’s luxurious shopping mall, I found myself, slightly embarrassed, asking store clerks to speak to me in Wolof instead of French. They generally responded by switching to English, assuming that a white person in Dakar who doesn’t speak French must be an Anglophone. In fact, at the youth hostel where I spent the night, all the other guests were English speakers. I, with my awkward Wolof and broken French, was the designated translator.

The next morning, I decided to explore a bit. I saw a sign for a European supermarket and went to see what they had for breakfast. When I got there, the store still hadn’t opened for the day, so I began wandering back toward the main road when I stumbled upon what can only be described as the Dunkin Donuts of Senegal. There was no sign outside, and inside the sparse white shop, there was just a glass display case, two drink fridges, a register and a table. I scanned over the croissants and madeleines, heart-shaped cakes and raisin rolls, when something in the fridge caught my eye: a tray of giant custard-filled donuts, dusted with powdered sugar. If you asked me a month ago, I would have told you there wasn’t a single American-style yeast donut in the whole country, and here was a whole shelf for just 70₵ a pop. I got myself a donut and a little carton of ice-cold milk and hopped on a bus headed north, savoring every bit of my nostalgic breakfast.

As the scene outside my window changed from city to suburb to endless sand, I puzzled over what Dakar was saying and how I felt about it. On the surface, the city appeared to have made leaps and bounds in development in the few short months I’d been away, yet I was troubled. The rice shacks’ clientele certainly aren’t going to switch to the $5 roasted chicken breast at the trendy new restaurant on the block as their go-to lunch. And what about the rice ladies whose primary income was taken from them on two weeks’ notice? What right does the city have, anyway, to shut down a local custom that’s been happening for who knows how long? Are cleaner streets and safer neighborhoods eating away at the heart of what makes Dakar Senegalese?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, Dakar told me one thing for certain: nothing is static. While we replay our routines as if everything stays the same, everything doesn’t  It’s slow, and quiet, but every now and then, life reminds us that everything is transient.

When the bus left me on the dusty path to my house, I found that, as if Senegal were driving its lesson home, a cinder-block house had been built in the space between two compounds where I walk every day. I’d been gone only one night and already, upon returning, I was forced to acquiesce to life going on as it does, with or without our approval. These days I walk the whole way around the three houses in the path, and with the end of my bridge year in sight, I wonder, if this happened in one night, what’ll I find coming home?

Allie Wallace