African Tales

Seeing Senegal from Many Sides

Senegal street 1The Dakar Hustle began almost immediately after we left the customs window in the airport terminal. Until then, I’d been raptly observing the fabulous array of people: military men in green uniforms, men and women in traditional African ensembles of all kinds, others in Western business attire, young men and women – westerners – dressed in casual ready-for-the-bush hiking or whatever activities, babies and young children, families perhaps coming home to visit relatives. But as soon as we entered the terminal with our bags, we were surrounded by men offering to get us a taxi. Dorothy wanted to exchange some cash but the banks on premises were closed. One man offered to show her an exchange place upstairs, so Chuck and I stood with our bags until she returned, saying the place was a rip-off but at least she had a little money in CFAs, the currency of several West African countries.

Senegal - treeChuck was a former student employee who’d worked for Dorothy in the library at Yale University. When he heard she was traveling to Senegal with her cousin (me) he’d asked if he could pay his own way and join us, serving as translator and general guide. He had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal on two separate occasions and spoke fluent French and the native language, Wolof. We were glad to have him along for those reasons.

Once outside the terminal, we were surrounded by men and even little boys offering to help us. Chuck had hoped a friend would be there to meet us, but when it became apparent that wasn’t happening, he began negotiating with a cab driver who wanted much more than the fare posted inside the terminal. Meanwhile, several men began helping us get our luggage into the trunk, little children were asking for money, Chuck and the cab driver were arguing, I was trying to get the strap of one bag untangled from another, a man stepped in to help, Dorothy and I got into the back seat, Chuck in the front still arguing with the driver, people pressed against the windows with hands outstretched saying “Si vous plait madame, please madam,” now Chuck starting to get out of the cab – and oh God, what about our luggage already in the trunk? But at last Chuck and the driver reached accord on the fare and we pulled away, cries of “please madam” echoing after us. Whew. Welcome to Dakar.

124-2450_IMGFirst impressions out the car window: dry brown dirt, not a blade of grass in sight, the roadway lined with makeshift sales set-ups – shacks, lean-to’s or just merchandise out on the ground – large displays of handmade furniture, fruits especially citrus, bowls of food, people jogging or working out on the beach, a mix of architecture – crumbling buildings, new construction, mosques, and finally our hotel, The Ganalé with open-air stairways to the rooms. Ours was small but comfortable with a small balcony, but we discovered that the sliding door would not lock. We positioned a chair in such a way to prevent its opening from the outside and tried to sleep – Dorothy’s prescription for jet lag. It didn’t work (for me) and soon Chuck was back to pick us up for our first foray into the streets of Dakar.122-2219_IMG

Dorothy was curator of African collections at the Yale library. She was on an acquisitions trip, buying books and periodicals and making contacts with booksellers, universities, NGOs and the like for possible future acquisitions. She has lived and traveled in many places in south and central Africa, but this was her first time in West Africa. I was simply a tourist, tagging along for my very first visit to Africa.

122-2270_IMGWe went first to an organization named ENDA, Environmental Development Action of the Third World where Dorothy and Chuck spent a couple of hours going through books and pamphlets in a very hot basement storeroom. One of the employees went out for cold drinks, returning with bottles of Gazelle lemonade, a soft drink that we decided tasted like a cross between ginger ale and Sprite. It was delicious and most helpful. The organization would not take checks or credit cards so we made a dash, accompanied by one of the employees, to a bank’s ATM to withdraw CFAs. This was a procedure we would have to follow throughout West Africa as hardly any facility accepted anything but cash. The ENDA employee had disappeared so we returned alone, aware of the large amounts of cash we all were carrying. CFA stands for Communaute Financiere de l’Afrique, and at the time, they were exchanging at a rate of six hundred to one dollar. So we’re talking about a wad of bills each time we left an ATM. We’d make our way through the crowded streets, clutching our bags close to our bodies and fending off people, many disabled, begging for money (a deformed man crawled on three of four limbs, the fourth his arm extended to reach for coins) or others offering to sell us all manner of things. One day we saw a man carrying an ironing board and irons. When we said, “merci, non” he said, “Why not? Don’t you like this?” We laughed and said we liked it fine but doubted we could get it onto our plane.Senegal bucket

122-2220_IMGThat first evening, we took a cab to the home of Chuck’s host family during both of his visits to Senegal. All members of this very large, multi-generational family were excited to see Chuck and very warm and welcoming to Dorothy and me. Except for one daughter, Adja, who was studying English in anticipation of joining her husband in Rhode Island, everyone spoke French or Wolof, so Dorothy whose Spanish is limited and I whose French barely covers restaurant menus, sat rather dumbly until I came up with the idea of taking pictures with my small digital camera and showing the results in the little monitor. That camera became my trusty ice-breaker everywhere we traveled in Africa.

The family members were absolutely gorgeous looking, as were many of the Senegalese people we saw: dark, dark skin, high cheekbones, gleaming white teeth. The young men and women in this family, one more stunning than the next, showed us studio portraits of themselves looking like models or film stars but apparently taken in connection with Adja’s recent wedding and other special occasions. Adja presented Dorothy and me with necklaces and bracelets made of cowrie shells, and we regretted we had nothing to give in exchange. This gift-giving custom was something we would experience throughout our five-week, three-country trip and each time the generosity of the people left us feeling somehow inadequate.

We’d been there quite a while, met more and more family members and took more and more photos. We were beginning to wonder if Chuck had misunderstood about our being expected for dinner, when we were served extremely sweet tea in tiny glasses, our introduction to the three-glass tea ritual we were to experience everywhere we went in West Africa. By this time, we had been awake for more than thirty hours and considering how we could gracefully extricate ourselves when the young women of the family suddenly began moving furniture about the sitting room. They placed a small table in front of the couch where we were seated, set it with a cloth and four large spoons, and then a large platter filled with rice, fish and vegetables. The dish is called thiebou dienne (pronounced chebbu-jen) and considered the national dish of Senegal. Everywhere we went for the rest of the week, that is what people served us, each time announcing it as “the national dish of Senegal” and each time we pretended we were having it for the first time. At this home we ate communally from the same platter but with the large spoons, not with our hands as is frequently done in Africa. Joining the three of us was one son, Papa Dou Dou, age 26, who had been serving in the military in Guinea Bissau and now works in a bank. Adja joined us for about three bites and then withdrew. Finally, pleading extreme fatigue, we left the home amid a flurry of “au revoirs” and kisses on both cheeks. Papa Dou Dou, Adja and Chuck drove Dorothy and me back to our hotel.

shopper with packageThe next morning – and every morning the rest of the week – we ate breakfast in the hotel dining room: baguette, croissant, two pastries and coffee and occasionally, a piece of fruit. We were fearful of drinking juice because it might have been blended with tap water and we were being very careful to avoid any water that did not come out of a sealed bottle. (I slipped up once while brushing my teeth but suffered no consequences.)

That day, Chuck came to meet us and we took a taxi to the University of Dakar, a different world just a short distance from the center of the city. Still dry, brown earth and crumbling buildings but a quiet, peaceful atmosphere with students sharing the roads and walkways. We began at the West Africa Research Center (WARC) where Dorothy and Chuck met with an American woman, Wendy Wilson Fall, to discuss publication exchange.cafe I sat out on the patio next to a lunch counter that turned out to be run by a woman from New Jersey, who’d retired to Senegal, taught and was asked to shape up the café operation. She told us she was building a bed and breakfast. Apparently, quite a few African-Americans have retired in Senegal, drawn no doubt by the significance of Goree Island, the debarkation point for so many slaves.

On Chuck’s recommendation, we had a local fish dish for lunch – head, tail and a lot of bones lying across a bed of rice. That was too repulsive for me, so I pushed the rice around the plate and ate some bread. Then Chuck asked a worker to get a yogurt delicacy for me to try. It arrived in three plastic baggies, sweetened yogurt mixed with a grain – millet we thought – and was quite tasty. Dorothy and Chuck visited more university and NGO offices and then we crossed the street to walk on the beach and see the Atlantic Ocean to the west. We spent a good deal of time at a center where American students and others were taking intensive languages courses – it’s where Chuck learned to speak Wolof – and in an annex where the staff was developing literature to deal with HIV/ADS education. In an outside courtyard batiks were being sold as a fund-raiser for the organization and we bought several to take home. batiksThat evening, we ate at a nearby Cameroon restaurant where we enjoyed fish kebabs cooked outside in steel drums and served with – yes – rice.

The next day we’d reserved for a visit to Goree Island, the slave debarkation site. When we arrived at the dock to buy our tickets, we found we were too late for one ferry and too early for the next. So we walked across the street to a warren of little restaurants, each really not much more than a lean-to, equipped with a stove of some sort and a long picnic table-like table with benches on either side. We chose one place, Daru Salaam, slipped in next to some locals and ordered a meal. Yes, it was “the national dish of Senegal.” We ordered meatless versions, and the cook reached her hand into a huge bowl of rice and plunked some down on our plates. Then she or an assistant spooned over whatever mixture we wanted. We thought we’d ordered peanut sauce but decided what we’d gotten was the onion version. But it was good. When we asked for sodas, they sent a teenager running somewhere to bring them to us. The restaurant’s clientele was varied, well dressed office workers next to laborers and then us. We got into conversation with a couple of customers who turned out to be an advertising designer and a publisher of a magazine about entertainment events in Senegal; he sent us away with copies of his publication.

122-2294_IMGAfter lunch, we made our way back to the ferry dock to join the throng heading over the “The Isle of Tears.” On board the ferry, aware of pickpockets and with my CFAs pinned inside one pocket, my Visa card pinned inside another pocket, and the passport, American Express card, dollars and travelers checks pinned inside my pants, I was cautious when a large, colorfully dressed woman began showing me her stock of bead necklaces for sale.I bought one and she gave me another “as a gift” and then I bought a couple more and she gave me more gifts. I quickly learned that this is the modus operendi of sales in Senegal. As the boat made its way across the water, another woman came over and told me to be sure to visit her shop on the island. She saw me there later and called out “My sister, my sister, come to my shop.” We left the island without doing so and I worried till I left Senegal that I’d run into “my sister” again. By the way, on the island, there were bead sellers every five feet.

123-2323_IMGThe island itself is very beautiful in a slightly decayed sort of way. We walked around the outside path and ran across an artist’s studio up on a cliff, toured an old “castle” and museum and then went to the old slave debarkation building where we had just missed a tour. Instead, we got a more private one with the resident photographer. It was very moving, of course, as we saw rooms where unruly slaves were kept, where children were confined until they reached enough weight to be considered capable for the journey or for sale to Europeans in Africa. Another room was for women who became pregnant by the guards. It is always startling to be confronted with the horror of man’s capacity for inhumanity, and this was no exception. 123-2329_IMGNaturally, we saw the “Door of No Return” where the ships pulled up and loaded their human cargo, but in truth there are other ports of Africa that were more active sale debarkation points; Goree has just gotten better press. When Dorothy showed her card to the photographer, he ushered us into the office of the longtime director, Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye.123-2335_IMG

While the old man talked, we glanced around the walls of photos depicting the many dignitaries from all over the world who had visited Goree. Heads of state and entertainers. One amusing coupling showed Kadafi right next to the singer Prince.

That night we were invited to the home of another of Chuck’s friends, Moussa and his wife, Miriam. The neighborhood was upscale and the home beautifully furnished. The husband works for ENDA and the wife for the World Bank. Dinner was served western style at a dining room table with individual place settings, and the food? “The national dish of Senegal.” Our hosts were busy people with demanding jobs – she was headed for a conference in Washington in a few days – and I think they appreciated our early departure that evening.

(One thing I noticed in all the homes we visited was that the art work, whether family photos or paintings, was hung very high up on the walls, almost to the ceiling. Chuck didn’t know the significance, if any, and I joked that they are, after all, very tall people.)

mosqueThe next morning, after a stop at a cyber-café to catch up on news from home, Dorothy and I went without our translator to a large bookstore where she cleaned them out of sixty-eight books published in Senegal. After we’d taken a cab with the heavy box of books to a DHL office that had been touted as taking credit cards but did not, we left the books there, went back to an ATM for cash and then back to DHL. In the heat and confusion, Dorothy gave the driver two thousand CFAs instead of two hundred and certainly made his day. While I waited for her to complete her shipping transaction, I struck up a conversation, such as it was, with a well dressed young man who was also waiting. As I struggled with my French, I pulled out my French-English dictionary. He reached into his attaché case and pulled out his English-French dictionary, and we had a good laugh.

dakar museumThat evening we decided we needed a break from “the national dish of Senegal” and went to a Portuguese (actually Cape Verdean) restaurant with a group of Peace Corps volunteers we’d met in the hotel bar. Such nice idealistic young people. One girl from Boston was the only non-African person in her village. Noting that she was left-handed like me, I asked how she dealt with the prohibition of eating – or indeed doing many things like handling money — with the left hand. It was difficult, she said, but she managed. It helped that in her village all eating was done communally and with hands only. Up to that point I’d been regretting that the Peace Corps had come into being just a little too late for me. But I don’t think I’d have been a good candidate anyhow. Too squeamish about food, for one thing.

Another Peace Corps volunteer was a young man from Philadelphia whose sister was completing a three week visit from Denver. His village was so excited about her presence that the residents had killed a cow in her honor – a big deal, he said because it was a very poor village – and also presented her with a chicken. He told us how he’d come to Africa with ambitious plans to help with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, educating people how to prevent the further spread of the disease. Instead, when he realized how great the need was for simple hygiene education, he altered his expectations. He told of seeing a young child playing in a dung heap and then going directly to a communal wash basin where he and all his family members washed their hands before eating. The American went over to a separate water source to wash. When his host questioned him, he waited until after dinner to tell him why he’d done that. “I told him it was the same as eating shit,” he said. It made an impression on the family for a while but now, he said, they’d slid back to their old ways.

The girl from Boston said it was very lonely for her in her village. The women her age all have multiple children. “They want to cry on my shoulder about how difficult they are,” she said. As for the men in the village, they all want to sleep with her. Dorothy suggested she make friends with some older women. She said when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Swaziland, she found older women a great source of wisdom and comfort. The current Peace Corps folks enjoyed talking with Chuck and Dorothy about their experiences in an earlier time. One change that was noted was that in Dorothy’s time in the 1970s, the Americans were always paired with at least one other volunteer. Now each of these kids was the only one in their village.

Besides the ones from Boston and Philadelphia, there was a young man who’d been born in Rome to American parents with the United Nations and another born in the south of France to artists now living in Ohio. An interesting bunch. And dinner was wonderful. The menu had a whole page of vegetarian offerings and I took advantage. (I did enjoy Flag beer in Senegal and later in our travels, Castle beer in Mali and S.O.B. Bra beer in Burkina Faso.)

Senegal 2 women, treeThe next day we drove with a taxi driver we’d hired named Cissé to St. Louis. The total for the ride up and back was seventy-five thousand CFAs or under one hundred fifty dollars, which we split three ways. The drive was rather unpleasant what with the exhaust fumes from trucks and buses and cars. Cissé said too many people don’t take proper care of their vehicles, implying he was not among those. And indeed, he arrived that morning with his cab newly washed, the trunk lined with fresh brown paper and he himself dressed in a sparkling white outfit: pants with a long matching shirt with white embroidery.

street sellerWe rode on stretches of highway – frequently three lanes with a great deal of white-knuckle passing – interspersed with small towns or settlements of thatched roof dwellings and always the makeshift stalls. “Everyday a market day,” Dorothy remarked. Fruits and vegetables, baskets, clay pots – though no ironing boards – and goats roaming free, horses pulling carts, donkeys too, and other horse-drawn carts for people. Those last with cheerful-sounding strings of bells attached.

basketsWe stopped at one roadside setup of baskets and tea, the tea leaves bound up in three-foot long bundles. Chuck bought one bunch of tea for his host family in St. Louis, and Dorothy and I bought baskets. Unlike traditional baskets bound with strips of the same material, these were bound with strips of plastic which must come on a roll. A modern convenience and obviously popular because that was the only way all the baskets we saw in Senegal were made.

st. louis houseSt. Louis is on the outermost northern tip of Senegal near the border with Mauritania. It must have been truly lovely once, but today it looks like a rundown version of pre-Katrina New Orleans – latticework, balconies, painted shutters and doors and houses in pastel shades, most needing repair and paint. Crossing the bridge onto the island, we went first to the home of another of Chuck’s former host families: Madior, his wife Awa and their three children, Miriam, Badou and Yunuss. Chuck had written ahead but the project on which he and Madior had worked had closed down so the mail was not received, and Chuck’s arrival with bags in hand was therefore a complete surprise. Nevertheless, the family was obviously delighted to see him, though I suspect the wife was less than thrilled with the prospect of having two American women show up. She disappeared shortly after introductions and picture-taking to, as it turned out, shower. We excused ourselves from dinner as Dorothy was not feeling well.

124-2409_IMGOur destination, chosen by Dorothy as a respite after the hassle (and hustle) of Dakar, was the Hotel Cote du Cap on the very tip of the island. To reach it we had to drive past what Chuck described as a fishing village. But that was much too quaint and benign a term. Ramshackle shacks, lean-tos, just a staked-out patch of ground, all jammed together on either side of the road by the river. The people stared at us in our taxi and we looked back at them. But as in much of this journey, I refrained from photographing. The picture of the squalor will remain in my mind, however, along with the embarrassment I felt as we proceeded not very far down the road and through the gate onto the quite elegant grounds of the hotel. There we found beautiful landscaping, tiki-style buildings, bar, restaurant, individual bed and bath chambers, impeccably presented African staff and groups of French tourists. I made four more trips through the “fishing village,” each time hating the picture I presented to the residents. There but for – as Dorothy says – “an accident of birth.”

st louis streetCissé had agreed, for an additional price, to take us that afternoon to the Parc National aux Oiseaux du Djoerdi, a bird park sixty kilometers from St. Louis. Dorothy begged off but I said I’d be interested, so Chuck and Cissé and I went back through the “village” and into St. Louis. Cissé left to get some lunch – and probably to pray as Muslims must do five times a day – and Chuck and I took a walk around the town’s perimeter. The sellers and the beggars were slightly more restrained than in Dakar but still omnipresent. Every time I raised my camera to take a picture, I thought of the line in the guidebook suggesting that the cost of my camera probably exceeded most African’s annual income. But it is impossible to buy every trinket offered or honor ever child’s request for money or a “bon bon,” and so my most repeated phrase became “merci, non.”baby in back

I learned that Chuck intended to visit another of his former host families near the bird park, so when my camera battery died – couldn’t go to a bird park without a working camera – I decided to skip the trip and give Chuck more time to visit his friends. But I guess he had really wanted to show us – and especially Dorothy – his old village because in the end he didn’t go either and just had Cissé take him back to the home in St. Louis where he was staying.

Senegal cattle

I rejoined Dorothy at the hotel where she’d had a rest and a swim and shower and was feeling better. We walked out onto the very white sand of the beach, picking up shells. Presently, we observed a wonderful sight: three or four young boys driving a herd of long-horned cattle through the surf. I began shooting pictures with my rejuvenated camera when suddenly one of the boys began running toward us, waving his staff in one hand and extending the other hand toward us. He shouted, “Photo, photo,” and I thought he wanted my camera. Dorothy and I panicked and began running back toward the hotel. The boy gave up the chase, and that was when we realized he just wanted to be paid for the privilege of taking his picture. Sheepishly, we hurried back to the hotel and collapsed into chairs at the outdoor bar.

It was clear that we had become spooked by Senegal, since that was the third scary incident we’d experienced. The first occurred one morning when Dorothy and I went out in Dakar in search of a cyber-café. We kept asking people and following their directions only to find places that were closed or no longer existed. We were heading for yet another one when we were approached by a very tall African man dressed in the native garb called a bou-bou, a full-length robe-like garment. “Oh hello,” he said, “I know you from the hotel.” He stuck out his hand and we instinctively shook it. He asked where we were headed and said he knew of a cyber-café back in the opposite direction, and he offered to show us. We became suspicious, not least because neither of us remembered anyone like him at the hotel, but also because we had been warned that a common ploy among thieves in Dakar was to lure tourists to a spot where an accomplice would await to assist with a holdup. We thanked the man but insisted we would continue in the direction we were headed. The man followed us around the corner where, thankfully, there appeared a cyber-café – and it was open! We rushed inside and made arrangements for use of the Internet, while the man waited outside on the sidewalk. We determined we would stay inside using computers for however long it took to discourage our companion, but after a half hour’s computer use we went outside to find him gone. But the thought of what might have happened kept our knees weak for several hours afterward.

The second scare occurred on one of our many trips from the bank. Because everyone – shopkeepers, restaurants, the hotel – wanted to be paid in cash, CFAs to be exact, we were constantly forced to draw money from ATMs. One time, as we hurried along the crowded street, two youths approached and one suddenly grabbed at Chuck’s fanny pack, which he had turned toward the front, shouting “Belge, Belge!” (Belgian). Immediately and instinctively, Chuck locked the young man’s arm in the crook of his own arm. Dorothy and I began screaming, and while that drew mildly interested glances from passersby, no one came to our aid.Eventually, the man released his grip on the pack and Chuck released his arm. The two would-be thieves walked off, laughing. Another event that left us shaken.

Dorothy and I had been pinning our passports, travelers checks, U.S. cash and airline tickets inside our clothes and pinning shut our pants pockets in which to carry CFAs and one (mostly useless except for the ATM) credit card. (One day later on in our journey, I made the mistake of wearing a dress, slipping a canvass purse-like thing underneath and through my bra strap. When the bank in Bamako required my passport, I was forced to retire to the restroom and almost completely undress to get at it. Pants with pockets proved far easier.)

The Hotel Cote du Cap in St. Louis provided a pleasant respite. We enjoyed drinks and dinner and a restful night in our little tiki-hut, marveling over the constantly smoking French tourists and stumbling through conversations with the help. We left in the morning when Chuck and Cissé arrived, driving one last time through the fishing village. I hid my disappointment that Chuck had not gotten the picture he’d promised of families frying up huge batches of freshly caught fish in big pans made from old oil drums.

I told Dorothy I was beginning to feel animosity toward the French and all the other colonialists who had left these countries in such deplorable states. “Yes,” she said, “the colonial powers did plunder the countries of Africa and since then, some of the blame for the current situation lies with corrupt leadership in many countries over the last 50 years.

We returned to Dakar and to dinner at the Cap Verdean restaurant for more non-Sengalese food. The next morning, we arose early for a quick dash to a cyber-café that was purported to open at nine o’clock and which was still closed at ten-thirty. Then back to the hotel to bid farewell to Chuck who was regretfully returning to New Haven. At noon, Cissé picked us up and drove us to the airport where there was much less hassle going than coming.

dakar museumSeveral weeks later, after excursions in Mali and Burkina Faso, we returned to Dakar for a day and a half before our return flight back to the states. We had been dreading the airport scene but we’d learned a lesson. We found a porter to help with the bags and told him we needed a taxi. He rolled the luggage cart past all the clamoring seekers of our business to a spot where the cabs are supposed to queue up and got us and our things loaded in fairly calmly. He accepted two thousand CFAs for his help and seemed pleased. It was not until we were on our way into the city, however, that we asked the drive the fare. Ten thousand CFAs, five thousand each. Dorothy began to argue but gave it up. Part of the hassle last time involved Chuck bartering with the driver on the cost. The price posted at the airport was six thousand CFAs. So we were ripped off. But then, we thought, there was something to be said for making a smooth getaway.

Senegal high riseDakar looked better than I remembered it: clear blue sky, sun glinting off the water, large attractive homes and apartments along wide streets. But then we entered the downtown area near our hotel, and the streets narrowed and became crowded with shops and sellers and importuners. Still, the temperature was seventy-six degrees, compared to what we’d estimated must have been one hundred twelve in Burkina Faso and Mali. And The Ganalé hotel had an air conditioned room with CNN on the TV and a bar downstairs. And hot water and a real toilet with a seat. Heaven!

After drinks in the bar, we walked over to the Cap Verdean restaurant we’d visited twice before and ordered different versions of yassa – Dorothy’s with calamari and mine with legumes. A young family just arrived from London sat at the next table. Senegal kora playerWhen the man who plays the kora, a twenty-four stringed instrument made from a large casaba rind, stood at their table playing for a very long time, we whispered to one another that the family didn’t know they were supposed to tip him by dropping money into the hole in the back of the instrument. So when he moved to our table, we very knowingly made our contribution and he sang his song, inserting our names into the lyrics. We felt like old hands.

As we prepared to leave, Dorothy was approached by another diner and shrieked his name: Oleg, a book vendor she dealt with in Canada. He was also on a book-buying trip. We sat at his table and talked and then we all moved to the bar at The Ganalé where we drank more wine and talked some more. Originally from Turkmenistan, Oleg had moved recently to Quebec with his wife and two young children. He and Dorothy had a great deal of professional talking to do but I did manage to ask how someone from Russia ended up in African studies. He explained that Turkmenistan is somewhat close to North Africa so he began with an interest in that region and then just moved on to the rest of the continent.

The next day, our last in West Africa, we slept late and were thrilled to be able to watch the news and drink our coffee. We pulled ourselves away from the TV long enough to go downstairs for breakfast and then back to the room. We both were nursing wine-induced headaches, but the day was so glorious we forced ourselves to go out. The moment we set foot on the pavement, the Dakar Hustle began. “Hello madam. Need a taxi, madam?” “A guide?” “Socks?” “A watch?” “Merci, non,” we said. “Tres jolie, but non.”

We’d gone a block or two and down a side street when a young man passed us and said, “Bon jour, Hotel Ganale” as he walked by. We didn’t recognize him from the hotel. Farther on, on Avenue Pompidou, two other men greeted us and one began to follow us, insisting on shaking our hands and saying “bon jour.” “Because Dakar is a friendly place,” he said. He pointed to his black hand, enclosing my white hand and said, “This kind of friendship is good for the world.” I agreed and extricated my hand. We were by now moving across the street and still he followed and then offered Dorothy “un cadeau” (a gift) “as a sign of friendship. It was a little necklace, which she refused. I was a bit removed from them, and I noticed a man in a pickup truck slow and give a shake of his head and a hand gesture indicating we should not accept anything. “It’s ok,” I said, “we know.” We quickly moved away and then another man started walking alongside us and telling us that we should not accept gifts from people like that because next they expect you to give them money, whereas he, on the other hand, was a good guy and just wanted to be friendly. We shook him off by walking rapidly into the very upscale Sofitel Hotel, a place we remarked later, represented a different world altogether from the one we had just walked through.

We were unnerved by the fact that at least two men, maybe more, knew where we were staying. We took the time to browse in the lobby art gallery, wandered out onto a veranda with a breathtaking view of the ocean and a footbridge leading to the beach. Inside, in the bar, we asked if we could order a cold drink, and the bartender suggested orange juice. It came in tall glasses with a straw and accompanied by a bowl of ground nuts (peanuts), a familiar accompaniment to drinks throughout West Africa. But here, in the upscale Sofitel, the nuts were warm! It occurred to me that for some travelers, this was the Senegal they experienced.

As we sat with our juice, Dorothy noticed a man at the end of the bar watching us and said he looked familiar. We also began imagining, if all those people knew we were away from our hotel, what might be happening in our room? Thoroughly spooked, we decided to take a cab back. As Dorothy said, this was no time to be tempting fate. As we began to leave, the man at the bar approached us, saying he had something to show us. We waved him off and rushed outside and into a taxi. I noted that the drivers at The Sofitel spoke excellent English.

Back in the lower-rent district, on one of the most beautiful days of our entire five weeks in Africa, my cousin and I sat in our hotel room, reading books and watching TV and waiting for it to be time to go to the airport. The Dakar Hustle had done us in.

[2004]

One comment on “African Tales

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