The Hidden Jewel of Africa’s West Coast
Text and photos by Craig Harris
I waited in line at LAX, stripped of my shoes, belt, pocket change, watch, and wallet—the usual routine these days for passengers boarding a plane—but something was not right. Had I forgotten something? Sweat trickled down my neck as I handed the security guard my carry-on bag. Our eyes met as she sternly asked what that small bottle of liquid was in my backpack. Oh f**k, my nasal decongestant. I was ready to retreat as I waited for Klaxons to sound throughout the airport and SWAT teams to surround me, an imagined terrorist. Instead, the guard swiftly and carefully extracted and discarded the liquid and I was pushed through to the other side without any fanfare. I had made it. Free from airport security, I realigned myself and felt a sense of accomplishment.
My wife and I, along with a few friends, were on our way to Senegal, one of Africa’s best-kept secrets. Our Senegalese friend Boubacar, who organized the trip, works for Air France out of L.A. As a result, our economy-class tickets magically became first-class vouchers. Never had I traveled in such style and experienced such extraordinary service: At 6 feet 4 inches I was able to fully extend my legs, and when I pushed the massage button on my seat, I was awakened to a whole new level of air travel. The 14-hour flight was smooth but we still arrived in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, tired and jet-lagged. Dizzily we collected our luggage. Customs agents looked us over quickly and asked if I had brought them any presents. Ah, the Third World, what a delight! Outside the airport some of Boubacar’s family and friends anxiously waited for our arrival. Once we were on the street it was chaos: Money exchangers, taxi drivers, and hawkers all dived upon us. Moments later we were whisked into a car and driven off to Boubacar’s mother’s home. We stayed up late soaking in our first hot, humid night in Senegal. Senegal’s 10 million citizens are primarily dependant upon agriculture—particularly peanuts—to sustain economic stability. In recent years, however, fishing has become a major part of the domestic and export markets. The country has also produced such well-known musicians as Baaba Maal, Orchestra Baobab, Nusan Dor, and Chok; lately it has become a destination for the music-oriented tourist. My wife Giselle and I have seen Baaba Maal perform in Santa Barbara and Orchestra Baobab in San Luis Obispo, but to witness them in their own backyard was special. While in Dakar, we frequented the club Just for You many times to hear outstanding local music.
We spent many days shuffling through the streets of the city exploring the outdoor markets and bargaining for the brightly colored fabric in which most Senegalese women adorn themselves. “How many pieces you want? More you buy, better price,” they said. We were constantly bombarded with questions: “You like George Bush?” “Hear he is not well-liked.” “What do you think of the Iraq War?” Sometimes answering a question led to a political dialogue that found us agreeing on many levels. Not far from Dakar is the island of Gorée. It was a trading center during the 18th and 19th centuries, but is infamous for its use as a slave house. For three centuries, Africans were captured for slavery and embarked from Gorée Island to America (mainly Louisiana and the West Indies). Historians estimate that of the 20 million slaves taken from Africa, about 300 each year may have gone through Gorée. House of Slaves, one of the most visited museums in Senegal, is a testimonial of the slave trade and reminded us of this painful era. Gorée is now a quaint island with a population of roughly 1,000 people with plenty of restaurants and a few hotels.
One cannot leave Senegal without exploring the northern end of Dakar, known as St. Louis, the first French settlement in Africa. When you realize the impact the French had on this continent, it’s incredible to think that the place where it all began has barely changed for more than a century. Most of the locals earn their living from fishing. The beaches of this remote town are lined with hand-fashioned boats, literally hundreds all painted colorfully. While zigzagging through the maze of boats, we were followed by the local kids who carried live crabs as play toys and loved to shove them in our faces. What a pleasure! Upon leaving Senegal, Boubacar’s family and friends followed us to the airport. Sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and friends all wished us a farewell. For an hour or so all of us hung outside the terminal enjoying the balmy Senegalese night. Numerous times the airport would lose its electricity and the generators would automatically kick on. I jokingly would say the airport has no juice and that may well have been, technically speaking. But Senegal is actually full of juice and for the two weeks we were there it proved beyond a doubt to be one of Africa’s best-kept secrets.