Article and Photos: FARUK BUDAK
The Pearl of West Africa
Dakar is the one place in the world where you can not only feel the Atlantic’s vast expanse in your bones but feel it at Africa’s westernmost point on the ocean.
As West Africa’s largest sheltered harbor, Dakar for centuries has been a major port for maritime traffic in the Europe-Africa-America triangle. The Lebou, a small ethnic group attached to one of the country’s largest groups, the Volofs, first settled on the Cape Verde peninsula where the city now stands in the 15th century. When the Portuguese, the first European power in Africa, started trading in 1444 via the island of Gorée, a village was founded at the location of today’s city to supply water and food for the Europeans. The original core of Dakar, this village grew with the support of peanut and cotton production and the rise of trade, eventually developing into the capital of French West Africa. A young city with a population of two million today, it is West Africa’s largest center of finance and trade.
Finishing line of the famous Dakar Rally
The city has earned worldwide fame as the finishing point of the famous Paris-Dakar Rally since 1978. However the race has been shifted to South America. Although Dakar is known as its finishing point, in fact the race ends on the shores of Lake Retba, the Pink Lake, about forty kilometers away.
Trying to swim in the pink waters of this lake, on whose surface humans can float without sinking due to its high salinity of over forty percent, is a pleasurable experience. Strolling and swimming on the Atlantic’s virgin beaches just behind the lake is an opportunity not to be missed.
A ‘Grand’ Mosque
You can’t miss Dakar’s Grand Mosque which is visible from all over the city. Completed in 1964 and exhibiting typical Moroccan influence, this mosque rises impressively with its seventy-meter-high minaret among the lower buildings in the city’s Medina district. The Cathedral, built in 1920, is another of the major architectural monuments worth seeing here. Ditto for the city’s markets, known as the Marché Sandaga and Marché Kermel, venues humming with activity where you can find everything from wooden statuary to leather goods.
Dakar’s cultural icon, the IFAN Museum throws light on the cultures of West Africa with its thousands of artifacts collected from various parts of the region. But its most important pieces are the ceremonial masks and headpieces of the Dogon tribe who live in Mali. The IFAN offers an even more impressive collection of such pieces than the National Museum in the Mali capital Bamako.
Besides such prominent official buildings as the Foreign Ministry and the Chamber of Commerce, the city’s main square, known as the Place de l’Independence, also boasts several airline offices and travel agencies.
Ile de Gorée: A Good Harbor
Dakar without Gorée is unthinkable, as is Gorée without Dakar. You must set aside two or three hours to tour this tiny island which is so important in terms of its historic past. Gorée has always been a safe anchoring place thanks to the natural protection provided by Cape Verde which juts into the Atlantic. The Dutch, who captured the island from the Portuguese in 1588, dubbed it ‘Goere Reede’, or ‘good harbor’. Small but of great strategic importance and easily defended, this island has changed hands time and again between the European powers.
Access to the island is provided by ferries that leave from Dakar harbor next to the main train station. You feel you’ve embarked on a voyage into the past the minute the ferry slips between the giant freighters, cargo vessels and trans-Atlantic liners and heads for the open sea. Passing a castle on the south point, it approaches the island’s landing stage.
In The Shade of The Baobab Trees
There are no automobiles on Gorée. Government Square and most of the streets are covered with sand. The pervasive quiet and visual images you will experience while strolling through the island’s streets will draw you right in. And the exuberantly blooming bougainvillea hanging down over the streets from the walls of the old stone houses will offer you a warm welcome. In a comprehensive conservation project launched by UNESCO and the Senegalese government at the end of the 1970s, buildings damaged by neglect over the years have been taken under protection and begun to be restored. A short hike to the top of the island will continue in the shade of the baobab trees, which are regarded as sacred by several tribes in Africa. The view of Dakar from the hilltop is well worth the effort of the climb. This 360-degree panorama will take you to the threshold of Africa and the Atlantic. Opposite you, Dakar, so close you can almost touch it, and behind you the Atlantic’s vast expanse.
When you come back down the hill it’s time for a visit to a small castle that has recently become a museum. The secluded chambers around the circular central courtyard have been turned into a lovely museum relating the history of Senegal and Gorée.
I suggest that you rest a little and, if you like, take a break for an excellent meal in this tranquil spot before returning by ferry. My recommendation is the “Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers” with its historic character and pleasant terrace overlooking the beach and the ferry landing. This building, the home on Gorée of Jean-Stanislas de Boufflers, governor of Senegal, who moved here in 1785 from the city of St. Louis, at the point where the Senegal River empties into the Atlantic, has for now been converted into a small hotel. The restaurant owners offer unique and different tastes concocted from seafood.
Dakar in Song
Dakar, which won an American Grammy Award for ‘Best Contemporary World Music Album’ in 2005, is the birthplace of Youssou N’Dour, a world class singer. In the caste system which, although less strict than that of Hinduism, nevertheless exists among the people of West Africa, this musician has made it his mission to relate the life, history and past of his tribe to the younger generation to the accompaniment of music. Born in the Medina district of Dakar as the child of a family of Griots, a hereditary caste whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and entertain with stories and songs, he grew up in this culture. As a son of the Griot, this extremely successful Dakar artist continues to keep the Griot tradition alive today in the best possible way.
In his songs he lyricizes about the beauty and loves of the Senegalese women, about everyday life in his country, about his people’s suffering, and about slavery and racism. His music is a synthesis of jazz and soul with traditional Senegalese music. A duet he sings with Neneh Cherry in ‘Seven Seconds’, his most popular song, was instrumental in gaining him world recognition.
Unlike the other cities of West Africa, this vibrant city stands out for its busy nightlife, lively performances, and film, art and music festivals. To my mind the best thing about this city is the countless and wonderful opportunities it offers you to experience the spirit of West Africa, like the vastness of the Atlantic, deep in your soul almost 24/7.
Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Dakkar on Wednesdays and Sundays with returns on Mondays and Thursdays .