How Senegal’s Dakar Will Surprise You

I spent about a week in Dakar to accumulate nine West African visas. Although a few West African countries give you a visa at the border, it’s always better to have the visa prior to arrival to guarantee your entry. It seems that the primary duty of African border officials is to ignore whatever their government websites say.

When I asked my journalist friend, Rachel J. Stern, what surprised her the most when she arrived in Dakar. She said, “I was especially struck by the stylish women donning heels, snazzy jeans, and tank tops. They looked more like they hailed from Manhattan rather than what I previously associated with African women in a Muslim country. That was a good wake up call. And it was impressive to see the muscular men running along the N’gor beach playing football at all hours of the day. Beautiful people.”

What surprised me in Dakar

While a mechanic was working on my car, I had some street food. I sat in the shade on a wooden bench with some young men covered in grease. Our chef was a woman in her early 30s with a baby tied to her back. She tended to the charcoal fires under a few massive aluminum pots. They contained white rice, beef, and okra. There was also pasta and niebe (beans). It cost $1 to get a plate.

Suddenly, in front of all these young men, our cook removed her top, revealed her naked breasts for all of us to see, and then placed the baby on one of her nipples.

If she had to serve a new customer, she would put the baby aside, heap the rice while her breasts flopped around for all the customers to see, pass the plate to the customer, sit down again, and place the baby back on her nipples.

Having just come from conservative Morocco and Mauritania, where women do their best to cover up their seductive ankles, seeing this mother’s behavior made me choke! She was a Muslim, just like her Moroccan and Mauritanian sisters. But culturally, at least on the issue of public breastfeeding, she was from another planet.

Dakar is a relatively pleasant, and sometimes surprising, capital. For example, all the important streets have paved roads, making you think that it’s a modern city. However, side roads are full of potholes or are covered with sand. Another quirky thing is that occasionally you’ll see a cow roaming the streets.

The infamous African Renaissance Monument

Finally, there’s the 49-meter African Renaissance Monument, which is Africa’s tallest and most controversial statue . It was unveiled in 2010 on Senegal’s 50th anniversary of independence. I love it but few agree with me. Some dislike the macho “sexist” man next to the woman with a baby. Some think that the three faces don’t even look African. Some dislike the statue’s Stalinist vibe.

Finally, Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow pointed out the contradiction of having the North Koreans build the $27 million bulky bronze statue that was meant to symbolize Africa’s proud rebirth. If Africa can’t even build its own statue, then what kind of renaissance is that?

I stayed with Cheikh Seck, who is a bigamist. His two wives seemed to get along but perhaps they were just acting. Four in 10 Senegalese marriages are polygamous. Following Islamic protocol, the wives live in separate dwellings with their direct offspring to minimize conflict.

However, for festivals, the entire family unites to celebrate. They served ceebu yap (meat with rice) on massive platters. The men crowded around one platter while the women did the same in a different room. In Senegal, everyone eats with their right hand off the same platter. The left hand is reserved for unclean toilet acts. Any woman caught eating with her left hand is doomed to bigamy.

The Senegalese are unusually religious. Half of the Senegalese told Pew Research that their country should strictly follow the Quran—that’s the highest rate in the Sub-Sahara. In 2014, most Africans said that religion is the happiest area of their life. Overwhelming majorities in Senegal (92%), Nigeria (84%), Uganda (78%) and Ghana (78%) say that they are “most satisfied” with their religious life. In contrast, Africans rate their standard of living and job lowest in the world. Roughly a third or fewer in Ghana (34%), Kenya (25%), Uganda (25%) and Tanzania (17%) say they are happy with their material well-being. In conclusion, Africans are spiritually happy but materially unhappy.

God sure tests the faith of Africans . A World Values survey revealed that 78 percent of Sub-Saharans went to a religious service once a week. Compare that to Brazil (48%), India (44%), the USA (36%), Germany/France (8%), and Sweden/Norway (4%). Assuming that those who attend religious services frequently are likely to pray for wealth and prosperity, then it seems that God isn’t listening. Africans pray more than anyone but, in this world, God is blessing the godless Scandinavians the most.

The Senegalese are a religious paradox. They don’t seem religious because they don’t preach to you, their dress is revealing, and they don’t seem to care what your religious beliefs are. A pastor at a Christian Monastery near Lake Rose said that Senegalese Christians live in harmony with their fellow Muslims.

On the other hand, the Senegalese seem more religious than the Muslims up north (Mauritania and Morocco). Regardless where I was in Senegal, it seemed that Muslims were doing prayers five times per day. Some even did extra prayers to get a “bonus” for being super pious. They seem fanatical but they’ve never committed a major terrorist attack. On the contrary, Senegalese love America.

In short, Senegalese Muslims are excellent ambassadors to their faith —they take their religion seriously but they won’t slaughter you if you don’t take it seriously too.

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