– visited April 2016 –
I enter Senegal by boat, crossing the river of the same name from Mauritania. Rosso is a provincial town and as I see no ATM, I change a note of 20€ to have some cash. A minivan drives down the road slowly and someone shouts Saint-Louis. They stop for me. I have seen this in many parts of the world where transport operates on the we-leave-when-full-maxim. They prowl the streets to fill up the car and as this saves me the walk to the bus station I hop on. It should have made me suspicious that we kept on driving, leaving for Saint-Louis without the car being full. After some time on the road, we are stopped by police. It’s an anti-smuggling unit and they turn the car upside down. They find a lot of stuff, especially sugar, on which duties have not been properly paid. The negotiations take time before being resolved by either a fine or a bribe, I don’t know, I wasn’t involved, they negotiated in the distance and the language spoken was incomprehensible to me.
With a natural harbour where the river Senegal empties into the Atlantic Ocean, Saint-Louis was a natural fit as a port and trading centre. Muslim pilgrims departed for Mecca and European traders came to visit. French traders first received permission, for a small annual payment, to settle on the uninhabited island in the Senegal river in 1659. Slaves, hides, beeswax, ambergris and, later, gum arabic were exported. In these days, the colonialists were still content with coastal trading posts, preferably on islands easy to defend, and showed little interest in dominating or even exploring the inland areas. The French traded with the various kingdoms that existed in Senegalese (or Mauritanian) lands.
Only in the second half of the 19th century did France begin to expand its foothold onto the Senegalese mainland. Saint-Louis developed into one of the pre-eminent colonial cities, became the capital of first the French colony of Senegal and later (1895 to 1902) the capital of all of French West Africa. This history gained the Island of Saint-Louis recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “an outstanding example of a colonial city” and for exhibiting “an important exchange of values and influences on the development of education and culture, architecture, craftsmanship, and services in a large part of West Africa.”
My visit to the historic quarters of Saint-Louis’s is cut short and will spend the next six hours on various police stations. What happened? It’s a combination of bad luck and my own stubbornness. It turns out that most of the northern part of the Island of Saint-Louis is a military area, that is so well camouflaged that it basically feels like a totally normal city. There is no fence, I see no signs and the only hint is a higher number of men in military fatigues. I wander through the area and take some pictures. A man in civilian clothing approaches me and tells me not to take pictures as this would be a military area. This is where my stubbornness comes in, just because someone (whom I don’t know) tells me not to take pictures, does not mean that I do as told. I switch to a more careful mode. I walk two more streets and have long kind of forgotten that there was something as this mildly interesting basketball court comes up. The moment I get my camera out I hear shouting and a soldier stands behind me. Turns out I am close to the headquarters where I soon am honoured to get inside. It also turns out the man in civilian clothing was some higher-up who is absolutely furious at me. “I told you, I warned you.” Sorry, I didn’t take you seriously, I have to confess. I get out my best French for the occasion. They want to see the pictures I took. A house here, a restaurant there, the mosque, an old historic crane. Yesterday, I took pictures of the Faidherbe Bridge and some pictures of my arrival in Senegal. They soon kind of come around that I am no threat and the exchange becomes quite amiable but they say they already contacted the police and would need to send me there.
In the first post, they don’t seem to know what to do with me and so I am send on to some “investigative unit”. I am not sure if the boss of this unit is an asshole or if he is behaving like one for professional reasons. He accuses me of illegal entry into Senegal as I do not have a visa. I tell him there is no need for a visa as the government decided to scrap visas to encourage tourism. A very good and sensible decision by the way. They again go through all my picture. They are all there twice as I took them in RAW and JPEG. I am told that I would need permission for every picture I took, every single one of them. The boss tells his aide to delete all the pictures, a crime which he dutifully carries out. As they give me the card back without any further delay, I know that I can easily recover the pictures once back at my computer. I message some friends back home to let them know what happened. After the first round of accusations things settle down. I ask what the plan is and why I still need to be here as they deleted all the pictures. “We check your name in all the databases.” For the next hours it’s a waiting game. I read on my kindle, give them some money to buy me some water, they share their food (rice with chicken) with me and we wait as there is no response yet.
I try to raise the pressure by telling them I want to contact my embassy. He pushes the phone towards me, “please”, I think he correctly assumes that I don’t have the number. It get’s evening and I start to entertain the thought that I might have to spend the night in this lovely station. I ask myself if they maybe had other ideas like checking out my things in the hotel, at least they asked me where I am staying. Suddenly the boss comes over, he tells me the response arrived, I would be “une personne inconnu”, an unknown person, and therefore free to go. He hands me my passport back.
All in all, they were fairly professional. No attempts to take anything from me, no attempts to get a bribe. And I even kind of understand that they saw an issue that they wanted to have resolved. I still decide to leave Saint-Louis the next morning. No interest of running into trouble again.
Dakar is a city of one million with the metropolitan area being home to nearly four million people. Situated on a peninsula that forms a large natural harbour it began to eclipse Saint-Louis and succeeded it as the dominant city in French West Africa, taking the role of capital from 1902 onwards. It is a big city with a few monuments of colonial history like the Chambre de Commerce at the Independence square or the beautiful train station.
Plateau, the historical heart of the city, sits, as the name suggests, on a raised plateau at the tip of the peninsula. On one side the waves of the Atlantic come crashing, on the other the sea is calm. I have a look at the Musée Theodore Monod which holds a wide array of African art (no pictures allowed unfortunately), the Our Lady of Victories Cathedral or the Grand Mosque (no access unfortunately).
Away from the centre, I pay a visit to the Layen Mausoleum and the beautiful sand at N’Gor. Dakar’s newest attractions is the African Renaissance Monument (Monument de la Renaissance Africaine). The 52-metre-tall copper statue was inaugurated in 2010 with the statement that “Africa has arrived in the 21st century standing tall and more ready than ever to take its destiny into its hands.” While a lot about that is true, the monument is in many ways a symbol of the old Africa. The brainchild of a former Senegalese president, it was being fabricated in North Korea (monumental statues are a strong export earner for the DPRK) and a Romanian was instrumental in the design process. Its 27 million US$ price tag was greeted by protest in Dakar’s streets and the perceived immodesty of the semi-nude figures strongly criticised by Senegal’s religious leaders. This is not how people around here dress. To top it all off, the former president claimed 35% of the tourism profits of the statue for his “intellectual property” to the monument. So, you use public money to build a monument whose main aim seems to be to give you a moment in the sun (19 African heads of state visited for the unveiling), where you stick your name on and leave a “Message to the Youth” and after all that you want to receive some of the income generated by the monument? Thankfully, the Senegalese didn’t buy it and kicked him out in the next election. Since independence, Senegal has seen peaceful transfers of power and since the early 1990s it is a functioning democracy.
It’s visa time. I have done my research and collected as much information as I could. That is not a lot as nearly no embassy has a website, so I am mostly in the dark about opening hours and visa rules. On maps (Open Street Maps or Google) I could locate embassies for the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and Ghana. I had arrived to Dakar on a Wednesday, meaning that Thursday is the first day I can head to any embassy as they are mostly receiving applications in the morning only. As I can get the Gambian visa on the border, Guinea-Bissau is the next destination where I need to acquire a visa in advance and so I head to that embassy first. I leave my application and head to the Liberian and Ivory Coast embassy to check out their rules. Liberia is difficult, demanding a letter of invitation. Often visas are easier to get, the closer you come to the country, so I leave Liberia for a later capital city. But generally, my rule is to try to get as many visas as possible if I can get them. The next day, I pick up my passport with the visa for Guinea-Bissau and apply for the Ivory Coast visa. The process is easy but I will need to wait three days for the visa to be processed. Time to leave Dakar but stay close.
Île de Gorée
The Île de Gorée was included in the first set of twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated in 1978 as “an exceptional testimony to one of the greatest tragedies in the history of human societies: the slave trade”. A small island sheltered by Dakar’s peninsula, Gorée was one of the first places settled by Europeans on the African continent. It changed hands several times between Portugal, the Dutch republic and Great Britain from the 15th to the 17th century but was in French hands for most of the time since 1677. One half of the island is full of colonial architecture, the other is home to a fort. Tourists, Senegalese and foreigners, flock to the little island and many go on visiting the House of Slaves. 200,000 annual visitors look through the “Door of No Return”, from which slaves could be loaded directly onto ships. Since the publication of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” many African-American tourists arrive trying to connect with their lost heritage, trying to image what happened to one of their ancestors.
Historians dispute the role of the Île de Gorée in the slave trade. Yes, there were slaves on the island and some trade was going on but in volume and importance Gorée was far behind other slaving ports. Still, the museum is a moving memorial to a terrible chapter in human history.
I stay at “Chez Valerie” which has small but very beautiful rooms. A football tournament is taking place, the field is pure sand, uneven, and a big Baobab is growing right in the middle of it. The level of play is good and very competitive. And well, the French National Team once played on this field as they visited the island.
Back in Dakar, I collect my Ivory Coast visa and leave. Long-distance transport in Senegal is mostly handled by “sept-place”. That means old Peugeot 504 or the slightly newer 505 in the Familial version with a third row of seats meaning that besides the driver seven passengers can be transported. The standard practice it to put 10 people in the car though. Four in each of the two rows and two people share the seat next to the driver. The bags that do not fit in the small boot go on the roof. I arrive at the “sept-place” station and it still takes time for the car to fill up. We leave late in the afternoon and ride into the night. I am not too keen on a late-night arrival but in Senegal I am in no way worried about my safety. It is just that all is dark as we arrive in the small village of Toubakouta and I, as well as the driver, have trouble locating the hotels I have marked on my map. We finally find a night guard who lets me in to pitch my tent in the garden. As I cannot organize a decently-priced tour to the nearby islands rich in bird life the next morning, I head on to the Gambia.