Dakar. A Fantasy Land

A beacon of hope, the ‘hub’ of West Africa.


The furthest West point in Africa, it sticks out like an arm, drawing you in like an embrace.  Enticing.  So many people dream of living in this wildly busy place.  Dakar is a symbol of wealth.  Of opportunity.  Of work.  Of success. From historical times, people have come to this place, giving up everything; their families, their livestock, their identity, in hopes of arriving in this city and being presented with a different life.  Many people arrive, site unseen.  What a surprise they have in store. From the 1500’s until today, the beacon of hope led thousands to the shore of the hook of Dakar.  They had heard that there was work there.  There was opportunity.  And there was escape.  There were boats and planes there that would take you to places like France or America, where dreams could come true.  There you could go and work and live like kings!  The lands of opportunity were now available.  People came in masse from all over Africa in hopes of a new life.  Leaving friends, family, houses, children.  Leaving the lives in their villages that they had always known.  They were the hope of the community.  They sent their best and their strongest.  Boys and girls of 15 or 16, sure to be welcomed with open arms in the glowing cities of France.  Dreams could not compare to reality because they had no idea what the countries would be like.

Amadou kissed his daughter Astou goodbye.  She had just began to walk yesterday, wobbling over the sand.  His wife Fatimata looked at him with pride.  Her husband was the one who had been chosen by the village to go to Dakar in hopes of getting a boat to the New World.  He was 23, strong, and had enough sheep to sell in order to pay for the trip to Dakar.  Once there, he had just enough to buy some food for a few days.  He had brought some knives and bowls that Fatimata had decorated in hopes of trading them for a place to stay, if necessary.  The village lavished him with prayers and good wishes.  They had heard that Abdulaye Sy from the neighboring village, who had left just two weeks ago, had already found a way and was maybe in France already!  Hooray!  Soon their village expected to receive money from his work that he would be sure to achieve there.  Amadou was encouraged by this news as he began his walk away from the village.  Many children accompanied him, chanting and dancing until they turned back towards the village, running, bouncing, waving.  Fatimata shed one tear as she watched Amadou melt away with the heat waves across the expansive horizon.  Just one tear.  Then she turned, setting her mind to the task of acquiring enough food for the children today. With the exhaustion and confusion of travel, Amadou arrived bleary-eyed but buzzing with excitement to the city of Dakar.  Almost shaking with nervousness, he saw the buildings in the distance rising into the sky!  How could they build buildings so high?  This was not even France or America, but already he could feel the wealth emanating from the ground.  But he stopped abruptly and looked around him.  He was shocked by the buildings that were immediately in front of him.  He was not yet into the city itself and here on the outskirts… was squalor.  Terrifying scenes greeted him and he began to feel overwhelmed and trapped.  These buildings were all in different stages of being built, but most has been abandoned early on in their progress; now just skeletons of cement and steel.  But people were living in them!  Hundreds, maybe thousands of people.  These buildings were surrounding him.  Something fell from the second story next to him and he jumped out of the way, expecting a brick, but it was just a bowl with a busted out bottom clanking down against the rubble on the dirt street.  He looked up to see fabric waving in the wind.  Fabric doors and windows.  He started to feel the heat of the day, but today’s heat was different.  The heat here was suffocating.  It was thick with expectations.  It was dripping with fear.  The smell of burning trash and dead animal brought him back to focus: what was he here for?  He needed to get to where the wealth was.  Go west towards the ocean.  That’s where I will find hope.  He made it through the outskirts of wretchedness and set his sights on the afternoon sun.  He was sure his opportunity was there waiting for him. But once in the city center, he was amassed by the hussle and busstle of people, speaking French, Wolof, Sereer, Pulaar, and many other languages from all over Africa.  He only knew the Pulaar of his village in the Fouta.  His ears perked up, listening for any voice making familiar sounds.  He heard a woman say thank you in his dialect, he turned to see the fruit vendor.  He greeted her eagerly, but she did not greet him like the people did in his village.  How was it that he could understand her so well, but she said different things?  That didn’t matter though, he had found someone he could talk to, could ask questions.  He asked her, “where are the jobs? I am here to find work. I am going to go America.”  Her answer startled him.  She said, “Aren’t we all?” and went on with her business, now speaking in a throaty language that sounded like gorillas talking.  He realized, most people here were speaking that language: Wolof.  He asked the fruit vendor where he would find a way to America.  She pointed towards the ocean and said simply, “To,” meaning, ‘there.’  He thanked her, bought an orange, and continued walking that direction, now with a hesitant and slightly sinking feeling as he began noticing the amount of people selling things on the street.  People walked around carrying shoes, brooms, pants, games.  People sitting on the curbs sold peanuts, old electronics, bags, and fruit.  Everyone on the street had one thing on their mind: money.  Some sat and waited for it to come to them, others, like Amadou, walked the streets briskly, determined to find it waiting for them at the end of their journey.  He arrived at the shore.  He stopped short, mouth dropping open.  He gasped.

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In the 1500’s to the 1800’s, Amadou’s journey may have ended on the gangplank of a ship headed to the New World.  Men, women, and children were coerced, forced, or lied to, given false hopes of splendor, in order to get them onto the ships by the thousands, headed to lifetimes of slavery and pain in other countries.  They would be stripped away from their land, their culture, their families, never to see nor hear from them again.  They were now the wealth of another person, their dreams of their own wealth slipping from between their chained hands by the seconds.  Like water off the bow of the ship that they would never see from the depths of the hull.  Dakar had mystified them.  All the hope of wealth and success were dreams of deception.  There was no way they could have known the doom they were about to run head-first into.  No one Amadou had ever known had ever come back to Dakar.  Now he knew why. Present-day Dakar presents different challenges to the eager enterprising Amadou, as he reaches the coast of Dakar.

Wealth is in front of their eyes, close enough to touch.  Buildings and houses along the coast resemble those of coastal France and San Diego.  But are barred behind huge walls and locked doors.  Amadou has arrived at the place of his dreams, and his dreams are beautiful, but out of reach.  He and the others like him are forced to scramble up things to sell or places in need of work.  But with no resume or address or connections, many are left on the streets, peddling whatever things they can gather (pillows, board games, shoes, pre-paid cell phone credit, sunglasses, etc) to white foreigners in taxis or anyone walking by.  They sit outside restaurants they will probably never be able to afford, selling little bags of peanuts.  The disparity of wealth is evident all over the city.  New world Senegal and old world Senegal come together in a collection of clothing and vehicles.

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Dakar today is a metropolitan city with everything you could ask for from most every country, if you have the money and know where to find it.  It can be chaotic, and it can be beautiful.  Living a typical American life, complete with softball games, exercise clubs, and horseback riding is entirely possible and many people are able to completely insulate themselves in the type of lives that they are used to in other countries.  These diversions offer many Senegalese nationals work and increase the number of available jobs.  Catering to ex-patriots provides many people with the needed job availability.  But still the poverty and effort of life in the city is all around you.  Dakar is a place of hope and opportunity, if you know where to look.  And if you arrive there at an opportune time, and opportune century.  It can mean wealth and work, or it can mean death.

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