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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 1977

POSTMARK: Senegal

By COLLEEN McGUIRE

Formerly the capital of French West Africa, Dakar is undoubtably one of Africa’s most modern cities. The capital of Senegal is a miniature version of Paris with its tree lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes and chic women.

And like Paris, Dakar is a cosmopolitan melting pot composed of several African tribes, Frenchmen, Vietnamese, Lebanese and Indians resulting in a hodgepodge of shades of people strolling the clean downtown streets.

Similarities with Paris continue as both capitals are highly cultured. In fact, Senegal was the first African country to install a minister of culture in its government. The arts flourish in Senegal due primarily to Leopold Senghor, president of the Republic from the time of its independence from France in 1960. Senghor himself is a prolific poet with several books to his credit. The government lavishly supports native music, art and dance projects.

One of the first places I visited in Dakar was Gorée Island. About a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland, Gorée is famous as the site where African slaves were housed before their departure to the new world.

Gorée is absolutely charming. Formerly owned by the Portuguese, all the buildings are in the old colonial Portuguese style. They need restoration, but perhaps I liked them so much because the yellow and pink paint was faded and the cracked walls still evident.

The most chilling experience on Gorée was a visit to the slave house. I entered the dirt floor cells with an explosive imagination. As I looked out the tiny iron-barred windows and smelled the musty odor of the claustrophobic rooms, I vicariously felt the desperation and defeat that a black African slave might have felt. Fortunately there were no chains on my wrists or ankles as the Gorée museum pictures depicted.

On the ground level, centrally located, is a door. Separated by about 10 feet of rocky beach, I stood gazing into the infinity of the Atlantic Ocean. It was through this door that the slaves momentarily glimpsed the glorious blue horizon before being hastily shoved into a boat, forced into an unknown destiny.

The next day I was to take the train to Mali. However, that Tuesday there arose a strike by the workers. After travelling extensively I’ve learned to just sigh heavily when exterior forces abruptly alter my plans. It’s useless to break out into fits of rage or depression.

So I went to Dakar’s brand new American Embassy in search of Sering, a Gambian electrical engineer whom I had met while in Gambia. He recognized me, welcomed me warmly, and immediately took me to where he was staying in Dakar.

As I wrote once before, the extended family is very strong in Africa. Sering was staying at his uncle’s in the suburb of Sicap Amitié along with an undetermined amount of other relatives. Mr. Diop, a Muslim, had three wives, all of whom had a multitude of children. I could never keep track of who belonged to which parent or even if they were the uncle’s actual children.

The Diops were of the Wolof tribe, Senegal’s prime ethnic group. It was quite an experience staying with that family for 10 days because it was my first encounter with wealthy Africans.

Mr. Diop was in the shipping business but despite the family’s high standard of living, they still lived as traditional Wolofs. At mealtimes they ate outside, crowded around two huge bowls of benechin or mafe, scooping up the rice by hand. There was a nice stove in the kitchen but the women preferred to cook over a log fire.

Like other Africans the Diops would suck on a chewing stick. This is a small branch of a special African tree. Africans of all classes rub the stick up and down their teeth spitting out the green saliva and small bits of wood. I used the organic toothbrush and it really did leave my mouth as fresh as Colgate would.

The Diop women dyed their palms and feet with fudano. They lounged on mats on the ground. They played their fortunes by scrambling small sea shells. I observed that they carried the traditional lifestyle just as poor and middle class Woiofs do, except the Diops did it in finer surroundings.

Sering is half Mandinka and half Wolof. He also is “yaradal.” This means his mother had lost several children before him, so when Sering was born, as traditional Mandinkas do in such cases, she had his ear pierced to ensure (in her belief) his survival.

Even in Africa, a boy with an earring arouses ridicule from his young peers. Perhaps from this situation Sering cultivated his defiant personality. It was Sering who exposed me to the various levels of existence in Dakar.

He had acquaintances in Dakar’s ghetto areas where he purposely took me to visit so that I could closely see Senegal’s urban poverty. Believe me, it was sad. Families must go to the corner pump for water. None of them in that wretched area known as Grand Dakar have toilets. The walls are ugly aluminum siding. I even saw people scavenging in the garbage for food. This pitiful lifestyle is flourishing a mere block or two from the Diops fancy villa.

However, Sering also introduced me to Dakar’s finer aspects. We went to the modern African Art museum on the Corniche. He took me to a nightclub to hear native African music modernized by electric guitars.

The contradictions of Africa are immense. By the time the train strike was over 10 days later, I was more fond of Dakar, but I was also acutely aware of the city’s disparities.

I said goodbye to Sering at the train station, but I wasn’t sad. I know that I’ll be returning to Senegal before I leave Africa. I found Dakar so exciting.

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