Dakar has an addictive aspect. It has one of those names that makes you think you’ve heard of this place before, you know about it, but you know nothing about it – like Tangier, Casablanca, Zanzibar.
Situated on an anvil-shaped peninsula of land jutting into the sea in Senegal, this city of one million is the capital and financial hub of this country. With the second largest port in West Africa, it is an important entrée-point for commerce as well.
Since the time of the French colonization, tourists have flocked to Dakar and the beaches up and down the coast from Saly Portudal to Cap Skirring. Yet there was always a sense that there is much more to this country than beaches and tourist playgrounds. The 1970s vintage posters from Air Afrique show a land of colors. One poster by Jean Dessirier shows an African woman with a pretty headscarf and colorful dress. No elephants or orientalism, just a splash of colors.
The zeal for art and culture in Senegal may be rooted in the stability and tradition of democracy this country set down under colonial rule and after independence. Leopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal who led the country in the seminal period from independence in 1960 through 1980, set down the influence that culture should have here by inviting international art events and encouraging institutions.
He was also a poet and “cultural theorist” whose concepts about the importance of Africa as a culture imbued Senegal with a unique political culture. Much of this has developed since the 1960s.
In the Musee Theodore Monod, located in the central plateau district near the parliament building, West African art is on display. Lonely Planet seems to think this is “one of the best museums in West Africa,” with some 9,000 objects on display. It is a nice museum, but if this is one of the best, it is only because the others must be very bad. The week we went there was an exhibit about wrestling, which is a national sport. There was also a photography exhibit celebrating International Woman’s Day.
The African art featured in the museum is mostly tribal masks, pottery and traditional dress. While interesting, it seems the real culture is happening outside, in modern times, not in the museum.
TOUCHING DOWN in this bustling city, one is immediately struck by the colorful public buses, all individually painted in hues of yellow and purple and other colors. Then there are the long fishing boats resting on the shore, also all painted in extraordinary color.
The Cornice road, which runs along the water, passes through an artisan area, including a quarter devoted to local painting, such as murals of local and international African leaders. You can watch men carving wood into the kinds of African caricatures one would expect to see in an old estate house somewhere.
Farther along this road is the beautiful Divinity Mosque, with triangular windows and minarets capped with onion-like domes.
There is also another more modern mosque, Omarienne, which has a kind of otherworldly beauty to it, with high square minarets topped by giant green orbs.
One of the premier artists in Dakar, Kalidou Kasse, has a studio at the Ecole des Arts Visuels Taggat.
Wearing a French wool beret, he holds forth to a group of students explaining his attempt to blend modern art with traditional Senegalese scenes.
“I try to take Senegalese scenes and place them on canvas with many elements of color, maintaining the human aspect alongside themes like travel, the sun, wind, illustrating poverty and globalization.”
The son of a truck driver, Kasse has been exhibiting his work since the early 1980s, but says he wants to invest in the next generation through the foundation of this school.
THE TRIP to Goree Island, a 20-minute boat ride from Dakar, takes one from the bustling modern capital to a scene from a century ago. A few skiffs line the shoreline of this 18.2-hectare island and its 1,200 inhabitants. With between 1,500 and 4,000 visitors a day, it is one of the main tourist attracts and a UNESCO world heritage site. The old buildings look very much a part of the colonial era, and some seem to have not changed much since. A historic hotel has fallen into ruin.
Other buildings have fish restaurants in them, serving up shrimps or local catch of the day.
In the alleyways of this island, where there are no cars, is a simple red building that would seem uninteresting to the visitor. Here is where the slaves were kept, an estimated three million of whom were sent from Senegal to the New World between 1540 and 1848. The cramped rooms where the men, women and children were separated have a chilling feeling. There is also a “punishment cell” under a large staircase, a completely dark hole where people were tossed. A quarter of the slaves died in these conditions, waiting weeks for a hellish transport. Some tried to swim for freedom, the tour guides relate, but were eaten by sharks that were once common here.
At the end of one hallway off the central courtyard of the house is the “door of no return,” a rectangular open window facing the cool breeze of the Atlantic. Here the people were hounded onto ships and sent away. This is the horrific reality of these countries, colonized in years past primarily for their human export. Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have passed through here. Mandela is reputed to have requested to spend time in the black hole of the prison for half an hour and come out sobbing.
Past the slave quarters and other houses, a small path leads up a hill.
Lined with hundreds of local artists hawking various paintings, the path eventually leads to a lookout with two massive 1930s-era French naval guns. These massive 240mm. guns served the Vichy French in the 1940 battle of Dakar against the allies. Now they lie dormant.
It is a fitting symbol that this island of slavery and war has been taken over by artists, color and culture.
Like the rest of Senegal, such as the iconic annual St. Louis Jazz Festival up the coast that will take place in May, this is a country that combines history and culture in a way worth seeing.