When I learned that I would be coming to Dakar for a six-month internship, I expected to land in a dry city with a harsh desert climate and endure a miserable time. Now well into the third year of my stay, I am fascinated by the many ways this city continues to captivate me. Looking back, the misperceptions I had of the city I now fondly call home seem ridiculous but I only had them because of how little of Senegal and its gorgeous capital Dakar is known outside of Senegal. In fact I am convinced that Dakar must be Africa’s best kept secret.
Before coming here, no one ever told me about the stable democracy that shines as an example to the rest of Africa, and the fact that the country has never once had a coup d’état in its history. No one told me of the peaceful and religious tolerance that reigns here or of the fact that in a region of heightened insecurity, Senegal has never experienced a single terrorist attack.
No one prepared me for the warmth of the Senegalese welcome- Teranga, they call it, and the intimacy of eating Thiebou Diene in a shared dish with four strangers turned friends. Coming from a country where this Teranga is not the norm and where one has to assert one’s self to survive I found this Senegalese spirit more than endearing and I can happily say that I have gotten used to it.
No one spoke to me about Dakar’s bustling night life, and salsa soirées. Or of the young and hip mix of Dakarois and Dakar expats that faithfully attend So Nandité’s Sunday brunches and events. I have come to discover that Dakar is a haven of young talent, with many artists regularly showing off their skills at open-mic nights, slam poetry evenings or back-yard fashion shows.
No one told me about Seoul 2- a restaurant that has very little to do with Korea- with Lamb Dibi so delicious that inspite of the incredibly slow service, no matter how many times you silently swear to never return, the delicious food brings you back like a magic trick that never gets old.
No one could have possibly described Dakar’s Corniche to me- miles and miles of winding roads dotted with palm trees overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the city’s wonderful shores. Dakar’s beaches are probably its finest asset and the fact that there are so many in the city and not hours away adds an unquestionable charm to this sea side city. No one also told me how obsessed Senegalese are with fitness as I’ve seen countless runners and athletes turn the beach into their gym as they tirelessly pursue their fitness goals.
As I write this I am sitting on a bench overlooking the cliffs that surround the Mosquée de la Divinité. These steep cliffs break sharply into the crystal blue Atlantic Ocean and never fail to take my breath away each time I pass them. The benches peppered along this prime section of ocean side real estate are my favorite places to sit and reflect and whenever I do, I never take for granted how lucky I am to have gotten to know this city as well as I do.
I realize that I may of course be seeing what I want to see through rose colored glasses. I can’t tell the story of my love for Dakar without also speaking about the thousands of street children- ‘talibés’ that wander the city’s streets begging for money and the complexities of the social arrangement that allows and encourages this. And I don’t want to gloss over the natural frustrations that can be found in any developing country. You’ll find them here, the inequality, the poverty, and corruption- they exist and Senegal must work on tackling these. But I feel as though those stories have already been told.
I want to tell another story, one I feel hasn’t been told enough. A story of pride, genuine hospitality, gorgeous beaches and timeless sunsets.
Hopefully this story will get out and spread because Dakar is Africa’s best kept secret and I want to share it with everyone.