DAKAR, SENEGAL

June 2017

I was invited to spend a week working in Dakar. I've been very fortunate in the past to travel to quite a few countries, but I fell in love with this city fairly quickly in a way i've not done before. 

I can honestly say that I fell in love with the place. It'll live with me for a long time. 

While I was there I was able to get out a couple of times with my camera. Unfortunately, I managed to somehow lose 100 or so images. Here are some of the of the ones I managed not to accidentally delete...

We started in Manchester and made our way to Dakar via Paris. Charles de Gaulle is seriously impressive. I should have slept while we had a 4.5 hour overlay, but Yolanda wouldn't shut up. I had to pretend I was interested, so instead, I spent the whole time catching up. 

We arrived in Dakar late in the day. Getting off the plane, you could feel the heat and humidity straight away. 

The first couple of hours were dead interesting. For the first time in a long time, I was aware of the fact that I was a foreigner and a stranger.  My skin was different. My clothes were different. I couldn't understand the language and unfamiliar with the customs. We were met by a long line to the passport checks and I was conscious of how much I stood out from everyone else. Although nobody was acting in a way to make me feel uncomfortable, I felt unsettled. I'm often ignorant towards how others must feel in settings where I instinctively feel comfortable. 

We made it through the passport check (which itself was a totally unique experience) so went to pick up our bags. It was a small space so it was absolutely packed! I think 3 flights had all come in at the same time. We had to fight through the layers of people (who are happier jostling for position, rather than queuing in orderly lines - and i've got to say, I prefer their version!) As well as people picking up their bags, there were staff everywhere, each one of them, with some sort of badge or lanyard. It wasn't entirely clear what they were there for - they all just seemed to be catching up with one another, belly laughing at something or other, or observing what was going on. It was loud and chaotic, but more interesting than any other airport I'd ever been through before! I'd been there 10 minutes and there were already mozzies sticking to me! 

We eventually got our bags, passed through a second stage of security, then made our way outside through a fenced cordon, about a meter and a half wide, which was lined either side by people at least 3 layers thick (again, jostling for position at the front), to meet the fella picking us up. Once we'd made it through the crowds, we got to the car park which was gridlocked (If there was space, someone had found it and stuck a car there). When we made it to the car, there were at least 4 taxi drivers offering us lifts, 3 fellas offering to lift our bags into the boot, some selling nuts, someone selling sim cards. We managed to get everything into the car then began the journey to the guest house we'd be staying in for the week. 

The drive home was enough of an experience... the smells from the street food vendors, people everywhere(!), stalls everywhere(!), cars everywhere(!). Since it was Ramadan, the city came alive at night as people would come together to eat and socialise.

The next day, we travelled on the ferry to Goree Island. Goree is a tiny island known for its role in the 15th-19th century Atlantic slave trade. It's a strange blend of eery past and stunning natural beauty.  

The ferry over to the island was packed full of shop owners who were now your friend (whether you wanted to be or not) in order to get you into their shops, the Dakar football team (who were a feeder club for Lyon), and a Christian sect who we later saw attending a meeting in a large tent.

We had a tour guide (which I couldn't understand) who we didn't really need. It was obvious how important he felt his role was in reminding people of what had taken place here. Having visited Auschwitz and Birkeneau within the past 12 months I'm aware he's right to regularly remind visitors of what took place so that it's never forgotten and never repeated! I was surprised when I was at Auschwitz/Birkenau by how many orthodox Jews were there. Not just that they were visiting, but that they were posing for fun photos at the scene of some of the most horrific atrocities to have ever affected their ethnic group. I realised I was surprised, because I'm relatively unaffected. When I considered it afterwards though, it made perfect sense to me why they would be doing it - because, in a sense, they shouldn't be able to! The scene of such horror now becomes a scene of victory in some way. It's their way of sticking two fingers up to Hitler. He tried to exterminate them, but failed. So now they're free to visit the scene in freedom, remembering what took place, but also in defiance because he failed. It was similar visiting the House of Slaves museum. If the history according the guides is to be believed, the building at the home of this port is the scene of a comparable level of atrocity. The House of Slaves would be the final stop for slaves (men, women and young people), many who'd been farmed for slavery, before making their way to Europe and the Americas as slaves. There are different rooms for men, women and young people, and detention cubicles for anyone showing dissent. The most harrowing part of the HoS though is the passageway running through its centre called 'The Point of No Return'. It's a short, dark corridor with a hole cut out of the other end where the light bursts through. The light bursting through the hole at the end of the dark corridor is so bright your eyes can't focus on anything outside - they're forced to squint by the blinding sun, the contrast is so stark. The slave ships would pull up to the hole in the wall and slaves would be marched, chained, into the separate compartments on the boat. It was really interesting then, watching young, black males taking photos/selfies in the detention cubicles, or even jumping out of the 'point of no return' before clambering back into the house. It was a poignant picture of freedom and liberty whether they were fully aware of what they were doing or not. I was genuinely moved, more so afterwards, by the whole reality of slavery.

From there, we were led around the island by our guide, past every kind of stall you can think of, into St. Charles Boromeo (a 15th Century Portuguese catholic chapel), up a hill to the armoured turret, housing WWII French 240mm cannons, taken from a Danton class battleship. From there we were led into an artists workshop renowned for his sand paintings. 

It's a stunning island, especially when the sunlight bounces off the colourful walls and heats up the gorgeous beach. It's brilliant watching people trade, catch up with friends and children playing in the sea given its history. 

A friend, now living in Dakar, took us to church on Sunday. It wasn't too dissimilar to a church at home, apart from the music and the dancing! Everyone made us feel really welcome, even though I couldn't understand anything anyone was saying. 

She then took my friends to a local fabric stall to pick out materials for their outfits for church the following Sunday. It was amazing! They'd previously lived in Ivory Coast so were familiar with the process but they still just seemed as excited as I was for my first time. (You can see how made up Yolanda is to be rifling through so much material). It was the most colour I'd seen splashed about in one place! Once they'd picked out their materials (some as present for people at home too), they took them to a local tailor to be measured and pick their designs. 

After the material shop we were taken into a tiny little shacked up meat market. I can't describe how atmospheric the place was! The sounds, smells and activity was overwhelming. It was like the scene from a film! The lighting was incredible (dim lighting with bursts of sunlight through the gaps in the corrugated iron panels)! There was a mist hovering from random stalls boiling stews or boiling ingredients. Unfortunately, I was told not to take pictures... but they wouldn't have done it justice anyway. It was one of those moments you had to experience which you can't justify by describing. 

Afterwards, it was back to the guest house. It was there I was given a lesson in how to control a room by the fella doing magic tricks with a group of kids.

The next couple of days, when we had free time, was spend in markets. I didn't go to buy a single thing but it's an amazing opportunity to meet people and take in the culture. The markets are crammed, and if it's obvious you're a tourist (I don't know how they managed to pick me out so easily) you're man marked within a couple of seconds. One of the days, I went out with an old German friend called Ruth. She's ruthless! We had a good-cop/bad-cop thing going on (though it didn't matter at all). It was top heavy on the bad-cop side. I would smile and laugh about footy... (mention you're from Liverpool and you're in. Steven Gerrard is notorious and Mane is a national treasure. Everyone has a Premier League team and either Real or Barça. You could easily pass an hour telling stories of games you were at or debating who's better out of Messi or Ronaldo)... meanwhile, Ruth is hanging the male traders out to dry. They were frustrated, but at the same amazed by how tough she is as a negotiator. You could see them actually grimacing and sweating. They'd turn to me after they'd come to some sort of agreement blow their cheeks and raise their eyebrows knowing they'd just been taken the cleaners. 

We got to know one fella called Ams (in the yellow t-shirt) who took us round his network of stalls to find Ruth an up to date Germany shirt. He was a boss laugh to be fair and very kind to us. He saw himself as a bit of a goodfella figure who ran his particular area of the market. We (or I) ended up needing his confidence towards the end of the day though. I took a photo (having asked whether it was ok to or not beforehand) which someone had an issue with. Within a couple of minutes, there were about 20 fellas all fuming (don't know what about) between themselves (half with me, half against the fellas fuming with me) and it all got a bit heated. After deleting the photo that kicked it all off, the fume passed and everyone was back to normal or even laughing together - I was now fuming because it was my favourite photo from the day!

The next day, another friend and her husband took us around a different part of the same market. After about half an hour, we were led by a local contact into a factory that produces the material sold in the marketplaces to find the specific items the people who'd brought us were after that they couldn't find in the market. The volume of stuff they were producing was incredible but I couldn't help feel uncomfortable by the situation. There were young lads kipping at their sewing machines, while others chatted or read. The physical conditions weren't too bad and there wasn't anyone bouncing round shouting orders, but seeing people so exhausted as they worked was quite unnerving. Somehow we ended up 3 floors up and about half a mile in and came to the most chilled out room in the whole place. There was one older fella relaxing on a pile of sheets while his mates read their newspapers. He had a presence about him that commanded a certain level of respect. His mate, who'd led us around the workshop was a master in the art of human interaction. Witty, bright, brilliant communicator... he made jokes about the grammar my friends were using as they haggled, wound her up about her negotiating tactics, then gave her extra change to make up for what she'd lost in the deal due to Brexit. There were too many once in a lifetime encounters that you don't ever experience unless you're willing to leave your comfort zone and meet new people from unfamiliar cultures in a place of mutual respect and humility. It's life changing. When you're only on this earth for such a short period of time, it's a very worthwhile investment of time and energy. 

I was also able to add a few more 'out-of-focus-photos-taken-by-others-with-my-camera' to my collection!