AfricaVirtual Travel Tales

Dakar, Senegal

Three women selling bright beads in Dakar

A new day, a new continent. French is the official language of Senegal, Wolof is the national one and lots of people also speak English. It’s difficult to find the right words in any language, but I’m going to have to try and explain why we’re here. It’s not just as virtual travellers; today has a serious side that at first neither Leroy or I were sure we wanted to explore. His history is not really my history to tell, but it has a bearing on everything we’re doing here so I’m going to have to try.

In a nutshell, from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, around 20 million Africans from Senegal and surrounding nations were sold in Dakar as slaves. They were sent in chains to the various French and Dutch colonies across the Atlantic. And a fair number of Leroy’s ancestors were amongst them, headed for the Guianan sugarcane fields. Even then it’s complicated, as their descendants later married the descendants of French plantation owners who married the indigenous Arawaks. As I said, complicated. In the end Leroy and I agreed that this might be a good way to do it – a flying one-day visit, dipping a toe in the water. And if it was too intense or weird, we’d move on.

Arriving straight into Dakar – rather than the laid back colonial river town of Saint-Louis – was a bold move. We were immediately struck by the contrasts: shiny coaches overtaking horse-drawn carts, French-style supermarkets and ramshackle ‘hardware’ stores. At first Dakar seems filled with crazy drivers and noise and hustle and bustle, but then through the chaos the colour and life of the city becomes visible. Bob Marley is big here. Who knew?

Leroy and I retreated to a café on the Place de l’Indépendance to recover from the onslaught and work out a plan. Over a baguette, bissap (dark red hibiscus juice) and café Touba (a high-caffeine blend mixed with cloves and Guinea pepper), it was clear that we should do our own thing for the day. I’m going to take up the offer of Silvie and Gilles, our French guesthouse hosts, for a guided tour of the markets and of the ill-famed Gorée Island (now a museum and monument to the African diaspora), where the slaves were originally processed. Leroy just wants to play it by ear, take it slowly and get a feel for the place.

We’re going to meet up for an early dinner at Les Cannibales Deux (yes, ‘The Two Cannibals’) and then hit the salsa dance floor at New Africa. I’m definitely going to need a new dress for that.

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