I went to Senegal for a few weeks with the lovely Kim in December/January. I’m a bit of a jaded traveller, but Senegal was a great combo of adventure, hanging with locals and a brief window of seeing life differently.
If you’re thinking of heading to Senegal, here are my personal 10 Reasons To Go To Senegal:
1. It’s Africa. I’ve travelled and lived on every other continent but Africa. Senegal is totally African from the clusters of huts/compounds that folks outside the cities live in to being invited by a stranger to eat fish and rice from a communal bowl together. We were walking down an dirt alley in St. Louis and came across a local drum and dance party with dueling vocalists – we were invited to join the circle right away. It’s a different way of living that you can experience as a visitor if you want.
2. Senegalese people are awesome. I’m sure there are loads of exceptions, but I enjoyed every conversation I had with Senegalese men, women and children. We continually had strangers help us out and I can’t think of a single time that I regretted starting a conversation or felt like someone was taking advantage.
3. Local transport is fun. We travelled the way Senegalese travel. We took Sept Places (7-seater Puegot station wagons) between cities, motorcycle taxis into the bush for short trips, hitch hiked on the highway (favorite ride was an ancient fish truck), crammed into garish rickety buses inside cities (inshallah) and walked loads. Transport is easy to figure out, cheap and you meet Senegalese people (see #2).
4. Clothes. For most Senegalese there seem to be two options: a) picking out a bolt of cloth in the market and having it tailored into traditional clothes to fit or b) buying used/new western clothes. A large number of Senegalese still go the traditional way. Kim spent a few afternoons at the enormous H.L.M Market in Dakar picking out fabrics, then taking them to the army of tailors to be made into dresses, clothes, etc. The patterns/cloth are amazing and seeing clothes going from bolt to custom garment was much cooler than shopping off the rack.
5. Belief. Senegal is a religous place, but it’s not in your face and appears to be moderate. Still, signs of belief and certainty about how life should be lived are all around. There is remarkably little booze, cigarettes or other vices Muslims aren’t supposed to enjoy and the call to prayer shuts things down nicely. I tend to view religion with suspicion, but I had some really interesting conversations about belief in Islam. One was with a guy I met at a roadside Fried Omelette Sandwich stand (marginally tastier than it sounds) who took 10 minutes to tell me the story of Abraham (the guy’s name is Ibrahim). He must have used the word ‘faith’ 50 times in the telling. I’m sure that are negative aspects – some of which we came across – but you gotta admire the power of belief.
6. Food. If you like simple, healthy food you’ll like Senegal, at least for a while. We stayed away from touristy and European places which left us with market/roadside stalls serving fish & rice, fruit stands, fast food places serving kebabs and meat and local restaurants with things on a skewer or chicken. We didn’t get much variety, but we did get tasty meals for as little as 500 CFA and good conversations with locals. Local juices are great: bissap (hibiscus), baobab (can’t remember local name) and ginger drinks are cheap and refreshing.
7. Beaches. We spent a few relaxing, fun days on the beach in M’Bour (pronounced something like Bool) and loved it. It’s small, full of fisherman, has amazing clean beaches and isn’t touristy. We heard that the Casamance beach is nice, but there was a conflict flaring up down there and we didn’t want to go to Saly because we’d heard it was touristy.
8. Disconnect. Most people we came across had mobiles, but Senegal in general is still at the SMS stage and Angry Birds hasn’t hit yet. Internet cafes are around but connections crawl and they’re not on every corner. I’m an Internet addict and it was great to disconnect for a few weeks without suffering constant phone/Internet envy.
9. Safe. Senegal is really safe. This one’s probably a sign I’m getting old. My problem with unsafe places is less the danger and more that it’s difficult to get to know local people when you’re constantly afraid they’re about to rob or attack you. There are the usual developing country things that wouldn’t pass UK health and safety – my ears are still ringing from fireworks battles in Dakar’s Independence Square on new years eve. I’m sure Senegalese have loads of reasons to be upset (poverty, politics, etc.) but they weren’t during the time we were there.
10. It’s not Gambia. We arrived in Banjul and left from Banjul and that’s all I have to say about Gambia. And no, random Gambian guy, I don’t remember you from the hotel ;)
Drop a comment if you have any questions or if you can correct/improve on the small bit I learned about Senegal in my weeks there.