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Dazed by Dakar

Dakar, Dakar, Dakar. The rolling cry of the bus conductor echoes through the hot dusk. The buses are returning to the centre of the city, a trail of red and yellow and blue hurtling along the dusty roads. I hand him 100 cifa and hop on, squeezing into a dilapidated seat inside the tiny minibus.

I have been here for months, and my eyes have adjusted to the differences of Africa and the idiosyncrasies of Senegal. The shops that are mere dark kiosks off the street; the cracked paving stones of the city pavements; the regally attired women who roast peanuts on the corners of the street and sell them in tiny twists of plastic for 20 cifa a bag.

Dakar, you see, has none of the sheen of our Western cities. Here, life is lived outside. Hairdressers set up their stalls around tree trunks along the main boulevard, and coffee shops are makeshift benches around a camping gas. Without the traders and beggars who roam everywhere, touting socks and cigarettes and canned drinks to any unsuspecting toubab (originally meaning doctor, the name is now given to any white tourist) who crosses their path, this place would seem empty and incomplete. Dakar assaults the senses with a kaleidoscopic mixture of sounds and sights and smells; sights so numerous and bizarre that one glance will afford you a thousand memories, and sounds so compelling that you’ll feel your hips begin to sway irresistibly to the beat of the djembé. The smells are often not as entertaining, but this is life, whether you like it or not, played out in the dusty, sunbaked streets.

Perching on the Western tip of Africa and baked by an unremitting sun, Dakar is most certainly a city of contrasts, a curious mixture of the Senegalese and the French. Here the primitive merges with the civilised, as shabby cafés selling rice-and-fish and yassa-poulet serve bread from the boulangerie nearby; locals slip effortlessly between Wolof and French, and the occasional Mercedes picks its way through the dusty hubbub of a crowded street.

Colour is everywhere, from the sun-ripened mangoes and gaudy western clothing tumbling over the stalls in the labyrinthine Sandaga market, to the vibrant patterns of the women’s boubous and the wheelbarrows of bright green oranges which are trundled around the city by cheeky teenage entrepreneurs. This is one of the only cities in the world left without a Macdonald’s. Thiebou Djene, or rice-and-fish, is fast food in Senegal, and for the price of a cheeseburger and chips I can indulge in hedonistic salads piled high with tropical fruit or huge, decadent gambas served by the dozen.

I have fallen in love with Dakar. It is at once strange and wonderful. Every day is guaranteed to bring another startling sight, another bizarre experience. Every day I watch and wonder that, for all the money that fuels Western civilisations, our cities are missing this wealth of raw existence. Dakar will change, it will grow up, become wealthier, tidier, and its people will thank their lucky stars. But in the meantime this city has a magic that is rare and special and not to be missed. It leaves me spellbound and wanting more, and no matter how deep I delve I will never discover all its secrets. They say travel broadens the mind, but Dakar blows it, and I am glad I have seen it before the spell is broken.

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