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Dakar

  
  - darkometer rating:  3 -

The capital city of Senegal and one of the hubs of West Africa as a whole. For the dark tourist it is one site in particular that's the main reason for coming here as it is one of the world's most recognized memorials to the vile history of the transatlantic slave trade. But the city also has a couple of further sights worth seeing.     

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos  

      
What there is to see: Cynics might say that Dakar as such is a rather dark destination, but that would be a bit unfair. Yes, it is a very African metropolis, i.e. a riot of colours, noise, chaos, open sewers, rubbish, and dust .. the latter in particular in the dry season (winter) when the so-called "Harmattan" winds from the Sahara bring a constant orange haze to the sky and layers of fine sand deposit themselves everywhere on the ground. Walking around, especially as a white Westerner, means constant hassle and in some parts isn't without its risks (pickpocketing and even muggings are not altogether uncommon). But there aren't any Kalashnikov-waving militias patrolling the streets or any such things, as can be the case in some much more unsavoury corners of the continent –  no, compared to many other African cities Dakar is actually relatively safe and organized.
 
From a dark history point of view, Dakar's claim to fame, or rather infamy, is primarily due to the transatlantic slave trade. Naturally, this westernmost African trading post was crucial in the shipment of such "cargo" across the sea to the New World. One place in particular stands out: the tiny little island of Goree in the bay looking on to Dakar harbour:
 
 
Other than that, a more contemporary dark chapter in Senegal's history is commemorated in a large memorial park on the coast. It's called Place du Souvenir, but has nothing to do with the sale of tacky trinkets (none are anywhere in sight at this place), but instead is dedicated to the victims of the Joola ferry disaster. In September 2002, the ferry "MV Le Joola", travelling between Dakar and Ziguinchor in the southern province of Casamance, capsized in a storm, but primarily due to having been precariously overloaded. Apparently the ferry was carrying three to four times as many passengers than it was designed and licensed for. Nearly 1900 of the people on board perished in the disaster (i.e. more than in the sinking of the Titanic!). Partly because of delayed and botched rescue efforts there were only a very small handful of survivors (68 – mostly picked up by local fishermen rather than the coast guard). It was the worst disaster ever in independent Senegal's history. There are cemeteries where the victims are buried all along the coast and one can also be found by the road out of Dakar towards Rufisque.
 
At least some lessons have been learned and the current ferries plying the Senegalese waters are in much better shape today, and no longer are so routinely, negligently overloaded as in the past – new safety measures are now strictly applied.
 
The Place du Souvenir is the main memorial space dedicated to the disaster in Dakar. It consists of a series of squares on different levels descending towards the sea. At the far end by the coast stands a sculpture in the shape of the African continent. The squares are flanked by two pavilions (with mourning spaces for relatives) as well as blue-tiled fountains. When I was there, in January 2013, though, there was neither water in the fountains nor were any other people about.
 
The memorial is located by the main coastal road, Route de la Corniche Oueste, between the Plateau west of Dakar city centre and the "Mamelles" hills, just south of the Sea Plaza shopping centre. There's another major monument to the disaster in Ziguinchor.
 
Continuing along this coastal route further north towards Yoff, past the shiny Mosquee de la Divinite nestling in a little fishermen's cove, head inland towards the airport and you'll come to the massive African Renaissance Monument – visible from far away already. For me this was the weird-crazy highlight of my stay in Dakar!
 
The monument consists of a massively oversized sculpture of a man holding his wife in one arm behind his back and a baby up into the air in the other in front of him, while the baby is pointing resolutely ahead in a north-north-westerly direction (and not, as is sometimes claimed, straight out towards the sea). The sculpture is clad in brownish bronze metal plates and has all the hallmarks of an exaggerated socialist-realist heroes' monument. It is indeed rumoured that North Korea had a hand in the design and/or execution of the monument … which is easy to believe just looking at the thing and comparing it to the typical neo-Stalinist monuments in Pyongyang ...
 
The African Renaissance Monument ("Monument de la Renaissance Africaine") was commissioned on orders of then president Abdoulaye Wade and construction began in 2006. It was finished in 2010, and unveiled on the 50th anniversary of Senegal's independence in a pompous ceremony with several (mostly African) heads of state and other dignitaries present.
 
Yet the edifice remains highly controversial, not only for its associations with a prime pariah state and as an expression of an oversized presidential ago, but mostly for the excessive amount of money spent on it (in the region of 25 million USD). This is widely considered an irresponsible waste of funds when the country could instead do so much better with investment in such things as infrastructure, education and health care. The semi-naked figures, especially the woman's bare right breast and very short skirt also attracted reproachful condemnation by the country's more conservative Muslim spokespeople.
 
Whatever you may think of it ideologically or aesthetically, it is certainly impressive in its sheer size – it really is quite stupendously oversized: at 50m (160 feet) it's the tallest statue in the whole of Africa and taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York (though with somewhat less dignity emanating from it). In addition it also stands on top of a huge mound twice as high as the statue itself. So you have to climb an endless flight of steps to even get to the base of the statue (a popular workout for the local jogging and fitness brigades). Allegedly it's even possible to take a lift from the base to the top of the man's head where there's a Statue-of-Liberty-like viewing platform with windows set into the man's hat. But when I was there it was closed (and my guide said he'd never actually seen it open).
 
Other than these two specific places, you can find several weird details to marvel at as you drive around the city… This includes, for instance, the almost comically uniformed guards (all clad in über-colonial red livery) outside the presidential palace's gates, the totally neglected Independence Monument, and right on the eastern edge of the Plateau a couple of abandoned concrete tower blocks in a "splendid" state of dereliction/near ruin.
 
Traces of colonial architecture that can be spotted include the (formerly) quite ornate train station as well as a few ex-government and commercial buildings. The current National Assembly building, on the other hand, is a fiesta of 1960s plate glass-and-concrete ugliness. Ugly is pretty much the watchword for most of Dakar's cityscape. But the functioning chaos of Dakar city life is something to behold with awe. There's certainly no shortage of "buzz" …
 
 
Location: Almost at the westernmost point of the African continent at Cap Vert, which is roughly at the middle point of Senegal's Atlantic coast, 300 miles (500 km) east of the Cape Verde islands.
 
Google maps locators: 
 
Ferry terminal for Ile de Goree: [14.674,-17.431]
 
Place du Souvenir/Joola memorial: [14.6922,-17.4756]
 
African Renaissance Monument: [14.7225,-17.4951]
 
 
Access and costs: quite easy to get to by plane, otherwise complicated. Not especially cheap, but doesn't have to be expensive either.
 
Details: Getting to Dakar is easier than to any other destination within the country, thanks to the capital city's international airport. Overland it's very tricky, except if you're coming from The Gambia, the English-speaking enclave situated right in the middle of Senegal.
 
Dakar airport is well connected to both the USA and Europe. You can get direct flights from e.g. New York and Atlanta, or from Europe mainly from/via Lisbon in Portugal (TAP often has competitive fares) as well as from Spain, Belgium and France.
 
Within Dakar itself you can either go on an organized private city tour and have it tailored to include the points of interest outlined above, which will be the easiest and safest way – but naturally also the most expensive (c.a. 20-25 EUR). An alternative is organizing a taxi to these points yourself (and have the driver wait for you for the return or onward journey). If you're courageous and hassle-proof enough you could of course try using the city's public transport, which mostly consists of minibuses/vans ("bush taxi") and even sept-place taxis (literally a 'taxi with seven seats', i.e. a large-ish car), but also proper buses. Needless to say, this is only for advanced Africa travellers or those who like it adventurous.
 
Dakar is not a city for walking. In theory nothing would stop you from attempting it, but if you'll get hassled all the time as a white Westerner (there's nothing you can do about standing out if you're white in these parts … cf. China) and it's not necessarily safe either, certainly not if you're on your own and/or after dusk. Getting taxis from A to B as well as from B back to A is the recommended way out of this situation.
 
There are plenty of accommodation options as well as places for eating out, but I can't really comment on these, as I was only in Dakar for two nights, on a pre-arranged package, and put up in a big international chain hotel (which was perfectly alright!), where I also had dinner included (which was OK). But with a little research you can find lots of more original and characterful alternatives.
 
 
Time required: The places of interest listed here can be done in a single day, except if you actually want to stay on Ile de Goree, in which case you'd probably have to factor in another night in Dakar. If you want to see more of this chaotic and dusty city, brave the bazaars and maybe check out the music scene, then a few more days can easily be invested here. But it won't be relaxing.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Other than Ile de Goree there isn't really anything on the dark tourism front within easy reach in Senegal itself – but Dakar airport is also one of the jumping-off points to the islands of Cape Verde out in the Atlantic 300 miles (500 km) off the peninsula that gave them their name (i.e. the Cap Vert). For that reason, the two countries make a very well suited combination. It's what I did in January 2013.
 
Senegal's immediate neighbours may have some general dark appeal, Mali and Guinea-Bissau in particular; but they cannot really be recommended as tourist destinations, at least not at this present time.
 
The next closest countries listed on these pages are Ghana and Algeria. The latter cannot safely be reached from Senegal at all, and the other would require disproportionately pricey flights with usually two stopovers on quite a roundabout route, it's cheaper to fly there straight from Europe or the USA.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: As the principal entry point into the country, Dakar is where almost all tours of Senegal begin and end. An easy day trip away is the Pink Lake, while a bit further north, the Lompoul desert would be worth factoring an overnight excursion in. The Petite Cote with its beaches and resorts (centred in and around Saly) is also just a few hours drive away, while the Sine-Saloum is only a bit further still. See under Senegal in general.
 
The next-best reachable mainstream tourist destination would be The Gambia, the thin English-speaking country along the river of the same name that is almost completely surrounded by Senegal's territory, save for its own bit of Atlantic coastline. The latter is precisely where most of the tourist hubs of the country as well as the capital city Banjul are located. There are several agents/tour operators that offer various combinations of the two countries, ranging from mere half-day forays across the border, to equally split two-centre holidays. Senegal's other neighbours (Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau) are a lot trickier to reach overland and are far less developed for general tourism anyway.
 
Otherwise Dakar's international airport has connections to further African destinations as well as to Europe and the Americas.
 
 
  
  • Dakar 01 - National AssemblyDakar 01 - National Assembly
  • Dakar 02 - Independence MonumentDakar 02 - Independence Monument
  • Dakar 03 - colonial relicsDakar 03 - colonial relics
  • Dakar 04 - one of those skatersDakar 04 - one of those skaters
  • Dakar 05 - dusty chaosDakar 05 - dusty chaos
  • Dakar 06 - road transport hubDakar 06 - road transport hub
  • Dakar 07 - colonial-era train stationDakar 07 - colonial-era train station
  • Dakar 08 - dusty train lineDakar 08 - dusty train line
  • Dakar 09 - prisonDakar 09 - prison
  • Dakar 10 - famous music club on a dusty La Medina streetDakar 10 - famous music club on a dusty La Medina street
  • Dakar 11 - fadedDakar 11 - faded
  • Dakar 12 - abandoned building on the edge of the plateauDakar 12 - abandoned building on the edge of the plateau
  • Dakar 13 - big divine mosque and small worldly beachDakar 13 - big divine mosque and small worldly beach
  • Dakar 14 - fishing piroguesDakar 14 - fishing pirogues
  • Dakar 15 - Place du Souvenir - memorial for the Joola ferry disasterDakar 15 - Place du Souvenir - memorial for the Joola ferry disaster
  • Dakar 16 - African tragedyDakar 16 - African tragedy
  • Dakar 17 - cemetery for some of the Joola disaster victimsDakar 17 - cemetery for some of the Joola disaster victims
  • Dakar 18 - military cemeteryDakar 18 - military cemetery
  • Dakar 19 - African Renaissance MonumentDakar 19 - African Renaissance Monument
  • Dakar 20 - at the bottom of the stepsDakar 20 - at the bottom of the steps
  • Dakar 21 - looking up - it is fantastically oversizedDakar 21 - looking up - it is fantastically oversized
  • Dakar 22 - North-Korea-esque in styleDakar 22 - North-Korea-esque in style
  • Dakar 23 - African dignitaries plaqueDakar 23 - African dignitaries plaque
  • Dakar 24 - entrance at the bottom of the monumentDakar 24 - entrance at the bottom of the monument
  • Dakar 25 - there was supposed to be a lift upDakar 25 - there was supposed to be a lift up
  • Dakar 26 - but it was closedDakar 26 - but it was closed
  • Dakar 27 - view from the monument towards the airportDakar 27 - view from the monument towards the airport
  • Dakar 28 - Les Mamelles lighthouseDakar 28 - Les Mamelles lighthouse
  • Dakar 29 - in the harbourDakar 29 - in the harbour
  • Dakar 30 - looking out from the plateau towards Ile de GoreeDakar 30 - looking out from the plateau towards Ile de Goree
  

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