Eight days, six nights: Diary of a first journey to Senegal and Sub-Saharan Africa

Day 1: Lisbon – Dakar

We land in Dakar at 2.30 in the morning. Looking from the plane at the Cap Vert peninsula, the map I had been studying for months now gains life. I know exactly where our hotel is. I come out of the plane looking for the first elemet that will prove I am in Africa. Nothing special, apart from the airport name: Léopold Sedar Senghor, Senegal´s first president, the president-poet.

After a long queue for passport control, we enter the baggage claim area. There are three carousels, no indication regarding the provenance of the luggage on them. I ask an employee and he indicates carousel nr.3. I am walking towards it thinking: “How does he know?”. After collecting our suitcases, we are again in the queue for luggage control. I think I had never seen so many passengers before with so many suitcases each (an average of three pieces, all of them huge and wrapped in plastic). The queue is getting bigger, lots of confusion; people are getting impatient and looking tired. A policeman shows up and asks for passports. He lets people get out from another way, avoiding the luggage control. Lucky them… Unfortunately, he didn´t get to us. We get out of the airport and we feel a light, pleasant breeze. Our guide is waiting for us. His name is Idrissa (Idi). He asks if we are going to speak in spanish or french. French. A relief for him, a great pleasure for me.

The city is totally empty. Not a car, not a living soul. We get to the hotel in 15 minutes. We’ve got 3 hours to sleep.


Day 2: Dakar, Island of Gorée

I am restless. It´s the anxiety of starting the day in a city still to be discovered; of giving form, colour, smell, sound, taste to our readings. The boat that is taking us to the island of Gorée, the slaves’ island, is full: tourists and people who are going there to work, take merchandises, etc. Women give so much colour to everything. I tell Idi that Senagalese women are very beautiful. “That´s why we are polygamists”, he answers smiling.

The slaves' house

We come out to walk around the island. The boutiques owners (wooden stalls selling handicraft) are unbearable. They don´t let us breath. We have to go into everyone´s shop. And we have to buy something, because we are their first customers (everybody´s first customer…) and we´ll bring them luck. And we have to support them. Soft-hearted people come out with their wallets much lighter. If they are not prepared to bargain, even worse. We have lunch at the Restaurant Café Traiteur: riz des îles (fish rice). Delicious and I don´t even like fish!

When I explain that I wanted to come to Senegal because I had seen a film about sculptor Ousmane Sow, Idi exclaims: “We have to go to the Village des Arts, then!”. What a relief… It was not exactly part of the programme and I wanted to find a way to suggest it to him. Idi explains that the Chinese built the national stadium and the national theatre. When they went away, the State gave their stalls to the artists, creating the Village des Arts. We can hear jazz everywhere. Lots of smoking in the workshops… But everyone is very hospitable.

Next stop, the French Institute. So pleasant, the garden, the café, the library. There is a concert tonight, a homage to Cesária Évora. The boy selling CDs in the garden tells us that there is a rumor that Ismael Lo himself, a big star of senegalese music, will be making a special appearance. We buy the tickets and then we are off to by books. Two streets behind the Institute is the bookshop Aux Quatre Vents. I look for the section of senegalese literature. So-so many things, I feel like buying everything. I come out with only 8 books, but I have taken note of many more. 


The French Institute is quite close to the hotel, so I ask if we can go to the concert tonight on foot, if it´s safe. Everyone says it is. But, of course, they don´t think of mentioning that streets are not illuminated… At the end of the road we can see Place de l´Indépendance illuminated, but until getting there…? Together with Katerina, my companion in this trip, we are walking as fast as possible. The sight of a feminine figure approaching from the other direction reassures us, so we slow down a bit. We cross Place de l´Indépendance and in Pompidou Avenue the movement is that of every city on a Saturday night. The environment at the French Institute is also lively and very welcoming. The show starts on time and the young and talented presenter knows exactly how to build up excitement regarding the surprise – guest. We listen to the Capeverdians Zizi Vaz and Tcheka, both very good. When Ismael Lo steps on the stage, there is general enthusiasm. He´s timid and sweet; the audience indulges him. The images of Cesária Évora on a big screen generate a lot of emotion. We all sing, we all dance and I, I  am feeling particularly happy in this summer night, in the middle of January, in an open-air theatre in Dakar. The Institute café is full after the concert is over. A ginger juice and then a ditax juice (to ease the throat) before getting a taxi to get back to the hotel.


Day 3: Dakar – Saint-Louis

They told me that one mustn´t ask what is the distance between two places, but rather how long it will take us to get there. A small accident generates a huge traffic jam on the only road that can take us out of Dakar, to Saint-Louis, in the north of the country. It´s the National Road 2. I am looking at the people in the cars and on the buses (decorated with illustrations of the most important disciples of the Islamic faith), patient or… passive or… just used to it. Tired too. I am looking at the street vendors, for whom these traffic jams are an excellent business opportunity, just like bus stops. I am looking at the young talibe (disciples), begging with their small yellow basins. Some of them are really students, living next to a marabout (religious leader and teacher), who are learning to be humble. Others are being totally exploited by these same marabouts, who keep the ‘gains’ of the day for themselves. Others are children living in the street, sent away by their families who can´t support them. It is thought that at this moment the majority come from Guinea Bissau. 


Along kilometres and kilometres on this road that takes us to the north, we feel that we are crossing a huge open-air market. On the side of the road one can find anything: fruits, vegetables, clothes, hairdressers, butchers, furniture, car mechanics. Many people, many colours, much movement, lots of dust, lots of heat, lots of dirt… Once we have left the suburbs behind us, the landscape, plain and dry, brings a huge contrast. The baobabs look like gigantic skeletons that might come alive at any moment. Beautiful trees. Yesterday at the hotel I drank baobab juice and ate baobab jam.

From time to time, we come through small villages. They always have a big central square with a few shops (TIGO, the telecommunications company, is a constant presence). Houses are made of straw and cane or with cement bricks. At the entrance and exit of almost every village and town, huge garbage dumps. Idi says that people leave the garbage where they are supposed to, but the municipal councils don´t pick it up. And it stays there… And it spreads… And children are enjoying themselves in the middle of it…

Our hotel in Saint-Louis, La Résidence, makes me feel as if I am somewhere between Out of Africa and The Sheltering Sky. It has one of the best restaurants in town and once again I find the fish delicious. Surprise, surprise…

We go out in the afternoon for a walk. The imam´s voice has always brought a feeling of comfort to me. At the same time that some people are praying, others are listening to loud pop music. The central streets are large and almost empty. The houses, many falling apart, have beautiful colours. Very calm. Nothing prepares us for the experience of Guet Ndar, the fishermen´s neighborhood.

Guet Ndar beachGuet Ndar beach

When we reach the beach, my first thought is that a kind of ritual is going on in front of my eyes. Many-many people and also numerous pirogues, in an enormous extension of beach. Then I think that they might be people strolling and enjoying the sea on a Sunday. The many different realities become clear as we start approaching. There´s a bit of everything: people waiting for the fishermen to bring the fish, others preparing it in order to sell it, other people strolling, talking, having fun with their friends, children playing or helping or… pooping in line on the beach (Idi had warned us that we should be watching our step…). Among the people and the pirogues, animals: goats, cows, horses, hens… And garbage, a lot of garbage. As if there wasn´t enough color in this place… Rests of fish, bottles, bags, everything. After walking quite a lot, we realize that the beach is truly endless and that another part, quite big, is occupied with stands where they are preparing the fish to be dried and salted or smoked. The smell is extremely strong. Next to the market, a number of trucks waiting to take the fish to the neighboring countries.

Leaving the beach behind us, we enter the neighborhood. Imagine a beehive. Substitute bees with children. This is how the streets of Guet Ndar look like. I think that never in my life had I seen so many kids, of all ages, playing everywhere. Free, cheerful, full of energy, kind. “Toubat” (white person) they start shouting once they see us and want to shake hands with us. Around the children, the adults are talking or working. A strong feeling of community. Everyone is out in the street. It seems they only get in their houses to sleep. We are leaving the neighborhood behind us, we are crossing the bridge that takes us back to the island of Saint-Louis. We are leaving behind all that energy and activity. And also the smell of fish, smoke, sewer. These people live there every day…

Back to the hotel. I can´t believe I´ve been in this country only for 48 hours (in fact, less).


Day 4: Saint-Louis - Lompoul

We wake up early to be among the first at the Parque National des Oiseaux de Djoudj. People are coming back from the mosque and buy bread opposite our hotel.

The landscape on the way to the park is beautiful, arid, bare, immense. We are passing through small, very small, villages. We visit the park in a pirogue. The guide knows everything about birds. And it´s touching to see how marveled he is by the beauty of nature, although he´s there every day.

Young girl at the villageYoung girl at the village

On the way back, I ask if we can stop at a village. Two teenagers come to say hello and invite us in. Very smiling and cheerful, they already know Idi and are talking with him. A third girl, a bit younger, is keeping her distance and seems to be suspicious. I realize that many times I look at those girls wondering if they went through the horror of genital mutilation. It´s as if I am looking for a sign on their expression. Idi says the practice is illegal. But what can law do against such a strong tradition? There are many-many women in Senegal and other countries fighting against it. The future is in their hands (I do hope to find Ousmane Sembène´s film, Moolaadé, with subtitles).

In these villages there is piped water, but no electricity. I ask Idi what people do, if they sleep early and wake up early, as people working in the fields usually do. At this time of the year, it´s dark by 7.30. Idi answers that people don´t go to bed early, they stay talking. And telling stories. In some of these villages there is a now a television set, functioning with battery or solar energy. People concentrate in that house to watch. It seems that the change this brings to the usual way of life is making Idi sad.

Back to Saint-Louis for lunch. It´s always a good sign to be in a restaurant also popular among locals. On one of the walls, various posters of previous editions of Saint-Louis Jazz Festival. We eat Mafe à l´agneau, lamb in a thick tomato sauce, with vegetables and… I don´t know what else. Delicious, although Idi thinks I am not eating enough and people in Portugal will think I didn´t like it in Senegal…

Already in the car, ready to move on, we meet the owner of Tarenga, the music shop mentioned in all guidebooks. He´s also a friend of Idi´s… So, we have to make a detour to see the shop. And it was worth it. On one of the walls, a Nana Mouskouri record, dating from the 70s…

The Lompoul desert, where we are going to spend the night, is 90-100 kilometres away from Saint-Louis. Before that, we make a stop at the market of Kébémer. Idi says it´s not touristic and we can buy fabrics to make dresses. We bought and they are beautiful, but we will never be transformed into senegalese gazelles – this is how they call beautiful women here. The Senegalese are truly beautiful. They look haughty, challenging, proud. But this is quickly transformed into a big smile when men tease them (and Senegalese men have a great sense of humour). It makes you wonder how these proud women can accept polygamy, under the terms it is being practiced. The books of Mariama Ba (Une si longue lettre) and Aminata Sow Fall (La grève des battu) clealry show how much anxiety, pain and fury this can cause, both to the women themselves and to their children. Actually, things are changing. Slowly, but changing. A man who wants to get married is supposed to declare if he is “strictly monogamist” or “polygamist”. More and more women make it clear that the latter is not an option…


The Lodge of Lompoul is in the middle of the desert, very close to the sea, which we can hear somewhere far away, but can´t see it. I don´t put my shoes on for dinner, the sand is thin and warm. We have dinner under a huge tent, together with a group of French who are making a lot of noise. Fortunately, tiredness imposes the longed-for silence. Our tent is the last of the camp, the most remote. I sit outside. There isn´t a sound, apart from that of the sea waves far away. The sky is huge, round, full of stars. I found it strange not to see even one plane passing while we sat out there. One of the Lodge employees is making a round and stops to talk to us for a while (I really start grasping the importance of conversation in the lives of the Senegalese…)


Day 5: Lompoul – Lac Rose – Saly

I wake up at 7, I don´t want to miss the sunrise. I come out barefoot again, the sand is now cold. The sky is constantly changing colors. Once it is out, the sand becomes golden, shiny. How beautiful the desert is!


We are heading south today, the final destination being Saly, a touristic resort. On the way, I think about senegalese means of transport. The always packed buses, that make me think how it might be in there in terms of heat. And smells… The small colorful buses, the car rapides, and others, white ones, with no number and no clear destination, where everything is negotiated with the “inspector”. The taxis, widely used, because they are more trustworthy, as they don´t break down so often… The usual cars, where we rarely see just one or two passengers. They are always full. Today we saw one with 8 passengers: four in the front (!) and four at the back! Even Idi laughed! Then, there are the carts, also widely used. And finally, there´s hitchhiking. On National Road 2, we saw quite a few people hitchhiking. Also women, which is something that I found surprising. Idi said he´s more suspicious of them. There have been a number of cases where drivers were accused of rape or… of not paying what they should…

The “rally dakar” experience on the dunes of Lac Rose (arrival point of the famous rally) was magnificent – also a little scary, but it doesn´t matter… The boy is driving the convertible jeep at a huge speed. We are standing, enjoying the speed and making an enormous effort not to fall. We reach the beach, infinite and empty, and we continue racing for a little longer. Beautiful, liberating! We have lunch next to Lac Rose, which is really pink, given the high quantity of salt in its waters. People work in the salines until sunset.

We´ve been thinking that we don´t want to spend two days in Saly resting… Idi gets in touch with a friend of his that can take us around to see a few more things. He´s waiting for us at the hotel, right on time. We arrange to visit the village of Mbour tomorrow afternoon, to see the arrival of the fishermen; and the day after tomorrow, a visit to Senegal´s largest baobab, to President Senghor´s native village (Joal) and to the island of Fadiout, where the streets are totally covered with shells. When I ask for the price, Moustafa, Idi´s friend, lowers his gaze embarrassed. He says Idi is a brother to him and he should be deciding.

We are sorry to say goodbye to Idi. We couldn´t have had a better guide in this journey.

We enter the hotel. Green lawn, lots of flowers, big rooms, pools, French playing boules. It´s a shock. It´s as if someone had abruptly pulled me out of Senegal to take me back to my world. It´s as if preparations for the return had started. I don´t want to … I feel irritated.

I get even more irritated when we go out to the supermarket. I had read in my guidebook that it´s not easy for a woman to walk alone in the street. Men´s insistence doesn´t have limits. They were the longest 200 metres. It was the first time we didn´t have Idi on our side. Almost all want to talk to us, take us here or there, want to sell things to us, use the same trick “Hello, do you remember me from yesterday?” (it´s in the guidebook and it´s true…)

We have dinner and we go to sleep. We are exhausted.


Day 6: Saly – Mbour

We stay on the beach during the morning. Everyone, the hotel employees, the boys passing by, want to talk. In the least, we have to exchange with them a “Bonjour, ça va?”. In the least. I am making an effort, I have perfectly understood how this is part of the local culture. Talking, talking, talking. Always around the same (what´s your name, where are you from, first time in Senegal, how long are you staying, you should stay more, you should come back…). But I am really trying to make an effort. The majority are nice people, with a great sense of humor.

In the afternoon, my body betrays me. Moustafa comes to pick us up at 3. We arrive at Mbour and we first go to the market. A young boy, who I didn´t understand if he knew Moustafa or not, comes with us as our guide. He takes us to the shops, he negotiates prices for us… But the truth is we don´t want to buy anything. We haven´t got money to buy something we don´t need from everyone. We then go to a closed market, with very narrow corridors, claustrophobic. Here we can find clothes, cosmetics, vegetables, home appliances, everything. Exit is through the butcher. Kilos and kilos of meat exposed to the sun, with clouds of flies flying around them. I had never seen as many… The smell of raw meat invades me. I put my arm in front of my face to go through the curtain of flies and I find myself… into the fish market. More smells… In the middle of all this activity, the fish, the dirty water, the garbage, some workers stop to pray. Others continue. We are on the beach. It must be 4 in the afternoon. The sun is extremely strong, I feel my skin burning. There´s no shadow, no shelter. We have to get near to see the fish arriving in the pirogues (wasn´t it supposed to be at 6…?). Many, too many, people, confusion, noise, garbage, rests of fish everywhere, heat, now also the smell of sewer.  Smells… smells… smells… heat… thirst… I need to get out of there… My stomach is so compressed that it starts hurting.


The arrival at the hotel is the opposite of yesterday: a relief. I think that it will pass. I take a shower, I lie down, but no. My stomach is worse, the pain and discomfort are becoming more intense. I am unable to have dinner. I go back to my room, I try to sleep, but nothing. I think it might be a gastroenteritis, but I haven´t got any other symptoms apart from the pains. Even though, I start taking antibiotics. I spend the night in that state, I can´t rest. I can´t get rid of the smells.


Day 7: Saly – Joal - Fadiout

The discomfort continues, intense. I can´t eat. Moustafa comes to pick us up, but I don´t know if I can make it through this excursion. I must try, I won´t be back here so soon…

It seems that the van will fall apart at any moment. The streets are also in a bad state. Twice we had to stop for a “police” control. Drivers must pay the police officers, who share the money among them. The whole transaction takes place in a totally natural way. They are not hiding. It´s normal…



Senegal´s largest baobab is beautiful as they all are. It has a huge trunk, completely hollow on the inside. It looks like a room. Once again, we are taken to a guide, whom we are obliged to hear (and pay) on things we have already read in our guidebooks. The best part comes in the end. The baobab is surrounded by vendors of artifacts. The fact that we are not being pestered is presented to us as a service… Here, tourists are taken rotatively, by order of arrival, to a different vendor. “Ours” waved hello from far. We have to get close. And of course, everything is optional, but it doesn´t cross their minds that we might not want buy something. We have to support the community… We have to… We have to… We have to… I am fed up. My stomach pains and my tiredness are not helping my patience. I inform them that, unfortunately, I won´t be buying anything and I enter the van to continue the excursion.

The guide who takes us to the island of Fadiout is something different. Informed, discreet, with a soft voice, he is telling us everything about this small piece of land (Senegal´s Mont St. Michel), inhabited by christians and muslims (in a proportion of 90% and 10% respectively, the exact opposite of the rest of the country). Once again I feel the pride of the Senegalese (something I had felt in my conversations with Idi as well) of the fact that the three religions (we must also include animism) coexist in this country without problems, totally respecting each other. “Ici, pas de problème, pas de problème”, they keep repeating. We also feel this when we look at the women. There are super-modern women, quite “undressed”; there are women who are totally covered; and there are lots of variations between the two.“Pas de problème”.

On the way back, any smell, and there are many, intensifies my discomfort. For the first time it crosses my mind that it might be psychological. I feel I really cannot take the lack of hygiene, that surpasses anything I had ever seen before. Why are they living like this ? Why aren´t they bothered ? Does habit neutralize everything ? Don´t they know what the alternatives might be ?

We are back at the hotel and I try to see if there is a room available, as we had checked out in the morning. I really need to lie down, I am feeling very bad and tired. The hotel is full. It´s 2 in the afternoon and they are picking us up for the airport at 10 in the evening. Despair. Our salvation are two deck chairs on the beach. We are getting installed prepared to spend some hours on them. I manage to sleep and when I wake up, I drink coke and eat biscuits. They taste good. The pain is less intense.

We are waiting for the transfer to the airport, wishing it is a reasonably comfortable van. A big Renault shows up, spacious, clean, smelling nice, just for the two of us. We are saved! The road at night has a completely different aspect. The markets have disappeared, the colorful boubous as well, the children are at home, there´s no illumination apart from that coming from some small shops. There are people talking, always talking…

In the suburbs of Dakar, surprise… Traffic jam. In a small bus in the next lane, just a bit forward, a woman´s face is illuminated as she´s trying to support her head on the window and sleep. She looks tired and when her eyes are open, there is absolute despair in them. It´s scary. I can´t take my eyes off her. She finally falls asleep. On the other side of the road… a market in the middle of the darkness! Lively as if it was day! After all, not everything sleeps.


Day 8: Dakar – Lisbon

We arrive at the airport a bit before 1 in the morning. A queue at the entrance, because a policeman is checking the passports; a queue at the check in, not a long one, but extremely slow; another queue for a member of staff to stamp our boarding passes; one more for passport control, this one, yes, endless. My stomach pains are back, I have a headache too, I am feeling cold. I am exhausted and this “nonchalance africaine” is not exactly what I needed right now. When we arrive in the front, we see that there are just three officers for all these people leaving with the early morning flights. Two of them are sharing the same stamp, calmly… I want to cry… Or to scream… I think I´ll never be able to sit. When everything is over, it´s time to board. I get in the plane and I immediately fall asleep. I don´t even realize it when other people come to sit next to me.

I wake up some time after. On my right-hand side the african continent and a slice of moon. I am thinking which might be the country we are flying over. A possible future destination. Mauritania…? I go back to sleep and when I wake up we are reaching the european continent. I can see the Algarve and we then continue flying along the coast. Everything very familiar. We are back to our winter.


People are asking me how it was. They are asking me if I had fun. They are asking me if it was marvelous. I can´t answer neither “it was good” nor “I had fun” nor anything else that is usually said in these occasions. These words sound trivial, unfair, imprecise. I am looking for others. Maybe if they asked me if I miss it? I do, yes.

More photographs from the trip to Senegal here.


by Maria Vlachou
Vou lá visitar | 1 February 2012 | journey, senegal