Dakar, mon amour

Elegant and pious, dirty and brazen – an ode to a wonderful city

Ah, the elegance. You encounter it where you least expect it. On the fringes of Dakar, where the city is slowly fraying out and the houses have no facades. Where horse-drawn carts mingle with cars, the wind lets discarded plastic bags dance, and the air tastes of dust. The residents here have to squeeze into overcrowded buses for three to four hours a day to pursue a job in the center, if they have one. Many just get by – but who would want to look that way?
Ladies walk through the alleyways looking as if they have been summoned to an official audience, but they are only shopping for everyday necessities. The brightly colored dresses tailored to measure, the foulards, scarves in the same fabric, artfully wound around their heads. Make-up, wig, manicure, pedicure, everything fits perfectly and expertedly presented by a proud posture, a swaying gait. Jongué is the name of the Senegalese art of seduction. In a country where a third of all married couples live in polygamous marriages, it has become a refined cultural technique, a consequence of often fierce competition. But elegance is a collective obsession here anyway. Many men wear the boubou, the traditional shirt suit. Younger T shirts and knitted wool caps, a Muslim-correct outfit that would easily get you into any Berlin club. „Dressing well is more important than eating,“ says a proverb of the Wolof, Senegal’s largest ethnic group. Before major holidays like the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, many take out loans so that the whole family can be re-dressed. In some families people change their outfits two or three times during the day. Dignity, elegance, respect, these are prominent values here. In neighboring countries, people look at the Senegalese snobs with admiration and even roll their eyes. And then they order a dress like that from an immigrant Senegalese couturier.
Elegance is encountered here in many forms. There is a culture of light words, of charming compliments, of feather-light exchanges, which makes it a pleasure to drift through the city on a good day. There are many beautiful people living in this city. In the evenings, when the beaches turn into one big open-air gym, they wrestle, pump and run themselves into shape. Packs of jogging men play soccer or gasp in time to collective sit-ups. Female students bounce to booming Afrobeat. On the Corniche, the street that winds along the Atlantic coast, there are hundreds of fitness machines that the Chinese state has given away in a fantastically well thought-out PR campaign. In China, pensioners rub the rheumatism out of their backs on them; here, the young and muscle-bound work it off.
Dakar, capital of Senegal, about three million inhabitants. Seen on a map, it is the small peninsular triangle in the far west of the African continent. But what a city! Breathtakingly beautiful and shockingly dirty. Surrounded on three sides by sea, she cradles and caresses you, only to scroch you up afterwards. At noon she slays you with heat and desert dust, in the evening she seduces you with beaches and sunsets. How often do you stand at the seaside, looking out over the spectacular coastline and vast ocean, only to notice that half the city has once again dumped its garbage down the embankment and someone is burning his plastic garbage.
Dakar, that is bright colors against the dusty yellow of the Sahel. The bougainvilleas and flamboyants, the frangipani and baobab trees, from whose crowns the bats rise in the evening. Shortly before that is the hour of the kites, which sometimes circle over the coast in such numbers that one believes Alfred Hitchcock sent them. The brightly painted wooden boats, the pirogues, in which the fishermen go out to sea. The elaborately painted buses, the Car Rapids, which plunge into the traffic with an „Alhamdullilah“ or „God is great“ on the rear. On roads that are used by every vehicle that can still crawl and cough along – fearless drivers also like to stear their ancient cars at night and without light on highways.
Dakar is the city of surfers and sheep that mow in front of every house entrance in some neighborhoods. It is the city of miracle healers and young entrepreneurs, of students and flying merchants who meander through the stinking traffic for a few euros a day to hawk cashew nuts, holy images and rat poison. The city of children Koran students who beg at the street intersections with ragged clothes and plastic bowls because their teacher told them to. The city of the jeunesse dorée, who enjoy themselves at the pools of the luxury hotels. Dakar is a sound carpet woven from countless sounds. Hip hop, mbalanx, electro and tam-tam. The hammering of the craftsmen, the roaring of much too old engines, the Allahu Akbar thrown from every minaret in a different intonation. Dakar is hedonistic and deeply religious; 95 percent of Senegalese are Muslim. There are the faithful who sing the nights away in the mosque and the revelers who dance them away. Dakar is cosmopolitan. You meet French diving instructors, restaurateurs and osteopaths, Lebanese businessmen – as everywhere in West Africa, Lebanese immigrants control some of the most lucrative business sectors – Chinese entrepreneurs, Moroccan investors. One encounters a lot of polyglot people, almost all aid and non-governmental organizations active in West Africa have moved their headquarters to Dakar. Almost all of those who came here were idealists, many live in splendid villas, and quite a few express their doubts in the evening after a few glasses of wine: Does what we are doing here make sense? Doesn’t it mainly benefit an elite that has made itself comfortable in the flow of foreign benefits? Does a system change just because you pump a lot of money into it? You meet students from all parts of francophone Africa – the University of Dakar is considered one of the best on the continent; it was the first to be established by the French colonial rulers in their African empire. In 1857 they founded Dakar on the Cap Vert Peninsula, where there was already a settlement of the Lebou fishing people, in 1902 they made it the capital of their African colonial empire, the inhabitants were considered French citizens. In 1960, the French released the Senegalese into independence – well, maybe not quite, even the currency – the West African franc – comes in by plane from France. French companies land huge and sometimes absurdly overpriced government contracts, the people grumble about corruption and increasingly paint „France dégage,“ „Get lost, France,“ on the walls. In francophone West Africa France can still feel a little like a great power. Many French people have a great deal of sympathy for Senegal. For pensioners, the country is their winter home, and for young people it is an adventure playground. The Senegalese meet this mostly with friendly indifference – already in times of the colonization one has learned to separate oneself.
The poet Leopold Senghor, elected the first president of the independent country in 1960, dreamed of an African Athens and made Dakar a capital of art to culture. He, who as a personal friend of Charles de Gaulle stood for close ties to France, celebrated Négritude. Dakar became a place of longing for the world’s black intelligentsia. Sengor commissioned fantastic modernist buildings that reflected the skyrocketing optimism of the time, the fair, university, parliament. After all, didn’t almost everyone believe at the time that Africa would become the next continent of the future? But the boom failed to materialize. Over the years, the buildings caught the dust of the Sahel sands, and in the 1970s the economic crisis gripped the country. The peanut farmers left their fields – peanuts had always been the country’s first export – first to the cities and then to the rest of the world.
For in Africa, too, more and more people are settling in cities, but almost nowhere is urbanization accompanied by industrialization on a large scale. There are only a few regular jobs, and they are in great demand. Those who don’t get one often become entrepreneurs against their will; 96 percent of businesses in Senegal are unofficial. With a national average income of 1,300 euros per capita – much more in the cities – Senegal is on its way to becoming a lower-middle-income country. For many, this is too little. According to a 2017 survey by the Institut fondamental d’Afrique noire (IFAN), 75 percent of Senegalese between the ages of 15 and 35 would like to migrate abroad to seek a better life.
Paradoxically, Dakar is both a city of stagnation and departure. Large parts of the population may not notice much of this, but growth rates are high, normally – in Covidfree times – around six or seven percent. The construction boom is unstoppable; there are new highways, a train to the airport is being built, and Diamnadio, a completely new city, is being built just outside Dakar. Offshore oil and gas fields are giving rise to great hope, but also slight unease – the discovery of large resources has not been good for all African states.
Dakar has never given up its claim to be the cultural center of francophone West Africa. It provided it with one of the most curious landmarks, the Monument of the African Renaissance. It is the largest statue on the continent, built with North Korean help at a cost of 27 million US dollars. With a determinedly heroic gaze, a family dressed very revealingly by Muslim standards looks out over the sea. Thousands had protested against the „terrible monument“ before its inauguration in 2010. But what can I say? Despite everything, yes, I like the thing. Last year, the Chinese-built Museum of Black Civilization opened, and every two years Dakar hosts the Art Biennale. But the greatest optimism is spread by all the young Senegalese who return after studying abroad. Or have decided from the outset to build their lives here, even though it might be easier elsewhere. Not that they don’t grumble, too. About the unpunctuality they are no longer used to, about baseless promises, and craftsmen for whom „so lálá, it fits“ is enough as a quality brand. And yet Dakar is exciting, livable, there is so much to do here, to change, to shape. There is, for example, the producer and screenwriter Kalysta Sy, 34, who writes the country’s currently hottest series at the station Marodi. One sees in it a Dakar of the middle class, one that describes their dreams but also the traumas, neuroses and hypocrisies. „We’ve had enough of the distorted picture of the continent of poverty and disaster that Europeans like to paint,“ she says. „We want to show a dignified Africa. We want our viewers to say, I want to make it here.“
Granted: there are things that tend to work less well in Dakar than elsewhere. These include inclusive economic growth, a functioning waste disposal system, and environmental awareness supported by the broad middle classes. It’s also amazing how difficult it can be to find someone who can actually repair a bicycle. On the other hand, there are things that work very well in their own way. Peace, for example. Senegal is considered an anchor of stability in a chronically unstable region; there has never been a coup or a terrorist attack here, and members of the various ethnic groups and religions live peacefully together. The conflict in Casamance has largely calmed down. Although Senegal has really not experienced the best of the West with slavery and colonization, I have never experienced hatred or xenophobia here – not even toward immigrants from poorer neighboring countries. That’s pretty amazing in a world where anger seems to be on the rise everywhere.
What is fascinating is how society organizes itself on a small scale. The countless gestures of solidarity. The homeless woman sitting on a mat in front of the mosque with many children is actually the neighborhood kindergarten teacher. The wheelchair users have banded together – after a morning of begging, each of them at their own spot, they meet up for a chat and a collective meal. Whenever one of them falls ill or wants to marry, the others collect and contribute to the costs. Family, neighbors, fellow believers replace the basically non-existent social system. Surprisingly, in a country where there are so many poor and unemployed, there is little crime. Slums are not found here. Even if most newcomers find it hard to believe, you can walk the streets here in the city’s poorer neighborhoods in a relaxed manner – and you’re probably much safer than at Kottbusser Tor. There is very little stealing – well, sort of, but, as a friend always says, „only with your mouth.“
Because there are days when Dakar seems to me like the world capital of scroungers. Now that’s a bit unfair, because of course there are all the many others: People who work hard, who don’t just care about money, who are real friends. And we are not talking about the really needy either. The scroungers are not concerned with essentials, they want a better cell phone. To take a vacation in Germany, even though they don’t have the money for it. Move in with their family because it’s conveniently located in the center of town. Want me to introduce them to a European woman to marry so they can emigrate. Want money for a bigger wedding or funeral or to marry the third wife. In order for the potential financier to give in, the scrounger must soften it, repeat his request steadily and in swelling urgency, he must „fatiguer“ it, tire it out. The victims of this strategy are primarily Senegalese themselves.
In a country where many have no income and it is difficult for ordinary people to take out loans, people turn to uncles, friends, colleagues and neighbors – where „loan“ often means „gift. Ideally, this is a mutual give and take, lived solidarity, a Wolof proverb says: Man is man’s medicine. In practice, the person who makes an effort and is successful often has to feed a whole army of needy but perhaps less committed family members. More often than not, people have told me that they moved to another city or country primarily to finally build their own business or career free from the constant demands of the extended family.
The best thing to do is to ignore the moochers, and focus on the miraculous. For example, that amazing flexibility that is capable of absorbing even the most diverse and contradictory things in order to make them one’s own. One encounters someone like Cheikh Seye Baye, 70, a friendly man with white dreadlocks. Baye is a marabout, or spiritual scholar, and comes from a venerable family of healers and magicians. He knows not only the Koran, but also herbology, astronomy and magic. He has traveled the world, taught himself French, English, IT and programming, and a little German. His bookshelves are crowded with encyclopedias, medical primers, computer and religious literature. His clients come from all over the world. Just the other day, one of them asked him if he could help him fly with the djinns, the spirits. Using his magic powers for such a banal request seemed a waste to Baye. „That’s what airplanes are for these days, isn’t it?“
Dakar always saves his best moment for the evening, by the way. Then, when the light caresses the sea and the city seems to float white and bright above the Atlantic. In the distance, a diesel engine coughs tenderly.

Published in Die Zeit, 2.11. 2019, translated by deepl