Of eleven splendid suns
The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam
Pakistan has no embassy of Senegal. The visa processing takes months, if at all one gets it, that is. It’s an 11-hour flight from Dubai, that’s how far it is. And I must, must go there for a really important conference. Only, till the last day, I don’t know whether I will get the visa or not. Net search has told me that Senegal is sunny, beachy and hardcore Africa.
On the day I have to fly out, November 25, 2011, I reach Karachi airport with a fuzzy mind owing to the lack of sleep and simply too much going on in life. After a 3-hour layover at Dubai airport, a delightful surprise is in store —I have been upgraded to business class. I see that as a sign that the upcoming trip will be joyous. My seat is sandwiched between two nice gentlemen, one a Senegalese who is the same age as me but respectfully calls me “mama” just like our shopkeepers say baji or aunty. This is my first taste of friendly, amiable Senegalese people.
Senegal is 94 per cent Muslim. This is apparent when I see the tiny Dakar airport, antiquated, over-crowded with people returning home after Haj on packed flights. I hardly spot any computers. Everything is done manually. The visa-on-arrival and the long-awaited arrival of baggage takes hours! Finally out, I have my first chit-chat with the shuttle driver as we drive towards the hotel.
Pretty quaint little buildings, French architectural influences, a winding drive along an upscale road alongside the beach, and I reach the hotel. Ngor is the area, pretty, clean, with very little traffic. The same whiff of moisture-laden air that is typical of beach towns, but thankfully lacking the pollution of Karachi. I am in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.
I get a room with a view, literally. Most of the hotels in Dakar are situated along the sea. Beautiful, clean beaches with abundant sea shells strewn along, not just in white but in dark ebony colour too.
Dakar is relaxed, as are the people. I can feel my inner pace slow down, a pleasant change after Karachi. The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, the breeze ruffling the leaves, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal.
One of the things you notice instantaneously in Senegal is the size of living beings (yes, I choose my words carefully here). The people are really tall. The birds are really big. Even the insects are bigger than the ones I see at home. And the birds are a treat for bird-watchers. Particularly the Senegal parrot is a sight to behold.
If anyone plans to go to Senegal, it is time they brush up their French, because English is rarely understood or spoken in this purely Francophone part of West Africa. By the end of my 11 days in Senegal, basic French started to make sense to me again, especially when spoken in an African accent. Influences of French remain on every aspect of culture, and continental cuisine is readily available, though local Senegalese food is known for its aromatic delicious flavour. Availability of halaal meat made life easier for me. Baobab is Africa’s popular fruit, and its milky juice is a refreshing welcome drink often served in Senegal. A popular main course specialty is Yassa chicken, which is grilled chicken served with sour spicy onion curry, and either steamed rice or plantains on the side. Seafood was always fresh, simply prepared and often served with assortments of cheese. Thiof fish was a personal favourite, fresh from the ocean, melting in the mouth.
Shopping in Senegal is a joy, simply because it is affordable for Pakistanis. In addition, this is a talented nation when it comes to arts and crafts which reflect their rich culture and many struggles. Street art in Senegal is breathtaking. Vendors on foot with amazing pieces of painting will come knock on your cab’s window. And you will be blown away by the vibrant colours, the finesse and the symbolism in the masterpieces these untrained artists churn out day after day. Craft pieces not to be missed include leather-bound boxes, bead and shell accessories, silver jewellery and baskets made of palm. If in Dakar, do visit the local Sandaga market. The sights, sounds and smells in this place gave me a true taste of Africa. But watch out for con artists and be ready to get followed around by persistent and annoying wannabe “guides”. Bargaining is a must. And make sure you remember the words “non, merci” as the eager sellers can literally harass you and follow you around.
A visit to Senegal is incomplete if you do not visit Goree Island. Reaching the ferry station by cab and then taking a ferry to it is easy. But me and my friend from India, both widely-travelled media persons, got conned into paying a non-existent tourism company for a trip to Goree Island, waited for hours for a bus that never arrived, laughed on our own stupidity, and ended up going to Goree on our own and having an awesome time. So when in the developing world, be a little smart smart!
Situated near Dakar, Goree Island is a quaint little tourism spot now, where old buildings including a slave house have been preserved in original form. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Only seeing it can do justice to its beauty. The Portuguese and Dutch architecture and the vibrantly painted small houses with bougainvillea in abundance makes Goree an eerily beautiful place to visit. It seems I was catapulted into the past.
It was a Sunday. The Muslim community of Goree had gathered that day for a congregation of sermons and they recited verses of the Quran and praises of Allah so beautifully in unison that I had a beautiful, spiritual experience, sitting under the trees at sunset. I will never forget that moment.
Built in 1776 by the Dutch, the Slave House at Goree Island is one of several sites on the island where Africans were brought to be loaded onto ships bound for the New World. The owner’s residential quarters were on the upper floor. The lower floor was reserved for the slaves who were weighed, fed and held before departing on the transatlantic journey. The Slave House with its famous “Door of No Return” has been preserved in its original state. Thousands of tourists visit the house each year, and celebrate the freedom of the human species from the clutches of slavery by re-visiting the past.
As part of my work, I had a wonderful chance to visit Thies which is the third largest city in Senegal, and two adjoining villages, as guests of “Tostan”. Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof, which it certainly is. Tostan is an international non-governmental organisation with operations in over 500 communities across Africa, with a mission to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation. Molly Melching, Founder of Tostan, made the visit to Senegal all the more meaningful. Her work as a human rights activist has helped almost eradicate the centuries-old custom of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from Senegal. One of the villages we visited was Keur Siambara. Here we met Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara, who according to Molly Melching is “a PhD in wisdom”! The one mantra Demba kept repeating that had much to be learnt, especially for activists, was: “Beautify Your Words.” Demba’s wisdom and that of other community members helped Tostan in achieving its aim. This has now led to over 6,200 communities choosing not to cut their daughters. It is entirely possible that Senegal could have ended this practice completely by 2015.
Apart from the learning experience, the hospitality and warmth of rural Senegalese people was a joy. We were welcomed among drum beats, merry dancing, and pretty girls twirling bowls made of gourd, as we were seated under a huge Neem tree. It was so unlike, yet so similar to Pakistan.
Senegal was amazing. I remember most the Belle soirées par la mer à Dakar (the beautiful evenings by the sea in Dakar), and the serenity I witnessed in that country. Eleven splendid suns, beautiful ebony complexions, serene azure waters and a wonderful slice of Africa — Senegal, you will be missed.