A Valentine’s Day love letter to Dakar

One year ago today, I broke up with New York and began my journey into the arms of Dakar.

New York was a bad boyfriend that I stuck with so long only because I have attachment issues. I kept saying to myself, maybe if I do x, y, or z, NYC will finally return the love. It didn’t happen, because New York doesn’t love people; New York only loves itself. But because New York is also charismatic, and attractive, and exciting, and always offering interesting stories and whirlwind adventures right when you’re on the verge of saying, “Fuck it, I’m out,” (classic mixed signals), I ignored how unhappy my relationship with the city was. Until I couldn’t ignore it any longer, and I started flirting with leaving New York for Dakar.

Coming here was the best decision I ever made. I don’t have a love/hate relationship with Dakar the way I did with New York. That’s because Dakar doesn’t play hard to get. There are no velvet ropes or impossible rental markets or hours-long commutes through dark, crowded holes in the ground. And Dakar gets me. It gets that cities are made for connecting with people, not for throwing money around. It gets that people need to move at the same pace our ancestors did, even if our technology permits us to go much faster. (In Dakar, the technology does not actually permit that, and I’m thankful for it despite my grumblings.) And Dakar still has character. It isn’t being taken over by global capitalism and slowly turned into a cookie cutter version of every other metropolis.

But I don’t want to use Valentine’s Day to pen thinly veiled hate mail to my former flame. Instead – Dakar, let me count the ways that I love you:

Dakar, I love you for welcoming me with open arms and no visa requirements.

Dakar, I love your roads of sand, your horse-drawn carts, your brightly painted fishing boats and your beautifully decorated car rapides.

I love your attayah.

I love your stillness on Sundays.

I love that your idea of traffic is a few minutes of backed up cars.

I love your kids playing foosball on tables set up along the side of the road, and soccer in the middle of the street.

I love your hotel poolsides with views of the ocean.

I love your all-night religious revivals that pop up out of nowhere and span entire blocks.

I love to hate your late-night noises: sheep braying, bats fighting, random big band parades in complete darkness, 3am house parties, the 5am call to prayer.

I love your mid-century architecture and design.

I love your hand-painted barbershop signs, and your religiously-inflected street art.

I love your decrepit taxis in which whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I love your sheep that look like goats, and your cows and donkeys wandering the streets snarling traffic.

I love your residents who invite me to share a meal with them even though I’m a stranger. I love that strangers here are welcomed instead of feared.

I love your kids who run up to me and want to shake my hand. (I don’t love that they call me toubab, but I love the delight it inspires in them.)

I love your many runners who come out in the mornings and evenings to run along the Corniche and the quieter city streets, sometimes wearing outfits woefully unfit for the task, like loafers and khakis.

I love your music and dance that brings tears to my eyes because it is so energetic and beautiful and intricate and unique, and I love that virtually every occasion is an occasion for making music and dancing, and I love that every person, from baby to grandma, gets down.

I love that you are the city of Youssou N’Dour, who I adore like a second father because he emits gentle kindness.

I love your lack of places to conspicuously consume, and the fact that your stores are store-sized instead of warehouse-sized.

I love your inspired wax outfits and your boubous.

I love that everything stops short on Friday afternoon for prayers.

I love that when I really miss good cheese, I can go to the Casino supermarket at Sea Plaza and find something passable.

I love that I found one of the only places to get true espresso in this city in my very own neighborhood.

I love that I discovered the French fitness trend of aqua-biking two blocks from my house, and that it got me through a long, hot summer.

I love how easy it is to avoid eating gluten in this rice and millet and manioc-loving country.

I love the smell of freshly baked bread drifting from your bakeries, even though I can’t actually eat the bread.

I love your gingembre and bissap and bouye juices.

I love that even though I don’t love all of your food, it is real food and not chemicals (except for Adja, which you put in everything).

I love that, like my other great city love, Austin, you don’t try to be all things to all people. You know who you are, you know what makes you special, and you do you.

I love that you have been my gateway to the rest of Africa – not only West Africa but also North, East, and South.

I love that you are small enough that I run into people I know all the time, but big enough that I’m still exploring all of your offerings.

I love the friends I’ve made here, not only from Senegal but from all over the world.

I love the family I’ve stayed with, with whom I have celebrated Christian and Muslim holidays that are not my own with Senegalese traditions that are certainly not my own, but that have been shared generously with me as though they were.

And I love that you love me back.

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