AKA my favorite city in West Africa.
AKA my favorite city in West Africa.
In March, I traveled to the Casamance region of Senegal for work. I didn’t realize until I was making the plans that I had actually been to the Casamance before, as Kolda is technically in the Haute Casamance. But the area of Senegal that is reputed to be the most verdant and beautiful is the Basse Casamance, the western section on and close to the ocean. And this is where I would be heading for work. I was pleased, to say the least. Some pictures…
I got back to Senegal from Sierra Leone on Sunday, and no sooner had I unpacked my bags then I started repacking them for my return trip to New York on Thursday. The second time leaving this country is just as emotionally difficult as the first, and maybe that contributed to the dream I had last night.
In it, my parents were moving out of my childhood home, where they have lived for more than 35 years. I looked into the living room and noticed for the first time, now that it was empty, surprisingly lovely molding (that does not actually exist in real life). Then I saw two big trash bags of my sister’s and my dolls – one was filled with dolls to throw away and one was filled with dolls to keep.
I saw my Baby Brite lying near the top of the throwaway bag and panicked. My sister was there, and apparently it was she who had done the sorting. I protested that we could not just toss out our dolls – we thought of them as our babies once, and they were still alive in my heart.
My sister stoically responded with something to the effect of, “How many years must they live before they live out their years?” I started crying at how easily my sister dispensed of her youth, and it quickly turned into uncontrollable sobbing. The thought that as adults we were so distant and disconnected from our childhood selves broke my heart.
I was so upset in my dream that I woke myself up, only to feel real tears running down my cheeks. And not just a few – I was actively crying. Never in my life has that happened to me before.
I do often wake up with a lingering sense of whatever I was feeling in my dream world, and this morning I woke up feeling bereft. It called to mind the utterly gutting scene in “Inside Out” in which the imaginary friend, Bing Bong, sacrifices himself – and most tragically, also the memory of his existence – to save his beloved adolescent owner’s identity. Thinking of that made me even sadder.
It was like five o’clock in the morning so I quickly drifted back to sleep and woke up again a few hours later only vaguely holding on to the memory of the dream and its associated despair. But I’ve been pondering its meaning all day.
I heard about three deaths yesterday, and each one was somebody very close to somebody I myself am close to in one way or another. One was an older brother, one was a beloved Senegalese musician, and one was somebody “Papa” Lo knew. So I’m sure that that, in addition to my imminent departure, influenced my dreams last night.
I now want to go back to New Jersey ASAP to take a full inventory of all my dolls, hug them tightly, and assure them that I will never throw them or the memory of them away, as long as we both shall live.
When I lived in Senegal two years ago, my biggest goal was to become conversational in French. Though I wanted to be able to speak Wolof, the first language of most Dakarois, I knew I couldn’t handle learning two languages at once.
By the time I came back here for work, I had pretty much doubled my French speaking capacity, thanks to nine months in Paris, and I felt it was high time to learn basic Wolof. Continue reading
On Saturday when I took a walk downtown, I got a closer look at the renovated railroad station, which I had peeped from the car a few weekends ago. Here are some better pictures than the ones I posted then.
The station was inaugurated in 1914 and went out of service about 100 years later after both the Dakar-Bamako and Dakar-St.Louis passenger trains stopped running. (I believe the suburban commuter line moved to a station a little further north but I’m not entirely sure.)
For a few years, there were plans to demolish the station and build a park there instead, but thankfully that would-be travesty never came to pass. Instead, the government decided to renovate the station and make it the southern terminus of the new express commuter line that runs through the suburbs and ends at the just-finished airport an hour outside of town.
I’ve also heard about plans to rehabilitate and relaunch the Dakar-Bamako line, which would delight me should it ever actually happen. I have seen footage of the 40+ hour journey and it looks like the stuff of dreams (punctuated by extreme boredom, fatigue, and discomfort). For now, I’m overjoyed to see my favorite building in town being resuscitated and returned to its former splendor.
P.S. Chemins de fer (literal translation: path of iron) is such a beautiful way to say railroad, don’t you think?
I just realized that yesterday was the three year anniversary of the day I first landed in Dakar, bleary- and wide-eyed in equal measure. I’m so, so grateful to be back, especially in February when the weather is (mostly) lovely. During this time of year, the Harmattan winds do have a tendency to sweep in and turn the sky yellowish and cover everything with dust for days at a time. That’s no fun, but knowing it’s sand from the Sahara desert being deposited on us is pretty neat. I also find it neat that even though I’ve only spent about 15 months in Dakar total, this is my third February here.
I’m spending this weekend prepping for my first shoot of this trip (happening on Monday), as well as fleshing out my ideas for a documentary that is getting me very excited even though I haven’t even asked the intended subjects of the film for permission to make it yet. Getting ahead of myself is my M.O. in life, and while it has its downsides it also gives me lots of fodder for fantastic daydreams, which I enjoy.
On that note, I will now turn from words on (digital) paper to images on digital video.
But first, just to complete the theme, three beautiful buildings I passed in the downtown neighborhood of Plateau this morning (the one at the top of this post was not so much beautiful as incredibly bizarre – note the ceramic swans!). Have a lovely weekend, and see you next week!
When I flew into Dakar three years ago, the city held so much mystique. I had spent almost 25 years imagining what the sights and sounds and feeling of Dakar might be without having any clue how close my ideas were to reality.
Then I spent a year living here and exploring the city’s ins and outs. One of the things I love most about Dakar is its scale – in just over thirteen months I was able to visit practically every neighborhood and knock off almost every item on my list of interesting places to see and things to do.
When I flew back into the city at the beginning of this year, aside from the fact that there was a whole new airport (!), everything felt very familiar. All of my old favorite places were still there, standing the test of time. Another thing I love about Dakar is its creeping pace of change in comparison to New York. There is sprawl and gentrification and crazy over-construction for sure, and it brings upheaval, displacement, and inequality with it. But – again, only as compared to New York, where every time you blink another community institution disappears – it feels much slower and more manageable.
And… some of the development is very welcome.
Case in point: the new Museum of Black Civilizations, which opened in January. I visited last week and it has some stunning art and artifacts inside.
A little over half a century ago, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of post-independence Senegal, announced his plans to build a major museum of African culture in the country’s capital of Dakar. Senghor, who died in 2001, did not live to see his dream fulfilled. Now, at long last, his vision is coming to fruition… Senegal has opened a sprawling museum that celebrates black civilizations from across the globe—and experts are hailing the institution as an important step forward in the effort to reclaim African artifacts plundered during the colonial period.
It both saddens and infuriates me to know that I have had better access in New York (and London, and Paris) to West African artwork and cultural objects than most West Africans do in their home countries. So, it was heartening to visit the new museum last week and to see the beautiful exhibits of ancient and contemporary work – as well as all of the as-of-yet unoccupied space that can be used for, among other things, items returned from abroad. (Restitution efforts were kicked up a notch in November with publication of a French-commissioned report recommending full repatriation of looted cultural heritage to any African nation that requests it.)
It was also the most amazing surprise to pass my favorite place in town – the old colonial railroad station just next door to the museum – and see that rather than being torn down and reconstructed over the past two years, it has instead been given new life in the form of a cleaning, a paint job, and some new glass.
It is now even more stunning than it used to be. I took these photos from the car as we drove past, and I’ll try to get down there to check out the space on foot soon.
The station serves as the terminus of the just-finished rail line between the new airport and Dakar. I haven’t really kept up on those developments so I have no idea if the line is considered a good thing, a bad thing, or a little of both. But the rehabilitation of a gorgeous decaying train station seems 100% wonderful.
A list of things I will not be doing in Dakar this time around:
I’m writing from Dakar, where I have once again taken up residence with La Famille Lo. The eldest son and his four year-old are now living here; it’s become quite a full house and I love being reunited with all of them.
The passage of two years has brought lots of changes. Mamie (Cécile) learned how to drive and bought a car. She regularly attends Toastmasters in both French and English and when her sister, Tantie (Armande), isn’t available, she pitches Tantie’s organic juice company to potential vendors and investors. She’s also busy dreaming up business ideas of her own. All of this blows my mind since during the year I lived with Mamie, she consistently and continually expressed fear – even panic – at the idea of both driving and public speaking. Her confidence seems to have grown by leaps and bounds and it’s a wonderful thing to witness.
Tantie, meanwhile, graduated from university and did an apprenticeship of sorts with an organic farm in the countryside. Then she launched her company, which in addition to selling homemade juices, also connects organic farmers in Senegal with produce markets in Dakar. She recently won two separate incubator grants and went to Egypt as part of one of the programs. It was her first time on a plane as well as her first time out of the country, and she loved every minute of it.
Third-born Andre graduated from his master’s program and started working at a fancy downtown hotel, in their human resources department. I now see him in suits more often than not. The eldest son, meanwhile, was working in the IT department of a bank when I was here last time; now he’s with a government ministry, which sounds like a big step up.
And Mr. And Mrs. Lo are plugging along as usual. The only big difference in their lives seems to be the addition of a mischievous child keeping their hands full. I guess less changes when you’re in your 60s and 80s than when you’re in your 20s and 30s.
I got into town on the 4th of January but left before dawn on the 6th for my Benin-Togo-Ghana adventure and only returned on the 17th. That means I haven’t actually spent much time in Dakar yet. I’m looking forward to settling in, and to sharing pictures from my trip as soon as I get myself situated.
A bientôt, alors…
Less than a year and a half ago, I boarded a plane in Dakar bound for New York. As I stepped off the collapsible staircase and through the door of the plane, I realized that I had effectively left Senegalese soil and I had to hold back tears. A few drops squeezed out despite my best efforts and as they slowly rolled down my cheeks, I imagined that I must look like a bad French new wave film.
Before I realized that the cabin crew was 100% American, I apologetically explained to the flight attendant whose eye I had accidentally caught, “Je pars…,” and then I trailed off sheepishly. She smiled at me with the truly soft and sympathetic look of someone who has borne witness to this scene a million times, and she said simply, “I know.” I am not sure she did actually know what I had said, but she knew what my tears meant. I am leaving. I don’t know when I’ll be back. And it feels like I’m leaving a bit of my heart behind.
I thought of that moment on Tuesday evening as I crossed over the East River from Manhattan into Brooklyn. The sun was setting, and New York was at its most beautiful. Earlier that morning I had been briefly and emotionally reunited with the country I hadn’t been ready to leave, and it was wonderful.
That’s all a very melodramatic way to say that I watched the Senegal v. Poland game from a Senegalese cafe in Crown Heights, and I ate Senegalese food for the first time since being in-country, and I heard Wolof and West African-accented French all around me, and when Senegal won I may as well have been in Dakar for all the joy in me and surrounding me.
I am so thankful that New York is a city where you can experience a little bit of the magic of every other country on earth. And it is especially magical at World Cup time.
I’m going back to the cafe on Sunday for the Senegal v. Japan game and what I hope is a repeat of the euphoria of victory. (I won’t even get into the sadness of the Argentina v. Croatia game. I’m hoping for a miraculous turnaround that allows Argentina to advance and Messi to stop looking so forlorn.)
As we go into the weekend, I leave you with a few moments of Team Senegal adorableness.
This is why I ride with Senegal, indeed.