Dakar’s stunning railroad station

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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.)

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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.

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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?

Good things happen in threes

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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!

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A new museum – side by side with an old, beautiful station

IMG_6838When 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.

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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.

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Smithsonian Magazine writes:

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.IMG_6808

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.

IMG_6809The 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.

 

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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…

Allez les Lions! (Also, Vamos, vamos Argentina!)

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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.

My Dakar places

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On Valentine’s Day two years ago, I flew to Dakar. So much has happened since then that it feels more like a decade.

It also feels like I left Dakar ages ago, but it’s actually only been eleven months, which is so unbelievable to me that I redid the math twice. Still, eleven months is long enough to lose touch with a place, and the list I’m about to post may be a little outdated. But I’ve been promising it to myself and others for too long to let it evaporate. And things change far more slowly in Dakar than in New York, so even though there are surely new places to discover, almost all of these old places could still be going strong. (I’ll edit the post accordingly if I learn differently.)

Without further ado, and in no particular order, my favorite places in Dakar… Continue reading