There is a bar in the Senegalese capital of Dakar that you can only find if someone has pointed the way. It sits on a thin strip of beach, with a wide view of the Atlantic Ocean and the young surfers who chase waves as the sun sets in the distance. It sits below the Mamelles Lighthouse, which offers tours during the day and turns into a nightclub after dark. None of the furniture in the open-air bar matches. The five-minute walk to the cove, down a thin dirt path that snakes from a chaotic intersection — horse-drawn carts and shiny SUVs competing for space on packed roads — feels like passing through a portal between worlds.
Dakar has an aura that seeps into your soul. The sensations — the smell of grilled fish and spiced coffee, the feeling of an impending downpour, the bone-rattling vibrations from a dozen drums — stay with you long after you leave. When I visited this West African city, as part of my journey around the world as the 52 Places Traveler, I often caught myself thinking of my future. As I walked through markets that seemingly went on forever or sat on the deck of a ferry as it floated away from the mainland to one of the outlying islands, I thought, “I could live here.” And while it is impossible to fully experience without making the trip, there are ways to capture at least a sliver of the magic.
Tour the sounds of the city
In between the rumble of traffic and the shouts of street vendors, there is always music in Dakar. It blares from cellphones, transistor radios and nightclubs. Shows start at midnight and last until sunrise. On a single day in the city, you will hear politically charged hip-hop; the dizzying pulse of “mbalax,” a dance music that combines traditional percussion with global influences; the vintage sounds of Cuban rumba put through a West African blender; and much more.
To get a sampling of the city’s musical diversity tune into an episode or two of Afropop Worldwide, the radio program and podcast from Public Radio International.
Unsurprisingly, considering the integral role of music in Dakar’s daily rhythms, it is hard to spend any time in Dakar without coming across some of the many dance styles of the region. From modern mbalax blaring out of nightclubs to sabar, named for the rattling drums that propel dancers to acrobatic frenzies, there are countless reasons to jump to your feet — and you can do it from home. A number of dance studios around the world have turned to virtual classes, because of the coronavirus pandemic. For starters, check out the Alvin Ailey Extension School, which offers regular online West African dance classes, led by Senegalese dancer Maguette Camara. Just be sure to clear out any fragile items, pets or small children from your rehearsal space; you will be doing a whole lot of kicking, jumping and spinning as you try and keep up with the rhythms of sabar.
Cook up a storm
Senegalese cuisine can be as simple as a whole “thiof” fish, a type of white grouper, grilled to perfection on the beach, or as complex as a heavily spiced stew, simmered for hours. Most importantly though, with just a few special ingredients, it can be re-created at home. Dionne Searcey, the former West Africa bureau chief of The New York Times, said that when she wants to feel like she’s back in Dakar, she reaches for one of the cookbooks by Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam. Searcey’s go- to is yassa poulet, “an onion- slathered chicken dish,” and she serves it with “fonio,” a couscouslike grain popular across Senegal.
Thiam, who has an entire line of packaged fonio, recommends one dish in particular from his collection “The Fonio Cookbook.” It is a fonio salad — “ideal for a hot day in Dakar,” he said — with lots of parsley and mint, fresh tomatoes and diced mango for “a herbaceous taste.”
Get lost in literature
If it is transportive words you are after, there is a wide range of translated fiction and nonfiction out of Senegal to choose from. Searcey says that she often returns to the words of Boubacar Boris Diop, “who pours his soul into his work,” in “Africa Beyond the Mirror.”
The Senegalese scholar, Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University in New York, recommends starting with Aminata Sow Fall’s “The Beggars’ Strike,” which tells the story of a conflict between an unnamed African city’s poor and the government administrators trying to “clean up” the streets. “The story does not name the city but it is Dakar seen from the perspective of the ‘little people,’” Diagne said.
The classic, “So Long a Letter,” by Mariama Ba, does a great job capturing another slice of Dakar life, said Dr. Marame Gueye, an associate professor of African literature at East Carolina University in North Carolina. The short book takes the form of a letter from a widow to her lifelong friend and reveals a slice of Senegalese life during a moment in history. “The novel shows Dakar after independence and how the educated elite Senegalese negotiate tradition and sprouting modernity,” Gueye said. When I asked her for Dakar-based literature recommendations, she couldn’t help but share her own feelings about the beguiling city.
“Dakar is one of my favorite cities in the world,” said Gueye, who grew up more than 100 miles away in the town of Kaolack. “There is something about it that hugs you and does not want to let go.”
Sometimes, a photo is enough to make you feel — even for a second — that you are somewhere far away. Searcey says that when she misses Dakar, she looks at the stunning fashion-centric work of Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop. “Even viewing it online can almost make me cry,” Searcey said.
Ricci Shryock, a photographer based in Dakar, has an Instagram feed full of gorgeous snapshots of daily life in her adopted home. She recommends a wide variety of other Instagram accounts to check out if you are looking to transport yourself to the city. For an introduction to the city, Shryock recommends following Dakar Lives, which curates images of the city’s past and present.
Finally, to feel like you are soaring above Dakar, she points to the work of Abdoulaye Ndao, who goes by Layepro on Instagram. “Layepro posts gorgeous aerials that make me fall in love with this city all over again each time I see them,” Shryock said.
Crash course in Wolof
A favorite Instagram account of Shryock is Wolof Words. Besides capturing the spirit of Dakar, it doubles as a crash course in the Wolof language, the most commonly spoken language in Dakar. While a few hours on Instagram are not going to turn you into a fluent Wolof speaker, you might pick up a phrase or two. “To me, the sound of jaunty, loud Wolof is one of the best sounds of Dakar,” Shryock said.