It was only a few weeks ago that I was blogging about my recent trip to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. The images of devastation caused by this week’s earthquake have shocked the world and it is yet another reminder that many populated areas around the world are prone to the forces of nature. It’s very strange to think that only a month or so ago I stood among the temples in Durbar Square now lying in heaps of rubble. My thoughts go out to those who have suffered and are dealing with the aftermath.
More recently I have been to Dakar, the capital of Senegal and most westerly point of the African mainland. In fact, until the discovery by Europeans of the Americas in the 15th century it was also the most westerly point of the known world (now called the Old World) which consisted of the land masses of Africa, Europe and Asia. It’s the second ‘Dakar’ I’ve visited during this cost of living survey period – I was also in the Bangladeshi capital ‘Dhaka’ in February – but the two cities are quite different.
Once a colony of France, Senegal gained its independence in 1960. Over the past 50 years it has been one of the more peaceful nations in the tumultuous area of Western Africa, and it has not been affected by recent troubles in bordering countries be it Ebola in Guinea, the terrorist conflicts in Mali or political instability in Mauritania.
I first visited Senegal back in 2007. Eight years on there have been definite improvements in the shopping environment. The country’s first upscale mall, Sea Plaza, opened in 2009, complete with the large French supermarket, Casino, and a genuine Hugo Boss outlet! And next door a slice of five star luxury can be had at the new(ish) Radisson Blu hotel and its choice of bars and restaurants overlooking the glistening sea.
Also new since my last visit is the African Renaissance Monument, the largest statue in Africa. At 49 metres tall and clad in shimmering bronze it dominates the skyline and has become an instant tourist attraction in a city lacking much else in the extraordinary stakes. The unveiling was even attended by US activist Jesse Jackson and the rapper Akon. However, the construction of the monument was not without controversy, with costs soaring during the global economic crisis and the contract to build it being won by a North Korean company.
Dakar’s location on the Atlantic coast and the fact that it’s not too hot at this time of year (it was in the upper 20’s during my visit) meant it was actually a pleasure walking from shopping malls to supermarkets to restaurants and everything in between. An afternoon stroll along the sun-kissed Corniche certainly beat being sat behind a computer in an office! Part of the feel good factor came from the fact that I wasn’t pestered – at all! Quite often on the African continent it’s impossible for someone who is clearly not local to walk through the markets and streets without being implored to buy something or get involved in a long winded conversation. Poverty is often a big driver behind this but in Senegal although poverty does exist it’s not on the same scale as nations such as Sierra Leone, Niger or Chad.
Since my last visit to Dakar there seems to have been a proliferation of French-style bakeries and patisseries dotted throughout the city. Once inside these it can feel very much as though you’re in a café in Paris – all sorts of enticing breads, pastries and cakes can be found to savour while sipping a cappuccino over brunch. In fact, it is quite common for the large French expatriate community to live a virtually complete French way of life. Although Senegalese traditions remain, the French influence throughout Dakar is undeniable, not least once you step into one of the Casino supermarkets with an array of French brand grocery products and healthy looking meat counters. Many of the top-end services such as hair salons and fitness clubs are run by French expatriates in fact.
Shopping done, a popular pastime for locals and visitors alike is to head to the Corniche in the late afternoon where you can find all sorts of engaging activities taking place. There’s a skateboard park, Magic Land (Senegal’s very own amusement park), quirky sculptures, towering mosques, colourful graffiti and bustling artisanal markets. However, the highlight for me was the fish market at Soumbedioune cove. On a small arc of beach as evening draws in you will find hundreds of brightly and imaginatively painted fishing boats, or pirogues, hauled on to the sand. The daily catch of fish and seafood is brought up to the stalls where droves of eager customers bargain hard to get the most barracuda or lobster for their francs. I am lucky to get to witness such scenes as part of my job!