Dakar, Senegal is a city on the move – in more ways than one.
The capital of the West African country fairly bristles with an ambitious, upward-striving energy that is palpable and energising.
Everywhere there are buildings under construction stretching skywards, evidence of the city’s massive building boom which has been fuelled by migrants from rural Senegal and neighbouring countries. Dakar’s population of 3 million is expected to reach 5 million by 2025 – just 11 years from now.
A portion of this burgeoning population can be seen on evenings packed onto the city’s beaches, exercising with fervent dedication. The public enthusiasm for fitness in Senegal is on another level. The first time we passed the beach we thought there was a concert or major meeting on as the sand was coated with hundreds of people. But they were working out – running, playing football or doing aerobics. This scene repeats itself across the city in every little public space, with men in football shorts and women in track pants and hijabs jogging and jumping.
Off the beaches, the brightly painted cars rapides, (literally “fast cars” – Senegal’s version of the minibus), nonchalant pedestrians, horse-drawn carts and cars all moved non-stop. Literally, no-one stopped for the other, causing my Caribbean posse to cringe in terror several times during our taxi trips, certain that collision and carnage was about to ensue. Surprisingly however, we saw just one accident during our one-week trip.
However the hustle and bustle on the beaches and streets had nothing on the street-side hustle. Let’s be clear. What we call hustling here in our part of the world is nothing compared to Senegal where the spirit of capitalism is exuberantly, intensely alive.
Here at home, people sell fruit at the side of the road. In Dakar, there were people selling fruit road-side too. However there were people right next to them selling pots and pans, blenders, Monopoly and Scrabble sets, jewellery, bathroom scales, phone cards, lamps, bedsteads and boxes of tissue. Because – who knows when you’re driving down the highway to work and might need a blender?
In Sandaga Market and Sounbejoune Market which we visited, we experienced the hustle live as vendors relentlessly tracked us down offering “un bon prix” (a good price) for wooden sculptures, vibrant paintings, wax cloth and authentic crocodile and snake skin belts.
The first price offered is considered a mere starting point for negotiations and as soon as we countered in our butchered French with “pas un bon prix”, our would-be salesman or woman would laugh genially and respond – usually in English “tell me what you want to pay.” In the end, our purchase prices were usually about four times less than the original price offered.
Even at the wedding which was our reason for the trip, the hustle was in full effect. On our arrival at the beach-side villa, we were surprised to see a larger-than-usual gaggle of photographers taking photos of all arriving guests.
We were even more surprised when, on departing a mere two hours later, those photographers were back, with prints in hand ready for sale. We were even more surprised two days later to learn from our friend, the bride, that those photographers were not invited but just got wind of the wedding and came to hustle. It brought a whole new meaning to photo bombing.
But you know what? I respected the hustle – there and everywhere in Dakar.
(This article first appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Islandista Magazine – Barbados)