Travel `98: November Senegal

With its red-roofed villas and breakfasts of Normandy butter and baguettes, it's easy to see why Dakar still captivates the French, says Martin Buckley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Reaching the Senegalese capital Dakar as I did from the east, after crossing thousands of miles of Saharan Africa, felt like coming home. Home in the sense of back to Europe, back to my own civilisation. I arrived at midnight and awoke at dawn to look out from my 12th-storey window on tall buildings and red-roofed villas, a harbour and a quiet sea. Surely, I had been transported to some Mediterranean port?

But this lush isthmus was Europe in Africa, and soon I was drinking aromatic coffee and spreading President butter on a baguette of razor crustiness. Of course, this was Africa, too - Africa colonised, acculturated, but also raw and brilliant. I realised that as soon as I walked out of my hotel. Dakar's streets are said to be West Africa's most vibrant, vibrancy being defined as extreme poverty expressed in an hysterically-pitched street life. The pavements of the city's main street, the Avenue Georges Pompidou, are almost barred by clothing stalls, and the touts are desperately tenacious. I had come to Dakar to meet, and marry, my fiancee Penny, and as we walked the streets, we soon became used to being hailed by every stall-holder as les nouveaux maries. How did they know? Ca se voit, they grinned - you can tell.

We had been there a few days before anyone tried to rob us. We had set ourselves up like a Christmas present, stepping out of a bank stuffed with the cash for my return ticket to London. A man bent down in front of me, as though he wanted to clean my shoes, then started to shake his hands in a sort of epileptic Abracadabra. I suddenly realised he was trying to confuse me, and started. Penny gripped her bag and yelled. Another man was right behind us, ready to grab. Penny screamed, I made incoherent grunts. Lightly, like dancers, they withdrew, throwing cautious looks around them. A few days earlier, a crowd had got hold of a thief, and tried to lynch him.

This small event made me feel no rancour towards Dakar, but somehow blooded, a sort of honorary local, a participant. Like New York, this high-energy city sucks you into the collective sense of aspiration: struggle for it, get it, enjoy it.

Many of those doing the enjoying are French. As with most of its former colonies, France never really went away, and is in evidence not only on breakfast tables but in street signs, Peugeot show-rooms, and in the brass plates on the doors of medecins and avocats. And, of course, in the availability of good hotels and good food. But the most physical evidence is on the beach where, crackling-brown, the former colonists baste in Ambre Solaire, occasionally wading through whipped-egg-white sand into the blue Atlantic.

As Penny and I swam one day, we were joined in the waves by a herd of sheep: holding them by the hind legs, the shepherd walked them like wheelbarrows past the breakers, then scrubbed them with a stiff brush while they bleated against the indignity of it all.

At night, Dakar dances. There are dozens of clubs with everything from hi-tech music systems to - better by far - live Senegalese bands. Youssou N'Dour, the country's best-known musical son, owns a nightclub and performs there when he is in Dakar. It was Virginia, my hotel chambermaid, who told me he was "back in town". "He's at the Thiossane for three nights this week," she said, "don't miss him." The club was packed, and N'Dour made us listen to supporting bands until nearly 3am. Nobody seemed to mind. The next day, the hotel receptionist was somewhat dopey: he had come to work straight from the dance floor.

Dakar's history lies on an island just offshore. Its black, sea-battered cliffs face out towards the New World, and it was from the protected deep- water harbour in the lee of the island that millions of slaves left Africa for a life - if they survived the voyage - in the Americas. The island is called Goree, and today it is a Unesco World Heritage site. Its 16th- century houses and church of St Charles have hardly changed, and there is the somnolent atmosphere of a Mediterranean village, the peeling yellow and raw sienna-washed walls draped with billowing bougainvillaea.

The dark history of this place is most manifest in the gloomy dungeon where slaves were held in chains before passing through a rectangle of light and along a jetty and into the holds of slave ships. This building is now a museum. It has a curator-guide who hectors tourists in the most extraordinary way. Granted, feeling the weight of the Africans' suffering from slavery, it must be irritating to lecture blase, sun-dazed, T-shirted and shorted tourists. Then I saw his office-cum-souvenir-shop: a kind of self-exalting shrine, plastered with press clippings and photographs of him shaking hands with celebrities, including Nelson Mandela.

One's sense of horror at the traumatic history of Goree attains a sort of catharsis with the way in which the Senegalese have now taken possession of the island. On Sundays, it is Dakar's most popular resort. As the hourly ferry pulls out of the bay, young men and women, superbly muscled, use it as a diving platform. They catapult themselves off the upper deck in superb jack-knife dives, surfacing in time to trap the stem of the boat and climb aboard for another dive. Only as the ferry completes its long curve towards the city, half a mile out, do they remain in the water and begin to race in powerful crawls back towards the island. Their island.

And they made us welcome on Goree. For we had come to the island, to the yellow, bougainvillaea-draped church, to be married. We had already had a civil wedding on the mainland. M Sao, the registrar, was a big, theatrical man who clearly loved his job, stamping and signing the documents with tremendous flourishes. These included a licence certifying that I had opted for monogamous rather than polygamous marriage, and a booklet in which Penny and I were instructed to inscribe the names of our children in separate boxes; there were 21 boxes.

Having been married before Man, we would now be married before God. We were a small congregation that day, with barely a dozen guests, all of whom we had met in Senegal. We exchanged our vows in French, and in the doorway behind us children of the island gathered, peeking in and whispering. As we left the church, they showered us with bougainvillaea petals. We sat in a restaurant overlooking the harbour, and watched the sun set and the swimmers and our guests climb aboard the last ferry home. Our hotelier wiped away an emotional tear and plied us with Cape Verde rum. "It is a great privilege for us," he said, "that you chose our island to be married on." But we felt the privilege was all ours.

How to get there

The easiest way to reach Dakar is on Air France (0181-759 2311) via Paris. The cheapest way is by charter from Britain to Banjul in Gambia, and overland from there.