Travel: Just another Saturday night Chez Ponty

Cosmopolitan Dakar has some great musicians, cafes and an unmistakably French feel. But its unsavoury past is hard to ignore, as Jonathan Gregson discovered
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The Independent Travel
THE BAND switched effortlessly from playing the Blues to a purely African rhythm called the mblaix. A girl stepped up to the mike. At a glance, she might easily be mistaken for Naomi Campbell. But then again, looking around the other tables, there were lots of other Naomi lookalikes. It was just another Saturday night at Chez Ponty, a cafe-brasserie in downtown Dakar, capital of Senegal.

Now Chez Ponty attracts a fairly cosmopolitan crowd. Among the regulars were a good smattering of French expats who were monopolising the tables closest to the band. More middle-aged Frenchmen had come to meet their p'tites copines (the Naomi lookalikes). But there was also a wide diversity of Africans - Portuguese-speaking Guineans and Cape Verdeans, Gambians, and representatives of half the Francophone nations of West Africa.

Most visitors to West Africa pass through Dakar. I had just flown in from one of the dustier capitals of the interior, after which Dakar's bright lights and multilingual cafe society seemed positively metropolitan. It was as if a corner of Paris had been transported to this western-most point of the African continent. Which is hardly surprising, since in 1904 France made Dakar the capital of its vast West African empire.

The ornately fin-de-siecle train station is the main terminus of a railway stretching inland to the River Niger. The city was home to the largest French population in sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period, and despite Senegal's independence that is still the case. Moreover, the links work the other way round: Senegalese immigrants have for years formed the largest black African community in metropolitan France.

Indeed, you're just as likely to catch one of Dakar's musical giants - the Youssou Ndours of this world - performing in Paris as on their home turf. But there's no shortage of musical talent in town. I caught a Congolese outfit which soon had the dancefloor gyrating - all the movement in the hips and lower body, very controlled and, as my neighbour put it, "tres cool".

The same might be said of the city as a whole. First impressions were that this was a civilised place to get things like visas and airline bookings sorted out. True, on the way from the airport our taxi-driver had to hand over a bribe to the police - but this was done in civilised manner, without all the shouting and aggression accompanying such transactions in Mali or the Cameroon.

We had checked into a small hotel, the Saint Louis-Sun, where the staff were courteous and the telephones worked first time. What's more, the person at the airline office answered and provided the information I needed with a cool efficiency I was not used to. I then descended to the garden- courtyard, where my wife was sipping something long and cool. A musician was playing the kora, a cross between the harp and a lute, which produces the most ethereal and floating of sounds.

Some travellers complain that Dakar isn't really an African city. And it's true, the downtown area is either modern office blocks or side streets lined with older houses whose French shutters may need repairing, but are still there. On most corner there's a boulangerie selling fresh baguettes. But all this is as much a part of Dakar's identity as crumbling colonial architecture is to Calcutta.

The other common complaint is that Dakar is aggressive, that hasslers abound, and that all foreign visitors get robbed. Maybe I'm lucky, but in five days I never felt threatened. Nor did my wife, who went shopping by herself. Only once, when I asked for directions, did the guy demand a p'tit cadau and follow me for a couple of blocks. The ubiquitous street- sellers with their cheap cotton clothes and cassettes of variable quality can be persistent - especially along the Boulevard de la Liberation - and there's a distinctly Muslim atmosphere up in the Medina and around the Grand Mosque (entry to unbelievers forbidden). Certainly it helps getting about town if you speak French and try to look like an expat rather than a tourist.

The only "incident" happened not in Dakar but out on the "slave island" of Goree, which is now a Unesco World Heritage site. For close to 300 years it was used by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and (briefly) the British, as a warehouse for the human cargo waiting to be shipped to the New World. We took the regular ferry out from the harbour, along with a Club Med tour and a smaller group of African-Americans in search of their roots.

"I don't think I'm strong enough for this without lunch," Sarah announced, so on arrival we headed straight for the Hostellerie du Chevalier de Boufflers - an old, rose-red mansion filled with hunting trophies and fading photographs inside, with a terrasse that overlooks the sea. We ordered violettes (the local shellfish) and grilled thiof (similar to sea-bass). The food was delicious, but even simple pleasures have a way of making you feel guilty on Ile de Goree.

We then walked up to the Fort d'Estrees, whose cannon once guarded the slave ships. More recently, it has been transformed into a Museum of the Diaspora. The exhibits were coldly factual. For example, the "wastage" on British ships making the Middle Passage had been far higher than aboard French or Dutch vessels.

Down the other end of this fortress island stands the Maison d'Esclaves, last survivor of the many prison-warehouses that used to crowd the shoreline. We were shown the main slave compound, the rooms thick-walled, heavily vaulted, and immensely claustrophobic. Grimmer still were the punishment cells. The European slave-traders lived in spacious apartments directly above, equipped with a trap door and rope that could be lowered should any of the "masters" feel like some female companionship. Then it was down to the Gate of No Return, whence the slaves were loaded on to cutters to be taken out to ships lying offshore. The approach funnels you in until at the gateway it's just wide enough for one person to pass. It was designed that way to prevent any last dash for freedom.

It is an emotionally charged place, the Maison d'Esclaves. I found a group of African-Americans there weeping openly and hugging each other for comfort. In the souvenir shop, a local man was doing good business selling certificates to the Americans at $25 each. I asked to look at one. It was cheaply printed and full of unsubstantiated claims about the visitors above-named having returned to where their ancestors had been taken away from Africa. But when I queried whether these documents were official in any way, the concierge grew furiously angry. In a matter of seconds, we moved from cordial sales patter to talk of violence. It was time to get out of the shop.

"Why did you do that?" an African-American woman outside wanted to know. I tried to explain that I'd only asked about the certificates. "I know," she said, tucking her copy away. "Most likely they don't mean a thing. But what's that got to do with you?" As a visitor to Dakar whose own ancestors had never been enslaved or colonised, it was a question to which I had no ready answer.

dakar fact file

Flight to Dakar cost from pounds 445 rtn on Sabena, or pounds 463 on Air France (via Paris). These prices available through Trailfinders on 0171 938 3939.

Nouvelles Frontieres (O171 629 7772) offers a variety of beach/wildlife packages in Senegal, including a short stay in Dakar which can be extended.

The Hotel Saint-Louis Sun is in Rue Felix Faure, and a double room costs pounds l9.