From the 5th century onwards, Wolof and Serer people migrated south of the Senegal River as Berber nomads moved down from the north. In the 8th century they came under the influence of the Soninke’s Ghana Empire which flourished on trade of gold, slaves and salt until the Berber Almoravids razed their capital Kumbi Salah in 1076. Then, the Djolof kingdom arose to flourish in the 13th and 14th centuries in the area between the Senegal river and the coast.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese traders controlled the coast until the French secured St-Louis in 1659 after competing with their British and the Dutch rivals. At the end of the 19th century, French West Africa stretched from the Atlantic to present-day Niger.
The French administered their colonies directly as opposed to the British policy of indirect administration through local chiefs. Senegalese deputies sat in the French Assemblée Nationale (parliament) as early as 1848 and the first black deputy Blaise Diagne was elected in 1914.
This policy of integration did not stem the call for independence which was granted in 1960 with Leopold Senghor as president. Twenty years later he voluntarily stepped down in 1980 in favour of his chosen successor, Abdou Diouf who still holds power after 19 years.
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I had been lucky to get through the Mauritanian border formalities without paying a bribe and lady luck stayed with me as I met this gentleman on the ferry as he was crossing the Senegal river in the chauffeur driven Mitsubishi Pajaro 4 wheel drive vehicle behind us. He turned out to be the mayor of Rosso (and ex transport minister of Mauritania), going to Dakar on business with a short stop in Saint Louis where I was going. We had a most interesting conversation on African politics during the 100 km drive until he dropped me off here next to the Faidherbe bridge.
I envy the elegance (and probably comfort) of the traditional blue mauritanian robes...
I had hardly thanked my mauritanian friend (whose name I did not get), that I met a French couple who took me across the Faidherbe bridge and brought me to the Saint Louis youth hostel where I was made welcome and given a fine room for only 9 US$. That evening, a bunch of us from the hostel went to a nearby restaurant where we enjoyed an excellent chicken dinner with beer for 4 $US$.
Rue Khalifa, one of the six north-south streets.
Colonial Saint Louis is a narrow island in the Senegal river close to where it flows into the Atlantic. It was a slave trading post for more than two centuries (like Gorée island near Dakar), before becoming the gateway for French expansion into West Africa in the mid 19th century.
Mosques like this one on rue de France are a common the sight in Senegal as almost 90 percent of the population is Muslim. In principle, Muslims believe that everyone can have a direct access to God but the form of Islam practiced here has fallen under the influence of a clergy that enjoys the benefits of considerable secular power (here, the privileges of the marabouts are similar to those of the mollahs in Iran).
The Abdoulaye Mar Diop boulevard facing the west arm of the Sénégal river is now a parking place for fishing boats.
The once important Saint Louis declined considerably when Dakar became the capital of French West Africa in 1902. In 1958, it lost its role as administrative center for Senegal-Mauritania, a new city Nouakchott was created to be the capital of independent Mauritania and Dakar became the capital of Senegal.
After a couple of days rest in that charming relic of the colonial past, I took a Peugeot station wagon "taxi brousse" for Dakar. It was crowded as usual with two passengers in front with the driver, four jammed in the middle seat and three of us in the narrow third seat behind. The "taxi brousse" are not comfortable but they are a cheap and convenient way to travel.
Place de l'Indépendance is the heart of modern Dakar which has grown to more than a million. Dakar has its share of hustlers and down beats but no more than any big city that size. The city center around the Hôtel Indépendance shown here is quite safe even after sundown but there are some areas which are best avoided at night.
I found a cheap room at the Hôtel Provençal near Independence square. In fact, it was a brothel but it had a separate annex where customers who did not require room service could stay for 15 $US which is not much for the center of Dakar.
The annex of Le Provençal where I stayed (blue walls lower left), and the port can be seen from the roof of the expensive Hôtel Indépendance.
I stayed a week in Dakar and enjoyed its noise and bustle. I got visas for Cape Verde and the Gambia and planned the next leg of my trip. I had been hoping to visit Guinea Bissau to see if I could find people I had met when I had worked there in 1979 but the ongoing civil war precluded that. In the end, I decided to fly from Banjul to Conakry and then to Freetown and Monrovia on the way to Abidjan.
Also facing Independence Square, the Chamber of Commerce building, a heritage of French colonial times.
It is interesting to imagine what Dakar would have become if the Federation of Independent West African States promoted by Senegal's brilliant first president, Leopold Senghor, had overcome the resistance of Côte d'Ivoire's Houphouët-Boigny backed by France's determination to maintain control over its ex-colonies by keeping them weak and divided.
Here is the modern Assemblée Nationale next to the Ifan museum on Place Soweto.
This is where one of the more benign forms of "African Democracy" has been ostensibly practiced by Senghor's successor Abdou Diouf for the last 19 years.
Personally, I am convinced that there must be some better way of choosing leaders than the periodical election of some of the million dollar public images created by specialists of advertising and political propaganda. The democratic process was probably efficient in identifying the most competent leader at the village level when everyone knew everybody else intimately and could exercise his own judgement. That is certainly not the case today as the elector now has to choose between the competing manipulated images of people he does not know.
You can find anything you need in the big, bustling Sandaga market but you can also get lost in it. Dakar's other important market, marché Kermel, is smaller and cleaner, almost a showcase market.
The democratic process may not be the ideal way to choose leaders but it is certainly the best way, when it works, to get rid of leaders whose governance most of the people have had enough. The problem is that it does not suffice to go through the motions of holding elections for the process to work. In my estimation, only in a minority of the many so-called democratic countries that I have visited does the electoral process fairly provide a way for the voting public to try on a new set of leaders to replace the old.
This small fruit and vegetable market near the port is more typical of the friendly colourful markets found all over Africa.
A visit to Dakar is not complete without a look at the infamous Island of Gorée where thousands of human beings were loaded on slave boats like cattle. Getting there gives you a good view of Dakar's skyline.
This is the terrible place from which so many went to their deaths in the blackbirders or into slavery in the Americas.
Gorée beach and the old houses leading to D'Estrées Fort are now gaily painted tourist attractions where it is fashionable to take drumming lessons from the locals.
The once grim D'Estrées Fort is now a macabre museum of the history of slavery in these parts.
The big red building on the left was the main warehouse where slaves were penned awaiting shipment. Most tourists are duly impressed but I am sure that this place has completely lost its horrific significance for the local people who keep these narrow streets clean and well flowered to make them more pleasant for their foreign visitors.
Life goes on and so does the scrum to get on board for the return trip.
The following day I flew to the ex-Portuguese colony of Cape Verde, less than two hours offshore Dakar to the north-west.
The day after my return from Cape Verde I got up very early to be sure to get a seat on the bus going directly to Banjul in the Gambia. It was still dark at 6:00 when I walked along the deserted boulevard de la Libération looking for the bus station. A police cruiser came around and offered me a ride through the unlit streets to a street corner where some people were lined up before a closed ticket booth. I was thankful and realised that I had been imprudent to go on foot when I noticed that the newcomers who kept lengthening the queue were all arriving by taxi. Finally the wicket opened, there was some struggling and we all got numbered bits of cardboard intended to reduce the violence of the scrum to board one of the two busses that arrived around 7:00 AM. After much pushing, shouting and arguing the busses got loaded and left around 7:30. Discipline and patience were certainly not part of the cultural makeup of my fellow travellers...