We’ve finally made it into deep Africa. Up until now our African visits on this adventure have been strictly North Africa, Tunisia and Morocco. Prior to this we did a vacation in 2000 to South Africa and Lesotho, and I did some work related travel in a couple African countries a decade ago, but this is our first trip together into what you might call “real Africa.”Our goal that first day was Independence Square, which Lonely Planet describes as “the beating heart of the city.” Oh my God, we thought after walking two-and-a-half hours to get there, if this is the beating heart of the city we should just pack up and go back home. If we had a home, that is. There was really nothing there, just a dead, dry, dusty expanse with some 1960-vintage architecture. We were late for lunch by then so we ate at an OK-looking place just off the Square, and that wasn’t much to write home about either; my sausage, in fact, was pretty much inedible.
From there, though, things got a lot better. To our enormous surprise, food was one of the highlights of our stay. Relying heavily on TripAdvisor, on our first night we found this nice little restaurant/bar, downstairs from a pretty ordinary café; it felt like we were back on the East Coast. Then we had a great Lebanese meal the second night, and the third we spent at an ocean-side restaurant not far from our hotel. I would not have expected three genuinely good meals at three separate restaurants in Dakar, but there you go.
There were also a few sights worth seeing. On that first long walk into downtown Dakar we walked past the African Renaissance Monument. We’d read about it in our guidebook, but were still somewhat agog by the experience. The Monument is a 160-foot statue of an African family atop a 320-foot hill. The statue was built by a North Korean company and the people have that very Stalinesque superhuman quality that we’ve come to know from Communist styles. The body types are almost cartoonish; it’s not clear that there are many men in the world with muscles like that or many women with breasts that large and … outspoken. And of course in Islamic culture depictions of humans is considered idolatrous and the nearly nude figures go a bit far even for less doctrinaire Moslems. Still, it is the largest statue in all of Africa and it makes quite the impression.
By far the bigger deal, though, is the Île de Gorée, an island designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in commemoration of the role it played in the West African slave trade. You access the island via a 30-minute ferry boat ride from Dakar, but the island feels like a world apart. While Dakar is intense and hyper and teeming, Gorée is quiet, meditative, and peaceful. No cars, no paved roads, but still a living, thriving community of about a thousand people filled with crumbling colonial architecture and attractive art displays. And memories.
The island, you see, was a hub of slave trade management. While there is some controversy as to just how important the island was as an actual shipping site for slaves to the New World, it was at a minimum an important place for the management of the slave industry. The House of Slaves museum is in an 18th century home, where the family lived upstairs and the slaves were kept in grim cells below, waiting to be shipped westbound. Even if this was not, in fact, a key departure spot for the 20 million slaves shipped from West Africa, it stands as a powerful symbol of the evils inflicted on the African people.
That was our four-day stop in Dakar. We were there for some national holiday, so one day was pretty much lost. Surprisingly good food, surprisingly poor air quality, and our first taste of what you could call the real Africa. From here we head north to Saint-Louis, an old colonial town on the northern border with Mauritania, and then we head south for some beach time. We’re eager to see how we feel about Africa in a couple of weeks.