It is easy and probably even justified to fill travel blogs on Africa with tales of its’ charming inhabitants, but there is always an exception and that is Dakar, the capital of Senegal. It is difficult to summon any positive words to say of Dakar, so I won’t bother lest I leave any of you with the merest glimmer of a reason for ever going there. Most of you, I am sure are aware that I am perfectly happy to face the most trying conditions offered by third world countries because I have been rewarded by glimpses into the soul of a country and the spirit of its people which transcends their troubled existence. However, every single person who approached us on the street was driven simply by the desire to wrench money from us by any means necessary. Our acts of generosity were often greeted by a disdainful “is that all, give me more”. If all these people were driven by dire poverty I could have forgiven much but many obviously were not, in fact it was only a crippled beggar who showed any signs of genuine humanity and he turned out to be from Sierra Leone. Far poorer communities elsewhere have treated me with far more respect and dignity than the inhabitants of Dakar. I can deal with any shopkeeper who drives a hard bargain but shopping becomes a pointless exercise when it is in an atmosphere of intimidation and emotional blackmail. Having travelled widely I can say without doubt that Dakar is the worst place I have been, solely because of its population, without them it would be a pleasant enough place to stroll as the centre lacks some of the squalor found in other African cities.
Given Dakar’s reputation as a convention of pick pockets and robbers it was one of its delights we were prepared for and hence did not suffer the consequences, only having to dissuade a couple of amateurish attempts. Because of this we were surprised by the sight of a hulk of a man in tattered rags with a great fan of banknotes hanging from his back- we can only assume that this must have been a sign of such psychotic lunacy that the local desperados were not tempted to relieve him of any of it.
After such experiences the crumbling, colonial charm of St Louis was a delightful change, its pastel colours glow in the bright, African sun. If it could retain much of this charm under a day of English drizzle remains open to question. This charm had imbued those locals reliant on the finances of foreigners with enough savvy to use politeness and tact instead of threats and scams. The city’s fly breeding programme was running at olympian standards thanks to the leftovers of its fishing industry and the Senegalese inability to transfer rubbish more than 1m from its point of use, despite the best efforts of the numerous crack teams of goats patrolling the streets as organic waste hoovers. Fields bursting with bumper crops of old plastic bags did tend to be a common feature of roadside viewing in Senegal.
Ambling along the beach of St Louis we encountered Cheikh, a fisherman who spent some time giving us an insight into his existence, one tarnished by the impossibility of getting a regular fishing permit these days. Local fish stocks had been decimated by the government flogging off its rights to the EU industrial fishing fleets in the glorious name of free market economics. Thus the likes of Cheikh resort to humbly begging from tourists to support his family, grateful that their children’s only education will be in a cramped tin shack in the stifling heat repeating the droning mantra of the Qur’an. I will spare you all the lecture I had prepared on the effects of unquestioning devotion to free markets, suffice to say that those of you under the influence of its effects in the credit crunch may like to bear in mind that many in the 3rd world have had their already precarious existences tipped over the edge by these policies for many years. So no matter how bad your plight, spare a thought for Cheikh and those of other names, professions and homelands around the world whose each, individual story is a little inconvenient truth which somehow fails to tarnish the glowing economic vision of our leaders.