You have just landed at Yof International Airport near Dakar, the capital of Senegal. You descend onto the tarmac beneath an oddly cinnamon-colored sky (a sign, you'll later learn, of recent sandstorms in the desert). Eager to escape the soft, sad smell of airline catering, which you have endured for hours, you inhale deeply. And so it is that you first meet Africa as much through your nose as your eyes. Even as the thick, warm air softens your tense, winter-induced posture (Senegal in the summer would be a very bad idea), the smell of a new continent shocks you with a pungent punch of earth, animal, sea and sweat.
Walking toward the airport's only terminal--a rather menacing cement structure that looks Eastern European Socialist in inspiration (and weirdly so in this tropical setting)--your feeling is, above all, one of intense anticipation. You really have no idea of what to expect.
Now you brace yourself and step inside. Passport control is your first exposure to the indigenous bureaucracy--which is to say, your first experience of Senegalese mayhem. Hordes of people have gotten there before you and are pushing and shouting in the heat under the cobwebbed fans that hang motionless overhead. When you finally reach the passport inspector, he barks at you in French. Even if you have a fair command of that language, it's likely that your jet-lagged ears will panic, and you will not understand. But ask him to repeat himself--or, if you don't speak French, tell him that you don't. Chances are he'll speak at least enough English to ask you what he needs to know: the purpose of your visit to Senegal.
What you'll say is "tourism"--and what that means, you'll soon find out, is something quite extraordinary. Senegal is culturally varied, unexpectedly stylish, full of vivid charms and challenges. Though not the stereotypical Africa of safaris and dense jungles, it is in a sense definitively African--and is perhaps the perfect place to begin a personal exploration of that continent.
LEOPOLD SEDAR SENGHOR, AFRICA'S MOST famous poet and the first president of modern Senegal, called it the "California of Africa"--and indeed it is a vacationer's paradise, famous for its broad and mostly empty beaches, sunny skies, inexpensive hotels and surprisingly good and varied food. It is also, though, a dynamic contemporary African nation in which the Middle East and the European West blend with ancient indigenous tribal traditions, at least sometimes with great success. And it is a country with special, tragic resonance for Americans: For several hundred years, under the British, French and Dutch, it was the capital of the West African slave trade, the way station through which slaves bound for the Western Hemisphere, Senegalese and otherwise, would pass. More North Americans can probably trace their roots to Senegal than to Holland.
Senegal has been shaped by two cultural influences above all--Islam and France--and you encounter vivid reminders of them both as your taxi or hotel van carries you into Dakar from the airport: There seem to be mosques on nearly every dusty street, and every five or six blocks there is a blue metal cabin selling government-subsidized baguettes--the long French bread loaves that are the staple of the city's diet. Small, pretty suburbs are full of tree-lined avenues and white-painted Art Deco buildings that could confuse you into thinking that you're somewhere on the Cote d'Azur. A billboard advertising a popular locally made perfume shows an attractive, well-dressed black couple standing on the Place de la Concorde in Paris, with a tag line in French underneath: "An evening to remember forever." Another billboard features a rather shaky rendering of a 747 jet, on which all the text is in Arabic except for the name of the airline and one of its destinations, the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. Almoravides, a confederation of Berber tribes from Morocco, converted the region to Islam in the 11th century, and an estimated 90% of the population is Muslim today. The French first occupied part of Senegal in the 17th Century, consolidating their power in the 19th, and Dakar remained the administrative center of French West Africa until Senegal won its independence in 1959. Although the vast majority of Senegalese belong to the Wolof, Fulani and Serer groups, ancient peoples with a rich, if often tragic, history, and although their attitude toward the French today is ambivalent, French remains the official language here.