I’m Moira, a British-Mozambican communications consultant currently living in Dakar, Senegal. Growing up, my family moved countries frequently due to my parents’ employment, so travelling became a normal part of my life. My up-bringing meant I caught the travel bug young, so I tend to get itchy feet if I stay in a place too long. Surprisingly, that hasn’t happened in Senegal yet! I find my interest in photography has always encouraged me to explore a place more deeply than if I didn’t have a camera. The prospect of finding something wonderful to photograph ‘just around the corner’ motivates me to delve further into a place or a situation.
Have you always lived in Senegal? If no, where else have you lived and what took you to Senegal?
I have called England, the United States, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique home at various points in my life. Immediately before coming to Senegal, I had been living in Mozambique and working for UNESCO. When my contract came to an end I decided to stop off in Dakar for a couple of months, take some French classes and do some travelling before heading back home to London. But Senegal captured my heart and 4 years later I’m still here! But now with a husband and 8-month old baby girl.
How would you describe Senegalese culture and life?
Unique! Prior to coming to Senegal, I had only really experienced Southern Africa. I hadn’t been to West Africa and had no expectations. But I was delighted by what I found here. Senegal really is a melting pot of cultures and the crossroads of West Africa. Dakar in particular hums with a creative energy that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. I heard a wise lady say once that art is everywhere here; it’s in the way people prepare the communal food bowl for eating, the way in which a lady ties her headscarf, or how the men glide in their voluminous boubous…the call to prayer. This is so true, I find there is an innate style and art to everything and being a creative and visual person that really appeals to me.
There is also the famous Senegalese custom of Teranga or hospitality to visitors. Teranga is a very real thing, I have experienced it and been witness to it countless times since I’ve been here. People are wonderfully warm, welcoming and friendly. They are so generous, and eager to share the riches of their culture with you.
Where do you go to enjoy the region and socialize? Where would you recommend travelers hoping to connect with locals go?
If you’re in Dakar, walk as much as you can. Have lunch in the unassuming “hole-in-the-wall” joints that get packed at lunchtimes. People are very friendly – stop and chat to them. If someone invites you for a meal with their family, go! Eating a communal meal is a special part of life here and if you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity to do that, you must.
What are some of your favorite places to explore throughout the Senegal? Why?
Saint- Louis would have to be my absolute favourite place to visit outside of Dakar. It’s a city-island in the north of the country which sits in the middle of the Senegal River, near its opening to the Atlantic. On a clear day you can actually see all the way to neighboring Mauritania. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site with beautiful colonial architecture, and home to the Saint-Louis Jazz festival. It’s a truly magical and atmospheric place.
I also love Toubab Dialaw, an artsy fishing village 50km outside of Dakar. They have a wonderful fairy-tale-like hotel called Sobo-Bade which is a truly relaxing escape when city-life gets too intense. There are many more places I’d like to visit in Senegal; next on my list are the mangrove swamps of the Sine Saloum, which I’ve heard are spectacular, and the Lompoul desert up North which is home to an international music festival every November. You get to camp out in the sand dunes, which sounds amazing.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested in visiting Senegal?
Activities to do and cities/places to explore:
Dakar is famous for its live music scene, and if you can stay up late (nothing gets going before about 1am) then make sure you catch some of the great local acts. The ‘Just4U’ club is probably the best spot to hear the talent.
I don’t get out of Dakar as often as I’d like, but luckily there are places in Dakar that you can go to that make you feel like you’ve truly escaped the city such as Iles de la Madeleines, an Island nature reserve 5 minutes away from the mainland by Pirogue, and Ile de Ngor, another nearby Island where you can relax, swim, eat fresh seafood and enjoy a great view back to the mainland. It’s also the home of Ngor Island Surf Camp and some world class waves, if surfing is your thing. For one of the best places to have a drink and see the sunset, head to Hotel Sokhamon and for the best view of the city walk up the Phare des Mamelles (lighthouse). It’s one of the few ‘green’ spaces in Dakar and very peaceful.
Neighborhoods, galleries, and museums to explore:
Some of the older neighborhoods such as Yoff, Ouakam, and Medina are interesting to explore. I would also recommend going to Plateu (downtown) over a weekend when it’s less hectic and there’s fewer cars, for a more pleasant walking experience.
As for galleries and museums, IFAN, the Museum of African Art is worth taking a look at as it’s one of the oldest museums in West Africa. Galerie Le Manège is a beautiful contemporary space with a normally very interesting line-up of artists, and Village des Artes de Dakar is a space where many artists working in all sorts of different disciplines have their studios. And of course the Maison des Esclaves, a museum and memorial to the Atlantic slave trade on Gorée Island is a must-see. Being by the famed ‘Door of No Return’ is a truly emotive experience.
Best foods to try and great local cafes/restaurants:
Thieboudienne is the national dish (a tasty mix of rice, fish and vegetables) usually eaten around a communal bowl. There’s also lots of fresh seafood in Dakar and I love Brochettes de Lotte (monkfish kebabs) which are served pretty much everywhere. As for restaurants, if you want African food and a buzzy, downtown vibe try Chez Loutcha. If you want some peace and quiet, sea views, spectacular sunsets and super fresh and inexpensive seafood try La Marée at Pointe des Almadies (the westernmost tip of Africa).
Best markets and neighborhoods for local shopping:
There are so many good markets in Dakar, but here is a small selection: HLM for the best choice of fabrics, Cour des Ofervers for artisanal jewellery, Tilène for fruits, vegetables and other local products such as honey and peanuts, Soumbediounne for crafts and Sandaga for pretty much everything!
What would surprise most people about Senegal? What would you like people to know about Senegal that the media rarely shows?
That despite being a 95% Muslim country, the Senegalese LOVE Christmas! It’s a holiday that many people celebrate with enthusiasm, whatever their religion. At Christmas time you see decorations and beautiful lights everywhere, plus Senegalese Santa’s at all the supermarkets having their photos taken with the kids. It’s an example of the open, tolerant and moderate form of Islam that is practiced here which allows people of all faiths to live side-by-side in peace.
What would you say has been the most challenging about your experience living in Senegal? The most gratifying?
The most gratifying is definitely the sense of community. Everyone looks out for each other here, and the neighborhood I live in is very tight-knit. The challenge for me is the constant one of being far away from family and friends who are scattered all over the world. But the sense of community and the family that I have made for myself here helps alleviate this.
Most people tend to generalize Africa as one big “country”, forgetting it is in fact a very large continent with diverse and differing cultures and languages. What would you say are some of the biggest similarities and differences you’ve experienced while living in Senegal?
West Africa is extremely different from other regions of Africa; I can’t really compare the language, cuisine and customs to anywhere else. Having said that, even though the two countries are overall are very different, I think there is one strong similarity with Mozambique in that Senegal is also a country that has an exciting and eclectic mix of cultures and influences which is maybe why I feel so at home here.
What are three things you know now you wish you knew when you first moved/visited Senegal?
1. That a proper greeting takes a long time and involves asking about the health of everyone in the family before starting the conversation. A simple ‘hi’ doesn’t cut it here – you need to take time to do greetings and goodbyes properly as it’s an important part of the culture.
2. That when people finish eating at the communal food bowl, they leave! It’s to make space for someone else that might come along and want to eat. It makes sense to me now, but the first few times it happened I was surprised as it’s so different from custom in the West of staying at the table until everyone finishes eating.
3. The Senegalese take their style very seriously - you can never be too dressed up!
What advice would you give for those who are interested in visiting Senegal?
Senegal is the perfect starting point for those who have never visited Africa before as it’s safe, accessible and not too big. There is something for everyone here: beach, city, culture, shopping. I would coincide a visit to Senegal with one of the many festivals and international events that take place each year. Depending on what your interests are, this could be the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, the Dakar Art Biennale or Dakar Fashion Week.
What’s next for you? Any final words of advice?
My immediate plans are to keep on enjoying what this fantastic country has to offer, and make the most of the inspiration it provides me on a daily basis. After many years of moving around, I think in Senegal I have truly found my home. For once, I am happy to stay put for as long as I can!
To keep up with Moira and her travels, be sure to visit her website at palmtreetea.com.
Images Courtesy of Moira Welch
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