Witnessing the African Renaissance in Dakar

Africa is often not thought of as having ‘great cities’ by Westerners, but Dakar tears this perspective to shreds. The city sprawls along a plateaued peninsula that marks the westernmost point of the continent. It’s bound by rough seas and home to a bustling capital. Arts, fashion, intercontinental trade, motor racing! It may not be huge, but Dakar is a name that evokes countless connotations. Where better, then, to commemorate the African Renaissance? 

It’s Tabaski and the price of sheep is higher than ever. On my way in from the airport at midnight, every second lot is alive with sheep crammed among a similar amount of prospective buyers. Everyone is anxious to buy a big sheep in time for the holiday, where it is to be slaughtered and then eaten by family and friends. Doing so is both a sign of faith and social status. Because of this, markets are packed and the streets are absolutely crippled by traffic. But looming over hubbub of the sheep markets is an ominous sculpture pointing to a distant continent.

Mosques and beaches dominate Dakar’s sprawl. Here in the district of Ouakam, fishermen work at the beach just in front of the landmark Mosque of the Divinity.

Owing to its sprawl, Dakar is somewhat pluricentric in terms of tourist appeal. The historic downtown of Plateau in the south, the sleepy fishing village of Ngor in the north, and the charming residential areas in between all demand traversing the peninsula to visit. Perhaps the only centrally-located area of interest is the Fann-Point E-Amitié tri-district, where some of the West African city’s iconic nightlife is centred.

All of these districts are watched over by a giant bronze husband, wife and child. Everywhere in between is packed with sheep!

Trying to figure out the bus network wasn’t easy. As it was Tabaski, traffic was chronic and services were heavily delayed. When I walked to the nearest bus stop, I ended up being invited by some drivers on their break to drink tea in a disused bus. They told me I’d be better off catching a series of indirect busses to my destination because the traffic was that bad. When the first bus was due to arrive they couldn’t say, again because of the traffic. So all I could do was wait and drink tea. It was fun, but I spent a good two hours inside a stationary bus when I could’ve been sightseeing! 

Everyone in Dakar (and Francophone West Africa in general, apparently) expects the white dude to speak French. I was only ever be greeted with bonjour, and numbers were always told in French. It’s fair, as French is the language that many people here use in their daily lives, and makes sense when talking to me as the vast majority of foreigners are indeed French. But my French is hopeless, so I would typically reply with a friendly nanga def or jërëjëf (Wolof for “what’s up” and “thanks”, respectively). Typically people would continue in fast-paced, complex French. They really didn’t believe that I couldn’t speak French.  

Ngor is one of the original fishing villages of the Cap-Vert peninsula, predating Dakar proper by centuries. While the locals’ way of life has adapted as their settlement has changed, Ngor nevertheless retains a distinct charm. Here, sand fills the tight laneways several blocks back from the shore.

The beach itself is lined with fishing pirogues, in contrast to the swish motorboats moored just metres offshore. Between the boats are kids. Lots of kids. Some are there for swimming lessons, others are just having fun, and a third group come to the beach to wash their family’s sheep in the ocean. It’s a great atmosphere.

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Plenty of sheep were brought to the Plage de Ngor to be washed in the ocean before they’re slaughtered on Tabaski.

A stone’s throw into the ocean is the Île de N’Gor. It’s a bit of a beach getaway for locals; a place where you can eat seafood on the beach and go for a dip (the beaches on the island have much less litter than the mainland). Motored pirogues ferry people between the island and the mainland all day long. If someone approaches you to sell you a ticket, simply ignore them and head on to the large hut in the middle of the Plage de Ngor where the boats leave. Tickets are super cheap and anyone telling you otherwise is a scammer! All that being said, the Île de N’Gor is nothing special. It’s lovely, sure, but not a must-see in my opinion.

Just next to Ngor is the ritzy Almadies district. Here diplomatic compounds butt against penthouses and waterfront restaurants. It’s not a particularly pleasant area to walk around in, and residents seem to agree judging by the dinged up state of their band new Porsches. If you’re looking to drink a few overpriced cocktails among white people as the sun sets, this is the place. For those looking to experience Dakar properly, look elsewhere. 

Perhaps the liveliest part of the city is the Marché Sandaga, the main market. It’s the oldest colonial market in Francophone West Africa, and easily one of the biggest.

Its main hall was built in 1934 and combines Art Deco shapes with a colonial appropriation of sub-Saharan African elements. This fusion is very much a reflection of the brutality of French colonialism. Part of Dakar’s urban planning involved constructing a tokenistic amount of public buildings for locals with architecture that was supposedly sympathetic to the culture. It was believed this would have a pacifying effect, more so than military might alone. To the outside world, this style also conveyed France’s image as being the tolerant protector of colonised Africans. Much of the colonial architects’ inspiration came from the mud mosques of Mali, a construction method that would be impossible on the sand dunes of Dakar.

Nevermind, because the markets have outgrown this building so much so that they instead fill the streets for several blocks in every direction. This is very much a hectic, shoulder-shoulder experience, with the occasionally car passing by. 

Like the rest of Dakar, there are some touts. But in general the atmosphere is very fun and welcoming. People are either working hard or on the hunt for bargains, but are still friendly while doing so. There’re also a few street food options around.

At the heart of the market are two restaurants next to each other. At lunchtime they get absolutely packed as people come in for one thing: thieboudienne. I chose the restaurant Restaurant Keur Khady. In my experience, every city has that one iconic restaurant that locals flock to for lunch—the menu is typically limited to a couple of specialties, the decor is usually a bit tired, and every square centimetre is used to fit more patrons. Keur Khady is that restaurant.

Thieboudienne is one of the most iconic dishes in Senegal. It consists of rice in tomato sauce, with fish, a variety of root vegetables and often tamarind too. It’s very much a meal in which you can taste the geography of the area you’re in, from soil to sea.

The other ubiquitous meal in Senegalese cuisine is yassa, which can be served with either fish or chicken. Yassa poisson and yassa poulet are marinated in copious amounts of onions and pepper, with a fair amount of mustard and lemon juice for added tang. Yassa alone should be enough to dispel the myth that African cuisines are bland.

Looming above this sprawling city’s skyline is the African Renaissance Monument. Although built as recently as 2010, this gigantic statue deserves to be one of the most famous in the world, alongside the Statue of Liberty in New York City (which this monument indeed points towards) and Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janiero. It’s worth nothing that this statue is taller than both.

It’s one of the few tourist attractions in Dakar in the traditional sense. Unmissable as you travel from north to south, the monument is perched on Dakar’s rugged shoreline. Made of bronze, the statue is the tallest in Africa and has for some reason been given a 1,200-year longevity guarantee. However when I visited, a patina had already developed on many areas of the bronze. While forward-thinking, the design is naturally stepped in history. The three figures—mother, father and child—each gaze out across the Americas, an orientation recalling the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

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When I visited the African Renaissance Monument, the complex was surprisingly empty.

The structure is simply awe-inspiring. Aside from the sheer size (which photos cannot do justice!), the movements of the figures are captured beautifully in bronze. But its design is not without controversy.

The sculpture is largely attributed to the vision of then-President Abdoulaye Wade. Fine. The official line then states that it was designed by local architect Pierre Goudiaby Atepa. Not so fine. In truth, Goudiaby merely advised upon a design that was completed earlier by Paris-based Romanian sculptor Virgil Magherusan.

Magherusan began his career designing monuments for Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu before becoming the French Army’s official painter. He was a decidedly non-African choice of sculptor for a monument to the African Renaissance. Matters were further muddled when Gouiaby referred to Magherusan in an interview as being a Polish sculptor whose design did not satisfy the then-President until he himself and the builders had honed it. 

Controversy continued into the sculpture’s construction. For the project, Senegal enlisted the experts in gigantic monument construction: North Korea. Mansundae International Projects is the overseas, commercial arm of the infamous Mansundae Arts Studio, which primarily builds gigantic statues of dictators. They have an expensive portfolio across Africa, with their first project being Addis Ababa’s Derg monument built in the 1984.

Critics argue that the faces on the figures look more Asian than African, a complaint that has come up in the North Korean studio’s other statues elsewhere too. Critics have also noted that the payment—some 40 acres of state-owned land—was given to a foreign entity, while the ex-President continues to profit off the monument through his 30% equity in it. 

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One of the countless sheep markets around Dakar in the lead up to Tabaski. Gazing over it is the African Renaissance Monument.

Senegalese art critic and curator N’Goné Fall commented on the statue through a hypothetical conversation between Dr. Evil and Scott Powers, a pair who closely resemble the then-President and his son:

Scott Powers: Was it really necessary to bring in the North Koreans? 

Dr. Evil: Duhhhh! The last completely submissive people on the planet! Nobody, but nobody’s got discipline like the North Koreans. And they’re fast. Cheap too. Instead of paying them, I gave them some land. What with globalisation, outsourcing is the way to go. It’s a win-win deal! 

Scott Powers: And you really need all that bronze? How tall is this thing you’re building? 

Dr. Evil: Fifty-three metres! I wanted to go higher, as you can imagine, but I couldn’t run the risk. It might have made the whole edifice unstable. The winds off the Atlantic are just too unpredictable in these parts. 

Scott Powers: So why build it here, at the tip of this peninsula? 

Dr. Evil: A strong symbol needs a strong location. For the Master of the Universe, only the Centre of the Universe will do. Greenwich Mean Time was obviously the way to go, latitude-wise. I could have chosen the Equator, but this place here works much better as an emblem. The single western-most spot on the African continent, it faces the new and the old worlds, America and Europe, simultaneously. And everybody’s heard of Dakar: ex-capital of a colonial empire; key stop on the spice route for ships headed to the Cape of Goof Hope; stop-off on the legendary Aéropostale – you know what I’m talking about: the first airplane mail route across the South Atlantic, linking Europe and the Americas by way of Senegal; the automobile rally of reference; the first contemporary art biennale south of the Sahara; the prettiest asses in the world… Dakar’s got the whole world dreaming! 

Scott Powers:  You don’t say! The Africans know about your project? 

Dr. Evil: Sure. I met with one of their big boys at the last Baldies Anonymous Convention. I said “African Renaissance” and he was all over me. It took about half a minute to convince his colleagues. 

[…] 

Scott Powers: What’s that thing riding up the bronze lady’s ass? 

Dr. Evil: A loin cloth. It’s blowing in the wind. 

Scott Powers: You are aware that they have a flourishing fashion industry? They do wear real clothes, you know… 

Dr. Evil: Yeah: little loincloths. They’re still in the stone-age. The rest of the world tells them otherwise out of kindness, but that’s the truth. 

Scott Powers: And her hair? That’s floating in the wind too? Nice and straight? The Angela Davis look might have been more appropriate. 

Dr. Evil: Angela Davis? The human rights activist? Have you lost your mind? A feminist wacko as a symbol? Why in God’s name would I do that? 

Scott Powers: Well, how exactly do you think the local feminists are going to take this thing? The woman character is two steps behind her man. 

Inside the man’s hat is an observation deck with panoramic views of the whole city and the westernmost part of the entire continent. The deck is cramped, and you can’t help but feel the head move ever so slightly as the weight inside it shifts. But the view is the best place to truly appreciate the sprawl of the city and the waters that surround it. 

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Looking down the Cap-Vert peninsula from the African Renaissance Monument. This is the easternmost point of Africa.

Inside the base of the monument is an exhibition dedicated to celebrating the great leaders of Africa and the diaspora. There are also several artworks on display with visions of Africa’s prosperous future which pay homage to its past. There’s a free guide to show you around the whole place. He speaks both French and English! 

Immediately south of the statue in a fishing cove is the Mosquée de la Divinité (Mosque of the Divinity). The idea for a mosque by the beach came to supposed holy man Mohamed Gorgui Seyni Guèye in a revelation during the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it was actually completed. The design by Cheikh Ngom fuses traditional Senegalese elements with more modern lines, resulting in a truly unique structure. It’s pictured at the top of this blog post.

While the interior is off-limits to non-Muslims, the exterior is definitely worth checking out. The mosque then opens up to a fish market, which in turns leads to a beach frontage. Here children play in the sand while men haul their fishing boats to-and-from shore. Although it’s very small, Ouakam Beach (Plage de Ouakam) is perhaps the most beautiful in Dakar. 

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Plage de Ouakam, a relatively pristine fishing area.

Ouakam, the district surrounding both he mosque and the monument, is an interesting slice of life. For those relying on public transport, it’s also an important bus interchange. 

South of Ouakam is Fann, where a good chunk of the city’s nightlife is to be found. Unfortunately because I was visiting in the immediate lead-up to Tabaski, schedules had changed. Venues were closed. Fewer people were going out. What I did manage to experience was still pretty decent, however. Bars in Fann retain a certain old school aesthetic which was pretty cool.

Colourful drinks are illuminated by equally colourful lights. Live music is a staple in many bars, fusing modern genres like jazz and reggae with more traditional styles. The whole thing screams Dakar! I found the atmosphere to be every relaxed, even if the bartenders were working like clockwork.

Continue south and you’ll end up at Plateau, the historic colonial centre of Dakar. In terms of atmosphere, there’s not much to see. Compared to the rest of the city, the streets here are devoid of life and character. International offices hide behind high walls as Porsches maneuver around potholes. This is supposed to be one of the most important areas of the country, and it’s pretty depressing.

Is Dakar truly home to the African Renaissance? I’ll believe it when I see it. But it’s worth noting that New York City is hardly the beacon of liberty its statue claims to espouse, nor is Rio de Janiero the abode of sanctity that Jesus supposedly died for.

When I visited the monument, there was hardly a soul there. Evey time I went past on a bus, people seemed more interested in pointing out the nearby Mosque of the Divinity to me instead. But many landmarks were considered gauche and wasteful at their time of construction; the Eiffel Tower was widely panned at a time when Paris was dirty and congested. But look now how the city is reminisced about in our collective memory. The same could be said for my own city, Sydney, about the Harbour Bridge and Opera House.

When this African Renaissance does arrive, it will already have a monument dedicated to it. Perhaps this time too, humanity will look past the statue’s flaws to celebrate the same things that make Dakar great nowadays. It’s big, friendly and full of life.

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Its prominent location on one of the Mamelles hills puts the African Renaissance Monument in your line of sight quite often.
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The monument is absolutely huge!
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Traditional medicines at a roadside market.
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Sheep on the Plage de Ngor, ready to be washed in the see by children.
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The old market hall of the Marché Sandaga is a contrived fusion of Sahelean and Art Deco architecture.
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One of my most frequented eateries was actually inside of an old shipping container by the road. Meat is cooked on skewers, then sauteed in a pan with egg, onion and plenty of sauce. It’s then put into a baguette and wrapped in newspaper. This is fast food, Dakar style.
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There is very much a vibrant street life in Dakar. Social, political and economic spheres all burst out of buildings and onto the footpaths.
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Looking north from inside the head of the African Renaissance Monument.
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Dakar as seen from the Île de N’Gor. Even from the ocean, the African Renaissance Monument dominates the city’s skyline. What kind of beacon of triumph longs for foreign shores?

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