Like other countries of the former French West Africa, Senegal gained independence from France in April 1960 and, together with the French Sudan, became the new Mali Federation. The love affair was short-lived, however, and Senegal emerged from the mix as its own country a few months later (French Sudan being reincarnated as today's Mali). Within a decade the country began building a reputation as a potential vacation destination, opening its first resorts in the 1970s. Since that time, the country has done what it can to attract as many visitors as possible from other areas of Africa and beyond. By 2008 the country was welcoming more than a million visitors a year, and while the global downturn has impacted things since - as it has for many countries - Senegal is still considered a most worthwhile stop on the Continent. Highlights here include just about any stop along the coast where you can spend some time drinking in the well-developed beach culture or hop a boat for some local fishing adventure; the hustle and bustle of Dakar; the colonial architecture and history of the former capital Saint-Louis; the pink waters and traditional salt harvesting at Lac Rose; and, seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites (one of which it shares with The Gambia). The sites include Goree Island which, for nearly four hundred years, was the largest slave-trading centre on the coast of West Africa. As UNESCO puts it, the island "testifies to an unprescedented human experience in the history of humanity". Senegal is home, too, to a number of national parks and reserves, where visitors can witness the nation's abundant wildlife in its splendour. Senegal truly is one of Africa's destination gems, frequently overlooked due to a lack of knowledge about the area. This not only represents a loss for the country, but too for any visitors who overlook its charms because of it. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
Three years ago I journeyed across the Sahara to Senegal. For many, Africa is the vast open plains and wildlife of its east and southern parts, but while West Africa may not have safaris it does have beautiful landscapes, an excellent cuisine and a very colourful culture. I now live in Abene, a small village near the beach that is home to many artists and musicians. In fact, every day I hear the pounding rhythms of drums; local people walk to its beat, which is as much of the backdrop to Abene as the chirrup of insects in the dark night. Tourists visit Abene to learn African dance and drumming, to relax on the stunning beaches or at New Year to visit the festival that attracts African artists from across the region.
In early 2011, I was in Dakar, Senegal, when I met a dreadlocked Rastafarian by the name of Ibrahim. At first he tried hard to sell me some of his souvenirs but, like most travellers, I can say no in several languages. When he felt he'd done all he could, he pulled me up a stool by his fire, bashed out a rhythm on his calabash, and chanted “Simon, I wish you good luck, happy life, long life”. He then gave me one of his gris-gris, a fetish consisting of small leather pouches in which Quaranic scripts were packed; he told me this was for good luck on my travels.
Not long afterwards, I found myself living in Casamance, in the southern part of the country, acting as caretaker for a guesthouse. Needing supplies of various sorts, I organised a journey on appalling roads across mangrove swamps with my friend Khady. We arrived early to get good seats, and sat on the bus for hours, in sweltering heat. Waiting for the bus to fill, the only entertainment was watching a cow being loaded onto the roof of another bus. We finally pulled away at 5:00pm. Naturally, the bus stopped again after a hundred metres to load up the roof and to take on fuel.
I left Ziguinchor, a city in the south of Senegal, in a bush taxi to spent nine hours travelling through hot scrubby bush to Tambacounda, a scorching hot and dusty junction town on the very finger nail of the Gambia. The hotel I had chosen – primarily because it suited my somewhat meagre budget – turned out to have closed, but a friendly local man named Moussa, who lived in a shack nearby, offered me a bed in his family compound. He showed me to a dark room with a grubby mattress and a fan that merely swilled the hot, soupy atmosphere around. There were goats tied up in the corner, and children being scrubbed from head to toe in a large bowl in the middle of the room. It was perfect. The family was friendly and, come the evening, I joined them around a large bowl of rice and fish, dipping my hand in to eat like a local.
I think I mentioned the heat? In my years of travel, I don't think I've ever been quite so hot; sometimes it felt too hot to breathe. I simply lay down and felt the sweat trickle into my eyes and ears. I was hot. My mattress was hot. The towel soaked in water I used to try to cool myself was dry within twenty minutes. It was 45°C. Feverishly hot.