Category Archives: Senegal

Bright colors and dark past of Gorée Island

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Obama on Goree Island

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the Door of No Return on Gorée Island (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barak Obama’s recent trip to Senegal, and especially his stop at Gorée Island, made me think back to my own visit there. Gorée is a tiny island in the Dakar harbor with painful history lurking beneath its charm of a colorful Mediterranean-like seaside village. From the 15th to the 19th century it was one of the slave-trading outposts on Africa’s west coast. The island was ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French and participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade for over three centuries until the mid-1840s, although academics differ on how many slaves actually passed through there.

Regardless of such debates, though, today the island remains a haunting place and a powerful symbol of humanity’s transgressions and, ultimately, redemption. President Obama visited with his wife and daughters last June. Moved Michelle Obama – whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves – penned an emotional essay based on her experience in Gorée. She wrote: Read the rest of this entry

Vanishing train to Bamako

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Dakar train station (Image: ginaber.blogspot.com)

This time I’m writing about a trip I have not taken, I wish I could have taken, but unfortunately I’m not likely to be able to take any time soon. A train trip. Dakar, which I did have a chance to visit, is the Western terminus of the railroad built by the French almost a hundred years ago. The railroad connected Dakar with the city of Bamako, today the capital of Mali. The line opened in 1923 and linked the biggest cities in colonial French West Africa, connecting the Atlantic coast with the vast, mineral-rich hinterland along the Niger river. Nearly 800 miles across the arid land and baobab-studded savanna in between… Although once considered one of the most luxurious train rides in Africa, sadly its glory days are over. But even after its heyday, the trip must have been quite an experience and, vicariously, I feel I’ve had a taste of it through the writings of a Polish traveler and author Ryszard Kapuściński. In his great book The Shadow of the Sun he vividly describes a trip from Dakar to Bamako he took back in the 1960s, reflecting upon larger changes underway in Africa at that time. Read the rest of this entry

A musical journey to Dakar

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Senegalese sand painting

Before I ever thought I would visit Senegal I already felt I knew it because of one person: Youssou N’Dour. I don’t remember how I first came across his music but I instantly fell in love with it even though I don’t know Senegal’s Wolof language at all and French only in a cursory fashion. (Side note: if I were serious about learning French one day, I would want a Francophone African as a teacher – they actually annunciate =) He was born in Dakar’s Médina district, started performing at age 12, played with the band Étoile de Dakar, and eventually gained worldwide fame as one of the most celebrated African musicians. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably heard him in a hit duet with Neneh Cherry, 7 seconds.

N’Dour’s music captures the heart of Senegal: mbalax dance rhythms mix traditional griot (West African singer-storyteller) music and drumming with Western genres such as jazz, soul, and rock. Here is the best description of mbalax I’ve come across: “This is highly addictive, popular music with an exotic touch that makes you want to pack your bags and explore Senegal!” Read the rest of this entry