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A Trip to Senegal

By Sherman L. Lewis

The Lewis family visited Senegal from January 18 to 24, 1999, at the invitation of the U.S. Ambassador, Dane F. Smith, and his wife, Judy. Dane and I roomed together in college, 1959-1962. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself, now or never, as Dane approached the end of his Foreign Service career. Judy and Dane invited us when we saw them at a college reunion in spring 1997, so we'd been trying for more than a year and a half to make the trip. Finally, we took it: me, my wife Alison, son Sherm (29) and daughter Eleanor (25).

We did not know much about Senegal-it's in Africa, about the size of Nebraska, on the far western hump, a former French colony, poor, black, about nine million people. The major languages are French and Wolof. Knowing we were going, I noticed things in the paper, like:
Land Mines Plague Senegal Province
     Land mines have made 80 per- cent of land in Senegal's fertile southern province of Casamance unusable, a local human rights watchdog said yesterday.
     The African Grouping for Human Rights said that the mines, blamed mainly on separatist rebels, had killed or wounded close to 500 people in the year to August 1998, including 61 soldiers.

(Nov. 21, 1998)

Well, we did not go to the Casamance, named for its river that flows east to west and supports rice growing. The Gambia is a micro-nation along the Gambia river, an English speaking former British colony. Senegal wraps around The Gambia to the east, but the direct route from Dakar, the capital, and the major population centers, which are also in the west, must cross The Gambia. While The Gambia and Senegal have friendly relations, they still maintain enough of a border to slow things down at crossings, which heightens the isolation of Casamance.

The land mines indicated a recrudescence of violence which had been stopped by a cease-fire in December, 1995. Negotiations had stagnated, and the government does not want to use military action to solve the problems. During the whole of our visit, the Casamance situation was unimportant, as it seems to be a kind of slow-moving conflict between the government and its soldiers in part of Casamance, and rebel clans in another part who have not yet been able to cut a deal with the central government. In January 1999, President Diouf of Senegal met with the rebel leader and later attended a conference in The Gambia, and use of landmines has declined.

However, in an otherwise peaceful and improving nation, it reminds us of larger issues, a Senegalese echo of the pain and strife of other parts of the world. The butchery in Sierra Leone during the last few years has been horrible, with other problems in Rwanda, Congo, Ethiopia-Eritrea, and Sudan, not to mention the rest of the world. Recent great progress on outlawing land mines may help over time, but the U.S. government and the Congress have refused to ratify the new international Landmines Treaty supported by almost all other nations. The U.S. continues as one of the three major manufacturers of landmines banned by the treaty. The U.S. insists that landmines are necessary to defend South Korea, a claim disputed by the Federation of American Scientists and others. Landmines, in practice, kill and maim mostly women and children.

On a more positive note, President Clinton's visit to Africa, a first in American history, highlighted growing American ties to this huge continent, second only to Asia in size. When Clinton came through Senegal in April 1998 he visited Gorée Island, an historic site of transshipment of slaves to the Americas. Clinton visited a restored slave house and spoke to a crowd with the Atlantic Ocean behind him. CNN news broadcast a bit of this: Ambassador Smith could be seen for approximately .7 seconds following the President as he walked to the dais. Also, Mrs. Smith could be seen, or at least the back of her head and a hat, for about .6 seconds while the President spoke. The international coverage on the Smith family is still considerably ahead of that on the Lewis family.

Another little fact we had before our trip was a quote sent by a friend who e-mails international environmental news: Senegalese ecologist Baba Dioum said "In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

We also discovered a travel advisory about malaria. Dane explained by e-mail we wouldn't need it in Dakar, but we would for a trip to Niokolo Koba Park, in the eastern part of the country. We had to start taking weekly Mefloquine pills before we left, during the trip, and afterwards. Our well-stocked Kaiser Health Plan supplied them. Generally, e-mail and the web were useful in getting more information about Senegal-even a biography of Ambassador Smith and one of his speeches.

Going to Senegal is extremely expensive, and I am a tightwad. I went through a period of psychological adjustment and grief over loss of my money. I spend hours on websites trying to get the best deal, which was usually about double the theoretical "lowest fare." No websites listed all the direct New York to Dakar flights, all by "RK," Air Afrique. Dane suggested Spector Travel of Boston, an Africa travel specialist, and they were helpful. However, fares over the Christmas holiday are very high, about $2,500, and by postponing to mid-January, we saved half the cost, which enabled me to enjoy the money I was keeping, while repeating a little mantra about "once-in-a-lifetime." The round trip cost from San Francisco via JFK Airport in New York to Dakar cost about $1,200 each, of which JFK-Dakar-JFK was $905 each.

Through incredibly careful planning, the four Lewises landed simultaneously in New York's JFK from three different airports on Saturday, January 16th , rented a car, and spent a day in Darien visiting my Dad and stepmom Betty. We returned the car to JFK on Sunday evening the 17th and vanned into the airport. The glassy, spacious terminal was uncrowded and checking in was routine. We saw monster suitcases heavily wrapped in plastic sheeting. A small knot of people stood around a machine which could shrink-wrap luggage for about $10 a pop, evidently to secure a lot of New York merchandise about to be sold at the African end, where it would travel by bus and open truck to reach its markets.

After a long walk out the concourse, waiting, and gradually boarding, we took off across the ocean on Sunday evening. The plane was very modern with an up-beat African flavor and people speaking French. The food and drink were odd but good. Here and there TV-like screens displayed flight information; they would rotate a large-scale color map of plane location on its route between New York and Dakar, a close-up map of the same, and a list of statistics on our air speed, distance remaining, time of day, time to arrival, and expected time of arrival.


January 18, Monday
After a very short, mostly sleepless, night we met the new Monday sun in a new place and saw the dusty brown promontory of Cap Vert (Cape Verde) below us. (The Cape should not be confused with the Cape Verde Islands, a country about 1? hours west of Dakar by air.)

The plane did not pull up to a covered ramp at plane door level. It pulled up to a spot on the pavement and we walked down a stairway. The word "tarmac" leapt to mind. And there, standing on it, were Dane and Judy, in the flesh. Amazing. The special treatment began. We would insist on nothing less if we had but known what to demand. As the hoi poloi filed over to the terminal, we were ushered into the embassy van, which whisked us a very short distance to another entrance, through which we were led into a large curtained room with carpet and a long couch all around the walls-the Ambassadors Lounge. We were relieved of our passports. While we celebrated our survival and arrival, various invisible functionaries magically moved our luggage from the plane to the van and our passports came back with a stamp:

We reboarded the van, which now appeared on the street side of the terminal. Our driver, Thierno Ndiaye, pronounced "CHAIRno enDJIye," was a real pro. We got to know him over our week in Senegal. He was always pleasant and calm (in contrast to the traffic he drove through) and knew English pretty well. The coast road goes north from the Senghor Aéroport then winds east and south around the Cap Vert promontory. Dakar center is on a southward jut of the Cape. It grew around a sheltered port, so that the old harbor actually faces east toward the continent. What appears from a distance as just a little bit of a point on a long coast has complicated geography close up.

The Cape is now exploding with auto-oriented growth, mostly at a fairly high density. Dakar probably has over two million people now; there is no recent census. There are some large lot subdivisions along the road from the airport (Route de la Corniche Ouest). The term "subdivision" may be misleading, suggesting an American style, but in Senegal most of the houses of the affluent are cement block, two story, on small lots, with high walls around, so that often the walls, landscaping, and upper story are all that can be seen from the road. We get great views of the ocean, and at one point down almost on the beach we see a large unusual building which we learn is the Divinity Mosque. Senegal is mostly Sunni Muslim, but with a moderate style, and has a secular state.

The weather is hot, the sun intense; and we are very grateful, because the alternative is even hotter and sunnier. In January, the average temperature is 70o F; in October it is 81o. and often gets over 100o.. We go several miles further to an older upper class suburb, Fann, on the coast.Here, the current embassy residence, "la Résidence," is located on a pleasant side street near the ocean and the Corniche.


Through the blue door in the wall we go with luggage and meet various guards and house workers. Security is tight after the bombings of two other U.S. African embassies. Outside the wall stands a guard post on the street corner where the residence is located, manned round the clock. Inside the grounds at night there is an occasional patrol. The vulnerable bedroom window is covered with metal. The pictures show non-private, semi-public, tax-paid non-security-sensitive parts of la Résidence. The residence is spacious and beautiful. It has a big entry hall, with a very large living room to the left, which opens to a formal dining room.

A hallway to the pantry and kitchen is next to left, then stairs. Straight ahead through the entry is a window wall and sliding glass doors that open onto a porch and then a small pool and the lawn. The porch is a pleasant place to sit with plenty of room for tables for meals.

Sherm and Eleanor got bedrooms off the right of the entry hall, and Alison and I went upstairs to a large bedroom next to a bathroom almost as big. I took a picture of this bathroom, but the photo did not do justice to it, so you don't get to see it. On the bed stand I found a booklet on "Welcome to Dakar" and an envelope, which had a card printed in French with a embossed U.S. emblem and a invitation with details filled in by hand, in this case inviting Alison and me to a formal lunch on Wednesday.

Dane gave me CFA 200,000. The CFA ("SAY ef ah") is the local currency. Originally CFA stood for Colonies Francais d'Afrique, but now it's Communauté Financière Africain. The CFA franc is pegged to the French Franc (FF) at 100 CFA/FF. The dollar buys about 560 CFAs; Dane and I will reckon up at the end of the visit. Meanwhile, I doled out tens of thousands of CFAs to my family, giving us all an odd feeling of wealth. We ate lunch on the porch and went to sleep, the mandatory multi-time zone adjustment unconsciousness. By the time I worry if I'll be able to fall asleep I am trying to wake up.

Late Monday is time for our first serious sightseeing. Alison sleeps on; Dane, Judy, Sherm, Eleanor, and I make a special trip downtown. We start from la Résidence, go a block to the Corniche, a fast, four lane avenue on the bluff above the beach.


We drive south and east down the Corniche, passing the university, which, I got the impression, suffers from admitting too many and teaching too few, often because of long student strikes. The campus is trashy and poorly maintained but there is hope a new Rector can sort out the politics and make it work. Meanwhile, small private institutions have stronger academics. There may be a poor balance between democracy and discipline, with too little learning in the open public university and too much elitism in the smaller private ones.

Next down the Corniche comes Soumbedioune (SUUM be June), a memorable place with (for me) a difficult name. It is a south-facing cove with colorfully painted fishing boats, the "pirogues," pulled up on the beach below and the bluff above. The long graceful curve of the hull allows them to be launched into the surf. Fish is the major meat in coastal Senegal.
Fishing boat in drydock
Soumbedioune cove

Further along we pass on our left the large, dense, residential area of Medina, the municipal soccer stadium, and a prison, We enter the old downtown, a grid of small blocks and narrow streets overlaid by a few cross cutting avenues, mostly named for famous Frenchmen. Judy drives to a shopping street near some European hotels. There are parked cars, bicycles, carts, and vendors along the sidewalk.

We go into a spacious store selling textiles, art objects, and furniture-clearly, a store for the affluent. Judy shows us sample books of many kinds of cloth. I am impressed by the range of designs and the variations on themes, but my ability to take it all in diminishes rapidly.

We come out past a street vendor and walk down a narrow side street with tiny stalls of vendors of handicrafts. A kind of painting on glass caught my attention and with suitable advice from Judy. I buy two of them, of a colorful dancer and a musician. The Wolof often hold traditional "sabar" and dance on the street to traditional music in Dakar. This kind of painting is a major popular art form. (A few days later we caught a glimpse in a neighborhood of some dancing with a small crowd gathered round.)

A block or so more brings us to a hexagon-shaped modern market, the Marché Kermel, which is almost deserted so late in the day. The center of the building has meat counters, so that vendors can store meat in refrigerators in the very center. The market is spacious, with a roof about 20 to 30 feet overhead. Two rings of aisles go past long counters where all kind of food is sold. Back outside, I snap some photos of old balconies on narrow streets.
Marché Kermel, a public market

Old street by Marché Kermel

Back to the van, we proceed along the Boulevard Republique to the embassy to see it and Dane's office. A traffic circle by the cathedral leads to the Avenue Jean XXIII (Pope John the 23rd), which is blocked by military vehicles and a metal gate. The soldiers let the embassy van through, and after half a block more we turn past more guards and go through another gate.

We are now at the Embassy. The small lobby has a prominent glass enclosed booth where the marine guard controls the door to the main lobby. We elevate to the third floor and through the secretaries office into the inner sanctum, the actual office of the ambassador. It is mostly suitably impressive, but there are a number of post-hoc cables along the floor behind the desk and a fair amount of computer equipment, telephones, and papers on the desk and table. I am not surprised; it is a working office. Most of the work with the Senegalese government takes place in their buildings. The Embassy is a medium sized operation; I describe it later. 

 Back to the van, we head on south around the narrow tip, Cap Manuel, and back into the city via the Avenue Roume, so we can see the heart of government: a very long mid-rise office building, known as "le Building," with the Prime Minister and many ministries, then to the east on the ocean side a smaller building housing the Office of the President, followed by the dignified Presidential Palace in the midst of spacious grounds, visible through a iron fence.
Dakar looking north, le Building midleft; Presidential 
Palace in trees nearby; port on back right
Further north is the Place de l'Independence, location of the Foreign Ministry and Bureau of Trade so important for Dane's work. We see modern offices, apartments, hotels, and restaurants as well as colonial buildings.

We return home for dinner on the open porch. The food is wonderfully prepared and nicely served, but there is one little aspect of life in the embassy that cannot be ignored. Every once in a while an airplane flies over on its approach to the airport, and the conversation pauses.
View from the porch