While your travel plans may be put on hold, you can pretend you’re somewhere new for the night. Home Around the World invites you to channel the spirit of a new place each week with recommendations on how to explore the culture from the comfort of your home.
There is a bar in the Senegalese capital of Dakar that you can only find if someone shows the way. It sits on a thin strip of beach with expansive views of the Atlantic Ocean and the young surfers chasing the waves as the sun sets in the distance. It’s located below the Mamelles Lighthouse, which offers guided tours during the day and turns into a night club after dark. None of the furniture in the open-air bar fits together. The five-minute walk to the bay on a narrow dirt road winding from a chaotic intersection – horse carts and shiny SUVs battling for space on crowded streets – feels like driving through a portal between worlds.
Dakar has an aura that penetrates your soul. The sensations – The smell of grilled fish and flavored coffee, the sensation of an impending downpour, the bone-rattling vibrations of a dozen drums – stay with you long after you leave. When I visited this West African city as part of my world tour as a 52 Places Traveler, I often thought about my future. As I walked through markets that seemed to go on forever or sat on the deck of a ferry that floated from the mainland to one of the offshore islands, I thought, “I could live here.” And while it’s impossible without completely closing the trip experience, there are ways to capture at least some of the magic.
Tour the sounds of the city
Between the rumble of traffic and the calls of street vendors, there is always music in Dakar. Cell phones, transistor radios, and nightclubs boom. The shows start at midnight and last until sunrise. In a single day in town, you’ll hear politically charged hip-hop. the dizzying pulse of mbalax, a dance music that combines traditional drums with global influences; the vintage sounds of Cuban rumba being passed through a West African blender; and much more.
To get a sample of the city’s musical diversity, listen to an episode or two of Afropop Worldwide, Public Radio International’s radio program and podcast. If you want to skip the history lesson and just fill your home with the sounds of the city, check out this playlist I put together, which covers everything from the songs of national hero Youssou N’Dour to the rapid-fire raps of Sister Fa.
Given the integral role of music in the daily rhythm of Dakar, it is not surprising that it is difficult to spend time in Dakar without encountering some of the region’s many dance styles. From modern Mbalax booming from nightclubs to Sabar, named for the clattering drums that drive dancers to acrobatic frenzy, there are tons of reasons to jump on your feet – from home. A number of dance studios around the world have turned to virtual classes due to the coronavirus pandemic. First, visit the Alvin Ailey Extension School, which regularly offers West African online dance classes led by Senegalese dancer Maguette Camara. Only remove fragile objects, pets, or small children from your rehearsal room. You will be kicking, jumping, and twisting a lot as you try to keep up with the rhythms of Sabar.
Cook up a storm
Senegalese cuisine can be as simple as a whole fish, a type of white grouper grilled to perfection on the beach, or as complex as a spicy stew cooked for hours. Most importantly, it can be recreated at home with just a few special ingredients. Dionne Searcey, former head of the New York Times’ West Africa office, said that if she wants to feel like she is in Dakar, she’ll reach for one of Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam’s cookbooks. Ms. Searcey’s favorite dish is yassa chicken, “a chicken dish with onions,” and she serves it with fonio, a couscous-like cereal popular in Senegal. Mr Thiam, who has a number of packaged Fonio, recommends a dish from his collection “The Fonio Cookbook” in particular. It’s a fonio salad – “great for a hot day in Dakar,” he said – with lots of parsley and mint, fresh tomatoes and diced mango for “a herbal flavor.”
Get lost in literature
If you are looking for transportable words, Senegal has a wide variety of translated fiction and non-fiction books to choose from. Ms. Searcey says that she often returns to the words of Boubacar Boris Diop, “who pours his soul into his work”, in “Africa Beyond the Mirror”. Senegalese scholar Dr. Souleymane Bachir Diagne, director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia University in New York, recommends starting with Aminata Sow Falls “The Beggars’ Strike,” which tells the story of a conflict between the poor of an unnamed African city and the government administrators who try to clean up the streets. “The story doesn’t name the city, but it’s Dakar from the ‘little people’ point of view,” said Dr. Diagne. The classic “So Long a Letter” by Mariama Bâ does a great job capturing another piece of Dakar life, said Dr. Marame Gueye, Associate Professor of African Literature at East Carolina University in North Carolina. The short book takes the form of a letter from a widow to her lifelong friend and reveals part of Senegalese life in a moment in history. “The novel shows Dakar after independence and how the educated Senegalese elite negotiated tradition and modernity,” said Dr. Gueye. When I asked her about reading recommendations from Dakar, she couldn’t help but share her own feelings about the bewitching city.
“Dakar is one of my favorite cities in the world,” said Dr. Gueye, who grew up more than 100 miles away in the town of Kaolack. “There is something that hugs you and doesn’t want to let go.”
Stop the Doomscrolling and start the Dakarscrolling
Sometimes a photo is enough to make you – even for a second – feel like you are somewhere far away. Ms. Searcey says if she misses Dakar, she’ll check out the stunning fashion-related work by Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop. “Even when I see it online, I almost cry,” said Ms. Searcey. Ricci Shryock, a Dakar-based photographer, has an Instagram feed full of beautiful snapshots of everyday life in her adopted country. She recommends a variety of other Instagram accounts to see if you want to transport yourself to the city. For an introduction to the city, Ms. Shryock recommends following Dakar Lives, which curates images of the city’s past and present. To make you feel like you’re floating over Dakar, she references the work of Abdoulaye Ndao who visits Layepro on Instagram. “Layepro publishes beautiful antennas that make me fall in love with this city every time I see it,” said Ms. Shryock.
Crash course in Wolof
A popular Instagram account by Ms. Shryock is Wolof Words. In addition to capturing the spirit of Dakar, it also serves as a crash course in the Wolof language, the most widely spoken language in Dakar. While a few hours on Instagram won’t turn you into a fluent Wolof speaker, it can pick up a sentence or two. “For me, the sound of brisk, loud wolof is one of the best sounds of Dakar,” said Ms. Shryock.