Dakar: the city that never sleeps…and, it’s not due to insomnia
I landed with some other folks in Dakar, Senegal’s capital city well after midnight. By the time we had negotiated the (relatively smooth) immigration/customs posts, it was close to 2 am. The experience at the airport was itself a good one: other West African cities, please take note. The guys in the glassed-off boxes took your passport and relevant travel documents, asked the reason for your visit, told you to put your right and then left index finger one after the other on a machine that vibrated for a few seconds and told you “welcome to Senegal/enjoy your stay” or such other pleasantry. You then waited for ‘something’ that never came: the request for ‘a little something for us…’ or the rush of unwanted hands offering to ‘help’ you with your luggage. It is a well-known ‘fact’ that travellers from so-called First World countries are expected to suddenly lose the ability to carry their own luggage the minute they land on African soil. We waited but the ‘help’ never came and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.
It got better after that: the city was lit up like, well, a Christmas tree (yes, I know it’s a predominantly Muslim country but you get my drift). It was such a relief to get into a major West African city, and to be blinded by lights everywhere: wow, electricity! You know that often-rare commodity in much of West Africa. Even more pleasingly, for a change, the only hums we could hear were those of mosquitoes, not of petrol or diesel-powered electricity generators.
At 2am, we expected a smooth ride through to the hotel (a 20-minute drive, we’d been told). Thankfully, it proved to be a bit longer than that and we soon saw why: at that time of the morning, on the main strip, there seemed to be 20 to 30-plus clubs and restaurants and not only were they all fully-lit and open, they were packed: at 2 am on a Tuesday, morning! I was impressed and resolved to see what it would be like the next day.
On the evening of the first day of the conference, I took a walk deep into the centre of town to retrace the route we had driven through in those early hours of the morning.
I stepped out into a warm night, perfect for a leisurely stroll, which was just as well as that’s all I could manage after a hard day’s ‘conferencing’.
As is usual in most African countries, no matter how much you think you can ‘blend in’, there’s always something that marks you out as ‘not being from here’. I’m pretty dark-skinned and have many times been asked if I’m Gambian or Senegalese and yet, on a gradually darkening night, I was the guy that folks approached to ask if I wanted to buy some carvings or trinkets/go to a house-party/buy brand-new, boxed latest mobile phones etc. I got all these and more as I made my way towards my intended destination. Along the way, I tried to see how folks walked. What was it about their gait that was different to mine? Perhaps one giveaway was the fact that I was too obviously playing the role of observer – eyes darting everywhere, taking in the colorful scene -: a local would not be studying billboards and club signs, peering into restaurants with such intense scrutiny: Lots of Senegalese and non-Senegalese cuisine on display on chalk-written boards as well as printed menus outside each establishment.
As I passed each club, I could see that for many, the night was just getting started. After all, it was a mere 9-going- to-10 o’clock by then.
I liked the friendly vibes of the people I met and the fact that many attempted to speak English to help our conversations as I struggled to cope with my beyond-rusty secondary school French.
It was good to see many of the clubs did not just feature DJs but bands as well. Great to see efforts being made to keep music ‘live’.
Along the roadside, there were sellers of hot and cold snacks for those unable to afford the fare in the still-open restaurants (or for those who preferred ‘street cuisine’) – lots of delicious-smelling roasted delicacies and juice drinks (baobab and sorrel seemed most popular) but I resisted the temptation to buy. Little kiosks sold all sorts of provisions were there as well individuals offering phone and SIM cards, a greengrocer, with a well stocked array of produce on display and every supermarket seemed to be open, too. Vehicle traffic on the roads seemed never-ending but I was not aware of traffic jams, even thought there were no traffic lights in the area. As is often the case, you walk out on to the zebra crossings and hope the oncoming car has good brakes. No one stops just because you’re standing on the edge waiting to cross. Of course, the other ever-present in Africa is the constant beeping of car horns: to call your friends, tell another driver or pedestrians to get out of your way or just for the hell of it. In London, you could probably drive for a whole year and never toot your horn. In Senegal, as in most of the West African counties I’ve visited, it seems to be a case of ‘if it’s there, I’d better use it’.
Apart from the clubs and shops, I was also impressed with the plethora of video billboards advertising a variety of goods and services. I also indulged my passion for photographing African advertising billboards, with some of those images accompanying this article.
At the end of the second day of the conference, it was too late for me and other attendees to take the walk I had taken the night before. We went to bed with a sense of disappointment as we’d been looking forward to some shared downtime away from the conference. As it was, my fellow delegates had my word for the nightlife I’d come across and consoled themselves with some of the photos I’d taken.
As for ‘missing out’? Boy, were we wrong about that! On the way to the airport, on the return journey, all along a two-mile stretch that I had traversed the night before, club after club was packed to heaving, with punters spilling out on to the streets and what seemed like a hundred taxis waiting to take revellers home. Big deal, you say but this was 4:30 am on a weekday. These folks sure love to party and I’d love to see what they get up to at the weekend.
Yet again, I was impressed. We were all impressed: don’t these folks sleep? Other cities may make a lot of noise branding themselves as ‘cities that never sleep’ but I’ll be surprised if any of those cities parties hard as the folks in Dakar seem to. So, come on, give that title to Dakar, now!
Of course, if you’re from one of those ‘other’ cities and you want to contest the point, you can send me a return ticket and book a nice hotel and I’ll come and make up my own mind.
Reporter: Ade Daramy