Observations from Sngal

Nora G. Hertel

I have just finished my first week in Dakar, Sngal, and I am amazed at the diversity presented in the close proximity of my neighborhood. I have observed stark economic, cultural, and botanical contrasts.
The popular streets around my house are chaotic and colorful, and the traffic flows without defined lanes or signals. Vehicles range from newish European cars — which are rare — to dilapidated taxis, vibrantly decorated “car rapides,” motorbikes and buses. Horse-drawn carts add an additional dimension to the excitement of the street.
Pedestrians have to be daring. I usually wait until someone local crosses and try to tag along discreetly behind them.
There is a beautiful French school on Rue 12 near my house. This perfectly manicured building with lovely landscaping is juxtaposed against the shantytown directly across the street. The small village extends for a block and is constructed of pieces of plywood and scrap metal.
The people living in this hodgepodge neighborhood seem to function successfully, unfazed by the apparent economic dichotomy.
The diversity of dress on the street represents the cultural mlange in Dakar. I see casual and professional “Western” attire as frequently as traditional African garb. Business suits aren’t uncommon, nor is it unusual to see elaborate fabrics as sarongs, head wraps and boubous.
Some of the university students that guide us — the group from Lawrence — around Dakar dress much more trendily than I do. I have also seen several young men in jeans embroidered with “50 cent” and other references to American fashion.
At the same time, a distinctly Senegalese style thrives. Locals, as well as visiting Americans, wear beautiful outfits identifiable as “African.” This diversity of dress signifies that Dakar hasn’t been immune to the effects of globalization.
The climate in Dakar highlights the economic and cultural contrasts in the city. The weather is hot and arid, and there is sand everywhere. It is difficult to walk from place to place without filling my sandals with sand. Instead of weeds sprouting from cracks in the pavement, there is sand.
In this sand, despite the dry season, several lush plants manage to take root and flourish. This may not be news to world travelers or botanists, but it was shocking to me, upon my arrival, to associate the fuschia and orange blooms with the dry sand from which they sprung.
Coming from the Wisconsin winter makes sand, flowers, and the contrast between them, all the more striking.
Between the varied vehicles and buildings, and the colorful dresses and flora, the few streets around my neighborhood in Dakar shout diversity and contrast. There is evidence of dichotomy within the culture and clear influences from other cultures.
All of the above descriptions fit within a six-block radius of my house; so these contrasts make every trip up the street a vibrant experience.