"Wake up, good morning, this is Dakar calling"

[From the lyrics to “Wake Up (Africa Calling),” by Youssou N’Dour.]

This was the view from my hotel window on the dreary jet-lagged morning after arrival in Dakar (click to enlarge). My impressions of the city quickly grew more positive, although the grinding poverty to be found in this, a cosmopolitan hub in one of Africa’s most stable democracies, gives one a stark sense of the privation suffered in others parts of the continent. I joined two American colleagues for the predawn minibus ride from Senghor airport, through landscapes that looked nothing like the heavily trafficked urban corridors of the U.S. and Europe. The roads were extremely rough — it’s no wonder the taxi fleet is literally falling apart. Later in the trip, when one of our drivers tried to shut his door, it fell off the car.

Just outside the driveway of the hotel, site of the Youssou N’Dour press event I was attending, rows of young Senegalese men stationed themselves, waiting to latch onto every rich foreigner in sight, offering phone cards, guided tours, souvenirs of all descriptions. A bit further on and the streets grew more cramped, with market stalls on either side, gas fumes thick in the air. The merchants didn’t just make their pitches as you passed — they followed you down the street, desperate to make any sort of sale. More than once, polite but firm refusals were met with the question, “Why don’t you like Senegalese people?” One manic young tout who followed us for about three blocks kept shouting, “Senegal no problem. Senegal peace and love!” Pointing to the various options around us, he barked, “This side Lebanese, this side Senegalese. You buy Senegalese.” There is a significant Lebanese merchant community based in Dakar.

No American ghetto comes close to the feel and flavor of African poverty, although America’s inner cities, blighted by guns and drugs, are probably more dangerous (actual war zones excepted, of course). As chaotic as Dakar’s central market may feel to a visitor, it is reasonably safe.

Senegal may be considered an African “success story” — something President Bush is eagerly highlighting at the moment in Tanzania, as his calamitous two terms draw to an end. (How poetic if we should elect a president of direct African descent.) And yet Senegal certainly needs a huge amount of economic uplift. Youssou N’Dour’s micro-credit initiative, Birima, seems to transcend the foreign-aid paradigm of the past by putting money, know-how and initiative directly into the hands of the people. I hope to say more about that, and other micro-credit initiatives, in the near future. (For a peek at the downside of conventional humanitarian aid, see David Rieff’s devastating analysis of Live Aid and the Ethiopian famine.)

There’s also much to be said about music, religion and politics in Senegal, so I’ll be posting about those matters as well. I’ll link to my photo album on Shutterfly too, once it’s up.

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