You should visit Senegal because chances are you don’t know much (if anything) about it, aren’t entirely sure where it is, and are looking to be totally surprised by a destination. You should visit Senegal because chances are good you’ve never been to Africa (under 0.5% of American international travel), and it’s time to change that. You should visit Senegal because you like places that are amazingly friendly, amazingly beautiful, and amazingly diverse. And you should visit Senegal because part of your job as a passionate traveller is to explicitly push back against the racist idiot temporarily living on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Normally these “Why Should I Visit” pieces focus on a specific city. And Dakar has more than enough to speak for itself as a standalone entry in that category. But chances are good a visit to Senegal will include a tour of much of the country, rather than just a stay in Dakar, so we’ll expand our horizons in this case.
Senegal is a former French colony, occupying the western-most part of Africa. Like most of that part of Africa (and most of Africa in general), its borders and national makeup mostly reflect that colonial era, as diverse tribal groups were brought together under the colonial flag. Senegal is a bastion of stability and safety in a region in flux – Mauritania to the north is particularly hostile, though Mali to the east is struggling at the moment, and Guinea-Bissau to the south is essentially a narco-state.
Senegal on the other hand had a peaceful transition to post-colonial democracy, has never had a coup, and combines moderate Islam with strong tribal traditions. In addition to the colonial French, almost all Senegalese speak Wolof. This makes it unique among West Africa, as a country in which people from different tribal backgrounds can communicate without using the colonial language. Senegal has much of the foundation for a successful country in the 21st century, but is similarly held back by an unstable neighborhood, a lack of international trade, and an incomplete infrastructure. As a visitor, you’ll come away equal parts hopeful and pessimistic.
Escaping the Bubble
Aside from French citizens visiting all-inclusive beach resorts, or surfers camping out to catch some waves, you won’t find much in the way of a tourist bubble in Senegal. This is especially true as you move inland and away from the centers of trade. Americans are unlikely to run into another American, aside from perhaps an NGO worker. If you do end up at a beach resort, you’re likely to meet visitors from elsewhere in Africa, and you’ll meet plenty of migrant workers from Mali, Guinea, and further afield in Africa.
Even though you won’t be in a premanufactured tourist bubble, chances are you won’t be “living like a local” either. Senegal is rooted in family, friends, and close knit relationships. Much of life happens outside of the public sphere. Unless you’re very comfortable in French, or have friends on the ground, you’ll merely be scratching the surface of Senegal. But what a friendly surface it is! Provided you make the effort to learn a little bit of Wolof in advance, and are willing to lower some of your “travel defenses” a bit, you’ll find Senegal welcoming, friendly, and full of smiles.
Do you speak French? Are you OK speaking with the occasional police officer looking for a bit of a bribe? If so, you can definitely rent a car and explore Senegal on your own. Heed warnings about areas to avoid (along borders primarily) but otherwise you’ll find a very usable road network (though off the main highways, you’ll be on plenty of dirt roads) with a proclivity for randomly placed speed bumps.
Don’t speak French? Hire a driver. Outside of Dakar (and even in Dakar), unless you speak French or Wolof, you’re going to need some language help. If you’re the free-wheeling sort without any time table to keep to, there’s plenty of shared transport between all parts of the country (mostly privately owned minibuses of all varieties). These leave when they leave, and get to their destination eventually, unless they run out of gas or break down.
There are big dreams of rebuilding the rail network, with a link between Dakar and Bamako in Mali being worked on. At the moment though, wheeled travel is the only realistic option for moving around the country.
Within towns, you can get around via a multitude of taxis (negotiate in advance), though there aren’t currently any rideshare services in operation. In smaller towns, walking is easy and safe. Dakar is also very walkable, though heed warnings about areas to avoid after dark.
Senegal is a country best experienced as a whole, rather than a collection of sights checked off a list. There are museums and statues to visit in Dakar, and a trip to Gorée Island is a must. The mosque at Touba is a common stop for visitors, as is Fadiouth (shell island) south of Dakar. Senegal doesn’t compete with the major African hotspots for Safari experiences though it has a number of nature parks. Lompoul gives you a taste of the Saharah without a trip to Morocco. San Louis is a colonial-era time capsule.
While there may not be any single site that will leave you gobsmacked, the whole country will draw you in. Pick a place, put a finger on the map, and explore. Take some time to settle into your surroundings and try to get a sense of the joyous, supportive, caring life that the Senegal lead. Communities take care of each other, nourish each other, and try to support each other. Do you best to get a sense of that.
Senegalese food is as diverse as the country, and is an endless source of interest. It’s a gateway to understanding the country, moreso than nearly any other place. Senegalese food is the root of American Southern food. The food itself is rooted in shared West African flavors, filtered through a colonial lens. Why is there so much broken rice? Colonialism. That bread? Colonialism. The spring rolls? Colonialism.
Do yourself a favor and get yourself a book by [Pierre Tham](http://www.pierrethiam.com) before you visit. Senegal is still adapting to the foodie tourist – people might need some convincing that you really do want to try the local speciality, or eat at street food joint. As with anywhere though, a big smile, a thumbs up, and happy noises are met with happy responses.
Senegalese food embraces flavors we don’t typically experience in America – especially sours and bitters. There’s plenty of spice as well, and good hearty food. The seafood and fish are world class.
It’s worth being vaguely aware of Islamic food norms and religious days. You may find that it’s harder to get a meal at a restaurant on certain days, or at certain times of the day. Keep your snacks handy just in case.
Get Yourself to Senegal
Friendly, welcoming, gorgeous, and accessible. A six hour flight from New York. A total and complete rebuke to the Idiot in the White House. And a wholly new experience for the vast majority of travelers. Senegal will welcome you and leave you longing to return. Get yourself to Senegal soon.