I surrender to you and you to me. In our stillness, I feel magic... I touch your heart as you open mine.
The journey to West Africa is a very special adventure, at least, it was definitely for me. Filled with endless surprises, I never could have anticipated the fullness of vibrant Senegal. The sounds, the odors, the colors, the languages...
Prior to traveling here, I've only heard of Senegal vicariously through the films of Ousmane Sembene and poetry by Senegalese writers like Léopold Sédar Senghor that I read during my college crash course in post-colonial studies. I never knew how much it was an epicenter for West African culture until I came across Chef Pierre Thiam in New York City and learned more about the country through the cuisine.
The capital Dakar is located on the most Western point of Africa, sharing the same time zone as London. Just a seven and a half hour direct flight from NYC (JFK) or Washington DC (IAD). South African Airways flies from Washington D.C.- Dulles to Dakar, Senegal three days a week. Delta flies direct to Dakar from New York City-JFK two days a week.
The city of Dakar itself can be easily visited for a weekend although most travelers should plan on staying longer in order to visit the gorgeous Senegalese countryside.
The local food is fantastic, flavorful and the live music is phenomenal.
The best months to visit is winter, which is for them, February until April - Senegalese winter weather is spring-like and isn't too hot. Only a light jacket or sweater is needed.
It's also a great place to practice (or learn!) your French or Wolof as they are the languages spoken in this bustling and cosmopolitan African capital.
I didn't know what to expect when I first landed in Dakar but I felt for sure that I definitely was in a foreign land. The minute I got off the plane, everything was instantly different and so much more colorful than New York City. Everyone was so tall, so beautiful and colorfully elegant and at least bilingual. Standing in their power, this was not at all the sad poor conflict ridden Africa often depicted in the news. This was a peaceful country full of people proud of their culture.
From the locals I gathered a rich and warmth hospitality that goes way beyond. The kind of hospitality that invites you into their homes for a homemade meal the first time they meet you. They are so proud of hospitality, they even have a word for it: "Teranga" is Wolof for hospitality and this was a country that was definitely rich in it. With friendly curious happy people, always laughing and joking with a twinkle in their eye, this was definitely a happy place.
The water was more blue than I imagined, the landscape much greener, the people friendlier to me despite my utter lack of French or Wolof language skills. Gaining it's independence in 1960, this ex-French colony carries remnants of its old colonial master, but it was definitely very unapologetically African. It is a country of bold sophistication. Fashionistas roamed the street, dressed to the nines even if their day jobs were on a construction site, selling peanuts on the street or mopping the floors of a dental office. They all looked like they were about to celebrate - perhaps a daily celebration of life. Senegal is a country so incredibly dynamic and bursting with energy, it's hard to describe in words. With so many layers of sights, sounds, colors, smells and flavors that all your five senses are constantly engaged and you are never left bored.
Senegalese cuisine is incredibly delicious. The flavors are richly dynamic and layered with a complex flavor profile. A lot of the dishes felt very familiar and is the surprising origin of so many of my favorite American Southern creole dishes like Gumbo. Historians have documented that it was this very cuisine that was taken to what was then the New World by the people from this area, who were to be sold to slavery. This connection between the United States and West Africa has been chillingly overlooked and there is still much do be done to properly credit and document the historical contributions of the African peoples to the culture of the New World but it's accreditation is much needed.
It is incredibly eye-opening to learn that so much of what I love about American culture has its roots in West Africa. The word "gumbo" actually means okra in Wolof. The original West African version of gumbo is called soupou kandja and is full of complex flavor. Salty, sweet, sour and bitter all at the same time, it's definitely a dance of wonderful flavors in your mouth. So much of the delicious Senegalese food here are mainly served in homes so if you are lucky enough to be invited to a local's home for lunch or dinner, dear god please accept! I was lucky enough to be able to sample a home-made Senegalese national dish called Theboudienne at a lunch at the West African Research Center in Dakar.
Once a month, usually at the beginning of the month, the expat community and the wealthy class of Dakar gather for Dakar Farmers Market. The market is a curation of local products and items that are "Made in Senegal" and a great way to meet and buy handcrafted artisan foods, clothes and crafts directly from the artisans themselves. If it's happening while you are in town, it's a fun place to spend a few hours exploring the local vendors. This is not however, a place to bargain for the lowest prices. There are other crafts markets to explore if you want to play the haggling game.
Twenty minutes by ferry from Dakar, Goree Island is a wonderful place to spend a day. With sandy beaches and seaside cafes, you can swim in the chilly Atlantic Ocean or take a stroll along the town to admire the colonial architecture as well as see what is known as "The Door of No Return", the last stop for those sold into slavery before they were brought to the America.
A short journey from Dakar lies a lake where the waters turn pink depending on the temperament of the algae and the way the sun shines on the lake. If it's not pink when you get there, wait a minute. Once the clouds part, it may be pink again. This lake is an seemingly unending basin of salt where salt is still harvested by hand.
Two and a half hours outside of Dakar is the farming village of Djilor, the hometown of the first president of Senegal - Léopold Sédar Senghor - who is also a world-class a poet.
A quaint rustic village and welcomed escape from the busy streets of Dakar, you'll enjoy reading a book by the peace of the Sine-Saloum Delta and the fantastic bird watching. I spent a few nights at eco-resort La Source aux Lamantins, chilling and reading poems by Senghor about the river Sine while looking out into its waters. For activities, A boat ride in a wooden pirogue (dug out canoe) through the mangroves and a horse cart ride through the local farms are also some activities that you can enjoy. I definitely enjoyed seeing the organic farming techniques that were employed in the fields. La Source also offers daily morning yoga.
The riverside bungalow where we eat our meals...
Another view of the riverside bungalow...
The lake like river of the Sine-Saloum Delta...
While in Djilor, I had the opportunity to also visit and cook with local women who were part of a women-owned cooperative. This was definitely a highlight of the trip. We helped the women make a local Serer dish called Ngur Baan and this was definitely my very first time using a Guënn (mortar and pestle). They gave me the local Serer name Ami Thiaw, which said aloud sounds quite similar to Amy Chao but they swear it's of local Serer origins. I had such a wonderful experience connecting with them and singing while cooking and then doing a bit of post-meal celebratory dance with these group of women. It was a very rewarding experience.
Close to Djilor lies the village of Niassam where there is a nature reserve in Sine-Saloum river delta that is home to Les Collines de Niassam, one of the most beautiful eco lodges I've ever been to. In true eco-lodge fashion, the lodge does not have any air conditioning or wifi, although the design of the rooms are spaced far enough to allow the natural breeze to pass through. This rustic sanctuary offers in return serenity, natural beauty, an abundance of bird life and different types of homemade rum. Nature lovers will not be disappointed. Lodging options range from a bungalow on a private island to a legit treehouse in a baobab tree. You'll feel like a true explorer. The food at the restaurant is definitely top notch.
For those who are a little more adventurous, head to Tambacounda - a six hour drive (or an hour chartered private plane ride) away to explore one of the most remote regions of the country.
There you can find THREAD, an Artist Residency and not-for-profit Cultural Center. It is a socio-cultural center with a residency program to allow local and international artists to live and work in Sinthian, a rural village in Tambacounda, the southeastern region of Senegal. It houses two artists’ dwellings, as well as ample indoor and outdoor studio space.
The center is also an agricultural hub for Sinthian and the surrounding villages - providing training, fertile land, and a meeting place for the local and regional communities to increase their economic stability. One of their projects is supporting the growth of an ancient African grain called fonio. This grain historically holds cultural and religious significance and is currently being grown and harvested in the region by a woman-owned cooperative.
One of the more popular origin stories for the name Senegal comes from the Wolof phrase 'Sunuu Gaal', which means 'Our Boat' so it's fitting that I end this post with a little bit about Senegal's fishing industry. The seafood here is excellent and is one of the country's largest exports. I visited the seaside town of Joal and got a closer look at the fishermen as well as an organic fish drying facility.
It is my hope that you use the information from this post as inspiration for your travels to Senegal. I can definitely help you put together your trip! I have also done a curated group culinary and musical adventure with Chef Pierre Thiam and if you are interested in learning more and putting your name on the list for the next one, please check out this page. I hope to have you join me the next time I travel!
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Safe (and fresh) travels always! Namaste