Reflections From Dakar
It was only a couple of weeks ago that our little company announced a new tour, Viva Italia, inspired by the idea that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Strangely enough, I am now sitting in a coffee shop in Dakar where, according to Lonely Planet, ‘all roads in Senegal truly lead to Dakar’.
150 years ago Dakar had 300 residents. Now it is home to over 3 million people. It is a place that in my mind – and I assume many others of my generation – is associated with the, now defunct, Paris-Dakar off-road car rally.
Now that I have spent three days cycling, walking and traversing this big, cosmopolitan city, I ask myself, how is it that a city of this size, stature and history was for years in my mind simply an exotic place. A place where a crazy car rally, that tested man’s ability to built fast, durable, monstrous cars and motorcycles, traversed the Sahara desert, destroying sand dunes and spitting vast amounts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ironically this rally, simply called ‘Dakar’, continues to run in South America.
Dakar is situated on a small peninsula on the westernmost edge of this huge and marvelous continent. No matter where you are standing, sleeping, walking or driving, you are at most 3 km from the coast where you can enjoy all the enjoyment that the ocean provides, from wonderful cooling winds, to beaches, to football games on the sand, to surfing or simply dining or sipping your drinks and watching the world go by.
It is also a city where commerce of every sort and kind is encountered no matter where you are. Hawkers, hustlers, street vendors and assorted other characters can spring up at any moment particularly in areas where there are tourists. Interestingly, two days ago I took a 15 km walk across the middle of the peninsula from north to south and I was not accosted even once. For that matter, on my walk I did not encounter any expats or tourists.
Some of my friends and readers will now probably think that I am being reckless and endangering my life by walking alone in an unknown city, full of who knows what kind of shady characters. Fortunately for me, when we arrived in our hotel on the first day my hotel room was not ready. It gave me time to sit down in the lobby read some of the local press. One of the newspapers had a big screaming headline; ‘50 murders in Senegal in 2018!’ This headline was of interest to me because I live in Toronto with a population of around 3 million people. The number of homicides in my hometown so far in 2018 is around 90. So Senegal, with a population of over 16 million has less murders than Toronto. Quite a surprise.
The truth is that I, for one, should not have been surprised. Ever since I started this company I have been asked over and over, again and again, is it safe to cross Africa on a bike? Most of the time I have answered the question simply by saying that the most dangerous part of cycling in Africa is the same all over the world and that is dangerous drivers. I have written blogs such as ‘I Have More Fear of Cycling in Toronto Then Anywhere Else in the World‘ and I have talked about this to the media. Yet even I was surprised that the rate of homicides and dangerous crime in a poor country such as Senegal is significantly lower than in a place I call home.
What is one to make of this? Yesterday, I took a boat to Ile de Goree, a place where thousands of Africans were held awaiting their transportation and enslavement – that is if they survived their horrific conditions and passage to the new world. When one walks on the cobblestones among the old buildings in this now very tranquil place one wonders how any mind can perceive that it is ok to enslave another human being, not to mention a child. Even the slave traders all knew that enslaving human beings for profit was not acceptable to any religion.
What I realize from my days here in Dakar is that what we all need to do, and do continuously, is to expose ourselves to a different world than the one we already know so that we can see the world differently, so that what we see forces us to see the world from another perspective. Dakar from now on you are no longer the place where the Paris-Dakar rally ended. From now on, in my mind, you are a lively place with millions of people going on with their daily struggle and on Sundays, having fun exercising on one of its many beaches.