The first novel in my upcoming trilogy has a working title Rue de Longue Vie – or: Street of Long Life – and it tells a story that happens mostly in Senegal, with backslashes in Brussels and Nouakchott. Yesterday I went to collect some visual support that I can later use when I write about Brussels related events and now I feel like I should do this more often! This was a quick hop to the Midi station and Gare de l’Ouest, then a ten-minute-walk around two blocks in Ixelles with a fast-paced point-and-shoot tactics. A couple of times I felt like like a voyerist or private eye (too much TV maybe?), the essential thing was to capture something essential that I need in the story. The devil is in the detail!
This is a short update to what has bee going on in my neighborhood in Saint-Louis since November 2020. The island has become one massive construction site with new canalization and soon-to-be paved streets and cemented sidewalks. It feels as if everybody were preparing for the better day, including the town planners – a new post-covid face lift in the making? Apart from this, life goes on more or less the usual way except for small businesses, many of which are still in an extended waiting mode for the borders to be opened to non-residents or European tourists. When the day comes, we will all be able to walk the streets with a little less sand in our sandals!
The Mauritanian tent has found its way to contemporary architecture in Nouakchott. If you stroll the streets of Ksar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, you will not miss the tent shape in practically every other house. It’s a symbol of a lifestyle in which the movable home is now built in cement and bricks and glass and functions as a fixed space to welcome guests. It’s also a very visible statement telling that the owner of the house has roots in the desert.
Anyone who has been to the desert knows the soothing effect a tent can provide against the scorching sun and hot winds, and how it allows you to feel the evening breeze on your skin when the walls of the tent have been rolled up. You can now find that same effect also in the city: some restaurants and cafés such as the famous La Palmeraie has made their own modern interpretation of the tent part of the attraction in their already very inviting garden and terrace. Some designs – usually it’s the simple and practical ones – are just meant to last and in Mauritania the tent is definitely one of them.
The one thing hard to live without is the gift that Ethiopia gave to the world: good coffee. In Addis and throughout the country you can sip freshly roasted and brewed coffee just about anywhere, any time of the day. From temporary coffee tents to old Italian espresso machines to local coffee chains and trademarks to fancy venues with the latest innovations, there is something for all tastes. Coffee culture is thriving with probably millions of cups brewed daily.
Raw coffee might still be the biggest export of the country but a good sign is that coffee beans are increasingly finding their way to both local and international market also in processed form, roasted and packed and thus keeping a bigger profit in the country.
If there is one thing I would really like to export from Ethiopia to Senegal – or anywhere – it’s that ease with which you can spot a venue and sit down, not for a bitter nescafé or chemical nespresso but for a genuinely good coffee!
I hopped on a Tata bus no 36 that takes you from Ngor Garage to Guediawaye. These small Tata buses get packed with passengers very fast but on this particular trip I even had a seat! I like public transport in cities and not the least because using it really gives you a sense of place, provided that you have unhindered access to a window while you travel. Taking the bus in almost any Senegalese city is often a “full body experience” with frequent stops and engagements with fellow passengers. I am rather impressed by the ability of the Senegalese to make space in a bus that already looked too full a long time ago, and by their collaborative nature to make the coins travel from hand to hand towards the cashier who sits at the back of the bus and whom you can barely see when the bus is full.
Dakar has numerous methods of mobility that shows just how effectively formal and informal economies work simultaneously. Just like any African metropolis, Dakar has its polarized nature with gated, rich residential areas and poorer overcrowded suburbs and peri-urban districts with failing infrastructure. And yet, all city dwellers move around easily according to needs and wallets either within their own zone, across the city, or commuting between the suburb and downtown areas.
I would usually take a Tata bus between Yoff and Ngor if it were not during the worst rush hour, in which case I would prefer a taxi or a clando. Tata buses and the bigger Dakar Dem Dik buses operate in most parts of the city and the latter has also a long-distance network covering different cities. Within the city you also have the famous colourful car rapideminibuses, and the ndiaga ndiaye vans-transformed-into-buses with boys hanging from the rear of the van, shouting their destinations and cashing the money in. The ndiaga ndiayes take you just about anywhere, and so do the sept-place cars that occupy the gare routière stations and operate between towns across the country.
There is also a massive army of yellow taxis in Dakar. They will frequently honk right behind you if they are vacant and spot you in the street. Be warned: if you’re on a schedule, even the yellow taxis can let you down. I’ve had a few taxi rides where the taxi would break before reaching the destination, so better to be a little picky and choose the best looking car if possible. Sometimes the taxi does not even have a license and the driver takes you on a surprise sightseeing tour because he wants to avoid possible controls. On a more positive note: I once forgot my smartphone in a taxi and after several calls to my own number another customer picked it up and told not to worry, the driver would return my phone as soon as he could, which he eventually did!
In direct competition with the yellow taxis you have its “clandestine” version, the clando, that has proven to be very efficient in some areas of the city with their cheap fare and clever networks that cover important arteries between districts. They are practical, cheap and fast. These are just private cars that drive back and forth between fixed departure and arrival stops. In rush hours you need to be quite alert to get a seat, particularly so if you’re a tubaab: the drivers might not even think of stopping to pick you up unless you give a clear sign.
When the first motorways were being constructed in Dakar, it used to take even three hours to drive from Yoff to Diamaguène. People got used to the fact that to get from one place to another was slow – what choice did they have? And now with ready motorways and much improved bus network things are looking better. But the rush hours can still make your trip painfully slow because the number of people in the city just keeps increasing and especially because private cars are choking the streets of Dakar, crippling the public transport system and poisoning the environment. You need a lot of nerve to be a commuter in this city! My ride from Ngor to Guediawaye on a Friday morning took a little less than two hours although I got – typically – excited just watching through the window so much so that I lost track of time. So it may well be that the trip was even shorter.
There is one thing missing in Dakar though, and that’s tram. I would so much love to see Dakar have a network of trams operating at least on the South-North and West-East axis. Obviously, this would require good governance with strong emphasis on sustainability – and of course money.
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For a very entertaining reading on taxi rides in cities like Lagos and Yaoundé I suggest you keep on reading: “Taxi Drivers who Drive Us Nowhere” by Howard M-B Maximus, written for Bakwa 09: Taxi Drivers who Drive Us Nowhere and other Travel Stories.