Senegal is known as one of Africa’s most easy-going places to visit. It is politically stable, mostly safe, affable and highly accessible: for most Europeans it is a 5 to 6 hour flight, there is no need for a visa, and no jet lag. However practicality aside, Senegal is an aesthetic feast for the eyes: proudly African, but with a French spin, and home to some of the continent’s best food, beautiful people, inspired art and above all music.
The country is full of interesting and enlightening contradictions, for example, technically Senegal a French speaking country, but the majority of Senegalese speak Wolof, or their own ethnic language. Moreover, although the population is strongly religious (94% Muslim), the state remains entirely secular. Local Senegalese can be hearty and heavy, but a partiality towards sophisticated and delicate goods, such as French nouveau cuisine, fine chocolates and daily baguettes (sold on most Dakar street corners) also reigns.
Other surprises include a love for wrestling (the national sport), some of the world’s most stunning examples of French colonial architecture, a vibrant beach-side fitness culture and fully-fledged surf scene.
Senegal was a French colony until 1960, when it gained independence peacefully. Its first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, a writer and poet, and the first African elected to the Académie française, is a highly celebrated figure in Senegal.
While the French ‘left’, in the sense that they no longer had de facto control of the control, their influence and presence remained prevalent. There are many white French people living in Senegal today who consider themselves Senegalese.
While often Dakar steals the show in terms of investment, organized cultural activities, as well as general international exposure, there is a whole country worth exploring. To begin there is Saint Louis (or Ndar, as it is called in Wolof) in the north of the country. Saint Louis is a city defined by former splendour: what in the late 19th Century was the capital of the Federation of French West African colonies (until Dakar took its place in 1902) is now a charming and historically rich, but rather impoverished, coastal city.
In the south is Saly (“the Cote d’Azure of Senegal”), charming Somone and Mbour, the seaside resort of Cap Skirring, and Saloum Delta National Park – one of two major UNESCO Heritage sites in Senegal, the other being the Goree Slave Island.
Although Senegal may not be one of Africa’s golden success stories in terms of economic growth and business opportunities – in fact in this respect it is vastly overshadowed by other West African counterparts: Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sierra Leone – Senegal is applauded for being one of the most stable democracies in Africa. It is also characterized by a quiet refinement and elegance, a deep sense of aesthetics, and an inclination towards the arts and artisanal creations, which gives it a superior quality to its neighbours.
Senegalese music, from its Djembe drumming to its more mainstream artists, is renowned the world over. Youssou N’Dour (now one of Senegal’s foremost politicians) is the most famous of all, however Senegal is also responsible for other music legends such as Baaba Maal and Ismael Lo. And then of course we have 3x Platinum rapper Akon.