10 Things You Need To Know Before Going To Senegal

When you think of West Africa, what first comes to mind? Possibly the Ebola virus scare, safety issues, or the history of slave trade. On my recent visit to Senegal with G Adventures, I was pleasantly surprised by this African nation. Here are some things I discovered during my journey.

1. The people are friendly. Senegalese are possibly the most polite and hospitable people on the continent. They speak French, in a cute, subtle accent and will always greet you, make eye contact and ask about your day. Even in the villages, little kids would run up to me and say “Bonjour! Como sava?” without expecting a tip or gift in return. And they also love to pose for photographs 🙂

Kid posing for photo at Kaya Fisherman village

I found the staff at hotels and restaurants to be very accommodating as well. When I went to a local restaurant in Dakar by myself, the waitress (who didn’t speak any English) helped me with my shawarma order and asked where I was from. At another occasion, I randomly walked into a shop and the lady behind the counter (a 5th generation Senegalese Indian), sat me down for a chat and brought out tea and croissants!

2. It is safer than you think. I spent about 10 days in Senegal, mostly with a group, but often walking around by myself, and never once felt unsafe. Vendors often approached me trying to sell souvenirs or tours but never pressed hard to make me feel uncomfortable. It was actually the women who tried the most, inviting me to “their shops” and wanting to bargain for their goods.

Woman selling souvenirs at the Pink Lake

That being said, like anywhere else in the world, you cannot be careless when traveling. Carry little cash, watch your bag in crowded places, and don’t draw attention.

3. There’s no ebola. It is imperative to know that there was only 1 case of ebola reported in Senegal (in 2014) and it is not a threat. You are more likely to suffer from malaria (carry deet), cholera (only drink bottled water), travelers diarrhea (select clean restaurants), or asthma (because of the dust and pollution). On our tour, we were taken to relatively clean restaurants and I ate fruits and salads, and was fine.

4. It’s a tolerant society. Senegal is a peace loving country with no history of wars or religious tension. Majority of the population is Muslim with Sufi influences, but they inter-marry with Christians and often attend each other’s places of worship. You should dress conservatively, covering your arms and legs when traveling through Senegal.

Mosque of the Divinity in Dakar

5. Being vegetarian is hard. Practically every Senegalese dish has some meat or fish in it. If you go to traditional restaurants, choices will be limited to chicken, lamb, beef or fish, often times used to season the rice or chere (millet couscous). There were a few vegan and vegetarians on my tour, and there weren’t many options for them aside for juice, rice, fruit and potatoes. Seasoning is often basic – made with lemon juice, tomatoes or onions and herbs.

In bigger cities like Dakar and St Louis, you can find few French, Arabic and American restaurants. I also discovered Cremina Gelato and Cafe in Dakar, which was really good.

Chicken yassa at Chez Salim

6. The beaches are nice. Many Europeans travel to Senegal for beach getaways. There are lots of beach resorts and rental properties at Somone beach in the Saly neighborhood near the airport catering to every budget. You can take a boat ride in the lagoon, eat at a beach shack, shop for souvenirs and visit the mangroves.

There are lots of fishing villages dotting the coastline as well, though these are not the best beaches for bathing. Often times, they are crowded with local boats and fishermen.

Atlantic Hotel Banjul

7. There’s wildlife in West Africa. Prior to visiting Senegal I did not know there was much wildlife in West Africa. Most of it was wiped out by drought, but recently reserves have been established to restore the populations. Animals are brought from other parts of Africa and you can see zebras, giraffes, rhinos, elands, buffalos, gazelles, monkeys and more at Bandia Park near Senegal. A drive by safari takes only couple of hours and because of the low shrub cover (in June), you can spot the animals easily.

Rhino at Bandia Park

If you like to bird watch, Senegal is an ideal destination. You can take a boat safari and see over 400 species of birds at Barbarie National Park and Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, near St Louis.

8. There’s a desert too. I was surprised to see how beautiful and clean the orange sand was in the small Lompoul Desert. There was hardly anyone around near our Desert Ecolodge, offering a quiet haven under the stars. The tented camp I stayed in had comfortable beds, running water and a flushing toilet.

Ecolodge de Lompoul

9. Traveling in Senegal is not cheap. Contrary to what most people think of prices in Africa, tourism related businesses in Senegal charge about the same as what you would pay in the US. The locals usually don’t go out to eat (unless its easily accessible street food), so restaurants cater to tourists and expats. A bottle of still water is $2-3, and sparking as much as $7-10. Most meals costed me $18-25 (not including alcohol). For hotels, there are options from 3-star (which has a different meaning in Africa) to 5-stars. Even the nicer hotels we stayed at were not updated due to lack of turnover. The newer hotels are quite luxurious and offer all the amenities (approx. $200-300/ night).

10. You’re on Africa time. Senegalese people, like most Africans, have a leisurely concept of time, so do not get frustrated when your tour departs half an hour later or the road trip takes two extra hours. Generally, people are in no rush. Immigration officers at the border will like to have small talk before stamping your passport, may you will repeat the process with a few different officials. You may have fixed an appointment with someone but that person may forget to show up. Remember, people value social relationships more than punctuality, so you will need to adjust your attitude based on the culture.

I was on G Adventure’s inaugural tour to Senegal and The Gambia in June 2019. Click here to learn more about their upcoming tours to the destination.

Africa – Full of Promise

On the 9thof August, I attended Go Eat Give’s Destination West Africa at the Clarkson Community Centre. It was quite a mind blowing experience even for me, having roots in East Africa. I realized just how culturally diverse the African continent is and the special attributes of different regions that set us apart in a special way. Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled vastly in the continent of Africa, but this event definitely piqued my interest to explore West Africa in the future.

The guests arrived in large numbers and dressed for the occasion. The ensembles were quite impressive and most people went out of their way to showcase African fashion with glamour and poise. I interacted with a lot of people who had visited different African countries and some of them even spoke my mother tongue, Swahili.

Conun Drums, an Atlanta based all women’s group opened the event with a spectacular percussion performance of West African rhythms. They engaged with the crowd and had everybody singing and dancing along. The group of four women and two little girls was clad in colourful African attire, embellished with vibrant print and patterns. Needless to say, they have mastered the art of playing drums.

conondrums

Owokoniran Taiwo, a renowned Nigerian musician based in Atlanta, who has been performing for over 30 years entertained the guests with some African tunes. His band is very popular among the Nigerian community and has been known to perform in different events, festivals and weddings. He sang and played the keyboard beautifully. He was accompanied by a skilful drummer. I was surprised to hear him play a popular Swahili song titled Malaika, which means Angel, with such great ease. He sang it like a native. The other Nigerian tunes he sang were very soothing and made me quite homesick. I thought to myself how my father would have enjoyed Owokoniran’s genre of music.

The keynote speakers made great speeches with strong conviction. I was especially moved by the Honorary Consulate of Mali Vince Farley’s and Nigeria’s Ambassador to the US Geoffrey I. Teneilabe’s speeches. They emphasized on the social and economic potential in Africa at the moment and how sustainable trade and tourism will contribute to the growth of the continent. They applauded Go Eat Give’s efforts at promoting cultural awareness and community service with their programs and Teneilabe called for more trips to West Africa in the near future. In the recent past, all that was heard from West Africa was the Ebola Crisis and this negatively affected the region. Teneilabe was keen on reminding the guests that the crisis has been dealt with in the region and Ebola is no longer a threat, which I am sure was a great relief to many.

vince farley

Their speeches resonated with me because they told a positive story of Africa. I have had the opportunity to travel around the world, and I have seen how the danger of a single story can have adverse effects in a society. Most people I have interacted with during my travels have usually had an unfavourable perspective of Africa, thanks to the media. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to always tell of the other positive stories that exist in my beloved continent whenever I get the chance. Also, most people group the continent into one entity, which is entirely false. We have thousands of diverse tribes, languages and cultures. I was happy to see Mr Vince Farley hang a map of Africa during his speech and pointed to different countries where he has visited and worked. It was very educational. He has served as the deputy ambassador in the Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, South Korea, and Yugoslavia.

ambassador of nigeria Geoffrey I. Teneilabe

After the keynote speech the guests lined up to serve the delicious mouth-watering dishes prepared by Chef Okon James from Nations Café restaurants. I was eagerly anticipating the food because it was my first time to sample West African cuisine, and I must say I was quite impressed. My favourite dishes were fried plantain and Jollof rice, a popular fried rice dish in West African countries especially Nigeria and Ghana. Every dish was rich in flavour. I also tried Banku, a popular Ghanaian dish consisting of fermented corn and cassava dough mixed into a paste. Its acidic taste went well with the fried tilapia topped with bell peppers.

Other dishes included Chichinaga (meat Kebab), Vegetable Samosas, Puff Puff (an African snack similar to a doughnut), Ugba (fermented African oilbean seeds), Mafe (tender beef in peanut sauce), Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast, Fried Tilapia, Moi Moi (steamed bean pudding), and Red Red (black eyed peas cooked in palm oil). The dishes vary significantly from what we eat in East Africa. However, I was more than happy to indulge.

After dinner, we enjoyed a Manga African Dance performance by Ramatu Afegbua and her team of agile dancers. They moved the crowd with their ethnic sounds and body movements. Manga is actually a registered non-profit organization founded in 1990 by Ramatu with a mission to teach and preserve indigenous African cultural arts through dance, drums, songs and more. This was my most favourite performance of the day. They executed the true African spirit through dance and music.

manga dance

To close off the event, Sucheta Rawal made some closing remarks, thanking everybody for their role and participation to make the event a success. I extremely enjoyed myself and was honoured to be a part of such a great cause. I believe a lot of people left Destination West Africa having gained so much more knowledge, understanding and appreciation for West Africa, and more importantly, Go Eat Give’s mission.

~ By Christine Okwaro, event planning and fundraising intern at Go Eat Give. Christine grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and has lived in China and Switzerland. Her personal blog is www.thetravellers.de