Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dakar in Country No. 150

When I arrived in Dakar, Senegal on Sunday it hit me that I had just reached a significant milestone: it's the 150th country I have visited during my lifetime.  Travel to this many countries was not something I set out to do but I just seemed to end up in one international traveling job after another as Gertrud can well attest. It is understandable that she didn't like my traveling during our early married life because she practically had to raise the kids by herself.  But she doesn't seem to mind now because she can often travel with me. I don't know how many more first-time countries I'll get to before I re-retire but I'd say that it would be realistic for me to reach 170.

According to the State Department ( there are currently 195 independent countries, although the Department admits this count depends very much on how one defines  "country." The Travelers Century Club claims there are 319 but defines "country" much more broadly to include small semi-dependent territories and islands which have their international interests represented by larger countries (, but I digress: 

I have long wanted to visit Dakar and had always heard that it is a very pleasant and colorful city. Although I've only been here a couple of  days I already consider it one of my two or three favorite African cities. Dakar stretches for many kilometers along the Senegalese Coast, much of it on high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Local teens and twens are very fitness oriented, jogging, stretching and lifting  en mass along the water front mornings and evenings. Perhaps they are motivated by the current weather which is almost perfect. The women of Senegal and throughout much of French West Africa are very fashion conscious and prefer very stylish colorful Afro-gowns and big hats. Traditional Senegalese men wear gowns and caps but the business community and hip young people seem to prefer Western dress.  With a population that is 95 percent Muslim, I've been quite surprised at how friendly the locals are towards Americans. Senegal and the US have had excellent relations for many yeas and Senegal is one of very few African countries that does not require Americans to have visas.  It's my perception that the Sufi Muslims from this area tend to be more tolerant and less militant that some other Islamic strains. The Senegalese economy seems to be doing better than in most African countries with construction booming.  New housing is going up everywhere and a major highway is being built between the airport and the city center.

A major controversy has been raging in Dakar over the past few months.  It involves a very large statue of a man, woman and child that was recently built by a North Korean company on a hill overlooking the city.  The issue seems to be that they are wearing far too little clothing for a statue that is supposed to represent the national values of a Muslim country.  The statue was commissioned by the country's 85 year old dictator at a very high cost and much of the populous is very angry with him.  (   

Senegal is the first country I have visited in the Western Sahel and I'll visit two other neighboring countries before this trip has been completed.  For those who may not know, the Sahel is a transitional bio geographic strip up to 100 kilometers wide that runs from the Atlantic all the way across Africa to the Red Sea. It separates the Sahara Desert on its North from savanna grasslands on its South. It is extremely arid and has been traditionally populated by semi-nomadic people who do some farming and herd cattle, sheep and goats.       

My first 3 countries on this trip were all in English-speaking Africa.  Senegal and the three others I will still visit are all Francophone and there is a very noticeable difference in attitude, culture and style. No doubt much of this stems from the predominance of Islam in French-speaking Africa which is much more pronounced than in the English-speaking countries.  And of course it also stems from the different colonial styles of the French and English. It actually feels quite familiar to be back in Francophone Africa after 26 years.  Our first Foreign Service posting from 1982-84 was in equatorial Cameroon which is largely French-speaking. 

I'm getting long-winded but as a final point: Senegal seems be the favorite African country for US presidents to visit.  The Embassy lobby is filled with pictures of virtually every president since Nixon during state visits to Senegal.  and I'm sure it won't be long until Barack Obama visits too.

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