Fashion and transport in Dakar

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I had high expectations for Dakar, after hearing so many wonderful things about this cosmopolitan city people call the capital of West Africa. Sure enough, the rain-washed dirt roads turned into divided highways and tunnels and overpasses, traffic jams became even more polluted, and the welcoming sight of electricity lasted 24 hours. Reaching Dakar was somehow like breaching a border, a transition from humid wet lands to desert dry lands, and traveling from the post-card picture of West Africa to a more North Africa meets the Middle East. The dust roads and light-skinned faces made me feel like I’d reached a new land, and the invasion of metropolitan Frenchies made me much less exotic than I had been elsewhere.

Dakar is a harbour city, jutting out on a crowded peninsula with the international airport basically in the middle of everything. The abandoned railway station no longer works, but instead a few squatters have called the colonial refuge building their home. The central bus and taxi station is a big waste basin, splattered with urine and empty plastic bags outnumbering the decapitated sept-place cars drivers keep hassling to fill. A “seven seater” is the means of long haul travel in Senegal, which is usually a rusted old hatchback car, usually with most of its windows intact but not much else, and incredibly uncomfortable for hours of travel. The gear shift usually reaches all 5 gears, but you’d be lucky to have a car where the gas or speed gage works. It’s probably for the better, since you don’t want know how fast you’re going, since you’re almost always going too slow (and still the car shakes in the wind and bottoms out over every pothole).

The problem with the plastic bags is enormous… you can basically buy everything and anything in a plastic bag, and here they have little or no system of garbage disposal or recycling, so the streets and fields end up covered in plastic. You buy salt, sugar, water, oil and even soda in a bag, a convenient, single-use way for street sellers to sell them individually and through broken car-door windows.

The other main street selling merchandise is second-hand clothing. Containers full of Salvation Army donations that can’t get resold in the first world arrive here a few years later, and the outdated fashion and random t-shirt branding gets very confusing – yesterday I saw someone with a UC Berkeley sweater and I almost approached him saying “hey, I went there too!”.

People wearing sweaters and scarves is weird, since it’s always so bloody hot, but what I really can’t figure out is all the hats. The men cover their shiny black heads with toques and woolen hats, which I can’t believe is cooler for them than letting the sun shine on them, but they must believe that the hats somehow insulate the heat out, or they’re just like regular old white men who are having a hard time dealing with balding… either way, my favorite look is still the men and women in flowing dresses covered in colorful patterns, with their heads covered in large baskets and buckets carrying tons of who-knows-what.

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