Let me tell you a story about the Institut Francais de Dakar, Pole Culturel. Today as I walked through the gates and passed my backpack to the guards for inspection, I noticed that I was being followed by Ernest Hemingway. Almost. He was a stout 60-something Frenchman with flyaway white hair, a terrific moustache, a khaki safari vest that had more pockets than all of my clothes combined, and under his arm he clutched a long padded case that clearly held a hunting rifle with an attached scope. When accosted, he dutifully presented the rifle case to be checked, and the guards opened it to find that, indeed, it contained a beautiful wood-stocked high powered firearm. The guards waved him through and with a cheerful “merci!” he puttered off to the shady bar. All this is a long-winded way of saying that I like the Institut immensely, and also that there is something profoundly troubling about it.
The Institut Culturel takes up an entire city block, contained behind a 12 foot high security wall, and as far as I can tell it is the only green space downtown. Once you enter the gates you see the long bungalow-like Institut itself, a colonial-style building painted green and white with a cool tiled lobby and a long porch wrapping around the entire second story. There’s also a 300 seat amphitheatre where plays and concerts are performed, a leafy garden overflowing with pink flowering vines and dominated by a massive jacaranda tree in the middle, easels that display photographs and paintings by featured local artists and a bar/ restaurant that serves duc a l’orange and has a screen set up to show all of the UEFA cup games. It’s a fantastic little oasis that expatriates flock to, parking their Volkswagens and LandRovers outside while they enjoy halfway-decent flaky croissants.
It’s like being on another planet—a completely different environment from the sweaty and hectic Sandaga Market and Grand Dakar neighborhood outside. When I was working in Uganda I felt pretty disdainful of exclusive places like this. I felt very strongly that during my time abroad I would sink myself into my environment, and I made the choice to drink banana beer rather than milkshakes and to dance in local nightclubs patronized by prostitutes rather than in the upscale expat bars. However, Dakar and Jinja are VERY different places. In Jinja I loved to walk through the fish market and see people selling sacks of grain from farms a few kilometers away, flip flops made from repurposed bicycle tires, and baskets with elaborate patterns made by knitting together raffia and colored computer cables. Here, as soon as I step through the gates I’m bombarded by sales pitches from different hawkers who are all selling the same knockoff Chinese watches and belt buckles, cheap foam sandals and yards and yards of identical machine-made batik fabric. Vendors grab me in minute-long handshakes and try to literally drag me into their booths, people in traditional costumes demand I take their picture and then pay 1,000 CFA for it, and taxis careen up onto the sidewalk inches in front of me to ask me where I’m trying to go.
This is by no means a condemnation of Senegalese markets in general—this is just what my experience has been moving around in a touristy area that over the course of 50 years of lax zoning laws has cobbled together a crazy patchwork of luxury hotels and local restaurants with zinc roofs and charcoal-burning stoves. Honestly I can only stand about half an hour of walking around in the 90 degree heat and shaking off persistent salesmen before I duck back into the sylvan sanctuary of the French institute. That’s what I find troubling. I love to travel, I know that I’m good at and I enjoy adapting to circumstances and talking with a diverse range of people, and yet so far one of my favorite parts of downtown Dakar is a cloister with a library filled with Baudelaire and a décor that hasn’t changed since the Tricolor went down in 1960. Being here reminds me more of Paris than Uganda; something that I would have found off putting in Jinja but strangely refreshing in Dakar.
It’s a big world out there. I guess sometimes it’s easier to handle when broken down into smaller chunks.