Dakar, this Potemkin Capital

A Senegalese writer daydreams: if I could ride back from Dakar airport with President Macky Sall in his lavish limousine, what would I tell him? Well, I might start by pointing out all of the ways the capitol is falling apart, all of the dilapidation they work so hard to hide from the motorcade as it zips through town…

Your Excellency,

When I swore my total allegiance to you [in a previous letter], I did not dream that you would take me at my word. Or that your intelligence agencies would be so efficient! After all, it was an anonymous letter.

It is true that my brother who lives in Germany is always telling me that all African regimes are basically police states. But I always sneer at him, thinking he has just been reading too many stories about the Gestapo.

So I am really surprised when I open the door to my apartment and there I am, face to face with a gendarme, one of the guys who drive those killer motorbikes that kids fantasize about riding when they grow up.

He bears an invitation from the office of the Presidency, inviting me to be at the airport to welcome you back from your trip to New York. And what a fruitful trip it has been: at the UN they were amazed by your command of the French language, especially the vaunted UN interpreters whom you left speechless!

dakar621Dakar, view from Ngor. Photo CC: Jeff Attaway.

And so here we are at Leopold Sedar Senghor airport, with three hours to go before the presidential plane touches down in the Sarene Point district. Or what is left of Sarene Point after the real estate land-grab by all of your neoliberal buddies.

But nobody here is worried; all of us know you have an agile pilot. He could probably close his eyes and slalom through the fancy buildings that are increasingly encircling the airport, those buildings that bring us incessant complaints from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

At the moment, my main concern is to find some clothes to suit the circumstances. You will certainly agree that meeting the President of the Republic is no ordinary event. And since everything in our land is based on appearances, I have to be shiny as a new penny. Secretly, I am hoping that you will invite me over for coffee at your palace. They say Madam Sall serves a legendarily creamy cup.

Fortunately, my wife recently gave me a some clothes, great for the summer heat, though kind of cheapo, like what people buy in the housing project neighborhoods. But I am sure you won’t mind, Mr. President, since you are the champion of ‘sober and virtuous governance.’ Sure, you yourself are always dressed to the nines, but that’s just because you have to look presidential, am I right?

dakar521Dakar. Photo CC: Jeff Attaway.

As always, it is best to trust the instincts of our ladies. Mine persuaded me early on that you are different from your predecessor: ‘Just look at the buses,’ she says. ‘He still hasn’t had them painted with the colors of his political party.’

So after a body search – a necessity now that we have put ourselves in the line of fire of the Mali jihadis-I am invited to get into the presidential limousine. The overwhelming aroma of thiouraye incense in the car’s interior stifles my last remaining rational thoughts, though it does confirm that the first lady is a true Senegalese.

To break the ice, I ask about the mix of incense used; I’ll tell my wife to do the same. I am sick of all the made-in-China air fresheners with their dubious toxicity and their less-than-the-life-of-a-rose durability.

Let’s hope that the people in charge are doing their jobs. From a young age, I was astonished that fruits like mangoes were gassed before being sold to us Senegalese, that no one could tell us anything about the impact all these chemicals were having on our health.

I start the conversation with a philosophical discussion on the idea of movement. I could tell you for example, that it is long past time to replace Mr. Bruno Diatta [Chief of Protocol]. I have nothing against the man personally; he is appropriately discrete. But since I was a child, he has always been there, standing next to our presidents. However complicated is the job he does, he is surely not the only Senegalese capable of doing it.

However, since I don’t really know how close you are with Mr. Diatta, I’ll stop short of actually advising you to get rid of him. As the popular proverb reminds us, ‘when your host is a monkey, don’t talk about ugliness!’

I have never understood why some people try to hide from your eyes the reality that the population lives in. The streets are swept before your motorcade goes past. Potholes get filled, streetlights repaired and polished, water puddles drained. Nothing escapes the touchup: even the tree trunks get an unasked-for coat of fresh paint.

dakar721Photo CC: Jan Michael Lhl.

When we leave the airport, I will show you what I am talking about. Think of all the numberless tourists who have passed through Dakar over the years. So many of them returned for the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of this city from the moment they left the airport: that image of the sea appearing to wash right over the road into town.

dakar321Dakar beach. Photo CC: Rudi D. Noetzold.

Of course that was before the wealthy and privileged erected all of their huge buildings, obstructing the view of the sea, monopolizing it for themselves and depriving it from millions of Senegalese.

You will also get a look at the hideous looking mega-hotel that has slathered its illegal and unlicensed buildings across the landscape, piling them one atop the other in defiance of all the laws of the country. The previous president did indeed order a halt to the construction, but as is always the case here, it was just a temporary delay, and after a little break, the construction work resumed and the buildings were finished.

And of course the people who made their livings there, the young men from the traditional villages of Yoff and Ngor with their little vendor’s huts, were thrown out.

You might reply that these young men should go back to their traditional work, fishing. But, your Excellency, that would show how out of touch you are with the hard reality of these villages and their crushing poverty. These are young men who have never been able to fish for a living; it is a job that can no longer support someone now that our fishing resources have been so long over exploited by foreign fishing fleets.

dakar421Dakar beach. Photo CC: Rudi D. Noetzold.

Along the entire drive from the airport to the palace of the president, only four little windows onto the sea remain, all the rest of the corniche has been filled in by the rich and their buildings.

Along the sides of the road, you might see some vendors pushing their carts along. They are living proof that the mayor’s unceasing efforts to eject them the downtown sidewalks is a waste of time, and only forced them into colonizing other spaces.

When we arrive downtown, you and I will both modestly avert our eyes, looking away from the silent and unbearable tragedy that unfolds before our eyes. Some call it a cancer on our country, these thousands of children in rags who every morning launch a human wave attack on the city in search of something to keep them alive for the day. Their schedule for the day has only a single activity: begging.

These multitudes of children, left to fend for themselves without public assistance, without care or professional training or education, without affection or love, are a great cloud looming over the future of our country.

The road that should lead to social justice has been paved with little but unkept promises, and the very existence of our nation is endangered by it.

As we arrive at the gates of the presidential palace you might remark that the population of Dakar, once diverse and multicolored, has become monochrome. The tourists have stopped coming and they are right to have done so.

dakar221Dakar. Photo CC: Kalyan Neelamraju.

As a destination, we have become too expensive for what we have left to offer. The beautiful beaches that tourists once flocked to have all but disappeared. The city is filthy. Insecurity is on the rise. Even the expensive hotels can no longer offer running water to their guests, who are now obliged to experience the famous Senegalese shower: a bucket of water and a lot of bodily contortions.

My cynical cousin, who remained in the village, likes to say that those of us who left for the city have now got what we deserved. “When you move to the city, all of you forgot the daily ordeal that millions of people all over the continent go through.” The government has gone as far as depriving the entire belt of villages around faraway Lake Guiers of all of their water, so it can be pumped hundreds of kilometers to Dakar.

Lost in my daydreams of watchman of the society, I eventually realize that the cramps in my stomach are hunger pangs; this morning I was hurried out of my house so fast that I forgot to eat. Maybe I will be invited in to eat by the First Lady. Remembering that she is from the town of Saint- Louis, I salivate at the prospect of a good meal. Maybe she will cook up one of those famous dishes of ceebu dien au cof, a flavor that has long disappeared from our plates!

But it is right at this moment that I hear the rumble of thunder, a sound you are more than familiar with, you and your minister of the environment. A traumatic sound, for you since it announces the arrival of the flood-rains.

But it turns out it is only my wife, who, knowing what a heavy sleeper I am, has lately devised a new and ingenious way to awaken me, by beating on five-gallon plastic water jugs.

I jump out of bed, cursing her inside for depriving me of my delicious meal. But with a wink and a mocking voice, she reminds me that it is my turn to go out and fill the water jug.

I of course run to fulfill my duty, thinking to myself that ‘what your woman wants, God wants,’ though perhaps not necessarily what the municipal water agency and the local authorities want.

Yours very sincerely,

A loyal citizen.