Photos and story by Katharine Lotze
When I told my uncle, the family traveler, I was going to West Africa, he said, “Interesting. It’s never been on my list.”
West Africa likely isn’t on many travel bucket lists. But it should be — it’s a beautiful, colorful, and welcoming place.
In October, I spent two weeks traveling around Senegal and its neighboring countries, exploring the food, the culture, the landscape, the art, and most importantly, getting to know the country and its people.
It does take some preparation to make sure any trip to West Africa runs smoothly.
It’s important to consider vaccinations and anti-malaria medication. Senegal and its neighbors are right in the middle of the meningitis belt, so it’s best to get a vaccination against meningitis. Yellow fever, Hepatitis A, and typhoid are also recommended vaccinations. The Yellow fever vaccine can be hard to find depending on your location, so plan well in advance.
French is spoken widely in Senegal and other parts of West Africa, but in more rural areas, languages like Wolof and Fula take over. If you plan to travel extensively outside of well-traveled areas, it would be best to hire a guide who can navigate the local customs and language, especially if you plan to cross a land border.
Senegal is 95% Muslim, and I was prepared to cover my hair while there to respect local customs. But there was no need. The only time I covered my head was to visit a mosque in Toubacouta.
Senegal also has a small percentage of practicing Catholics in the country as well, but Muslims and Christians have always lived peacefully. According to our guide, Senegal is one of the only African countries to have never suffered a religious conflict. (In fact, two of Senegal’s first presidents were Muslim, and their wives were Catholic.)
Most of the time, I wore light, sweat-wicking pants or crops, tank tops, and sandals. In more rural areas, tank tops and shorts might get you a few weird looks, but Western fashion is more and more common, especially in Dakar. The heat and humidity can be unbearable at times, especially when most businesses, even restaurants, do not have air conditioning.
Dakar itself is a very modern city, with a lively music and art scene if you know where to look. Food was the first priority when we landed, and our guide took us to Cafe Loucha for some traditional Senegalese food. Yassa — chicken or fish cooked in spices and onions, served over rice — is on the menu most anywhere, though the national dish is thiéboudienne, which is fish, rice, and vegetables in a tomato sauce.
After dinner we visited the Just 4 U jazz club, and were treated to the most energetic dancing and music I’ve ever witnessed — even when the power surged, they kept playing and dancing.
A must-do on any trip to Senegal is a visit to Goree Island. The small island just off the coast of Dakar is accessible by ferry, and is home to the House of Slaves. Goree Island was the last stop for many of the people captured and sold as slaves in the West. Though it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum, perhaps millions of people were held captive here before being sold, and it’s haunting to duck into the cells, and to stand at the door of no return.
Though it is mainly a draw for tourists, the Lompoul Desert Camp is quite a sight. After a quick ride in the back of a 4×4 through increasingly sandy terrain, you pop out into a full-blown desert.
St. Louis to the north is an amazingly colorful city. It sits on a small, but long, island between a river and the ocean, and is just a few miles south of the Mauritanian border. Hundreds of huge wooden fishing boats line the river where they wait to take crews out to fish on the ocean, sometimes for weeks at a time. The boats are painted beautifully and bear the names of their owners, or of spiritual leaders. We took a tour of the city by horse-drawn carriage, which is a common mode of transportation here, and throughout Senegal. If you’re thinking about visiting Mauritania as well, it’s best to get the visa in advance — the wait for them at the border is very long, and is laden with obstacles.
Senegal isn’t known for safaris like eastern and southern Africa, but they do have a few small game parks that provide the opportunity to see wild animals. Perhaps one of the most unique experiences I had in Senegal was the chance to walk with lions at Fathala Lodge, just north of the Gambian border.
The lions — three females and one male — are raised in captivity and trained, and the walk is guided by the trainers. I wouldn’t recommend the lion walk for anyone who objects to zoos; though the lions have an immense enclosure and free run of it, they are trained and do the lion walks daily for tourists.
We also had the opportunity to interact and pet lion cubs! And as an added bonus, we also met Senegal’s most famous rapper, Simon, who was visiting the lions the same day we were.
Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in West Africa. Its main draw is the archipelago of islands just off the coast, where indigenous tribes still live. We visited Bolama, the closest of the islands, but still an hour boat ride away. A ferry runs twice per week to the larger islands, where there is at least one hotel. We chartered a boat, which isn’t cheap, but it was an easy hour-long ride over very calm waters — and a nice breeze too.
People on the island still live very traditionally, and everyone was extremely friendly.
Visiting the markets in each village and city was definitely a highlight for me. I’ve never seen places with so much color and vibrance. From the fruits and vegetables, to the fish and wares, they’re truly a photographer’s dream. Some people are skeptical of photographers though, so it’s best to ask permission before you photograph, or refrain from taking the photo of someone who seems opposed.
The fish market in Saly was one of the most interesting experiences of the trip. Hundreds of boats, thousands of people, coming back from fishing at sea to sell their catch along the shore. Some of it is dried and salted, others sold fresh. In every direction, fishmongers are hoping to sell you their goods, from mackerel to oysters and shellfish.
But even more impressive than the fish market were the goat markets. Our first stop at a market was totally unplanned. We were driving south back toward Dakar from St. Louis, and came across a rural goat and cow market. Animals and people everywhere! Our guide informed us that on Wednesdays, people from all around, including neighboring countries, come together at markets to buy and sell. Goats are an important part of Senegalese life. Every year in August, each household sacrifices a goat for the Abraham Sacrifice, and shares the meal with neighbors. Purchasing a goat around the time of the sacrifice in Dakar can be expensive, so many people purchase them months in advance at rural markets, and raise them until it’s time for the sacrifice.
We were also able to visit with a few different Fulani villages. Fulanis are found throughout Africa and Asia, and are traditionally nomadic cattle herders. Due to drought, however, many have remained in place for years and taken up other trades. Fulanis are also typically Muslim, and practice polygamy, like most Muslims in Senegal. Polygamy is legal, and Islam allows up to four wives as long as the husband can financially support all of the wives equally. A common ice breaker is to ask a man how many wives he has — our guide used it at every checkpoint, and it worked every time.
Senegal is a perfect introduction to Africa for the uninitiated, and now that I’ve had a taste of what Africa has to offer, I can’t wait to go back.