The consensus outcry as our group rounds a curve in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and gets a first glimpse of the Monument to the African Renaissance looming on our right is, "Wow!"
"Pull over," we ask as one, and we’re soon gaping at the 164-foot behemoth that sits atop a 300-foot hill. Designed in Senegal, cast in North Korea, it depicts a dominant father with mother and child, all rising from a volcano. Their ascent symbolizes liberation from racism and intolerance, their diagonally thrusting arms point upward toward a better future.
From afar, we see figures walking up the monument’s broad, Chichen Itza-like steps. They’re likely tasked with polishing off the exhibit, which, if all goes well, will open on the evening of April 3, the night before the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence.
Dakar is the former capital of French West Africa, and the hope is that the commemoration (the statue is far too big to "unveil") will attract leaders from the region, and beyond.
But this land of 12 million people and 76,000 square miles is more complex than even a heroic expression of West African pride can imply.
At an orientation luncheon, Ousseynou Dieng, a blue-robed, French-speaking director with the Ministry of Tourism, ticks off the advantages he sees Senegal having for visitors.
"We are close to America by plane," he said. (For us, it was an overnight dash on South African Airways from Washington). "There’s the stability and security of the country. History and culture. Compared to other sub-Saharan countries, a modern infrastructure. Resorts. Ecotourism and discovery."
During a week’s visit, each attribute turns out to be at a crossroads of accomplishment and work yet to do at the juncture of Senegal’s past, present and future.
Take the monument. It’s a gigantic, modern bookend to the colonial-era slave quarters of nearby Goree Island and also a metallic magnet for criticism from both traditional and contemporary Senegalese society. The statue is the brainchild of President Abdoulaye Wade, the octogenarian who has been active through much of Senegal’s post-colonial history.
Wade, who studied in France and holds doctorates in law and economics, was arrested amid political turmoil in 1988 and 1993 but eventually was elected Senegal’s third president in 2000, on his fifth try for the office.
Supporters praise the statue as Afro-heroic, an example of development under Wade’s regime. But its architectural detractors decry massive socialist realism. And an array of societal barbs have been tossed.
Senegal is more than 90% Muslim, and believers have protested the relatively revealing dress of the female figure even as feminists have called the "big daddy" gender relationship sexist.
In defending against charges by some Muslim religious figures that depicting human forms is idolatrous, Wade outraged the minority Christian community by saying that they prayed to a "man called Jesus Christ." He apologized after the perceived comparison of Jesus to a statue did not go down well.
Then there are complaints about cost. Can a developing country afford to spend tens of millions of dollars on a statue? Moreover, the president’s claim to a third of forthcoming tourist revenue for his foundation, based on his being the monument’s "intellectual owner," has not endeared him to his opponents.
Despite the fusillade, these protests haven’t led to suppression or coups. And our vanload’s visceral response may augur that this Colossus of Dakar will come to signify West African aspirations. But it is Goree’s past that provides a metaphoric mirror to this 21st century African aspiration.
Twenty minutes from Dakar’s mainland by ferry, homes with free-ranging goats and the 19th century Church of Saint Charles Borromeo punctuate a brief walk. Then a statue of a woman embracing a chained man appears, and a small, pink compound reveals itself as a lay shrine for the slave trade that cursed both this land and our own.
The House of Slaves is unadorned. Some question how many "pieces of ebony" — the term used for blacks who were sold as commodity — were shipped from here to the fields and plantations of the New World, especially to the U.S.
But the bare-brick rooms are starkly evocative, and signs like "Enfants" (children) are heart-rending. Up an external spiral staircase, chains and cuffs mutely verify an evil past. Merchantmen actually lived in this room above the slave quarters.
'Door of no return'
"They could use Disney here," somebody says. Well, not quite. The interesting history museum desperately needs better lighting (if not sound and light). But the Maison des Esclaves bears its witness with quiet dignity.
In an empty room, blueness can be seen through a back "Door of No Return." Ill slaves, it is said, were tossed into the waters; others tried to escape only to fall victim to sharks. Anger wells as ironies sink in: "Goree" means "good harbor" in the language of the Dutch who named the island, and sources have dated this building to 1776, when another nation was beginning to win freedom for some.
Slavery in Senegal ended with the French Republic of 1848, 300 years after the Portuguese built Goree’s first slave house. But this surviving House of Slaves conveys a positive message today.
"For many African-Americans, the emotions one feels when touring Goree are overwhelming," my university colleague and former Ebony magazine editor Charles Whitaker wrote in an email. "It was the first time I felt truly connected to a history that extends beyond my grandparents.
"And although Goree is not as magnificent as, say, the slave castles on the coast of Ghana, being there makes you simultaneously sad, angry and awed by the resilience of the people who survived the Middle Passage and on whose shoulders we now stand."
One hundred sixty-five miles northwest of Dakar, the century-old Faidherbe Bridge links us to the island city of Saint-Louis and more living history.
Centuries ago, African empires gave way to European incursions; after the French prevailed, Saint-Louis became the capital of Senegal from 1673 until Dakar’s 20th century ascendancy. Pinched between the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean, Saint-Louis’ population is a fraction of metro Dakar’s 2 million. Most streets are narrow, most buildings rise only a few stories.
Seeing Saint-Louis by horse-drawn cart enables visitors to peek into residents’ daily lives, and the city’s love for jazz is expressed in May’s Saint-Louis Jazz Festival.
But our group divides on this city. One of us finds its intimacy and heritage to be tres charmante. For me, Saint-Louis is a bit pressed in amber: As the Rough Guide puts it, "If decay, abandonments and the ghosts of slaves and fishermen attract you, then you’ll enjoy this town."
Still, a small moment in Saint-Louis humanizes Senegal’s confluence of French influence with another major force, Islam. Arab traders brought Islam to Senegal more than 1,000 years ago. Today, minaret-and-dome mosques abound, while minibuses and trucks bear Alhamdulillah — All praise is due to Allah — across their fronts.
We visit a tiny and, once again, poorly lit but interesting museum. Author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupery is a focus here, and maps note the aeropostale route he flew from Toulouse, France, to Dakar before he wrote "Night Flight" and "The Little Prince."
Though our guide is at work today, he heeds the call of the muezzin: Just before we enter the museum, he kneels on the sidewalk and quietly says his prayers.
Another sound of Senegal fuses ancient and modern influences. Since the 1970s, the still-evolving popular music called mbalax (pronounced um-BAAH-lak) has emerged as a post-colonial West African blend with worldwide impact.
Mbalax combines the sabar drumming and griot "praise singing" of the Wolof, Senegal’s largest ethnic group, with melodies inflected by Sufi Islam. The music’s not frozen: Cuban rhythms have added flavor, and spiraling guitar notes have been fertilized by Jimi Hendrix and hip-hop.
Stateside, Akon is a well-regarded Senegalese-American R&B singer and producer. Here, Youssou N’Dour is perhaps the biggest music star of sub-Saharan Africa. N’Dour’s tenor-voiced songs include his own tunes as well as a syncopated cover of John Lennon’s "Jealous Guy" recorded for an Amnesty International album to benefit Darfur.
Baaba Maal, an exemplar of the allied worldbeat music, sings in Pulaar, the dialect of the Fulani ethnic group. Maal’s high-pitched vocals turn in on themselves. Their rolling rhythms might well hypnotize a cobra.
N’Dour was heading for a benefit in New York, and we’d miss both the major Africa Fete de la Musique and the newer Festival du Sahel. But after a nice patio dinner at the well-known Just4U club, Baba’s Band is good enough to get us bopping. As one of Youssou N’Dour’s songs has it, "Wake Up (It’s Africa Calling)."
The resort scene
While Africa is part of a worldwide move toward urbanization, much of Senegal’s steady pulse is found outside the cities. Here, development, infrastructure, resorts and ecotourism build on each other, with the occasional speed bump.
Deltas tie Senegal’s interior to the ocean, and along them, we are exposed to major resorts. The trip from Saint-Louis south to the Saloum Delta leads to the secluded four-star Delta Niominka. But this route to the island retreat is a slog.
Despite a government improvement campaign, indirect roads thin to ruts. Boarding the first of two boats for a shortcut produces an alarming equine moment when a horse pulling a baggage cart drops to its knees in the low-tide mud.
The five-star Lamantin Beach Resort & Spa, in the more accessible seaside resort of Saly Portudal, boasts beaches, a gastronomic restaurant and an ultramodern therapeutic spa. The Touly Group, which operates both hotels, tries to hire and buy locally.
What’s billed as the largest sportfishing center in West Africa has eight boats, so visitors can satisfy their inner Hemingway and vie for marlin, sailfish and tuna.
The most striking beach we encounter is near Le Lac Rose (the Pink Lake), whose unique coloration is created by microorganisms, rocks and a Dead Sea-like salt concentration. Though the water level is down, tourism and development harmonize as local women harvest the salt for export.
A few hundred yards away, unspoiled dunes meet the ocean surf. After we cavort a bit, four-wheel-drive vehicles take us bounding over granular hills.
A Fulani village is touristic but reveals how this once-nomadic ethnic group now raises its families in thatched huts. Negotiations in a curios stall prove that a trading heritage has been well retained.
Animals are part of Africa’s timelessness. Though Senegal lacks the resources of, say, South Africa, the government tries to balance lucrative hunting (limited to birds, antelope and warthogs) with active preservation. Lions and elephants, hippos and crocodiles live in Niokolo-Koba National Park.
That southeastern preserve is far from our route, but the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary hosts 400 species in the world’s third-largest reserve of its type. A warthog bows on the wetlands’ shore; baby crocs and a monitor lizard swim near our boat.
Especially between November and February, Djoudj would highlight any birder’s notebook. Pelicans are the big draw, and pods of them cluster like white pillows punctuated by smiling-beak faces.
Our trip concludes on a startling note. At Senghor Airport, several of our group have tourist tummy, and one is further inconvenienced when the departure tram is boarded and he is questioned for having put "journalist" down on his exit card. "Tourism; pas de politique," I interject in my bad French. Fortunately, the authorities lose interest.
It’s a dour farewell, but once home, fonder memories emerge like the swirling images found in the country’s souvenir sand paintings. They reflect a Senegal that is finding its way, between history and the future.
Abe Peck is director of business-to-business communication at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He has written on-location pieces for Rolling Stone, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.