Hitchhiking Senegal: Part One
St. Louis to Dakar
Getting out of St. Louis was a bit of a process. The city itself is sprawling and the road system is not very well developed. We packed up to leave the city a bit later than we had wanted to and we underestimated how long it ultimately would take up to get to a proper spot to hitchhike from. We were staying in Pikine, a neighborhood at the south end of the city. It is the poorest neighborhood in the city and it is predominantly Muslim. One of the first things we noticed were many kids holding red buckets roaming around the city who were dirty and in tattered clothes that were much too large for them. These kids are all over Senegal.
Basically, since contraception is not a widely accepted practice, women often have more kids than they can provide for and end up sending some to the cities to live with a marabout. There, they are supposed to learn the Koran and be cared for by the Islamic spiritual leader. However, there are so many kids under the marabout’s care, that the are forced to go in the streets during the day and beg for money to bring back to him. Often, they are in clothes that are falling off their bodies, barefoot, and get infections that are not properly cared for. They live in small rooms, sometimes twenty children to one room, sleeping on the floor, with very little to eat. It is a sad sight, but you have to resist the temptation to give them money as this does nothing to improve their situation since all earning go directly back to the marabout.
We had found a host on Couchsurfing, who as it turned out also worked for a non-profit organization called Action Femme Enfant, who’s primary goal was educating women who had been disowned by their families because of actions their families had deemed inappropriate, usually getting pregnant out of wedlock, which was sometimes a result of rape. The organization was also concerned with helping educate kids in the poor neighborhood and it was from these hosts that we learned about the Red Bucket Kids.
I would have liked to have worked hands-on with this program, but as the help they needed was mainly educating kids, we decided not to volunteer. When working with children, especially kids from broken homes with vulnerable backgrounds, volunteers have to be careful about developing strong bonds with these children, as teachers often do, if they are not planning on sticking around for enough time to ensure that these bonds don’t do more damage to the children when the volunteers leave. Many at-risk children already struggle with trust issues since the adults in their life are often not reliable. By volunteering with these kids you are presenting yourself as a reliable presence in their lives. When you leave, the child stays behind and the progress you made might actually become detrimental if you have not had the time to build the relationship to a point where the child understands your absence is natural and not something they could blame themselves for.
I chose to add in this anecdote because there are so many volunteering opportunities advertised on the internet (especially in Africa) that cater to Westerners looking to make a difference; however, the other side of this altruistic act is often overlooked. It is obviously very noble to volunteer with at-risk kids but volunteers just need to be cautious about how their actions will affect those they seek to help. Rant over.
Since we left St. Louis from Pikine, we were not far from where we wanted to walk to in order to begin hitchhiking. Had we been staying on the main island where most tourists stay, it would have taken us much longer to leave the city. St. Louis is beautiful but the island where tourists stay is very much an isolated bubble, which does not reflect the reality the majority of the residents live in. We were on the island for New Year’s, however, and hundreds of Senegalese people flock there just before midnight to buy fireworks for themselves and watch the official show displayed over the famous Faidhere Bridge. Kids were running around, fireworks were being haphazardly shot off. The entire island had a special festive air and we were happy we were there for the occasion. Being in a new country for a major holiday is the best.
Leaving Pikine, we began walking, winding our way through the sandy streets of the poor, litter-laden neighborhoods. The sand was deep and tiring to walk through and combined with the children following us asking for money, it was a long 5 km. We made it to the bridge, which separates the city from the countryside, and figured we just had to walk a bit beyond the main area to begin hitching. However, the road ended up being longer than we expected and we ended up having to walk around 8 km to finally reach an appropriate place to get a ride.
While in St. Louis, we had met some Peace Corps volunteers who had given us some advice for how to hitchhike in Senegal. They had told us a phrase in Wolof, the national language, to say to drivers when asking for rides as there is not a direct translation for “hitchhike”. The phrase they gave us was, phonetically, doma yo balay LOCATION, amuma halis. “Will you give us a ride for free, we have no money.” We tried it out our first day leaving St. Louis and despite our novice pronunciation, it worked great! It didn’t always result in us getting a ride but it usually generated laughter or at least a look of disbelief that we knew how to convey that sentiment in the local language. If you are thinking of hitchhiking in Senegal, commit this phrase to memory.
Our first ride came relatively quick from a guy in a nice vehicle going “a few kilometers down the road”. We have realized that in Senegal, when people say they are going 3 km it usually means they are going 10. If they say they are going 10 km, it is usually more like 30, and so forth. Previously, we might have turned down a short distance ride; here we have learned to accept all rides because we usually end up much farther down the road than we were told.
After he dropped us off, we had to walk quite a bit before finding a new spot. The road was covered in roadkill, which was a bit unnerving and was further proof of why you should’t hitchhike at nighttime! Soon though we flagged down a pickup truck that ended up stopping a bit farther up. We thought the truck had stopped for us so we grabbed our bags and started the awkward, bumbling, swift walk with all of our things that we do every time we are getting a ride. If you make them wait too long, sometimes they will pull off and leave you behind. The driver got out and went into the woods for a piss and we assumed this was the reason he stopped, not for us. Low and behold, he motioned towards us and even after we told him we had no money, he laughed and still offered us a ride.
He was a very jovial man and within minutes he produced two beers and handed them to Gabe and me. A cold beer compliments hitchhiking perfectly but we usually have to wait until we reach our destination before we indulge. Riding with our new friend would prove to be an exception because he ultimately offered us three beers a piece! He was listening to some great Senegalese music by a band called Starbane Dakar, and soon we were all dancing and sipping on beers together (yes, the driver too, don’t judge).
We talked about all kind of topics and found out he was driving for the military, delivering turkeys to a base twice a day between Diama and Thies, a little over 200 km each way. He was happy to have the company for this leg of the journey and welcomed us to his home in Diama whenever we were there. Ultimately, he took us farther than he was going and wanted to ensure we got a ride safely the rest of the way to Dakar. We thanked him profusely but insisted we were fine to continue the remaining 50 km into the city on our own.
It was approaching 4 pm and we considered just taking a public bus the rest of the way as our ride had suggested, but we figured we still had some daylight left, had a little buzz going, and figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to hitchhike. Besides, at that time of day, all of the buses were already jammed packed with people and the only spots left were the ones where you hang off the outside of the bus. 50 km clutching to the outside of a bus with all of our bags on during rush hour in a notoriously hectic city…no thanks. Our decision to hitchhike worked out and we got a ride with a lorry truck going to the port of Dakar.
Lorry truck drivers in Senegal have it rough. Their work schedule is insane and highly illegal according to other people we have spoken to about it. But a job is a job and many Senegalese aren’t educated about their rights as workers so they have no idea they could bring litigation against their employers and receive a shitload of compensation. To do this would require people to understand that this is even an option, then hire a lawyer, then appear in court, then risk losing both the case and their job so people continue to work the ridiculous hours. And it is ridiculous. We ask every lorry driver we get rides from what their schedule is and every one says the same thing: 11 months on, 1 month off. 11 months, every driving usually 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. And then 1 measly month off, which usually involves at least a few days of travel to get back home and then back to work. We had no idea how much money these guys were making, but we had a feeling it was not enough to justify working those kinds of hours.
In order to take the edge off the hours (and the traffic, we had gone 3 km in about 30 minutes), the guys were rolling joints, drinking beers and roadside coffees served out of miniature plastic cups. They were excited because the next day, they were leaving Dakar and heading to Mali but were getting a police escort out of the city. No more waiting in traffic tomorrow!
We got dropped off at the port, which was still a few kilometers away from where we were staying in Fann. We thanked the drivers and wished them well for their exciting journey tomorrow and proceeded to find our Couchsurfing host’s house.
Dakar is a difficult city to live in. It was just a small fishing village in the 1950’s but today the entire metropolitan area is home to 2.45 million. The city was not prepared for the overwhelming growth and it feels that way. Homes are stacked on top of each other and no matter the time of day, traffic is at a standstill on the majority of the streets in the city. There are countless unfinished public works projects that are left in disarray showing the financial mismanagement that plagues the city. One of the most vivid illustrations of this is the 49-meter, bronze statue called the African Renaissance Monument. It is really just a personal monument to former president, Abdoulaye Wade, built by the North Koreans. Costing $27 million to construct, it overlooks Dakar: a city constantly embroiled in a cluster-fuck of dire infrastructural and social problems that could be alleviated if the government would allocate the funds to address them. Certainly $27 million dollars would have been better spent on these initiatives instead of on a self-commemorative statue.
In a 2010 NPR article, the Senegalese opposition leader, Abdoulaye Bathily, spoke about the statue. “The economy has collapsed. … The education system is in a crisis. The health system is in crisis. And yet Abdoulaye Wade is squandering public money,” Bathily said. “So all these things, people are seeing it, and it is creating so much frustration.”
Abdoulaye Wade did spend much of the country’s money working to improve the national roads system, which is now quite good. However, the problems of Senegal run much deeper than one man’s actions. The statue is more than just a colossal waste of money. It is a symbol of the priorities of the government: that the image you project to the world is more important that the reality on the ground.
The day we left Dakar we heard about a protest scheduled against the recent rise in the cost of electricity. In an already expensive city, the government had just jacked up the cost of electricity without offering any additional services. Basically, nobody in the government had paid the bill and it now was going to come down on the citizens to cover the costs. And it is not just electricity costs that are suffocating the citizens of the city.
In Dakar, to get a one-bedroom, unfurnished apartment in the city, you will pay €100. In a place like this, you are still likely to experience water and electricity shortages. Although it may seem cheap, the average monthly wage in the country is €130. A friend told us that the city can get away with offering places to live that are much less than €100, but because there is no accountability on living conditions, these homes are often constructed in a way that is well below the standard of living we would consider acceptable.
We spent much of our time in Dakar running around to the embassies collecting visas for Guinea and Liberia, our two next destinations (for information on that process, check out our ongoing visa list here.) Dakar was a cool city, I thought, and we ended up walking and taking taxis all over the city (which ended up being quite expensive). But for our last two days there we relaxed on a beautiful island called Ngor, which was the highlight of our time there.
Ngor is a cool, tiny island with a colorful community filled with artists and musicians. The water taxi costs 1000XOF/person for a return ticket (or you can swim the 500 meters like Gabe did to save the money!) We spent our days on Ngor walking around the winding alleys of the neighborhood and hanging out at day-long jam sessions drinking bisap (a Senegalese juice, which makes a great mixer) at our Couchsurfing host’s house. If you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Dakar without having to leave the city, this island is worth checking out.
We decided to stay our last night in a neighborhood closer to the edge of the city because we had already seen how hectic the city was and we did not want to get caught spending most of our hitchhiking travel day simply getting out of Dakar. It proved to be a good call and you can read all about this next adventure in Part Two!