An American Living in Dakar, Senegal
“Car rapide” literally translates to “fast car,” yet any resident or visitor to Dakar can quickly confirm this particular type of vehicle is neither rapid nor even a car. Each contraption looks more like a brightly painted, Volkswagen Microbus that somehow took a journey from the Flower Power era and magically landed halfway around the globe in Senegal.
It would be impossible for any expatriate to navigate the mysterious routes and proper etiquette of the car rapide without the assistance of a trusted local guide. But, now I’m getting ahead of myself…
An American In West Africa
I was offered the opportunity to serve as a visiting professor for an English speaking university campus in Dakar, Senegal. This melting pot of a city is widely recognized as the cultural capital of French-speaking West Africa. Nearly all of the well-known global aid agencies have a major presence here due to the reasonably modern infrastructure and relative safety compared with other nations in the region. In addition, there are over sixty highly visible diplomatic missions located in Dakar that give the city an incomparable international feel.
The U.S. Embassy is scheduled to complete construction of a massive new compound that will employ an estimated five hundred American citizens to support its regional mission in West Africa. This provides a timely and unprecedented opportunity for Americans to find work in Africa outside of the traditional field of teaching English language. Such interesting projects as alternative energy, agriculture and finance are moving to the forefront.
For those who do not speak French, living and working in Dakar will be problematic. Help is readily available at the French Institute, or more formally Le Institute Francais L.S. Senghor Dakar. This organization offers French language courses on a rolling basis, and is also a source for finding private French tutors. The French Institute plays host to a multitude of African cultural events; their event calendar and periodic publications are helpful to visitors and residents alike.
Families relocating with school age children should fare better than the adults. The International School of Dakar is a widely respected English language school whose attendees include many of the Senegal diplomatic mission’s children. The tuition rivals that of tony private schools in the U.S., but many employers offer some sort of tuition assistance to reduce the total out of pocket costs.
Living and Getting Around Dakar
Our University had a private vehicle and driver that was shared amongst several staff members. While not everyone will be as fortunate, a full-time driver may be hired for as little as $300 per month. Owning and driving a vehicle in Dakar is otherwise needless as any expatriate can take advantage of the ubiquitous taxis that roam the city at all hours. This mode of transportation is incredibly safe; Dakar is one of the only cities in the world where I’ve seen female taxi drivers.
If traffic is light, travelers may commute from the north end of the city to the southern downtown in less than thirty minutes for the princely sum of about $4. The downside is that most taxicabs are decrepit looking Peugeots from the mid 1970’s that have been somehow cobbled together in a manner that allows the driver to be able to afford a cup of coffee and the next tank of gas with each fare.
I was also fortunate to live in a home that was guarded 24/7 by local security. Guarded is a rather loose phrase because Dakar is a very safe city when basic precautions are followed. In fact, our guards were armed only with t-shirts bearing the name of our University. Apparently, local custom dictates that if an expatriate has hired local guards, then any would-be thieves shall leave that property alone to avoid bringing shame to the local guard and his family.
One of my guards mentioned that he needed to fill a special prescription in the downtown area, about a fifteen minute ride from our home. I asked if he was taking a taxi, and he laughed at the idea. $4 per ride is a major expenditure for a person making $120 per month. He, of course, planned on taking the car rapide and I almost tumbled out of my chair to ask if I could tag along.
The fare to downtown is 20 cents inward bound and 30 cents outward bound. I don't have a clue why there are different fares, but I splurged and offered to pay both ways for the two of us. While I was busy playing tourist, you might have guessed this is how Senegalese actually commute to work on a daily basis. Doing the quick math, this is equivalent to 10% of the average daily wages for household help.
The car rapide stops every fifty feet or so to pick up passengers. The car rapide fits about 15 passengers comfortably. I counted 37 riding in ours; 38 if you count the guy literally hanging off the back door asking people on the street if they wanted to join the magic bus ride. The entire ride lasted about five miles and took nearly an hour. There is no antiperspirant in the world that could have protected me in such close quarters.
After disembarking and getting the prescription filled, my guard and I had to wander through the downtown market to find another car rapide to take us back home. My guard would not hear of me spending my hard earned money on a taxi for our return.
Dakar's human population is about four million. That does not include the huge animal population of goats and stray dogs. I would estimate that two million people, 300,000 goats, and most of the stray dogs wander the downtown market during lunch hour. I nearly lost track of my guard a dozen times as we plowed our way through the maze of people and animals – often stepping out into slow moving traffic to get around vendors or a particularly large throng of market participants.
As we crossed one street to get to the car rapide departure station, we narrowly avoided being hit by… our official University campus cruiser! The driver and his passenger - one of my housemates - were busy reading directions to their destination and weren't paying any attention while navigating the crowded streets. To put this in perspective, cross a random street tomorrow in, say, Boston and see if you have a near-accident with one of the three people you live with. At this moment, I realized what people were talking about when they said Dakar retains a very small town feel for a big city.
So, while it is possible to have frequent daily contact with other Americans, my personal interests guided me toward a completely different experience. In fact, I rarely spoke with any Americans living or working in Dakar during my entire year abroad – other than foreign exchange students or my housemates - yet was able to work and socialize frequently with people from over 40 countries.
True International Immersion
The thing that sets Dakar apart from most international cities is the true diversity of the people living in the city that are also doing great things within the city. I was able to easily assimilate into three core groups that meet frequently for completely different purposes: Rotary International, Internations, and the Hash House Harriers. Each group is open for membership and each provided a singularly unique entrée into one of Africa’s most interesting countries.
Still, there was one group I could not join but is indicative of why Senegal is the rare Muslim nation where women may be able to immerse themselves more quickly than men. The Dakar Women’s Group (DWG) was founded in 1987 and is comprised of expatriate women from over fifty nations who gather to raise funds for causes that support women and children in Senegal. One of the most important functions the DWG provides for newcomers is the publication of its annual Dakar Guidebook. This invaluable resource costs about $20 and provides information on everything from medical care to shopping.
While men might be jealous, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with other charitable organizations that are open to both genders. The first group I joined was a local chapter of Rotary International. Dakar hosts six active clubs that provide a direct avenue towards providing hands-on assistance to disadvantaged Africans.
My club was very diverse; members came from Senegal, Belgium, Morocco, Cape Verde, and Rwanda to name just a few origins. Our marquis event was the creation of a live circus that was attended by over two hundred people and was hosted on-site at the Empire des Enfants, a well known orphanage. The purpose of this orphanage is to rescue street children who are recruited by religious organizations in rural Senegal under the guise of learning, but are instead let loose each night in the streets to beg for spare change to support their religious leaders. Our Rotary club was able to raise over $8,000 in one night, or enough to cover two months of operating expenses.
The next group helpful for foreigners looking to make connections is Internations, an organization that provides professional networking and social networking opportunities in over two hundred cities worldwide. Membership is free and Dakar has a very active chapter that meets once each month at one of city’s numerous outdoor restaurants or nightclubs. Most members spoke English, regardless of their native tongue, and many of the attendees use this social gathering as an opportunity to brush up on their English language skills.
Through the connections I made at Rotary and Internations, I was able to help arrange for the shipment of over 10,000 canes, walkers and other mobility devices directly from the U.S. into Senegal. My Rotary club provided the infrastructure to ensure the distribution of the devices while the Internations’ social events allowed me to meet a shipping agent who secured discount storage fees for an entire container of goods.
I found my third group of friends, the Dakar Hash House Harriers, quite by accident. I was wandering along a coastal drive when I happened to see ten people walking toward me with brightly colored, uniform t-shirts. I inquired as to their mission and was immediately invited to join them for a return walk and a cold beverage afterward.
This is the local chapter of a worldwide club often referred to as a “running club for drinkers.” By international comparison, the Dakar Hash is relatively tame. I would estimate half of the members were non-drinkers and the club offers both running and walking opportunities, so supreme physical fitness is not a requirement to participate.
Every other Saturday, the club meets at the largest health club in the city, Club Olympique, and every other week the club meets at an alternate, pre-determined point in the city. The runners and walkers take off on pre-marked “race” courses and rendezvous about one hour later at the original departure point. The Harrier chosen to mark the course is usually a resident of whatever neighborhood is chosen and the diversity of the club members becomes readily apparent.
The Hash House Harriers membership was nearly equally comprised of expatriates and local Senegalese. I was the only American and one of the few who spoke English as a first language. The cost to join was $20 for the year (which includes the brightly colored t-shirt), and each member contributes $2 per week toward beverages that are enjoyed after the early evening run.
Some of the members scraped together money each week while others could have easily contributed more. But, the Dakar Hash House Harriers represent the true spirit of the city: rich and poor gathered together without regard to race or social status; everyone with a smile. I think it would have been impossible to explore the many nooks of the city without being a member of the Harriers club, or otherwise making true connections with people from such varied backgrounds.
On my last night before leaving for Christmas break, one of my fellow Harriers even offered to give me a ride home. I happily accepted and was a bit surprised to find he really meant that he was going to pay my fare home… on a car rapide.
Robert Chatfield is an entrepreneur who took a working sabbatical to serve as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics and Business for Suffolk University at their campus in Dakar, Senegal.