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5 Reasons To Visit Senegal

Senegal is so far off the tourism radar in Africa, that many people struggle with knowing exactly where it is, let alone knowing what you can see there.

It’s true.  Senegal lacks all of the fancy trimmings that ‘safari’ destinations in Africa feature so highly.  Places like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are all spectacular in terms of wildlife and scenery.  They are also considered relatively ‘safe’ for travellers.  In many of these countries you can drink the water, people speak English, there is electricity and the all important wifi connection that so many travellers need today.

But what about West Africa?  A lot of people know this region because of package holidays in The Gambia.  While The Gambia is wonderful, it is only a very small dot on the map.  In fact Senegal surrounds The Gambia on all sides!

Here are some reasons why you should consider visiting Senegal!

People

Senegal’s crowning glory is its people.  Its wide variety of ethnicities include the Wolof (Senegal’s largest cultural group), Fulani, Serer, Jola, Mandinka and others.  It is hard to fault any of these people when it comes to friendliness.  The Senegalese are forthright, helpful and proud.

When I think of the people in Senegal, the first words that come to my mind are “kind”, “beautiful”, “smiling”, “friendly”.

They are a nation of Sufi Muslims and as such the obey many of the tenets of their faith, except they have a few additions. Alongside observing Ramadan and other holidays, they also serve the community via four main Tariquas (or Sufi Orders).  Travelling in Dakar or other regions of Senegal, it is possible to see shrines belonging to Sufi prophets that are important to the people of the area.

Traditionally Senegalese women view the wearing of the Niqab or Burka as drab or un-African and in their opposition to this style of dress, they often choose to wear brightly coloured clothes that show off their beauty.

It is quite common to be driving along a highway in a remote part of Senegal and find a Senegalese girl dressed in a flamboyant evening dress with a matching turban proudly carrying goods on her head.  In contrast to their muslim sisters elsewhere in the world, many Senegalese women wear off the shoulder dresses, bare arms, bare backs and uncovered heads.  This does not mean they have a lesser belief in Islam, they just don’t feel the need to justify that belief as strongly as others.

Another thing that has always surprised me about Senegal is how well behaved the children are.  It’s true that in Senegal, some of the children beg because they are poor, but they are not incessant and will happily walk away if you say “Sorry”, “No I don’t have anything” or my favourite “It’s Monday, why aren’t you in school?” which is met with shy little smiles before they leave me alone.  The kids are lovely there and they are very curious about travellers.  I’ve lost count of the number of kids who have wanted to see their world through my binoculars or look at my photos on my camera.  They also have fun with my phone!  I was once in a very remote hamlet on the top of the Fouta Djallon massif, near the border of Senegal and Guinea.  The kids of this hamlet saw me taking pics with my phone and they wanted to see.  In the end I let them use the camera in my phone for a while and it was quite surprising what they took photos of and how much artistic talent they had.  We were up there doing avifauna surveys but I also had an impromptu photography class where they also taught me a few things!

Music

There is simply not enough room in a single blog post to talk about the music of Senegal.

Many countries of the Sahel have passed down their traditions through “Griots” or storytellers and singers.  While this tradition is sadly dying out, in some ways it is being replaced by musicians in countries like Senegal.

Senegal’s most famous artist is probably Youssou N’Dour, who has also dabbled in politics in the country.  Other artists worth keeping an eye out for include Baaba Maal, who lives in Podor in northern Senegal, Diogal Sakho and the wonderful Marema, who drew her inspiration from listening to her mum playing Tracey Chapman CDs when she was little.

 Here are a few clips that I personally love from Senegal.

 “Mama” by Diogal Sakho which always makes me want to kick back, have a glass of wine and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon somewhere warm.

“My Friend” by Marema.  Each time I see this clip, the open grassy plains dotted with baobab trees that Marema is dancing through instantly transport me back to Senegal.

Food

Senegal is a former colony of France and a few things have stayed with the Senegalese after the country gained independence in 1960.  The most obvious one is the French language which is still widely spoken across the country.

The second is the food.  Senegal’s food is a fusion of French and West African cuisine which is spicy, rich and flavoursome.

When you travel in the river areas or near the ocean in Senegal, you can usually find fresh fish on the menu which is often deep fried whole by the local people.

One of Senegal’s most popular dishes, Poulet Yassa, originally comes from the Casamance region in the south western corner of the country.  It features a chicken, lemon and onion stew that is often served with rice at lunch time.  We love this dish so much that I make a version of it at home.  Here is a recipe:

Ingredients

1⁄2cup peanut oil (or any cooking oil)

1chicken, cut into serving-sized pieces

4 -6onions, cut up

8tablespoons lemon juice

8tablespoons vinegar (cider vinegar is good)

1bay leaf

4cloves minced garlic

2tablespoons Dijon mustard (optional)

1tablespoon maggi seasoning sauce (or Maggi cubes and water or soy sauce) (optional)

1chili pepper, cleaned and finely chopped (optional)

cayenne pepper or red pepper

black pepper

salt

1small cabbage, cut into chunks (optional)

2carrots, cut into chunks (optional)

Method

  1. Mix all ingredients (except the optional vegetables), the more onions the better, and allow chicken to marinate in a glass dish in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

  2. Remove chicken from the marinade, but save the marinade.

  3. Cook according to one of the following methods.

  4. Cooking method 1: Grill chicken over a charcoal fire (or bake it in a hot oven) until chicken is lightly browned but not done.

  5. Cooking method 2: Sauté chicken for a few minutes on each side in hot oil in a frypan.

  6. While chicken is browning: Remove onions from marinade and sauté them in a large saucepan for a few minutes.

  7. Add remaining marinade and the optional vegetables and bring to a slow boil, cooking the marinade into a sauce.

  8. Reduce heat.

  9. Add chicken to the sauce, cover and simmer until chicken is done.

  10. Serve with Rice or Couscous

Delicious!

Nearly every small town in Senegal has a boulangerie selling baguettes.  In fact it is quite common to see Senegalese people walking down the street with daily freshly baked baguettes and in my experience these are as good as any I’ve had in France.

Sights

Some of the more interesting sightseeing in Senegal lies in places like Lake Retba, a pink saline lake lying just north of Dakar.

St Louis, the former capital of Senegal and Mauritania combined, still has many crumbling colonial buildings which give the city a similar feel to Havana in Cuba.

Senegal’s rich and tragic history of slavery is best learned about through a visit to Iles Goree, a short boat ride from Dakar.

If a beach holiday is more your thing, then the resorts along the coast at Cap Skerring, near the border of Guinea Bissau are worth the indulgence!

Birds

In 1998 Senegal lost its last wild elephant through poaching.  This tragedy occurred in the country’s largest nature reserve, Niokolakoba, which borders Senegal and Guinea.

Sadly Senegal doesn’t have the rich mammal life that is so eagerly sought in other African countries.  There are some small fledgling reserves that feature wildlife and if you like monkeys, there is still plenty of Green Monkey and Patas Monkey troupes in the country.

However larger mammals, and especially larger predators, are very difficult to find in the wild in Senegal.

In a complete paradox to the loss of mammals in Senegal, a true highlight of the country’s wildlife is its birds.

If you are a keen birder or simply if you need a wildlife ‘fix’ during your Senegal holiday, here are my favourite birding places in the country.

Djoudj

Words cannot describe what Djoudj is really like.  Try to imagine standing on a sand bank in front of nearly half a million ducks, flamingoes and waders and that would start to describe what it is like to visit Djoudj, Africa’s premier wetland.

Djoudj lies in the far north west of Senegal, near the border between Senegal and Mauritania.

It is home to stunning birdlife including a nesting colony of Great White Pelicans that has over 6000 pairs, countless ducks, huge flocks of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes and even a mass roost of Pied Kingfishers.

For birders Djoudj is a paradise.  You could spend an entire week within the reserve and see something different every day you visit.

Iles de Kousmar, near Kaolack

 

A flat clay island in the middle of the Gambia River, Iles de Kousmar is home to the largest roosting colony of African Scissor-tailed  kites in the world.

To get here it is best to go with a local guide who can navigate you through the local villages to the start of a walk across a hot salt flat.  You then need to take a dugout canoe across a small stream before you continue the walk to the island.

Even if the kites and kestrels are not there when you arrive, evidence of them is everywhere in the streams of white guano in the trees.

At dusk they arrive and to sit amongst so many Scissor-tailed Kites flying around your head feels like you are surrounded by dainty fairies fluttering about you.  It is amazing.

Wassadou

The upper reaches of the Gambia River are filled with more wildlife than you would imagine.  Wassadou is situated a little downstream from Niokolakoba and although, large mammals are absent, it is a great spot to see beautiful birds like Egyptian Plover, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, White-crowned Lapwings and many other riverine species.

Late in the afternoon it is stunning to sit under a giant Kapok Tree, sipping a cold beer while watching the local Guinea Baboons play in the trees above your head.  Magical.

Saloum Delta

Expansive and teeming with life, the world heritage listed Saloum Delta is the spot where the Gambia river flows out to sea on the coast of south western Senegal.

Featuring ancient mangrove forests, lagoons, islands and palmeries, the bird diversity of the Saloum is stunning.

The three birds that nearly every birder wants to see here include White-backed Night Heron, White-crowned Tiger Heron and Four-banded Sand Grouse.

On your journey to find them, you might be lucky enough to spot a Marsh Mongoose wandering through the mangrove roots searching for food or have an Osprey swoop down in front of you to catch fish.

Further towards the mouth of the estuary, the Iles des Oiseaux is home to thousands of breeding Caspian and Royal terns during the season and it is also frequented by many Pink-backed pelicans and waders.

 So Why Not Senegal?

I think a lot of people are put off by Senegal because of its location in West Africa.  Although Senegal is a very safe country to visit, it is surrounded by troubled countries like Mauritania, Mali and Guinea and I think it is the fear that trouble from one of these places might flow into Senegal that puts many tourists off visiting the country.

It is also a country of muslims and at the time of writing, a wave of Islamophobia is sweeping through the developed world. Sadly this is putting people off, even though any traveller with any sense knows that the Sufi muslims of Senegal are probably some of the least harmful people in Africa.

When you visit Senegal you will also notice a lot of rubbish in some areas.  Senegal is largely poverty stricken and in some places the amount of rubbish in the towns and on the beaches is distressing.  The image above is of one of the beaches in St Louis.  Even more distressing is the fact that so many Senegalese children play amongst this rubbish and they hardly notice it.  Surely this must be bad for their health?  We’ve noticed that some villages are better than others when it comes to responsibly disposing of rubbish but if you are the sort of traveller that would leave a country thinking this is all you saw, then perhaps Senegal shouldn’t be high on your list of holiday destinations.

So What Is It About Senegal?

I’ve tried to pinpoint what it is about Senegal that continues to draw me back there each time.  Why is it that I look forward to seeing Senegal so much?

I think there is a sensuality about Senegal that exists in its people, their lives and rhythms.

It’s quite something to travel in remote parts of the country and watch seriously beautiful people appear before your eyes in Senegal.  Many of the women look like they would be more at home on a Parisian catwalk than out in the middle of a Sahelian Acacia forest.  The men are not only attractive, a lot of them smell good.  I’ve often wondered why that is?  The children are curious and friendly, not annoying, loud or dangerous.

Above everything the people are kind and generous, even when they may live materially with very little in comparison to us.

Senegal has such a rich tapestry of ethnicities, languages, food and music.  It isn’t exactly “Africa for Beginners” but why not arm yourself with a basic knowledge of French and malarial tablets and go?

Perhaps you will be like me, sitting in a rooftop cafe in Dakar, feeling the Harmattan breeze blowing off the Atlantic and something might just wash over you like I felt the first day I arrived – a feeling that this warm West African country had welcomed me in as one of their own.

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