Friday, June 20, 2014

Memories of Dakar

Almost seven years ago, I wrote about my childhood in Dakar, the memories I have kept, and the amazing local women who helped take care of me, but this post brings with it some evocative images and thoughts that I thought worthwhile to share.

Avenue Jean-Jaurès

I was born in Dakar, Senegal where I lived at least 7 years of my life in an apartment, on Avenue Jean-Jaurès, with my parents and grandparents. You can see it here. It is a noisy and busy street with relatively tall buildings. Here, building constructions seem to linger on for years. I remember that as a four year old, I would be frightened of the pounding at construction sites, which I called  " le Tam Tam".

"Tam Tam" is actually the name of a traditional Senegalese drum whose sound is wonderful, but that was my way of describing the noise which, as an introvert, I already found difficult to live with.

Avenue Jean Jaurès was relatively safe, and on Sundays, from the age of six onwards, my sister and I would walk together to church all the way to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Shopping in Dakar was completed by our maids who spoke Wolof and knew where to find everything and how to bargain in the markets. We usually ate plenty of fish.

a market in Dakar where supermarkets did  not exist

On weekends, we would regularly drive to the Pointe des Almadies and visit the resort there where I learned to swim, and where I would invariably pretend to be a little mermaid.

Hotel des Almadies - the pool was my Sunday joy

Our apartment was simple and functional with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for six-seven people, yet as expats, we were living in luxury compared to the majority of Dakar's slum dwellers. On my way to school, I saw signs of poverty everywhere, including limbless children getting around in wooden wheeled carts. But I never once stepped inside a slum, or what the locals would call, bidonville. I regret that now.

Bidonville in Dakar

Senegal is a poor country and my parents tried to shelter me from the cruel realities of life as much as they could. I remember that one day, I must have been about five years old, my dad was driving us to the coast, and we took a different route. I did not know it, but we were heading towards a slum district. We drove past what to me resembled large cardboard boxes and masses of greyish houses stacked so near together, that one could not even see what lay inside this maze.

I asked  my Dad where we were, and what we were doing here. I was absorbed by this alien place, a place so unlike the palm lined resorts, so unlike the pleasant breezy Corniche on the coast.  I could have never suspected that this ugly place was home for most of Dakar's inhabitants.

My mum told me to sit still but I hassled her with questions. My parents replied that people lived here, that this was their home. I remember that my jaw literally dropped and I entered a state of denial. I was persuaded that my parents were lying to me, telling me things, only to keep me quiet.

"That's not their home. How can they live in cardboard?" I asked. It was a notion I found so horrifying and unpractical that I was convinced that it must be a lie.

My Dad parked the car and stepped out. He said he had to meet someone and pay him. So I waited with my mum and sister, looking on with anxiety as my Dad stepped to the edge of the bidonville and disappeared behind a grey wall. I thought he must be playing a prank on me and was merely pretending to go and see someone, given that nobody in their right mind could live here.

I know that on that day, a truth had awakened in me, even though I buried it deep and tried not to look upon it.

What I had called, 'cardboard', was in fact flimsy building material but it seemed like the right thing to call this brown material at my age. I had not even acquired the vocabulary for describing what I saw.

It seems that slums in Senegal have resorted to using garbage as a building material. Even with the risk of disease and stench, even with a pride for cleanliness, they will have no choice, due to poverty, but to use garbage so as to lift up their homes from the bog and avoid death.

Dakar had the power, very early on in my life, to make me see the world. Really see it. It is a gift that I cherish. Because the majority of those who live in wealthy countries, just as I do now, have no conception of what the world looks like and, often, I think it hardens them. It would be a jaw-dropping experience for them to understand that just as the majority in Dakar lives in slums, the majority of the world's population survives on nothing. Almost one billion people in the world (one seventh) live in urban slums. In India, the world's second most populous country, people are more likely to have a mobile phone than access to a toilet with 50% of people still defecating in the open.

So that's all I wanted to say.

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