By Stef Terblanche
Senegal…. a country of arts, music and literature, markets, beaches, diversity, friendly people, delicious cuisine, pulsating nightlife and…teranga, which means hospitality. Here in this vibrant country, music literally greets you on every street corner and the multiple colours will dazzle you. This is a country where your soul will replenish itself in a thousand ways.
This former colony of Portugal and later France – of which the influences still linger – is located in West Africa just below Mauritania and next to Mali, with the Atlantic Ocean to its west. A strange feature is The Gambia, a country completely surrounded by Senegal as it intrudes from the sea like a dagger into the side of Senegal along the banks of the Gambia River, thus separating Senegal’s southern region of Casamance from the rest of the country.
Some of the things that are often associated with Senegal is its dynamic music and film industries, the famous Dakar Rally, a world-famous surfing hot spot on the Cabo Verde Peninsula made popular by the 1960’s surf cult movie Endless Summer, and the infamous Door of No Return at Maison des Esclaves on Gorée Island, the place from where slaves were sent to the plantations of the New World across the Atlantic never to see their home continent again.
But Goree was only a minor departure point in the Atlantic slave trade where slaves, captured by warring African chiefdoms, were sold to the European traders. Senegal became an important trading destination for various European powers, before it was fully colonised by France between 1677 and the 1850’s. The region, now a singular state, regained independence in 1960.
A South African connection
As negative and sad as some of its history was, just as positive and constructive were other events. In this vein, Dakar played an important role in the unfolding processes of the 1980’s that led to South Africa’s transition from apartheid to full democracy in the 1990’s. For it was here that the likes of the late Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, the then self-exiled South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, Dr Alex Boraine, other white liberals, and the ANC’s Thabo Mbeki among others organised the Dakar Conference that would set in motion further contacts and talks between the then banned ANC and white South Africans, eventually leading to the 1994 democratic elections.
Senegal, owing its name to a major river, came about as part of the independence of French West Africa from French colonial rule. Its official language is still French. The country is known for its diversity, and its population includes a wide mix of ethnic and linguistic communities, with the largest being the Fula, Wolof, and Serer people. The most commonly spoken languages are Wolof and French. Its population is mostly concentrated along the coast. The climate is mostly Sahelian, associated with the semi-arid region where the Sahara meets the Sudianian savanna, although it also has a rainy season.
Senegal, although poor, is a safe and peaceful country with a quasi-democratic political culture and as such experienced one of the more successful post-colonial democratic transitions in Africa. In 2008, Senegal finished 12th on the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a comprehensive measure of African governance based on a number of different variables which reflect the success with which governments deliver to their citizens. The country is subdivided into 14 regions, each with a capital bearing the same name as the region, which are, Dakar, Diourbel, Fatick, Kaffrine, Kaolack, Kédougou, Kolda, Louga, Matam, Saint-Louis, Sédhiou, Tambacounda, Thiès and Ziguinchor.
Nature and people
Senegal’s landscape consists mostly of coastal area and the rolling sandy plains common to the western Sahel which in parts of the southeast rise to large hills, including a point that is Senegal’s highest at 648m (2,126 ft). Cap-Vert, meaning Cape Green, not to be confused with the Cape Verde Islands some 560km off the Senagalese coast, is set at the foot of Les Mammelles, a high cliff at one end of the Cap-Vert Peninsula on which Senegal’s capital Dakar, settled, just 1 kilometre south of the Pointe des Almadies, the westernmost point in Africa.
Senegal has four terrestrial ecoregions, namel the Guinean forest-savanna mosaic, Sahelian Acacia savanna, West Sudanian savanna, and Guinean mangroves. In 2019 it ranked 56th globally on the Forest Landscape Integrity Index. The country has a tropical climate with pleasant heat throughout the year, interspersed with dry and humid seasons that result from northeast winter winds and southwest summer winds. It has an annual rainy season between June and October. Senagal’s economy is heavily reliant on mining, construction, tourism, fishing and agriculture.
Senegal is ethnically very diverse with the Wolof being the largest single ethnic group (about 43%), followed by other groups such as the Fula, the Serer, the Jola, Mandinka, Maures, Soninke, Bassari and many smaller groups. About 50,000 Europeans (mostly French) and Lebanese as well as smaller numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Mauritanians and Moroccans also live in Senegal, mostly in and around Dakar,Saint-Louis and the retirement/resort towns around Mbour. An interesting local story relates how the majority of Lebanese living here, with many working in banking and commerce, originate from the Lebanese city of Tyre, which is known as ‘Little West Africa’ and where there is a promenade called the Avenue du Senegal.
The pull of Dakar
In Senegal, and especially in Dakar the capital, you will find a dizzying combination of dynamic vibrancy the true meaning of “laid back”, where chaos and traffic jams compete with sophisticated, elegant hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. In the daytime you can explore the coastline and parks and reserves, or laze on an unspoilt beach, get shown the sights in a traditional boat, take in the history at monuments or museums, and at night you can dine by candlelight, sip a French or South African wine, and then head for the thrill of the clubs to let your hair down. Senegal is always captivating.
Dakar is perched on the tip of a peninsula. The city has a French, cosmopolitan feel fused with its traditional African character, and is home to many markets, bistros, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, museums, shops, and of course beaches. There are bustling fish markets to which the traditional local fishing vessels return daily with their catch.
A world-renowned surfing spot
After the South African coast, Senegal is probably best known as an African surfing destination. The best surfing spots are located on the Cabo Verde Peninsula around Dakar where both southern and northern hemisphere swells meet, providing surfers with good breaks all year round. In the trendy Dakar neighbourhood Corniche des Almadies you will find the international Senegalese surfing legend, Oumar Seye and his Surfer Paradise, a surf complex he built that includes a surfing school, two surf shops and a restaurant and lounge.
The lure of Saint-Louis
In the northern coastal area of Senegal, the historical colonial capital of Saint-Louis, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is filled with beautiful colonial architecture. It is also close to scenic and game-filled national parks, while all along the Petite Côte and Cap Skirring, some extraordinarily beautiful beaches await you.
Tourism forms a major part of the economy and since the 1990s, Senegal has worked hard to appeal to a wider group of foreign tourists that those from its former colonial power France. The country now attracts visitors from all over the world, especially tourists from Spain, Britain and Italy. American tourists have also steadily been increasing. There are modern resorts – mostly enclosed and very safe and secure – with an abundance of resort hotels in places like Saly on the Petite Côte south of Dakar, in other resort villages around Dakar, the old colonial town of Saint-Louis, or the île de Ngor, a popular tourist spot where visitors are taken on pleasure trips in traditional pirogues between Ngor and île de Ngor, and the Mouride holy centre of Touba. Gorée Island, the former slave trade centre and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also draws many visitors.
Abundance of wildlife
A favourite with foreign visitors is to combine coastal resort vacations with wildlife, nature and cultural tours in areas like the Sine-Saloum Delta, the Grande Côte (north of Dakar), the Lac Rose, and Senegal River delta in the north (near Saint-Louis). Bird watching is said to be excellent in the estuaries of the Saloum Delta National Park and Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary which
provide wildlife habitat in the dunes and mangrove swamps surrounding the mouth of the Senegal River near city of Saint-Louis.
Tourists are never disappointed with the scenic game drives conducted in the Bandia Natural Reserve near Dakar. The country’s national park and reserve system is still relatively small and lags behind those of countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa, but it is nonetheless growing and vibrant and worth a visit. Most notable parks include the Langue de Barbarie National Park and Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. For many of the Big Five and other large wild animals, visit the Niokolo-Koba National Park, a World Heritage Site, and natural protected area in south eastern Senegal near the Guinea-Bissau border.
For ecotourism and tropical forest excursions, the Basse Casamance National Park, in the far southwest, is a must and is also a popular coastal beach resort aimed at foreign tourism. Some of the smaller parks and reserves, like the centrally located Guembeul Natural Reserve or the Bandia Natural Reserve near Dakar, are mainly focused on attracting visitors from the more conventional European tourist industry. For game fishing enthusiasts, Senegal is considered one of the best places in the world to catch sailfish.
There is also a strong indigenous or local tourism industry, and the city of Dakar supports many resorts and amenities frequented by city dwellers. The beaches and islands to the north of the city, at places like Yoff and Ngor, are particularly popular with locals.
The main port of entrance to the country is through Dakar-Yoff International Airport, with regular flights arriving from Europe, Asia and more recently the United States with Delta Airlines operating a flight from Atlanta to Dakar to Johannesburg back to Dakar and on to Atlanta.
Senegal is truly the country in Africa where you can find absolute solitude, beauty and tranquillity at the same time as enjoying adrenaline-pumping action, wild nights with the trend-setters of Africa and a variety of activities and scenery second to none.
Covid-19 and International Travel to Senegal
Air, land and sea borders are open, except land borders with Guinea. But it’s best to check with your own country’s travel advisories as well as with official Senegalese information sites.
Hotels and other accommodation are open. There are no restrictions on travel between regions. Masks must be worn in public places. The local Senegalese hotline number is +221 800 00 50 50.
Travel Info Contacts
For complete travel information about Senegal, refer to the World Travel Guide section on Senegal at www.worldtravelguide.net/guides/africa/senegal/.
Ministry of Tourism & Air Transport: WhatsApp/Tel +221 77 853 33 99 or email email@example.com.