Thoughts from Dakar, By Tolu Ogunlesi
Having spent quite a bit of the last few months travelling, I have lots of excuses for evading, in recent column, the ever-interesting politics of Nigeria. It’s been a busy couple of months, and much has and is being written analyzing the lengthy array of political happenings. I will return to focusing directly on politics in the new year, God willing. Today I will write about the thoughts that have arisen in my mind from a recent (first-time) trip to Senegal.
There’s a special feeling that comes with visiting cities that, like Lagos, sit on the Atlantic Ocean. I often get the feeling, while in any such place, that the great body of water I can see offers an ethereal, liquid connection to Lagos, which I have called home for the last decade. That’s the uplifting part of the story. What I find it depressing is that unlike many other cities on the Atlantic Lagos seems to take very little advantage of that gift of geography. I’m not talking about trade – we have in Lagos one of the busiest ports in Africa; centuries ago in fact it was the biggest African port for the trading of slaves. I’m more concerned about tourism and leisure.
Dakar recently stunned me with the beauty of its Atlantic coastline: I rode a few times on a long stretch of road set against cliffs descending steeply into the ocean. Every moment I was reminded Lagos offers no such beauty. For one there is almost no view of the ocean from the city any longer. We have almost completely succeeded in pushing the ocean out of sight. Bar Beach is now gone; the ocean that washed up against it pushed behind the imposing sea wall of Eko Atlantic City. Kuramo Beach too is gone; the Lagos State government boarded it up in 2012, after the August 2012 flood that claimed more than a dozen lives.
Every stretch of the ocean along Ahmadu Bello Way is now private property, out of bounds to the public. You can now drive the entire length of that road without once sighting the ocean. In other parts of the world there are miles and miles of oceanfront that are publicly available to revelers. I think of recent visits to Dakar, Recife (northeastern Brazil) and Halifax (Canada) – all Atlantic cities – and how significant the beaches are to the characters of the cities. Nigeria, as always, is the exception, and not in a good way. Lagos’ beaches are elusive; you have to search for them, hidden as they are from sight. That’s no way to promote tourism.
It also didn’t take me long to notice that Dakar’s roads are devoid of potholes, and that deliberately-constructed sidewalks are ubiquitous. It’s not a particularly clean city, not like Kigali, but you get the sense that someone is paying attention to certain details. I don’t think I ever once sighted sighted a pothole, in the almost one week I spent in Senegal. Not even on the long drive to Saly, an hour and half from Dakar. Even when the road narrowed from dual-carriage, it stayed smooth.
And there is Dakar’s laid-back nature, the same one that you will find in Kigali, or Kampala; the reluctance to use car horns, or to push down hard on the accelerator; the ungrudging respect of right-of-way for the horse-drawn carriages that share the highways with cars and bikes. There is no doubt that Nigerians are the most aggressive people on the continent. I dare you to disagree.
Something else that struck me: Northern Nigeria shares more in common with Senegal than it does with southern Nigeria – the arid sprawl of land, the architecture. And the Islam. Senegal is predominantly Muslim. Mosques are common features, as are praying mats on street corners. But it is a different kind of Islam from the oft-reactionary one in the north of Nigeria. One Senegalese man told me the people value tolerance for religious diversity; every one is free to pursue the gods they desire. Christian holidays are officially marked, even though less than a tenth of the population is Christian. The attitude is similar to the one in Southwestern Nigeria, where family ties and the spirit of merriment tend to come well ahead of religious affiliations. As American journalist Blaine Harden once put it: “As much as they relish escalating an inconsequential disagreement into a full-blown screaming match, the Yoruba are not inclined to die in the name of either Christ or Mohammed. They were a most reluctant participant in the Biafra war. Yoruba Muslims enjoy their beer; Yoruba Christians set no record for church attendance…”
Yet another thought. The biggest challenge for West African integration is arguably the linguistic divide: the Anglophone versus the Francophone. (There’s a third, actually; much smaller than the main two: the Lusophones). This morning my generator mechanic mentioned that he’ll be travelling “home” for the New Year holidays. I asked where home is; he said: Cotonou. Interesting, I thought. So you speak French, I asked. Yes. But you also obviously speak English (we communicate in pidgin English). I learnt it when I moved to Nigeria, he said. When did you move? 2011. 2011? Less than four years ago? You learnt English in that time? Yes, he said.
Clearly he had no choice; to survive in Nigeria (and I’m assuming he moved here primarily for economic reasons) you need to speak pidgin English at least. There are of course pockets of Nigerian territory where French is widely spoken. Makoko, the slum settlement on the Lagos lagoon; I wrote about it in the December 1, 2014 column. There’s also Ejigbo, a town in Osun State, that has long had trade and transport and familial links with Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire. But one thing is clear: more Nigerians need to learn French. I’m seriously considering doing so; in 2015.
The inability of most middle-class Nigerians to speak French means we will be unable to take advantage of the economic opportunities in the Francophone countries surrounding us. It is probably the reason why when we look out from Nigeria what we see is Ghana; somehow Benin and Togo are invisible to us (unless you’re a smuggler, or a student of one of the Benin Universities that Nigerians now flock to).
My final thought. My last night in Dakar I spent in a “Hotel Residence” where at first I seemed to be the only guest. I booked online, and second-guessed myself when I arrived, because on the surface it looked like it might be too second-rate for comfort. I relaxed when I saw the room; the sheets were clean, the room was clean, the bathroom clean and big, and the air held the promise of Wi-Fi. That promise would turn out to be a mirage; while there was Wi-Fi, and it was fast, and free, I had to step out onto the staircase to access it. At night, while I stood there, connected to the world, fellow guests walked past; returning from whatever business they had spent the day doing.
The hotel didn’t accept ATM cards, neither did the supermarket at the petrol station a few hundred meters away. As far as I know there was only one ATM point along the length of the busy road. Odd, I thought, for a city in which fast Wi-Fi didn’t seem to be a rarity. In Nigeria it would be the opposite; plenty of ATM machines, and dodgy Wi-Fi. It made me think: maybe there’s an opportunity for Nigerian banks to step in and show the residents of Dakar how we’re learning to do cashless.
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