Between solitary plains in the north and lush tropical lands in the south, Senegal’s hectic capital Dakar is a fine slice of urban Africa, perched on a beach-lined peninsula.
Capital city: Dakar, Population: 12 Million Area: 196,190sq km, official language: French
Senegal is a patchwork of classic African landscapes. Northern Senegal lies just south of the Sahara, and the deserts hot, dusty breath leaves its mark. In the south is the Casamance, a lush zone of tropical forests and swelling rivers. West are the beaches of the Atlantic coast; eastwards, towards the Malian border, are flat, dry plains dotted with mighty baobabs. The only kind of topography missing is mountains —the country's highest peak, in the southeastern corner of the Bassari lands, looms a whole 580 meters.
History in a Nutshell
Over the centuries Senegalese lands have been home to some of West Africa's major empires, like the Tekrur, Jolof and Mali. In the 15th century, lured by stories about West Africa's vast gold reserves, the Portuguese established a trading post for goods and slaves at Ile de Goree, but soon lost control of it to the French. The first French settlement in West Africa, St-Louis in northern Senegal, later became the capital of Afrique Occidentale Francaise (French West Africa). In 1960 president (and poet) Leopold Sedar Senghor led Senegal to independence; governments have since changed twice in peaceful and democratic elections.
The Wolof are the largest ethnic group in Senegal, comprising around 43 percent of the population, and unifying much of the nation through their language and culture. Parts of the northern area along the Senegal River are home to substantial groups of Tukulor (12 percent) as well as smaller Soninke populations. The Serer (14 percent) are another important ethnic group, inhabiting large parts of the Sine-Saloum Delta. The Casamance is dominated in the west by the Diola (nine percent) and in the east by the Malinke (nine percent) and Fulani (10 percent). Kedougou is the only area with substantial Bassari and Bedik populations. More than 90 percent of Senegal's population is Muslim.
When you see the gleaming four-wheel drives on the streets of Dakar, you might be tempted to think that Senegal is doing reasonably well economically, but a short stroll through the heaving urban suburb of Pikine or a tour around the country's rural communities will quickly dispel that idea. With a GDP per capita of around US$1800, Senegal is still one of the poorest nations in the world. The most important branches of its economy are the groundnut industry and fishing, which are closely followed by the growing area of tourism.
Senegal's mighty Oiseaux du Djoudj National Park - a 16,000-hectare expanse of wetlands, marshes and mud flats, cut through by numerous channels and lakes — is the third-largest bird sanctuary in the world and one of the best places on the planet to see migrant birds escaping the European winter. A few kilometers further south, conveniently close to the windswept Grande Cote, are the rolling desert dunes of Lompoul. The Sine-Saloum Delta is another one of Senegal's impressive natural zones: the Saloum River meets the Atlantic Ocean in a maze of mangrove swamps, tiny estuaries, islets and lagoons.
In Art & Culture
The entire catalogue of prolific film director Ousmane Sembene
The Afro-eccentric fashion displays of Oumou Sy
So Long a Letter, Mariama Ba’s beautiful novel about women in polygamous marriages
Immigres, an early, rumbling Youssou N'Dour hit that shifted Senegal into the consciousness of African-music lovers worldwide
The reverse glass paintings (sous-verre) of Sabacar La
The urban paintings of Senegal's spiritual leaders Cheikh Amadou Samba and Cheikh lbra Fail, which adorn wails, cars, shop fronts and T-shirts across the country
In Senegal, and particularly in Dakar, one music festival chases the next. But Dakar's queen of festivals doesn't tease the ears so much as the eyes; the famous Dak'Art Biennale is one of Africa's main celebrations of contemporary art, and it drowns the town in color. Hundreds of galleries and public spaces around the city announce imaginative fringe programs, featuring artists from across Africa. It is the only time of year that Dakar counts more artists than street hustlers among its population.
The annual Magal pilgrimage to the holy city of Touba attracts some two million people.
Dakar is one of West Africa's coolest spots, with average temperatures at around 260C. In the north and east, it can get much, much hotter.
An estimated three million Senegalese live abroad.
Greater Dakar is estimated to have around three million inhabitants.
Renting an apartment in one of Dakar’s chic neighborhoods for a month could easily set you back US$3000
Mbalax, the beat made famous by Senegalese icon Youssou N'Dour, is the heart and soul of Senegalese music-and its legs, thighs, hips and backside, too. Created from a mixture of Cuban beats and fiery sabar drumming in the mid-1970s, mbalax in its myriad transformations still dominates Senegal's dance floors and airwaves today - and if the gyrating bodies in Dakar's nightclubs are anything to go by, it will continue to do so for some years yet. Even the vibrant local hip-hop scene (think Daara J), the enduringly popular Afro-salsa led by Orchestra Baobab and the quieter, guitar-strumming folk and Afro-jazz troupes can't rival the immense full-body love the Senegalese have reserved for mbalax. If you're ever on an exploding Dakar dance floor, you'll understand.
Senegal isn't a place for those in search of African stereotypes: if it's jungle, lions and elephants you're after, the country will disappoint. What it lacks in wildlife wonders, however, Senegal more than makes up in urban excitement. Dakar is one of Africa's most vibrant capitals, a noisy, bustling, and yes, polluted bubble of activity, where new fashion and music trends grow in a fertile soil of underground creativity and casual self-confidence. The two best places to discover the Dakar bustle are the heaving Dakar Plateau, with its ever-expanding markets, and the quartier populaire Medina, where tiny tailor shops and boutiques stacked sky-high with goods compete for space with clapboard housing and street stalls. The trade-off, of course, is having to negotiate the city’s permanent gridlock and shake off overeager traders and smooth-talking hustlers
Cars (if they're less than five years old)
Dreadlock-shaking djembe amateurs
French culture and cuisine
Lions and elephants
Some of West Africa's finest music
The art of seduction
Presidential poetry (Leopold Sedar Senghor)
Diving into the noisy, colorful chaos of Dakar's urban markets, clutching fistfuls of CFA francs tightly
Being buffeted by the salty winds of the Grande C6te and the sandy winds of the dunes of Lompoul
Catching mbalax fever on Dakar's glittering dance floors
Hopping from one beachside fishing village to the next along the Petite Cote
Enjoying the sweet solitude along the Senegal River route, passing crumbling French forts and subdued Sudanese-style mosques
Catching your breath as you gaze downwards at the dizzying drop of the Dindefelo waterfall
Steering a painted pirogue through the mangrove-lined estuaries and shimmering wetlands of the Sine-Saloum Delta
Resting your lazy bones on the breathtaking arch of Boucotte Beach in the Casamance, after a taste of Ziguinchor
Inhaling history in the streets of St-Lout
Best Times to visit: November - April