Wednesday, September 17, 2014

West Africa, Nuanced: Safety in Dakar

It's time to get back to some regular scheduled posting... let's see if I can rebound after last week's glorious African Wax birthday recap ;) Most of these photos are "facebook relics," so please excuse the mediocre quality dating back to 2008!

I've always hoped this little blog might be of use to someone living in or traveling to West Africa. To that end, I like to reminisce on my early days in Dakar and recall what seemed particularly mysterious or mind boggling (its kind of crazy what has become commonplace four years in!). But better yet - I love emails and comments from readers curious about some aspect of life in Senegal. I recently met up with a reader visiting Dakar (so exciting!) and our conversation turned to the topic of safety in the city. As a newbie in Dakar, she didn't really feel comfortable exploring the city without a firm understanding of security norms. I recall feeling the exact same way six years ago!


Contrasts abound in Dakar, Senegal.

So on that note, I thought I'd tackle my personal experience with safety in Dakar (and Senegal in general). Let it be known that I am no security officer or safety expert, but I do really like to have a realistic perspective on the safety situation when I'm new to a city or neighborhood. I've found this information is often lacking or misleading when traveling, especially on trips to Morocco and South Africa. Visiting Morocco in 2011, I loved my trip but could not believe Lonely Planet failed to adequately warn how two women might be treated traveling alone (ahem, a story for another post). And more recently in South Africa, I just couldn't quite grasp whether to feel nervous or at ease in various situations.

In general, I definitely err on the side of cautious when I don't have a real handle on the security barometer. This dilemma is especially salient when traveling in underdeveloped places that might appear dangerous based on outward appearance. Let's be frank here, how do you typically judge a dangerous neighborhood where you live? Lack of street lights, run down homes, pollution, poverty, signs of illegal drugs, etc....

When you evaluate Dakar through this lens, the result is... confusing. While there are some aesthetically pleasing corners of the city, you would be hard pressed to find a block without some sign of development, ie. unfinished construction, unpaved streets, peeling paint, street children and handicapped people begging for money, informal shops selling from shacks, etc. You can only imagine how a newcomer might question their safety when arriving in Dakar (especially someone new to West Africa).


Horse and buggy//beautiful coast and hotels//never ending construction... a city of contrasts.

In my case, I was truly terrified after my first Dakar airport experience, driving past looming and abandoned construction sites in the dark, the smell of sewage wafting through the air. For several days, I was legitimately afraid to leave the school where I was first housed as a study abroad student.

In Mermoz, no less, which I now know is one of Dakar's most upscale neighborhoods. (Not to say upscale guarantees safety, just to say I thought we were in the ghetto! Hah! SO. NAIVE. Hey, at least I'll admit it!) While others confidently ventured out to explore the city, I followed suit with a gnawing pit in my stomach, afraid of violence in broad daylight, jumpy and on edge.

Yup, I thought this was the ghetto. Feel free to judge, fellow Dakarois.

But here's the thing...

With four full years under my belt, I feel incredibly safe in Dakar. 

And I have since about Day Six of my study abroad experience in 2008. I've also travelled to nine countries in Africa (which is actually pretty minimal, when you consider that the continent is comprised of 54 countries!) and I have never felt safer than I do in Senegal. Whether this is due to culture, religion, political history, all or none of the above... I'm not sure. But it's the truth! The only "fear" I've experienced is linked to petty theft, but I have truly never been afraid for my physical or personal safety. Dakar has extremely low instances of organized crime, drug addiction, and sexual violence.

For full disclosure, I have been pick pocketed twice, and my apartment was broken into in 2012. BUT! I have also left my cell phone and/or wallet in three taxis and one bus to Touba (hours outside of Dakar) and had each driver go above and beyond to contact me and hand deliver my lost belongings. Yes, I know this maybe says more about my tendency to lose things than anything else ;) BUT SERIOUSLY! Would that ever happen in a major American city? Rarely.


Construction looking good, for once.

Let me get a little more specific so that this post might be of practical use to someone. ;)

IN DAKAR...

+ I feel safe walking alone in any neighborhood during the day, and this sense of security does not correlate with how upscale (or not) the neighborhood is. There are definitely more hectic parts of the city that require extra awareness of my belongings, but if anything I'd say you're more at risk for petty theft in upscale areas popular with expats and wealthy Senegalese.

+ I avoid unwanted attention - begging, pushy vendors, offers to guide me - by exuding a standoffish demeanor, avoiding eye contact and conversation, and wearing culturally appropriate clothing (basically nothing above the knee during the day). I've also spent a lot of time watching my Senegalese counterparts for social cues and learning key Wolof phrases. Of course, if I want to be friendly, then I smile and chat! :)

I use common sense. I don't usually walk alone at night, but I will every now and then, sticking to well lit streets in neighborhoods with which I'm familiar. And I am quite comfortable walking at night with someone else. I'm also totally fine with taking taxis alone at any hour, and in the past I did take public transportation without issue. (Again, being honest here ;)

I avoid flaunting expensive items in public. I don't walk around talking on my iPhone, and if someone calls me while I'm out, I keep the conversation short. I will carry my laptop in my purse, but only because my bag doesn't scream LAPTOP like a computer case might.

I have a deep trust and faith that the vast majority of Senegalese people would come to my assistance if I ever needed help in a public space. (Or when I lose things! Hah.) But I do recognize that my ability to speak French maybe solidifies this comfort level.

+ As a woman, I can honestly say that it does not cross my mind to be afraid walking past a man alone at night. It really dawned on me how lucky that is after reading this post. Can you say the same where you live? Violent and sexual crime is so rare here (though it still happens, of course). Also, there are people--guards, storekeepers, neighborhood kids--everywhere at every hour, keeping an eye on things. (Side note: you are always within view of someone, haha.)


The hazy coast//some modern roads and street lamps (that mostly don't work)//your local boutique

***

What does this novel boil down to? Visit Dakar, and no need to be afraid! :D My sense of personal safety is a HUGE part of the draw to living in Dakar. It is liberating not to live in fear as a woman. There is a palpable aura of community, compassion, and goodness of most people here in Dakar. And so I hope visitors will feel comfortable traveling to Dakar, even though it can take time to adjust your instincts to the surroundings.

If you live or have traveled to Dakar - would you agree with my take on things? Any other burning questions I can address?!

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