The Journey to West Africa
The Dakar trip was definitely the highlight of the African Civilizations Program in Paris. At the very minimum the brilliant sunshine, piercing blue skies, and eighty-degree days were a welcome relief from the cold rains of Paris in November. Even apart from the weather, Dakar was starkly different from Paris and wonderful for it.
In the African Civilizations program we spent the ten weeks prior to our trip enrolled in classes focusing on the history, art, and culture of West Africa all from our setting in Paris, France. Paris was an interesting medium through which to study West Africa – the history of slavery and colonialism still very much contributes to current conceptions of the West African nations in France and thiswas intriguing to explore through the Parisian setting. We went to several African art museums; we explored different parts of the city that are traditionally immigrant communities; we examined a little bit of current French politics towards immigration, integration, and religion. However, until we went to Senegal, this all felt a little disjointed.
I will never forget our arrival at Yoff Airport, Senegal. In general, I think, the class had no idea what to expect of Dakar, of Senegal, of West Africa really. We had been told that electricity was occasionally spotty, it could cut out for days at a time; we had been warned about the water, that it was generally safer to drink the bottled variety; and we had been told that Dakar is generally a safe city, much safer than even Chicago – but to watch our purses; ultimately, we had done countless readings, but we hadn’t yet seen Dakar. Perhaps we were unprepared, but I prefer to think that there comes a point where there is nothing more you can do to prepare – you just have to live it. That first night, it was already dark when we landed, but I remember climbing into the bus to our hotel being consumed by the smell of unfamiliar fried foods, the feeling of the sand lining the paved streets spilling onto my toes, and the heavy air full of dust and heat lining my throat. It was exhilarating and wonderful to be so completely engulfed by a new place, and I knew then that I was going to love Dakar.
Over the course of the next week we traveled around the city, experimenting with new foods, admiring buildings and beaches, getting to know each other as well as our host families. We visited Gorée Island – a historic slave port – and received both the formal tour and as well as the University of Chicago version; we visited the highly controversial “le Monument de la Renaissance africaine” or the African Renaissance Monument, which gave us a wonderful perspective of the city, as well as a view; and we visited the IFAN museum of African Arts, coupled with a fascinating modern art exhibit. In our free time, we really got to explore the parts of the city that interested us, be it the Sandaga Markets for art and fabrics, the various restaurants and galleries, or the local bar culture. It was simultaneously a great city vacation and a hands-on classroom where we were able to reconcile a little of what we learned in Paris.
Text and photo courtesy of Sophia Arabadjis, '13 (Paris: African Civilizations, Autumn 2012)