Cognitive Dissonance Following a Weekend in Dakar

A Recap of My Visits to a Senegalese Soccer Game and Île de Gorée (Island of Gorée)

Among the first pieces of advice I was given by a local upon arriving in Senegal was: “If you’re to do only two things while here in Dakar, make them a trip to the Senegalese soccer stadium (watch a live game, too, “if you’re lucky”), and an afternoon visit to the emblematic Île de Gorée.”

Senegal’s soccer stadium — Dakar, Senegal

Île de Gorée (Island of Gorée) — Dakar, Senegal

Feeling as though I had no time to waste, I arranged my schedule for this past weekend to accommodate both aforementioned hallmarks of Dakar.  Having witnessed how my host family’s schedule revolves inflexibly around African soccer games, I was able to glean ahead of time the extent to which this country is filled with sports zealots.  As for Île de Gorée, I had followed prominent political figure’s trips to Senegal in past years, and noticed that they always included a visit to Île de Gorée.

Even with some prior knowledge of what was in store for me, never did I imagine the unsettling juxtaposition that these two excursions would create in my mind: one playing to the skepticism I still at times harbor, the other offering promise and optimism for the country I am now calling home.

Senegal vs. Ivory Coast Soccer Game:

I should have known that my wish to have a rather innocuous Saturday afternoon would not be achievable through a 2013 Africa Cup qualifying soccer match.

This truly frightened me.

Khalifa, my host father, and I arrived at 4:15pm for the 6:30pm game, at which point the stadium was already overflowing with fans.  As places are not assigned, it took a fatiguing 20 minutes of searching to find what he considered suitable seats. (This hunt was especially exhausting for me – we found ourselves in a “Senegalese only” section and the crowd was not shy about reminding me of this.  My smiles of “yes, yes, I know, I’m with him –> host father, I’m not leaving :) ” did not help calm their indignation). Khalifa and I finally squeezed in a few rows below colleagues of his, and quickly joined the chitchat of our neighbors.  Abdou, the man to my left, had traveled 6 hours by bus to attend the game.

The least crowded section I could spot.

Shortly after the second half began, and the score was 1 – 0 in favor of Ivory Coast, an anxious fan sprinted onto the field.  “Streaking exists here too!” was my first thought.  No, no, I was wrong; he was clothed, and just wanted a midfield player’s signature.  Poor choice of timing for an autograph request, I agree.   The brave soul was briskly “ushered” (tackled to the ground by 6 police officers and dragged…) off the field.

Senegal still scoreless, Ivory Coast’s second goal (note: there was no question from either side of the field that there was an unfair call resulting in a unmerited penalty kick, and subsequent goal) engendered a shift from well-behaved fans enjoying the typical banter of any sports event, to an irascible crowd displaying frighteningly noisome behavior.  Bottles and soccer ball sized rocks were being tossed on the field, flags were being burned, Ivory Coast fans were running down onto the field to seek some sort of refuge from the tumultuous reactions of the Senegalese crowd.

The riot begins.

Nice to know I wasn’t the only one seeking shelter.

What surprised me more than anything was that to me this response seemed befitting a country beset by violence and instability, not the peaceful and calm Senegal I knew.  To my pleasant surprise, shameful apologies in days to come were unending.  Though these apologies were no panacea, they were a step in the right direction towards helping rid me of any lingering cynicism.

Ile de Gorée:

Feeling glad to have made it out of Saturday’s events unscathed, Sunday morning I packed my travel gear and joined my host sister and her son for a day trip to Île de Gorée.

Île de Gorée is a 30 minute ferry ride from Dakar.  Its photo adorns any type of souvenir paraphernalia – stickers, mugs, t-shirts, stuffed kangaroos, etc. – you can imagine.  According to my host family, “if you haven’t been to Île de Gorée, you haven’t been to Senegal.”

Should the stars align, your host sister’s uncle will coincidentally be the ferry’s captain, and you’ll get to ride in style with the cutest co-captain (whose attire may also happen to support your country of origin) around.

The island is only 3,000 ft by 1,500 feet, and thankfully over the years – as visiting the island has become a more popular tourist destination– it has managed to retain its authentic, tranquil, historic appearance.  The island has a slew of well-reviewed restaurants, internet cafes, hotels, gorgeous ocean views, and is even home to the most elite Senegalese school for girls.

Pausing to enjoy the scenery (i.e. catch my breath)

The main attraction of Île de Gorée is Maison des Eslcalves (House of Slaves).  Though a bit funereal, as I suppose most memorials all, the Maison des Esclaves – often considered the final passage point of African slaves during the Atlantic slave trade —  was beautiful, powerful, and an overall breathtaking site to see.

Photo of La Porte Sans Retour (Door of no Return) at UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Maison des Esclaves.

In a small 6 foot by 6 foot room transformed from what used to be a bedroom for upwards of 45 men to now the greeting center, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the photo below:

English translation: “It is here [image depicted above] that we find an explanation for the long delay that Africa has taken on the track of development.”

When I finally stepped back outside, I saw my host sister who had accompanied me on the tour holding tightly to her son (my “co-captain”), her eyes swollen with tears.  I joined in and gave them a long hug.  Though I’m still not sure if they were enduring it or savoring the hug, I got the impression (confirmed by later conversations) that our embrace was a mixture of grief over the reality of what used to be and hope for what now is and can be.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

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