Lately I’ve been dreaming of living and working in French West Africa. I’m not sure if this is my subconscious telling me I need to get back to Africa or if I’m just trying to indulge my infatuation with French post-colonial countries. There is something about the French legacy that I find enchanting. Phnom Penh features some of the best preserved remnants of French Indochina and I’ve become enamored with the cross section of cultures visible everywhere. Its the same reason I loved Vientiene, Laos and Hanoi, Vietnam. Maybe its the fusion European architecture left behind (god I’m a sucker for shutters), maybe its the fresh baguettes and croissants you can find everywhere in the former empire, maybe its because I love the French language. Regardless, I am well aware that I am over-romanticizing and exotifying this supposed legacy and colonialism is obviously not something one wants to adulate in sentimental nostalgia. Colonialism was unjust and brutal on all accounts, especially in Africa. But it is still an irrevocable part of these countries’ histories and I’ve always been captivated by places where you can trace their history simply by walking through their streets. This is something not particularly evident in the western part of the US where I grew up and perhaps that is why I chose to go to university in the historic Northeast and have found myself seeking out places that wear their history on their sleeve.
Of all the countries in West Africa, apparently Senegal has most retained elements of its French past. The Gambia inevitably must be included as this tiny sliver of a country is completely enclosed by Senegal and reportedly boasts some of West Africa’s best beaches. Thus here I begin.
Dakar: described in equal parts as both elegant and frenetic, as the capital, virtually all visitors to Senegal pass through this vibrant city. I’ve heardDakar has some of the best food in the region and it also is home to an incredible art and music scene. Youssou N’dour is Senegalese as is French-Senegalese rapper MC Solaar and, believe it or not, Akon. Check out this awesome song by The Pleb:
Île de Gorée: a small island off the coast of Dakar that served as a transfer point through the transatlantic slave trade. However, it is apparently also a quietly beautiful town, described by Lonely Planet as having “narrow alleyways with trailing bougainvillea and colonial brick buildings with wrought-iron balconies.” Need I say more?
Saint Louis: a coastal city north of Dakar, Saint Louis was the old French colonial capital. Not surprisingly, this city is home to some of the best preserved colonial architecture in the region.
Casamance: a small region south of Gambia that has an organized successionist movement an has experienced periodic unrest since the post-colonial transition. However, it is also known to have some of Senegal’s best beaches and wildlife reserves. Inland from the coast are mazes of mangroves that would be incredible to explore. So in times of peace, this is definitely a place to visit.
Gambia: beaches and national parks are what this tiny country is known for, and with good reason. Europeans have long been in the know about the beaches, but just recently Kiang West and the River Gambia National Parks have gained much more attention. They also supposedly have baboons and giant anteaters, so count me in.