Dakar Is Still Dancing

Continuing to trace Johnson Senior’s footsteps backwards, we travel south to Dakar.

Dakar, Senegal. The city’s name still seems to capture the excitement of the 1960s, the dark interiors and bright lights of music halls and nightclubs where young Africans from all around the region gathered to dance to the optimism of a newly independent West Africa. In this city, Mr Désiré Johnson stopped for a few months to attend school at a large and prestigious lycée. He walked from his school to downtown Dakar to hear Johnny Hallyday play.

Dakar’s youthful optimism has faded somewhat, and it no longer feels like the epicentre of West Africa. The new gigantic African Renaissance Monument – constructed by a North Korean firm at a cost of US$27 million – seems to signify the disconnection of former President Abdoulaye Wade from the needs of his people, rather than Africa’s triumph over “centuries of intolerance and racism”.

However, a trip out to the Île de Gorée is a reminder of the indignities of the past. The old colonial houses in pastel colours, although beautiful, are left over from the days when the small island played a role in the slave trade. Now peaceful, with small artists’ studios lining the paths and happy Senegalese youth playing on the beach, it is difficult to imagine the island having a sinister history.

We pay a visit to Mr Johnson’s former school, the Lycée Mixté Maurice Delafosse. It is still large, but many windows are broken and its furniture looks like it hasn’t been replaced in decades. However, students still occupy its halls and look anxiously at the bulletin boards for their academic results.

There is rampant construction happening in the northern suburbs of Yoff and N’Gor around the airport, which past urban planners probably never thought would be subsumed by the city. A new generation of Africans speaks about coming back to the continent, because there is opportunity and hope here. Earlier this year, the country enjoyed its third peaceful democratic transition since independence.

Music still plays in the nightclubs late into the night (although we don’t get out there, we can hear it from our hotel room). Throughout its growth from the fresh optimism of the 1960s until today, Dakar keeps dancing.