I moved to Dakar, Senegal’s seaside capital, in 2010, enchanted by stories of mbalax music, gentle breezes infused with the scent of incense, and colorful architecture. But something else won me over, something far more boring: the weather. Dakar is planted on the most western point of the African continent. The city is spread over a rocky peninsula — une presqu’ile, the Dakarois call it, or ‘an almost island’ — that stretches out into the soft waves of the Atlantic. This gives it one of the most fabulous climates in Africa. From December until May, while people in most other West African countries spend their days sweating, battling humidity-induced listlessness, or cranking up the a/c, Dakar feels like California in the spring.
In fact, if that sounds too good to be true, it is. In December, Dakar is that rare West African anomaly: cold. Market sellers switch their wax cloth wares for fleece-lined jackets, little kids wrap up warm in woolly hats, and blankets are thrown onto beds. Dakar’s cold season is so fundamental to the fabric of the city that a medical syndrome has even been named after it: le changement de climat, or the great temperature change.
Symptoms include colds, coughs, fever or a general sense of malaise, and it reoccurs at the advent of the hot season, affecting large numbers of the population who blame it on bursts of cold (or hot) air.
Air — gentle breezes, polluted black clouds, dusty harmattan winds, or wild and salty gusts from the ocean — is never in short supply in Dakar. One of the things I loved most about living in the seaside capital was pushing open the windows in the morning and feeling the breeze come in. Some days it carried hints of piping hot thieboudienne, the national dish — a Senegalese paella of rice, shrimp, chicken, eggplant and carrots, topped with crispy, crunchy fried rice – while in the evenings it was often laced with incense, regularly burned in this 92 percent Muslim country.
Perhaps because of the large adherence to the Tijaniyyah and Mourides brotherhoods, forms of Sufi Islam, Dakar is one of the most peaceful capital cities in the world. Unlike some other African capitals such as Nairobi and Johannesburg, Dakar is safe to walk around after dark — as long as you can negotiate the holes in the sidewalks, that is. And although there can be a fair amount of hassle from taxi drivers looking for customers — take note, London and Paris, Dakar has a surplus of taxis — violent attacks are rare.
Every city has a time of day when it most comes alive. Dakar has two. There’s sunset, when hundreds of fitness fanatics race to the the sweeping corniche coastal road to run, work out on the beach, dance or take part in practice Senegalese wrestling matches. I loved heading to the corniche at this time and watching the synchronized training sessions, or lacing my battered sneakers and trying (and failing) to keep up with the city’s marathon runners.
Dakar’s other key moment comes in the early hours, particularly at weekends, around 3 or 4am. This is when the city’s fantastic music scene comes alive: mbalax musicians often don’t come on stage until midnight, even the vintage legends like Orchestre Baobab (formed in 1970), Cheikh Lo and Thione Seck. The rhythm is tied to sabar breaks, the traditional drumming of Senegal, and whether you love it or hate it, you cannot deny its mesmerizing effect. Nightclubs are also at their best at this time, as les Dakarois engage in one of the city’s most beloved pastimes: mirror dancing (yes, dancing in front of walls of mirrors.) And then, as the music venues and nightclubs empty, comes the call to prayer. If you’re lucky, and the imam at the nearest mosque can sing in tune, this marks a beautiful end to a night out. If you’re not, well, there are always ear plugs.
There is so much more to love about Dakar. The breezy ferry to Ile de Goree, with its disputed slave-trading history and colorful colonial houses draped in bougainvillea. The French boulangeries and patisseries that still bake cakes popular in the 1970s. The men dressed in spectacular, silky boubous kneeling for peaceful prayer at the side of the road. The women frying salted fish and greasy plantains in the street. The fishermen hauling their catches in the shadow of sleek shopping malls. That day each December when thousands upon thousands of white butterflies hatch all over the city. The warmth and conversation in the street; it’s a sweet antidote to the heckling and the hassle. The short, four hour flights to Europe. The art scene. The fashion. The cafe touba. The sugary tea. The contrasts.
More reasons we love Dakar: