Senegal is a West African country with a population of around 16 million. French is the official language, Wolof is the national language, and a whole host of other local languages are spoken there. Senegal is home to magnificent beaches, tropical jungles, and expansive deserts.
Read on for five reasons to visit Senegal.
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Five reasons to visit Senegal
I’m not sure many people would think of West Africa or Senegal as a vacation destination, but if you don’t, you are really missing out. I was lucky enough to live and teach in Senegal for a year. I have never known such hospitality and warmth in my life.
I experienced natural beauty in my surroundings, as well as overwhelming inner beauty in the hearts of so many of the people that I met. I was looked after by people who didn’t share my race, religion, background, or nationality. I was fed by strangers and invited to their family events. I was welcomed into my teaching community with open arms. I was made to feel not only that I belonged but that I was at home.
Still need convincing? Good, that’s what I want to do! Here are my top five reasons why you should visit Senegal.
Above, I touched on the incredible hospitality that I experienced during my time in Senegal. This cannot be understated. It is so woven into the cultural fabric of the country that they have a word for it in Wolof – teranga.
Teranga is more than hospitality. It’s the idea that you should be welcoming to everyone, even if they are of a different belief system, part of the world, etc. It’s the idea that everyone should be taken care of. It is why I was given a Senegalese name and was invited to weddings, baptisms, and end-of-Ramadan parties.
Teranga is like a warm greeting, a smiling face, and a home-cooked meal all wrapped into one cultural concept.
Before leaving for Senegal, I did some research about what I could expect to chow down on while I was there. Most of the info that I found said fish and rice were staples. Here are some typical Senegalese foods you can expect to find on your visit.
Thiebou dien, the country’s signature dish, is a mix of rice, fish and vegetables that is seasoned with a blend of spices.
Yassa poulet is my favorite Senegalese dish. It’s chicken with a heavenly pile of caramelized onions on top, which are often cooked with mustard and vinegar for a bit of tang to balance out the sweetness. A few weeks into my time in Senegal, my phone started autocorrecting “yes” to “yassa,” which I guess means I talked about it a lot.
You can also have yassa poisson, which is the same onions with fish instead of chicken.
Mafé is beef or fish cooked in a dense, rich peanut-paste sauce, and is, of course, served over rice.
Soupoukandia is another dish that you have to try. I’m not a huge fan, but it’s adored by locals and is definitely worth tasting if you’re in Senegal. It’s a kind of fish and okra stew.
Most Senegalese people don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons, but they have some of the most delicious juices that I’ve ever tasted. My favorite is called bissap, which is made from the petals of hibiscus flowers. Some people add mint to make it even more refreshing. They make a delicious ginger juice too, as well as one called bouye, which is made from the seeds of the fruit of baobab trees. My second favorite is only available in the summertime. It’s called madd and it’s super tart and citrusy. The most unique one is a green juice made out of a local fruit called ditakh, which, I think, calls to mind a doughnut from outer space.
Senegal is primarily Muslim (about 95%). Roughly 4% of the country is Christian (mainly Catholics), and others practice traditional religions (which are often incorporated into the monotheistic religions as well). You might expect there to be divisions there, or at least tension, but there isn’t any.
Keeping in line with the concept of teranga, Senegalese people coexist peacefully despite their differences in religion. Muslims make special food for their Christian friends and family at Christmas time and during Easter, and the Christians return the favor during Muslim holidays. Sometimes there are Muslims and Christians in the same family.
If Senegal could export one thing to this world, I wish this would be it. It’s incredible to see people coexisting, loving each other, and working towards a common good despite their differences.
Senegal is home to countless amazing musicians, dancers, and visual artists. I was lucky enough to attend a concert by Touré Kunda while I was there, a group that started performing in the late 1970s and enjoyed international success. They’re from the Casamance region, where I lived, and they perform in many of the local languages spoken there. One of the original members passed away in 1985, and the remaining members are quite elderly now, but they brought the house down! Check out one of their hits here.
I also went to a dance show featuring a troupe that specialized in dances from the Casamance region. The music and moves were enough to make anyone get up out of their seat.
Dakar has a thriving art scene, with tons of small galleries and museums that can be explored. There are also lots of local markets throughout the country where artisans feature their goods, including bags, clothes, decorations, hats, jewelry, and so much more.
There’s a world-famous jazz festival in a small city called Saint Louis every year. Performers and music lovers come from around the world to visit the city and enjoy the music.
It is a terrible truth that millions of Africans were taken from or passed through Senegal on their way to be sold as slaves in different parts of the world. This tragedy is memorialized in Senegal on the Ile de Gorée, or Gorée island, off the coast of Dakar. There you can visit the Maison des Esclaves, or the Slave House, where those who had been captured and enslaved were kept before they were packed into boats and sailed across the Atlantic, never to return home.
Ile de Gorée is a difficult place to visit. It’s painful to think of the evil that took place there. The beauty of the island does not befit its dark history. It is hard not to feel deeply saddened as an American visiting the island and the house, and I can’t even begin to fathom what it must be like to visit it and know that your ancestors were held captive in those tiny rooms before being ripped from their homes and families and forced into a life of slavery.
Despite the difficulty, it is an important place to visit. For more details on the history of the island, check out the UNESCO page dedicated to it.
Still not convinced?
Do you need more than five reasons to visit Senegal? There are many others – the natural beauty, the amazing birds and wildlife, the variety of languages, the fashion, I could go on and on – but I do have to say at the heart of it all are the people.
It’s hard to put into words the experience of being so welcomed in a place that at first seemed so foreign. When you travel a lot, you start to realize that people, in general, are good, and never was this notion more reinforced than when I experienced teranga in Senegal, far from home with terrible French skills, very few clues about the local culture, and not a friend in sight.
I’ll leave you with one final scenario.
One night, I was invited to dinner with a group of teachers at a place I had never been to in Ziguinchor, my host city. When I had arrived a few months earlier, a colleague at the university had put me in touch with a friend of his who was a taxi driver. I had been told that it’s wise to connect with a taxi driver who is recommended to you, so I always called the same guy when I needed to go somewhere. The night of the dinner, he was unavailable, as was his friend who I had called a few other times for a lift when my guy was busy. I really wanted to go to the dinner, so I decided to find another taxi.
I went out to the main street near my apartment and a few taxis whizzed by without stopping. I noticed another one barreling down the road and stuck my arm out, but put it down after I saw that there were three people in the back and one in the front. To my surprise, the taxi stopped and reversed, and the passengers, two teenage girls and two teenage guys, asked where I was going. I told them.
“Get in!” they said. I resisted and told them I could wait for another one. They insisted and squished over in the back seat so I could join them. “We didn’t want you waiting out there alone at night,” they said. I thanked them profusely and got in. “No need to thank us,” they said. “It’s normal. On est ensemble.“
On est ensemble. We are together. Those three words met my ears, and I felt my heart lift. So this cab full of kids had seen me, an obvious foreigner, unable to find a taxi, and what did they do? They made the taxi driver stop, made extra room for me, and made sure I got to my destination. Why? Because that’s what Senegalese people do. Because teranga. Because we are together.
And we are, aren’t we? How much better would the world be if everybody realized that?
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