Naked woman, black woman
Clothed with your colour which is life,
with your form which is beauty!
In your shadow I have grown up; the
gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.
And now, high up on the sun-baked
pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to the heart
like the flash of an eagle. - Leopold Sedar Senghor, “Black Woman”.
The flight into Dakar was smooth. The Virgin Nigeria cabin crew was as helpful as they could be considering the low temperature in the cabin. Their warm laughter made one forget the cold. However, nothing prepared us for the biting weather that welcomed us into the Dakar night sky for it was too chilly for an African country bordering the equator. Temperatures outside the plane were put at 21degrees when many other West African countries are generally at the 30degree mark.
That was our first pleasant surprise as we arrived at Senghor country for a training course organized by FIFA/AFP Foundation to help build up the capacity of African reporters for the World Cup in June. Three TELL staff, Arukaino Umukoro, Tony Onwuemene and I had been selected to represent Nigeria in the training scheme. Senegal bears a lot of tribute to its founding president, the poet-leader, Leopold Sedar Senghor. The international airport bears his name as well as the big wide boulevard in central Dakar where the Palais Presidentiel, the presidential castle, is located. Senegal owes much of its philosophy to Senghor who was the progenitor of Negritude, a cultural movement that celebrated the idea of blackness in the face of racism in colonial France. Till date, the legacy of Senghor is prevalent in the way that arts and culture are celebrated in the country.
Dakar itself is a beautiful woman whom a first time visitor easily falls in love with. The streets are generally clean with impressive architecture that relies on its French heritage and I dare say that if one were to be blindfolded and dropped in the centre of town, one may be forgiven for thinking that it was a European city. In many places the roads are not big but they are effectively monitored to ensure that there is no traffic build up. And the high rise buildings are constructed with very good use of space so that there need not be fences taking over valuable space.
The people I came across were generally friendly. Being a French speaking country, it could be hard to get your message across but with my basic knowledge of the language gotten from spending several months at the Alliance Francaise in Accra, I did not have to suffer too much before getting my opinions across to waiters, taxi drivers, traders and policemen. After just returning from Lome where I had gone to report the Togolese presidential elections, a trip to Dakar was just what I needed to keep my new found opportunity to constantly practice my French. For every one who has ever learnt a language knows that the best way to go about it is to speak constantly for when there is nobody to speak with one readily forgets. So I did parler a lot to the consternation of many of the other Anglophone journos on the course.
One of the most memorable events that I will remember from my Dakar sojourn is that of visiting the Palais Presidentiel alongside colleagues from Nigeria, the Gambia and Liberia in the midnight. Being such an easy going people, the presidential castle is a tourist centre of sorts, one can take pictures in front of it during the day. Nevertheless, our first visit to the castle was at night and we were stopped by guards who demanded to know what our mission was. Our Gambian colleagues who share the Wolof tongue with the officials bailed us out. We were told to come back during the day if we wanted to get pictures of the beautiful white building. Entreaties from our Gambian friends fell on deaf ears. “Can you go to the house of Yayah Jammeh like this” asked the guard to which Musa Lammeh responded in the negative. They were very civil in turning us away. At that moment I thought about the fortress which our Aso Rock is at home and wondered if one could ever cross its many gates without an invitation.
So two days later we finally visit the palace again at the end of our interesting training programme that had been conducted by Barnaby Chesterman, a Rome-based reporter with the Agence France Presse, AFP. This time there was a guard who cut a solitary figure in his red and blue uniform, a gun strapped across his chest with a cavalier red top hat in front of the imposing almost 15 foot high metal gate that enclosed a palm tree lined path which led to the castle. He never smiled throughout as we took permission to take pictures with him. His sense of duty was so important that all he did was nod for us to go ahead. And we shot away, clicking our cameras like wide eyed tourists. It was a beautiful moment in time.
Perhaps most enchanting were the women of Dakar, dressed in their usual kaba, they looked splendid. It was of their enchanting beauty Senghor sang in his many poems in remembrance of his homeland.
Dakar is brimful of beautiful women for it is beauty personified. Walking down its streets sometimes felt like running a hand through the newly braided cornrows on a woman’s head. It was a journey of discovery. Contrary to Conrad’s description of Africa as being the "heart of darkness", Dakar and so many other cities on the continent do actually possess beauty that we all can be proud of.