Lions, Legends and the Pull of History in Senegal’s Energetic Capital

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. His last dispatch was from Lyon and Marseille where he found himself falling for the underdog.

Though they were once plentiful, today there are fewer than 50 lions left in Senegal. Imagine my surprise then, when I found myself surrounded by four of them, just an hour’s drive from central Dakar. Crouching close to the ground, they paced, the circle tightening. They gnashed their teeth and growled as they inched closer and closer. Then, one had my T-shirt in its jaws; the other, my camera strap. Pulled in different directions, I gave in, and produced a wad of 1,000-franc notes in my sweat-covered palm. One by one, hands shaking, I offered up the bills. The lions took turns, grabbing the tattered notes between their teeth before slipping back into the night.

This was Simb, an interpretation of a legend involving a lone hunter who once faced a lion and left with part of its soul. During the rainy season, regular men become possessed by the spirits of lions, transforming into “false lions.” They cover their faces with thick, terrifying face paint and wear manes made of dried reeds and goat fur. They lose their words, resorting to grunts, growls and roars. They chase crowds of screaming children through the neighborhood after dark. They dance — leaping into the air, spinning in circles, throwing high kicks and windmilling their arms with feverish abandon, undaunted by the September humidity that makes the air feel as heavy as a lead blanket and wet as a bath. If they catch you, it’s because they’re hungry and you’re too slow. And money is the only thing that satiates them.

For almost four hours, my partner, Maggie, and I stood transfixed in an amphitheater of cracked sidewalk and hot asphalt, watching the false lions put on a show for the suburb of Pikine. Children clapped along to the interlocking rhythms that thundered from a circle of drummers sounding like a fleet of helicopters. Proceedings reached a fever pitch when the “lionesses” — men dressed in drag — joined the party: Palms held out in front of them, they kicked out dance moves at a speed that blurred their limbs. There was one final number with all the lions and lionesses out at once, and then, as if it had never happened, it was over. Like after the ringing of the school bell, everyone moved at once, disappearing down the lamp-lit streets.

“This is happening all week,” one of the community leaders said to us as we left. “You’ll come again tomorrow, won’t you?”

I’ve felt drawn to Dakar and the country of Senegal for a long time. There’s the music: traditional drumming rhythms like sabar that I can spend hours listening to and never really understand, and more modern sounds like mbalax, a one-of-a-kind mash-up of old school rhythms, Congolese rumba and soul. There’s the history, too: Despite a cruel and tragic past that included centuries of colonialism and slavery, since independence, Senegal has been a relative oasis of political stability and democracy in a region infamous for coups and supervillain dictators.

What I didn’t quite expect was how hard I’d fall for something even less tangible than music or freedom of expression. In Dakar, I fell for a vibe. This was all the more surprising considering the warnings I had received in the lead up to our visit. We were going at the exact wrong time, tourists and expats past told us, at the tail-end of the rainy season when the humidity pushes the heat index up 20 degrees and plans can be washed away in thunderous downpours that turn streets into rushing rivers of mud. The malaria-carrying mosquitoes would be out in force — whole clouds of them that would render even the most DEET-heavy repellent useless. Heck, even the famous pink lake of Retba wasn’t pink this time of year.

But I’ve learned by now — in the Falkland Islands in the dead of winter and the Pacific Coast of Mexico at the height of summer — not to be afraid of the low season. Over a million people live in Dakar, and go about their business every day, even in September. They cram into car rapides — minibuses hand-painted in clashing colors — on their way to work. They go into the maze of the city’s markets, somehow finding their way back out again.

Landing in the city with that mind-set, we quickly found ourselves swept up in its bustling pace, its sense of freedom and pockets of tranquillity.

To see the city at its most entropic, we spent a day mostly on foot. Once you’ve sweated through every thread of clothing on your body, it actually doesn’t feel that hot. In the area of Médina, we walked through neighborhood after neighborhood and still, somehow, were in Médina. Murals depicted the legendary lineups of soccer teams — each neighborhood has its own. Taxis, battered Toyota sedans, many of them rapidly approaching seven digits on the odometer, rolled by, the portraits of different Sufi sect leaders dangling from their rearview mirrors. Small circles of people took shelter from the noonday sun under plastic tarps, sipping on cups of café tuba, a spiced coffee heavily dosed with sugar.

Marché Tilène, the first of five open-air markets we walked through in a single day, appeared out of nowhere and swallowed us whole. Fabric, dyed in bright patterns, was being sold by the meter and tailors focused on intricate stitching jobs, somehow zoning out the nonstop activity around them. Passing into a warehouselike space, we were assaulted with the stench of fish and raw meat. Piled like logs, five-foot monsters of fish were on sale, along with crustaceans that looked like they’d been beamed in from another planet. Alongside them were whole racks of cow ribs swinging on rusted hooks. The vendors waved fans in front of their wares in a futile attempt to deter the swarming flies. Looking up, I saw the ceiling of the space was covered with wasp nests, sagging precariously over the thousands of people moving through the market.

  • There is plenty of good food to eat in Dakar, both local and international fare. For the classics, we loved Chez Ndioufa, on the edge of Dakar-Plateau, and La Calebasse, near Mamelles. If it’s your first encounter with Senegalese food, try yassa: your choice of marinated protein cooked in a spicy, vinegary sauce that’s highly addictive. For seafood, head to the string of restaurants along the water at Pointe des Almadies and go for whichever spot is the most crowded. Order the whole thiof, a kind of grouper.

  • For the best view of the city, climb up to the Mamelles Lighthouse. The tour offered at the top is fascinating and gives you the opportunity to go to the very top for 360-degree views of the city. Come back after sunset, when the lighthouse is home to one of the city’s best bars and live music venues.

  • Dakar felt very safe for a city of its size, even though I don’t speak a word of French. Still, it can help to have a guide, especially when navigating the city’s markets. We hired Almamy Badiane, a local guide who is deeply knowledgeable about the city and the culture, speaks flawless English and was open to customizing our day with him on the fly.

  • The new Museum of Black Civilizations was one of the just-opened attractions that put Dakar on the 52 Places list this year, and I was very excited to see it. Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment: Besides the fact that so many plundered artifacts from the continent are still being held in museums in Europe, the museum was also using the low season as a chance to rotate out its galleries, and the two main exhibition rooms were closed. Still, the building itself is beautiful and there’s a sense of possibility in the space, so it’s absolutely worth visiting (just call ahead to make sure it’s fully open).

At Mali Market, recently moved to make space for new construction, four men hammered out a meditative rhythm using giant wooden mallets. They were beating wax into dyed cloth to give it an extra shine. I could barely lift one of the hammers with two hands. They had a full day of one-handed hammering ahead of them. At the comparatively tame (and tourist-friendly) Soumboudienne Market, down an alleyway and around a corner, an extended family of wood carvers were working through the sweltering afternoon heat. Music blared from a shortwave radio. One person carved, another whittled away the loose ends, another sanded the little statuettes down until they were smooth.

For hours, there wasn’t a moment of silence. In the taxis, music blared out of straining car speakers and the din of traffic poured in through perpetually open windows. But elsewhere — and this is what makes Dakar special — were moments of profound peace.

Dakar sits on a kite-shaped peninsula, the “nose of Africa” we heard one person call it. Just offshore are a handful of islands used by locals as weekend respites from the rush of the mainland. From a beach on the northern shore of the peninsula, we loaded onto a far-too-packed boat for the short trip to Ngor Island. The minute our feet hit the sand, time slowed. We walked away from the main beach, past art galleries and workshops to a rocky cove. The ocean, breaking just a few hundred feet offshore, was full of children and teenagers surfing. They expertly rode giant swells until bailing in spectacular back flips. When one of Dakar’s infamous rainstorms came barreling in, the thunder so loud it made my ears ring, we took shelter under the palm roof of a restaurant on the sand and watched the water come down in sheets while sharing a whole grouper grilled over an open flame.

Most visitors to Dakar opt for a trip to Gorée Island, both for its beauty — colorful buildings and alleyways leading to swimmable beaches — and its tragic history. Gorée is home to the House of Slaves, an 18th-century building that housed kidnapped enslaved Africans before they were forced across the Atlantic. The extent of the house’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade is disputed by historians, with some claiming that it’s been exaggerated as a way to attract tourists, especially those of African ancestry. But regardless of the exact number of people who passed through the building and experienced its horrors, the truths their stories tell resound throughout ports across the continent. A dark room labeled “enfants”; an ominous concrete doorway opening out onto the Atlantic, the so-called “Point of No Return”; the tiny recesses in the wall used as solitary confinement cells: If it’s not the historical site some claim it to be, it’s still a gut-wrenching memorial to that chapter in history.

It also served as a strange juxtaposition to what was happening on the rest of the island. The museum was packed when we came on a Sunday, but the beach was even more crowded. Coming in on the ferry, we could hear the revelers even before we saw them. A D.J. blared out remixes of Nigerian, Ghanaian and Senegalese bangers (which I repeatedly Shazammed to no avail), while families and groups of friends stood in knee-deep water, dancing. They drummed out rhythms on waves and laughed so loud, the sound echoed through the concrete alleyways that crisscross the island. Two local teams faced off in a soccer match in a sandy courtyard, while others sipped sodas and looked on. One patch of land near the water had been turned into a nomadic tent camp, with Dakarois families setting up for the whole weekend, entire kitchens packed into their coolers and shopping bags.

And then there was our final day. Following a lead we had picked up, we walked from our Airbnb in the quiet, dusty neighborhood of Mamelles toward the beach. The road ended and we followed a trail of sand past steep dunes and sun-baked surfers on their way back home. We reached Chez Max, a tiny bubble of beachy paradise, and ordered a round of cold Gazelle tallboys just as the sun began to set. Two teenagers were knee-deep in the surf, taking turns posing in the evening glow. An old man cast out his line as water lapped at his feet.

Travel is falling in love with a city halfway around the world and leaving unsure whether you’ll ever see it again. But, like any deep emotion, it’s not always simple. Travel is also the cognitive dissonance between the perfect moment and the crushing weight of history — and with no way to fully wrap your head around it all, sometimes all you can do is look out at the waves and wonder.