“In Dakar, you do one thing in the morning, and one thing in the afternoon”. This is the advice I received from a friend before my first ever trip to Senegal’s capital, or to anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter. It was the advice she’d received from a friend upon her arrival in the city, where she tried to take life at her standard pace, and failed. I have no excuse, since I’d been forewarned, but learning how to take life ndank ndank (slowly slowly) is still a work in progress for me. Dakar is a strict teacher though; there’s punishment in store if you go too fast, but when you go slow, this vast, chaotic city starts to make sense.
My first lesson in living the slow life came on my very first day. I was anxious to see the city – all of it! All at once! To go here, there, and everywhere! But Iberia managed to leave my suitcase in Madrid, meaning I had nothing in Dakar apart from the clothes I’d already been wearing for the past 24 hours. So my first morning was spent in Ouakam market, haggling for skirts, t-shirts and sandals of various shapes and sizes, in the vague hope that they might sort of fit when I put them on. But that was the best training-ground possible for life in Dakar. I learned the basic rules of etiquette and haggling, in part from speaking to so many vendors, and in part from the pure, desperate fact that I didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend on clothes, and it taught me that Dakar is made up of districts which are basically independent villages, with their own markets, shops, and goats grazing in the middle of the sandy streets.
I also quickly came to understand that walking anywhere in Dakar, even around a relatively compact area, is an exhausting experience, where you have to trudge through sand and dodge honking taxis, all in unrelenting heat and clouds of dust. As someone who loves to explore new places on foot, this is something I’m still learning, and paying for it with sunburn, total fatigue, and a nice coating of dust and exhaust fumes at the end of each day.
The second, beautifully ironic, way to understand Dakar’s ndank ndank pace is to jump aboard a car rapide, which can only have been given that name as a joke. These tiny minibuses lurch through the interminable traffic jams which line Dakar’s main highways, and are held up even further by attempts to cram as many people as is physically possible on board, as if attempting to break some kind of world record. Then, since these old, creaking minibuses are loaded almost to breaking point, you chug along slower than ever. The only quick bit is when you realise you’re nearing the place where you want to get off, so you clang the roof as loudly as you can to alert the driver, who swings in to a screeching halt, and you have to extricate yourself from the tangle of limbs and jump out the back doors, hopefully before the thing pulls off again and leaves you in a heap on the road.
But living ndank ndank isn’t always a trial of patience and heat exhaustion. It does take a re-wiring of your internal clock though, the one which says: ‘I should be working now!’ ‘I have to explore now!’ ‘I have to tick off my to-do list!’ It’s the one with guilt attached, which pushes you from task to task and leaves you feeling like you never have enough time. But spend some time in Dakar, and those thoughts start to drift away on the Harmattan wind. You find a rooftop, somewhere in the midst of the city, but which feels miles away from it. There, friends appear, one by one, bringing a little stove, some coal, a teapot and glasses. You pull up a chair, a box, or just find a comfy spot on the roof tiles. As the heat slowly dissipates from the day and the sky is a cool, pale blue, just tinged with orange, there is nothing to do except sit, chat, drink tea, and watch videos of Youssou N’Dour on someone’s smartphone balanced ingeniously on a water bottle and a shoe.
Making Senegalese tea is a ritual which, in itself requires you to go slowly. There’s the lighting of the stove, and waiting for the coals to turn to cinder. There’s the slow adding of the tea leaves, mint and sugar to the kettle, and allowing it to brew for a time. There’s the pouring of the toffee-coloured liquid from one tiny glass to another to create a froth, and returning to the kettle until the taste develops. There’s the offering of the tea, the slow drinking, the savouring of its sweetness and depth. Then the process starts all over again, since there are six people and only two glasses. And so the afternoon is whiled away, with people coming and going, neighbours hanging out of windows to have a chat and share the tea, as the sun slowly sets on Dakar.
I’m learning, ndank ndank. I’m not quite there yet: today I have three things to do, which is still one too many, but it’s a lot better than the 50 million I had when I arrived. But the third thing will be sitting on that Dakar rooftop with some friends and drinking tea as the sun goes down.