Saturday, June 25, 2011

Missing the Dakar Riots

Saint Louis, Senegal
24-25 June 2011

Yesterday morning my friends who were visiting from the States and I departed Dakarjust before the riots started. We had planned to visit Lompoul and Saint Louis and had reservations at the tent camp out in the small patch of desert by the sea in Lompoul. The day before riot police had taken up positions around key government buildings and when we left at 7am the National Assembly had been barricaded and riot police were in position at key intersections throughout the city, even into Rufisque. Things were still calm and it seemed like it would be a normal day but before we arrived in Thies I got a phone call from a friend warning me to stay out of the downtown area as over 10,000 protesters had blocked off the area and were throwing rocks at cars and burning tires. As an American living in Senegal I subscribe to the US Embassy Warden systems (sign up through the Embassy webpage) so I get emails about demonstrations and started getting text messages as the rioters moved about town.

In Theis we arrived in town as several hundred protesters reached the large traffic circle at the center of town. They seemed to be marching peacefully and were escorted by police. Other police with riot shields and gear stood at the corners but nobody was fighting. At lunch our waiter became upset when I commented on how peaceful the march was and he wanted me to know that he was angry too and everybody needed to know that things had to change.

After leaving Theis we headed north to Kebemer and turned left at the horse statue and drove out to Lompoul village. There we met our guide who led us into a patch of orange desert surrounded by eucalyptus trees where we rode camels and slept in tents among the sandy dunes. Unfortunately there were no bed nets in the tents and we we're swarmed by Mosquitos all night long.

The next morning after a light breakfast we powered our way out of the sand dunes back to the road and drove down to Lompul by the sea and checked out the fish drying stations. Then we turned around and drove the rest of the way to Saint Louis and checked into our hotel. Later that afternoon we hired a horse buggy and guide who drove us around the island and fishing village on the Langue de Barberie. All the kids were out swimming in the green river and catching small fish by hand lines. We didn't see many tourists around and the vendors were more aggressive than normal and prices for the trinkets seemed higher than usual. My friends enjoyed walking around but by the end of the day we were all burned out by all the kids who constantly thronged us with their hands out demanding a "cadeau" (gift) or "argent" (money).

Saturday morning when we got up and loaded our bags into the Landcruiser a mob of kids was waiting for us and banged on the windows of the restaurant while we ate breakfast. On the way off the island we stopped at the Aeropostal Museum and for 1,500 CFA each we got to read old poster boards about how airmail traffic used to be routed from South America across the Atlantic to Saint Louis, then north over the desert to France. The highlight of the museum was a couple old model airplanes under foggy plastic domes.

The ride back to Dakar was pretty easy and the weather was cooler due to some rain that fell during the night. Many of the streets in Theis were flooded and the car washers were disappointed that they couldn't was cars in the light sprinkles that fell in the afternoon. We did make another stop on the way home just north of Theis to buy some handwoven baskets. I highly recommend checking out the roadside basket and pottery vendors just north of Theis on the road to Saint Louis. The prices for the baskets were 80% lower than in Dakar and the people were very glad to see us. My friends and I each spent about 20,000 CFA and loaded up the back of the Landcruiser with all sizes and colors of baskets.

Back in Dakar things seemed almost normal with a few more police in riot fewer hanging out in the Place d'Independence, Presidential Palace, and the Ministry of Interior. The only real damage I could see in my quick drive the area was the green metal fence between the Cathedral and the Catholic School was bent down to the ground. The only windows smashed just happened to be the ones at the entry to my apartment. The guard told me that a mob had come down the street and gathered in front of the building and was throwing stones and trying to get in the building, but eventually were driven away or moved on to another area. I guess I should be glad I was out of town.

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