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It’s totally safe, but be careful – on the safety of a lone woman traveling Senegal

Dakar, capital of Senegal.

On the way to Dakar, capital of Senegal.

June 2013.
With about a weeks notice and time to plan I prepared for my journey to Senegal. Ten days in Dakar for a workshop and then about two weeks of traveling through the country. I had never been to Senegal before or any other African country, so this was absolutely new territory for me.

Of course I read the safety advice on the www of the foreign office, which sounds quite grim. Kidnappings of Westerners in the border regions, underlying threat of terrorism because of Al Qaeda. I’m not sure what to make of the ‘underlying threat of terrorism’ – what does it mean? Sleeper terrorists? I also can’t help but wonder if there is any Muslim country that is not categorised as having at least ‘an underlying threat of terrorism’.  I google ‘terrorism + Senegal’ but it’s mostly travel warnings and talk about threat instead of actual incidents.

Although I know the foreign ministry has to be overly careful because in the worst case they are the ones who are supposed to get you home if you’ve gotten yourself into a right old pickle, I (as usual) try to tone the warning down a notch in my mind. Often it seems that Western media and people are creating fear and suspicion which then helps terrorism in spreading unrest and conflict rather than informing the public objectively.

So, let’s make up a husband

My research continues and I finally find a few more reassuring blogs, that mention foreign women going running on their own in Dakar. The only uncomfortable situation mentioned, was being asked to marry somebody in a slightly verbally aggressive way. I make a mental note to pack my fake wedding ring.

I know in many countries it is quite an alien concept to be over the age of 23 and not married. Sometimes this turns into funny situations in which cab drivers try to set me up with their brother, sometimes it becomes a bit awkward when they want to set me up with themselves and do so in a (verbally) persistent manner. As a result I now have a fake wedding ring, so I don’t have to make up too much stuff but instead just hold me left hand up and say ‘sorry’. This is slightly better than making up a husband as am a terrible liar.

Malaria, Yellow fever or weird bugs – so many unpleasant ways to depart the world

The NHS nurse that gives me my Hep A/Hep B and Yellow Fever vaccines seems slightly annoyed at me for coming on such short notice before the trip and makes up for it with telling me all the different ways I could die of Malaria, weird bugs and an abundance other diseases. After I explain that I really didn’t know that I would be going to Senegal until a few days ago she softens up a bit and tells me she has been to Senegal herself with her husband – ‘beautiful Bird watching, but always prepare your own food. And since your yellow fever shot is only going to start working two days after you arrive in Dakar, you should stay inside air-conditioned rooms!’. Right.. I don’t think that will happen, but I nod anyway. In the end she gives me a great tip where to get the cheapest Malaria tablets. I go for the option with the least side effects.

Location map of Senegal Equirectangular projec...

Senegal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Salût Dakar

After almost missing my connecting flight in Paris to Dakar due to a delay in London I arrive in Dakar. The moment I get off the plane I feel like I got to a place that is completely different from what I’ve seen so far. The air is full of exotic spices, it is warm but not too much thanks to the time of night and the fact that Dakar is at the coast and usually seems to get a nice breeze from the ocean (at least when in the suburbs).

My luggage is still in Paris and so I get into a cab to my hostess, who is a friend and colleague of my UNICEF contact and has kindly offered my her guest room. As she is going on a work trip I’ll be alone with her cat in her house for the first week, except for the guard who is sitting in front of the house.

During the workshop I try to find out more about the actual safety in Dakar, especially for travelling as a Toubab (white) woman alone. I get very mixed feedback. One young woman who also lives in Senegal tells me it’s no problem at all, she goes running regularly on her own, but then admits she’s never traveled on her own. Another person just stares at me incredulously and tells me to be extremely careful. For the first time traveling I feel I can’t really figure out if I should feel comfortable or not traveling alone. There is not really much information on women traveling on their own with public transport. As the touristic infrastructure is very, very basic most people seem to either travel in a group with hired transport or book tours.

The Malaria medicine doesn’t help either. I wake up every night, have strange dreams and my general level of alertness just heightened to an extent I haven’t experienced before. These are quite normal side effects to taking Malaria tablets, however I wasn’t quite as prepared for them as I thought, as I am quite used to be confident about traveling alone.

The pink lake (Lac Retba), famous for its colour and salt production.

The pink lake (Lac Retba), famous for its colour and salt production.

After two-day trips to the beautiful Pink Lake, or Lac Retba how it was originally called, and the Île de Gorée I feel a lot more comfortable. I’ve taken more cabs on my own, which was fine except for a few offers of ‘faire d’Amour’ (make love) that I was able to fend off. I feel like I need to explore and find out more about Senegal.  As I leave my lovely host she tells me: ‘it’s totally safe, but be careful. Don’t go out alone once it’s dark’. I put my backpack on and flag down a cab to the bus station. Senegal, here I come.

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