Fall 2004 | Surprising Senegal
The dry winds of the Sahel blow all the way through Dakar.
The Sahara may be hundreds of miles away, but its taste is in the air as I gaze
over the Atlantic to the pastel colonial edifices of Gor?e Island. This slave
fortress, an abode to so much human pain over the centuries, looks nearly cheerful
in the insistent Senegalese sunshine. "African-Americans break down and weep
when they see where people were piled up in the holding bins," my guide Baboo
says as we stroll over cobblestones. "It's a hard history."
But this French-speaking West African nation of 10 million
is far from seeing itself as a victim. In fact, Senegal is nothing short of
an African success story. Its stable government has never experienced a coup
d'?tat, and it's one of the most prosperous countries in the region. Women saunter
down the streets of the capital, Dakar, in dazzling fashions; nightclubs pump
with a thriving local music scene; restaurants in French-style buildings serve
coq au vin and cappuccinos. Dakar is galaxies away from the war-and-famine Africa
that seems to be the only one shown on CNN.
But mysticism bubbles beneath the surface. Bearded men in
robes play strange twangs on gourd guitars, and woman pound grain with log poles
in perfect rhythm on the city's outskirts. And the dry, dusty African breezes
continually speak of the continent's long and intricate life span.
A Shining Example
The lion's share of the world's HIV-positive people--about
70%--live in Africa, but some countries like Senegal have made significant progress
in dealing with the disease. Less than 5% of its population is HIV-positive
(some sources say less than 1%), where in parts of southern Africa it's up to
40%. Why the difference? Simple proactiveness. In 1986 the government developed
a national system of blood screening for transfusions and other education programs.
Senegal was also the first African nation to successfully negotiate a 90% reduction
in the inflated cost of anti-HIV drugs purchased from international pharmaceutical
firms. In 2003 on Gor?e Island, just off Dakar, President Bush said in a speech,
"In the face of spreading disease, we will join with you in turning the tide
against AIDS in Africa. We know that these challenges can be overcome because
history moves in the direction of justice." Senegal is determined to prove him
The Long Road to Gay Identity
Senegal is one of the most tolerant Muslim societies on earth,
with wide religious freedoms, a taste for sexy fashions, and even legal prostitution.
But when Senegal's first gay organization, Groupe Andligeey (the latter word
translates as "walking together"), tried to arrange a meeting of some of its
400 members in 2001 at a Dakar hotel, the nation's Interior Ministry immediately
moved to thwart the gathering "so that such a demonstration is not organized
on national territory," the ministry said in a statement. When I talked to the
soft-spoken president of Andligeey (who didn't want his name published), he
told me about a law that makes homosexuality illegal in Senegal, even though
gay sex is very common for married men. "As long as Andligeey sticks to AIDS
education, we stay out of trouble." Although gay foreigners are rarely harassed,
problems for local gays occurred again in 2002 at a party on Dakar's Monaco
Beach, when six men were arrested and thrown in jail for six months. No gays
are imprisoned now, and Andligeey encourages gay and lesbian tourists to come
to Senegal. "It's the only way for people to understand that there are two very
different gay worlds: the one in the Western world and the one in developing
A Very Homo Past
Although it may not seem like a gay mecca today, Dakar has
quite the homo history. In the 1930s French anthropologists observed among the
Wolof tribe "men-women" called gor-digen, who "do their best to deserve
the epithet by their mannerisms, their dress and their makeup; some even dress
their hair like women. They do not suffer in any way socially, though the Mohammedans
refuse them religious burial." (The word gor-digen is still widely used
today to mean gay men in Senegal.) In 1958, writer Michael Davidson described
visiting special brothels on the outskirts of Dakar that were filled with boys
in drag. Due to the establishments' remote locations, these were evidently not
for foreigners but for local Senegalese themselves. Today, griots (musician-singers
who keep alive the region's oral history tradition) are often gay, and recently
there have been vague rumors of male same-sex weddings by Senegalese, and married
men who take on other men as their second or third "wives." All very queer indeed.
(Source: Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexuality,
edited by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe)
To take a private tour of Senegal, booking through gay-owned
2AFRIKA (877-200-5610, www.2afrika.com) is recommended--especially
if you don't speak French. 2AFRIKA can organize whole trips
including excursions to villages, beaches, the famous Pink Lake, and more--complete
with a guide-translator and private driver. Weeklong packages with airfare from
New York City start at around $1,400.
(Dial 011 before all numbers)
Inexpensive: On atmospheric Gor?e Island, stay at
the Hostellerie du
Chevalier de Boufflers (221-822-5364; $30-$45), located right off
the main dock. It's a charming red pastel building with a handful of African-decorated
rooms and a good restaurant overlooking the ocean. Dakar's La Voile d'Or beach
is popular with both gays and the military, and day use of the beach costs you
a buck; or stay the night here at the simple but comfy Monaco Plage Bel Air
(221-832-2260; $30-$50) housed in a bright-yellow building.
Moderate/Expensive: The Lagon
II (Route de la Corniche Est, Dakar; 221-889-2525; $160-$230) is
a funky orange geometric-shaped hotel, built over the water on a cliff. The
gaudy decor is pure early 1970s, but the place is spotless. Or try the four-star
Hotel la Croix
du Sud (20 Ave. Albert Sarraut; 221-889-7878; $75-$200),
a classy and chic hotel with renovated rooms and a sophisticated lounge in a
1951 building in the center of Dakar.
For a taste of Dakar go to the pleasant two-story Casa
Cr?ole (21 Blvd. Dijily Mbaye at Pinet Laprade; 221-823-4081; $8-$15),
serving international cuisine with a French slant. The interior has a balcony
eating area, a waterfall, and stained glass. At the arts and crafts marketplace
Village Artisanal in Soumb?dioune, check out the La Jet? de Soumb?dioune
Restaurant (221-566-4535; $8-$13). They have live Senegalese music
on the weekends, and it's a great place to watch the
fishermen bring in their catch on brightly painted boats.
The nightclub Kilimanjaro (221-566-7820)
at the Village Artisanal is a real hoot, with a checkerboard dance floor, a
fake bus, a mirrored ceiling, and lots of sparkles; at times it draws a queer
crowd on Friday nights (the club's owner is said to be bisexual). A must is
the small gay-owned nightclub the Iguane Caf? (26 Rue Jules
Ferry; 221-822-6553 or 221-575-7838), with a Cuban interior dedicated to Fidel
Castro and Che Guevara, complete with camouflaged sofas. It's popular with French
military personnel and local gays.
If you'd like to support the local (French-speaking) gay
group Andligeey, e-mail [email protected]
or call 221-646-2687.
The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at [email protected] if you have any new information.