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Fall 2004 | Surprising Senegal

Fall 2004 | Surprising Senegal

France meets Africa in this land of music and mysticism

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 right.

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 countries."

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)


Getting There

To take a private tour of Senegal, booking through gay-owned 2AFRIKA (877-200-5610, 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.

Gay Info

If you'd like to support the local (French-speaking) gay group Andligeey, e-mail 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 if you have any new information.

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