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Sahara

Day 36: Dakar to Bamako

Dakar, Senegal 
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Like driving through a department store. The train narrowly misses a market outside Dakar.
Michael Palin - SaharaAn American woman and her companion, a man from Guinea, are at one of the tables. She's a New Yorker living in Dakar. She has silver earrings and a thick pair of Ray-Bans. I ask her what she misses about Dakar when she goes back to the States.

'Oh, just about everything,' she says, drawing out the words with relish. 'The way people say hello to each other, take time to greet each other.'

Greeting is important in Africa. I've noticed that. It's not something that should ever be hurried. We fall to talking about countries and boundaries. Her friend Barik regrets the failure of an attempt to set up a West African federation after independence.

'The countries shouldn't have been isolated. Historically, there were huge states that covered large portions of the Sahara.'

The Mali Empire and the Ghana Empire were two such states. Rich and sophisticated civilisations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when, according to Barik, people travelled in perfect safety across vast areas. The modern states, he thinks, have created arbitrary and unworkable boundaries. He cites the River Sénégal border between Mauritania and Senegal.

'The same people live on both sides of the river, but they can no longer cross freely.'

We're now away from the crowded Dakar corridor and passing through flat countryside studded with the curious battleship-grey baobab trees. With their thick metallic trunks and stubby branches, they look like some prehistoric arboreal throw-back, gnarled and twisted like old prize-fighters.

The baobab is not like other trees. It gets smaller as it grows older. It stores copious amounts of water in its trunk and can survive for hundreds of years, because it won't burn. Its bark provides rope and packing material, its sweet-smelling flowers provide food and decoration and a medicine called alo, its pulp is good for blood circulation and its seeds for fertiliser. Scarcely surprising, therefore, that this ugly duckling is a source of considerable superstition, revered in every community and often used as a burial place. Looking at them as they pass by the window, they look friendless and faintly absurd, and it isn't hard to see why people believe the story that the devil planted them upside down.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 36
  • Country/sea: Senegal
  • Place: Dakar
  • Book page no: 116

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