Into Dakar: An introduction to cultural interaction

As a travel writer, it’s almost cliché to say that a particular culture has the “most friendly, welcoming people in the world.” In truth, it’s easy to be see altruism and warmth when in that culture-hungry state of mind – even if it’s not at the surface, the brain interprets what it wants to find.

Alternatively, consider the Senegalese in this way: they take greetings and pleasentries to a whole new level outside of the empty cordialities of another country. It’s all illustrated in their greetings. Where many in other countries kiss cheeks four times, or mutter a “good day,” the locals here shake hands. Emphatically. Not among friends or colleagues, mind you, but preceding any physical presence.

One enters into a conversation or setting, for example, by shaking hands with everyone and opening with a “Ça va?” or “How are things?” Depending on the familarity between each pair, handshakes get more complicated and include fist bumps, hand slaps and all sorts of exagerrated motions. Put two large groups together and introductions can take a while.

Children pick up the habit from a young age, grazing hands with those they pass and wandering off in one single, dreamy motion, as if it’s programmed into their DNA. On the street, if a taxi driver is outside of his vehicle you shake his hand, exchange greetings and begin to negotiate prices. It’s almost a cordial declaration of war.

In a more formal environment, walking into a business, for example, one opens with the Wolof “Salama le’koum” or roughly “Peace be upon you,” to which you’ll always receive an “Upon you be peace.”

As a toubab (Wolof for “white person”) in Dakar, one is treated with respect, just like any member of the community. Notwithstanding the adaptation to non-western amenities, the most trouble that a tourist might have is in braving the markets and in negotiating taxis.

Like in many developing countries, market vendors are aggressive and a toubab will pay a fortune if bartering isn’t aggressive in kind. A pair of plastic sandals that should cost $3, for example, starts at $30 in the marketplace, while wooden trinkets advertised at $20 should cost less than $5. Similarly, taxi drivers (especially from the airport) will try to charge outrages prices for journeys across the city.

Bantering with prices is a way of life in Dakar though, and just like a visitor, locals have to argue for fair value as well. Once one gets used to the system, knows the proper price and sticks to it, the bartering system becomes a simple daily routine, and the faster one acclimates to it, the faster one can become comfortable in the culture. Only after crossing this line, integrating with the culture and really soaking in the way of life in Senegal does one really then start to appreciate this wonderful place.