Nightlife in Dakar is difficult to describe. In an overwhelmingly majority Muslim country, women tend to remain in private areas like the home. During the day in Dakar, the ratio of men to women on the street is probably about 60 to 40. At night at the clubs, a conservative estimate would be 80 t0 20.
The clubs in Dakar don’t even open until about 1:30 am, but between 2 and (at least) 5 am they are packed with gyrating masses, dancing to an eclectic mixture of mbaalax, American R&B, and Latin inspired music. Perhaps the funniest thing as an American student is the décor in the nightclubs; mirrors line wall to wall and everyone—including young men– dances individually and “practices” in front of the mirrors. Nobody drinks, but everybody dances—even when they don’t have partners. It is completely normal to see a dance floor filled entirely with men having a great time.
Music is constantly played in Senegal, in the streets of the neighborhoods, in the houses, in the parks. Even the elderly tap along to the music videos of young Senegalese singers in clubs with girls in tiny dresses and champagne. Akon is the king here, born and raised in Dakar but successfully transitioned to the American radio. I strongly suggest that anyone interested look up the artists Titi, Vivianne, Youssou N’dour, Ousame Sec, and Brick & Lace. All of these artists are virtual obsessions here in Senegal and many combine English and Wolof in their songs.
Perhaps the most commonly used word as an American female living in a traditional Senegalese household is “jai fonda”, translated most easily as “ba donk a donk.” Though the majority of Senegalese young adults are incredibly thin and toned, ample derrieres are intensely sought after. A woman can buy bike shorts with padding to wear under her clothes to increase her jai fonda, and the traditional long skirts of a Senegalese girl in the house are replaced with skin tight, shiny, mini-dresses and heels at the clubs. My host mother has taken to patting my rear after meals to ensure that I do not lost mine; she comments each day if it feels bigger or smaller and then decides how much more she would like me to eat.
In addition to the miniskirts and padded bike shorts, Senegalese fashion is filled with some strange choices. Down parkas, wool scarves, and ski hats are incredibly popular here, despite it never dropping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Also worn are “American” t-shirts, such as a Dominoe’s pizza uniform or that of a copy repair man company. Despite these humorous accents, Senegalese fashion is much more modern and hip-hop inspired than I imagined. The girls and boys all wear tons of bling, and the word for looking like a baller here is “blow”–the ultimate compliment.
For me and my American girl friends, going clubbing has been an incredibly fun but occasionally harrowing experience. We prefer to take my brothers, in their early 20s, out with us, because we all enjoy dancing together but also because it creates a more secure dynamic. As a student living here, I simply cannot afford to frequent the tourist clubs of Les Almandines, where entry fees are sometimes more expensive than those of the US. I cannot stress enough how big the club scene is here; for example, there is never a black out in a night club, because they’re the only ones who can afford generators.
We prefer the local clubs where they play mbaalax and we are not surrounded by other Toubabs. As one of the rare Toubabs in the club, I generally find myself being watched. While the Senegalese club-goers pay little attention to the decked out Senegalese girls, my friends and I are generally surrounded in a circle while wearing jeans—known to us at this point as the “fish bowl effect.” And, unlike in the US where boys are generally hesitant to ask girls to dance, the Senegalese men often simply take your wrist and pull you closer. The appropriate reaction to this gesture is to point at one of my Senegalese brothers and proclaim “sama jekker”—“that’s my husband.” The aggressing male then generally backs off from the Toubab and instead congratulates the other Senegalese man.
It is important to reiterate that I never feel unsafe in the clubs, and instead the eyes of many have a sort of protective barrier. More than once, if a fellow Senegalese man has gotten overly aggressive and ignored my excuses, another Senegalese will come over and calmly take him aside and they will end up chatting like old friends for the rest of the night.
Another rather strange dimension to the nightlife is the possibility of being stopped by a police officer. Any uniformed officer can demand identification, and if you don’t have it it becomes a negotiation of bribery. Though I have never been stopped and always keep my notarized passport copy on me, the thought remains rather intimidating.
My next post will detail my spring break adventures!
Nama naleen — missing you all!