The Markets of Dakar

Sandaga Market is Senegal writ-small, a place where the identity of Senegal itself is bought and sold.

On the outskirts of a sprawling marketplace, a team of tourists stumble out of a yellow taxicab and into a roundabout, encircled by shoppers entering the jigsaw of market stalls. Swarmed on all sides by women heaving baskets over their shoulders and children hawking sugarcoated peanuts, they negotiate the ride’s final price in a mixture of broken French and broken Wolof. A group of men, watching from the sidewalk, exchange a few glances before one emerges from the sea of people. He approaches the newcomers and, grinning ear to ear, says, “Hello friends, what are we shopping for today?”

Marché Sandaga, located in the heart of Dakar’s downtown, expands well beyond the dilapidated structure that the market was originally named for. Like a living creature, it has slowly consumed surrounding streets and apartment buildings, converting any open space into more market stalls. Kilometers of sandy roads are dedicated to small shops of imported clothing, used electronics, and groceries. Attempts to shut down, regulate, or police these stalls—motivated by storefront owners who disapproved of their real estate being used by merchants—have routinely failed, so the market lives on. While the innermost corridors of the market are too crowded for cars to navigate, the roundabout at the market’s “entrance” acts as the de facto taxi drop-off. It is the eye of the storm—or perhaps two storms—where one must choose to enter the financial fray of independent vendors or dissolve into the crowded restaurants and clubs of the commercial district. Dakar natives know better than to respond to the men who linger at the roundabout and guide people into the turbulent masses, which doesn’t bother these market hustlers: The real customers are foreigners.

The market men have their salesmanship down to a science: For first-timers, they act as much needed guides to the market’s expanse, so their offered assistance at the taxicab is well-received. They appeal to tourists’ outsider status, promising to show them both authentic Senegalese merchandise and proper Senegalese bartering manners. Once a tourist is hooked, they lay on the flattery and work to build a relationship. If you’re from Chicago, they’re Michael Jordan’s biggest fan. New York? They have a cousin there who raves about the pizza. All of them have the same favorite movie (Titanic), and any white man with short brown hair looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio (the highest praise). By the time they’ve shown you what you’re looking for, you’re already friends, so when they ask that you stop by their brother’s shop—which is right around the corner—you can’t refuse. Unlike the open air of the market, the crowded shop is claustrophobic, every wall lined with the vivid colors of African textiles. Between the rainbow wares, cacophony of voices, and sudden, intense awareness of each bill in your wallet, you develop a disorienting synesthesia. The shop is where they put their true skills to the test. More men emerge to pick off different members of your group, and they prevent cross-customer communication. The prices? A secret, and highly discounted—just for you. Each item is handcrafted right here in Senegal (which isn’t necessarily a lie, and they’ll take you to the factory to prove it). Trying to stop this process at any turn requires a firm, even callous defiance, and the deeper you go, the harder it is to get out.

Venture elsewhere in Dakar and these market guides fizzle out. Sandaga is the hub of a rich network of salesmen targeting tourists, and while some of their tactics can be found in the fabric stalls of Marché Colobane or along the Corniche at roadside art vendors, Sandaga is home to the vast factory building where authentic Senegalese clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, and instruments are made. Some of the fabric used to produce these wares is taken from Senegambian producers who use traditional materials, colors, and styles, but many textiles are bought straight from Turkey, Sweden, and Iran. Premade t-shirts and button-ups imported from India are affixed with Senegalese accents, rendering them a hodgepodge of cultures and styles, out of place in Senegal as much as they would be in the United States or Brazil. The sculptures and paintings, however, are made only a few blocks away from where they’re sold, and the theatrical tour of young men whittling away at chunks of wood to design little turtles and hippos is yet another clever way to artificially inflate prices.

And the market guides are clever: Their strategies are effective, and while there may be a slight deal of deception, flattery, or persistence used to force a sale, it’s hard to argue that the vendors in the former French colonial state don’t have some right to swindling the cash-flush Westerners who can afford a trumped up price tag.

Remembering Senegal’s colonial past, the salesmen’s pitches become more than just sophisticated bartering: they reveal a crisis of identity borne from a shifting economy. Following Senegal’s independence, it was hard to say that France’s reign had ended. With French or French-educated officials in positions of power, strict trade deals, and a currency whose value was controlled in part by the French economy, the imperial power never truly left. Over the years, Senegalese traders, spurred on by a thriving peanut economy and history of migratory markets, developed an international network of profits that kept money flowing back into the country. Every year a new class of Senegalese students leave the country to study elsewhere, and from their educated placement into high status jobs, they can afford to send money back home to their families. They’ve tapped into France’s resources to carve out their own economic power, but this mutually beneficial globalization has its limits and its downsides.

Traditionally close-knit families are torn apart from each other, and the once large household diminishes substantially in size. These marketplaces hold the legacies of handicraft families and community bartering, but they are being replaced by vendors who sell cheap, imported Western clothing. The more impoverished citizens don’t even have the chance to buy these “cheap” clothing and goods, instead picking up discarded clothes, toys, and electronics from resale markets where donated goods are brought in by the truckload. There’s a latent xenophobia to the “authenticity” sales pitch, but it comes from a place of true fear. When it’s no longer Senegalese vendors on the streets—or Senegalese vendors under the thumb of larger sellers—upward mobility in the traditional system becomes more fraught.

As Senegal’s economy grows, opportunities are being made for citizens. International hotel companies, fast food chains, and price-fixed stores are becoming common, and it’s Senegalese employees who end up working in them. But the vibrant economy of independent traders, artists, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants is faced with an adapt-or-disappear ultimatum. The market guides’ pitch is a pitch to themselves: they are selling themselves an authentic Senegal that can endure globalization, one where they can still be their own bosses and not feel closed in, cut-off from their fellow man, pushed around until they are forced into a deal that they can’t seem to talk their way out of. They want to sell you the real Senegal in order to buy it back.