Dakar’s history is rather recent, the oldest buildings dating back to 1860s. Dakar’s first inhabitants were Mandinka people. They were the ones discovered by Dinis Diasthe Portuguese explorer who landing on its coasts in 1444. At the end of the 15th century, some Leboufishermen who were fleeing Takrur, a kingdom located in the North-East of the Senegal Riverbegan to settle there.
The name of Dakar appeared for the first time on a map in 1750when Michel Adanson, a French botanist, drew a sketch of the Cap-Vert, another name of the city. According to a number of sources, Dakar could be the French version of Ndakaru, a local name, of which the etymology remains uncertain. Ndakarucomes from the Wolofexpression, deuk raw, which means “the one settling there, shall be at peace”. Others say that it comes from dëkk-raw, a combination of dëkk(country) and raw(escape). According to the same source, Dakar could also come from the Wolof term, dakharwhich refers to the tamarind, a tree which had a strong presence on the coast when the Lebou peoplearrived in the 16th-century.
The city of Dakar was founded on May 25 1857 by Léopold Protet, Division commander and senior commander of the Goree and its dependencies colony. Formerly and since 1793, the city was run by a government of the Lebou Republic Moreover, when Protet arrived in Dakar, he actually met with Lebou people with whom he secured agreements. The Lebou community faced the French settler with courage and determination during years.However, the true founder of Dakar is recognized as Emile Pinet-Laprade who submitted his first cadastral plan in 1858. The building of the Les Mamelles Lighthouse was launched in 1859, it was followed by work construction of the port in 1860.
On June 17 1887, Dakar became an independant town. She was not depending on Goree anymore and Jean Alexandre became its first mayor on December 9 1887. Heavy construction and sanitation work was performed. Dakar population reached 8737 inhabitants against 2100 for Goree. In 1902, the city became the capital of the French West Africa. In 1921, it had a population of 32440, including 1661 Europeans. During this period, a Lebanese-Syrian immigration wave was also observed, which actually started as soon as 1890 at Saint Louis. In the capital, those newcomers were integrated through small and medium trade sectors.
The Battle of Dakar
The Battle of Dakar, also known as Dakar Operation, Dakar expedition or Operation Menance, was a naval battle opposing pro-German Vichy French against pro-British Free French and the British during World War II. From September 23 to 25 of 1940, off the coasts of Dakar and the Cap-Vert presque-isle, near the city of Rufisque, the Free French forces of General Charles de Gaulle and the British forces fought the French forces of the Vichy government led by Pierre Boisson, governor and general of the French West Africa since June 26 190. This ended as an unsuccessful attempt for the British and the Free French.
However, this operation was more of an ideological turning point for the involved governments than a crucial battle regarding the forces, the number of causalities or destroyed/damaged military units. The General Charles de Gaulle, who participated at the battle at sea, remained cut off after this event. He is even threatened politically by Admiral Muselier, wrongly accused to be a source of leak of information that prevented the landing. However, for Churchill, the Dakar matters was putting De Gaulle as a credible alternative for Vichy France in the colonies, this feeling being reinforced by the success of the Leclerc’s operation on the French Equatorial Africa in August, and on the eve of the Free French assertiveness at the Lebanon and Syrian events against the pro-Vichy people.
Amazing Sites to Behold
Catch some of Africa’s most consistent waves
Dakar has long been a secret-surfer’s paradise. A peninsula that catches swells from north and south means locals, expats, and visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to riding the waves. With around 15 distinct locations within a 30-minute radius of each other, there is a spot for every ability. Learners may want to find their sea legs on the more forgiving beach breaks of Virage and Yoff, while those in the know may take on the more testing rocky reefs of Ouakam and Vivier. With a myriad of dedicated surf hostels, camps, bars, and rental shops dotted around the northern end of Dakar, it’s the perfect place to get your surf on.
Unwind on the beaches of Ngor Island
Although the vast majority of West Africa’s capital cities are located on the coast, not many can touch Dakar when it comes to golden sandy beaches. From the endless stretches of Plage de Yoff to tiny coves such as Plage des Mamelles, you’re never too far away from a place to dig your feet in. However, if this was a feudal system, the crown would belong to Ile d’Ngor (Ngor Island). A brisk 400 metre pirogue (fishing boat) ride from Ngor beach, the island feels a world away from the mainland. Home to just 100 permanent residents, the tiny island plays host to a smattering of small beaches and local eateries. Head over for the day, soak up the sun, cool off in the clear water and tuck into some fresh fish on the beach.
Gaze down on Dakar’s rooftops from the largest statue in Africa
Dakar’s Mamelles (‘breasts’ in French) are two hills on the city’s western peninsula. On one, a lighthouse built in 1864 that has been converted into a stylish restaurant-bar. On the other, the tallest statue in Africa. At 49 metres, the African Renaissance Monument is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and when plonked on top of a 100-metre-high hill, this impressive figure of man, woman and child pointing out towards the Atlantic Ocean makes the perfect spot to use the panoramic setting on your camera. Walk up on a cloudless day to get views across the Cap-Vert Peninsula.
Float on your back in a pink lake
Lake Retba, known almost universally as Lac Rose, is Senegal’s very own Dead Sea. Situated 29 kilometres north-east of Dakar, this shallow lake is so named because its remarkably high salt content turns the water varying shades of pink. What’s more, due to the much higher density of the water, taking a dip is more bobbing like a human buoy than sinking like a stone. Go for the day, settle into a lakeside restaurant, ride a camel or a quadbike on the adjacent beach, and then wallow on your back without the need of an inflatable.
Tuck into traditional Senegalese fare
Like most West African countries, Senegalese dishes are drawn from what’s available, so in Dakar’s case that means freshly-caught fish, seasonal vegetables, and the country’s top agricultural export, the humble peanut. With Dakar’s abundant coastline, it’s no surprise that restaurants are flush with the delights of the Atlantic, with thiof (from the grouper family) the national fish. However, you can’t go far in Dakar without seeing three dishes everywhere. Thieboudienne (pronounced Chebu Jen and often spelled differently) literally means “fish and rice” in the local Wolof language. Yassa, a sauce of onions, lemons and garlic, will garnish chicken and fish and is also served in a sandwich. Mafé is a succulent peanut butter-based sauce that is usually served in curry form, with beef, pork, goat, or chicken. And if you’re wondering what everyone is drinking on the side of road, it’s likely attaya (sweet mint tea).
Get swept away by a feast of African art
Dakar is a thriving hub for African art, and every two years hosts the oldest and largest contemporary arts show in Africa: the Dakar Biennale. For a whole month (this year it’s between May 3 and June 2), venues across the city showcase some of the best of Senegalese and African art, but don’t think you have to visit during the Biennale to get your fill. Dakar is rife with absorbing museums and abstract galleries, such as the IFAN Museum of African Arts and Galerie Arte in the downtown Plateau area, which offer fascinating insights into the heritage of this ancient continent. If you prefer seeing ‘live art’, then there is no better place than the Village des Arts: a creative space for artists to both work on and exhibit their craft to the public.
Scout out bargains in a local market
Dakar has been a major trading post for centuries and that mercantile nature has certainly left its mark. Now, there are markets of all shapes and sizes across the city, selling everything from hibiscus and baobab trees, to football shirts and sandals. However, a few specialist markets have emerged, which serve as city-wide nuclei for their respective products. Marché HLM, for example, is favoured by Senegal’s tailors as the hub for fabrics (ideal if you wish to have a suit or dress made-up). Marché Kermel, housed within a kiln-shaped hall, is the go-to for groceries (although, often with tourist prices), while Soumbédioune is a dedicated craft market (the best place for well-made souvenirs). If you’re feeling brave, take on Marché Sandanga, Dakar’s oldest and largest market, where you will almost certainly end up buying something you never knew you wanted.
Get a boat out to Ile Gorée
Ile Gorée is often cited as the ‘number one thing to do’ in Dakar, and it’s not hard to see why. Lying two kilometres off Dakar’s south coast, the island is a UNESCO world heritage site, and was the largest slave-trading centre in West Africa between the 15th and 19th centuries. Now it’s a sanctuary of calm, with a population of around 1,500 living in pastel-coloured houses on tranquil cobbled streets. A castle, which served as a WWII outpost, provides fantastic views of the island and downtown Dakar, while visiting the 18th century Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) is a must. Established as museum in the 1960s, the sole remaining slave house on the island serves as a harrowing reminder of the brutality, cruelty, and scale of the transatlantic slave trade.
Soak in the beauty of the mosques and churches
Senegal, and Dakar in particular, is well-known for its religious tolerance, with the majority Muslim and minority Catholic populations living in perfect harmony. As such, Dakar has a rich tapestry of stunning mosques and churches, such as the imposing 3,000 capacity cathedral in Plateau, and the distinctive green dome and four minarets of Mosque El Hadji Omar Al Foutiyou. The jewel in the crown, however, must surely be the Mosque of the Divinity. Uniquely set in a horseshoe cove in Ouakam, its twin towers stare out across the endless Atlantic, while fishermen ward off pelicans from their haul on the beach in front. A must for any visit to Dakar.
Town hop down the Petite Côte
OK, so it’s not technically in Dakar, but a day trip to the Petite Côte (Small Coast) is a terrific way to see what Senegal has to offer without venturing too far from the capital. Encompassing 70 kilometres of unspoilt, golden coastline between the Cap-Vert Peninsula (Dakar) and the Sine-Saloum Delta, the Petite Côte is dotted with distinctive seaside villages. Dine in style on the beach at Popenguine, go oyster hunting on the lagoon in Somone, kick back in the classy resort of Saly, or catch a wave and wander the old town of Toubab Dialao. And given its proximity to the new airport, a day out on the Côte is a great way to unwind before a flight.
Political and administrative functions
Since its foundation in 1857, Dakar is marked by its important central political and administrative functions. Today, as the political capital of Senegal and seat of the economic and State power, Dakar gathers all the major legislative and executive institutions as well as all the headquarters of the organisations and public institutions (production and services). This politico-administrative hub is located between the South of the Boulevard de la République and the Cap Manuel. This administrative hub represents the basis of the city’s influence on a national level. In this limited location, you can find the Palace of the Republic and the government’s headquarters that represent the executive power; the National Assembly related to the legislative power; the Courthouse to stand for the judiciary power; the Economic and Social Council; one of the most important hospitals of the country and the military power.
If the country’s economy mostly relies on farming, it is also dominated by Dakar for two main reasons: firstly, all the farming products intended for export are carried to Dakar to do so; secondly, the few industries in charge of processing the primary products are almost exclusively based in the capital.
Those economic functions also include the concentration of commercial installations such as the port of Dakar, Sandaga market and the financial and banking institutions. The retail sector remains the most dynamic one in the urban economy. It represents almost 72% of the micro business and 41.8% of the informal employment in the region. This is mostly explained by the fact that this is one of the rare sectors, together with the craft trades sector, to offer opportunities for economic integration to the young people with a lack of qualification.