There is a radio host in Senegal who pronounces the name of their capital city in a low, vocal-frying tone, ndakaaaaar. Now this is always how I hear it in my head, and it brings to mind the sensations of that city, too: hot sun stinging the skin and a welcome, briny sea wind; the sounds of hard work, of haulers, cloth tappers, merchants; snarls of traffic and slowly strolling city-dwellers.
I had very mixed feelings as I embarked on this trip in September. I had long planned to do fieldwork in Mali, a country I'd visited twice before, a place I care about and where I have friends. However, instability there since 2012 meant that I was looking for a backup project (and simultaneously developing a backup-backup project idea, too). I knew almost nobody in Senegal, spoke no Wolof, and though I knew it was a serious fashion hub I simply had little idea what I might find there that fit my research aims, which were still doggedly focused on Mande language speakers.
Then, on one of my first days in town, I was visiting with the family of my Bamana instructor, a Malian and his spouse, a Senegalese-with-a-Malian-grandmother. I met them to ride together from downtown to their home, and at Aoua’s (name changed) workplace, she came out with an enormous blue sack to be loaded in their car. It turns out this was a bundle of cloth she had ordered directly from a cloth dyer in Bamako, selecting the colors and “modèles” (pattern options) over a free messaging app. The order was delivered some weeks later by someone who traveled by bus with several such bundles. That evening after supper, Aoua’s sister came over, and with their bonne they went through the order in the courtyard, lifting out the cloths, discussing how they’d be worn, whom they might be given to as gifts. This direct order meant, for Aoua, that she had a better assurance of the quality of the work and that she had access to new modèles that were not available in the markets of Dakar.
So there I was.
A little later I made it to the well-known Marché Malien, a market just opposite the semi-defunct station at the terminus of the Dakar-Bamako railway (the railway itself is something of legend and was at one time a major economic link). I was initially discouraged because the market building was vacant and partly knocked down! But with some poking around I learned that the Malian (and ‘malian’) merchants had decamped to at least three locations in downtown Dakar. In time I met some traveling merchants who come and go, and others from Mali, Guinea, Niger, and Burkina Faso who have chosen to make a life in a Dakar.
I also got to know a cloth dyer who leads a cooperative of teinturières in Guediawaye, a swampy suburb of Dakar. A Soninke man raised in Senegal but with Malian roots, several years ago this dyer embarked on a journey to learn more about the natural and traditional dye resources of the region, which have been totally supplanted by “chimique,” imported chemical dyes with insidious environmental costs, in the city.
Finally, I was also able to shadow some consumers when they shopped for cloth and met with their tailors, and I was impressed by the speed and subtlety of their judgments about quality and what they liked. I enjoyed getting to know some of this city’s many markets. And of course I tried acquiring some outfits myself. Participant observation, you know.I also got to know a cloth dyer who leads a cooperative of teinturières in Guediawaye, a swampy suburb of Dakar. A Soninke man raised in Senegal but with Malian roots, several years ago this dyer embarked on a journey to learn more about the natural and traditional dye resources of the region, which have been totally supplanted by “chimique,” imported chemical dyes with insidious environmental costs, in the city.