Dakar, Senegal Report of what it's like to live there - 06/17/13
Personal Experiences from Dakar, Senegal
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
There are two 8-hour direct flights from the USA. Delta via JFK or South African out of Dulles. I highly recommend the SA flight, as it is comfortable and efficient. Delta sends their oldest 757 (single aisle) to Dakar, and it is teeming with people, babies, and bags. It is uncomfortable, smelly, and frustrating. So this is a good introduction as to what to expect in Dakar Airport. Some people also take Air France through Paris, which is fine, but then you have to deal with CDG.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is very expensive and of low quality. Please, if you are with the US Government, throw away the idea that you will be living in the big, nice "Africa House." You will not. Over half of the mission community lives in apartments which range in quality but all have their issues (leaking, bad wiring causing electrical fires, walls falling down, and so on). Apartment complexes have no amenities, no green space, and you will be confined inside. Houses vary and are generally considered mediocre with a handful of exceptions. I have had many senior officers tell me that this is the worst housing pool they have seen in their career.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
EXPENSIVE. We were shocked by the prices here. Milk comes out to $8/gallon. Chicken is $14+ per pound. Gas is $8/gallon. Bring what you can. Most things are available but are outrageously expensive and sometimes of questionable quality. Shredded mozzarella, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream cannot be found.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Any consumables you want/can. You will save yourself a ton of money and will have better quality.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Yes, there are some good restaurants and beach-front places. Their cost is about like US prices. You will find that the nice restaurants cost just about the same as the shacks on the beach, however.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of malaria-carrying mosquitoes that are everywhere. Pets and children (yes) will also likely pick up ticks. Then there are the mango worms (fly maggots in the skin) , roaches, and a variety of other bugs.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Pouch. 2 weeks generally.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Generally pretty good. Full-time help will around $16/day for someone recommended with experience.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The new embassy should have a gym. Also, some people join Club Olympique, which is a decent gym club with tennis courts, lap pool, and a variety of exercise classes with very good instructors.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Be careful. Some places will accept them, but many people end up getting their cards skimmed.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes, ISD has a fairly popular Sunday service in English that many attend. It is non-denominational. There is also an English mass at one of the catholic churches, but is difficult to understand.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
A lot. English is not spoken here -- nor is it understood. Come with French; you will need it.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Don't come. When there are sidewalks, the curb is about 18 inches off the road, and you will find yourself constantly climbing up and down them. Elevators are rare and few apartment buildings have them.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis generally cost $3-8 to get anywhere in town after negotiation. Most of them are literally held together with string and tape and give you a good dose of exhaust fumes.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Most people bring a 4x4. Four-wheel drive is not really necessary in the city, but the high clearance is. Roads will flood during the wet season, and you will be forced to drive over the huge curbs to park. Do not bring something new, because it will get beat up. Bring a $5-10k SUV and you will be able to sell it for what you paid, no problem.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
It is available, however it is slow and expensive. 1MB service will cost about $70/mo, and the actual speed will be about 80-100KB. 2MB service will cost over $100/mo, and again the actual speeds will only be a fraction of what is advertised.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Bring something simple and buy a $5 SIM card when you get here. Credit can be bought on every street corner and is pretty cheap. The data plans for smart phones are much cheaper than in the US.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There are some French-speaking vets who can do some basic things. Visits are cheap and there is not a big markup on medications such as ear-infection meds.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Yes, if you are fluent in French and have experience in foreign aid. Otherwise you will be limited to EFM opportunities at the embassy -- which are actually pretty plentiful.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Business casual. Tie depends on your office. You can wear anything in public, though most Senegalese dress conservatively.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Not really. I felt as safe here as I did in the small town I grew up in the USA. I would walk home at 2 A.M. in our neighborhood and was never concerned. There have, however, been some robberies on the main road from north to south. There are occasionally some home break-ins, but most of them occur when people are out of town.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Yes. Several expats have died from malaria. Hospital care is not very good, but there are a few specialists in town that are sufficient. Most illnesses will result in a medevac trip to London or the USA.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Ranges from fair to horrible. There are zero emission standards here, and taxis and buses have some of the blackest smoke you have ever seen coming out of them. This is added to plumes of burning trash -- which is their method of waste removal. Also, Dakar is subject to dust storms at times, which will nearly block sunlight for days.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
October to April is pretty good in the 70's or 80's. Occasionally at night you may need a jacket. Starting in May, the heat and humidity really pick up, and you can't be outside for 5 minutes without developing a serious case of back sweat. Storms start in July and will cause flooding on the streets and in your home/apartment.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
90% of embassy families send their kids to ISD (International School of Dakar), and people are generally satisfied there. Some send their kids to Dakar Academy, which is a smaller, christian school with more limited resources.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Huge. There are big UN offices here, and lots of regional aid organizations have headquarters here. Also, lots of French retirees -- which I still do not understand.
2. Morale among expats:
Varies. Those coming with high expectations are disappointed. Those who develop a good network of friends will find the tour manageable. There are a few who absolutely love it here and those who hate it and curtail.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
House parties, Marine house parties, and restaurants.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Some singles really get involved in the expat scene (which is huge) and make a lot of friends and have a good time. If not, they will struggle finding things to do. There is a pretty good club scene if that is your thing, but you will need to stay up most of the night to experience it, since nothing starts until 1 a.m. Couples and families take advantage of some of the good restaurants in town and the sense of community within the mission community. Think lots of house parties and play dates. The French Cultural Center holds concerts regularly that can be attended for a decent price.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
If you are white, expect to get ripped off in any type of transaction. Also, taxis will be obnoxious, constantly honking their horn at you and nearly hitting you on the side of the road trying to get a fare. While the country is 90% muslim, they are extremely accepting of other religions and customs. Americans can wear any type of clothing and not be harassed or feel uncomfortable. Women will even be encouraged by natives if they are out running.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Meeting new people and trying new things.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Desert camping, visiting some of the other towns in the country, taking a boat out to the islands off Dakar. Before coming here, I thought the beaches would be the highlight of our tour. They are not. They are usually polluted to the point that wading in the water is actually wading through trash.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Locally-made baskets, which sell for 20 times their cost in the US. There is the typical Africa stuff, but I think most of it is from China. They have some fun jewelry and art. Local instruments (djembe & Cora) are also very popular and beautiful.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Getting to say that you lived in Africa and getting some of the best mangoes for cheap.
10. Can you save money?
Generally, yes, since there are not many things to spend it on other than overpriced groceries. If you travel outside of Senegal, however, you will pay dearly, as flights are extremely expensive and inconvenient.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Not voluntarily. It was a challenging tour that will likely make our adjustment to subsequent tours seem very easy.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
expectations that this is the Paris of Africa with beautiful beaches. While Dakar is nicer than some of the other countries in West Africa, it will still be a challenging tour.
3. But don't forget your:
patience, any liquid products that cannot be shipped via pouch, and your ability to adapt.
4. Do you have any other comments?
The perceptions about Dakar in Washington and elsewhere within the foreign service are outdated and misguided. Everyone who calls this the Paris of West Africa has 1) not been here or 2) has served in even harder parts of West Africa (think Guinea). If you come with reasonable expectations, though, this can be a good and adventurous tour.