Deadly Geography

Sometimes, reality hits home when you move temporarily away from it. In February, I was covering the first round of Senegal’s presidential elections – out of Dakar.

Coming back from Tambacounda (where I met two excellent rap artists) and Kaolack (where an office belonging to the then ruling party was burnt down) I was looking at the landscape from a bush taxi and thinking: this is all very empty. Sand. Savannah. A few trees. A few homes. And a town or two.

Our taxi took a brand new ring road around the town of Diourbel, 146 kilometres from Dakar. Then we joined the old road to Thiès, which runs next to a railway rack. It was astonishing how fast places were filling up. Sand and savannah were still there but the rhythm of the settlements increased – dramatically.

Long before we got into Thiès, we were driving through what was basically giant sprawl. The final stretch from Thiès itself to Dakar, 65 kilometres, is fast becoming one massive megacity.

Not much later, a story in La Gazette (called Deadly Geography) made the point. It said that more than half of the entire Senegalese electorate was living in three rather small districts: Dakar, Thiès, Diourbel. Tambacounda district, which has far more surface area than those three combined was home to…less than 4% of the country’s electorate.

The strain is obvious. Newspaper Le Populaire reported this week that the National Statistics and Demographic Office had calculated that between 2000 and 2009 rents some parts of Dakar had gone up by almost 40%. Forty per cent! Friends keep telling me to NEVEREVEREVER abandon this apartment I’m renting because I will never get this much value for money again…

Question: where did these eye-watering rent increases take place? Sure, Central Dakar, where the expensive offices are. But also in Guédiawaye and Pikine. That’s where the poorest people in town live! If this is the free market at work, someone’s clearly having a laugh.

The strain is obvious in other ways too. Power cuts at any moment. Water pressure in many parts of town (expect the expensive ones) is now so low that this shower you have in your bathroom is…decoration, basically. Any agglomeration that grows at such breakneck speed cannot possibly expect service provision to keep up.

Yes, we know. Cities continue to grow fast because rural folk look for opportunities not available in the village: money, jobs, and so on. Some succeed, a lot more don’t. Fact is, very few go back. I met the grand total of one on my country trip: Vincent had left behind his dreadful and badly paid job as a night guard and had started farming. He was glad to be out of Dakar. But there are very few like him.

Dakar was home, this week, to a massive jamboree called Africites, in the obscenely expensive King Fahd Palace (formerly the Meridien). Hopefully the mayors from all corners of the globe and the other luminaries caught a glimpse of “the other side of town”, if only to reinforce their firmly held and often voiced conviction that they are firmly in touch with “The People”.

More to come on cities. Making them places where you can lead a decent life rather than just vegetate is arguably the biggest challenge on the planet, although it appears that they’re having a word about this thingy called climate change in another jamboree far from here. Well, not that far actually: you can fly directly from Dakar to nearby Dubai. On Emirates.

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