I'm in Kaolack tonight.
Kaolack is about 200 km inland from Dakar, at the head of a short, brackish river -- really an arm of the sea. It's in the middle of Senegal's great Peanut Basin, one of the biggest peanut-producing regions of the world. It has about 200,000 people.
And it kinda sucks. It's hot -- really, really hot. Somehow it's really humid and really dusty at the same time. It's dirty -- garbage everywhere. The streets are crumbling. Malaria is a concern (get inside after sunset, I'm told; the local anopheles really gets buzzing around 10 pm.) And it smells bad -- the river is low (it's the end of the dry season) and it smells, well, like a low river. A low river that's had a lot of untreated sewage dumped into it. I'm in the nicest hotel in town, and it smells. Not the hotel's fault; it's just next to the river.
It's not just me. Here's what senegalaisement.com has to say about Kaolack:
Kaolack Invicible! It resists all: legendary pollution, human and animal epidemics regular, extraordinary unemployment, tainted water, etc… [Kaolack] is the dirtiest city of Africa, perhaps one of dirtiest of the world. At the time of the tsunami which devastated Asia, its homonym inhabitant of Thailand (Khao Lak) was carried by the floods. It is at least what it would be necessary for Kaolack to clean the tons of refuse which marks out the municipal streets and waste grounds…
The harvest of the salt marshes has burned the ground for kilometers around. The refuse tips surround the town with a blue belt and an unbearable odor. Heat is often intolerable there and the mosquitos are omnipresent. It is undoubtedly the city most difficult to live of Senegal... Each year, the reading of the national newspapers teaches us that such or such epidemic has just been born in the city: cholera, yellow fever, paludism, etc… Only a few years ago, leprosy was still current by here and for many ex-leprous still beg in the streets for the city. The animals are not parcelled out better with regular epidemics such as the swine-fever.
Also, because of the local water chemistry, almost everyone has brown teeth. (Apparently a government minister once joked that Kaolack was the richest city in Senegal, because everyone had gold teeth.) And perhaps most damning of all, senegalaisement.com finishes with:
There is nothing to do there.
I have to say, this seems... perhaps exaggerated... but maybe not that much. The region produces just two things: peanuts and salt. (There's a huge white mountain of the stuff just across the river from my hotel.) Kaolack exists only (1) to get peanuts and salt down the river and away, and (2) to conduct illegal trade with Gambia, which is just 50 km or so away. Taxes and duties in the Gambia are lower, so stuff is cheaper, so smuggling is a huge business. If you look at a map of the region, you'll see that Kaolack is ideally placed for border crossers; not only is it within a couple of hours' drive of most of the border, but because it's also a port it's easy to make smuggled goods look at least vaguely legitimate. ("Oh, this just came off the docks!") The border with Gambia is so long -- I mean, Gambia is pretty much all border -- that patrolling it is pretty much impossible. So Kaolack may not be beautiful, but in its grungy way it thrives. I walked through the market this afternoon, and I can testify that there's all sorts of action going on; it was a mob scene, with everything from Chinese electronics to lawn furniture on display.
Kaolack has no industry worth mentioning. There's one elderly peanut-processing plant, which makes peanut oil. There are a lot of small traders and manufacturers, though. If someone took the town in hand, something could surely be done with it.
For what it's worth, the people don't seem any less (or more) friendly than anywhere else in Senegal. The number of guys who want to be my best friend in order to sell me something is about the same. Ask for directions and everyone within fifty meters jumps in to help. Shopkeepers and staff are friendly and helpful without being effusive.
One odd thing about Kaolack: there are a lot of joggers here. Going out for an evening walk, I must have passed twenty or thirty of them.
Also today, we briefly visited the holy city of Touba, including the famous Lamp Fall mosque. (Briefly. Today was a working day; we were driving down from St. Louis, and Touba happened to be en route.) But that's a story for another post.
I also met a Frenchman who'd been living here for forty years. He was a lawyer -- one of three in the city. He had a modest practice in a nice house downtown. (You could sort of squint at the house and see the backwater, barely post-colonial town, maybe a tenth the size of modern Kaolack and oh so much cleaner, that he'd moved to around 1970.) I really wanted to ask him, "Monsieur. What the hell, monsieur?" But I couldn't think of a polite way to put it. In retrospect I sort of wish I had, but there it is.