Dakar Markets: strategies for buyers

I recently came across this article by Angela Dodson in the New York Times archives. It was written in 1985, but much of the information is still valid and helpful.

All of Dakar is a marketplace. Take a few steps outside any hotel in the Senegalese capital and you encounter a vendor offering colorful designs, made, he says, of butterfly wings.

Next come insistent young men hawking what members of our tour group came to call ”the necklace,” a string of orange beads and large brown seeds that seems as ubiquitous as it is unappealing.

”Lady, American lady! Why you no buy from me?”

And I think, ”Why, with so many splendid things to see and buy, should I linger here?”

In this west African city, one learns that you cannot buy everything, that the first price asked is a testing of the waters, that some items offered for sale are not necessarily what they seem to be, and that the best wares may not be shown at all until the visitor proves to be one of discriminating taste.

Sophisticated Dakar, once the capital of French West Africa and still retaining a heavy French influence, long ago mastered the art of selling to the great variety of tourists who visit. Most hotels have shops with high-priced goods, and the markets enchant with the finest wares from throughout Africa. Vendors even board ferry boats to continue their sales pitches while afloat.

Though shopping in Dakar takes patience, personal service is more than a slogan there. Your guide may find a dressmaker who will come to your hotel with samples, take measurements and return with a finished garment in two days. A woman on the street may ask to drop by to braid your hair in an elaborate Senegalese style.

A dressmaker takes the garment off her back to sell to an admiring customer, slipping quickly into another from among her wares. ”If you like my dress, it’s no problem,” she says. ”I have plenty of dresses.”

Although Dakar has some traditional shops, the large markets provide the best adventures, variety and bargains. Among the major ones are the Kermel and the Sandaga, both in downtown Dakar, and the Soumbedioune Village, a short taxi ride away. Though all three offer a broad range of items, each has its specialties. At the Kermel, one finds fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers; the Sandaga specializes in clothes and fabrics, and the Soumbedioune carries a profusion of art and craft items. Other markets specialize in fabrics or gold and silver jewelry.

At the markets, one finds items not only from West Africa but also from elsewhere on the continent. And at certain markets, such as the Sandaga and Kermel, tourists can mingle with the Senegalese as they go about their daily shopping.

The Soumbedioune, northwest of the city’s downtown section at 57 Avenue Georges Pompidou, an open-air crafts market with dozens of canopied stalls, is a stop on many organized tours. There one can sample crafts from Senegal and other African countries. One can find wood carvings, baskets, tie-dyed clothing, jewelry and leather goods. A number of stalls sell the boubous – long, billowy robes of cotton or silk with deeply slit armholes – that are worn by Senegalese women and men. Most of the boubous, which come in brilliant purples, pinks, mauves and gold, sell for $12 to $15.

The Sandaga, housed in and around a large beige building at Avenue William Ponty and Lamine Gueye, has a bit of rowdiness about it, its stalls suggesting the stores along 14th Street in New York. Here one can find the blousy cotton pants that Senegalese men wear, for about $7. Fabrics and leathers goods also abound here.

The Kermel market, just off the Avenue Albert Sarraut, has a reputation for attracting some rough characters, and it’s advisable to cling tightly to one’s possessions when wandering about. But do not shy away, for it is here that everything from foods and flowers to baskets and bronzes is enticingly arrayed.

At one stall in the Kermel, that of Samba Beye, one can find bronze figures ranging from a few inches to several feet high, starting at $10 and climbing to hundreds of dollars. One piece depicted a seated man playing the cora, a stringed instrument made from a calabash, a gourdlike fruit; another was of a man playing a balafon, a xylophone with wooden keys resting on calabashes.

Another booth in the Kermel features paintings on glass (about $7), which are created by etching and then painting on the back of a piece of glass. The images are usually done in soft colors and often depict scenes of village life.

It is also at the Kermel that one finds the basket man, in one of the stalls that surround the central building. The afternoon of my visit, as a young man sat weaving cane, I chose from among hundreds of woven baskets that had an unfamiliar smell of freshness. My purchase – a set of three nesting baskets, a large open basket and a lidded, barrel-shaped basket – came to $11.

I n addition to the three major markets, Dakar also has a number of specialty markets. For fabrics, we were directed to the Marche H.L.M., which is near public housing in the city’s Medina section. There one can wander around a maze of stalls stacked high with cottons and silks in vibrant solids, stripes and prints. A printed piece of cotton large enough for a caftan was about $40. Those interested in jewelry were advised to visit Cour des Maures, the silver and gold market on Avenue Blaise Diagne, a short distance from downtown. Also known as the Mauritanian silver market, it offers jewelry made of gold, ebony and other materials.

Though Dakar’s markets offer a distinctively African shopping experience, visitors looking for particularly unusual items may want to consider some of the city’s specialty shops. At the Deco Afrique, 24 Rue Marchand, one can buy sand paintings for $10 to $25 and watch young men who are studying the art of making them. The paintings make use of up to 24 shades of natural-colored sand – white from the beaches, for example, and black from the volcanoes – which is glued to a hard background. Some of the images are abstract; others depict landscapes and figures.

For masks and other antiques, a good choice is El-Hadji Ibra Thiam Antiquaire, 16 Rue Mohamed V. Its front and back rooms are filled to the brim with stools, boxes, masks, headdresses, thrones, antique bronzes and life-size statues. Here one can buy a Nigerian fertility figure of carved wood, depicting a kneeling woman with a child on her back, for about $8 (plus a pair of designer jeans brought along for bartering). After bargaining, we also bought two masks for about $100; one, from the Dan tribes, depicted a simple, angular face adorned with horsehair braids; another, a sleek, detailed face of a woman with a bird atop her head, was thought to be from the Baule tribe on the Ivory Coast.

For comparison, one might visit shops like the Arts Primitif Antiquite, in the Hotel Teranga, 3320 Place de l’Union, or the I.F.A.N. Museum, the Fundamental Institute of Black Africa, on Place Pascher.

Some caution is advisable when buying African art. As one guide said, a few sellers ”make the masks old in the shop,” sometimes by burying them for weeks in the earth.

When buying expensive goods, it is best to have an intermediary who knows the seller, the language and the art of the country, and to follow the advice offered. An ”antique” mask is suspect, for instance, if the intermediary says: ”I advise you to keep your price down,” or ”I don’t want you to pay these prices.” In addition, it is said, having an intermediary – even another tourist or the seller’s kinsman – allows the go-between to absorb any ill feeling.

Though having a guide can be useful, beware of guides who want to take you only to a single shop. If in doubt, it is advisable to check with the hotel’s staff.

Some experts contend that all good African art was snapped up by early in this century. But unless one buys only the originals by the old masters of other cultures, there is no need to shy away from more modern African arts. If you like a piece, then so be it. As a bonus, you may be able to buy an item directly from the artisan and thus have a tale to tell about the experience.


Currency Carry cash in small denominations of the local currency (the Senegalese franc, known as the C.F.A.) and perhaps some American $1 bills. Credit cards and traveler’s checks are of little use outside the hotels and are inconvenient for shopping on the street.

The current exchange rate is about 480 francs to the dollar. But the rate can change daily and even hourly and may vary between banks and hotels. Hours Shops generally open at 8 A.M. and close at noon to allow for a meal and a midday prayer. Afternoon hours are approximately 2:30 to 6 P.M. The banks are open from 8 A.M. to noon and from 2:30 to 4 P.M. Bargaining Seller and buyer understand that the prices asked at the markets are only a starting point. Offer one-fourth to one-half the asking price. Judge your next move by the seller’s. If you get close enough to what the seller is willing to accept, you will get what you want. If the seller truly thinks you are trying to cheat him or her, there will be no sale that day. Bartering Almost anything can be used as currency if it is something the seller wants. Barter usually works best, however, if some currency is offered, with goods making up the difference. Blue jeans have long been a popular item for barter. Also highly in demand these days are perfume and electronic goods. Safety At night, tourists are advised not to buy from roving vendors. As in any large city, one should be cautious, but physical harm to tourists is said to be rare. In warning a group of tourists about precautions to take against pickpockets, one guide explained, ”It is like your New York.”A. D.


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