Dakar's kaleidoscope of color

Updated on
The World

DAKAR, Senegal — It was one of those situations that as a photographer I always hunger for, but never expect. I was out shooting a story this week and stumbled across something else entirely — an explosion of color and life in an otherwise drab concrete compound in the deprived neighborhood of Pikine on the outskirts of Senegal's capital Dakar.

I had gone there to meet some local breakdancers and acrobats hoping to do an uplifting cultural story after spending much of the past year covering hardship and conflict in countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan.

It was time for something lighter, and I found it. Or rather, it found me. The group of dancers was slow to gather, so as they gradually arrived and got organized, I wandered around the neighborhood cultural center — a run-down building with broken windows, crooked staircases and bleating goats tethered in a dusty yard. In the shade around back, members of the Guelleware theater group were preparing for rehearsal.

They had arrived moments earlier in the modern uniform of Senegal's urban youth — baggy jeans, white running shoes and brand name T-shirts. Backward baseball caps, bandanas and American hip-hop styles were quickly exchanged for Senegalese bubus, the bright, flowing robes still worn throughout the country by both men and women.

Actresses from the Dseu Renaissance de Pikine theater group.
(Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

It was a sudden and proud transformation from one generation to another, marking Senegal's stance with one foot planted firmly in the past and the other striding forward.

The female actors affixed headscarves and, sharing a cracked shard of mirror, applied black makeup around their mouths while painting their faces with traditional markings worn by the Toucouleur people of West Africa.

"Our mission is to keep alive ancient art and culture, the rituals of our ancestors, the traditions of fetishes and griots," said Abdoulaye Niang, one of the group's members, referring to West Africa's historic reliance on superstitions and oral storytelling, often passed down by revered narrators known as griots. "We are young and we do our performances for the youth of the poorer neighborhoods to remind people of our culture."

The group agreed to be photographed as they began rehearsing. I shot portraits of the women putting the final touches on their make-up and reciting lines. Many of them held sticks or twigs protruding from their mouths, displaying an African style toothbrush used across the continent. In Senegal, the chewing stick is called "sothiou," which means "to clean" in the local Wolof language. If chewed, most of the twigs fray into finer strands, which have the effect of "flossing" between the teeth, or if rubbed up and down, can scrub tooth enamel clean as well as any brush.

One woman held a thumb piano, a simple instrument made from a gourd and pieces of hacksaws fashioned into keys.

A few walls in the drab compound had been haphazardly painted, creating a kaleidoscope of bright colors that clashed vividly with the performers outfits. I couldn't have imagined anything better. I wanted to stay longer, but I was getting in the way and the actors had work to do. Besides, the breakdancers and acrobats that I had originally come to photograph were starting their street competition outside — it was time to move on.