Boulevard du Général de Gaulle, renamed Boulevard du Centenaire, is one of the best-kept stretches of road in metropolitan Dakar and arguably all of Senegal. Originating at the Place de l’Obélisque and extending with unobstructed sightlines into Centre Ville, the Boulevard and its surrounding neighborhood—collectively referred to as Centenaire—occupy a perfectly strategic sliver of urban space. It is here that the requisite Chinese presence has installed itself in strips of storefronts lining the boulevard on both sides.
The Centenaire corridor originates at a convergence of three of Dakar’s busiest quartiers populaires: the Colobane, Medina and Fass neighborhoods at the heart of this city’s unique brand of urban African culture. Marked with a towering obelisk, the boulevard plows forward to the foot of the downtown district of Plateau, a border that once sealed off former colonial settlements and still bars certain types of public transport, notably the iconic car rapides by which ordinary Dakarois get around. Centenaire is similarly adjacent to Zone Industrielle and the Port of Dakar. The corridor’s utility is unrivaled, connecting the port to the markets and running parallel to both the city’s only rail line and the Autoroute, an essential artery in and out of the city’s peninsular bottleneck.
Geographically, Centenaire is at the nexus of daily economic (read: social) activity in Dakar. As such, the corridor is as rich in symbolism as transaction; a space for parades, protests and an astonishing number of free public concerts. Architecturally, the Boulevard is bejeweled with Modernist gems: a gigantic Obelisque marked with the year of Senegalese independence, MCMLV; he factory-like RTS (national television) building; the “money pyramid,” i.e. Banque Centrale des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO); and the Mayor’s office, an imposing box with a façade made up of little triangles (or miniature money pyramids if you will) that literally stands in the shadow of the larger BCEAO pyramid.
Perhaps this cocktail of larger-than-life symbolic energy can explain how the Boulevard, flanked by busy markets, remains magically immune to the traffic problems that plague the rest of the city. Boulevard du Centenaire is in fact incomprehensibly clear at all times of day. One imagines a retired traffic engineer in his neighborhood bar bragging about how he once designed the perfect thruway. The multiple round points, brick sidewalks, functional streetlights seemingly prioritized on the power company’s blackout selection grid; it’s the stuff of developing world infrastructural dreams.
In the last decade, Centenaire has become increasingly identified as Chinatown in the city’s public consciousness. However, don’t expect the obviousness of global Chinatowns. For the unaware, it remains entirely feasible to pass through Centenaire at certain points of the day and fail to pick up on the Chinese presence, and at night, with storefronts closed and traders inside, it is nearly impossible. The neighborhood is largely devoid of Chinese signage and there are certainly no hipster-frequented bus lines to second-tier cities, as on the American east coast. It’s even difficult to find Chinese food, with limited local demand. Cheap products are really the singular feature for most Dakarois.
On April 4, 2010, Senegal celebrated 50 years of independence, and the Centenaire corridor served its yearly duty as the epicenter of official national fanfare. Proclamations of a bright future were the order of the day, delivered at the base of the Obelisk with all its overtones of the illustrious societal progression from ancient Egypt described in the writings of Cheikh Anta Diop. However, despite all the sanctity of this historical, even mythical space, the Centenaire location couldn’t avoid the subtle implications of an emergent Chinatown in its midst and China as the great symbolic interloper in visions of an African future.
In the case of Senegal, where China is actively building lots of what might be considered cultural infrastructure as the compensation for raw-materials deals, the question of a symbolic interloper—a builder of symbols—is all the more relevant. As Sino-African issues quickly become the next great chapter in global geopolitics, Senegal makes for an interesting case. While the mineral possibilities it offers are dwarfed in comparison to places like Congo, Zambia and Angola that are more central to Chinese strategy on the continent, Dakar, a regional cultural production hub, may be the ground zero of a different sort of stylistic exchange.
The future site of “Le Parc Culturel et ses Sept Merveilles” or “The Cultural Park and its Seven Wonders” exposes this polemic on a grandiose scale. The Cultural Park will be a cluster of newly minted institutions positioned exactly between the Port of Dakar and Centenaire. Construction is underway for the first of the seven buildings, the National Theater of Senegal. As for the remaining six “wonders,” plans have been rendered for a Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Black Civilizations, School of Architecture, Music Hall (shaped like a Kora, the traditional Senegalese instrument), National Archives and National Library.
Combined with the Independence weekend opening of Abdoulaye Wade’s Monument de la Renaissance Africaine statue, a hilltop monstrosity built by the North Koreans and widely disparaged, many have begun to feel like Dakar is being hit with a full-fledged iconographic assault. It’s not the first time, and if Djibril Diop Mambety were alive today he would surely have ample material for an updated version of Contras City (1968), his satiric film about the contrasts of everyday life scenes and the ostentatious baroque architecture of 1960s postcolonial Dakar.
Put frankly, neo-colonial “invasion” by the Chinese is both a reality and looming fear for many Senegalese who have experienced the new great power’s ability to flood markets and control prices. But in Senegal, recognized as a bastion of religious and cultural tolerance in West Africa, tensions surrounding Chinese presence in Senegal are often expressed in social terms as discomfort with the more insular nature of the Chinese community. One does not often see Chinese in Senegalese-owned bars and dining establishments. There is also the sinking sensation that this time around instead of croissants, baguettes and Parisian fashions as the cultural leftovers, there will just be lots of shoddy flip-flops and bad Karaoke music. The gripe, “Couldn’t it have been the Indians?” is even sometimes aired, in a place where saris and Bollywood films find easier acceptance.
Fortunately, in Senegal so far no dictators have been propped up by infrastructure deals with China (see Zimbabwe, Niger) and the questions of cultural exchange remain open-ended. Senegal’s great cultural export of music has even gained some initial footing in China with artists like Xuman and Farafina Muso invited to perform in Shanghai and Beijing.
West African capitals are among the fastest growing cities in the world, with Bamako, Lagos, Conakry and Dakar all in the global top 50. Many of the others of course are in China. In cities like Dakar and neighborhoods like Centenaire, a new Sino-African image economy is quickly emerging. Through this rapid flow of social interactions in urban African life, the new symbols of China in Africa are being carved out.