The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize is given in memory of Raphael Smith, a member of the Class of 1994 who died in a motorcycle accident while retracing his stepfather’s adventure of motorcycling from Paris to Tokyo. The prize, established by his family and friends, is awarded annually to two second-year SIPA students for travel articles that exemplify the adventurism and spirit of SIPA.
Ever since I can remember, I loved the idea of travel; no, rather a voyage. In my pre-teenage years, Jules Verne’s books about adventures, expeditions, and tours around the world were my favorites. Later, I would devour magazine and journal articles about foreign lands, their customs, and lifestyles. The books and the stories transported me to these magical places with exotic landscapes and people that speak, dress, and eat differently. I truly felt these places—I made them my own.
I find myself in the street full of orange-beige sand. Wearing my handmade Mexican huaraches1 might not have been the best idea. There are palm trees and trees with the most flamboyant flowers, as well as a random cow that’s idling on the side in search of food. An occasional yellow and black cab drives by, generously honking to indicate “hey, I’m free for hire” or maybe it’s just for fun. Senegal is the first African country I have set foot in. I’ve been told that it’s a good gateway to the African continent—the most forgiving one to a beginner. I do not always know how to take this type of advice. This land proves to be everything and more than I expected.
The sand is ever-present in the streets of Dakar—a daily reminder of the presence of Sahara and the Sahelian region. Dakar, to me so far, has been a blend of the magnificent colors of the fabrics, landscape, buildings, men, and women dressed in the most exquisite attire that make all Paris Fashion Week designers look bleak; the musky sweet taste of air; taxi drivers chewing their siwak sticks while listening to the sounds of balafon; djembe and kora on the radio; prayer calls throughout the day; and the kaleidoscopic minibuses that dart across the city stuffed like bell peppers. Most of all, my fascination with the people and their innate grace and swag keep me in awe every day in and out.
One weekend during my summer placement in Dakar, I decide to get out of the city and finally head to St. Louis—the famous St. Louis, the city that served as the French colonial capital from 1673 until 1902, when it was moved to Dakar. It is, essentially, an island nestled between the Senegal River and the Atlantic Ocean on the border with Mauritania. As such, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a transition, a crossroads between the dunes of the Sahara, the waves of the Atlantic, and the flora of the savanna.
Eid al-Adha2 is approaching, so every empty lot and corner in the streets of Dakar has turned into a makeshift livestock bazaar—a marketplace for sheep and goats. I reach the bus station from which the sept-places3 and buses go into different directions of the country. A young chap guides me to the gathering area. I find a car that looks like it will be leaving soon, negotiate the price, and choose my seat. Sept-place taxis don’t leave until all the seven seats are claimed and full. Finally, everyone is here and I realize that I’m the only female among seven men. I wonder whether going to St. Louis in a sept-place alone was a good idea after all.
I’m sitting on the left side behind the driver, we’re squashed, and I’m happy that I’m not in the middle seat. Thank God I brought a big bottle of water with me, but with the heat and humidity, I wonder how long it will last. As we’re moving, I keep hearing the sound of sheep bleating.
Strange. At the station, I assumed there were sheep and goats around, but now, here on a semi-highway road, the sound is out of place. Yet, it is so loud and clear as if the goat was sitting next to me. I look across the car and outside the window, perplexed. The goats are nowhere to be found. Wait a second ... it hits me: it is not sitting next to me, but directly above my head on the roof of the car! It is a hot day, and I think about the five-hour long journey under the scorching sun that the poor creature will travel before being sacrificed in the most holy and halal of ways to God.
Our car breaks down before we even get out of the city. The traffic is dense and the new car will take some time to arrive. I leave the car and walk around to find some shade while waiting. Standing next to the car, I lift my gaze and come face to face with the goat tied to the roof. I start conversing with fellow travelers and find the men benevolent. They offer me water and groundnuts during the journey. The replacement car finally arrives about two hours later and here we are—after an eight-hour journey we finally arrive in St. Louis.
St. Louis, the colonial child, I will call you by your true name— Ndar4. You possess a beauty that is palpable, permeates my skin, and strikes me in the softest part of my soul. Like a woman who has aged and has weathered harsh times, your face is wrinkled and a bit faded by experience, but one can see and feel the beauty and grace that you have possessed in youth. Your dusty streets and decrepit buildings, the music emanating from the open doors of the homes as if inviting a stranger’s gaze into your abodes, transported me to another world— one of a child’s imagination of foreign places, of curiosities and wonders. I have found it—the faraway land of dreams and magic, where anything is possible—isolated and yet in the middle of it all, between the desert and the ocean.
The next day, I wake up early around 6 a.m. I go to the rooftop of the modest bed and breakfast that I’m staying at. It offers an unobstructed view of the brown river and bright fishing boats in front, the dilapidated yet full of character houses around. The sun is slowly rising. In the house next door, a group of boys are huddling in the inner yard around a big metal bowl eating breakfast together.
Throughout the day I discover your street art, the most authentic thiboudienne5, a photo gallery, and your beautiful people—the kids at the Koranic school, and the boys that sit by the river learning and reciting verses from the Koran. It feels like the air and time are suspended. My day-long journey has been worth this: I found what I was looking for—a time that stands still. Ndar, your teranga6 feels more real here than in the bustling Dakar. A writing on the wall says, “Je veux une suite et pas la fin”7 and that’s how I feel about you.
Almost six months later, on the other side of the Sahara in the southern tip of Tunisia, I am reminded of the silence and stillness of time on top of a Saharan dune contemplating one of the most breathtaking sunsets I have experienced so far. The setting sun is the most skillful painter—adeptly playing with the shades of the dunes and the sand. Sahara, the mighty, your winds blow strong. It is the season of harmattan, the seasonal trade wind that blows from the Sahara into West Africa. It must be heading to St. Louis, crossing the borders and expanses of Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania. It knows no borders, unlike my brothers and sisters that make the journey in the other direction through your unforgiving terrain.
Later at the campfire, there is an elderly Bedouin man with a soft wrinkled face and light grey blue eyes that transcend kindness and reflect light—I sense that he knows something that I do not yet possess. This is it. I am living out a child’s dreams spurred by the stories from my books that have taken me to places where I feel at home and in peace.
—Nigora Isamiddinova MPA-DP ’19
1. Artisanal leather shoes from Mexico.↩
2. The second Islamic holiday, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice. Per tradition, a sheep or a goat is sacrificed on this day.↩
3. Cars whose trunks were transformed to have seven passenger seats.↩
4. The name of St. Louis in Wolof, the predominant language in Senegal.↩
5. Rice with seafood.↩
6. Hospitality in Wolof.↩
7. French: I want a continuation, and not the end.↩