Living Dakar under lockdown

When news of the corona virus broke, I took an interest in it as world news. Nothing special. As the virus spread like a veld fire on a windy day, first in China and then more widely to other countries, I identified a website that tracks the number of cases globally. I checked on that tracker twice a day and I would watch news about the disease and how it is spreading. 2 days before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I had already realised it was no longer an epidemic but a global phenomenon, and that it was only a matter of time before it hit home – the many places I call home.

I am a Motswana woman living in Dakar, Senegal. I was stressed and scared. Every time I read advice on who is vulnerable and what to do to combat the disease, I freaked out all alone out here with no support structure. I worried about my children in their respective corners of the world. I worried about my ageing parents, who are both over 85.

I live alone and maybe I should be used to my own company.  But these new terms and lifeways are different. Social distancing, lockdown, flatten-the-curve, quarantine, self-isolate... Whatever terminology you use in your language, it is not a norm for the average person like myself to live like this. Humans are social beings.

I say this from my own perspective, I am an extrovert and being among people gives me life. I normally venture out to most Dakar restaurants and hangouts. I sit there alone and enjoy my meal and my glass of wine, or maybe a couple of Desperados, the only beer for which I have ever developed a liking. I do not need to talk to anyone, but just to sit there among other people is pleasing for me. My need for being among people is fed and fulfilled.

I used to sit on top of my kitchen counter every morning while sipping my coffee or tea. I would look out the window and watch the morning traffic packed up in the big roundabout behind my apartment building.

While I sit there with my coffee or tea I would actually dread leaving for work. Now, after the ‘lockdown’, there is absolutely no traffic. Only a few cars zoom by because schools are closed. Most people are working from home in compliance with the social distancing protocols. Life as we knew it is no more.

I resort to a new routine aimed at maintaining my sanity. The border between work and home that was already ephemeral for people like myself has officially dissolved. Now, under lockdown, we socialise remotely, we work remotely, we manage remotely. It is the time of the remote control.

Dakar is a 24-hour city. It is alive at all hours and at all times: it is a vibey city with lots of things to do, rich in historical places to visit, with lots of art and cultural events. It is the place of teranga, the term for Senegalese hospitality. It is big on artefacts too.

The entertainment scene is really alive, whether you are into a whole night of dancing at a nightclub or prefer a live jazz band by the sea. Those interested in wildlife can step out and walk with the lions, or take a challenging hike to get some exercise. The menu is quite varied. You can never be bored in Dakar.

And then COVID-19 arrived and caused havoc for people like me, literally turned our lives upside down. Most businesses are closed, except for those providing essential services. Restaurants offer only takeaways or, in some cases, home delivery services. A state of emergency has been declared and there is a curfew in force from 20h00 in the evening to 06h00 in the morning. Dakar gets quiet, eerie and spooky for ten whole hours...

I used to walk 10-12km every Saturday and Sunday morning. As a survival initiative, to keep sane during the COVID-19 working from home and lockdown initiatives, I now walk every day. The extroverted in me needs to get out of the house. On my daily walks, I take pictures. I observe and take much more notice of my surroundings than I used to do. I notice the trees and the birds and look for familiarity.

Lo and behold I see a moselesele tree in full bloom. I see another familiar wild thorn evergreen (sepodisi). I smile and I take a picture. Then I wonder if I am losing my mind. Why should a moselesele tree make me smile? This is just another random thorn tree that I grew up seeing on a daily basis back in Botswana. In fact I grew up avoiding it, so I don’t get pricked or scratched by its thorns. In the past I would only pay attention to its dry log, and pick it up for firewood.

It appears that this lockdown has realigned my relationship with this place, with my own self, and with my idea of home. By unexpectedly pausing ‘normal’ life, this lockdown has forced me to appreciate some of the minute but important details that define home and my life in Dakar.

After the declaration of the state of emergency, I look out my window soon after 20h: there is no human in sight, except for the army and the police on patrol enforcing compliance. It is like Dakar has become a ghost town. The silence is eerie. It is spooky. It is scary.

I am a Christian living in a predominantly Muslim country. As part of the COVID-19 protocols in Senegal, as in many other countries, religious gatherings have been stopped. I live a 2 minute-walk away from a mosque and hearing the adhaan has become part of my daily routine. I wake up to it, I have lunch to it, I return home to it, and it even determines when I go to sleep.

I never really realised how soul calming an effect the chanting sound of the Adhaan had on me until today, and how central it was in structuring my daily rhythms.

Could it be the unfortunate news of the first 3 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Botswana that has actually shaken my inner being and had me question and look my own mortality in the face? Could it be this harsh reality got me to instinctively look for a higher being to seek solace in, to hold on to for sanity, and for some sort of comfort, and maybe even assurance?

Under lockdown, the fragility of life has become more apparent for me, provoking a deep nostalgia for home – probably because it is the place where one goes, or turns to for safety and comfort in the face of a threat. It is the place of familiarity and predictability.

Hearing the adhaan call to prayer a few minutes ago, after weeks of absence, made me become a lot more prayerful, hopeful, and it truly calmed my soul. Finally, something familiar: the promise of human connection, even if it is only a voice. I guess the call to prayer fuelled my own spirituality, even though I experience life from a different religious perspective. The belief in the higher being is universal. As humans we call the higher being by different names, but we all agree that there is a higher being that we can look up to and count on when life gets all too challenging and uncertain. God, Allah, The Universe, Badimo...

The trick to surviving Dakar under lockdown is to find a routine that keeps you grounded. That is, something familiar that creates the routine of home. If you are religious, dig into your spiritual reserves. Get some exercise into your routine. Remember you don’t have to eat something every time you go into the kitchen.

Read and learn new things, if you are keen on reading. Play boardgames (if you have people around you). Discover and grow your passion into a new skill. Conceptualise and plan your new business idea that you have been putting off. But more important, take time to reflect on your connections, your infrastructures, the fauna and flora around you and the quality of your relationships, with people, with place, with home, and particularly with self.

Remember there is life after this pandemic, and whatever it will look like, the time to prepare for it is now. Prepare for your post COVID-19 life. Follow the official guidelines and legal requirements. Follow the health protocols. Most importantly remember that you are a connected being. You are not alone.

#StayHome! #BeSafe #FlattenTheCoronaCurve

Colleen Tiny Neo Diswai is a Motswana woman based in Dakar, Senegal.  She is the Director of Administration and Finance for the Council for Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). She holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Botswana, and an MBA from University of Windsor, Canada. She is a Certified Public Private Partnership Specialist and passionate about good governance.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution.

Show Comments