WELL, I FOUND IT. I didn’t want to find it, but I knew it was out there somewhere, and as somebody who travels a lot, I suppose it was destined to happen. Suddenly there it was, my home for an agonizing seven hours in the middle of the night.

What I found was the World’s Worst Airport. I introduce to you the Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport, in Dakar, Senegal. There are plenty of people with travel resumes more impressive than mine, but I’d have a hard time believing there’s a more awful big-city airport anywhere on earth than this one.

In the past I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the caliber of terminals in the most unexpected places, from the downhome charm of Roanoke, Virginia to the classical Sudanese architecture of Timbuktu. Not here.

Maybe in your mind the name Dakar carries a certain mystique, conjuring up thoughts of Saint-Exupéry, who flew the treacherous Aéropostale mail route between Dakar and Toulouse in the late ‘20s. His first book, Courier Sud (Southern Mail), was written in Dakar. Decades later, Concorde was a regular visitor, stopping for fuel as part of Air France’s service between Paris and Rio de Janeiro.

That was then.

I’d arrived in the late afternoon after the long drive from the Sine-Saloum delta region, four hours south of the capital, where’d I’d spent two days. With my Alitalia flight not leaving until after midnight, the plan was to hunker down at the airport and save the cost of a hotel. Besides, I like airports, and can always find something to do: grab some food; stake out a view and watch planes; visit the various airline counters and fatten up my timetable collection. But this time, the minute the taxi pulled away, I knew I’d made the wrong choice.

Getting from sidewalk to terminal is the first chore, and hardly an easy task owing to the throngs of cab drivers, touts, and self-declared “porters” blocking the way. No rush, however, since once inside there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. The tiny central lobby a filthy, two-story chamber soaked in greasy fluorescent light, ringed with a series of kiosks and counters, several of them mysteriously unmarked. Sullen-faced employees sit idly behind the partitions. Some of them are sleeping. To the right is the check-in hall, a slightly nicer space but off-limits until two hours prior to departure. To the left, on the other side of immigration, is the dreary arrivals lounge and baggage claim. Note to landing passengers: if you have to pee, do so on the aircraft prior to disembarking. There are no lavatories in the arrivals area save for a miserable, closet-like latrine in the far corner that doubles as a mosquito-breeding station.

All around there are people, but few of them are passengers. They are touts, hawkers, vagrants, drifters, thieves — a melee of dubiously intended hangers-around, each of them eyeing you with the stubborn, languid glare of a vulture. Set against a back wall, the sole ATM is flanked by armed guards, whose duties are particularly pointless since the machine doesn’t work.

There is nowhere to sit, no seats. Which really is all right because the worst thing you can do is cease moving. The approximately 5:1 scoundrel-to-passenger ratio ensures you’ll never remain unmolested for more than a few seconds. The moment you stop, somebody is hovering over your shoulder, mumbling incoherently or hoping to sell you something. Brush him away, and he instantly replaced by a man asking if you’d like to buy a plastic watch or a counterfeit phone card.

Er, well, “asking” isn’t quite the right word. His demeanor suggests you are required to buy a plastic watch or a counterfeit phone card. Resistance is futile, and in the honored tradition of third world hustlers, he is a man of many trades. Do you need any souvenir trinkets? Do you need to exchange currency? Do you need a hotel room; it’s just up the road and his “cousin” is the owner?

No? Okay, well then maybe you’re the giving sort, and would be generous enough to simply hand over some money, along with a few of your clothes? You know, a gift, a small cadeau — to invoke that ubiquitous, reckless plea that floats about French Africa like a desperate wail. Your sneakers… what are those, New Balance? “Yes, you can give me those please, thank you. I can have your sneakers now. Cadeau? Cadeau?

Avoid eye contact. Keep walking.

The requirement to stay in motion is especially vexing because the terminal is so small. One becomes a human pinball, wandering from the departure checkpoint, back along the kiosks again, past the nonfunctional ATM, and on toward the dirty staircase that leads to a second-floor arcade. At the top of the stairs is a sign with an arrow marked “observation deck,” but don’t get your hopes up. If it ever existed in the first place, it is now blockaded by a corridor of stalls hawking animal carvings and cheap souvenir jewelry.

The upper level balcony is quieter and less crowded than the dungeon below, but hiding up here is forbidden. No sooner did I put my bag down and lean against the railing when a security guard sent me downstairs again. No loitering.

There aren’t any signs to indicate it, but a pair of restrooms is located in a basement annex beneath the main lobby. The men’s room has troughs, not urinals. I’d gone down to change into a new set of clothes — never an easy proposition in a bathroom — and had my backpack propped on the floor, partly unzipped, when a man approached. He’d been peeing at the trough a few feet away. He smiled, pointed into the bag, and in broken English inquired as to which items I might be eager to part with. “Cadeau?

It doesn’t need to be this way. People do many things at airports: they eat, they shop, they bid farewell to loved ones. But more than anything, they wait. Airports are, if nothing else, waiting stations. Serving that purpose shouldn’t be a difficult or expensive task, especially in a country where overall expectations aren’t high. A modicum of cleanliness and functionality — somewhere to sit, something to look at, a bit of peace and quiet — will get the job done. Heck, string up a tent, give us a patch of grass to sit on, and maybe a stand selling drinks, and the majority of us would be perfectly happy. At DKR, one finds almost nothing useful, comfortable, or welcoming. There is only squalor, an unnerving sense of confinement, and to some extent danger.

The only option for solace is the terminal restaurant, located up a second set of stairs leading above and behind the check-in hall. To find it, I needed to step over three semi-conscious derelicts and force my way through a gaggle of chain-smoking Chinese businessmen.

Finally, seated at a rickety table I was free to relax — with a view of the apron and a decent meal to boot. Surprise of surprises, my meal may have been the tastiest I’d had anywhere in Senegal. Around me, the tables were packed with boisterous tourists, downing steaks and offering up toast after toast to who knows what, clinking their goblets of wine. The wine seemed a bit incongruous, all things considered, but what do you expect in a former French colony? The waiters were polite and gregarious, and the room held a strange, muggy sort of dignity. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to leave, ordering a second course to extend my stay.

Out the window, I watched an Air France 777 loading up for its overnight run to Paris, its white hull gleaming beneath the tarmac spotlights. A Cape Verdean commuter plane came and went, as did a South African Airways A340, making its middle-of-the-night fuel stop between Johannesburg and New York. In the distance, in a disused hangar, I spied a battered, cannibalized A300 in the faded green decals of Air Afrique. Once the biggest and proudest airline on the continent (with a near-perfect safety record spanning four decades), Air Afrique has been defunct now since 2001.

In an older story of mine, set at Kennedy airport in New York, I described the thrill of watching an Air Afrique jet preparing to depart one evening for Dakar. “What I wouldn’t give,” I wrote, “to be on that flight, sandwiched in the back of the overbooked Airbus with all these luggage-laden Africans…”

So now here I am, and I’m checking my watch every five minutes, because how I cannot wait to soon be in the back of an overbooked Airbus… getting the hell out!

Which is no indictment of Senegal. I enjoyed my brief stay — Goree Island, the emerald sprawl of the Sine-Saloum and its island villages, the vistas of baobab trees. But it certainly is an indictment of Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport.

Critiquing airports is a relative thing. It’s all about expectations, which vary widely from country to country, city to city. I wouldn’t be so down on Dakar if I hadn’t assumed it would be better. Senegal is a developing country, yes, but plenty of nations just as poor, or more so, have built reasonably pleasant facilities. Dakar is one of Africa’s largest and most important cities, and a port of call for several prestigious airlines (whatever that means anymore). A million and a half passengers pass through here every year. For the sake of national pride, it should convey a little dignity instead of sullying the memory of Leopold Sedar Senghor, who died in 2001. A poet, philosopher, and leader of African independence, he was also the country’s first president.


I have since been back to Senegal. Conditions are slightly better thanks to a new, air-conditioned departure hall, but not much else has improved. The arrivals area remains dirty and decrepit, and those who arrive or depart during daylight will notice the incredible volume of litter abutting the runways and taxiways. The grassy area south of the main parking apron looks like a plastic bag farm.

So with this in mind, you would think that I rejoiced after recently learning that a brand new international airport is in the works for Dakar, to be built 28 miles southeast of the city. Completion of Blaise Diagnei International, named in honor of the first black African elected to the French parliament, is expected some time in 2011. The Saudi Binladin Group, an experienced airport builder owned by the estranged family of You Know Who, is heading construction. A German company, Fraport AG, operators of Frankfurt International, will administer the facility for a contracted period of 25 years.

I happen to think it’s a terrible idea. Or a needless one, at any rate.

As a general rule, you build a replacement airport because the existing one has run out of room or is hopelessly overcrowded. Its faults duly noted, Senghor International is plenty spacious. There are loads of room on the tarmac and a long (if unusually narrow), instrument-equipped runway. What it needs is a larger, more modern passenger complex. There is ample room for that as well, and obviously one could be built for a fraction of the estimated $450 million to be spent on a whole new airport.

Senghor is also close to the city center. Placement of the new airport, far to the south, is a curious one. On the one hand it will make things easier for the thousands of European tourists who vacation each year at the beach resorts along Senegal’s southwest coast. On the other hand, it will require that a massive new highway be built. The existing southbound road out of Dakar is a nightmare of traffic, dust, and fumes, and a driving time of up to three hours to or from the airport would be unacceptable. Construction of the new highway has already begun.

Presumably the government of Senegal sees this enormous dual project as a national investment. Big new airports mean more jobs, more passengers, more revenue; a smooth new highway can relieve some of the capital’s notorious traffic jams.

Then again, Africa being Africa, perhaps this is overly optimistic. Call it “development,” or call it a half-billion dollar opportunity for contractors and politicians. Senegal’s president boasts that not a franc of state money will be needed. Funds will come from passenger taxes and foreign investors. I’m nevertheless reminded of white elephant airports that I’ve seen in Mandalay, Burma, and in Timbuktu. Oversized and underused, they are statements of hubris and deceit, monuments to money that ought to have been spent elsewhere.

As an enthusiast all things air travel, I’m supposed to be excited by any prospect of a big new airport. But here in Senegal it strikes me as obscene. This is a nation where 56 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Call me naïve, and who am I to speak for Africans, but I have a hard time believing that the people of Senegal need or desire a new international airport. What they need and desire are clean drinking water, basic medical care, a cleaner environment, and a literacy rate that is something better than the existing 39 percent. As investments, airports bring many good things, but I don’t think those can be counted among them, long term or short.

And plenty of people, I suppose, already know that. As Vonnegut used to say, So it goes. For me to make note of such injustices, as if they have not yet been discovered, and as if, by virtue of feeling bad about it, we can change the order of things, is perhaps a fool’s errand of the highest magnitude.

There are those who say the world is slowly righting itself. We are, the thinking goes, on the cusp of some great, inexorable push toward social and ecological justice. We are moving this way because, with our backs against a wall of human-engineered oblivion, we have to.

Well I am not sure I agree with that.

If I have grown more cynical in recent years, it is travel, I think, that has pushed me in this direction. Exploring other parts of the world is beneficial in all the ways it is typically given credit for, and I remain appalled by the average American’s geographical know-nothingness and disinterest in visiting foreign countries. I am of the mind that every American student, in exchange for financial aid, ought to be conscripted into a semester (or more) of overseas service. Certain international travel, like the purchase of a hybrid car, should be tax-deductible. Perhaps then we wouldn’t have such a vulgar sense of entitlement and xenophobic worldview. Not to mention, many places are just knock-your-socks off cool: Kaieteur Falls, the Suleyman Mosque, the Okavango Delta…where to begin?

But traveling can also burn you out, suck away your faith in humanity. You will see, right there in front of you, how the world is falling to pieces; the planet has been ravaged, life is cheap, and there is little that you, as the western observer, with or without your good conscience, are going to do about it.

Senegal leaves me especially weary. Like so many places around the world, the country is both beautiful and awful. One minute you are driving through an otherworldly plain of baobab trees, cruising among mangroves, visiting a picturesque African village.

Baobabs in the Sine-Saloum

Niassam Lodge, Sine-Saloum

The next minute you are holding your nose as you pass the open sewers of some fetid slum. Cattle herds are destroying the Sine-Saloum, while elsewhere the land and water are strewn with billions of plastic bags, plastic bottles, and countless tons of refuse. There are more troubled places on earth for sure, but Senegal’s poverty and pollution are beyond most Americans’ wildest comprehension.

Take a drive some time along the Route de Rufisque, a two-lane, badly potholed stretch that runs southbound out of Dakar. A half-hour’s excursion along the Rufisque is a full-immersion tour of everything that is wrong in the world. What makes the area uniquely awful is the brutal mix of both organic and industrial squalor, some of it piled so high that it’s a wonder citizens do not routinely die beneath avalanches of waste. And perhaps they do. There is excrement and animals and rotting garbage, yes. And there are mountains of old tires; three-story towers of discarded axles; the smashed, rusted hulks of automobiles set amidst knee-deep pools of oil and grease. There is one particular spot, about a half-hour from central Dakar, where the Rufisque curves to the right and merges with the larger southbound road, roughly parallel to where that new airport highway will run. Here, the view opens up and presents a scene that is straight out of Dante: a slum so horrifying that it is impossible to tell where the refuse ends and the people and their homes begin.

photo by author

I first saw this place out of the window of a taxi some weeks ago, during the long drive back to Dakar from the island village of Fadiout. It especially caught my attention because I had just finished reading Mike Davis’ “Planet of Slums.” I made a mental snapshot and decided that, when I next return to Senegal, I would hire a driver and go back there for a closer look. A month or so later I did exactly that. My escort was a young Wolof named Mustafa M’Baye. Mustafa is a freelance guide who hangs around the lobby of the Sofitel looking to round up clients. He speaks good English and knows his way around, though he was yet to encounter a foreigner interested in seeing one of the city’s poorest areas. Turns out that slum is both a neighborhood for people and a pig farm. Some of the dwellings are for pigs; the others are for people. You cannot, at first glance (or second glance in some cases), tell which are which. (The farming of pigs struck me as somewhat curious for a nominally Muslim country. According to Mustafa they are eaten mainly by Senegal’s Christian minority.) People and animals live side-by-side in decrepit shacks cobbled together from sheets of wood, metal, and plastic. Many of the roofs are little more than plastic bags, knotted together and encrusted with sludge. Rising out of this hell are a pair of gnarled old trees, long ago denuded and stripped of their bark, their trunks stained black by fumes and cooking fires. Ragged, leaf-less branches claw toward the sky.

I have visited the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the shantytowns of Johannesburg. I have seen urban and rural poverty in places like Mali and Cambodia. And while there are, I suppose, plenty of cities more desperate than Dakar — Karachi? Dacca? Lagos? — I have never been anywhere so wretched as this.

But degrees of poverty aren’t the point. The important fact is that most of the world’s population now exists in some form of what we in the developed west would describe as squalor. And that percentage — whatever it is, exactly — is growing. For the first time in human history, more people now live in cities than in the countryside, and over a billion of them are packed into slums. India alone has close to fifty cities each with a population exceeding one million. How many Americans, I wonder, can name even three cities in India? An estimated 2.6 billion people — over a third of the earth’s population — have no access to a toilet. As Mustafa and I navigated the maze of shacks, it became clear that some of the residents did not appreciate the white guy roaming around with the camera. Eventually we were asked to leave. “They don’t understand,” said Mustafa. “They don’t know what you want.”

And what did I want? It was difficult to justify my being there in the first place. I wanted to see this place, and I wanted to describe it in a column. Okay but why, exactly? On one hand I wished every American could have been with me. Words like awareness and insight and perspective kept jumping to mind. On the other hand, I felt like a cultural voyeur out for a thrill — slumming as they say, in the most raw and literal sense. In the end I was glad to have seen it. And I was just as glad to leave. Mustafa then brought me to similar area nearby, adjacent to a railway line. The conditions here weren’t as filthy, but were no less pathetic — random detritus formed into rough, almost comically makeshift dwellings.

Shelter, Dakar

On the way back we were cutting through a sandy, littered alleyway just off the train tracks. There was a thin fence made of plastic chicken wire, tough as fishing line, that we had to crawl through. Someone had cut a hole through the fence just large enough for a person. As I was crouching to step through, something caught my eye. There at my feet was a small spiny clump about the size of a grapefruit, covered with sand and snarled by the wire. I suspect most people would have ignored it, perhaps not realized that it was, in fact, a living creature. I recognized it instantly. It was an African pygmy hedgehog — Erinaceus albiventris– exactly like the one I had as a pet several years ago. I stopped and called Mustafa over.

The hedgehog was still alive, but so miserably entangled that it could hardly move. Its forward right leg was mangled, blackened and dislocated, wrapped to the shoulder by a seemingly impossible tangle of knots. There was also a length of wire around the animal’s neck, pulled so tightly that it had broken the skin and ripped into the muscle.

I spent a good twenty minutes extricating the hedgehog from the wire. I had Mustafa shatter a beer bottle, and used the shards of glass as a knife. First I got the leg out, then severed the wire around its neck. It was messy and horrible and I cut myself to boot. You could not have intentionally bound an object as tightly as this poor creature had managed to bind itself. The knots were so thick and tight that I wondered if maybe a person had done the tying. Once free, the hedgehog crawled a few inches, then sat motionless. He was too weak even to curl into the spiny protective ball that is the reflex position for any threatened hedgehog. Judging by the condition of its leg, I reckon he had been there for several days. I picked him up and Mustafa, who was holding my camera, snapped a photo.

Photo by Mustapha M’Baye

I decided to bring the hedgehog back to my hotel, not quite sure what to do if he survived, a prospect that frankly seemed doubtful. Mustafa scrounged up an old section of burlap and a plastic bag, and we placed the animal inside. He endured the long taxi ride, and I spent about half an hour cleaning him up in the bathroom sink. I doused the wounds with contact lens solution. Then I covered him in a towel and put him on the floor, near the doors to the balcony.

Regretfully, about two hours later, the hedgehog was dead. It was going to happen anyway, probably, but I wonder if maybe the sink bath was too stressful. I remember a quote, though I can’t recall the exact words, or who the speaker was, basically submitting that human beings will only be as kind or respectful to each other as they are kind and respectful to animals and nature. I believe that, I think. Or else I am a fool.

As I packed for the flight home, I reflected: There I had been, standing amidst some of the worst human poverty and on planet earth, fighting like mad to save a tiny injured mammal. The irony, if we should call it that, was not lost. Was expending so much effort on the hedgehog the right thing to do, I wondered, or the wrong thing? Or was it simply no thing – just a tic of human nature, irrelevant to any greater context? I don’t know. I am not even sure why I’m telling you this story. Somehow it all seems connected: the airport; the slum; our feelings of guilt and ambivalence; the fallacy of good intentions. And one more African death, however small.


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