Shaking hands in Dakar


 I walked into a bar in Dakar one night and three Senegalese men I had never seen before offered their hand in greeting at the door. What a nice way to welcome a stranger, I thought. The first person I met inside shook my hand, too. As did the second, the third, the fourth…. and then I stopped counting. I eventually found a sofa and sat down. It was old, but relaxing, just like the music playing “Let’s get together and feel alright.” Everywhere I’ve been in West, South or East Africa, if there was a loudspeaker, there would be reggae music coming out of it. Bob Marley is so popular, he could be president of the whole continent if he were still alive. The greeting continued: Everyone who passed my sofa gave me their hand. Men, women, old people, young people: I don’t look anything like Bob Marley, but I felt I was almost as popular in there.

Customs differ around the world and sometimes they’re definitely better than at home, where people who don’t know you barely acknowledge you with a glance. There’s something else, too: Not a single person wanted anything from me. They said hello with a handshake and went on their way. “What kind of people are they?” I asked my companion, a documentary filmmaker from Dakar. “Just regular middle-class people,” he replied, “merchants, intellectuals, a few government workers. This is their local bar, they always come here after work. Do you like it?”– “Very much,” I said, “particularly the Senegalese custom of shaking a stranger’s hand.” He laughed. “That’s not Senegalese at all. They only started doing that after a German tourist came in and started shaking everybody’s hand.”

Our columnist, Helge Timmerberg, an irrepressible globetrotter since 1969, writes travel books and contributes monthly to our magazine.