Returning to my hotel near the tip of Dakar’s Cap Vert Peninsula after a Sunday outing to UNESCO World Heritage Site Goree Island, on a whim I ask my young cab driver to change course and take me up the hill where there is a lighthouse. I am the first passenger to ever request this destination of her, but we quickly renegotiate the fare and she finds the turnoff. We wind steeply upwards. Judging from her bulging eyes, in her three years with the taxi company she has never driven up such an incline. Dakar is a flat city aside from this hill and the one next to it.
I had noticed the lighthouse that morning shortly after arriving on a red eye flight from New York to begin a long consulting mission in several African countries.
The Phare des Mamelles is a modest, whitewashed structure with a tower barely three stories high, but its location is spectacular. It sits 153 meters above the sea on a promontory that slopes down to high cliffs on three sides. The sign arching over the gated entrance of the lighthouse station compound declares the year 1864, a quarter century after the French had made Senegal their colony. Yet the country did not gain its independence until 1960.
My taxi driver joins me, and I joke with her that she should have discounted the fare, since I am introducing her to one of the best sights in the city, not to mention the hill- driving practice. Apparently there had been some gaps in her two years of training to become one of the 20 female drivers for the company. It is a surprise to find this business model in a Moslem country, but as I have come to learn, Africa is a place that regularly defies one’s expectations.
A keeper named Ahmet Diallo greets us. His last name sounds like the word “jello” but rhymes with the word “hollow.” He has resided here for ten years. We are the only visitors for the moment, but it is clear that he is accustomed to giving tours.
A short distance to the west, I look down on commercial airliners as they take off and land at the international airport. Later someone informs me that the Dakar airport is the only one in Africa that can accommodate a space shuttle landing. Beyond is the most exclusive district of the city, the Almadies, littered with embassies, ambassadors’ residences, villas, luxury hotels and apartments, and the offices of international companies and organizations. There is lots of new construction. After the airport, the cape quickly narrows to a rocky shoal where a smaller unmanned beacon is perched, the Phare des Almadies. Its foundation is barely above the crashing surf. This is the westernmost point in Africa.
We follow Mr. Diallo up the spiraling steps one floor. He goes into a storage room and takes out the biggest light bulb I have ever seen. It is the size of basketball. Handing it to me, he says it is 4000 watts. “Ships could see the light from a distance of 150 kilometers, but it was replaced 30 years ago by this,” he notes holding up a 1000 watt halogen bulb the size of a finger. “Now the light can be seen only from 55 kilometers, but that is sufficient. Passing ships must stay at least 25 kilometers from the coast.”
The tower houses a second order Fresnel lens. It is taller than an average man. In fact, there is room for a person to stand up inside the lens and nearly extend their arms straight out, something I did on a subsequent visit.
Using his hand to gently spin the huge lens on its mercury bed, Mr. Diallo observes that this is the second largest lighthouse in Africa, after the Cape of Good Hope, but they both have the same size lens. I am not sure what he means by “largest” but I don’t bother to inquire further.
Stepping outside from the lantern room onto a walkway around the tower, I lean against the railing and gaze at the ocean. The slanting sunlight and evening sea breeze provide a pleasant antidote to the fatigue induced by the overnight flight and jet lag. I contemplate my first day in West Africa and the visit to Goree Island earlier, which now serves as a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade. For 350, years even while control over it passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch, British and finally the French, Senegal was one of the main processing and departure points for this ugliest form of human trafficking. Thousands of vessels must have sailed past the lighthouse’s promontory, carrying to the New World chained captives from the interior and from further down the coast.
On our descent from the tower, Mr. Diallo leads us onto the building’s flat roof. A couple dozen antennas line the edge of the rooftop like an irregular hedge barren of leaves. He explains that cell phone companies pay fees to place their equipment on the lighthouse building and grounds, as do a number of embassies for their radio communications. We enter another room where Mr. Diallo points to a metal housing that contain electronics for U.S. embassy transmitters. I silently marvel at the site’s lack of security.
Next, our guide pulls a couple of large keeper’s logs from a shelf and places them on a table. We leaf through them. Attractive cursive handwriting dutifully records that on July 26, 1959 the light was turned on (“allumage”) at 19:35 hours, and the following morning turned off (“extinction”) at 6:45 hours. The journal entry that day documents a lot of activity and phone calls due to a cargo ship that had run aground at Almadies Point on the rocks near the lighthouse.
I ask Mr. Diallo about his work schedule. Despite automation, four keepers still man the station. They keep alternating watches, from 8 pm to midnight one day and from midnight to 8 am the next, before getting 24 hours off. This regimen requires three keepers. The fourth fills in when another is sick or away.
All four keepers live with their wives and families in four small houses behind the lighthouse.. When Mr. Diallo tells me there are 15 children living there, I wonder if this is the most populated lighthouse anywhere.
A small herd of goats grazing on the steep hillside must belong to the lighthouse families. As is typical in much of sub-Saharan Africa, there is not a dog or cat around. Carbohydrates and protein in any form are too precious to feed to pets.
On the internet I find a local legend that explains the origin of the landforms. It involves a girl who was made fun of so much for being ugly that she threw herself from the cliff into the waves below but was rejected by the sea himself who tosses the maiden back on shore where her supine body was transformed into part of the landscape.
Almost two months later near the end of my travels, I return to Dakar for a week. One evening I take a break from briefings and report writing for a repeat pilgrimage to the Phare des Mamelles. A sense of urgency motivates me as I had a bag stolen that contained a chip with the pictures taken in Dakar previously. I don’t want to go home without lighthouse photos.
This time the cab driver proposes a doubling of the fare to take me to the top, so I get out at the base of the hill. As I climb the road, joggers pass by, puffing and sweating in the August heat. One muscular guy says he does two circuits every evening. There are other groups and couples on foot as well and a number of cars pass. Obviously, it is a popular destination.
A colleague and his girlfriend arrive at the light station to join me. Our host on this occasion is a young man wearing a white T-shirt with the words “Paco-Jeans” printed on it. He is more animated than Mr. Diallo, and claims that he has received training as a guide and not as a lighthouse keeper. He follows the same routine as before, but some of the facts change. The giant bulb is now 3000 watts and its light was visible from 100 km. We take pictures holding it again, but I worry that it will eventually be shattered on the concrete floor as an inevitable consequence of getting handed back and forth to so many visitors.
Once in the lantern room, Mr. Paco encourages us to step up inside the lens. My two companions easily fit inside. He turns it slowly as if it were playground equipment for infants. We take funny photos of our faces distorted through the prisms. Somehow, it seems sacrilegious, like goofing around in a medieval cathedral filled with priceless sculptures and paintings.
On my first visit, I had offered a small tip without being asked. This time Mr. Paco doesn’t hesitate to solicit a voluntary payment for his services when we finally emerge from the building. I ask myself if he is really one of the four keepers in residence, or just someone hustling a living.
The Phare des Mamelles has now become an icon of my summer travels. I study it through binoculars every Dakar evening while sipping a beer and consuming a plate of octopus or clams at beachside restaurants. The fiery setting sun brilliantly illuminates the white structure and vegetated slopes and sheer cliffs below. I depart from Dakar again, return, and depart for a final time. At each take off and landing, the lighthouse is easily visible from the tarmac.
You may contact the author, David McKee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appeared in the
May 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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