The Future of Resilience

Dakar’s Unhealthy Obsession With the French Baguette

The Senegalese capital is awash in cheaper bread that’s just as good. Why don’t people eat it?

In many of France’s former West African colonies, French bread remains the bread of choice. (Photo by Sarah Tzinieris via Flickr)

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You can buy them everywhere: at your corner shop, the supermarket and the new, glitzy coffee places that have sprung up in parts of the city where the wealthy push their prams. We are talking, of course, about la baguette, the bread the French left behind in all of their former West African colonies. Sometimes it’s breakfast, with a thin layer of mashed sardines, or it’s an elaborate sandwich filled with meat, tomatoes and a generous helping of chili pepper.

The problem for people who don’t have a lot of money – and in Dakar, that is the majority – is that baguettes don’t come cheap. The reason is because they are made from imported wheat. There are alternatives available, but they do not sell.

There are other types of bread available in Dakar. The first time I became acquainted with what is known as mburu ndougoub, bread produced from a locally grown millet variety, I was elated. “Why doesn’t everyone eat this?” I asked the baker. “Habit,” he speculated. “But also, as you can see, this bread is even more expensive than these baguettes.”

Mind-boggling: locally produced bread is more expensive than the imported stuff? But the reason is simple – it’s all about economies of scale. The many mills that turn the imported wheat into flour (a lot of them are still French-owned) say they don’t have the technical wherewithal to process the millet from Senegalese soil. The equipment is old, and buying new machines is beyond the budget of almost everyone, especially in these lean times. There’s also a lingering suspicion that they don’t want to change.

But residents still want bread at an affordable price. So what’s to be done? Enter the people’s solution to the bread problem: tapalapa. Made from locally grown cereal and transported from Dakar’s outskirts into the big city, tapalapa is made in small, informal bakeries dotted all over the city’s poorer suburbs. The bread is sturdy and quite hard, but tasty and, most important of all, cheap. The bakeries use ovens made of clay, like they do in the village, and they are flourishing.

The authorities have tried to rein in these bakeries. A lot of them aren’t clean, and since the mixing and kneading of the dough is done by hand, this poses a problem. But instead of this being a handicap, the tapalapa bakers consider the issue of hygiene an incentive to weed out the competition. As one explained to me, “Yes, we do get visits from time to time from government officials who work for public hygiene. They turn the bakery upside down in search for things that are not right, but I can tell you that we never have any problems with them.” He added ominously: “Unlike those other bakers, who are, quite frankly, working in a very unhealthy way.” There is of course no way to verify his claims, but the fact remains that Dakar has never had a major health scare emanating from tapalapa. Had there been one, the nation would have certainly known about it through Dakar’s incurably sensational media.

With the arrival of so many people from the interior and from troubled neighboring countries – Guinea, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau – keeping close to four million Dakarois fed on a daily basis was always going to be challenge. The tapalapa revolution is a solution, but not everyone considers it a durable one. A former advisor to president Macky Sall puts the problem into perspective. “It’s a question of mentality. We still live with the idea that whatever gets imported, especially from Europe, is of better quality. That is not true, but we just cannot get rid of that colonial mindset.” Case in point: when you ask people what they would eat if they could afford it, they do not mention mburu ndougoub. No – it’s back to la baguette, and no amount of arguing is going to change Dakar’s love affair with the French loaf any time soon.

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Tags: resilient citiesdakar

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