Living in Dakar: A How To Guide

There’s a lot about living here that is very different and difficult for a foreigner and non-Francophile (my French is awful, but slowly improving). There are some expat groups on Facebook which can make things easier, but there was still a lot to learn and a very steep learning curve. I don’t often write instructive “how to” blogs because usually I find there’s already a bunch out there, but I didn’t find much for Senegal or Dakar, at least not in English, so  I’m writing what I have learned so far, and maybe someone else will have an easier time adjusting to living here.

The SIM Card

My phone data plan is a high priority when I arrive in a new country. I feel like I can’t do much else without it, and in Senegal you really need that local number to use ride shares, delivery, and digital wallets. There’s a reason it’s first on my list. Pre-departure research led me to believe that Orange would be my best bet, and the Embassy had scheduled a “get your sim card” event in the orientation, so I had not undertaken to get one on my own, but it’s not that hard, especially if you can speak a little French.

Finding the right store: Orange is both a phone/internet company and a money service. Not every Orange store does both, so it’s important to find the correct location. We went here: AGENCE ORANGE DES ALMADIES Of course, you need an unlocked phone, and you’ll need your passport to register your new phone number with the gov’t (I swear this is normal everywhere except America). The SIM card cost 500CFA (about 75cents US) and comes with a few days of data/minutes.

Finding your phone number is a little tricky because it doesn’t just show up in your “settings > about phone”. Instead, dial #237# and hit the call button, you’ll get a screen message showing your new Senegalese phone number. I took a screenshot of mine.

Setting your Orange Money PIN: When you get your SIM card, ask the clerk to help you set up your password (mot de passe). You can change or reset the 4 digit pin by dialing #144# then choosing option 7 (options) and then 3 to modify or 6 to reset. If you’re struggling with all the French, take a screenshot and port it into Google Translate (select the camera icon, then click on the image icon in at the bottom of the screen to access your screenshots).

Be sure you know your phone number and your secret PIN before you leave the store!

Topping up your phone plan: All phone plans in Senegal are prepaid. There are two apps you’ll want to use: Orange et Moi and Orange Money and they are only in French, sorry. Also, be sure you choose the Senegal versions since Orange is popular in a LOT of countries. Orange et Moi is the app for charging up your phone, but before you do that, you have to add money to your account.

Install Orange et Moi Senegal (careful you get the right country) and follow the steps to set up your account. You’ll need to enter your new Senegalese number and choose a password for the app.

Visit any Orange Money kiosk and deposit money into your account – cash only. I started out with just 10k (about 15$). You just say “dépôt orange” and give them the phone number. You should be able to see your new balance right away, but make sure it shows up before you leave the shop! (Image Credit: Minette Lontsie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I had to put in 200k in order to get the new work laptop and it was nerve wracking walking into a tiny hole in the wall shop with that much cash. Some kiosks are just huts the size of an outhouse, but they are guarded since the worker inside has a lot of cash. Thankfully for my nerves, the guy in the little shop added money to my account before taking the cash which made me feel better. It’s SO different from everything I’m used to and I’m working on finding a way to transfer money into my Orange account digitally because cash makes me nervous. There seems to be a way to do it if you have an African bank account, but the “add money by credit card” function on the app may or may not be permanently unavailable.

Your Pre-Pay Plan Will Expire! It’s important to note that this isn’t the kind of prepay that hangs around until you use it. There are time limits. Some plans are good for a day, some for a week, and the longest for a month. So don’t put a bunch of money on there thinking you can just top up when you use it all. I personally futzed around with the settings until I found the least amount I could add to get the 30 days, figuring if I used it up, I could add more which would be better than overpaying and losing it. I did not use it all.

How to Top Up in the App: The plans change from month to month, so I can’t suggest the best one, but some steps should stay the same: Acheter = buy and will take you to the menu of plan options. Illimix or Illiflex are the best options that mix data and phone (flex lets you choose how much data v phone you get for your money). It will ask you “choix du beneficiare” and you can choose your own phone number or enter someone elses, which if you are travelling with friends/family might make the whole thing easier. Make sure you get something that will last … avoid “jour” (day) and choose “semaine” (week) or “mois” (month). After you buy, you can see your remaining data/sms/minutes in the app by choosing “Conso”.

Money, Money, Money

Cash & GAB:
Senegal is a cash based economy. Very few places take cards, especially foreign cards. When I got here, the only way for me to access my US money was to go to a local ATM (or GAB since ATM isn’t a word here). The Embassy also warned us against using any ATM on the street (while also somehow NOT telling us they were called GAB). If they had their way, I’d be schlepping over to the Embassy every time I wanted cash to use their ATM inside. Not a practical solution. I also mentioned in my previous post that not all banks have GAB and Google Maps definitely doesn’t have a complete or accurate list, so it’s a good idea to figure out where your closest safe indoor GAB is before you need the money.

Why indoors? Apparently putting card skimmers on the machines is a thing here and the indoor ones all have security guards who keep more than one person per machine from going in at a time and CCTV (maybe?) to make sure no one does anything nefarious. It’s also easier to put your cash away inside than on the street. You don’t want to have a wad of cash in your wallet or bag. Only keep what you need in a day in reach. People don’t get mugged often here, and then mostly only at night alone, so it’s not a huge risk, but there’s no point in tempting fate.

However, cash is a pain, not only because it’s a germ vector and requires us to open our purse or wallet to get to, but local people ALL want you to have exact change, and no one wants to GIVE change. (to ask to have a bill broken ask: “as-tu de la monnaie”;  to ask if someone has change when you are buying something ask: “as-tu la monnaie”) Even at the grocery store where they have a full register of change they don’t want to part with it. I had to pop into a corner store to get a 1k bill broken into 2 500bills to pay my driver the other day. I have no idea how to keep myself topped up with enough change to satisfy drivers and street vendors. If I ever find out, I’ll update this post.

Digital Wallet:
In the mean time, I’m happy to report that Senegal is working on going cash free in a leap-frog way. (leapfrogging is when a culture skips a developmental step, in this case, going directly from cash to digital wallets without bank cards in between). Google Wallet and Venmo aren’t here in Senegal yet, but QR code based digital payment options Orange Money and Wave are. Orange Money comes built in with the phone package, and the only way to top up (without a local bank account) is to visit a kiosk and fork over the cash. It’s fairly easy to do and there are kiosks everywhere, but it doesn’t eliminate the need to go to the ATM all the time. Wave, however, has a partner app called SendWave that allows you to send money to a Wave user (including yourself) from a foreign bank account with no fees!

Getting SendWave:
Set up is a bit of an ordeal. You have to install the app, sign up, upload your passport photo and bank card then try (and fail) to send some money, and wait for someone to call you back. I hear your concerns and objections to uploading ID and bank card details, but it’s a reputable service. A big part of why it’s such a hassle to set up is that they have security measures in place to make sure no one is being scammed or stolen from. Trying to make your first payment starts the process. You can set up your wave account (separate app) and try and send it to yourself, or you can send it to a friend who already has their account set up. I’d start with just 1$, it’s going to get cancelled anyway.

When they call, they speak English quite well, which is nice. They verified me and checked to see that I really did know the person I was sending money to, then they asked me to submit a copy of my visa stamp to prove I was actually in Senegal since I’m sending money to myself here. I assume for people who are living outside the country sending money to family back home, it is different, but for us expats, they want proof we are really here. I uploaded a photo of my visa, and that turned out to not be sufficient. The entry stamp in my passport was so faded I had to run it through some strong filters to make it visible, but eventually I got a version they accepted. The whole process takes a few days, but once it is set up, the money transfers are instant. 

Pay with Wave:
Shops that accept Wave payment have the Wave Penguin with their QR code ID. You just scan the code, enter the amount you want to pay, and boom. Some retailers want to see your screen to verify, some get a message on their own phones right away. When paying at shops, there’s no fee to use Wave.

The Sendwave/Wave combo not only saves me from excessive GAB visits and foreign transaction charges, it also saves me from the problem of exact change. I ordered delivery the other day and the guy didn’t have change. It was 12 and I had a 10 and a 5, so I gave him the 10 and sent the other 2 by Wave. Same thing happened in a Heetch car when the driver couldn’t break my 5. I kept my cash and paid him the full amount by Wave. This is a little trickier, since the drivers and delivery folx are not “vendors” they’re just people. In that case you pay a 1% fee to transfer, so you have to take that into account when entering the amount to pay and check the amount they receive. At first I thought they should take the hit when they don’t carry change, but then I remembered my place of privilege and paid the pennies myself.

There’s a way to buy Orange phone plans with your Wave account, but it only applies to your phone/data plan and does NOT appear in your regular Orange Money account, so don’t send a bunch of money to your Orange account thinking you can spend it through Orange Money. In fact, don’t use these services for large amounts of money until you’ve tested them on small amounts and feel comfortable with them, because if you mess up and you don’t speak French, it’s going to be hard to get help resolving it.

UPDATE: I discovered this week that there’s a limit on both the amount you can have in your Wave wallet at a time AND the monthly amount you can receive. This almost turned into a fiasco because I am planning to pay my driver for the conference weekend using Wave and I spent 2 days trying to understand why my transfers weren’t going through while being told it was just a system error before I finally got someone to tell me the real problem. Thankfully, the fix is fairly easy, but it would have been devastating to find this out when I was trying to pay for something instead of just planning.

To increase the limit in your WAVE (not Sendwave) account, you have to upload a photo of your ID in the Wave App and visit a Wave agent in person (the app also has a list with Google Map links to the nearest agents). The ID was accepted very quickly, and I went to the corner agent this morning. Much like the Orange agents, it’s just booths in corner stores here, but he was able to log in and up my limit. If you want to use Wave for more than 200,000CFA in a 30 day period, you’ll need to do this too.

The Electricity

Woyofal is the electric company and there’s a link to them in both Orange Money and Wave apps. Like all things here, electricity is pre-paid. When your credit runs out, your power goes off. There’s a little meter that plugs into an outlet (which is really annoying since the outlets here already only have one plug instead of two) and you can see how many kwh you have left. The little light goes from green to red when you’re running low, and starts flashing just before you get cut off.

The tiny text at the top is all the codes you can enter to get various information. To top up your credit, you first need your unique account number, which you get by entering 804 + the blue button and waiting to see the number. It’s long and takes two screens, so be patient. I took photos of mine to keep it in an easy to find place. Once you have your number, you can go to your Wave or Orange Money app and follow the directions to pay bills, and open Woyofal. It should ask for the account number and the amount you want to add. When it goes through, you get a message with another really long string of numbers that is your confirmation code which you then go back to the little box plugged into your wall and painstakingly type in, followed by the blue button.

It sometimes takes a moment to catch up to itself. If the green light doesn’t come back, try typing 805+ the blue button to prompt it to display your remaining credit. It forces the machine to send and receive the signal. As far as I know, you can put as much as you want on there and unlike the phone minutes, it doesn’t expire. I have so far only put 10k on mine because I just got here and I wanted to test it out before doing a larger amount of money just in case I made a mistake in the process while learning. Again, with all these digital wallet things, do stuff in small amounts until you’re comfortable with it so you don’t lose much if something goes awry.

The process isn’t particularly difficult, but it is in no way intuitive to anyone coming from a country where utilities are post-paid and the bills are all online. Here is a more detailed blog about the Woyofal counter.

Shopping

This isn’t tourist shopping at the souk advice, it’s daily life stuff. There’s actually plenty of “how to shop at the market” advice out there (also I haven’t tried it yet), but not so much on “how to buy a new pillow and a coffee pot for your apartment”.

Food Delivery:

I’ve been using Dakar Food Delivery, but there’s also Bring Me and Yassir (I have not tried this last one yet). The hardest part of this is that apps are stuck in French (unlike websites which you can run through Google Chrome to auto translate) and that there are no addresses. Also the exact change thing. Some restaurants have online ordering through Google or their own website, so if the French is too much of an obstacle you can try that way, but you will still have to speak to the driver. Every driver is a new challenge. Somehow even though I live across the street from a pharmacy (which are excellent landmarks here because they all have unique names) my driver the other day ended up at the supermarket down the street, then said I didn’t speak French very well (which ok, yeah I don’t, but “pharmacie” and “supermarche” are not words I mix up).

Grocery Delivery:
You can get basic stuff at most corner stores, but sometimes you don’t want to cart heavy stuff home and sometimes you want stuff that’s not at the corner store. Bring Me has grocery delivery for the same day, but a fairly small selection. I am now using Club Tiossane which has to be scheduled for the next day (or more for some items) but is really easy to use and the delivery guy only had one question about my written directions, he wanted to know if I was to the left or right out of the elevator. They even called to follow up on my first order to make sure everything went well! I know Auchan also has a delivery option on their website, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Home Goods:
The larger grocery stores have some (as do the grocery delivery apps), but I had a bit of a search to figure out where to get new pillows since there’s no box stores here (Target, Wal-Mart, E-Mart, HomePlus, etc). Part of me is really happy there’s no Pottery Barn because I love small business, but it does make things harder. I ended up at a store called Orca which was definitely overpriced.

For anything you’re willing to get used, I’d say go back to the expat community. People are always going in and out so there’s plenty of stuff on offer. I was going to buy a used washing machine that way before my landlady decided she’d rather buy a new one herself. The Dakarium (ex Dakar Craigslist) group on Facebook seems to be the place for it. I just … don’t want used pillows, you know?

Finally, there’s Jumia, the “Amazon” of Africa (make sure you go to Jumia Senegal because the different countries have different Jumia sites). I suspect I could have ordered my pillows from there, but I wanted them that day (I was not sleeping well in the new bed on flat pillows). I have successfully used it to order some electronics for my office and more recently to order more henna and a coffee pot. Jumia is a bit complicated, like everything here. When you order, you can choose to have it delivered to your home or to a pick up point (so far, like Amazon, right?). Unless you have someone to receive the package when it arrives, home is not the best idea. My very first order, I chose the cash on delivery payment option and then realized that the delivery window was “sometime in the next 3 days”. Thankfully, it worked out, but I don’t want to do that again.

My second I chose the nearest pick up point, which is about 1km from me at the post office. There was no cash at pick up payment option so I had to schlep over to an Orange Money Kiosk to deposit the cash there in order to pay for the order on the website…I feel like Jumia would be perfect if it partnered with Wave instead of or in addition to Orange since you can digitally top up a Wave account, but you can only refill Orange Money by physically taking cash to the kiosk. However, the delivery worked just fine. They sent a text when it was ready to pick up and I walked on over, showed the text message as proof of purchase and got my new laptop.

My third order was almost bad, but ends up being a reassuring story. I found a coffee maker for much cheaper than the ones at Orca, ordered it to the pick up point, submitted my Orange payment, and then something went awry. The money left my Orange account and I got a payment confirmation text from Orange, but Jumia denied receiving it! I tried to call the help line, but either the connection was bad or they just couldn’t deal with the language barrier because they hung up. I sent a message through the online help instead and waited. They called back again the next day, but by the time I found the TV remote to mute my show so I could hear them, they had hung up again. All this was over the weekend, and I was planning to get a friend who speaks better French to help me on Monday, but before I could, I got a message saying my items had shipped. When I logged back into the website, I saw that the items were still in my cart but also that duplicate items were listed as in process. I’m not sure if the website sorted itself out, or if someone read my message and fixed it manually on their end, but it got fixed, which is the important thing.

Getting Around

Taxis are everywhere, but they are not metered in Dakar. I heard this isn’t a problem in other parts of Senegal, but I don’t have this luxury. So, you flag down a taxi and DO NOT GET IN. Instead, standing a bit back from the window for safety, you tell them where you want to go and ask how much and then haggle because they are trying to overcharge you. To make this more fun, there are no addresses, so you have to tell taxis where to go by landmark and be prepared to tell them more details when you get closer. Oh, and they don’t speak English. In fact, many of them don’t even speak French well. They are often poor and undereducated coming in from the countryside to work… or coming from other countries, because it’s a desirable place to live in Africa, and like any large city, there’s a big migrant and immigrant population. 
(Image Credit: Boydiop2, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The buses are wild. As in untamed. There are buses, I’ve seen them. They are stuffed to the brim. I’ve taken uncomfortable and crowded public transit before, but I think I’m going to follow the Embassy advice and not do it here. Not only are they very uncomfortable, but you have to have exact change, and know where you want to get off because there’s no marked stops. Even if you speak French or Wolof well enough to ask the driver about the route, you are not likely to be able to get to him for the crowd. Plus, with so many people packed in, it’s a prime place for pickpocketing. I might try the bus one day, when I can leave everything valuable at home or tuck it into my traveler’s belt under my shirt, just so I can see what it’s like first hand, but it’s not the kind of thing you want to rely on to get a place.
(Image Credit: Dr. Alexey Yakovlev, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Ride share services have recently launched here! The only two services in Senegal are Russian owned Yango, and French owned Heetch. There’s no Uber or Lyft, I’m afraid. Yango launched in December 2021 and Heetch launched in January of 2022, so this is really new. You will need to register with a phone number, and as yet there’s no way to add a digital payment option inside the app (although if you don’t have right cash, you can probably use Wave with the driver). It took me several tries to get Yango to work, so if that happens, just uninstall and reinstall the apps and try again. Stuff doesn’t always work here. Yango and Heetch cars are significantly nicer than the taxis. The drivers are less likely to be harrassy, more likely to speak French or even some English, and more likely (but not guaranteed) to have change than taxi drivers. There’s also a way to complain to the company if there’s a problem.

The ride share apps allow you to enter your location by searching for a business name or selecting a location on the map. This is really great since there are no addresses, but it’s not something most drivers are used to yet. No matter what you put in, they still call and ask where you are and where you’re going after they accept your ride request. I actually turned on the “don’t call me unless its an emergency” option in Yango and it made zero difference. I’m hoping this will improve over time, but honestly, I had taxis in Korea who couldn’t use GPS either, so …. Anyway, be prepared to explain it in French to a very impatient driver. I find I often can’t understand them on the phone either because of background noise or bad connection or just because they are talking too fast or with slang. In that case you can send a text message, a WhatsApp message or message through the app itself, allowing you to use the translating app of your choice. Most of the app drivers have a minimum level of tech ability and literacy that allows them to deal with the text messages. (side note, people actually prefer calling to texting here, and even in the text based app WhatsApp they will record and send voice messages rather than type. I love talking on the phone to my friends, but it’s a solid nightmare to try and do it in another language)

Always Ask

Things here are changing rapidly. I learned all this by asking and searching on Google, but there are expats embedded here and even locals that don’t know some of this because many of the more convenient digital/online services just launched in the last year or two and they stopped looking for better ways to do things. If you don’t know how to do a thing or where to buy a thing, ask and keep asking until you find a solution that works for you. If I’d listened to the people who were supposed to help me, I’d be in much worse shape, living in a way less nice apartment and overpaying for most things or just doing without. Instead, I found a couple of Americans who had been here for long enough to share what they had learned and compiled everyone’s knowledge gems into one place. I hope this guide is helpful to someone. I know I would have loved to know these things before I landed here, but even if the details become obsolete, the basic advice of “keep asking” will always be true.

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