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In Senegal, swimming an old slave route

Dakar to Goree Island competition promotes a new future for troubled port.

After hours paddling through the sea, swimmers in the competition crash across a sandy finish line at an historic inlet on Goree Island.  Slave ships used to dock here but the cove's tragic vibe is displaced, at least for the day, by the festive competition. The gala event attracts Dakar's marketing men who pass out free energy drinks.

Mobile phone carriers — some of the largest, most visible corporations in this new West Africa — inflate blow-up billboards and flutter company flags that leer over the cobblestone bay walls and 18th-century cottages.

Chris Brown and Lil Wayne hits pound from rented speakers, clashing over the kora strums and box drum patters of griots who offer praise songs for the exhausted finishers.

“Normally, I’m a diver, but today I’m doing this for pleasure,” 25-year-old Papa Bari said, clutching a gift bag, a promotional T-shirt and a cigarette. 

Bari is one of at least 200,000 people along this coast who earn a living on the brine. The oysters and mussels he brings to the surface constitute a small catch in the 400,000 tons worth nearly $400 million in seafood that his country exports annually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“Senegal is a good place for nautical people,” said Mactar Samb, a lifeguard and member of one of at least 11 swim teams in the capital. “Young men here join swim clubs as a way to socialize and exercise.”

For those young men and their swim teams — and for the hundreds of amateur sea-lovers who make this yearly plunge — this three-mile race between Dakar and Goree Island is the central athletic competition of the year.

“To swim from Dakar to Goree, you really have to train,” 16-year-old Madi Gueye said, after her third year crossing of the open sea. “It can be scary, but if you overcome that it’s really not so difficult.”