Well, I was about 6 years past my target, but I finally made it over to Africa. Senegal was an interesting and somewhat spontaneous first contact. Here's what struck me:
The whole country seems to be sort of half-built. The streets are lined with rubble, and if I didn't know it was simply the chaos of constant construction, I would think they had experienced a recent war. As it turns out, people tend to build their houses brick by brick, investing meager earnings in their physical infrastructure as a hedge against unstable currency and human vice. This leads to entire nieghborhoods that appear to be abandoned and left in ruins, when in reality they are simply not yet lived in.
The country in general feels remarkably safe. While there is certainly personal crime, it's mostly pick-pocketing. I'd be curious to see the actual crime statistics and see if they match up with my feelings while there (though not curious enough to look it up before posting this).
On the flip side, death seemed so unsettlingly near whenever I rode in a taxi. It seems like taxis in Senegal are a study of how close you can get a car to complete disintegration and still have it transport you and your passengers across town. Buses actually seem a little safer, though the faster and more common alternative for long-distance travel, the "sept place", or "seven seater" (pronounced "set ploss"), are about as bad as the taxis, and scarier because your ride further in them.
People in Senegal are as kind and generous as people in most of the other places I've been. Dress is interesting and attractive. Women wear beautiful, bright printed fabrics that flash across the bleak landscape, and men wear boubous, a somewhat formal pant and long shirt combination resembling an Indian kurta. (And ok, most of the young people wear western-style clothing in day-to-day life.)
It's a majority Muslim country, so there's an interesting mix of serious spirtuality and more frivolous normal life. I got a big kick out of seeing the local holy men eating casually below usually grossly sexual music videos on screen at a small canteen near our house.
I also found there's something strangely nostalgic about the tinny echo of the prayers through little bullhorns a couple times per day. The regularity of it and the perseverance of the sound through the chaos of life inspire a sort of introspection....
Tourism in Senegal seems more disconnected than normal. It almost seems like an oil-and-water relationship, where the tourists sort of float above daily life in Senegal, only touching down in controlled environments and remaining largely unaware that the Senegalese population exists. (To be fair, we didn't see that many tourists, but this is what I gathered from what we did see.)
While certain things were very cheap (food, transport), a lot of things were more expensive than I was expecting. Hotels routinely cost about 22USD per night; diesel was about 1.10USD per liter; I bought cheap pants for about 20USD (i.e., not that cheap).
I had a great time eating in Senegal. They have a number of unique dishes that are very tasty, most of which involve stewed vegetables in the middle of a sea of rice. Spices are mild but distinct, and they don't lay on the hot sauce. They don't seem to be much of a dessert place, but they did have one really good dessert. It's called ngala, and it's a millet cous-cous with a sweet peanuty sauce drizzled on it, served over ice.
Unfortunately, for all the good fruits that were available, they simply don't have a fresh smoothie culture like Latin America does. No one has blenders, in spite of widespread electricity infrastructure (albeit janky).
The cookies are so-so, though they have some great Twix knockoffs that I frequently enjoyed. Beyond the ngala, no locally-made sweets to write home about.
Oh, and they have this sort of comical habit of eating these totally non-substantive sandwiches made of a few tablespoons of stewed beans spread thinly on puffy white baguettes. Not amazing, but it does the trick, and they're all over the place.
We had a layover in Paris on the way home and I finally understood why people go so crazy over French food. I'll probably never find another goat cheese that good, and my almond croissant was to die for.