Journalist Helen Blakesley, who left the North-East to live in West Africa two years ago, explains what it’s like to live in Senegal’s beautiful, but infuriating capital.

I LIVE in a country where a man can have four wives.

Legally. It’s absolutely fine... if not encouraged. What’s more, put a gun to my head and I’d most definitely say I lean towards the feminist camp. So why is a hot-headed North-East lass living in Dakar, the crazy, eclectic capital of Senegal in West Africa? Madness? Maybe.

I came here almost two years ago for a “new challenge”. I’d just turned 30 and had been working in broadcast journalism across the North- East and North Yorkshire. And, truth be told, I was nursing a broken heart. I’d been itching to get back abroad (I’d lived in France for a couple of years and in Togo, West Africa during university) and now was the time to take the plunge – before age/a mortgage/fear could stop me.

So, here I am, in the latest incarnation of my bachelorette pad, attempting to navigate through the daily shenanigans of this colourful, heart-breaking, beautiful, infuriating place. Pals back home hoot at the ludicrous happenings that appear to be my daily lot. They also ask me sometimes why on earth I’m still here. But I’m intrigued by this corner of Africa. Something about Dakar grasps you to its bosom in a firm lovehate embrace.

This is a place where horses and carts clop past 4x4s, abortion and homosexuality are illegal, babies are carried on backs and baskets on heads. There are beaches and palm trees and islands to swim to, but also run-down streets strewn with litter and canals oozing with the stench of human waste. You can dine at the five-star Radisson overlooking the ocean, or grab a 50p bowl of rice and sauce, hunched on a rickety wooden bench with some likely lads who are all too happy to chat.

As I write this, the call to prayer from the mosque is wailing; my neighbour’s sheep (kept on his flat roof) is bleating away and the latest hip-hop tunes are floating up to me from the street where kids are jostling in a noisy clapping game.

Living as a single, white, female (especially on my Keeping It Real budget) is certainly the challenge I was looking for... and then some.

Along with my adventurous spirit, I’m quite a girlie girl at heart. I might have washed with a plastic cup in a bucket of cold water this morning (water and power cuts are rife) but that doesn’t stop me bespangling my nails with the latest glittery polish or getting my gladrags on to dance the night away.

Life in Dakar can veer between the serious and the downright absurd.

There’s the time I was chucked out of a cemetery (literally) then almost arrested for smooching in the street, all in one day. There’s the daily pantomime of haggling; the incessant buzz of male attention (not flattering after the 60 billionth “Ooh jolie mademoiselle!” and “Are you married?”).

There’s the stunning fashion and painstaking grooming of Dakar’s women... and their confusingly contradictory place in society. There’s the president who spends millions on a statue while thousands of talibe boys (disciples of certain Koranic schools) beg barefoot each day.

There’s my Cameroonian stalker and Oxbridge boy... and the other, possibly less insane, characters I’ve dated and attempted to date. And not forgetting the time fellow customers gawped in horror as I openly sobbed in the phone shop after a three-hour wait just to pay my phone bill.

Echoes of the North-East are surprisingly present. Sitting in a cafe yesterday, I smiled to myself as I heard a woman, listening intently to her friend, exclaim “eeee” – albeit a higher and tighter sound than our Northern staple. And to top it off, I turned around to see another woman, still in her curlers.

THE warmth and curiosity of people here is palpable.

There’s a tightly-bound sense of community, something we’re losing in England. Every interaction is started with a greeting (“Asalamalakum” – peace be upon you) and inquiries after health and family. The stranger is asked to come and eat.

The extended family is always supported financially and, although it can be a burden for the individual, it means that it’s rare that anyone’s left out on a limb. Good job too because the social security system is desperately limited.

The myriad frustrations of the place are helping to teach me some patience. My mum will be pleased.

Some days I feel all strong and streetwise, and this place can be so much fun with the incredible mix of people you meet. On others, I’m like a piece of tissue paper, and every hassle and hustle and heart-wrenching scene goes right through me. As time passes though, I can feel myself learning to breathe in new ways, as I live as a fish out of water.

We had the first storm of the rainy season the other night. I watched the lightning from my balcony. Temperatures are on the rise in this period known for its humidity, its power cuts and its floods. Something tells me it’s going to be interesting.

Helen’s journey

HELEN BLAKESLEY, 31, grew up in a vicarage in St Helen Auckland, County Durham, the youngest of three sisters, before moving to Darlington, aged 16.

After leaving Teesdale School, she spent a year in France as an au pair before studying for a French degree, then training to be a journalist at Darlington College.

She went to Senegal two years ago to work for the United Nations humanitarian news network, IRIN.

While in Dakar, she has also worked for West Africa Democracy Radio, taught English at the British Council, translated reports and did voluntary work at an orphanage.