Thinking about it, Senegal is the first country I've been where the lingua franca between fellow travellers hasn't been English. It's often struck me how lucky I am to be able to speak English, not least because international travellers often speak English when they get together because that's the language they all have in common. In Senegal, though, it's completely different, and I get the feeling that this will be the case for all of the Francophone countries in West Africa, because the cultural mix of tourists is different.
Of all the countries in West Africa, Senegal plays host to the largest number of foreign tourists. This is due to the fact that it's relatively safe (if you ignore the Casamance region in the south, which is off limits at the moment due to an over-zealous separatist movement), it's not far from Europe, French speakers can survive with a minimum of fuss, the euro is easily changed, and it's hot in November and December when Europe isn't. This means Senegal attracts high numbers of French and Belgian tourists, with a handful of French-speaking Swiss thrown in for good measure, and their common language, for obvious reasons, is French. In the same way that the English think of Africa as Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and so on, the French think of Africa as Senegal, Morocco, Mali and the other ex-French colonies; it's all down to colonial history and popular tourism.
The upshot is that I am a stranger among tourists here. I can manage the pleasantries in French, but I can't eavesdrop on conversations (and therefore I can't butt in), I can't swap detailed travellers' tips with other tourists, and I can't even exchange books when I've read them. It's not even that good for my French, because, just like the English, the French aren't terribly good at including strangers in their conversations, especially English strangers, and they talk so fast I can't understand a word.
Don't think I'm complaining, because that would be grossly unfair. English is without a doubt the most useful travelling language there is, and outside South America and West Africa it's the most useful communication tool there is (apart from the local banter, of course). I now understand exactly how the French feel when travelling through India, Malaysia, Australia and so on, and I now understand why there aren't that many French travellers in those ex-English colonies. They're all in West Africa, and quite right too; this is payback time for all the ease with which English carried me through my previous trips.
The local language is often a godsend, because somewhere in there is bound to be a word that even tourists use. For example in Wolof, the main indigenous language of Senegal, that word is toubab, which is the local term for the white man. It isn't a particularly derogatory term, but as you wander round Senegal the kids run after you shouting, 'Toubab! Toubab!' followed by the obligatory «Stylo, cinq francs, bonbon» mantra (that's French for 'pen, five francs, sweets', the secret to a happy life when you're a kid). I quite like being a toubab; it makes me feel like a cross between an African tree and a rap star.
But back among the toubabs it can be bloody lonely, being the odd one out, and it makes you really appreciate anyone who can speak English. Roll on the Gambia, Ghana and East Africa, where I'll be able to understand what on earth is going on...