Casamance is Senegal’s southern province, partially separated from the main part by the finger of Gambia poking half way across the country. It is also separated by culture, the main language is Diola rather than Wolof, and religion as the majority of people retain animist beliefs while seemingly also attending Catholic Churches. Mosques are still evident but not as in the north where 95%of the population is Muslim. Houses look different, and the landscape is much much greener though still dry and sandy. The area underwent serious social unrest for many years, its aim being independence from Senegal. A cease fire has been in effect for 4 years and talks with the rebels are proceeding.
We flew to Ziguinchor from Dakar on a small, but decent looking plane, a half hour flight. Always something new — as we began to descend and were watching jungle intersected by waterways come closer, we began to circle. After a while the pilot’s voice came on with a lengthy speech in French, in which I could only catch the word “probleme”. Then “Dere is a leetle probleme at the aeroporte, we circle…” Which we did for a fair while until we came in to land and could see billowing black smoke and a couple of fire trucks putting out a giant grass fire beside the runway. Welcome to laid back Casamance!
Zig is a small but spread out seedy looking port town. We went to the best hotel in town, a colonial relic, exceedingly well maintained right on the river bank. Lovely food. We were there to pick up our return tickets, ordered by Pap which quickly morphed into another Pap story. His friend Maream promised to meet us the next day and then disappeared for twenty four hours. Eventually all was well, she had taken an unexplained side trip to Guinea Bissau, taking the tickets along for the ride but handed them over and we then set off for Cap Skirring, 1 1/2 hours away to a small village called Djiembering where I had booked us into a small, funky sounding lodge.
Akine Diyoni Lodge turned out to be a story all in itself and we were so seduced by its charms we extended our stay and were there 6 days. Anne, the owner was a chain-smoking, wine sipping, husky voiced, effusive 65 year old charmer. Mixing French and English she told us she had left Grenoble for Senegal at the age of 50, tired of cold weather and seeking a new home in a French speaking country. After 6 years she found this remote piece of land, reached by sand tracks from the tiny village of Djiembering where she began building herself an artistic little cottage and surrounding it with what is now a gorgeous tropical garden filled with traditional wood carving from Senegal and Guinea. Perched atop a hill, it is 100 metres from an incredible expanse of deserted beach with only a few cows to disturb the tranquillity of our daily walks. If one had a lot of stamina, it was possible to walk the 12 kilometres to Cap Skirring, a resort area, in one direction without encountering a settlement, and even farther in the other direction. From our little cabin we could hear the surf pounding all night, the Atlantic is certainly a vigorous ocean. It reminded us of Long Beach but much vaster.
Over the following 9 years Anne added 4 more little cottages to her garden. Each cottage is unique, ours was called Karibo and suited us perfectly. It had a mural of a tree painted on the floor, all the wood used in construction and the furniture was driftwood from the beach. A Swiss family was staying in a conical straw hut with a hobbit sized doorway, like living in a playhouse but with a decent bathroom. One was like a tower with the bed in a loft, only for the spry with good bladders since the bathroom was below.
Little nooks for reading, resting, or vegging out were scattered here and there, discovered as we explored paths snaking through the gardens. And — the piece de resistance — Anne was a chef and had trained her young and hilariously charming Senegalese cook. Between them they turned out the most fabulous lunches and dinners. She also had a decent line of wine, and I am afraid we went through several bottles while we were there. The staff were so friendly and all fell in love with us, aided by the fact that we arrived at the same time as a pair of women killing time between two back to back tours, one of whom was truly obnoxious, complaining about everything. The other long term guests were a lovely but completely feckless Swiss family with 2 boys, 4 and 5, who had moved to a better class of accommodation for a few days to allow the husband and 5 year old to recover from a nasty stomach bug they had picked up at a “campement” where they had gone to study herbal medicine. It didn’t seem that essential oils had done much for the stomach bug but we didn’t offer medication after she made it clear they didn’t accept any inoculations (!! In Africa with children!!?) and did not believe in western medicine at all.
While there, Anne connected us with a friend of hers in the village, another Pap but completely different, who took us on a fascinating walking tour of Djiembering village. It is built traditional style with packed earth construction and animism beliefs are practised. Every village here has a giant “fromager” tree at its entrance. These are enormous kapok trees with buttress style roots that writhe out of the earth most artistically and are central to animist beliefs. Beside that will always be a baobab and a mango, sometimes figs. These trees are the centre of communal village life.
In this small village, there were 6 fetish centres, each with at least the aforementioned trees forming a shady grove under which people sit on the ground working on basket weaving, carving or chatting. A heap of dusty, disorganized looking drums will lie there, and once it was pointed out to us, a “fetish” with the remnants of a goat or chicken sacrifice under which were a few conch shells. As I say, we would have missed the fetishes so insignificant did they look and assumed the drums had been discarded, but no, these objects are in constant use! There was also a distinct grove of Fromager trees which was sacred to women, and which they visited to ask for womanly things like fertility, health for their children, romance, and so on. It did have a rather spiritual air to it and the maze of sculptural roots very artistic.
After we had completed the circuit, we ended up at the Catholic Church compound which included two schools and a health centre. Church was just letting out (no conflict with animism apparently) and villagers clad in their Sunday best were filing out and congregating by the big Fromager to chat, and buy clothes from huge piles of European “thrift” spread out at the base. Pap claimed it was good to receive these cast offs as they are cheap — we met two little girls who had purchased gloves and wanted their picture taken wearing these elegant accessories!
Pap had agreed to drive the priest to Oussouye, another village, for a large Palm Wine Fete taking place at their Catholic Church and he offered to take us along. We waited for the priest to emerge and set off. Unfortunately he insisted on a stop at a small roadside restaurant where they served him half a tumbler of Scotch which he did not pay for — I guess God did — must have been a tough service.. The fete was huge, at least 500 people in attendance, half of them wearing new clothes made out of matching fabric. Some traditional dancing was happening, but due to the priest’s Scotch stop we missed most of it. Lots of regular Senegalese dancing followed though. Huge amounts of food were being prepared, and people were buying palm wine in recycled beer bottles (disgusting to our taste), regular beer, and soft drinks. We bought a bottle of palm wine, tasted it, and gave the rest to Pap in favour of regular beer. He told us palm wine is “natural” and beer is “chemical” so was happy to have the palm wine.
We could barely tear ourselves away but decided to have two quick trips, one to Carabane Island and the other to Isle d’Egueye. We wanted to see more of the lazy islands in the maze of bolongs twisting through the coastal jungle and mangroves. Carabane is a large island positioned at the Atlantic entrance to the bolongs leading inland to Ziguinchor. Consequently it was very windy when we were there, and freezing cold with it. The pirogue ride from the mainland was rough and we had to leap into the waves to get to shore. A huge celebration was planned for two days hence to inaugurate the renovations to their historic church, financed by a local boy made good in Dakar. All the accommodation on the island, of which there was very little, was booked out and crowds expected. The small hotel (nothing to write home about we found upon investigation) was full so we went to the “second best” Chez Helena. We had to leave the day the main celebration was to start as they too were fully booked — thank heavens! as it turned out.
The beach of the island was beautiful white sand and we had a couple of nice walks through the howling wind. The village though was dirty and run down, in the sort of way that is not due to poverty but different priorities. People were sitting around visiting and our guesthouse was a magnet for visitors who came by all day long, sat for a while with Helena and then drifted out. Helena sat blowsily at the back of the restaurant like a giant bloated spider welcoming clustering flies. A beleaguered little man with no sense of hygiene ran around like a mad thing serving the tables. Everyone was full board, there being nowhere else to eat.
I reached my peak of hatred of the place by the second night when the following partial list of annoyances happened: our bed collapsed during the night causing both of us to subside into a valley, it was far too cold to have a bucket shower and that was all there was, the wind was howling causing the sand to blow into everything we tried to eat, the sand floor of the dining area was filthy with dropped food and the feces of chickens and goats which scratched incessantly at our feet, in preparation for the next day’s festivities a raucous band thumped and screeched until 2 a.m., and finally, during our final meagre breakfast, one of the many chickens scratching through the filthy sand flew up and took my meagre baguette right out of my hand and flew off!! I mean there are budget hostels and then there are places that don’t even try!
A man with a pirogue turned up on time to take us on to Isle d’Egueye farther up the bolong system. The surf on the beach was heavy and it was really hard to get us off the beach, the poor man had to keep jumping out and pushing us through the water to get over the sand bar and into water deep enough to drop the motor. He would wade out to his chest, then jump in and try to fire it up fast enough to take us out before we surfed back in again.
As soon as we had crossed the opening into the bolongs and ducked down the first one, the water became calm, the wind stopped howling and I relaxed my death grip on the gunwale. It was a lovely ride through twisting canals among the mangroves whose stems are encrusted with small oysters. Finding a way through the maze requires an experienced boatman as all the corners looked exactly the same to us.
After an hour we came to the Ile, a tiny island with only one small campement as they call simple camps here. An easy matter to beach the boat and jump onto sand this time, then up the slope to be shown our tidy little traditional style bungalow. Only cold water of course, but absolutely fine on such a boiling hot afternoon. Very nice people, great to be hot, though evening very cool as always. All meals included, our first one being prefaced by roast oysters from the fire which we picked out of shells attached to blackened mangrove branches thrust into the coals. Very tasty though tiny.
We enjoyed our couple of nights there, then headed to Zig by pirogue and taxi to catch a flight to Dakar in preparation for leaving. We have had amazing luck with finding transport very easily and it has been a comfortable and efficient way to travel in a country just beginning to have a public bus system where the main form of city to city transport is a clapped out 35 year old Renault station wagon made up our of reclaimed bits and fitted with two rows of back seats. These are known as “sept place” and are truly uncomfortable as we discovered on a couple of short tests.
For our last 1 1/2 nights we are at the funkiest little hotel built by a Haitian artist who came here years ago, another one like Anne but on a greater scale who started adding on and couldn’t stop. He clearly loves Gaudi and the whole thing is made us of stones, mosaics, shell and broken tile artistry. Balustrades curve and are mosaicked like serpents, there are turrets and cupolas everywhere and the daftest rabbit warren of rooms we’ve ever seen. Plus an elegant tribe of resident cats, I’ve stopped counting at 20, all in great condition and seemingly coexisting happily. Good and cheap and a lovely place to sit for a day watching the waves, or taking a walk at their edge. Plane leaves at 3 am, it’ll be a long night til Marrakech.
We’ve had a wonderful 6 weeks here. The people are welcoming and oh so very beautiful, with their lithe grace. At first the monotone of desert sand and scrubby bushes, all houses being the colour of the earth from which they are made, not to mention the constant sand and grit underfoot were hard to get used to. Then we realized that the people’s fabulous colour sense, and the fantastical prints both women and men wear — fabric printing is a big deal here with prizes given each year for the most innovative design — and their lovely painted on skin and creative hair styles (both women and men) are what adds zest to the monochrome background.
The population is very young, the mean age is 18 and about 75% are under 25. Of course that will become very problematic but a nicer result is their youth is beautiful to look at, whether lithe and skinny legged or muscular and powerful. Babies and small children are fat and happy and doted upon by all. They doze happily tied to their mother’s backs.
This choice of country was a complete whim and we are very glad we came. We felt safe, happy and always welcome. Sad to leave but ready for something completely different —Morocco.