CHILLIN’ IN CASAMANCE

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.

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Feeding Frenzy – Sine Saloum

Acting on a tip from a pair of French tourists, we decided to head south almost to the border with The Gambia to the Sine Saloum Delta. This is an area of twisting “bolongs” with mangrove forests full of sea birds of all descriptions. A maze of twisting roads and sandy pistes connect the areas of settlement among the bayous.

The very sweet 6”8”, 130 pound Wolof manager of the Siki Hotel in Saint Louis had arranged a friend to pick us up in Lompoul and drive us down. His price was good which turned out to be a bad sign, as he had confused Simal Ecolodge with a tiny interior village called Semel.

Thank goodness for maps.me a wonderful app that lets you track your route without benefit of cellular service. When I realized he had turned off the main north south road, I turned it on and sent him back on the correct route. He really didn’t believe me and had no understanding of the technology but I made him just keep going and trust…hoping that we would eventually arrive! The road became smaller with no settlements along it, and those few he asked were vague on the possible location..

The last couple of kilometres we had to turn onto a sandy track which became deeper and deeper sand as we wended our way through two tiny villages and across open fields — amazingly maps.me tracking along — he was shouting, “Sable, sable, merde merde” (sable being sand, merde being, well merde). Finally we spotted a sign and staggered to a halt, beside, incongruously, a swimming pool. We decanted from the car, we were indeed at the right place, as a manager came to greet us. The poor driver rushed poolside and started sluicing water all over himself, I thought he was simply hot, but he was doing his ablutions for prayer. He proceeded to drop on to a handy straw mat and start in.

The Ecolodge was a lovely, rustic spot. Right on the edge of the bolong, we sat to eat meals at tables beside the water watching pelicans, terns, gulls, ibis, cormorants, herons and stilts compete for the fish teeming in the water. They had a co-operative process. The gulls came in screaming which seemed to herd the fish in, assisted by cormorants chasing them underwater. Next would come in the terns diving like mad, while up popped the cormorants from below. Gulls would dive in, the herons would scoop the perimeter, while the pelicans sailed majestically through plucking up scoopfulls. Then the frenzy would abate, all would go out to sea to wait for the fish to forget what had just happened, until a few minutes later the whole thing started again.

Quite the sight from the comfort of the beach, no need to move, but they took us out in a pirogue to wend in and out of the tiny inlets where we saw fewer birds than at the lodge, but were fascinated by the mangrove reforestation scheme taking place. In many countries mangroves have been cleared, as their vital place in the ecosystem was not understood. We saw similar problems in South America. But we had not seen reforestation going on before. Miles and miles of tiny mangrove saplings poke from the water in tidy rows, looking ever so much like one of our replanted forests, with the addition of water of course. The local people support it because the depletion had impacted fishing badly.

Since the place had no internet, and we had had only a few minutes a day at the desert, we took the offered caleche (horse cart) ride through a number of small villages, across a bridge more like a narrow mud dyke than a bridge, built to enable the kids to get to the secondary school without wading holding their clothes over their heads as the water reached to their necks, which is how the dedicated little blighters did it before. Old guy who drove spoke slowly for us and had lots of interesting local lore. We were accompanied by an Italian woman we had met who was worried about her mother who had been injured in a skiing accident. She had heard that there was another lodge with wifi. We just wanted to let the kids know we had not disappeared — nowadays with such regular contact, the problem is that when we unexpectedly fall off the grid, people worry.

We found the lodge and though it was quite posh, the cabanas with all mod cons and private sitting gazebos at the end of rickety jetties for watching the birds, we liked ours much better. Our cabana was built local style with an outdoor bathroom (attached) so close to the birds, but also the area in front was used daily by a group of young fitness enthusiasts, either training themselves for Senegalese wresting, or for “football” or just doing calisthenics — very impressive physiques these tall young guys have — after which they would stoke a tiny fire and brew themselves improving glasses of Senegalese tea, which is rather ghastly to our taste as they boil black tea and mint into a very dark concoction and then add several sugar lumps to each tiny glass.

We had a village right beside so women and children passed constantly. This is such a lovely country of friendly greetings: “Bonjour” “Bonjour” “Ca va?” Ca va bien, et vous” and then the obligatory handshake and exchange of names. No one walks past anyone without at least the Bonjour and Ca va part. Also a great kissing of both cheeks but fortunately only with friends!

The three days passed too quickly, but Adama turned up as promised on the appointed day — the manager of the Ecolodge was a friend of Seck at the desert camp and they all knew Mamadou in Saint Louis…anyway Adama often picked up people there, and despite being in just as small a car had no trouble with the dreaded “Sable!”

Off on cue to the new airport south of Dakar full of technology for security that no one knows how to use so checking in even a tiny plane a lengthy procedure. Next stop Casamance, the southern most part of Senegal, quite separate in culture from the rest. Common language Diola, not Wolof, largest religion traditional animism. A lengthy civil war for independence decimated the tourist trade there — plus the scourge of Ebola which did not touch Senegal put put everyone off West Africa for a while — but a ceasefire has been in effect for 4 years with ongoing negotiations just like in Colombia so tourists are trickling back.

Will keep you posted!

Sand Dunes on the Atlantic

At Lamphoul village our transport to the camp awaited us, a large rusty truck with open back into which we hoisted ourselves. Two dozen French tried to swarm us, but apparently their tour was headed to a different camp.

We bounced across the dunes, thoroughly uncomfortable in the back, clearly the Rasta locked dudes driving were enjoying themselves thoroughly. Finally we rocketed into a clearing with tents grouped all around, not quite as genuine as the ones we stayed in in the desert in Jordan but certainly basic enough. Limited electricity in the bar area, but they left coal oil lamps on hooks outside the doors of the tents at night, and fortunately it was a full moon so we could find our individual outdoor bathroom. We always travel with headlamps, just for these eventualities.

8We were, as usual, the only non French speakers, and apparently the only people not part of a tour or accompanied by a guide. That too is usual here. That and our advanced age I suspect, led us to be befriended by the only English speaker in the staff. He was wonderful to us, upgraded us to a deluxe tent when I said we had been very cold during the first night (it was freezing once the sun dropped) and plagued by mosquitoes. The tent was larger and at least had a couple of chairs to set clothes on, and a quilt on the bed instead of a thin blanket. Most overpriced basic camping I’ve ever done!

We ate our meals all together in a big tent, and people went off on camel rides or hiked through the sand dunes (surprisingly difficult). We opted for a trip through the dunes in a 4X4, the young driver spoke slowly for me and was very informative.

A number of Pulau villagers live and irrigate crops from wells dug in the sand. They grow vegetables and are pretty self sufficient. Some are semi nomads, growing a few crops and moving on. Fairly minimal housing, sticks for walls and tin roofs. We stopped at one where the people were very friendly and interested in us. A little girl was standing up (there being nothing to sit on) doing her schoolwork on a grubby piece of paper held in one hand, a pen in the other. I had a look and admired her rows of numbers and letters, clearly she was trying to do schoolwork under less than ideal conditions. These people speak less French than I do, but she appreciated my interest in her work.

5Finally we began roaring up a huge dune, flew over the crest, and before us was the crashing Atlantic, miles and miles of beach deserted as far as the eye could see. Imagine 30 Long Beaches end to end. We drove madly along the waves edge, until we saw a man staggering under the load of a large sack. We stopped and loaded him it, he turned out to be carrying a broken boat motor, and was going to Lompoul Sur La Mer, a fishing village 3 or 4 kilometres distant where we dropped him when we reached it. We have seen some phenomenal fishing villages so far, but the launching of the pirogues here was impressive — a team of men had to push each one down the beach then they had to get it through the wildly pounding surf before achieving the somewhat more manageable waters beyond. Bringing one in was almost as difficult.

As always, the women sit on the sand, sorting the fish, descaling them, then opening the shellfish, some of which are very odd to us, and which we still cannot figure out the names of. As I have mentioned, Senegalese women have very protuberant buttocks, and this shape proves to be very convenient. Just as every South East Asian can squat easily, these women can sit flat on the sand with their legs extended in perfect comfort. They would be wonderful at yoga as they can also bend to the ground when standing, completely effortlessly, in a perfect downward facing dog. They do not squat though, they always upend a bucket or something if they are not sitting flat. I guess it is all due to pelvis shape.

We did not think this was one of our best choices, but not a dead loss either. Seck, the young man who befriended us, managed implausibly to arrange air tickets for us from Dakar to Ziguinchor in Casamance, necessitated by our breakup with Pap who was to have delivered us to Zig at the end of the tour. He had a friend pick up the tickets in Dakar, then come to Sine Saloum Delta, our next stop, to drive us up to the airport in several days time. The magic Orange money was involved, we gave Seck the fares, he sent them to his friend, and sure enough, the lovely Adama found us at the obscure ecolodge in the delta exactly as planned. Amazing!

On to the Sine Saloum, a delta area of mangroves and birds, where we have heard of an ecolodge at Simel. A completely different ecosystem!

Along the Lazy Senegal River

Setting off from Saint Louis with a sulky Pap (our so called guide/driver) we headed due east along the Senegal River which forms the northern border of Senegal with Mauritania. Dry dusty semi desert conditions with small rural villages, the occasional oasis of green fields where canals supply water for crops. Rice and fish are the national foods of choice, the rice being an unfortunate choice in a semi desert country. The current president has decided that the country must try to be more self sufficient for food so they are trying to establish rice paddies (!) in the middle of the desiccated landscape. Of course the Americans are eager to get involved, hence a large Delta Rice facility, one worries about the consequences of depleting the water table for such a water hungry crop.

Along the way we stopped at some dusty but interesting small villages and at a ruined chateau (labeled Richard’s Folly, no irony intended) built by a former French governor for what I imagine were rare weekends on the Senegal River. He had a large botanical garden designed and planted, all that remains today is a spooky ruin full of bats surrounded by native brush. The Senegalese could really exploit the tourism potential of their history if they put their minds to it.

`It would have been a low key enjoyable day of touring if it weren’t for the drama playing out in the car. The sound track to the day was non-stop Koranic readings, punctuated by Pap’s incessant phone calls and texts. The man rarely looked at the road and would have been a hare brained driver at the best of times. My remonstrances only increased his sulky mood and did nothing to stop him. It didn’t help that we were stopped at police roadblocks three times and he got fines twice. To add to the excitement he received a call from his mother mid morning to say his wife was in labour and they were going to the hospital. He had told us she was overdue with their fourth child but seemed to think the whole thing was of no concern to him. An hour later another frantic call from mother, they had been standing outside the house and couldn’t get a taxi. The man claims to be a tour operator for heavens sake, and he couldn’t arrange a taxi?! An hour after that we stopped for lunch and she called to say the baby was born! “In the taxi?” was my question, which he seemed to find baffling. Another hour and a texted picture arrived of the baby as they had already gone home. Nothing to it according to Pap.

Podor was reached over a rougher track off the main road. It was at one time a station for the river boats that plied with cargo between Saint Louis and the interior traders of both Senegal and Mauritania. Those days are long gone, with commerce having left Saint Louis for Dakar and only small pirogues travelling the river these days. The village has an air of tropical lethargy, sandy streets winding through tiny shops and simple house. Lots of cute kids as usual though, the median age of Senegalese is 18.2 an aid worker told me! Imagine the implications of that.

The former quay is lined with a couple of old mansions, a former home of the Catholic priest, decaying port offices and warehouses. Quite incredibly one of the old mansions formerly owned by M. Singer has been restored into a small 6 room hotel. Quite a pleasant place filled with art pieces, nice rooms but staffed by an indolent crowd of employees. Who would stay we thought? But of course the rest of the rooms soon filled up with various government employees in the large SUVs touring projects in this remote rural area (all Senegalese). According to Pap it is also popular with European hunters who come to hunt warthogs and ducks, seemed a daft idea to me.

Day 2 was our day to tour village areas and markets which proved remarkably interesting. The Palau people of the area are mostly fisherfolk, plying the river in their small boats. To them there is no distinction between the two banks of the river and they have family on both sides, but a sign in the hotel advised foreigners that one foot on the opposite bank would earn a stiff fine from the Mauritanian police. Considering the number of police checkpoints we encounter on the roads, we think this is likely quite true. The fisherfolk are considered rather low on the social class list according to Pap, unlike his tribal group which is right up there with the president.

The villages reminded us of the adivasi ones in Orissa with moulded smooth mud walls decorated with white designs. People are very friendly here, but village people often do not speak much French at all despite it being the official lingual Franca. We went to a local school, not terrible compared to some we’ve seen, but certainly undersupplied, and with teachers unhappy at being sent out to the boondocks to work. The kids are very keen though, and attend eagerly to the very simple and rather useless French lessons they were receiving. The nursery class was just sitting on big mats, being quiet and doing nothing, no toys, no learning aids except a blackboard. And yet they sat docilely. One young teacher spoke a bit of English and between us he told me how frustrating it is to have no materials except chalk and blackboard, but I saw that the children had notebooks just had no work in them. Always kind of frustrating to think what talent is squandered by lack of opportunity in so much of the world.

Pap suddenly received information that a large area market was taking place that day…duh we had read about it in our guidebook so much for his guiding abilities. Off we went about 30 km to a village which was absolutely teeming with cars, people, mini buses, horse carts etc etc. Traders of all sorts — Mauritanian, Pulau, Wolof, plus lots we can’t identify. There must have been 5 or 6 thousand people there, selling all manner of local goods, — hardware, clothes, fabric, plastic ware, the usual banner like displays of enormous padded bras which we see on all our travels, barrows full of thrift clothing sent from Europe, fruits, veg, fish, meat, tailors working away with the fabric people were buying, spices, grains, things we didn’t recognize, and finally the animals — sheep, goats, horses, donkeys — all being purchased and loaded into crowded trucks and vans both inside and on the roof.  The variety of clothing and body types was fascinating.  We saw markets like this in Ecuador but there was always a foreigner with a long lens, Senegal has so so few tourists we are always the only ones.

As we were meandering through the goat area, having as usual marvelled at how many goats, sheep, and donkeys can be piled inside and on top of a mini-van, Pap suddenly took a shine to a large white ram tethered nearby. He kept making little dashes at it, then retreating nervously, “Very dangerous…” I’m sure the trader was busting a gut and knew he had a live one here. They then proceeded to have a lengthy chinwag in Wolof, at the end of which Pap came over and said, “Oh this goat is so expensive, can you give me 100,000 francs?” ($225) We still owed him some money for the tour, but had no intention of letting him buy the animal. I had a well founded suspicion that he thought he would put it in the back of our station wagon, tether it at the hotel and then insist on detouring back to St Louis before carrying us to our agreed destination down the coast. Maybe he could get a taxi to take it, maybe he could find a bank.. Doug had had enough, “We’re hot and tired and we’re going back to the hotel..”. Pout pout all the way back.

We left him moping and found an old fort reported to have some historic photos and documents from the French-Moorish wars, rousted out the old caretaker and he was so nice, speaking French slowly and guiding us around the absolutely catastrophic ruin of the fort. A sign proclaimed a foreign aid program was restoring the historic site, but it seemed they had just pulled up the floor tiles and left the scene. Again a wasted chance to preserve an interesting bit of history.

The third day went on much like the first, enlivened by his having an ongoing “discussion” with an English speaking person (thus giving us the opportunity to eavesdrop) who, like us, had clearly been misled into thinking he had arranged a tour for her including a pick up in Dakar for which he was 4 days late. He couldn’t understand why she rejected his “solution” to her little problem — I’m sure she cancelled too.

He dropped us at Lompoul down the coast a little an area where giant Sahara like sand dunes stretch to the open Atlantic with Mauritanian tents providing accommodation. Doug refused to say good-bye but silly me I tried to wish him luck with the new baby but he was too busy on the phone to respond!

Next stop, the pseudo Sahara!

SANDY STREETS OF SAINT LOUIS

Saint Louis, considered by Senegalese to represent the country’s historic roots, sits on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River. Seemingly torpid and crumbling into its sandy surrounds, on closer inspection it proves to be teeming with life. French slave traders built an outpost here in 1638 though the Portuguese had been stopping in since the 15th century. Originally it and Goree were the first communes in Senegal declared after the French Revolution which theoretically gave all the inhabitants the same rights as French citizens, though since 75% of them were slaves at the time, the honour seems a bit irrelevant. For a long time it was the most important of Senegal’s cities, hence the ancient decaying mansions and warehouses that line the river, but by 1902 trade had moved to Dakar and it seems that time just stood still and the old part of St Louis has remained stalled in time.

Because of this lack of development Saint Louis is rather interesting to stroll about though the decayed state of many buildings makes it a bit of a stretch to imagine the city in its heyday. The streets are drifted with sand, and the lanes are sand “pistes” — that and the dusty winds blowing in from Mali and Mauritania just across the border mean that everything is coated in a patina of grit, and so are we after a morning on the streets.

The traders and street sellers are a colourful lot, with a wide variety of garb. Traditional men wear the boubou which we saw in Dakar, a robe flowing to the ankles topping narrow trousers, women are swathed in layers of bright fabric with matching head wraps, very fetching. Spectacular are the Mauritian traders who wear voluminous billowing robes in shades of pale blue, embroidered beautifully across the chest, and worn with Lawrence of Arabia style head wrappings in white which cover half their faces. A certain Sufi “brotherhood” wear hooded robes of patchwork, while another wears robes in white with the hoods pointed like the KKK. Young fashionable women wear skin tight modern fashions and with their impossibly long skinny limbs, their multi braided hairstyles, and their superb skin they look extremely glamorous.

The Muslims here are mainly Sufi and the country is controlled by five main brotherhoods each led by a traditional Sheikh. They control all aspects of the social structure, education, and economics. They run “schools” where children are sent to have a Muslim education consisting basically of learning the Koran.

In order to encourage them to be humble, these “Talibes” (as the kids are called) under the sway of a “marabout” (Islamic teacher) are sent out to beg daily to support themselves. They are housed in cramped rooms, severely overcrowded, and their health suffers as a result. They swarm in the mornings, looking like destitute orphans, snotty noses, impetigo, coughs, not to mention malaria and other serious diseases — quite the pathetic crew but the awful part is that they are forced to live this way by their masters, to whom they have been entrusted by their poor families for a religious education and to whom they give all their takings. Girls do not beg on the street as that is considered improper, and well to do children attend religious schools and study the Koran but live with their parents and do not beg.

We have seen no other begging so far in Senegal, and these little kids are really pathetic, and regrettably, extremely annoying. Apparently there are numerous NGOs that try to help them, and occasionally really abusive marabouts are charged, but prosecutions are rare. The practice is ingrained in the history of Senegal’s social fabric, so it goes on unhindered and does not appear to have a simple solution.

We’ve wandered the streets, poking our heads into small galleries, shops, and markets. Doug adores photographing the many thousands of fishing boats drawn up on the foreshore of the fishing village at one end of the town. Numbers of boats set out each day, and many go for days at a time as the shores of Mauritania (directly north from here) are particularly rich in fish. The Mauritanians want the Senegalese to pay to fish there, and the Senegalese are much offended, having always done so…the usual fishing rights conflict that we know a lot about.

We wandered through the fishing village, or at least stuck to its edges, one afternoon, Doug photographing boats madly and me fending off legions of little boys — and some girls — who were cheekily overwhelmed with curiosity, occasionally asking for “un petit cadeau?” Kids play soccer everywhere, using the flattest, most worn out soccer balls, or old tennis balls, or anything at all that can be kicked, dribbled, and passed, which they do with amazing skill. 10,000 hours is as nothing to these kids!

The side streets of the village are teeming with people, traffic, goats, hand carts, cars, scooters, all shuffling or skidding through thick sand. Quite the overwhelming scene, but a friendly place — despite the absence of other tourists I did not feel threatened in any way while I waited for the photographer to finally get his fill of pictures.

Whenever I watch these tiny children anywhere in the world, who leap nimbly from boat to boat, play with bits of debris in the dirt, toddle along the edge of the quay unaccompanied — laughing and joking with each other, little ones piggy backed on bigger ones shoulders, no one over 10, I think of my grandchildren and what they would look like thrust among them. Just can’t visualize it, I suppose many of these don’t survive childhood — though Heath would likely enjoy the soccer games! In bare feet on pavement…

We spent a day at the Parc National des Oiseaux du Djoudj, a hugely important area for migratory African birds. 3,000,000 birds representing 350 species pass through here as they depart Europe and cross the Sahara for south and central Africa. Djoudj is the first major water source south of the Sahara.

We joined a whole boatload of French tourists to putt through the labyrinthine islands of the Senegal River on one of which 15,000 pelicans stood crowded together with their newly hatched young. These are large freshwater pelicans and are an impressive and startling sight when they take flight in a flock, the sound their wings make is quite surprising. The parents go off and fish, then return to the island with a pouches full to feed their young. Evidently they recognize their own offspring by their individual whistles! The young are a dark brown when they hatch, and are not fully adult until 5 or 6 months, at which point the armada takes flight and makes its way to Europe. The stench from this island is remarkable.

There is also a large group of whistling ducks, whose wings whistle when they take flight, lots of cormorants, various terns, including Caspian terns, gulls with varieties of beak types, spoon bills, ibises, herons of all descriptions, not to mention sandpipers and their like. Impressive even for complete ninnies like us, would be amazing for a real birder. And to top it all off, warthogs wandering along the horribly bumpy road as we entered and left, real ugly customers.

Next day we went to Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, not nearly as prolifically covered with bird life, but interesting nonetheless as we navigated to a bird nesting island (in the Atlantic Ocean this one) where zillions of gulls nest. They too set up an awful racket and the cute downy chicks, also brown staggered about like so many toddlers, tripping and falling, and getting up again. There the smaller, darker salt water pelicans hang out, floating nonchalantly through the waves and competing with the gulls for lunch.

Otherwise our street wanderings have kept us busy enough. We intended to go on from here along the Mauritanian border and south along the Malian border ending up in the very south of Senegal, an area called Casamance which we are very keen to see. However the guide we arranged by email from home, chosen because he is that rare thing here — an English speaker — has proved to be ditzy and disorganized, changing the program constantly, and the reality of the roads rather different from what he had told us. After talking with him over 2 two hour sessions, and, we have to admit, experiencing the horrible out of the “city” roads with the constantly blowing dust, we decided to make a change of plans. He will accompany us for Day 1 and 2 of the trip to Podor where we go next, then we will return to the coast and make our own way south that way. He is disappointed, though actually he could not really commit to accompanying us personally for the whole trip, which was rather the point, so to salve his pride we agreed to have him accompany us to Podor, though I am making all the arrangements (he had made none for our accommodation anywhere on the trip!). I think I would have killed him before the 10 days was up anyway, he is always on his phone.

So next stop east along the Mauritanian border to Podor, will keep you posted!

COASTAL MUSINGS

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Ile de Gorée is a tiny island near Dakar, an idyllic place with a dark past. We reached it on a 25 minute foot ferry thronged with day trippers both European and African. Completely car-free, it makes a peaceful break from Dakar, with winding cobblestone and sandy lanes leading between antique French buildings, with peeling golden stucco set off by faded blue shutters. By evening peace descends as the day trippers are gone, the hawkers put away their wares, and the atmosphere is of another era.

8D6CF170-BA53-4AD3-AD72-E5BE4FC27317AFC3C260-455F-438A-96AF-8A0E81861765We stayed at Villa Castel, an old house restored by its Belgian owner 10 years ago when he retired from university teaching throughout Africa. A peaceful retirement, as a charming and beautiful young manager (with gorgeous hair, I wish I’d asked for a picture) does all the organization, and a slow moving group of ladies cook breakfast and clean in a desultory fashion. A bit down at heels, but quite perfect for the atmosphere of the island.

683E1877-67BF-4F21-874D-9973DE3ACA70A3FD0850-9CD2-47FC-B309-29784BDE32D6There is quite a group of resident artists, and their paintings festoon the cobble path leading up a small incline to the old fort formerly used by various colonial groups to fend off the usual naval marauders. Their paintings are all of a style, with elongated repeated figures, very colourful and charming but we did not succumb to temptation. Some work in recycled materials, making large collages from machine parts, plastic containers, found objects of all sorts, unique and interesting but not the least portable!

9AE9F47C-0D9B-4C89-BA72-3905B8C464D686684968-A258-479F-9A58-8ADA15C04BA2The Museum of Slaves highlights the dark past of Western Africa with its historic role as the place from which people were loaded into slave ships for transport to the Americas. It is quite well known, apparently the Obamas and Nelson Mandela are among the more famous visitors.

The building is apparently typical, sort of dual purpose, with an inner courtyard which leads at ground level to the cells wherein the poor wretched people were packed awaiting transport, or up two elegant curving staircases to the second floor, with the fashionable living quarters of, in this case, the mistress of the establishment. She was Metis as they called those descended from a mixing of the races (mulattos and creoles in the Americas, burghers in Sri Lanka). This group was wealthy and successful as they were the middle men for all sorts of transactions between the French colonial power and the tribal people from the interior who brought goods, produce, and apparently humans to sell.

Walking through the cells, dank and forbidding still, though made more open for public viewing, one shivers at the thought of how many people were packed in with their fates sealed, in separate cell areas for men, women and children. The “Door of No Return” through which the slaves were loaded onto ships, may or may not be historically accurate, but it certainly evokes horror. Though more slaves were transported from countries to the south, it is estimated that of Senegal’s 1 million population when the trade began until its end in the late 1800’s up to 500,000 people were taken. The net result was that only old people and small children were left to fend for themselves with no one strong to do the work and civil society was completely disrupted.

69999C0A-E2AA-4364-89FB-F591898C6BEDThe small museum on the upper level houses a number of chilling stories and ghastly objects of confinement and punishment, as well as a general history of the trade. Fortunately we read French much better than we speak (sigh) so could read the signage. One very horrifying one is an illustration of the most efficient way to pack the slaves into the holds of the ships, lying on their sides, head to feet, all shackled of course. Can’t imagine how any of them survived the voyage.

4C9E2DAD-64EE-48BC-8C53-B4E1D320CAED8A73BCAE-E236-47E3-95D2-BA6AFCC894D89BB7E657-A965-40FA-826E-7D93FB2D1979Aside from that gruesome visit, mostly we enjoyed observing the local ambience, the villagers pushing out their fish boats, pre-school children playing in the grounds of their school, hawkers plying their wares, and the comings and goings at the ferry wharf.

One particularly interesting group of school children on a day trip, clearly from a Muslim school, amused us for 1/2 an hour as we nursed a beer. We so often see kids on field trips in the countries we visit and my blood always runs a bit cold at the memories but these ones were quite orderly. The boys and girls were in separate groups, the girls in head coverings and sweat suits, the boys in whatever they pleased as usual. They assembled on the beach and sat down in two groups for lunch, guarded by 4 teachers. The boys had clearly not prepared for this and brought out random bits of edibles, but the girls unstrapped their neat backpacks and took our many course packed lunches which they shared with each other. After lunch they all got up and had prayers kneeling on the sand, after which the boys tore off their clothes down to their shorts and plunged into the sea. The girls watched quietly for a while, but to my surprise, a few braver ones began to venture in, fully clothed of course, and soon many of them joined in. Imagine the soggy mess on the return voyage, but at least they managed to partake of the fun, and judging by the screeches and laughter it was great fun. The boys of course put on their dry clothes and had a much more comfortable return journey on the boat.

BB263EB8-30C8-4F3B-8FEF-4C1D1C61F928After two nights we re-boarded the boat and set off by car down the coast to a village called Nianing for a bit of beach time before we head north. I had plucked the name of a guest house from the Bradt guide, mainly because it said it had “Pieds en la mer” and it certainly is. I had a bit of a lengthy correspondence with the Belgian (3 for 3 now) owner, mostly in French at his request, mostly about how to secure our reservation with an establishment that deals only in cash, so it was a bit of an unknown quantity. It is absolutely perfect, 8 little bungalows, very comfortable beds with good mosquito nets (essential) terraces absolutely swathed in bougainvillea, all set around a lovely pool with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at the edge of the patio. We are here just before the true high season starts next week so only 1/2 full and very tranquil. We are a bit isolated by our lack of French language skill, sadly my new English-French dictionary was left in Dakar, but the charming young men who serve us our meals, try very hard, and I try hard, and apparently my accent is so dreadful as to make me basically incomprehensible but we are managing.

2B60B9C1-2C4E-4721-8B58-D42768759B84The beach is long and sweeping. We are beside a fairly large fishing village with the long, narrow high prowed pirogues pulled up along the shore and riding at anchor in front of the village. 073CED17-67B3-4258-9B7D-6BF324BC7F97.jpegThey paint the boats white and then decorate them in brightly painted intricate patterns, quite similar to those in Indonesia and in south India. Every day the men haul in the nets, sort out the fish and shellfish, laboriously pull the boats up on to the sand, and then a legion of women get busy cleaning the fish, shelling the many kinds of shellfish, some unknown to us, and collecting it all into sandy piles on the beach.D19AE9D3-CB0F-4324-8931-A8C6A346E1A7.jpeg

891DE90A-5748-4E2F-B1E5-797663E45F5769A2E314-32CC-48A8-B092-5B9C2CA0AA07Groups of women gather buckets of the sand composed of tiny shells, and balancing the heavy weight on their heads, walk up the beach to deposit it in piles to be collected by donkey carts later. We walk for a couple of hours every morning and evening and the scene is ever changing.5A627A9A-D3F5-40A8-8E9A-1854F8EFF435.jpeg

SE4F029F0-EF30-4A7C-B521-4AD492BCD90C.jpegSadly, one feature of this beach, except in front of guest houses where the beaches are cleaned daily, is that the high tide brings up coiled parcels of the most varied bits of clothing, rope, plastic, shoes, all wound together, and deposits them in neat piles along the tide line. The first day I thought someone was collecting the trash into piles to pick up later, but then I realized there were thousands of these piles reaching as far as the eye could see. Judging by our piece of beach which is cleaned every morning by a man with a donkey cart, the supply of these “packages” must be endless. Also heaps of used and discarded fish nets, so lethal to the sea birds and other animals. Very sad.36CA2ABC-5355-4BB5-9CAE-BE9A36F70650.jpeg

We thought we might be bored after 4 days at a beach, but of course we haven’t been. We are now heading north to St Louis, a historic French city, the country’s original main centre before Dakar took over. We are there for a while, birding and looking at art I think, and then off on our epic journey to the eastern and then southern borders. So far so good!