A note to readers…

Due to internet problems I can only upload at odd times. Some days there will only be text as that is all that is allowed with the low bandwidth. Other times I shall be able to go back and complete uploads so that if you return to past posts photos will have been added where at first there was only text.

Frustrating and time consuming – but that is Africa eh?

So for now – ciao – my battery is about to run out.

p.s. We are in Thies now, 80km from Dakar.

Saint Louis II

The main island is full of charm with its iron wrought balconies and pretty gardens.

The main island is full of charm with its iron wrought balconies and pretty gardens.

Our first day in Senegal runs close to a tourist board promotional sketch. ‘Senegal – Where hospitality was invented’. Sad but true, a wonderful but poignant introduction through the aid of a chap, Dionne, that was waiting outside the truck like an apparition to take us to his favourite sites, meet his family, guide us safely through Saint Louis, then wave goodbye at the end of the day.

Dionne was dressed in a white flowing robe, the sort used by Muslim’s when they go to the mosque. Over it he had a neat hoody, umbro ruksack, clean trainers, the brown hood of his top pulled over his head, with a long white strip of cotton protecting his neck, resting on his shoulders like a mane touched by lightening. He looked young, perhaps early twenties, though it is devilish hard to spot-age people in Africa. There was no doubt that he was good looking. There was not a bead of perspiration on his skin, so cool and sure. A wonderful fusion of European street wear and Muslim tradition. His character was like a devoted disciple to a Sufi, to a Saint. He came up to me and grasped both my hands tightly in his, his eyes looking straight in mine with a large honest smile, ‘It is so good to see you. I am so happy that you are here’. I wondered if he mistook us for some other travelers that he casually bumped into in a year past. I extended the greeting and it was soon settled that we would give him a ride to where ever he was going (at this time we did not realise he was asking to be our guide, we would be disciples, to become the initiated).

He pointed out sites that were of particular importance to him. Or to the local community, or else because he thought we might be interested. We saw the ‘mountain’ which is really a mound of red earth. We visited the ‘sea’ which was a dried up lake beside the wet lands. The wetlands were more interesting, with children washing in the march water near to irrigation channels that fed the village fields. We visited his University, that is after some discussion with the security guard who was unsure if regulations permit the visiting of foreign tourists. It was a nice feeling driving the Zil through the large University grounds, I hope the students are suitably militant for change. The University seems fairly well funded, with lecture blocks, dorms, restaurant, medical center and park land. Plenty of goats running around. The students look interesting, their faces are curious. They wear European type clothes that could be seen in Bruce Grove, Clapton, Ridley road in Dalston but their hairstyles are African, and the boys do not wear baseball caps.

Dionne takes us to two of his family houses. It is hard to figure out who is who. Who is the mother, Brother? Sister? Step Sister? There are so many kids that I must accept the generic term ‘family’. The families live in compounds as is the tradition in this area. These consist of a breeze block dwelling place with room set aside for storage of trade goods/materials. There is a yard where life plays itself out, where food is prepared and cooked, where kids fight each other, clothes are washed in a bucket, then its the babies turn to wash. Chickens, goats, sheep, ducks all patter about trying to pinch a bite of the family supper before its cooked. Around the yard are traditional wood thatch huts used for shelter from the sun where men can drink tea, or women chat whilst fixing clothes. The compounds are walled off and each one opens onto the unpaved street. The soft sand makes use of a car quite impossible inside the village. We tried to get the Zil into the village but an electricity cable crossing the street from one compound to another was fouling the roof rack which required a delicate reverse.

We try and make conversation with our broken French. It is very difficult because they feign cognition but truthfully have no idea what us ignorants are trying to expand on. Dionne is most keen for us to see the ‘Mbalax’ dance. This is some kind of sensual body swinging dance to a furious drum beat. His little sisters overcame their shyness, Dionne’s aunt took up the drum (empty water container) and the whole family became a spontaneous show piece. They did so well I was quite embarrassed when they asked us to reciprocate with a performance of our own.

Dionne being a Muslim had to go to pray at the local Mosque. Everyone here are Muslim it seems. The criers make the call to prayers with the same regularity as found in every other Muslim community around the globe. There is a cult in Senegal based around one particular Senegalese Sufi that played a role in the independence struggle. His face is everywhere, on buses, taxis, painted on walls, stenciled on shop doors. I do not know much more about the organization but my interest is piqued.

Dionne on finishing his prayers then took us to Saint Louis. This surprising city is both a delight and disappointment. The Lonely planet praises the cities architecture which harks back to colonial French stone houses, iron wrought balconies, verandas, the most beautiful examples of colonial architecture in Senegal. It mentions a mulatto class of Saint Louisian, beautiful looking people produced by the mixing of French maritime bourgeois and local Senegalese. There is also an internationally famous jazz festival here drawn to the Saint Louis charms. For some reason I built up a picture of a New Orleans of Africa. A cultural hub thriving in the literal ruins of colonialism. The Noble work of restoring these beautiful buildings whilst transforming their interiors into temples of arts and humanities. Jazz! Beautiful people! The reality is a some what more dirty, chaotic, crumbling picture where the concept of ‘Noble’ is decidedly absent.

Pirogues line the river bank

Pirogues line the river bank

The city is small. The core of the city is a rectangular island in the Senegal river, of colonial houses built up around the warfs and warehouses that once transported Senegalese wealth back to the Mother country. The island is connected by two bridges. One to the mainland and the other to the opposite side of the river,a headland that buffs the ocean. There is a hotel beside the iron wrought bridge that was used by the same French postal air pilots that made a stop in Tarfaya, Morocco. Further down the road is a beautifully restored steam boat. For the purpose of nostalgia it still plies up and down the Senegal river. There are some art galleries of decent Senegalese art, craft furniture. There is a museum and good cafe bars. Otherwise the island is falling apart and drowning in rubbish that piles up on its shores, rubbish mixed with dead animals that keep the air thick with flies.
On the headland side is an intense market split into fish, veg, baskets, etc. Miki got stoned by a pack of excited kids so we had to beat a retreat. The kids were behaving like animals, yet when ever I grabbed a villain for a scolding they suddenly transformed into such innocents that the rage in me was quite quenched. One of the shop keepers threw stones back at the kids. I guess this is where kids learn it from? On the beach we got to see some wrestling. Very toned beautiful bodies fighting it out for champion of the day. The other side of the island, the mainland, is the sprawling rest of the city. Here is plonked whatever did not fit on the two smaller lands.
Wrestling on the beach
The river that separates the city into three is very important to the Saint Louisians. They fish in it. It takes their waste away with the tide, it is used to bathe people, clothes, sheep, even a Donkey. The chap washing his donkey was thorough enough to give its penis a jolly good scrubbing! The river winds back into the east of Senegal. I believe its source is all the way south in the mountains of Guinea.

I like these sorts of towns because their history, even when faded, when only furtively acknowledged, acts like IMG_2759a magnet in drawing interesting people to it. I am sure if with enough time I could meet in the bars a score of scoundrels with a good story to boot. The city has so much potential. It could be amazing! But this is Senegal – and as I am learning, only the Senegalese can make changes happen.

At the end of the day we drove Dionnes back to his home rather then let him hitch back as was his plan. A wonderful help, he has given us the true price for food then helped us barter in the market. He helped me find the liquor store. We bought him a meal at lunch but that was all. He never asked us for a tip. In the end I think he had a secret desire that motivated his friendship towards us. He wants to go to France. He does not know France nor have family there. He fails to register any city other than Paris. He has no passport. But in his simple understanding of how this world is set up he thought if there was room, perhaps he could hitch a ride with us. He did have one correct observation, that travel is not easy for African’s.

If I could speak French better I would have told him to forget Europe. It neither wants nor will love him. Better is to make something for him in his own country than look dreamily northwards. The guy is a ‘good’ person. He could do well.

We were going to go on to the campsite known as the Zebra-Bar but by the time we dropped Dionnes off it was already dark. I have still not fixed the headlights so driving was out of the question. We already rushed one police check point in the near dark. I could not say if the officer had waved us down or not but as no whistles or bullets chased us I think we were ok.

Tomorrow we go to the Zebra-Bar.

Saint Louis's landmark steam ship

Saint Louis’s landmark steam ship

Saint Louis's landmark iron bridge

Saint Louis’s landmark iron bridge

Wrestling on the beach

Wrestling on the beach

Saint Louis

Streets of Saint Louis
Arriving in Senegal has for me a certain quality akin to accomplishment. It is as if we have achieved our physical travel goal. I must qualify this by saying that we have only had a vague goal of reaching Banjul or even south Senegal. I myself would like to spend time in the rough of Liberia, Guinea, Ivory Coast. Mara would prefer to spend more time in the mountains of Morocco whilst Anika is happy where ever there are similar children firstly and a playground secondly. I’ve observed that Anika bonds quicker with European children than to the local kids we’ve met along the way.
Kids in Saint Louis
Our first experience of Senegal is culinary. A little roadside cafe in a small breeze block village. The cafe is a tiny room with a short counter. The TV has everyone glued, the Africa Cup is on. Zaire is playing Nigeria. Stuck to the wall are a few photos of the proprietor, a powerful looking matriarch. In one she is hugging close to her generous bosom her two sons and daughters. In another she embraces her husband. Two more show her in her youth, a real beauty queen. The real life mother herself is sitting beneath the photos, now in her plump good years she can sit back as her off spring run her business for her. She took an instant liking to Anika, trying alternately to pinch her toe or steal Anika’s pink foam lion. Behind the counter are two young daughters serving up the only thing on the menu, chicken sandwich. This is a classic Senegalese road side lunch snack. One Baguette filled with piping hot shredded chicken, onion, chips and sauce (1.50euro). The clientele all leave with little paper cups of fresh brewed coffee. It is rumoured to be a good beverage but it smells too much like Turkish coffee to which I took a dislike in Morocco on account of the heavy use of cardamon.

Senegalese food is simple, delicious but not of a great variety. The staple seems to be rice and sauce with piled on top either fried fish (most common) or fried chicken. We treated ourselves to a meal in an authentic eatery in Saint Louis which was just this (3-4euro a dish). Also on the menu are also shrimps (which are in abundance in the Saint Louis fish market), or omelette. Hamburgers, pizza and other fast foods do not make it onto the menu. The Senegalese need more substantial meals than burger and chips.

Shopping in the market we found to be very expensive. There is most definitely a tourist price which avoiding is near impossible. Mara bought some grapefruit at 1.60euro a kilo (twice the local price). She did manage to haggle the price down to the local rate but as we were getting into the Zil this furious chap approached who demanded 500CAF for having to cover the shortfall on the tourist price of the grapefruit we bought. A scam? Certainly, but who was scamming, the road side fruit seller, the aggrieved lender or the two in league?

Meat on the other hand can be quite affordable. I tried for chicken but thought 4000CAF (7euro) is too expensive. Goat was only 1.80euro (1000CAF) a kilo. Beef is astronomical. I bought a kilo of goat from one of those butcher huts beside the road where the hygiene is questionable. No refuse collection, no running water. The leg of goat had been hanging on a hook from a tree branch in the sun for so long that the meat had turned to leather. I guess that is why the flies avoided it. It was unbelievably tough to chew so that only Miki was able to get through it. Nevertheless the goat makes a wonderful base for a rich stock.

Senegal is not like Mauritania. There is Beer here. It is good beer too. There are two brands I’ve seen, Flag which is heavy on malt, and Gazelle which is lighter, in the same class as Moroccan beer. A 650ml bottle of Flag is 800CAF (600CAF is one euro). That is good value. As the north of Senegal is still very Muslim finding alcohol stores is not easy. We came across one in Saint Louis through asking people. Through a door on the off-license exterior one enters into a small dim room. Even though its is daylight outside, the sun does not shine into the liquor store. Only one solitary candle lights the room, glued to the service counter from its own trickle of melted wax. Behind the counter and against all the walls are crates of beer bottles, wine, spirits. The space feels like a smugglers den. Half collapsed on the customers side of the counter is a man lost in his cups. He is trying to say something to me but the sounds are coming out confused, he trails off with a gurgle of his throat. I think he wants me to buy him a bottle. I leave with a cardboard box of Flag, the bottles are refundable.

The ride along the corrugations has fairly shaken the Zil. I discover as it gets dark that the headlights/rear lights have stopped working. The hazard lights have stopped working. The bonnet is not properly closing. The domestic battery boxes were losing the nuts that strap them to the chassis. A fuel line connector is damaged. For this reason as it is getting to be nightfall in our first few hours in Senegal, as we now have a provision of chicken sandwich, we can pull off the side of the road and wild camp. The morning shall bring a new day.

Colourful bush taxis

Colourful bush taxis