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
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.
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 a 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 iron bridge
Wrestling on the beach