We are in search of the perfect beach. An endless expanse of white sand and crisp cold sea. Sets of waves breaking with precision clockwork. There should be nobody on the beach. We do not want to share it. Or if we have to, it should be with people who equally yearn for such a beach thus respecting the privacy of our intimate embrace of this panorama. There should definitely be no fishermen, pirogues, fish guts and flies, hoards of children, sellers of tat, piles of rubbish, some of it smoldering, wild dogs or raw sewage from the nearby village.
Are we asking too much? Perhaps we have been in Africa too long. The novelty of hanging off of smashed clock faces trying to read a time piece that stopped working long ago, this has worn off. Nobody else seems to notice that the time is incorrect. How can I explain this with broken French? At first shadows became children, sweet innocents in need of reassurance that life has not forgotton them. Now the same children become monstrous shadows that stretch out with claws to take what little we have. Ghouls weilding cut out machettes. Our shallow grave is round the next corner. Fortunatley we are still alive. We shall pass on and leave this broken landscape for others to clean up.
Our first attempt to find a beach, Mboro-Sur-Mer was swiftly aborted when a pack of panting men began hurling sand balls at Miki. Cackling laughter erupted as I interceded on behalf of a confused dog that could not speak the same language of violence. I wonder why they must torment her when there are half a dozen lazy, local beach dogs that do not get the same beating, whose presence goes wholey unnoticed. Albeit these dogs are knarly, scarred, broken spirits that tip toe past, some on crutches, ears ripped apart. One has a snapped tail, broken standard leading a broken army, dragging themselves through the sand. Will these men not be satisfied until they have torn down Miki’s own good looks, her youthful step? What is it about beauty that they despise so? There is nothing beautiful here that has not been profaned, apart from the beach, and even this is weighed down by the effluence of society, the unholy outpouring of waste like a zoo in war time. The cages are left open. Or bombed open. The janitor has fled. The sea purges the beach each morning but this does not reverse the degradation. The villagers despise the sea. They will not enter it. My protestation goes unheard, the savages move on, amused yet satisfied. One neanderthal carrying a wooden club swings it in the air and brings it crashing into the sand. He then points at Miki, grinning behind a black mask. The atmosphere has been poisoned for me. We can not stay here.
Even so, we carry on down the beach, past hooting children that run up to us then throw their hands in the air and run away screaming. Further on there is four coach loads of Belgium college students. Amongst the students the mood is different. African boys pair up with whichever Belgium girl is interested. Some students play football, others rugby. There is some drumming to which Belgium girls try their hardest to emulate African girls. Some daring boys are in the water, the breaks are terrifying, waves sweep up the beach, thirty meters, the teacher blows his whistle to keep the boys from going beyond the first line of breaks. Had he been a teacher in Britain he would have lost his job for the danger they were in. Some African boys dare each other to join the others in the sea. The beach was once a tourist destination. Abandoned guest houses line the beach. Some have collapsed roofs, others have been struck down by the sea.
We would like to find a track that runs parallel to the sea, past the village, to camp for the night. The tarmac road is a tongue that rolls out from Mboro to the beach village, three kilometers, with no openings for our truck to pass over into the bush. It ends on the beach, surrounded by a dense fishing village from which there is no escape but to turn around and return back from where we came. The stink of rotting fish guts mixed with donkey and human waste has become too familiar to us. Returning to the truck some kids are trying to break inside. They pull themselves up the spare tires framework, try the door, point at the open window. We gladly climb back into our sanctuary, turn east and head back towards Mboro. It is late so our only option is to pull off the road onto a sandy no mans land and camp the night.
The next morning we continue on. We still have high hopes that we shall find the perfect beach. First stop is Mboro, a fantastic large village with a bustling market. Miki remains outside the truck whilst we go shopping, proof that not everyone in Africa climbs a tree at the sight of her. People in Mboro are lovely, despite poor French I manage to laugh with the sandwich lady and her husband whilst they prepare me a typical roadside baguette filled with beef, haricot, onion, carrot, fries, boiled egg and salad (700CFA). Its a meal to itself! Fully stocked on sweets and meat, we continue on.
Still looking for the beach we pass another dairy farm and pick up another two liters of raw milk (500CFA a liter). The milk is turning, they do not have refrigeration here. But its good enough for pancakes in the morning. The truck is surrounded by the entire village. First the kids, then the adults. Only the elders stay away.
Another thirty kilometers and we reach Fas Boye. This is our worst experience of a village to date. The drive into the village is much like the last village we visited. A road that ends infront of a pile of fish guts mixed with rubbish. A village of flies. Not wanting a repeat of the last village, Mboro-sue-Mer we reverse out. The main road continues on towards our primary destination Lompoul. This was recommended to us by our good French friends that we met in Morocco (Fleur being Anika’s playmate). Our map, Reise, proves to be unreliable. The string of villages along this road are all several kilometers from the sea but on the map they front the sea. The road we need to follow ends at some sort of industrial complex. This could be a mine, or open cast pit. It could be sand they extract. It is hard to tell. But the scale is enormous. In any case the guards assign us a guide who knows a piste that goes round the site to reach Lompoul. The piste is no good. We can not even surmount the first dune. This whole area is dunes. There is no way forwards. One option would be to let out the air in the tires then we should be able to get through. I would do this but something tells me that our guide is not really a guide, more a guy that wants to go to Lompoul and thus I can not rely on him to steer us through this dune sea. The thought of getting stranded in a dip is too terrifying. The overhead sun, a panting Miki, Mara and Anika baked in the back, I can not imagine spending the next week trying to figure out how to get pulled out.
The guide is not defeated as quickly as I am. Lompoul is only thirty kilometers in a straight line from our position. To use the roads would be 135km! I allow him to persuade me to return back to that village that we made an aborted entry into, Fas Boye. This time, with a local guide, we may find a way. The plan is to get onto the beach at low tide and race it north to Lompoul. Our first difficulty is finding a route onto the beach. The road ends at the predicted mountain of fish guts, pirogues, a village dense with houses and people. There is no way down, We dare to take a little sand road through the village but can go only so far before it becomes too narrow. My thoughts are already on the tarmac road to Lompoul, which if we hurry for, would mean we arrive by dusk at the beach (two and a half hours drive). The heat is unbearable so we all get out to walk the beach. Miki needs a stretch. I need to inspect the sand with the guide before making my decision.
Our walk down to the beach turns into a procession which rapidly morphs into a mob. Hundreds of children join us. Some grab at Anika, I see her holding Mara’s arm tightly with both hands. The kids are mainly interested in Miki. They chase her, bate her. Sand balls begin to fly. Then rocks and slippers. I order us to retreat to the truck. For a few minutes Miki is cut off from us by the crowds, which are now attracting adults too. I am not seeing many friendly faces there. They bark at her. Their barks are more like howls, a chorus of monkeys come down from the trees, emptying out of the forest, clambering over boats, onto the roofs of buildings. They feed off their collective hysteria getting more excited. It feels as though something could go very wrong.
Finally we are all in the truck. The engine is on and we reverse towards freedom. The passage in front and behind is a sea of people. Are there that many living in this village? Fas Boye is an anthill that some how we have kicked open. The little black ants, each carrying a sting, are swarming out of the hive and shall soon carry us of. Someone smashes a fist into the passenger door. Objects are hurled at the truck. The guide is trying to placate the crowd outside but he is gobbled up by the collective appetite of a village starved of their animal past. Too many years of being the postcard smile, now is the time to fill ones stomach with fresh killed meat. We snag a low cable as we pull back. Like a black mamba its severed end swings down onto our bonnet. Is it electric, will it spark us? I have to climb onto the roof to detach its snaking form that is wrapped round the bike pedal protruding upwards. Climbing back into the safety of the cab children’s hands make an effort to prevent me from closing the door. A man, furious, demands I pay for the damages. To admit fault is to begin a process that will be the end of us. I ignore him and slam the door shut. I feel as if a rumor goes round that we owe the village money. More is the reason to prevent our exit. The crowd is whipped up in a fury. Now the guide, sitting beside me, seems to be loosing his cool. ‘Hurry’ he shouts, ‘Go, Go!’ I do not need to be asked a third time, The exit is meters away. There is nothing the villagers can do to hold back the Zil, we force our way free. For a moment I wonder what it is like to be an American infantry-man in Iraq, hounded out of a village that hates everything about you, to have the power to call in an air strike and wipe them all away, all men women and children, like one wipes the bloody mess of a mosquito off of ones thigh. What satisfaction. What a dream.
The guide is no longer worried. His cool rapidly returns. ‘Do not worry’ he assures me, ‘They are Wolof, all Wolof are like that, they are a crazy people, Imbeciles’. He tells me that the people of Lompoul are not Wolof, his tribe, a good tribe.
After the Lac Rose we kind of got a little lost on the dirt roads and ocassional tarmac. Going of course hte road swung back in land. It was too late in the evening to make it to the beach before sunset. So we needed to camp somewhere. Passing through Keur-Guilaye I recognised the name of the village from the LP. It is famous for a monastery where the monks sing Gregorian chants in Wolof. We could not find the monastery but on the other side of the village we did discover a Nunnery, called the Monastere Saint Jean-Baptiste.
Whenever entering a religious space I feel a need to be tactful. However, though I am not Christian I feel a certain familiarity with Christianity over Islam or Buddhism, such as a pilgrim would feel when seeking shelter in a church. So am more at ease with the idea of rocking up unannounced at their religious community and ingratiating my family. Certainly it feels easier with Christianity simply because there is not the gender divide that separates families (though this is a mute point in a Nunnery!).
I parked up the dinosaur at the gates and walked though the large yard to one of several white buildings. A service was taking place in the yard with several men and women chanting Latin verse whilst walking round in circles. It was very mysterious. They would stop at graves, or under the shade of wide boughed trees, take a bow, then move on. Outside the entrance to the Nunnery was a sister, her job I believe, is to welcome people. She was very friendly though spoke no English so she retreated behind the doors to call another sister. I was invited into a room, empty save for a table that divided the room in two. On my side was the door I had come through. On the other side was a door leading from the sanctuary. The room was bare apart from a framed glass covered poster of the black Madonna of Popenguine. It was an old poster, bleached by the sun. The room reminded me of times spent in the interview room of a police station, furniture arranged to clearly separate the good from the bad. Presently the door opened. The sweetest elderly lady shuffled in, her thick glasses enlarging her hazel eyes. Her white headpiece floated neatly like a wedding cake. She had a thick American accent, the sort that triggered thoughts of home cooking, brownies, maple syrup, family. She had been living here since 1978, ‘Thats when I was born!’ I remarked. The monestere was founded in 1977. We discussed the evolving politics of Senegal, our journey down here, the monestere history. At some point the door opened again and another sister came in carrying a tray with an ice bottle of water, a small bottle of sweet lemon cordial, made by the sisters here, one tall glass and a bent stainless spoon. The American sister poured me a glass and we discussed our staying here a night. I was quick to say that we would not take offense if it would be too awkward to stay in the yard. We were happy camping outside the gates and visiting in the morning for the 11am Mass. The sister would not hear of it. Ordinarily it must be said that one gives plenty of advanced notice of ones intention to stay a night. But this is only so that the hospitality can be exercised to maximum effect. The Sister responsible for hospitality was called for. I ended our conversation abruptly in order to go outside and wait for the other sister. The American seemed surprised, even disappointed. I felt she would have liked to go on talking for some time yet. I instantly regretted my haste. And that was it, once she went back through the doors she was once more shut in. I was shut out. We never spoke to each other again.
We were directed into one of several compounds, the one for guests. There are bedrooms but we have our own. There is food being cooked, the sister would bring some out to us, but we have our own. There is a toilet and shower – Great! We needed that!
The morning was so peaceful. This place is permeated with tranquility. An aura of peace. We walked across the yard to the church building for the Masse. The building is a tall concrete structure, a perfect rectangle. Through its double doors one enters into a large space of neat parallels, straight lines, right angles, squares. This is a 1970’s building no mistake. The difference this church and others is that the alter is in the middle of the room. There is a white railing that separates the sisters from the congregation. There were only seven people attending today, and eighteen nuns, three were white. The Priest was Senegalese and made his formal entrance after the first song.
The walls of the church were white washed with beautiful murals, Afro-Celtic designs, a tapestry of prayer, feasting, communion, martyrdom. Most of the images were of women.
The singing is the highlight. Beautiful soft voices weaving practiced harmonies in Latin, French and Wolof. They are accompanied by two African harps, Kora’s. The music is magical, I felt I was in a movie. They fill the vast space with a warm light. After the singing, when the sisters resume their seating position and the Priest leads in a prayer, a little voice can still be heard humming the harmony’s, like a drawn out echo, an angel above our heads, enchanted by the song, Anika hums to herself quietly.
Communion is accompanied by a drum. Not a ferocious tribal rhythm, but a deep, clear bass that gently struck, bounces across the four tall walls.
During the meditation the only sound to be heard is the loud chorus of African birds outside. The wind whispering through the ceiling windows. African wildlife transcends religion. At the back of the building is a mural of the Christ, two lizards chase each other in circles round his yellow halo.
We are very much at peace here. We could even stay another night. But wes aid we would move on today and I think we shall keep to our word.