Exploring Coastal Senegal
In a journey that took him from the border of Mauritania to to the edges of Guinea Bissau, Explorer in Residence, Graeme Bell, discovers how god, trade and the Harmattan shape life in Senegal.
A lifetime ago my family and I drove our Land Rover from Peru into Ecuador. The Peruvian coast is an endless sea of sand, dry cities and unloved desert. After dropping down from the heavenly Andes and her eternal switchbacks the straight coastal road is both a relief and a beautiful bore. After days of khaki desert you eventually reach the border post and cross into Ecuador to be greeted by green grass, banana plantations, flowers, trees, rivers! We ate bananas, rolled on the grass until we itched then sat in the shade of a cool tree.
The crossing from Mauritania to Senegal is a similar sensational contrast. But first you have to negotiate a terrible road to the Dakla border where the Senegalese welcome you with an elaborate scam – a vehicle traveling without a carnet de passage is charged an unofficial fee of $300 US to enter. There exists no legislation to support this claim but the officials enforce their “law” with vested interest. We had procured a carnet from our bureaucracy in South Africa to ensure that we would not fall prey to this and other unofficial costs as we made our way down the west coast of Africa. Luisa has seen us through over a hundred border crossings and knows how to play the game without opening her purse, she laughs and jokes and scowls and protests until the uniform relents and allows us to proceed as we rightly should.
With the sands of the Sahara behind us we drove into Port Louis as the sun set, amazed by the clean streets, trees, colourful clothing, cheerful smiles, rivers and flowers and grasslands. In the city, over a bridge, we found a neighbourhood populated by blocks of colonial architecture and Frenchmen. A small boutique run by an amicable Frenchman sold us French cheese, ham, bacon, bread, steak and wine. Our camp for the night lay at the end of a long narrow road bordered by a fish market, fishermen, ice trucks, buses, stalls, goats and the pungent smell of fish not sold. At the camp a small tent sat in the corner under a tree, occupied but still (the next morning we met the occupant, an amicable and talkative Englishman who had cycled 100,000 miles and was on his way south). Luisa and I enjoyed a legal glass of wine (alcohol is illegal in Mauritania) and the sea breeze while the children relaxed and waited for dinner. That night was to be our first free of the sandstorms which had assaulted us constantly in Mauritania. Unfortunately the entry to Port Louis was not a sign of the general wealth and beauty of Senegal but after the poverty and chaos of Nouakchott, Senegal seemed at least marginally wealthy.
If you have ever walked the streets of southern Europe you might have met more than a few West African men selling luxury hand bags, belts and shoes. Chances are great that the friendly trader in the shadow of Pisa is Senegalese and if he is chances are even better that he is a Mouride. The Mourides are more than a tribe, they are a community of traders. The founder Amadou Bamba is said to have stepped off a boat taking him to exile in Ghana. A prayer mat had magically appeared on the water beneath him and after prayer he walked on water a hundred miles back to his beloved Senegal. There he began the community on the cornerstones of faith and trust and trade. Not only do the Mourides help their community within Senegal they also assist traders to travel abroad where they will practice the principles of their movement and in turn help other Mourides. Their spiritual home is the city of Touba. We were to encounter the Mourides not only through the traders and signs which alerted us to their presence but also through billboards outside communities where the Mourides had built a clinic, mosque or well.
When I think of Dakar I have visions of the famous rally – high powered motorcycles and four wheeled vehicles blasting through the Sahara desert, of helicopter fly overs and spectacular scenery, the well heeled at play racing the ultimate off road machines in the most hostile territory. I envision a sweat drenched Spaniard, a sponsors cap askew on his head, the torso of his white red and blue racing suit zipped open as he shakes and aims a large champagne bottle at his teammate and a tiptoeing, laughing but cowering blonde.
The real Dakar is a city on the brink of collapse or meteoric rise. Dakar traffic is terrible, but not nearly as bad as Johannesburg or Lima, or La Paz or Los Angeles. Dakar is a city built by the French and inhabited begrudgingly by the Senegalese. We had come to the city seeking visas for some of the countries which we needed to cross as we avoided the shorter route through southern Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso where Islamic extremists vent their rage (born from the failure of ISIS in the Middle East) on foreigners and Christians. We had rushed to the city from the north to be at the DHL office by 5PM to collect Luisa’s new passport and had found a city not quite as terrible as we had been told to expect. In fact, if the traffic was not so horrendous, parts of the city would be lovely, liveable.
After many hours of stop, go, stop, go, we arrived at our camp, Cercle de Voile situated between an industrial area, a motorcycle repair shop and the sea. Beneath palm trees we watched the world go by as we waited for the visas for which we had travelled across the city by taxi. Mama Nougat cheerfully sold peanut brittle, of which she had eaten too much, her teeth suffering more than her waistline. A thin, elderly man sat all day on the exposed root of a large tree and pondered upon the sea, pop music blaring distorted from his portable speaker, his prized possession. Young men hung out on the beach among boats in dry dock awaiting repair, they played football or danced, flexing and showing off for each other, telling jokes, talking about football and girls. A harassed but smiling French woman prepared pizza and hamburgers, pasta and sandwiches in the large, open restaurant and a dark bar entertained groups of bikers and French expats while accepting only exact change for drinks. The English cyclist, Jason, caught up with us and became part of our family, waiting patiently each morning to be fed our breakfast of small banana and peanut butter pancakes and English tea. Jason left Dakar before we did but cycled more than 100 miles every day, a true feat in the heat and congested or difficult roads we had traveled.
With painfully expensive visas in hand we snuck out of Dakar on a Sunday when we rightfully expected traffic to be thin. North western Senegal is mostly dry grassland, home to many gargantuan baobab trees and villages of brick and mortar where we were either welcomed with waves by all or waves by few, depending on the village. We drove the last freeway we would enjoy for another six months, past the international airport and into a town brimming with sun tanned Frenchmen populating large beach houses, coffee shops and bars. At the supermarket we bought baguette and ice lollies for our children and for the policeman manning the checkpoint we had just crossed and would return to as we searched for a camp for the night.
Protruding into the stomach of Senegal like a long English middle finger is the independent country The Gambia. It is said that The Gambia is 48 miles wide because the English naval guns had an effective range of 24 miles from the Gambia river. This inconvenient little Colonial hangover lies directly in the travelers path as they journey across Senegal and the traveler must either pay for a direct 24 hour transit visa or drive around The Gambia at greater expense. Against my better judgement Luisa suggested that we try and cross the border shortly after night fall and those of you who are married will know that a suggestion is often not open to compromise, particularly without a convenient alternative. The Senegalese officer barked instructions, “Park here, not there, go there, then go there!” We were learning that we needed to practice humility when dealing with West African uniforms. “Yes sir,” yielded the best results. Stamped out of Senegal we enter The Gambia in the dark. A voice called out in English, “Park there, not there, go there”. In the absence of street lights we crossed a road and entered an unlit building where we made friends with the head immigration officer (who had never met a South African before) and paid 15 000 CFA each for the privilege of using Gambian roads. The immigration chief offered us handshakes, his home and office telephone number, email and home address. An hour after arriving at the border we drove into the nearby town, found a hotel where we could park in the parking lot, argued for half an hour over the parking fee (the security guard wanted us to pay the equivalent of a hotel room while the receptionist accepted half that amount) and waited for Jason the cyclist to join us. A European charity ran a school in town and Jason joined them for a chat but not a drink as he did not drink but they certainly did. I said hello to a pink grey haired man who drained whiskey directly from a large bottle while bosomy dears threw back gin splashed with tonic. Drums beat in the distance and Luisa and I walked through the dark streets to find the drummers who sat three rows deep and pounded a rhythm while young men danced with great vigour and the scent of marijuana clung sweetly to the air. The absence of women did not escape my attention and we enjoyed the spectacle from the shadows for half an hour before peeling off and heading back into the darkness and our waiting children. A man grabbed at Luisa’s arm, “Gimme a dollar”, Luisa did not flinch but regained ownership of her arm. “No, why should I?” The young man smiled. “Where are you from?” “South Africa, Cape Town”. “Ah, so you are also African. Welcome to Gambia”.
A new bridge now crosses the river from which the British tormented the French. After a checkpoint we paid the 5 CFA fee and drove over while trucks queued for an unnecessary ferry – someone was not going to lose their livelihood without a fight. We drove another 24 miles and 12 checkpoints to arrive at the border where an official demanded another 15 000 CFA each for us to leave the country. “No, that’s absurd, we won’t pay”. After half an hour I decided to play my trump card, “Phone this man, he is the immigration chief at the other border, he will tell you we do not have to pay”. The plump female uniform smiled and made the call, the chief answered, “You must pay.” Damn, checkmate. With Luisa fuming in the scorching heat we handed over a pile of cash to the drooling official (it was lunchtime and we had just paid for a month of lunches) and headed to Casamance, an area of Senegal with a dormant but passionate liberation movement.
Point St Georges is a hidden gem. Accessible only by boat, dirt bike or 4×4, the point is home to a rustic village and a small “backpackers” without electricity or running water. Half of the road to the village is deep beach sand and our Land Rover worked hard as we chose which line to drive then committed to getting through the thickest sand to the harder ground where we could make some distance before again hitting the soft stuff which takes control of the steering wheel and shows you who is boss. The deep sand section of road is only 10 miles long but it takes a good hour to eventually emerge near the shore of the lagoon where dolphins play and the time is dictated by position of the sun.
Our room was large with four beds protected by mosquito nets and a bathroom not yet connected to municipal water system for the simple reason that such a system did not yet exist. Neither was there electricity. We had come to the point to relax and work, writing and images, and decided that we would simply have to relax and leave sooner than planned. The lagoon lapped quietly at the low walls of the yard where a low table sat surrounded by plastic chairs with shortened legs. Birds flew overhead, the air quiet and relaxed, the laughter of children, a woman singing as she prepared our meal of rice, dorado and prawn, a cold drink in hand (the solar panels near the entranced serviced the fridge and one long life bulb), the sun set over the dusty sky.
The Harmatten is a season in West Africa, a time of year when the northerly winds blows Saharan sand and cool air into the Gulf of Guinea. Combined with the numerous cooking fires the sky wears a haze which obscures the sun and lends trillions of particles off which the sun set can reflect. With a cool breeze blowing away the heat of the day and the beer encouraging relaxed thoughts we sat and whiled away the time looking at maps, discussing the route ahead. That night we slept soundly, listening to the tide creep and retreat across the sand. I spoke to the owner Louis, I suggested that he should consider digging poles into the beach and installing hammocks, the like of which we had enjoyed in Jericoacoara, Brazil. He listened patiently and I did not need him to vocally dismiss the idea, I could tell by the look on his face that these were ideas which brought problems of transportation, investment and maintenance. His family owned the point and, with the exception of the small military base, was theirs to sell when the time was right. Soon a French developer would visit and make an offer which could not be refused then Louis and his family would move elsewhere and live a better life while bulldozers tore down the building they had built and replaced them with large white blocks of Europe, bars, coffee shops, restaurants and supermarkets. It was just a matter of time and all he needed to do was prosper humbly while he waited.
That morning we took a walk along the beach looking for manatees but found not them but a man in camouflage who informed us that we could not take any photographs beyond a certain point. We swam, climbed an observation tower, chased crabs, watched a woman smoke fish and relaxed in the shade until the afternoon when boats of women arrived to celebrate a wedding. They converged on a large hut at the centre of the village to drink palm wine and dance. We hung out with them for a while, playing with small children who had never met white people and returned to Louis’ place for a quiet evening. In a mix of French, Spanish and English, Louis explained to me why the rebellion was important, why Casamance should be free from Senegalese rule. He despised the soldiers who were based in his village for no other reason than to protect access to the lagoon and control the villagers. He despised the soldiers for taking advantage of the village girls and told the story of how one night many years before the soldiers had dragged his father from his home and killed him. Louis, a large and powerful man, bristled with anger as he told me the story. He lived in paradise governed by the devil.
With the Harmatten wind at our backs we drove past signs of Mouride investment and charity en route to the border with Guinea Bissau. Senegal had welcomed us and we were sad to leave.
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