What we know.
Marabouts- Wolof – Dakar – St Louis – ĺle de Gorée – Slaves – Flies Malaria, Muslims.
Senegal is supposed to have got its name when some yobbo of an explorer pointing at a river. “What is the river name,” he asked of a local Wolof bloke. The Wolof seeing that he was pointing at a wooden canoe replied in his best Wolof
“Ii sunu gal le,” that’s my boat. We have the choice of two frontier crossings from Mauritania into Senegal, the Rosso–Richard ferry crossing > which by all accounts is to be given a wide berth, or around the back of Djoudj National Park.
Leaving Nouakchott in the late afternoon our first difficulty is finding the right exit. The main route out-of-town is called the road of hope. For most of the time it is buried in sand and riddled with cadeaux demanding police, it is well named.
Still exhausted from the ocean floor crossing and last night’s sounds in Hotel Sabah Room 4 at 7000 UM (Uuguiya) without breakfast it does not take long before Fanny’s morning radiance is taxed. In no time it is obvious that one more day in Mauritania will be one too many.
After eighty tar squeezed kilometres we pull over for our last night in a country of over one million km of moving sand driven by the Shahali winds from the south, that combine with the sand to manufacture flattened stones with one or more sides along with pointed grass seeds that form into balls to be blown across the desert floor in search of water.
We are never to know if Mauritania is worthy of its allocation of seven pages out of the one thousand plus pages in Africa Lonely Planet or for that matter the forty bravely mustered pages out of its thousand-plus pages in the West Africa Rough Guide. Or for that matter if the locals still believe in the Islamic Mythology of Muhammad riding on a fabulous beast named Borak (Lighting) part human part animal on his night of ascension into heaven.
However, there can be few places on earth that teaches us that we are all living with unseen hordes of living things, unnamed > vanishing before our eyes.
Over 600 million people live in rural isolation in Africa unaware of the IMF, World Bank, Television, and Electricity. I am told that all over this vast continent lies donor Aid, countries hardware rusting in the noonday sun bearing witness to the lost cause of technology. As we prepare to leave this barren land it is hard to believe that the greater part of Africa will soon turn into an information desert of underclasses due to the inability of the microchips being able to chat with each other. (A Job of the UN to address: Technology should not encroach on a nation’s people freedom of opportunities or intelligence. The smart card is the human card, not the internet > everyone is surely entitled to an equal opportunity to get smart.)
Wild pitch number 35 is alongside a watering hole hidden in a hollow, surrounded by brown sands. Our Sahara sand is still with us if only in a different colour. The well attracts every passing moth, mosquito, fly, ant, and what have you. That night all repellents fail miserably
Bitten to shreds early morning is announced by the local bird population, camels, goats, and well-going people.
After many enquiries, we find a dirt track that leads down to an irrigation canal. Our route to Senegal is to be the top of the canal bank to the border. Djoudj National Park des Oiseaux is to our left. With last night’s insect’s attacks, any appetite to visit the Park has long gone out the window.
Some hours later after a relatively easy frontier crossing with a salaam malekum here and a dash there we are on our way to Saint Louis the oldest French settlement in West Africa founded in 1659 and now a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site.
We find Saint Louis in a state of smelly quaint decay. It’s current status as a world heritage site somewhat hard to fathom. Its island, (Ndar in Wolof) can be given a total miss.
Fought over by the British, French, and Portuguese it has a museum that is closed more often than open. A 500-meter iron Faidherbe Bridge built-in 1897, which was meant to span the Danube with a collection of St Louisienne Architecture that could do with some tender love and care.
The piece de- resistant is a wonderful old silk-cotton tree that has seen all of it in better times. It’s no wonder that UNESCO itself is presently sponsoring a global poll to find out what is worth saving and what is not.
We booked into the Old World colonial Post Hotel for the night. The linen napkins have long disappeared with Jean Mermoz a famous French first world war aviator. However, the ability to charge for past glory remains along with the musky stuffed head trophies of animals once found in Senegal.
Over dinner, we decided to give St Louis a few days but in accommodation more suited to our pocket. We move to Hotel Battling Sikri dedicated to the memory of the ghost of Mbarick Fall – the first African heavyweight-boxing champion of the World. In 1925 he was bumped off for being black in the USA.
We secure a large room with a street balcony over the hotel bar for half the price of Post Hotel. With the girls needing a rest we decide to stay two nights. While the girls settle in with a shower and a soaking in a large tub I over a beer downstairs in a bar of loose rules get propositioned by one of Mbarick’s reincarnated sparring partners. The rather large lass is promising to go more than the distance for a price. In a dream horror ring, it turns out to be a restless night for me.
We head out on a day’s excursion south of the town. Our target is a swim on one of those holiday brochure sandy palm tree beaches. Three hours later after digging Williwaw yet again out of more sand, we settle for a swimming pool.
Returning in the tingling light of night we have the misfortune of running into one of Saint-Louis not so saintly like occupants. A douane customs excise Wanker on the make. It takes an hour of argument to get rid of the blither.
Next morning in a cloudburst mixed with sand we leave for Dakar where we need to do some visa hunting.
(TOP TIP: When planning it is worth marking on a Map where and what visa can be had where.)
We make it as far as Kayar a fishing village, about 60ks north of Dakar. Here amongst the pirogues, we learn that it is possible to cut out the potholes and dust by driving the beach to Dakar.
This time the sand looks firm smooth and inviting. We whistle down until the tide makes us take a sharp turn up a sand gully between some pine trees. Halfway up the gully, the yellow sand is up to Williwaw’s axle.
The look on the girl’s faces is abundantly clear. O! No, not again. We get stuck within earshot of the breaking waves, and unfortunately in earshot of the adjacent wood night sounds. There is no option but to camp. The pounding surf combined with the rustling fern trees and dark shadows do not take long to assert themselves on the insecurity of the girls. Pitch 36 turns into Pitch 3. Six hundred meters further up the gully. All six achieved with sand tracks. Here we pitch our tent on the ground.
With fatigue setting in tempers are on a short fuse when a group of young boys arrive. They make it quite obvious that camping where we are is inviting death by mugging. With a collection of willing pushing hands, we move once more to the end of the gully. Pitch No 38 is alongside a compound wall on top of an ant nest.
The morning reveals the end of the gully opened out onto a small village with a Club Med type camping compound under construction. The village consists of three or four-grass roof round huts overlooked by a large high water tower.
After the nights’ pitch outside the compound’s wall, no persuasion is required to move us into the village under the only shade-giving tree. Here we are to stay for the next three weeks until the rainy season comes to a halt.
The village is nothing to write home about. Situated just above the sand line it is five kilometres north of Lake Rose. A sum total of four mud baked wall houses and another few dwellings scattered in amongst the sandy hollows outside the compound. Our accidental adopted villagers are Peulh > a nomadic ethnic group of cattle people, light-toned skin herders.
To Fanny’s undying relief there are two English-speaking people living in the village along with an ex-French Legionnaire in his early sixties who has a strong liking for dark pussy. He and the village chief are business partners in the camping project.
By week one we have met all the chief’s wives whom he refers to as problem one, problem two, and problem three. Problem four has done a bunk some time ago. He spends his days on the roof of the water tower, descending at speed when he spots a dust cloud coming along Lac Rose (Lake Rose). The dust announces the pending arrival of some tourist suckers that have been persuaded to come around the lake to visit his traditional village.
Two of three times a week he scurries across the village, whips on his only white jallaba. Dons a few strings of beads, which no woman is allowed to touch and abracadabra he has transformed himself into a tourist attraction.
The tour starts with a welcoming speech. Followed by a quick viewing of all his problems, the well, and then back to his house where he hopes to sell a few wood carvings. Called Josef he is a likeable enough scoundrel, tall, lazy and resourceful who has taken too relaxing in my hammock after any guided tour.
The two English turn out to be a Welsh divorcée and a South African with a visiting child from her first marriage. Living in one of the village sturdier one-room houses they are both playing the white doctors syndrome.
Lake Rose is a Picasso canvas, continually changes colour from silver in the mornings and a deep purple in the early evenings. It’s a salt source worked by a large community living on its eastern shores, which is peppered with sparkling fresh pearl white conical blobs of salt. Depending on their age the salt mounds descend in intensity of white. In the glaring sun, they silently squat on the reddish soil like the tops of ice cream cones waiting for buyers from Dakar. Postcard of the Lake are grace by them with bare-breasted woman standing waist deep in the purple waters towing strings of colourful plastic washing – up basins.
Each mound of salt represents hours of backbreaking work by the village woman. The Tupperware convoys of plastic basins follow their mothers like ducklings over the blue or purple mirror waters of the lake. When full with raked salt they are towed back by the woman to a flat-bottomed boat, which is then poled ashore where the salt is then added to its owner’s individual coned mounts.
By the end of the first week, we have become accustomed to the sound of breaking surf that rings in each morning, the cooing pigeons, and the village braying donkey. We make several trips from Deni Guedj our village to the nearest village Niaga. It lies twenty minutes south of us along a dirt track that runs beside the lakeshore. Niaga has a small market, a pub and a gre gre maker. These are African miraculous medals that protect everything from mobile phones, vegetables, and your own body against theft, death and conversion. We commission three Gre Gres for our necks to protect us from unwanted events such as dieing from fright, yellow fever, or being eating by cannibals. We have become well-known around the Lake.
The salt village Gin distiller has never had it so good, nor does the large frying pan in the last of the salt village huts, at which we usually stop for a fried egg bread concoction, better known as a banjo which usually ended up being frantically wiping of or laps as we bump our way home.
By week two I am on the local football committee. The chief has got the hang of getting in and out of the hammock, along with twenty odd children. Flo has made friends with a little adorable fellow named Gaddafi. We have acquired an egg/chicken runner named Mansual aged twelve. Both are sons of the chief who practise polygyny one of the African continents main scourges. He is the proud sire to more than a handful of children.
I have gone on a night hunt with my widow’s memory catapult. “There, over there”, shouts Ngom for hours. A slim built man, with laser-beam eyes, the eldest son of the local Marabou, (a Muslim holy man and teacher, often gifted with special powers of healing) who by the end of the night is convinced that I am blind and could do with his father help.
We have met Dalie a Serere of twenty-five or six years. He lives in one of the Legionnaire huts. Kind-hearted, he is a gentle soul, with an African smile that triumphs over the terrible efforts of making a living. Also Amadou in his late twenties, tall, reads English, speaks French, who bemoans being caught by his own culture and the extended family. He is genteel and intelligent, craving change. Lastly, there is Mamadou Da the village woe who has the ability to transfix one with a not overly friendly eye. Suffering from piles, he hauntingly wanders around in a vagueness of the present, which is both complex and torturous.
Living adjacent to our campsite we also have three gardeners. They spend days attending small market gardens, drawing water by the bucket full hand over hand from a deep well. My suggestion of constructing a pulley over the well, with a demonstration of how to support their tomatoes with a stake, falls on deaf ears. The mask of tradition win’s out every time I suggest any improvements to make their working lives easier. It confirms to me that there is not the remote possibility of an African becoming so cosmopolitan that traditions will not apply in the long run. Whether you like it or not, you are part of Africa long-established cultural ways.
Fanny befriends Hassin Qusseynou Ba one of the gardeners who greets us each morning with a joining of his hands and a small bow under our Acacia tree. He is a shy man who’s gently spoken words finds a poetic justice in his onerous life. Long into the night, he plays a simple one-stringed violin instrument (a small Gourd) producing a mosaic of sounds that float in the air, like the dancing tongs of fire.’
.By week three is it time to visit Dakar thirty kilometres by road or fifteen by the seashore. The city name in Wolof means tamarind tree. Built on a twin-pronged peninsula called Cap Vert it boasts Africa most westerly point Des Almadies.
Setting off early morning we opt for the road route. Rufisqua/ Dakar. Half the village bumming a lift too different drop off points. Our Legionnaire arms us with a secure place to park in town. Police barriers are neutralised by our mixed bag of passengers perched in and on top of Williwaw. Our bibles, West Africa Rough Guide and Africa Lonely Planet describe Dakar as one of the capitalist capital of West Africa. They are not wrong. A melting pot of poverty, wealth and crime, it attracts the usual syringe of toxic human behaviour found in all big cities. A pleasant surprise if you have arrived overland from the north.
Our secure car parking is the Hotel Lagune II where for the price of a beer your car is watched over by the hotel parking attendance’s, for the duration of your stay. A service we later abuse staying over for a weekend on Ile de Goree.
Dakar is a nightmare to get into never mind drive around in. Each and every crossroads, roundabout, has its Rayban cop with Williwaw attracting more than her fair share.
With the normal shores completed, a wad of CFA currency treats us to an excellent lunch before visiting the British Embassy. We arrange for them to accept an envelope on our behalf > Some liquid funds.
(TIP: Credit cards, Bank drafts, Traveller cheques, all have their uses. The Bush bank, however, operates in cash. I had a small safe deposit box welded up under the back tyre mudguard painted black.)
After a futile talk on our proposed route, we exit the Embassy security gates to find we have a puncture. With the Spanish spectacle in mind, I have the changing of a tyre down to a fine art so it is not long before we are once more into the fray.
Dropping off our passports with visa applications at the Mali Embassy, we take a taxi from the parking lot of the hotel to the port to visit Île de Gorée the jewel of Dakar.
It is from this small island that many a dark soul walked out of the gates of no return to be sold as a slave in the cotton fields of Alabama. Only one out of four ever reached the age of forty. The freedoms they left behind are to eventually shape the constitution of the USA and the freedoms they learnt to destroy Liberia their reward.
With the port hassles over we board a small sturdy ferry that slip out over the oil slick water of Dakar harbour to Île de Gorée. The passage to the island is short less then half an hour but in the pre rains humidity, the sea breeze is fodder from heave.
From its small sandy beach swimmers clamber aboard and dive off the side of the ferry. The jetty is thronged with waiting return passengers but there is an air of tranquillity. In front of us a painters pallet of flaking pastoral coloured housing, narrow stoned streets dripping with bright hanging tropical flowers, make all of the harbour restaurants and bars erotically appealing.
Île de Gorée, unlike Saint Louis, has reaped some benefit from its UNESCO halo. Originally a Dutch colony named after an Island of the Dutch coast it has had a chequered history. British 1663, Dutch 1664, French 1677, British 1759, French 1763.
Catching the last ferry back we are booked into a small new hotel for the following weekend. There is no easy way out of Dakar.
Collecting Williwaw we battle with the fumes, dust, potholes, and the police. Not forgetting the great unwashed that weaver with total disregard to the dangers of the moving wheel, to escape the city.
Arriving at the finishing line for the Paris-Dakar race, which is on the southern end of Lake Rose, unlike the Chief parched end we find banana plantations and causuarina ironwood trees, we stop for a Biere la Gazelle. (Insert Beer label) We watch the sunset turn Lac Rose into a deeper pink-purple colour that we have not seen to date. Hard working bacteria discharging iron ore oxide into its waters are the cause of its colour moods. Behold an African evening when you can almost feel the earth revolving on its axis.
The waters of the lake I am told are as salty as the Dead Sea. Our trip home past the salt mounts, and out over the salt flats that subs up as the football pitch. Williwaw collects her normal load of highly relieved stragglers for a roof ride home.
Awaken by a downpour we learn that the village has gone down sick. Not good news as round two of the football league is only a few days away. We are drawn against Gorom, a Wolof village and every able body will be required both on and off the pitch.
That night I am invited by Ngom my hunting partner to visit each and every household to explain the necessity to boil the water. Our night journey over the dunes starts under a sky of immense beauty. On the distant horizon lighting punchers, dark clouds lit up by a red sunset.
“Don’t stand on that snake or that thorn-bush”, it takes hours, most of the night to visit all. The rains have begun.
By the next morning, the village is awash in more ways than one. Old and young are washing. Breasts are released from cross your heart and hope to die western brassieres. Bums large and small are glistening in the early morning sun; modesty had gone out the window.
Later in the morning, one more washed body is found on the beach. A young Wolof man drowned. At which Josef the village chief takes one look shrugged his shoulders and walked off “C’est pas grave “it’s not serious it’s only a Wolof “Tribalism the basic political illness of modern world and Africa> Nothing that a few hundred-year wars never mind two World Wars or the coming Soccer match won’t resolve.
That night the football committee meets under the stars. Voices rather than faces identifying each speaker. Each is allowed to summits their tactics without interruption.
It is an earnest business without much joking. The referee sets out the perimeters of fair play. I am commandeered to get the VIPs Awning and chairs and because I am viewed as a rich man when next up in Dakar I am to purchase a new football.
I point out that due to the village sickness we are weak in the back and that perhaps a little Irish fair play would not go astray. I suggest that on the day of the match that the village grazing cattle behind our goal could be herded by their cattle dogs onto the pitch when we come under attack. Not a foul as it would be the cows that blocked the goal, not us. Once understood there is an outburst of knee-slapping; laughter and shrieking that has every sleeping baby in the village-wide awake.
(TO BE CONTINUED) Don’t miss the football match. Make a donation.
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