Life and soul in Senegal

Photo shows a classroom in Podor, a town situated by the banks of the Senegal River. Picture: BT/Catherine Wilson

Sunday, March 14, 2010

IT WAS only 7:30pm, but night had fallen rapidly and the air was still hot and humid. On the beach at Soumbédioune, a fishing community on the West African coast near the city of Dakar, hundreds of pirogues, or long wooden fishing boats were pulled up on the sand. On the jetty, vast piles of fish, octopus and eels were being carved with machetes on roughly hewn wooden tables. The atmosphere was heady with the deafening shouts of fishermen, overpowering smell of fish and light dancing from lanterns hung above the tables. It is from beaches like this along the coast of Senegal that fishing boats depart regularly under cover of darkness with people from Nigeria, Guinea, Mali and Senegal driven by economic hardship or conflict and willing to risk their lives in leaking boats to reach the Canary Islands and, possibly, Europe. I decided to embark on a journey to a country that many seemed to be leaving.

The first destination for most people travelling by air is the eclectic capital, Dakar. It is a centre of government and commerce, but beyond air conditioned hotels and offices, vernacular culture takes over. Market stalls define the labyrinth of roads, while street vendors with barrows piled high with watermelons or twisted metal car parts defiantly push their way alongside those passing in the latest model Mercedes.

The atmosphere is frenetic. In fact, if this furious human energy could be harnessed, it would go some way toward powering this rapidly growing city for some years to come. While there is obvious unemployment, there is no conflict. In a region known for civil wars, Senegal is politically stable and has held peaceful elections and democratic transfers of power since Independence in 1960. Senegal is also a predominantly Muslim nation, but in actuality multiple faiths, including Christianity and animist belief, co-exist.

The best way to commute around Dakar is by "car rapides", battered buses emblazoned with imagery in homage to the revered Amadou Bamba, a saint to followers of the popular Sufi movement, Mouridism.

On a trip to the Medina, I was engaged in conversation by Boubacar, a Senegalese man who had travelled widely and was taking the opportunity to practice his English (French and Wolof are the general lingua franca).

As the bus cranked labouriously from first to third gear, my fellow passenger made the point that, although he had lived and worked in more economically prosperous parts of the world, it was Senegal to which he ultimately desired to return. "It is the place where my soul feels at home," he explained.

I considered this as I headed down Nelson Mandela Avenue in the direction of the IFAN Museum (Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noir). Despite suffering from lack of funds, the IFAN houses a fascinating collection of masks, masquerade costumes, utensils and textiles that provide an insight into the amazing array of cultures that exist in Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Ghana. A thought provoking temporary exhibition about slavery reminded the visitor that this was not a distant and abstract event, but a tragic historical legacy that continues to resonate in the region today. This is poignantly apparent on the Ile de Gorée (Gorée Island), located off the coast near Dakar. Here, La Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), a forbidding Dutch fort built in 1786 features an arched staircase opening to the ocean that embodies all the horrors of shackled lives and voyages of no return.

After Dakar, I departed northward along the coast and then inland. For journeys over long distances, bush taxis, large Peugeot estate cars that seem to have done a million miles, are the most economical, although they are mostly driven at headlong speed with, at times, brakes as optional. The journey to St Louis, 264km to the north, was, therefore, fast and along well sealed highways.

As we hurtled along, windows down and faces pummeled with gusts of hot wind, I was struck by how the landscape of dry bush with eucalyptus gum trees and occasional fields of sugar cane reminded me of some areas of Australia. The route from St Louis, a town renowned for West African jazz, to Podor then turns eastward and inland, running parallel with the Mauritanian border.

Here the land became increasingly arid, interspersed with villages of conical thatched mud dwellings and livestock housed in nearby pens.

The town of Podor is situated on the banks of the Senegal River, four to five hours by road from the coast. Local settlement at Podor dates from the ninth century, and in the 19th century the French colonial administration built a large border fort here.

Sizeable buildings on the wharf revealed a history of considerable river trade along this inland waterway. Now the town is a small enterprising community.

As I checked into Gite d'Etape, the main guesthouse, the manageress, Awa Keita, gave an enthusiastic welcome. She ensured the next couple of days were filled with guided visits to the schools, post office, market and renovation works at the fort, where the community came to life.

Everyone, from the postman to women washing their clothes on the banks of the river, had time to stop and eagerly chat about their lives or share a joke.

On my last evening, I joined Awa Keita's family.

With no street lighting, she guided us by torch to her home, a walled mud compound housing three rooms and a courtyard, where dinner of spicy rice and fish was shared with her brother, sister-in-law, sister and numerous cousins.

Later, in the mud hut that was my guest room, the riotous chorus by nocturnal creatures that filled the night echoed the vitality of life and soul, from the largest city to the smallest rural community, and my memories of this country and its people.

The Brunei Times


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