Friday, 4 May 2012

West Africa part 4 - Senegal

Guest post by Christopher Lindberg Brekke

The sun had set as we were completing border formalities between Mauritania and Senegal. It was pitch black by the time we began driving towards St. Louis. Along the road were people walking home. They would appear briefly and disappear into the darkness left by our headlights. Our chauffeur let us out on the mainland (new city) of St. Louis. Change was given, but then skillfully pick-pocketed back by our driver. Hotel Lousianne lies on the southern tip of the historical island of St Louis. We had stone oven pizza, seafood and cold Flag (Senegalese beer). St.Louis serves an impressive amount of African, Asian and European dishes. A culinary splurge unlike anything we had experienced for a long time. 

We got talking with Marcel, the owner of the establishment. He had enjoyed a privileged upbringing in West Germany as the son of a diplomat. After a few drinks the topic shifted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a long debate ensued. Later he tried to convince us that Oscar Schindler was a Norwegian diplomat. In the end we had to agree to disagree. 

Street scene in St. Louis

St. Louis was the first French settlement in Africa. It came to be the capital of French West Africa in 1858. The colonial era is very much present in the deteriorating buildings and architecture that dominates the small island. The city is famous for its annual Jazz festival that attracts guests and artists from all over the world. People are clearly used to seeing tourists and the atmosphere is relaxed.
90% of the Senegalese population is Muslim. They follow a less orthodox form of Islam in which Sufi brotherhoods hold an important position. Portraits of famous religious leaders adorne most walls and vehicles. Cheikh Amadou Bamba (a marabout) is the most respected man in the entire country. He founded the Mouride brotherhood that opposed colonial imperialism. The core of his philosophy is personal liberation and spiritual awakening through hard manual labor. 
Pirogue with the iconic picture of sheikh Bamba

The Mouride brotherhood is today the most powerful political and financial institution in the country. Touba, where Bamba was born and died, is their holy city. This is where much of Senegal's economic power is concentrated. European commodities flow to Senegal from Spain and Italy where Senegalese merchants (and members of the brotherhood) operate. The annual pilgrimage to Touba ensures that the entire country slows to a halt, literally, as the majority of public transport is owned by the brotherhood. 

We spent a few days walking among the old colonial buildings. Along the shores are hundreds of fishing pirogues painted in colorful detail. Many with portraits of religious leaders. Fishermen set out for days at the time before returning with their catch to the local fish market. Garbage lies strewn so thick that the beach embankment is barely visible. Horses roll around the trash playfully while goats eat everything they come across. Adding to this was local fishermen relieving themselves in the open (both ways) and small kids playing football. 

We had decided to visit the national park Des Oiseaux du Djodj (close to Mauritania). A random guide showed up at the hotel one night and offered just this trip. So we left the next day. 

The national park is considered the third most important bird sanctuary in the world. We went to the world heritage listed site at the best possible time. We were met by the sight of hundreds of pelicans conducting synchronized dives in groups of ten or more. Each time the surface would be broken in a chaotic display of wings and feet. Only a few resurfaced with fish in their beaks.

Pelican nesting ground
Continuing up the Senegal river we were amazed at the sheer amount of birds. The trees on both banks of the river were full of different species. Fish eagles scouting from tree tops and herons opening their wingspan to the morning sun. Every few minutes groups of pelicans or flamingos would pass alongside the boat or in the distance. After a while we reached the pelican’s nesting ground. There were thousands of squeaking chicklings creating a symphony of noise. The mothers are able to detect and differentiate between the different sounds. This ensures that the fish ends up in the right beak. 

Nearby lay a large python in the process of digesting. Python snakes, we were told, feed regularly on the swarm of birds. In addition were large (and small) crocodiles sunning themselves on embankments hidden away by tall grass. When we left the park we passed makeshift villages inhabited by Black Moors that were expelled from Mauritania. We returned to St. Louis and bought an enormous amount of Senegalese music. Famous artists include : Youssou N'Dour and Orchestre Baobab. Senegal also boasts one of the earliest hip-hop scenes outside of the US.

In a few days both sets of parents were due to arrive in Banjul, Gambia. We decided to go all the way from St. Louis to Banjul in the course of a day. We got a shared taxi southwards to Kaolack. Kaolack is dusty, polluted and infamous for its dirty drinking water. The second we stepped out of the taxi it felt like hell on earth. Instantly we were surrounded by dozens of hustlers, beggars and curious bystanders. There was so much garbage, people and vehicles that it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead at any given time. We managed to get a car and were on our way (or so we thought). Our driver was either too confused or polite to tell us he had no idea where we were going. After a while we were returned to the madness of the station and the process began all over again. This time we succeeded and began driving southwards to the Gambia. 

Our first flat tire came with the sunset. Ten minutes later we had another one, but this time in complete darkness. Our drivers managed (somehow) to find a replacement tire in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived our chauffeurs were quick to round up a posse. They were conveniently all in agreement that our payment would have to be trebled. The next obstacle proved more challenging. The Senegalese border official exemplified the very definition of apathy and corruption. According to him we had entered the country illegally (even tough citizens of Norway do not require a visa). He put on a theatrical performance whereby he pretended to call the border with Mauritania and had a long conversation with himself. Else called his bluff and demanded to speak to the person on the other end. Instead he hung up and wished us better luck at the Gambian side (knowing that we would have to come back). In the end we had to pay to leave Senegal. Our polite irritation left him confused. The Gambian side was a breeze and we were on our way to catch the last ferry to Banjul for the night. Gone was the language barrier that had plagued us throughout French West-Africa. English was now the lingua-franca. 

Else's father on a beach in Gambia
Gambia was a vacation from the vacation. We met both our parents and enjoyed a sun filled week of beach lounging and hustler dodging. Afterwards we continued our travel up the Gambia river till we reached the border town of Basse Santa Su. From here we crossed back into Senegal. 
Back to Senegal

The shared taxi was a complete wreck as much of the interior was missing. The car had a habit of breaking down at regular intervals. All the men (me included) would then dutifully exit the vehicle and begin pushing. The car had to be pushed back and forth as only a small stretch of the road was in relatively good condition. The border formalities were smooth and we were dropped off in a dusty border town. Our travel companion from Guinea-Bissau led us to the second station on the other side of town. From there we caught a shared taxi northwards to Tambacounda (the last major city on the road to Mali). 

The next day we decided to head south to Dar Salam and the Niokolo-Koba national park. We checked into a bungalow with sporadic electricity. The plan was to go on a safari the next day, but I became very sick during the course of the evening. Food eaten in the villages of inner Gambia had clearly not settled well. After a full night of diarrhea, stomach cramps and throwing up we decided to seek medical attention instead. Thankfully there was a health clinic close to the camp, but unfortunately we had to wait a long time for the doctor to wake up. The «boss lady» came with us and ensured that my hands were full of medicine by the time we were done. We set out on the safari early the next day. 

The kitchen at our camp in Dar Salam
Antelopes, monkeys, baboons and warthogs were plentiful. Populations of larger mammals (such as elephants, lions and giraffes) have been decimated over the last decades. Many have been hunted down to provide «bush meat» for fighters in the regions wars and conflicts. In addition, local communities continue to encroach on the park’s borders for food and grazing grounds. The Gambia river, which we had become well acquainted with by now, continues into this part of Senegal. The highlight of the safari was to go on what would be our fourth cruise on the river. We saw large amounts of crocodiles and hippopotami along the lush riverbanks. Large termite mounts line the road out of the park. We drove back to Tambacounda that evening. 

We decided to head to M’Bor (the Atlantic coast) to relax by the sea. This meant crossing almost the length of the country in a day. We were ecstatic to pass through nightmarish Kaolack relatively quickly. Reaching M’Bor we headed to Saly to stay at Hotel Les Amazones. A nice hotel owned by an extremely unpleasant and arrogant Frenchman. To make matters worse we had arrived in the middle of his extended family’s annual gathering. Saly is an area dominated by restaurants and hotels that cater to western, but especially French, tourists. 

We found ourselves in Senegal during the first round of the presidential elections. President Wade (85 years old) made an unpopular move to ignore the constitutional restraints of the two term limit, which he himself had introduced. The weeks leading up to the election had been volatile. Several people had been killed (across the country) following attempts by security forces to quell protests. Tear gas had recently been fired into a mosque in Dakar that infuriated popular opposition further. The situation was tense ahead of the election day. Opposition towards Wade may have spiraled into violence had he attempted to remain without constitutional legitimacy. Senegal is one of the oldest democracies in Africa and has never experienced a military coup (unlike all its neighbors). The situation was tense and we were adviced to stay put during the election. This could also explain why we were the only guests at this fancy hotel. The crowded beach outside is full of people, palm trees and dead fish. We spent most days relaxing in the incredibly large on-site swimming pool. 

On Sunday (election day) we bumped into a round Finnish gentleman sipping on rosé wine. He introduced himself as an alcoholic and poured us some glasses. The day had just started, but the tone was set. He told us stories of murder, corruption and prostitution from his travels in Africa and South America. We were joined later by an Argentinian university lecturer. We drank bottles of wine in the sun, contemplating whether the election would turn violent or not. As people in Senegal didn’t know how to make a Molotov Cocktail, like in Goteborg, there would be no revolution – said the Finn.

Election day anticipation celebration
 He then ordered a bottle of expensive 14 year old wine (by accident) only to have it angrily intercepted by the Frenchman (after tasting). He was told off like a schoolboy before retreating to a nearby hammock to pass out. The Frenchman (a retired lawyer) declared his revolutionary fervor and desire for revolution in the streets. He had lived half his life in Senegal and knew president Wade personally, but seemed to have little respect for him. We drank rum and swam in the pool after the sun had gone down. 

Revolution had not arrived the next morning so we boarded a shared taxi for the capital, Dakar. Some weeks later Wade would lose to his former Prime Minister Macky Sall in the second round of voting. We stayed on the beach in the N’gor district of Dakar – watching kids playing football and wrestling in the sand. Because of the political uncertainty and Dakar’s reputation for crime we decided to fly onwards to Bamako (Mali) the next day. 

Corrupt officials at Dakar airport attempted one last bribe extraction. According to them we had somehow managed to enter the country illegally a second time. We played the waiting game until the asking price became a fraction of  the initial 200 euros. We boarded the flight just in time.


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