Delightful West Africa 9 – Toubacouta, Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal
My guided village tour is on a charette, a donkey cart. You sit side-saddle on the flat cargo-bed. Our donkey, called Paté, "isn't very active" as the guide and donkey owner admits. You could easily walk beside us. One such donkey costs 25 to 55 Euros and drags up to six people. Horses of course have more horsepower, but cost at least 105 Euros.
We stop at an extremely neat pre-school, the privately-run Garderie Baobab, and easily visit one of the classrooms. The only language here is French; at home, the children speak Serer, Mandinka, Wolof, Jola (Diola) or Fulaar (Peul). Directed by a stern teacher, the kids perform a few simple songs and a Q&A session for me, after which I am shown to the donation box. We also want to visit the regular school, but the pupils play happily on the street: The teachers are on strike, they haven't received their salary lately.
Toubacouta is a large, wide-spread village ducking under greenery near Senegal's northwestern border with Gambia. Because of the nearby Sine-Saloum river delta with its fishing and bird-watching options, Toubacouta has a few lodges – welcome homes in the wilderness.
Apathically, Paté drags us from Toubacouta village into la brousse, the bushland. The bush never looks like much from a car window; but across Senegal, I've grown to like la brousse a lot. There are the solitary acacia and baobab trees; the unobtrusive fields with the flower-like bissap fruit in red and white that produces a refreshing juice; more unobtrusive fields for mangoes, peanuts and water melons; the bizarre, statue-like termite hills; squirrels, colourful birds and tiny snakes; the high, blonde grass sways softly in the breeze that cools you even at mid-day. You roam the great wide open, with an infinite view under West Africa's mild blue winter sky; you hear the birds twitter – and nothing else.
The three-hour excursion costs 12 Euros. By local standards, my 23-year old guide Esang is quite soft-hearted, smiles a lot and isn't even impatient with my slow French. After the initial small-talk, we switch from the formal "vous" to the more friendly "tu". For another 1.5 Euros he'll also do a bottle of bissap juice for me, less sucré by request. As almost expected, after our trip Esang invites me for attaya, the traditional three tiny cups of West African tea. Locally known as attaya, it is made of cheap Chinese green tea. Attaya is the seal of friendship, much more a communal ritual than a drink, usually prepared by men, never available in a restaurant.
— Attaya Under the Acacia —
There we sit on plastic chairs in the dust, drinking attaya tea in the solid shade of a big acacia right next to the guest house where I found Esang.
Esang explains the three cups of West African tea:
"The first cup has little sugar. It is bitter like death." (In French that sounds better: Amère comme la mort.)
"The second cup, made with the same tea leaves, gets a bit more sugar. It's sweet like life." (Douce comme la vie.)
"The third cup has even more sugar. It's sugary like love." (Sucrée comme l'amour.)
The tea is poured many times over long distances between the pot and various cups, to create la mousse on top, the froth.
A few local lads join us, soft-rappers who prove their street smarts by belching out the English words "nice" and "cool" when greeting peers. We are downing our second cup of tea, douce comme la vie, as a guest house waitress comes walking down the road. She carries a box of Coke bottles on her head, and that on a hot mid-day. There is a short exchange between her and the lads in a local language.
With the Coke box shaking on her head, she manouvers into the guest house.
"Now you gents don't help the lady carry the heavy stuff to the guest house", I ask my tea companions.
"Why, I offered to help her", snorts one soft-rapper.
"Why, I told her I'd carry *her* and the box at the same time. She declined. That was that."
A well dressed little girl approaches our tea party. She wants to sell peanuts at 0.03 Euros per pack and is sent off by the soft-rappers. Silently she wanders on.
I remember the terrible, obnoxious peanut sellers in south Vietnam. I follow the little girl and order one pack. My smallest coin is 0.3 Euros. I'd love to give her all that, but don't want to buy ten packs or make gifts. She opens her hand with her change. I gather the change out of her hand and give her my coin. I demonstrate her the transaction with the various coins. Does she speak French? Can she read, calculate, understand me? She accepts my calculations silently and wanders on, 0.03 Euro richer.
— Dassilamé Sérère —
The next day I hire Esang for a bicycle tour. Again we find the pupils on the sandy village pistes, not in school. Esang explains: "Yesterday the teachers were on strike. Today the pupils strike."
The gear switches and brakes on both bicycles are completely defunct. You stop the bicycle with your feet or by rolling out. "C'est l'Afrique", shrugs the guide. I've heard that more often from locals as an excuse for their own lazi- or carelessness.
On a field, we meet Esang's brother planting young mango trees. A few fresh peanuts are instantly roasted in a hay fire. As we pedal on, I ask Esang about his brothers and sisters. "We are nine children", he says after some thinking; "no, wait, it's eight."
Towards Dassilamé Sérère we pass another village school (more villages near Toubacouta in the next submission). One well dressed teacher stands on the lonesome piste and is eager to talk: "We do teach today, but our salary is 20 days over-due. Senegal wasn't terrible like that five years ago." His eyes start rolling, he gets into a rage, looks almost dangerous. A motorcycle approaches quickly and has to slow down because we stand on the road. Manoeuvering around us, the motorcyclist shouts and gestures outraged because we block the otherwise lonely road. After one month in-country, I had fully expected him to burst into shouting; c'est le Sénégal.
On clean sand trails we wander through Dassilamé Sérère that has no electricity, but a big mosque. The well-dressed women fetch water from the 15-meter deep well and carry it home on their heads. Some drink the water without treatment, though the well has no cover. Other wells are only used to feed animals. Large mango and acacia trees give shade. The thatch-roofed clay and mud brick huts hide behind high reed fences. The atmosphere is very very African and exotic and quite unfriendly: Even with the black guide, I feel like exploiting the drastic disparity, the exotic picturesque poverty. The camera remains tucked away. The guide himself is obviously uncomfortable: This village has Serer speakers only, while he is a Mandinka. For a small café touba, I am charged the triple price of anywhere else in the country. When we pick up the bicycles, mine has a puncture.
— A Bend in the Rivers —
My room in the Belgian-run Keur Saloum hotel overlooks the Sine-Saloum river delta with mangroves and winding water ways. The window is wall-to-wall, and there's no TV. From my panoramic balcony I see the hotel pier, monkeys and myriads of birds. I can hear the birds in my room all night long, as there is a perfectly tight mosquito net for the main balcony door. Nobody can look into my room. It never gets hotter than 22 degrees Celsius, even after a hot noon and without air-conditioning. The door-bottoms are sealed against the ground so that no spiders or other insects may crawl in.
The widespread, multi-level hotel restaurant has a perfect view of rivers, pier and mangroves. Their Zébu Grillé is a tad tough. But around seven p.m., the sky is red. The river is red. The drink in my glass is red too, and affordable.
As most hotels in Senegal, the Keur Saloum hasn't many tourists. There is a group of 25 Dakar professionals though: Grey-bearded engineers of the German aid organisation GTZ and their Senegalese employees, all very well dressed. They have arrived in the ritziest 4WDs I saw so far (Japanese-made). They always eat at one long table. After dinner, the music level is cranked up. The Senegalese in their suites and silk robes dance to local Mbalax pop music and Salsa. It is not as frenetic as in an everyman's disco, but shoes and headscarves go overboard; even the grey-bearded German engineers risk a few dance steps.
Boot trips take me out to quiet river arms with salt water. We walk on islands existing only of shells and watch a huge number of noisy, cantankerous white herons settle for the night in high mangroves stands.
Some foreign-language expressions get stuck in your head and you keep saying them in other countries or to yourself. One such phrase may be the Thai "Arai-na", an astonished "What?". If you traveled in the Hindi belt or you like your Hindi movies with the original soundtrack, you might speak out "Atcha" with meanings like "Ah, really?" or "Uh-hmmm". Careful: In Wolof, Senegal's and Gambia's regional lingua franca, "Atcha" is a rude "Go" or "Leave", only appropriate for dogs, donkeys and troublemakers.
Like each Senegalese village, Toubacouta has its boulangeries. On any morning, you see Senegalese wandering about with a few baguette sticks – as if in France or northern Spain. The typical local breakfast sandwich is made at home or can be bought at the corner stores, wrapped in newspaper:
– for the sweet tooth, the baguette is smeared with butter and chocolate cream
– as a hearty variant, the baguette is filled with lots of mayonnaise, then some pepper and onions
— Tourist Business —
The dust road leading away from Keur Salom hotel is lined with artists' booths on both sides. Young men, fabricating wooden masks and statues. What they call "art" in these parts. You can't walk out without being accosted in a loud, rude voice ten times. If you refuse to talk and to tell them your name, nationality and well-being, they shout unfriendly after you and stress your violation of local customs (see West Africa part 6 for more examples). Like every Senegalese street seller, they will always be right and will always have the last word. Best to flee the hotel on the bush-covered side trail or by bicycle.
One afternoon, there is a Muslim new year party on the village streets. Young men drum, lots of hay fires create smoke and the kids follow men masked as monkeys. (Esang had invited me for "African cous-cous" with his family, but I had declined). I join the crowd on the streets.
One man holds a drum into my face and commences "Bonjour monsieur…". Another tourist vendor, and that in the middle of the strictly local new year party!
"No", I shout, enervé and derangé as so often in Senegal, "I will not buy your drum, I don't like your primitive bomm-bomm-drums, I am tired of being accosted by bragging self-righteous social wrecks 1000 times a day, please pour a bucket of spit and vomit over me, but SHUTTTT up!"
He looks at me in sheer surprise. He is one of the musicians and wanted me to play a drum.
— What Am I Myself Doing Here —
Travel writer Bruce Chatwin almost got executed in West Africa when he researched his book "The Viceroy of Ouidah" in Benin. He reports the scary incident in an aptly titled stories collection: "What Am I Doing Here?"
On my own West African sojourn, I am never in danger like Chatwin. But out in the African open, much more than in Asia, I ponder the same question repeatedly: What am I myself doing here? In Africa?
There is this moment in Toubacouta, Le Sénégal, when I want to photograph a house wall with a hand-painted poultry advertisement. No people around. As I take out the compact camera, I hear hissing from behind. I know I am meant, but ignore the sounds. In Senegal, I have learnt to take my photo first and only after that react to protesters, maybe.
From behind: "Monsieur, monsieur."
I am meant, but I don't react. I am not a butler.
Now the man stands next to my rental bicycle. You can see how satisfied he is, having finally secured the culprit's eye contact. He's gone to great lengths for this happy moment.
He: "Excusez-moi, how can you just go and photograph this house wall? Did you ask the owner's permission? I don't want to cause you any trouble, but you'll surely understand that you can't simply photograph any house wall around. It's not that I am the owner, but let me tell you that it's not like that in this country, you know. We have our rights. I don't want to cause you any trouble, but…"
I photographed a house wall with a hand-painted poultry advertisement and without any people. It's not his house. It's none of his business at all. But as a true Senegalese, he jumps at the occasion to lecture someone else, black or white, about all the many things one may not do in this country, according to him.
What am I doing here? Do I have to endure self-righteous sermons like that when I just want to enjoy a bit of exotic countryside? The ever-present pompousness is unbearable.
Why travel at all, expose yourself to undesirable street people who are not your kind and who abuse strangers out of boredom? Even in Thailand or other Asian countries, when disappointed once again, I often thought: Next winter will be spent not in the tropics, but at home. I have a nice home. At no extra expense, it offers all the comforts that cost 70 Euros and more per night in Africa. I have a thought: The next holiday will be spent by the heating, with coffee mug and remote control in reach. Order a pack of blue ones from Induna.com and check up on trusted old friends. You are safe from all the impositions of the road, from third-world fools and insects.
I am not even really interested in Senegal, or any country at that. I just need some kind of exotic backdrop for my stream of consciousness, camera fodder, promenade options, reality amusement park. Still I go out into the wild, stupidly expose myself – and get my well-deserved punishment in the form of prepotent socially defunct West African men sandblasting me with their disgusting ways; get my well-deserved punishment with Gambian border police, Gambian camera fixers and Senegalese street gangsters robbing me leisurely (see later articles).
"Excusez-moi, how can you just go and photograph this house wall? Did you ask the owner's permission? I don't want to cause you any trouble, but you'll surely understand that you can't simply photograph any house wall around. It's not that I am the owner, but let me tell you that it's not like that in this country, you know. We have our rights. I don't want to cause you any trouble, but…"
What are you doing there?
Yes, I surely had wondered, long before now, what you're doing there!