In Senegal everything is colourful and vivid. Loud music reaches you from every side. People are laughing out loud. Life is a truly chaotic. You have a constant premonition of a fight or at least an argument going to break out at any moment. Maybe that is because of the heat or maybe because of the hot temper of the Senegalese people.
Women wear clothes in every possible colour and pattern wrapped tight around their curvy bodies. Golden jewellery covers their necks, wrists and fingers. It hangs off their ears and dances with every move they make. To Marta’s great astonishment and great despair the hair of most of the girls in that part of the world is fake. Beautiful long braids are artificial extensions and the amazing afros are wigs!
Young men want to be our friends, show us around in order to rip us off in one way or another. In touristic areas you can find plenty of dodgers. Children are very cute, constantly screaming they grasp our hands and are endlessly mischievous. We got used to having no other name than ‘toubab‘- ‘a white person’.
From the very first moment Senegal seemed to us as a joyful paradise. On our way to Saint Louis, the first city to visit, we admired green rice fields extending till the horizon.
The peninsula on which Saint Louis is located, although messy and chaotic, is beautiful and full of life. You can still see there the relicts of French colonialism. Old buildings with a peeling off paint remained their old splendour and were still an embellishment of the city.
The beach appeared to us as centre of life. Domestic animals were left on their own by the owners and played with the frisky children. During a walk on the shore it is easy to find yourself surrounded by a sluggish cattle or a group of frisky goats.
Our first host, Karim, happened to be a traveller as well. He drove on his bike through a big part of Europe and now moved to Senegal to grow and sell chilli peppers and make millions.
Thanks to him we had the chance to find out the beauty of the Senegalese music already at the first evening. We attended an amazing concert of a local band taking place in an open-air art gallery filled with around 80 to 100 people attending the event. For over two hours we listened to covers and original songs, performed in French and Wolof by unbelievably talented artists. Click here to listen to Senegalese music.
The next day wasn’t any less exciting. We got to see the chilli plantations and cruised around the city. At the evening we went out to a club together with Karims’ friends and his brother. We were dancing our asses off and had great laughs. Soon we figured out that most of young Senegalese girls and older Europeans were there for a quite different purpose. They were all on the look out, ready to hook up whenever they find their match. We observed girls bending over to show more of their cleavage while men’s hands were wandering lower and lower on the ladies’ back. Everyone seemed happy though and we were certainly entertained. All in all it was an amazing night!
Karim invited us to spend a night in an African straw hut on the beach with a big double bed inside. Listening to the waves we slept like babies and woke up early to admire a wonderful sunrise.
For that day we scheduled a visit of two national parks near Saint Louis. Driving along a river on a motorboat we observed pelicans and cormorants in their natural inhabitant. We also had the chance to see a baby crocodile! Later on, from inside the car, we watched wild pigs!
At the afternoon, in another park, we saw mangroves protecting the shore and swam in the warm sea. Ben and Karim were kayaking and running after herds of langoustines and crabs on the beach.
It is impossible to write about Senegal without mentioning its religion. The vast majority of the Senegalese people are Muslims, but their faith is significantly different from the Islam in other parts of the world.
The Sufi movement has a great importance in Senegalese religious life. One of the biggest brotherhoods in this country (next to the Tijanism) and most important one in the Sub-Saharan Africa is called Mouride.
It was founded by Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a great Marabout and a religious leader. It has its religious centre in the city of Touba where the great mosque of Mouride was built. One of the most controversial sub-groups of this movement is the baye fall brotherhood. Originally baye fall were suppose to substitute their hard labour and dedication to their Marabout for the prayer and fasting.
You can recognize the baye fall followers by their colourful clothes, hand-made jewellery and long dread locks. Nowadays not many of their past principles have remained. Bygone tradition of hard work is replaced by roaming the streets and begging for donations. At the same time the idea of not-praying still stands imperturbably as well as the colourful clothes and the dreadlocks.
Sadly our experience with baye fall followers was rather negative. We found the ones we have met lazy and completely unaware of what their religion is really about. They called themselves Rastafarians, who they are certainly not. Many of them were just talking too much about being free and making peace all around the world. However they spent all their time smoking weed and listening to reggae with not much purpose in life at all. We have absolutely nothing against smoking and reggae. But being around them wasn’t much fun, even though they were all in all good people. All of them, no exceptions, worked for NGOs helping Talibe. But in fact they just received their minor salary from foreigners who, not present on the spot, couldn’t supervise them.
The Talibe problem is the kind of phenomenon which is hard to explain or understand. Little boys from all over Western Africa are sent away from their homes to learn from Muslim leaders. They are supposed to study the Quran and work together. Now, in a perfect world, Marabout (the religious leader) would take care of all those children and prepare them to their adult life. Reality is, unfortunately, a bit different. These Boys live on the streets and even sometimes are obliged to collect money for their Marabout only. Talibe have to beg for food and have no protection at all. They are abused, bereft of childhood with only a gloomy future ahead. It is important to mention that these children often come from other countries like Mali or Guinea Conakry which makes them even more lost and lonely. The Talibe problem has been already taken care of in the Gambia, where it is officially prohibited for children to immigrate to learn from Marabouts. Senegal still waits for its turn.
The happy days in Saint Louis came up to an end. We moved on towards Dakar. On our way we visited two other cities- Louga and Thies. In both places we have met great people and learned a lot about Senegalese culture.
We also had our first mafe. It is a highly addictive dish and very hard to resist. Mafe contains rice which goes along with meat and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce! Delicious as hell! Senegal, as well as the Gambia and Guinea Bissau, is full of peanuts, sold on every corner. Eaten roasted, boiled or simply raw are essential component of an every-day diet.
On our way to Dakar we undertook some major decisions and agreed to invest our savings in a flight to Cape Verde! Not even 48 hours later it got even more exciting. We decided to go to Guinea Bissau as well! Heated up, apparently too much, with all the upcoming adventures, we both got high fever just after reaching the capital. Now karma caught up on us and we had to pay the price for the wonderful time in Saint Louis.
As we don’t use public transport we walked through the whole city to find our first host. We have spent day and night on the rooftop because he didn’t have any other place to put us. Fortunately for us, we could listen to the fascinating and at the same extremely sad life story of our host. He was a political refugee from Gambia where his father (an opponent of the current president who is in fact a dictator) was murdered and he was put in jail. He managed to break out and seek refuge in Senegal and is now working as a guard in Dakar. There he found good people who helped him and became his new family.
For the next 4 days we made tens of kilometres crossing the hot and loud African city several times, to get our visas, book our flight and meet our hosts. It turned out that the employees at Senegal Airlines were pretty convinced that we need a return ticket from Cape Verde which we certainly did not. It took us two entire days and a lot of nerve to settle this problem. Most of our hosts took really good care of us and let us take a rest and for that we are really thankful.
Sadly nothing exciting or worth mentioning has happened during our stay in Dakar and we were happy to leave. Cities are not our thing, especially not in Africa.
Our next host was waiting for us in Toubacuta- a little village not far away from the Gambian border. We were lucky to catch a long ride with a Gambian businessman. He actually lived in the United States, had his own driver and was dressed (to kill) in a satin red suit. He fed us well with sandwiches with meat (or rather meat with sandwiches).
Toubacuta was a little paradise. Surrounded by mango trees, in the middle of nowhere, with barely three cars passing by each hour. We sat on the brink of the road waiting for our host to finish his work so we can call him. Shortly after that a car filled with toubabs stopped in front of us.
The people inside were Spanish volunteers (dentists and mechanics) working in a village- Misirah located 15 kilometres inside the jungle. Concerned about our presence there (it was getting dark) they pulled over to make sure we are alright. So we took the opportunity to ask them for a phone.
From this moment on it got really interesting (read: confusing). Our couchsurfer informed us that he actually lives one hundred kilometres north from where we were at that moment. Apparently he forgot to mention a day before when we last spoke. Thus we had no place to stay. Luckily a Senegalese man, sitting in a car with volunteers, offered us a place to stay. The only problem was we had to get there by ourselves as their car was totally full.
We started walking into the jungle. It already got really dark and there was no way we could walk through the African forest at night. Fortunately we found a little village on the way and decided to try our luck there. In total darkness we approached one of the houses and asked for a shelter. Luckily a farmer let us spent the night in his yard. It was quite hard to cope with the abundance of mosquitoes and the disturbance of some rodents. It wasn’t our first encounter with them on this trip, so we knew how to face them. We mean literally face as one of them crawled over Marta’s face by night.
It was extremely hot from the early morning but we decided to see the jungle village anyway. The farmer seemed a bit off from the first time we saw him and even wanted to accompany us through the jungle but eventually gave up very soon. Tired and hungry we walked for over twenty kilometres, but finally found Misirah and the man who offered to host us the day before.
It was a beautiful spot, though we didn’t really have a chance to enjoy our stay. Immediately after the arrival Ben got high fever and stayed in bed. Marta spent all day with the washboard in her hands as our clothes were in a preposterous condition.
The next day we were both sick to our stomachs (don’t eat too much of the palm oil!) but able to cross the border to the Gambia. Fortunately the Spanish dentists gave us a ride back to the main road.
If you have a standard life every day is sort of ok or sort of bad. But if you live a bit more crazy you get higher good times and worse bad times. It is just a matter of your own choice.
Senegal didn’t spare us. We knew we were going to pay our debt after the amazing time in Saint Louis. It was a real challenge to keep moving in our condition. For almost two weeks we were constantly sick and weak. It resulted in a lot of tension between us. Low (or no) budget travelling and changing places each day in an enormous heat can be hard on a relationship.
It would be difficult to omit our relation with the people. Frankly speaking it wasn’t easy to communicate, not only because of the language reasons as Ben speaks French. Almost always there was not even a thread of understanding between us. Conversations were in fact interviews, where we asked questions and got short answers in return. People did not seem to be very interested in us. Though it wasn’t so bad after all. We could spend the time dwelling the subjects we were interested in. Although we found it surprising that our hosts were very often, after a whole evening spent together, not aware of where we came from or what our names are.
It wasn’t the end of our adventures in Senegal, but we had to say goodbye for a while. We were not only physically but also mentally exhausted after our first stay in this country. Hoping for a breath of freshness and a mood change, we walked towards the Gambian-Senegalese border.