Sand Rivers, Mangroves and Mermaids: A Journey Through Senegal's Casamance

Three years ago I journeyed across the Sahara to Senegal. For many, Africa is the vast open plains and wildlife of its east and southern parts, but while West Africa may not have safaris it does have beautiful landscapes, an excellent cuisine and a very colourful culture. I now live in Abene, a small village near the beach that is home to many artists and musicians. In fact, every day I hear the pounding rhythms of drums; local people walk to its beat, which is as much of the backdrop to Abene as the chirrup of insects in the dark night. Tourists visit Abene to learn African dance and drumming, to relax on the stunning beaches or at New Year to visit the festival that attracts African artists from across the region.

Abene is in the Casamance, a region sandwiched between the Gambia and Guinea Bissau. Although it has had troubles in the past, this no longer affects tourism in the western region. I recently undertook a journey around the province. It’s a trip for the more adventurous traveller, but if you are prepared to cope with the heat and bumpy, unreliable transport, you are in for the journey of a lifetime. My journey began on a motorcycle taxi a few miles south to the town of Kafountine near a mangrove swamp delta. After waiting several hours under a straw shack for the tide to rise enough for the boat, countless people, containers of palm wine and other luggage – including a very large trussed up pig – were loaded on board the large dug out canoe. Something was wrong with the boat, so I waded off and on to another but that one leaked so with damp trousers I changed again. Travel in Africa requires patience and a sense of humour.

The river trip was beautiful, with plentiful birdlife and glimpses of remote sandy, palm tree lined beaches. I arrived at the island of Boune as the sun was setting and fishermen were returning in from a day on small canoes. There was a small village amidst large baobab trees and a very basic guesthouse with no electricity. A huge platter of delicious mussels and rice was whipped up and there was even a gas-powered fridge with a couple of cold beers in it. In the places like this that dot the banks along Senegal’s rivers, there’s not too much to do except relax and watch the birdlife, which suited me fine.

I ate with a local family. Wherever you are in Senegal, you will invariably be invited into people’s homes to eat. This is the land of teranga, or hospitality, and you feel it wherever you go. Meals are generally a large platter of rice with fish in a sauce that is invariably yassa, which is onion and lemon; maffe, which is peanut-based; or a slimy green substance that has the texture of pond slime but tastes better. People here eat communally with their hands, although visitors are given a spoon.

To travel further afield, it is best to travel by a shared bush taxi. I usually turn up at the garage sometime before the sun rises for a long trip, and it is here that travellers can get a dose of real Africa. It’s steaming hot with mosquitos buzzing around, and they aren’t the only ones. I was besieged by money changers, phone credit sellers, drink sellers, cashew nut sellers, everything else sellers, people trying to carry my bag, taxis reversing erratically into me, everyone screaming that their bus is faster, more comfortable or will leave sooner.

Market stalls sell just about everything providing it’s cheap and Chinese. Women sell sweet bissap drinks made from hibiscus, in little plastic bags. Mangos are sold from large enamel bowls carried in on their heads. A more modern phenomenon is men selling mobile phone top up cards – the future is very much here in West Africa. Small stalls of dubious hygiene make omelettes and slap them in a roll with brown lumpy unrefrigerated mayonnaise stored in buckets. Buyer beware can take on a whole new meaning here.

While you wait for the bush taxi, take a look around and drink it all in. There are the urchins that can take some getting used to. Little ragged boys, often barefoot, faces covered in dust and snot, and sometimes wearing a Barak Obama “Time for Change” or a UNICEF t-shirt. Groups of them, carrying old tomato puree tins, walk around chanting for spare change. Tragically, these kids are controlled by gang leaders who will beat them if they don’t reach a daily quota.

Boys from Touba, with large turbans, masses of beads and long robes – the Senegalese equivalent of Hari Krishnas – collect for charity. Goats wander around sucking up the discarded mango skins and other rubbish. On top of all of this are the mad men, the hucksters, the Liberian refugees looking for an English speaker, the baggage handlers and the mass of people all seemingly moving all of their worldly possessions.

Eventually your bush taxi arrives and it’s important here to keep your standards low and your flexibility high. Ours pulled up and we all jumped in – or rather crawled into the back, where three of us huddled in what is normally considered a car trunk. Cracked windscreen? Check. Wires ripped out? Check. Door doesn’t close properly? Check. Years of dust and crud? Check. Ripped out or missing upholstery? Check. Live chickens on the floor? Check. Loud, to the point of distortion, religious chanting on the stereo? Check. Window winder handles missing? Check. Exhaust hanging on by a bit of wire? Check. We were all set to go.

The provincial capital of the Casamance region is Zuiginchor, a name that comes from an old Portuguese translation of the local words “you leave, I cry” referring to the slave trade. Zuiginchor is a pleasant-enough riverside town with old crumbling French architecture. It’s a good spot to rest overnight but that is about it. It’s very hot and mosquito ridden, so you’re better off getting to the coast with its cooling breeze. After resting in a restaurant overlooking the wide river, I joined some local men for attaya, the strong green tea drunk across the Sahara and Sahel.

Wherever I am in West Africa, boys and men will be hunched around a small chipped enamel tea pot, sat upon a couple of lumps of charcoal. The process of making and drinking attaya takes an hour or three and is time for chat, gossip and to discuss football. Everyone tells me it is the drink of Africa although the tea itself is Chinese and the process imported by Arabs from the north. There's a very precise process to making it, involving pouring the tea from glass to glass from a great height, building up a froth. I’ve only once seen somebody miss when pouring and that was me. The tea itself is as strong as an espresso coffee and taken with enough sugar to make your teeth squeak. Once finished, extra water and sugar is added and the process repeated, and then again for a third time. The first cup is strong and bitter; this is for death. The second cup is sweeter but still strong; this is for life. The third and final cup is very sweet and my favourite; this one’s for love.

The southern part of the Casamance is a beautiful region of jungle, mangrove swamp, stun-ning beaches and pretty islands. I took another bush taxi to Ossouye, a very pretty village where the king of the Casamance lives, and stayed in a two-storey mud house overlooking rice fields. I ordered a hamburger from Fast Food Café, which ironically took an hour, but was tasty. Early the next morning I set off hiking through giant kapok trees. The village was stirring and I walked alongside women collecting water and pigs grunting in the dirt.

Soon I was in the mangroves, wading across rivers and crossing dry sandy plains with distant baobabs providing a suitably African backdrop. I walked for 12 kilometers to Pointe St George and arrived in the midday heat, melting. This is a stunning village of 25 houses on the Casamance River and famous for its local manatee population. I managed to see a few of these half-ton ‘sea cows’ that, according to legend, sailors mistook for mermaids. River dolphins helped make the experience complete.

The next stop was Karabane Island, which is kind of like a small Thai island with old French ruined architecture. There are palm lined beaches and white sands where days are spent watching dolphins and ordering prawns bigger the size of your hand. During my time there I heard drumming and went in search of the party. As an Englishman, used to people imbibing vast quantities of alcohol before having fun, I was once again amazed to see such a joyful and celebratory party where the strongest drink available was tea; people were dancing in almost trancelike states, stamping up dust and flapping their arms like lunatic birds attempting to take off.FentonCasamance2

Over the past few years of traversing this region, I have seen many celebrations, usually by chance. The Koumpo, a forest spirit, is a reed-covered dancer that spins and gyrates, thrilling onlookers and scaring children. The lion man is a dancer possessed by the spirit of Simba, his muscular body oiled and covered in leather jujus and cowries, his face painted like a lion. The purpose appeared to be to scare terrify the kids who were stampeding and screaming in absolute terror, and with reason! One of them was caught and given a huge whack across the back. Recently, at a cultural festival I saw something I’d heard about but never thought I’d see. A large sweating man was working himself up into a trance, eyes rolling back into his head, spinning and gyrating wildly. He pulled a large knife from a sheath, demonstrated its razor sharpness before slicing his arms and then stabbing himself in the torso. As he did this, another guy was sprinkling herbal water medicine on him. This did in fact protect him; he received not a scratch.

A journey through the Casamance – or any number of areas in this region – is definitely one that requires patience, flexibility and a good nature. The people here are warm, friendly, helpful and fun, but the travel itself can seem daunting at times. For some of us, however, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Towards the end of my journey I headed to Djembering – where I unknowingly ate monkey – and then to small village near Cap Skirring, a French holiday resort and possibly the top tourist destination of the region. It is home to a Club Med and a string of luxury hotels along the beach. But, watching the tourists on their quad bikes and being hassled by the numerous touts, I felt pleased that I’d opted for the route less travelled.



About the Author

Simon Fenton is a travel writer and photographer. Following an interesting if questionable early career of working in morgues and nudist clubs, he lived, worked and travelled in Asia for several years, financing himself by teaching English, acting in Bollywood movies and working as a pig farmer in Vietnam. He returned to ‘settle down’, got married and set up the award winning social enterprise StreetShine before a perfect storm of events re-ignited his wanderlust. He found himself in Senegal, where he now lives with his Senegalese partner Khady, their son Gulliver and recent addition, Alfie. Simon’s new book, Squirting Milk at Chameleons, is available from his website, Amazon and other online stores. 



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click here  Full name: Republic of Senegal

 Population: 12.97 million (CIA, 2012)

watch  Capital: Dakar

enter  Largest city: Dakar

go site  Area: 196,722 (75,955 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: French, Wolof, Pulaar,  Jola, Mandinka

 Major religions: Islam, Christianity,  Indigenous

see url  Monetary unit: CFA Francs

 GDP per capita: US $1,900

source  Internet domain: .sn

 International dialling code: +221

go site  Source: CIA World Factbook