November 1999, I arrive in Southern Senegal from Gambia, as part of my effort to travel overland through Africa, from the Westernmost point to the Southernmost. This is the second instalment of the travel diary.
Hello again all, just arrived in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, after spending the last month in the South Western region of the country called the Basse Casamance, shielded from the rest of the country by the Gambia. The region is something of a backwater and we weren’t able to find an internet connection there, hence the delay in sending news of our adventures, and the length of this mail, because I wrote things down as I went around. First of all, both of us are very well, neither of us has been ill (except for 1 day of an iffy tummy) and in fact I’d say that we’re both healthier, fatter and fitter than when we left Ireland. A hammock under a palm tree makes a nicer environment than an office desk under a fluorescent light. However, heretofore we’ve basically just been holidaying, taking things as easily as possible as soon our journeys will take us towards more rigorous spots.
THE TRIP TO CASAMANCE
After spending about 5 days in the banana Republic of the Gambia, we had seen pretty much the only 3 tourist attractions in the place, namely the beach, the nature reserve and the brothels (Gambia’s only cheap hotels are also knocking shops). Day 4 of our stay coincided with the start of Ramadan and Gambia is heavily Muslim. This came as something of a surprise and posed some difficulties as, at certain times, the entire place would hit the deck for mass prayers – which hinders your passage along the streets as it apparently isn’t done to step over praying Muslims. So we decided to cut our stay in the Gambia short and head down to Cap Skiring, a beach town in the Casamance, the place we had selected to lay about on the beach for a few weeks before tackling the interior.
In most parts of West Africa buses are unknown, people travel by bush taxis, which are cars and vans which have basically become worthless in Europe. There is a small community of Europeans who survive by driving bangers from Europe, across the Sahara to West Africa where cars are considered to have a considerably longer life than in Europe. Apparently a 200 pound car can sell down here for 2 grand. However, it is apparently tricky to cross the roadless Mauritanian wastes in a 200 quid car. Still some 100 cars make the journey each week, the majority of them go from France to Senegal, but we did come across a Limerick guy who regularly commutes in this way from Limerick to the Malian capital Bamako!
The combination of these seriously old vehicles and roads which are vastly inferior to those of Cavan make for some pretty slow transport. It is not unusual to have to drive for several kilometres on the verge of the road, since the road itself is full of potholes several feet deep. Cap Skiring is about 250 Km from Serrekunda, Gambia’s major town. So to make sure of getting there in one day, we stayed in a hotel right beside the station and got down to it by 9a.m. Our first crucial mistake was getting on board a ‘car’ instead of a ‘7-places’. Cars are old Mercedes vans which are stuffed full of 36-40 people and are cheaper and slower than the 7 seater converted Peugeot 504 estates, the luxury bush-taxi. All transport only leaves when full, so despite us arriving at the station at 9, we didn’t leave until about 11 and when we did leave, it took us about 2 hours to make the 40 km journey to the border. Unfortunately, the road on the Senegal side of the border was just as bad and added to this we had the extra problem of military checkpoints every 10 minutes or so. These were truly painstaking as they normally consisted of 3-4 Uzi-toting young fellas ordering everybody off the bus. All the passengers then have to line up to have their papers checked. The soldiers also randomly ask to check people’s baggage which is very inconvenient since the baggage, tied to the roof of the bus, often consists of goats, hens and sheep intermingled with the large tied-up bundles.
By about 4pm we were still some 100km from Cap and still not even at Ziguinchor, the regional capital where we would have to change taxi. Then we got a puncture. As we stood at the side of the road the day’s seventh Peugeot sped by us, spraying us with dust. At this stage we were wondering if we’d ever make it to Cap especially since our ever-helpful fellow passengers were warning us that the military closed the road from Ziguinchor to Cap after dark. Nevertheless, when we finally rolled over the vast Casamance river into Ziguinchor at 6:30 with the sun waning, we decided to try to make it on to the cap that night. This was the second big mistake of the day.
We entered the hectic bus station of Ziguinchor tired, dirty and sore from the bone-shaker of a bus ride. The station’s hustlers, porters and helpers were on the point of packing up for the day when we, fresh out of Dublin, the last chance of a hearty dinner tonight, emerged from the bus. It was a feeding frenzy. There were about 5 guys trying to sell me “Bob Marley Cigarettes”, inviting me to their houses to eat Barracuda and offering to get me drinks while I tried to mind all of our baggage? In this situation the only possible solution is to flee, but Deirdre was off trying to organise a taxi to Cap. We had been told by our fellow passengers that the fee to Cap was 1250 CFA (about 1.50) but it turned out there were no more taxis to Cap and so a “helper” was trying to negotiate a charter taxi for us, the asking price for which was 15,000 CFA, way too much. This was the situation when Deirdre returned to me, still minding the bags and fending off hustlers. Then began a 20 minute long battle between us and 2 factions of hustlers. One of the factions was trying to get us to pay for the charter, while the other was telling us that the first faction were crooks and we should instead come with them to this nice little hotel they knew of down the road. Anyway I finally persuaded Deirdre to abandon the idea of getting to Cap that night and simultaneously escaped the hustlers by screaming “whores, cunts, bastards” at the top of my voice, grabbing the bags out of the taxi-mans hands and storming down the road into the town centre.
In any case, we tried again the next morning clean, rested and well-fed after a night in the local colonial-style hotel. We got a seat in a Peugeot with no problems and 2 hours, 50km and 6 military road blocks later we arrived at the idyllic coastline of Cap Skiring and walked down a little sandy track to the ‘campement’ that was to be our base for the next month – Auberge de la paix.
EASY LIVING IN THE CAP
Our lodgings consisted of a large African-style ‘compound’ about 1 mile south of Cap and 2 miles north of the border with Guinea Bissau. The compound had about 20 rooms in 4 different buildings, each room being very simple with concrete floors, a bed, a mosquito net and perhaps a shelf. The tourist rooms had also a toilet and shower en suite. The rooms are all built for coolness, no direct sunlight enters and the walls are very thick. The roofs are of thatch or corrugated iron. The tourist season peaks in January and February here and the when we arrived on the 12th of December, the place was occupied by Africans only, there being no other ‘toubabs’ there. We stayed there on a half-board deal for 8 quid a night each, for which we got breakfast and a 3 course dinner as well as our room. Breakfast was coffee, baguettes, butter and jam while dinner was normally fish or chicken with pasta, rice or chips.
The auberge was situated on the seafront at the top of a low cliff behind the beach. Steps from the auberge led down onto the beach which is spectacular, lined with palm trees and coconut tree, in a 6 kilometre long gently curving bay. The entire coast has soft silver sands and ,even thought this is one of West Africa’s 3 foremost tourist spots, the beach is mostly deserted except for the occasional herd of cattle. During the 4 weeks that we spent here, our days fell into a very leisurely pattern. Up at about 9, breakfast, than a few hours of lazing on the beach. Then a stroll into the village for a lunch of rice with fish(50p) in a local restaurant. The afternoons were spent reading, writing, sleeping or playing footie on the beach with the locals. At 8pm we’d eat and after that play cards with the workers from the auberge or occasionally go into town to a club with some of them. We were normally in bed by midnight. These lazy days made up the majority of our time at the Cap although we spent several days on excursions to neighbouring villages and about once a week we’d have to go to Ziguinchor to the bank.
I had been anticipating problems with adjusting to this pace of life after the hectic pace of working in the Irish computer industry, however happily it proved to be no problem at all, although it took me a few days to cut my walking speed by a factor of about 10 to a more normal pace around here. The other factor that was worrying me slightly before coming was the difficulty of adapting to the climate. Fortunately the change from Irish Winter to Casamance dry-season hasn’t caused too many problems. The daytime temperature usually hovers between 30°C and 35°C, dropping to about 20°C during the coldest part of the night. This is not as hot as it sounds due to the very low humidity and cool sea breezes in Casamance and after the first few days we ceased to be perturbed by the heat. All in all, were it to be considered purely on physical factors, Cap Skiring could be considered about as close to paradise as you could ever hope to get. Unfortunately the social aspect of the place were a different story.
CAP SKIRING – THE VILLAGE
The village of Cap Skiring has a permanent population of some 800 souls according to the locals. The village’s economy is overwhelmingly dependent on the tourist industry and in particular the ‘Club Mediterranean’ holiday resort which makes up the majority of tourists in the area. The club provides 200 jobs to locals as well as being generally believed to be the reason for Cap Skiring being connected to the national road and electricity networks (this belief is very likely true since there are neighbouring villages without roads or power). The village has some 5 bars, 4 night clubs, umpteen souvenir shops and informal restaurants, an artisanal market and an airport. All of them are very much focused on the ‘club’.
The club itself owns some 2km of the shore and has a golf course, tennis courts, catamarans, wind surfers, beach sailing (sailboats with wheels), communal activities and is strictly off limits to outsiders. The guests are shielded from the environment to such an extent that they don’t even make it to the airport terminal. They climb off the plane onto a bus which goes directly to the club. Their baggage follows on a bus of its own and must be reunited with its owners in the club.
In the shadow of the club over the last 2 decades a number of other hotels and campements (local hotels) have sprung up, which have been made feasible by the unusually high level of transport and electricity infrastructure in the village. In total, along the coastline near the village there are 3 hotels, 4 campements and several single room ‘clandestine campements’ which are basically people just renting out a spare room for 2-4 quid a night. In all there must be housing for about 500 people at full capacity in all of these hotels and lodgings. It is to cater for these people, rather than the several hundred sheltered guests of the Club, that the dozens if not hundreds of unemployed guides, salesmen and artists flock to the area during the tourist season.
These migrants come from as far away as Dakar, but mainly from Ziguinchor, hoping to earn some money to supplement their bare subsistence survival. Some of them are ‘banibani’ – wandering salesmen trying to sell sculptures, masks, fruit or other tourist items. Others are artists, trying to entice tourists to get the real ‘African experience’ by learning to play the Djembe drums or to dance tribal dances. They also earn money by putting on shows in the tourist hotels. In all there were probably 4 dance troupes and 8 drum bands active in the Cap when we were there, each having 5-10 members.
The final category of migrant worker is the ‘guide’. These are jacks of all trades, who will try to find any service that a tourist might want and to organise it for them. From showing them around the village to taking them on a boat trip to getting them a bag of weed or lobster dinner. However in recent years it seems that business is getting worse and worse for these migrant labourers and they certainly must have some pretty lean days when on a typical day there might be about 30 of them on the beach scouting for work and perhaps 10 tourists! Why such ratios? Well, even though nobody would admit it, it is hard to think that the war might not be a significant factor.
CASAMANCE – THE WAR
Our guide book, the ‘Rough Guide To West Africa’ did contain some info about the conflict in the region. Casamance, largely animist and christian felt neglected within Senegal, overwhelmingly Muslim. This was not merely a matter of sensibilities since political power in Senegal is intimately intertwined with Islamic brotherhoods, the support of powerful marabouts – Muslim holy men – is widely believed to be crucial for electoral success. This combined with the unashamedly clientelist and regionalist nature of Senegalese politics means Casamance has legitimate grounds to complain of serious neglect. In 1983 a demonstration calling for greater autonomy for the region was machine-gunned by police causing 200 deaths. Since then the MFDC (movement of democratic forces of Casamance) has been sporadically waging a guerilla war against the army. However tourists continue to flock to the region and there is no real grounds for concern. This much our guidebook told us, at least the 1996 edition of our guidebook…..
The day before we left London, I had noticed that a new edition of the guide had been brought out researched in 1999, which I duly purchased. It was only on the night before we left the Gambia for Casamance that I had a fresh look at the section on the Casamance, only to find a highlighted box with a large heading “WARNING” against all travel to the region as of mid 1999 because of the risk of land mines and violent clashes. It advised intending travellers to keep their ears to the ground as the situation could improve. Anyway, we were certainly concerned but after asking a number of locals in the Gambia, we decided to go anyway since it appeared that there had been a ceasefire since June of this year with more negotiations on the 26th of December, although we resolved to steer clear of back roads and inland villages with their high risk of mines.
So, already slightly nervous from the guidebook warning, the 6 military roadblocks between Ziguinchor and Cap Skiring, complete with machine-gun nests, sandbags, APCs, tanks and artillery proved somewhat unnerving at first. However, as we went on to make the journey several times, we became quite used to showing our IDs to the soldiers (although on the one occasion that a soldier said “Oh Ireland, you are rebels there too”, we were a little worried). When we asked people in Cap Skiring, nobody would even admit that there was a war, attributing all the problems to “bandits”, the hotels were empty, not because of the war, but because people in Dakar tell tourists not to come to Casamance because there is nothing there but forest!
Over the 4 weeks that we were there, we gradually elucidated some information from people, although they still claimed that there was no war, nor had there ever been. However, the incidents that we learned of painted a somewhat different picture. 4 years ago the nearby fisherman’s village was burnt down by the rebels (as the fisherman belonged to a non-indigenous tribe) with the loss of dozens of lives. All of the inland villages along the Guinea Bissau border had been emptied of inhabitants by the army. This was probably an example of the classic counter-insurgency tactic of creating an uninhabited ‘free-fire zone’ between the rebels theatre of activity and their reverse bases (the MFDC is supported by the new military government in Guinea-Bissau and apparently fought in the mutiny that toppled the Viera regime towards the start of 1999). We also heard of summary executions in the villages by the army and we were warned not to venture inland for fear of mines and on this score some NGO had obviously been in the area since there were dozens of t-shirts to be seen with the slogan “don’t touch mines or any unknown objects”.
Still, according to absolutely everybody we asked there was a ceasefire in the region. Then, one evening we heard a report, on the BBC world service, of a gun-battle at one of the checkpoints between Cap and Ziguinchor in which some soldiers were injured. At this point we decided to minimise the frequency of our trips into Ziguinchor. When we told the locals about the report they said that the BBC were obviously lying since they would have heard about such a battle (it did actually appear in the Senegalese papers the next day) Then, 2 days later we heard another report of a 2 hour long artillery battle in a village called Bigunda on the Bissau border. According to the BBC; the rebels had opened fire with artillery and machine guns on the village which housed a military checkpoint and the army had responded. after a 2 hour battle the village was in ruins and the entire population had fled across the border before the rebels escaped back into the bush. It must be said that this version of events did sound extremely unlikely since it is barely conceivable that a peasant based guerilla army could mount such attacks more akin to conventional warfare. The fact the the BBC’s correspondent claimed that the damage to the village was exclusively caused by the rebels and that the major political problem in the region was that the backward peasants insisted on harbouring the rebels made me a little suspicious of the report and it seems possible that the story was a cover up for the armies continued creation of free-fire zones.
In any case we never saw any first hand evidence of fighting although we were constrained to stay out of the active zones due to the danger of mines which had apparently been laid by rogue elements of the MFDC during 98 and early 99/ Although the leadership of the MFDC had denied responsibility and condemned the laying of them, mines were according to locals easily and cheaply available as a consequence of the long wars in Guinea Bissau and cost only 1500 CFA each , less than 2 quid. Also it was widely believed that rogue MFDC elements were involved in drug-running and protection rackets. On the other hand, I did encounter one Casamance separatist who claimed that the army and provocateurs were laying the mines, to undermine the rebellion.
The attitude of the locals to the war was very hard to gauge since they wouldn’t even admit it existed and were understandably reluctant to discuss it with tourists. However nobody seemed to blame the rebels for the drop in tourist trade, instead blaming the people in Dakar and the resentment towards the capital did indeed seem widespread, although everywhere in the world, and especially in Africa, it is common for the urban, Westernised capital to be resented by the backwaters. This would have been particularly marked in Casamance where peoples beliefs and lifestyles were extremely traditional and ‘backward’ from a European’s point of view. The one professed MFDC supporter that I did meet expressed this well in saying “The real rebels are in the fields, they change their shapes into fish and birds….”.
The MFDC demands an independent Casamance, A Jola state for a Jola people (the locally dominant tribe), rather than being part of Wolof dominated Senegal. However, this type of nationalism is extremely crude in this context, where the actual amount of tribal intermingling is amazing. We came across at least a dozen “tribes” in Casamance, with their own languages and what’s more it seems that almost nobody is descended from a single tribe. Even in the most isolated villages, a Jola might have a Peul mother, Mandinka grandfather and Wolof husband, speak Kreol at home, understand 5 or 6 different native languages and mix them together in conversation.
Although it seems clear that Senegalese people are terribly repressed by a small Dakar based military-religious clique, and that the peripherality of Casamance means that they receive even less consideration than others, it is also clear that Nationalism is a crap response which fails to go to the heart of the matter; that the nation state is and has been a particular disaster in Africa.
THE JOLA – PEOPLE AND PLACES
To get back to the point of our travels, apart from the Cap there were 3 other towns which we visited for some length of time, in the Casamance. They are all quite different from the Cap since they were economically based on traditional pursuits, chiefly subsistence farming and fishing rather than the tourist based economy of the Cap. We visited 2 small rural villages: Diembereng and Kabrousse, and the regional capital Ziguinchor. Despite the difference in size, all three were traditional Jola settlements having a lot in common.
The first thing that is noticeable about all 3 settlements is that farming and in particular livestock breeding is integrated into the settlements. Each house is itself a farm , set on perhaps a quarter to a half of an acre and almost always containing a fruit rearing tree which provides fruit (mango, baobab, palm, coconut) and crucial shade. Most people also keep livestock, sheep, goats, cows, chickens, geese and ducks which in the dry-season roams free around the village and feed off the undergrowth in the bush. These provide supplementary food in addition to the staple which is rice. As soon as the village stops the paddy fields start, set among the various creeks of the Casamance river, among the mangrove swamps. The rice is harvested by the women and dehusked by pounding with sticks in large mortar and pestels implements. The men are concerned with constructing the buildings, fishing and harvesting palm wine from the palm forests (although they can occasionaly be found lazing around in hammocks).
The houses themselves are generally brick and cement constructions, roofed with corrugated iron or thatch. Their interiors are universally sparse, each room containing a bed, and perhaps a chair only. The compound area is surrounded by a wall and it is outdoors, in the yard that people spend all their time. The family groups are generally large, comprising several generations and including cousins, uncles and even more distant relatives. It is considered to be an obligation of a householder to house and feed any relative in need, although the government is apparently trying to change this tradition as it apparently has an adverse effect on tax-receipts. The Jola families abide strongly by this tradition of hospitality as they do to other less commendable institutions like ‘bride prices’ and female genital mutilation which was only banned in Senegal in 1999.
These Casamance settlements are wonderfully pleasant places to walk about. The large number of trees and natural vegetation as well as the dispersion of the houses give a pleasant green appearance to the towns, even the regional capital Ziguinchor. The settlements have a number of large central clearings underneath ancient massive silk-cotton trees, the clearing houses the ceremonial drums of the village, used to announce deaths and other events, and are the location of the traditional ceremonies and dances which are still very much alive and kicking, complete with costumes and fetishes, even among the hip-hop loving youth. The Jola are nominally christian but their traditional superstitions are much stronger. Everyone wears fetishes for various purposes. One young man explained the purpose of his three fetish belts to me. One was to protect against curses, one was to attract women and the third gave him immunity against landmines! It was truly amazing to hear people earnestly explaining, without a hint of skepticism, the power of their charms. Even though the idea of an “immaculate conception” or turning water into wine is no less crazy, it is hard to find people who actually believe in those.
The traditional beliefs of the Casamance people go hand in hand with a high level of hospitality and sociability. The entire group eats out of a common bowl at meal times and it is considered obligatory to invite all of those present to share. Indeed although people were obviously extremely poor, we saw almost no evidence of hunger and malnutrition. The greetings between people are elaborate and can take about 5 minutes, involving enquiries about family, health, home and are interspersed with words from several languages. Nice is a particular favourite English word as in:
– nice, nice.
– Nanga Def?
– Mangi fii rek
(how are you - Jola)
(I'm good - Wolof)
However it can become trying to go through the full formality in order to say “no thanks, I don’t want any”.
Nevertheless, the hospitality is genuine, In Ziguinchor, after missing a boat to Dakar (actually the boat never showed up, no reason was given) some friends put us up in the master bedroom of their family house, fed us 6 meals, gave us expensive soft-drinks and escorted us around the town explaining all the features of the town, all the while absolutely refusing any recompense. People are particularly interested in our marital status and religion. Our rejection of marriage and atheism prove fascination to people who often launch into theological arguments on the spot, however they never seem to hold it against us.
They are essentially subsistence farmers, having a minimal connection with the cash economy, however this is changing quickly as there are certain items which are very much desired by them for which money is required. These would be, in order of importance:
- Anything with the Nike Shwoowshtika
- European Soccer Jerseys, most popular is Manchester United, in black, white or red (sometimes with Beckham on the back), then The French international jersey with Zidane’s name on the back.
- Any clothing with a prominent trade mark (Kappa, Fila…)
- Anti-malarial medicine (everybody has chronic malaria, many children die of it every year)
- Power – electricity and batteries.
It is in search of money to get these things that many of the men leave home to join the masses of the Dakar unemployed.
FRANCE’S COLONIAL LEGACY
It is amazing how nice the people can be to us Europeans after the history of colonisation. Indeed in Casamance today the colonial relationship continues. It is France’s favourite Winter sun spot and almost all of the white people here are French tourists after the sun who see the natives as a bit of a nuisance (although they do have some lovely primitive dances – black people have such rhythm, although you just can’t trust them, born liars….). There is also a significant element of French tourists who come here to have “integrated”, new-age, back-to-Africa holidays. These are if anything worse than the others.
The first example of this type of tourist that we came across was at an African drumming night. He attracted our attention due to his unusual style of dress, “African plus”. He wore a long Islamic-style robe, dreadlocks and a rasta-hat which made a curious melange of 2 mutually incompatible elements of African culture. Eventually we managed to get talking to the gentleman, who became henceforth known to us as “the muppet”. Here is the content of our conversation:
US: So you're French, where abouts are you from? Muppet: A little bit of everywhere, I've got relatives in Algeria. US: Oh Muppet: I've been living here for 5 years, I live a couple of kilometres outside the village, it's more African there.
Later on that evening we saw him pay for drinks with a 200 Franc note, which he certainly didn’t earn in Cap Skiring! Looked like we had a back-to-Africa rich buffoon. In any case he somewhat redeemed himself later on by giving the most amusing interpretation of African dancing I’ve ever seen, somewhere between Russian folk dancing and serious diarrhea.
The second appalling “integrated” French person we met was a middle aged woman named Francoise, who came to Cap 4 times each year, in search of the real Africa. She was clearly loaded since she bought loads of sculptures, clothes, masks and other souvenirs at crazy prices. She also kept a retinue of Africans with her, some were guides who she employed for weeks on end and others were locals who she ‘patronised’, perhaps helped their families with money for medicines or education or stuff. In return she had absolute rights to their obsequiance. She constantly spouted theories about Africans, things like
“the problem with Africans is that they just don’t understand what tourists want, I mean you feed us spaghetti, which is shit to us, what we want is real integrated experiences, to eat with the family. And another thing, the so-called integrated campements are a sham. Last year I was staying in a supposed-integrated place, I ran out of money and they wouldn’t feed me until I got money for them. I mean when have you ever seen an African turned away from the table hungry? That’s not integrated”.
Another of her favourite themes was France’s magnificent history; the resistance, the special relationship between France and Senegal, and even bizarrely the story of Asterix and the Romans. She’d spout off these tirades in front of a load of economically dependent Africans and on the one occasion that we saw somebody show dissent by saying that in his opinion France had robbed Africa blind, she had a tantrum and ordered him from the table. Hopefully somebody will emulate France’s proud history in Africa soon and rob all her money, enslave her and destroy her culture.