Passing the desertes is the land of the sileos and the nomades which be people bestiall without forsyght and goes nakyd...
Roger Barlow, A brief summe of geographie, c.1540-41
'Welcome to Senegal!' boomed the customs officer. Playfully, he punched my chest, before slapping me on the back with a hand the size of a saucepan. I winced.
'Yes indeed, monsieur, it is true that we are in fact the most wholesome country of all Africa. Oh, do relax, monsieur, relax.'
My ignorance of Senegal, as I wandered aimlessly around the frontier town of Rosso (it shares its name with its Mauritanian counterpart on the opposite shore) was astonishing. The little I did know was the universal stereotype of reed huts peopled by naked tribes of cannibals who, when not busy firing poisoned arrows at pith-helmeted explorers in steamy jungles, would be the hunters of vast herds of African game that thundered across endless prairie. Senegal, I had imagined, was a place where I would hear the pounding drums and strange chanting of skeletal witch doctors dressed in reed skirts, swirling and stamping their feet amidst great clouds of dust. The rest of my pitiful knowledge, I'd picked up in Mauritania, viz: a disquietingly large number of tales concerning corruption and bribery; of roadside strip searches by humourless soldiers armed to the teeth with automatic weapons; and of a continent almost constantly embroiled in revolutions, coups d'états, civil wars and dictatorships. The Africa of my mind was also a land of extreme poverty, synonymous with drought and famine, cholera and malaria, and a thousand other diseases with unpronounceable names. That much is true. In the Canary Islands, whilst biding my time before the flight to Mauritania, I had met a Scot who had just returned from a six month trek around West Africa. He told of having been robbed at gun point in Nigeria and, another time, at knife point. I ignored his advice not to travel here at all, though, because he seemed to be the kind of person who inevitably attracted trouble and misfortune. He was currently recovering from his sixth bout of malaria, and as a result his skin had a deathly pallor to it, tinged with green, and for three days he'd trembled like a leaf.
In common with other Sahelian countries - sandwiched between fiery desert and steamy tropics - the topography of Senegal is largely devoid of extremes. Much of it is flat and featureless; bush-speckled savannah that covers an area about the size of England and Scotland put together. Yet for all its visible poverty, the gods have blessed Senegal with four large rivers, where the low-lying plains and semi-arid scrub give way to more archetypal African terrain of tropical mangrove swamps, exotic palms and impenetrable forests of bamboo, mahogany and silkwood. The rivers - Senegal, Sine-Saloum, Gambia and Casamance - are the lifeblood for over two and a half million pastoralists, one third of the population. Without its waters, Senegal would undoubtedly be as barren as Mauritania.
The Senegal, of course, is the largest and most important of the four rivers. It rises in the Fouta Djalon highlands of Guinea, and flows for over a thousand miles to the charming colonial city of Saint-Louis, founded in the seventeenth century by Louis XIV. On the northern shores of the Senegal, the dunes of the Sahara finally end their death-dealing march, their sands and dusts flowing downstream into the Atlantic. The Senegal is the fabled 'River of Gold' that European explorers sought for so long, and ultimately in vain. In ancient times, river tribes both feared and worshipped the spirit god Nyamia Ama, Lord of rain, storms, lightning and gold. Bondou, a tiny mud village 300 miles upriver beyond Devil's Gorge, was where, according to Arab legend, gold sprouted like maize every August at the moment when the river was in flood. The River Senegal is not only a gift from the gods, but is itself a god, to whom sacrifices were once offered, much as ancient Saharawi tribes prostrated themselves to the might of the ocean-desert.
West Africa is rich in legend. To European minds, the greatest of them all was that of the fabulous Malian city of Timbuctoo which lured, like moths to the flame of a candle, so many explorers to their doom. Ever since the Portuguese landed here in the fifteenth century, West Africa has been a land much stumbled across by incompetent explorers and adventurers, many of whom had come in search of Timbuctoo. Almost without exception their forays were disastrous affairs, manifestly cursed by their woeful knowledge of the land, by disease, by tactlessness and arrogance that inflamed native passions, and by roving Moorish and Tuareg warriors from the desert. Contemporary maps were necessarily works of fantasy and conjecture, and Timbuctoo - that false Eldorado - drifted aimlessly and uselessly. The only anchor to Europe's knowledge of this corner of the Dark Continent was the fact that Timbuctoo was known to nestle on the banks of the Niger, but this only added to the confusion. The river that the Tuareg called N-ger-n-gereo - the 'River of Rivers' - was a mystery almost as unfathomable as the golden city itself. Herodotus, the Father of History no less, began the confusion by wrongly stating that the Niger was a branch of the Nile, while Pliny the Elder believed that the Nile had its head in a 'mountain of lower Mauretania, not far from the [Atlantic] Ocean'. The Arabs only added to the confusion by calling the Niger al-Nil al-Kebir, the Great Nile. To further muddy the waters, Ptolemy fathered another fallacy by stating that the Niger flowed westwards, and by the Middle Ages and the time of Leo Africanus, it was commonly believed that both the rivers Gambia and Senegal were its mouths. Alas, it was a falsehood that brought dozens if not hundreds of expeditions to a bloody and ignominious end. As the Huguenot, John Barbot, recounted:
through continual toils and hardships the best part of the sailors sickened and dy'd, whilst others perish'd by the intolerable scorching heat, which threw them into burning fevers; and those who had been proof against that intolerable fatigue, were destroy'd either by the vile perfidiousness of the native Blacks of the country, or devoured alive by alligators...
Only in 1796 was the riddle of the rivers finally unravelled, when the indefatigable Scottish explorer Mungo Park reached the Niger and correctly reported its eastward course, thereby proving conclusively that it could not possibly also be the Senegal or the Gambia. Few, however, chose to believe him (Park was only 24 at the time), and as late as 1820 the Proceedings of the African Association of London still blithely reported the Niger's westward flow.
The confusion and ignorance was encapsulated for all time by Senegal's very name. According to an apocryphal Wolof tale, it was an anonymous - but above all witness - explorer in the mould of Stanley who, on reaching the bank of the river, pointed across it and asked some nearby fishermen what it was called. Li suñu gal le, they replied: 'that's our boat.'
* * *
Rosso's market swarmed in a profusion of colours and forms, sounds and smells. I was stunned at the contrast with Mauritania's dusty and dirty austerity. There were shops and stalls everywhere, in a curious blend of concrete shacks and thatched mud-walled huts that epitomised the clash of the Ancient and the New. Vendors of medicinal roots and potions squatted beside facades bedecked with great piles of garish laundry baskets and Taiwanese flip-flop sandals, which Moorish merchants bought by the sackful to transport back to Nouakchott. From China, hi-tech electronic gear shared pride of place among barrowfuls of gnarled ginger roots and much-prized (and mildly narcotic) kola nuts. From rafters hung shiny aluminium saucepans and kettles, strung together on chains that rattled loudly in the hot, summer breeze. Old men, serene in voluminous white cotton, sat or stood impassively, observing with wry smiles the shuffling cross-border trade.
A fat, harrassed-looking businessman, with blackened rotten teeth and a small suitcase perched on his shoulder, grinned inanely at the itinerant dentists, trying as best he could to avoid their sarcastic goads and offers. Elsewhere, drapers dealt in colourful faneaus (textiles) smuggled in from the Gambia and Guinea. On every street corner, down every dark alleyway, by the police station, in the middle of the street, hawkers stood and shouted out their wares: cashews and caramelled peanuts, mangoes, biscuits, soda pop and ice, stamps and envelopes, grilled fish, and even sulky budgerigars. There was a choice of German or Austrian UHT milk, sweet white potatoes, overripe aubergines, sweet peppers, squash, okra, sun-dried tomatoes, onion tops, and fat chickens - ripe for the plucking - that squawked disconcertedly from trussed-up bundles of feathers.
The disparity with famine-struck life a mile or so across the river was glaring, and it was shocking to discover that much of the staple foodstuffs, such as rice and flour, actually came from Mauritania, as illegally smuggled foreign aid. It was a perversity that helped to explain recent fighting that had flared along the fertile river frontier. The violence had arisen over disputes concerning the allocation of the ever-dwindling waters, which in turn led to bloody land feuds and a spate of cross-border raids. In response, both nations imposed punitive tariffs and quotas, resulting in the decline of Rosso's importance on both sides of the river. In 1989, bloody racial clashes in Nouakchott and Dakar led to the neighbouring states severing all links, diplomatic and commercial. As I write, I find it hard to imagine Rosso devoid of people. Perhaps it is because it was the first Senegalese town that I ever set foot in, that my strongest image of it has always been one of a great, bustling warmth. Five years on, the border remains impassable, and the River Senegal, no longer an artery of commercial and cultural interchange, now serves only to divide.
* * *
I bought a few apples and headed off in the direction of Saint-Louis, one hundred kilometres downriver. It was late afternoon, and the road was occupied only by a handful of lolloping donkey carts and the odd bush taxi. These were dilapidated Peugeot 504s, seemingly held together only by lengths of rope and vinyl sheeting. They spluttered and swayed drunkenly under rocking towers of luggage.
From Rosso, the road hooks away from the river to avoid the marshland Djoudj National Park, a wildfowl reserve created in 1971 on a large delta island between the river and the Gorom stream. In winter it is home to a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of migratory birds, recently arrived from across the great desert: pink flamingo, enormous flocks of white pelican, crowned cranes, yellow-billed storks from Morocco, bustard, spoonbill, wagtails, garganey ducks, and a whole lot more. I could easily see what attracted them. The land was lush: grassland streaked with sparkling streams, sugar cane plantations edged with tall aureole palms, and other trees hung thick with creepers and vines. Between then stretched immense fields of wheat and barley, over which flocked countless thousands of birds. I started whistling, and it occurred to me that it was the first time that I had done so for over a month. There were birds everywhere, in velvet and scarlet, gold and purple, amber and blue. The last straggler sand martins darted among nine-foot tall reed beds, along with weavers, red bishops, and a solitary long-legged lily-trotting jaçana. My vision was overwhelmed in a flood of radiant myrtle, jade and emerald greens, shades to which my eyes were so utterly unused after so long in the Sahara. The air, no longer dusty and harsh, was scented and sweet. The evening hung pregnant with moisture, crackling with bird song and the chirruping of grasshoppers in the reeds that verged vast rice paddies. The sun - a rich, simple red ball - was obscured by a hazy mist that swamped all but the northern horizon.
A couple of fire finches took interest in my passing, darting after me for a while, ducking and swooping, dancing and singing. There were flowers also, with butterflies and spectral dragonflies. Everything was so tranquil, so peaceful, with the reassuring rustle of wind-stirred leaves as the setting sun flickered through gently swaying treetops. It was everything that I had ever imagined a savannah evening to be, and it represented everything that I had ever desired in the desert. The mood of the place was that of an autumnal wave-lapped beach, with its gentle breeze and the pebbles murmuring on the sand. I cannot describe the elation I felt when I finally settled down beside one of the many irrigation canals skirting the Lac de Guiers, with my head resting in the cool, fresh grass.
The smoky morning air drifted lazily by, the mist shimmering golden on the tarmac under a bright, flaxen sky. The birds refound their voices and the crickets stretched their legs. In the distance, a hyena let loose a short howl. I yawned, a sleepless owl hooted, and slowly another day on the African savannah gathered its relentless pace. Cycling, though, was tough, for at times the wind gusted so fiercely that I was obliged to stop to await a lull. It was the first head wind I'd encountered since entering the Western Sahara, and a sure sign that I had reached the southern limit of the desiccating trade wind. In the humidity (the wind blew from the Atlantic), the heat rained down on my head like leaden cannonballs. I was uncomfortably surprised at quite how much my physical shape had deteriorated in the desert, despite the several days' rest in Nouakchott. I found that I had little energy, and even less willpower, to combat the hindering wind. My bicycle seemed to have put on weight, in spite of the fact that I was no longer obliged to carry seven, eight or nine litres of water. In other words, things were soon going to have to come to an end.
Life in the first village was already well underway when I arrived. It was every inch a scene from the Africa of Kipling or Livingstone: a few palm trees, a lot of dust, and about three dozen sturdy mud huts topped with parasols of grey rush thatch. In the granaries, fenced off to thwart the thieving goats, stacks of millet heads awaited conversion into semolina or couscous. Yet now - early June, with the harvest still four, long months away - the stocks were almost exhausted, and the hungry season loomed near.
In a clearing, shaded by a muddy date palm and a gnarled and barren mango tree, a gang of barefoot children with shorn scalps were busy chasing chickens around a well. On seeing me, they rushed up yelling and screaming, to touch my arms and my legs as well as the bicycle, giggling and grinning wide, ivory-toothed smiles. Anything I said or did elicited great merriment. When I pretended to be a gorilla, one little boy laughed so much that he curled up helplessly on the ground and hollered louder still. In all the commotion, mothers and sisters appeared, standing politely on the periphery in a colourful blaze of faneau wrappers, holding their hands over their mouths as they pointed. Beside them sat an old man, bald and very dark-skinned, who chuckled as he observed the spectacle. He wore a simple brown smock with cut-away sleeves, and leaned on a long, black staff. At one point, he motioned that I come over to him, and as I did so, he got up and walked into the village. I followed him past another small clearing, which housed the charred remains of a small fire, a pile of tree roots, an old truck tyre, and a sack of rice or flour. Another clearing resounded to the rhythm of half a dozen women pounding millet with six-foot wooden pestles, while a few others panned the flour into brightly coloured plastic bowls. I followed the man to the low entrance of a small reed hut, from which he reappeared holding a dish of cold water and a couple of mangos. He handed them to me in a gruff, fatherly sort of way.
'Jere jef,' I said, in a maiden attempt at Wolof: thank you. He led me back to the well where I was mobbed by the children.
As I cycled away, with the steady thumping of the pestles resounding in my ears, the vegetation suddenly disappeared. In its place stretched an awfully familiar plain, arid and grey. It was dotted with scant few tamarisks, acacias, and the telegraph poles that ran beside the road. Further on, amidst spiky clumps of khram-khram grass, lay the skeleton of a hump-necked zebu bull. I was also shocked to notice, far away to the east, sand dunes looming over the horizon. Further on, planted amidst a great wash of sand, a tin plaque prohibited the laying of fires in the forest. As far as I could see, there remained nothing of the kind. Although I knew that I was temporarily leaving the irrigated lands of the Senegal valley, that the land here should be so barren came as a depressing revelation. Since 1950, the Sahel has lost over half its trees.
As I paused in reflection and tiredness, tall bobbing figures emerged from the heat haze to my left. As they approached, I could make out the lithe forms of four women, who carried baskets of firewood on their heads. The sweat glistened on their skins. At first, the two teenage girls skipped and laughed, but on seeing me fall quiet. Their mothers only glanced once, then never looked again. It is not uncommon for women to have to walk over five hours to collect enough firewood to last barely two days. It is one of the many perversities of the Sahel that it is often cheaper and easier to fill a cauldron with food, than it is to obtain the fuel to heat it. Much as the Sahara was once a land quite different to what it is today, so West Africa and the Sahel were also much more verdant in times past. Archaeologists have discovered that the first nomadic tribes to settle here, around 800 BC, were attracted by a profusion of jungle vegetation and prey. Polybius, writing in 146 BC, described the region as vast tracts of dense forest, jungle and bush, and even at the turn of the century the land was in parts so thickly grown that it was impossible to cross.
As the road continued along the stark succession of telegraph poles, the soil grew paler and dustier. In places, even the tarmac disappeared under the sand. I passed more signs announcing non-existent forests, and more skeletons. The gradual desiccation of northern Senegal, despite being relatively well protected from Mauritania's marching dunes by the river, is a story that threatens to become as tragic as that of its Moorish neighbour. I found seeing the process of desertification half-complete was infinitely more depressing than to see the outcome. To see the condemned is always more heart-rending than to see the already dead.
The day wore on and the road seemed endless.
As I neared Saint-Louis, a few small settlements and a little fresher foliage began to return. They were followed by healthier palm groves, larger villages, and before long the road was twisting around and past small but welcome lakes. I passed marshes and banked irrigation ditches spread like cobwebs, splicing the land into a patchwork of colour as the road once more neared the sluggish waters of the river. I would have liked to have swum in one of the creeks, populated by small but resplendent malachite kingfishers, and haunted by the howls of sand cats and jackals. But on arriving in the leafy seclusion of one grassy cove, sheltered by sedges and rushes and water hyacinth, I saw two bare-breasted old women, who had already spotted me, scrubbing their washing in the drab bayou waters. They smiled and waved, but I must have stared gormlessly, because they then pointed to their breasts as though to say: 'Poor little boy, have you really never seen a pair of these before?'
* * *
Saint-Louis is one of those magical places in the same league as Havana and Venice, Fès, old Alexandria and Zanzibar. At first glance no more than a low-down huddle of palm trees and terracotta-tiled roofs sheltering helplessly on a digital sandy island at the mouth of the Senegal, Saint-Louis seems almost to have arrived at the coast by having floated downstream from some mysterious inland kingdom. Here, the hot and murky waters of the Senegal - sluggish at the end of their languorous journey - merge with the cool blue of the Atlantic and its rolling pea soup fogs. Saint-Louis is a haven for world-weary spirits, a marvellously decrepit old relic where the heavy-eyed traveller can slouch around aimlessly and carelessly, his bones soaking up an intoxicating atmosphere of decay.
The town was founded early in the seventeenth century by France's flamboyant 'Sun King', Louis XIV, and was named in honour of his thirteenth-century namesake, the fabled leader of the Sixth Crusade. It was the Portuguese, however, who (as usual) had been the first Europeans to set foot here when, in the 1440s, the caravels of the Portuguese mariner Lançarote disembarked at the sand-barred mouth of the river. But it was the French who, attracted by a fine natural harbour and easily defended position, had the foresight to settle, when the Compagnie Normande, under the instigation of Cardinal Richelieu, established a small slaving post on the island in the year 1638. 'If you give me six lines written by the most honest man,' boasted the Cardinal, 'I will find something in them to hang him.'
Situated at the junction of desert and tropics, river and ocean, Saint-Louis was an ideal place from which to begin the colonisation of West Africa. Perhaps more than the French had ever dared imagine, the site afforded a position of immeasurable strategic import, especially over the commercial intercourse with the hinterland. For over two millennia prior to their arrival, a thriving network of trading routes had existed within Senegambia, where cloth, amber, salt, gaudy trinkets, and later European guns and hardware, were exchanged for gum arabic, ivory, Phoenician glass beads, ostrich feathers, guinea pepper, gold dust and, most notoriously but profitably, slaves. Taking advantage of these trade routes, the French were quick to assert dominance over the burgeoning trade in 'black ivory', which necessitated the foundation of Saint-Louis herself in 1658. From then on - under the guidance of Saint-Louis - the expansion of French West Africa was prodigious, and by the turn of this century encompassed an astonishing 1.8 million square miles.
The dubious perfume of the French conquest lingers still. French is the language of commerce, the currency (CFA) is linked to the franc, and bicycles jostle with battered Citroën and Peugeot jalopies in narrow and angular streets. Many still carry the names of eminent Frenchmen: rue Nicolas Carnot, quai Henri Jay, rue André Lebon, place Faidherbe, rue Blanchot... But most striking of all is the charming, almost quaint, hybrid architecture, whose bewitching old-time aura owes as much to French architects as to the town's largely Muslim inhabitants, to whose wishes the French graciously deferred by forbidding any construction taller than the Grand Mosque. As a result, very few buildings rise above three storeys, so giving the town its uniquely downbeat style. Typical are the beige-painted townhouses of the Louis Philippe period, with their sienna-tiled roofs, cool interior patios, verandas, galleries, and charming wooden balconies that crumble slowly into the steamy Atlantic mists. Others have balconies of intricate iron fretwork, with wooden shutters placed over once-elegant arcades, the walls of which are plastered a dusky pink. There are battered wooden doors painted river-green or blue, with brick arches over which hang old brass lanterns. There's an inescapable atmosphere of a warm, decaying and, above all, aristocratic grandeur.
Saint-Louis' belle époque is personified by its older women, invariably dressed as though every day was a Sunday. With their pince-nez spectacles, silk scarves and cloche hats, they look as though they could all have been Josephine Baker in Paris' Roaring Twenties. These refined ladies were children at the tail end of the signare epoch, a legacy of the Europeans that will last forever. The signares [from the Portuguese senhora] were the 'Children of Senegal' from whom so many of Saint-Louis' latter-day inhabitants descend. They were a wealthy and privileged élite of half-castes, fathered by Portuguese or French merchants who had married, against the wishes of their superiors, à la mode du pays. Of course, the interbreeding created ties between motherland and colony - desirable or otherwise - that came over and above the more usual relationship of conqueror and conquered. In the wake of Europe's summer of revolution of 1848, imperial Saint-Louis was even granted limited self-government, and was allowed to send a deputy to the National Assembly in Paris. Another spin-off of the signares was the increasingly lavish attention that French merchants showered on the town (including great shipments of brandy, it is said), making of Saint-Louis quite the most pleasant place in all West Africa. The town was a welcome haven for beleaguered and foot-weary soldiers to escape to on leave from the uncomfortable and disease-ridden interior. As Jean Baptiste Durand, a visitor late in the eighteenth century, remarked:
the Isle of St. Louis contains a civilised, humane, gentle, and economical people, who are consequently happy... The women [have] an invincible inclination for love and voluptuousness... and they may be said to combine all the perfections of beauty.
It seems to me that Saint-Louis is a town that makes a point of being seen to enjoy its life.
I was stopped at a police roadblock just outside town, on a wide boulevard flanked with a few nineteenth-century buildings, scented palm groves, orchards, and imposing clay walls crowned with hibiscus, bougainvillaea and coils of barbed wire. Opposite the roadblock was a girl's secondary school, which pleased the two officers no end, mainly because they were drunk. They greeted me warmly (like all drunkards), making it a condition of my passing that I drank with them. On the table outside their hut were two opaque plastic bottles filled with 'toddy-wine': the unfiltered, fermented sap of palm trees. Three other bottles, empty, rolled about drunkenly on the pavement, tended to by swarms of wasps.
The officers guessed immediately that I was British (who else would care to cycle across the Sahara?), and when I mentioned Manchester, they went on to interrogate me about George Best, Bobby Charlton, and Diego Maradona. As to their booze: 'Welcome to Africa Guinness,' they announced, before, in unison, as though a spell were cast, they fell asleep!
Almost without exception, every traveller to West Africa has remarked on palm wine. Herodotus, typically, was the first, albeit in the context of its being a vital ingredient in Ancient Egypt's most perfected embalming procedures - it was used to cleanse the abdomen (plus ça change...) The 17th English explorer Richard Jobson seemed to like the stuff, for he judged it to be 'toothsome' in taste, and 'wholesome' in operation. In 1804, a certain Mr Martyn travelling with Mungo Park's second (and ill-fated) expedition to the River Niger, was kind enough to elaborate on its effects: 'Whitbread's beer is nothing to what we get at this place, as I feel by my head this morning, having been drinking all night with a Moor, and ended by giving him an excellent thrashing.'
My evening was spent in the agreeable company of a cheerful Catholic clergyman from Charleston, South Carolina, who was known to the kids loitering outside the cathedral compound as Papa. Papa was ordained in 1952, at the time when the American Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy, and when Senegal was still a French colony. Papa saw many parallels between African and Black American history, and although mild-mannered and perhaps overly polite, he did not shy away from expressing his sometimes outspoken views (for example, he thought it necessary to fight one's oppressors, rather than absorb their pressure in the hope of eventually flinging them off like an elastic band. Tibetan culture, Papa believed, was doomed to extinction by the Tibetans' refusal to fight). His attitude had brought him three spells in South Carolina State Penitentiary.
We discussed politics at great length in the somewhat incongruous stately luxury of the mission's drawing room. It was panelled from floor to ceiling with carved mahogany, and was cluttered with sombre, over-polished late-nineteenth-century furniture. The room smelt of floor polish and varnish, and was adorned with crucifixes, various icons, and even a few animist masks. The portraits of fathers-past hung in strict chronological sequence around the walls. To complete my culture shock, we were served icy strawberry cordials in crystal glasses by a pretty maid dressed all in black but for her pinafore, and later some After Eight mints from a silver platter decorated with lace d'oyleys. 'Well then, bottoms up!' said Papa.
Papa's task, in a country where over eighty percent of the population are Muslim, and where the French had often shown themselves to be more than a little intolerant of the religion, seemed to me to be futile. How, I asked, could he still harbour hope for what was still officially his mission? Papa explained that even in these post-colonial times, the Catholic minority was respected and tolerated by the Muslims, a truism that compared favourably with my own experiences in Morocco and Mauritania. In any case, Islam Senegalese-style is much less rigid than elsewhere (as regards the drinking of alcohol, for example). To underline his point, Papa called upon Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal's widely admired - and Roman Catholic - first president. Religion, said Papa, is a personal matter in Senegal. Herein lies a lesson for those of us too blinkered by dogma to live the tolerance preached by both Islam and Christianity.
I left Papa at dusk, with vague directions for the home of a Dutch-American family who lived in Sor: the newer, and therefore classier, continental part of town (it is less afflicted by mosquitoes). A few hours later, having become completely lost despite the directions, I pressed the intercom-button on a metal gate, and waited. The gate was battleship grey, and was partly covered with a drape of arterial bougainvillaea. A sign advised: 'Beware of the Dog'. The cartoon rottweiler made to snarl - gone are the days of white supremacy.
Over a meal of imported fish fingers, canned potatoes and processed peas, I discovered that the husband worked for an irrigation project on the River Senegal. He'd been working abroad for some ten years now, and, like Albert and the others in Nouakchott, was woefully depressed about his work. The lack of urgency betrayed by the government and its officials frustrated him greatly and, in consequence, he sorely missed the calm efficiency of Holland. I also sensed that my uninvited intrusion - even if only for the night - was awkward, and so the dinner ended in silence, save for the snuffling of the corgi (so much for the rottweiler), and the family's grey parrot that kept squawking: 'Bonjourah, signorah!'
We were waited upon by Bass, the butler, who had only two weeks before moved up from the Casamance with his sister (the Casamance is a region of animists and Catholics, and therefore preferable for a family of Calvinist sensibilities). Bass was thin, but slow and lumbering in his movements. His sister, who had been enlisted as the family nanny, bore him no resemblance whatsoever. She had a gigantic backside and a broad, toothy grin, and was quick and supple in her movements. As seems to be fashionable among the Malinké of the south, her lips, gums, and brow were tattooed blue, which was surprisingly fetching. And given her stature, she was the sort of woman to put the fear of God into anyone if she really wanted to, which was why the family had hired her. I could see that she had a hell of a job. The five-year-old monster would stick pens into the Habitat furniture, pick up glasses only to drop them on the tiled floor, tie doll's limbs into my now knotted Rastafarian-style hair, and seemed particularly fond of hurling his Matchbox car collection at my face, and then punching or biting me if I dared tell him to behave.
The morning fog rolling in from the Atlantic smelt salty, and merged easily with my sweat. I set off with Bass, who was to be my guide around Saint-Louis, although it soon turned out that he was as ignorant of the place as I. It was a case of the blind leading the blind.
To get from Sor to the island district of Ndar (Saint-Louis' Wolof name, and the town's oldest quarter), one has to cross an iron cantilever bridge that, incredibly, spanned the Danube until 1897. The bridge is named after General Louis Faidherbe, governor of Senegal in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His rule saw the great expansion of the colony's frontiers, something that secured the continued prosperity of Saint-Louis' traders. It is an irony that Faidherbe, alongside his old Muslim adversaries who fought him vainly for independence, is nowadays considered to be a father of Senegal, for it was his conquests that finally defined the country's latter-day borders.
Under the bridge, fishing pirogues made of hollowed-out trees glided out towards the open sea. They were invariably gaily painted, and many were named after celebrated saints and marabouts. The fishermen, dressed in tatty shorts and shirts stained by the ocean breeze, unveiled great strands of gossamer nets into the river to catch the high tide. A little way up the levee, a group of men were busy dragging goats by their tails into the river. They were being washed for the Muslim feast of Aïd el-Kebir, which was drawing near.
Across the bridge, our pockets were assailed by a host of hawkers and beggars, and our noses by the heady aroma of garlic, donkey shit, woodsmoke, freshly baked bread, drying fish and diesel fumes, that drifted like a bag lady's perfume through the narrow streets of Ndar. Other peddlers sat patiently beside piles of grotesquely contorted ginger roots, small bales of mint and precarious pyramids of sweet muskmelons. The equivalent of ten pence bought a delicious grilled mullet. Fifty bought a handful of kola nuts, which I gave Bass as a token of my thanks and friendship.
Ndar is an area thick with ancient tumble-down offices and shop fronts, and dark alleyways that at night might be reminiscent of Paris, if only it wasn't for the sand. Tattered old signs read 'Menuserie', 'Boulangerie Laporte' and 'Boucherie'. Narrow dank side streets with mysterious doors reveal even more mysterious plaques: 'Fernand Abdallah, Chiropodiste' at number 12; 'René Herrault, Advocat Commerciale' in faded gold leaf at numbers four and five. A fat old woman in a flashy gold and white gown turned and grinned at me as I walked past. Her hands held a string of brown prayer beads. 'Eeeh... Tubabo!' she cackled, and then pointed. Toubab is mildly abusive Wolof slang for an American or European, a word whose origins mean 'to convert'. The term is a legacy of over-zealous French and Portuguese missionaries. Nowadays, the white man is much more likely to encounter zealous Muslims attempting to convert the infidel. It is role reversal like this that gives many Senegalese their pride.
Rue Blaise Diagne, named after the first Senegalese deputy to the Paris Assembly (an early example of role reversal), is home to a flurry of small-time merchants and beggars. Its gutters overflow with rotten vegetables and rancid meat, sewage and plastic. We walked past haberdashers full of neatly stacked rolls of colourful faneaus. Their counters were inlaid with brass rules and guides, and small knots of women ummed and aahed, unable to decide as they admired both themselves and the fabric in stainless Sheffield mirrors. Elsewhere, a battered Michelin man watched over the portal of a garage, where several elderly gentlemen in navy blue overalls and skullcaps were sitting smoking amidst all the bits and pieces of an engine belonging to a navy blue 2CV. Through a small alleyway I could see large boats and the masts of ocean-going freighters nestling on the blue horizon.
Two bridges - Servatius and Mangin - link the island city of Ndar to the peninsular Barbary Tongue: a 25 kilometre long sand spit, with breeding grounds for endangered Atlantic sea turtle and tortoise at its southern end, and the desert wastes of Mauritania to the north. Only the central section of the Barbary Tongue - immediately facing Ndar - is built-up. Avenue Dodds is the main thoroughfare, a wide street lined with telegraph poles and tall palm trees. It leads north to Saint-Louis' busiest market, the hub of northern Senegal's small-trade. There were women everywhere, shouting, yelling, bartering, haggling, and even squawking if prices were deemed too high. A large woman in an orange Bruce Lee T-shirt waddled by, puckering her purple lips. On her head rocked a bowl containing one fat, slippery fish. Other women balanced baskets containing sheaves of millet or wheat, clothes and even a television. Kids were dragged along behind them, picking their noses or burping.
Fierce market madames - not to be trifled with - bawled out their presence to all and sundry from behind plastic sheets draped with bloody fish steaks. More permanent stalls sold red and green chillies, dried gejieu fish, and their owners yelled this or that many CFA. It is always the women who do the selling of home-made produce to make ends meet at the end of the week. It is always the women who do the cooking, the fetching and the carrying, the chopping of wood, the dyeing and spinning of cotton, the laundry, and the child-rearing. And yet, to my mind, the women also seemed brash, self-confident, and basically happier than their male counterparts. This was in spite of their greatly unequal share of the burden of work, and the fact that the law allows men to take two wives, if they can afford it. The women seemed to appear more relaxed, more at ease, and better sorted out than their male counterparts. Perhaps this is due in part to the old standards of upbringing (submissiveness, docility and modesty) now being cast aside with a fervour that frightened Bass! Wolof and Fulani women are alone among West Africans for not having to undergo the customary clitoridectomy as initiation into womanhood, and perhaps as a result, the rather prim 1950s traveller Elspeth Huxley noted that: 'Husbands are picked, enjoyed, exploited and exchanged with a most un-African laxity'.
By any standards, Wolof women are uncommonly beautiful, and much care is taken about appearances. The marché brags an incredible selection of immaculate hairdos: crimped, tied-back, braided, smeared with rancid butter like the Tibetans, Medusa-style snakes, spiky... Many are in styles uncannily similar to those depicted in 5,000 year-old Saharan cave paintings. There is jewellery and adornment to be admired everywhere: red and yellow coconut shell earrings, red-painted fingernails, gold, silver, and copper bracelets and bangles, hair brooches in every colour, mascara, maroon lipstick and silver rings. Yet nothing is excessive, and very few women appear gaudily dressed or overly made up. Nonetheless, the market, perhaps more so than any other I had seen or was to see, was simply a deluge of colour. Much of it came from the expensive faneaus and head cloths that the women wear, a suffusion of whorls, stars, stylised leaves and flowers in dripping shades of venetian red, earthy brown, leafy green, gold and purple. My eyes were spinning through so much colour. Almost all the women still wear the traditional off-the-shoulder dresses, a little like Indian saris - tight around their long legs and loose about the top, accentuating their bottoms, broad backs and long necks. The way they walked (and the men too) was especially beautiful: an impressively graceful, seemingly effortless swaying gait, a world apart from the heavy-legged strut of the Toubab. Elspeth Huxley remarked of the Wolof women: 'they glide along dusty streets... like flowers on the move.' Such beauty, especially after the desert and the hidden, constricted aesthetics of the Arab world, was simply soothing. In fact, just like Saint-Louis.
* * *
I left Saint-Louis in the afternoon. The sky was a muggy grey - faded but luminous - under which everything had a bleached or washed-out appearance. This kind of sky is common to all the tropics in the eerie 'hungry season' that greets the onset of the monsoon rains.
To my consternation, the bicycle gears wouldn't engage properly but instead ground disconcertingly as my legs span around in vain. Both the gears and the pedals, it turned out, had been irreparably damaged by sand, and would have to be replaced in Dakar. My only saving thought was that this hadn't happened in the desert. The noise of the gears, of course, attracted attention, and although the crowd that followed me was generally good-natured, one man kept grasping my arm very tightly as I tried to cycle away, and hissed: 'Mon ami, mon ami, un cadeau, des CFA, donne moi un cadeau, des CFA, un cadeau...'
Enough presents, I thought angrily as my furious pedal strokes finally reconnected with the gears and I was off again, with my 'friend' in hot pursuit. But then, again I came to a halt, this time in deep sand.
'Ah, my friend! My friend, a present for me.'
For the next few hours, I learnt gradually to cope with the gear problems, if not the hustler. He followed me by moped for a whole hour, repeating his demands incessantly, until, finally, I gave in and gave him some money.
The road was mostly sandy, flanked in the outskirts of Saint-Louis with a hotchpotch of open-fronted garages, shops, and a dilapidated suburb of shacks. A short while on the sea mist receded, and hot desert air took its place to smother a landscape of tree-topped hillocks. On looking closer, they turned out not to be hillocks at all, but 'stabilised' sand dunes, scattered with larger mounds of loamy clay and small shrubs. There were only few trees - mostly gum acacia - and plenty of red dust and clay that in the rainy season becomes a slurry through which no vehicle can hope to pass. This land, I found out later, is the western reach of the Ferlo Desert.
Now that the initial elation at having crossed the Sahara began to subside, the dry monotony of the land became more depressing. As I cycled, it unfurled only as vast waves of a great undulating greyness, dotted with depressing shades of green and beige. The soil was poor, being entirely dependent on the munificence of the rains that have been coming later and leaving earlier these last few years. The contrast with the irrigated river lands was glaring. Northern Senegal has become the bride of the desert, to be toasted with confetti of yellow sand, and to followed by a bridal train of irreversible desertification. I passed more roadside signs announced no longer existent forests, stubble-beard at most, live dunes at worst.
The road joined the tracks of the 165-mile Saint-Louis to Dakar railway, lined with white picket fencing to keep donkeys and goats at bay. Just past the market town of Louga, a column of vultures turned a tight circle over the horizon, like the spout of a tornado. A few miles closer I counted fifty or sixty of the ugly things - lappet-faced vultures - wheeling up, then swooping down and across the road at breakneck speed. Closer still, I came to the apex of their spinning cloud. There was a donkey carcass lying to one side of the bloodstained road, around which were perhaps another twenty of the birds, squabbling amongst themselves. They were busily devouring what little remained of the donkey, ripping it apart with violent beaks and claws.
It was still windy, and cycling was tiring. The gear problems annoyed me. The humidity was oppressive, and made the heat feel worse than it really was. I realised just how tired I was when I had to dismount and push the bicycle up a gentle incline that would have been child's play a few months earlier. I began for the first time - at least that I can remember - to think fondly of home, and of all the comforts that it could provide. I'd even made a list of all the luxuries I'd craved in the desert, such as marzipan, cold milk, chocolate, beer, and (perversely) hot baths. Cycling was now too exhausting and too slow a means of transport, and I had neither the money nor the inclination to travel much further. Tentative plans hatched in Nouakchott of cycling across West Africa to Ghana or Timbuctoo evaporated. I had had my fill of excitement for the time being, and now just needed to rest. It was somewhere around here that I finally decided to put an end to my trip, and to finish in Dakar.
After Louga the landscape became more pleasant, albeit dustier too. There were a few villages, and circles of acacia, tamarinds, spiny jujubes and oily soump trees. The villages consisted of about twenty or thirty huts, built around clearings that often contained a solitary palaver tree. In the past, the huts had been circular and made of straw thatch, but many had now progressed to angular tin and zinc, which to my eyes replaced a homely charm with a somewhat slummy appearance. Nevertheless, at every village, I picked up chains of inquisitive children, all wanting me to stop, and who were pleased as punch when I took their photographs and gave them 'presents' of my name and address, even though they were far too young to read or write. Women in brightly coloured faneaus worked small fields of cassava and cotton, fenced with straw palisades, mimosas intertwined with drooping cascades of creepers, and motley barriers of posts and rails. Many women sang as they worked, and waved and shouted as I sped by. I would have loved to have spent some time with them, to discover exactly what it was that made their world, to discover what they thought... but I wanted to go home.
As I neared Thiès - seventy kilometres from Dakar - incredible forests of baobab began to colonise the land. The baobab (Adansonia digitata) is a tree as awesome as the Californian redwood or the banyan of Asia. It is the world's thickest tree, with girths of up to 180 feet. It is the mighty emblem of Senegal, and not only because of its great size. The baobab is a most useful tree. Its bark, in texture like cork, contains anti-malarial quinine, and its fibres can be made into rope or wigs. Its leaves contain ascorbic acid, and are reputed to cure asthma, rheumatism, anaemia and inflammations. The seeds are used for soaps and fertiliser, and the fruit (monkey bread) is good against circulatory diseases and dysentery. Like the cactus, the baobab can also store water in its hollow trunk - apparently up to a thousand litres - a succour for thirsty travellers. As a result of its varied uses, as well as its grotesque appearance, the baobab has become fabled in tribal societies. Its branches, which resemble a tree's roots, have spawned the belief that the devil himself uprooted the baobab only to plunge it back into the earth upside down. In certain communities, itinerant griot minstrels were (and perhaps still are) interred in hollow baobab trunks, a practice that has only served to increase the wonder of this strange tree. In the evening, as I cycled through these nightmarish forests, I felt as though I had trespassed onto the land of some fearsome giant, and I had the constant and worrying impression of being stared at - Senegal.
The large market town of Thiès is one of Senegal's most ancient cities, and the erstwhile capital of the powerful kingdom of Kayor. It sits, like a spider, at the country's most important crossroads, the conjunction of highways connecting the trading centres of Saint-Louis and Louga, with Dakar, Djourbel ('the groundnut capital of Senegal') and Kaolack (a major exporting centre for groundnuts and salt). Thiès itself grew wealthy from the fourteenth century onwards, mainly because its damels made their fortunes selling slaves at first to the Moors, and then to Portuguese and French traders - often, it must be said, at the expense of their own peasantry.
Not surprisingly, the French soon gained a healthy interest in Thiès and Kayor, but it took them until the mid-nineteenth century even to be able to begin the conquest and for Kayor to be 'pacified' (as anodyne a euphemism as 'surgical strike' or 'ethnic cleansing'). Yet even this 'achievement' proved to be premature, for, following the humiliating and expensive defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1871, the French were unable to resist the remarkably successful rebellion of one Lat Diop, who single-handedly ousted the French from Kayor and installed himself as damel. Only when Lat Diop died, in 1896, was Kayor re-annexed. This time, the French conquest (under the shrewd leadership of General Faidherbe) was rendered easier by the railroad, which had been constructed eight years earlier. From then on, until independence was regained in 1960, Thiès became the commercial nucleus of the expanded colony, far outstripping the importance of Saint-Louis.
Yet, for many Senegalese today, by far the most important legacy of Thiès' speckled past is not temporal but spiritual, because the years at the height of the slave trade (in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) coincided with the birth of Senegal's largest and most influential Islamic brotherhoods: the Tidjiana, and the Mouride. Tivaouane, a village twelve miles north of Thiès, is the seat of the former. They were founded in nineteenth-century Morocco by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tidjiani, a marabout who had studied at both Cairo's al-Azhar, and in Medina (his Moroccan roots are reflected nowadays in the predilection among older dignitaries for the red fez cap). Through his doctrine, Islam spread rapidly among merchants, theologians, and bureaucrats, and as a result his order was carried across the Sahara by the caravans. Islam, incidentally, had first been brought to West Africa by the Almoravids, but the following centuries had succeeded in diluting much of its substance. Once in West Africa, al-Tidjiani's doctrine was popularised by al-Hajj Umar Tall: Senegalese nationalist, scourge of the infidel French, and Senegal's first pilgrim to Mecca, who in consequence became a marabout credited with the ability to perform miracles.
In contrast to the Moroccan marabouts - who now exist only as corpses in their mausolea - the West African variants are still very much alive, presiding as regional heads over their own brotherhoods. As among the Berber Sufis, the Senegalese marabout combines more orthodox Islam with earlier animist traditions, and effectively performs the roles of priest, sage, soothsayer and mystic - in a society where little was written, an ability to read Arabic, and therefore knowledge of the Qur'an, verged on the magical. Through their supposed ability to predict and so alter the future, many marabouts have become immensely powerful, and are rumoured to have played an influential part in the political shenanigans of the late twentieth century. By way of example, the presidential elections held shortly before my arrival brought the following decrees: Sheikh Abdul Ahmad M'backé, chief of the Mourides, urged his followers to vote for the incumbent president, because: 'In not doing so, you will have betrayed the commitment which links you to Amadou Bamba [founder of the Mourides].' Similarly, the nephew of the Tidjiana leader wished that 'God give to his compatriots the will to re-elect Abdou Diouf in February 1988.' Diouf was duly re-elected, with a landslide majority.
In the last century, it was the slave trade that was the cause célèbre of the brotherhoods, inspiring them not only in resisting the French occupation, but also to concentrate their wrathful attentions on the slavers of Kayor. Out of these militant protests grew perhaps the greatest and most vociferous of the brotherhoods, the Mouride [the name means 'aspirant']. They were founded in 1887 by Sheikh Amadou Bamba. Central to his belief was the saying: 'Work is part of religion,' an ethic that bears resemblance to the Calvinistic work ethic. As a result, one of the few remarkable things I found about Thiès - given its all-stifling heat and humidity - was the energy and zeal with which I was harassed by the Baye Fall. These are gaily-clothed and often dreadlocked Mouride disciples, armed with wooden clubs and begging bowls for the benefit of their marabouts. Ibra Fall, so the legend goes, was one of Bamba's earliest disciples who, although personally devoted to the marabout, was a poor Qur'anic student. So, it is said, Bamba gave him an axe and told him to work for God with that. 'If you work for me I shall pray for you,' Bamba said, upon which Ibra Fall went on to found the slavishly fanatical Baye Fall movement, whose devotees are exempt from study and even from the fast of Ramadan, and whose love of palm wine is tolerated in recompense for their uncommon religious fervour. Even more than Bamba himself, the Baye Fall made a virtue of labour. 'Hard work is the key to paradise,' they say, and because begging for alms is seen as hard work, there are now over a dozen Senegalese marabouts who are multi-millionaires in whichever currency one may care to choose.
Despite its chequered past, Thiès is a ramshackle sort of place, sprawled across acres of red sandstone. The soil and vegetation is surprisingly Mediterranean, and together with the town's plentiful horse- and mule-drawn traps, evokes a sense of rural Portugal. That is, if one ignores the oppressive humidity and consequent lethargy of the place, for the town is situated in a large, bowl-like depression that allows for little wind. There are escarpments to the south, and open-cast phosphate mines to the north and west. Its compact clay roads and avenues are shaded by trees with whitewashed trunks, under one of which, every day, a blue-scaled lizard did its push-ups as little children ran circles to try and catch its tail!
I spent several days in Thiès, simply too hot and too tired to bother cycling to Dakar. I was also bored, and apart from the stench of sweat that hung everywhere, I have few memories of the town. One that does stick in mind was when, on first arriving in Thiès, I saw a blind beggar crouched beside the entrance of an import-supermarket. He listened intently to people approaching, and then stumbled towards them with his right hand formed into a cup. Samba the hustler, whose wrists were stiff with bracelets and bangles to sell to tourists and French schoolgirls on educational holidays, disapproved vehemently when I gave the man a few coins. So much so that he violently forced the beggar to return the money I had given him. 'It's not good,' he said. 'Can't you see?' and then chased away the children who had also been asking for money. Samba - whose brother was a devotee of Baye Fall - then offered me a choice of gold, silver, bronze or ivory jewellery, at fat, extortionate prices.
On finally wrenching myself away from Thiès, it occurred to me that as a traveller, it would be almost impossible to fully share the life of Senegal. I always had the impression that I was merely passing through, at best looking in from above. I was beginning once more, as in Fès, to feel very much an outsider. In Mauritania, on the other hand, I think it is fair to say that I got a pretty good feel of the country, because its very soul lies in travelling. I had found the heart of Mauritania not by travelling to its geographical or cultural epicentre, but by the simple fact of my having travelled there. In Senegal, on the other hand, my reactions and feelings as a traveller were necessarily superficial in a land of settled people. The villages and towns were no longer islands or oases in a hostile desert sea, places to be aimed at and to be considered as sanctuary. Rather, they were places to escape from, as I was to find out in Dakar.