Senegal


Friday, July 18
Nioro, Senegal

The rainy season in central Senegal just began a few weeks ago. Folks who live here are always happy to see the skies open up, since many depend on agriculture to make a living.

Check out the reaction of these kids when it poured this afternoon! The loud noise in the video is the rain hitting the sheet-metal roof.

I’m staying in Nioro, near the Gambian border, with Chris, a recent Colby College (my alma mater) graduate who is serving in the Peace Corps as a business volunteer. He lives here with a Senegalese family, so I’ve joined their clan — two parents, four young kids and a cousin — for a few days.

Chris, who goes by his Senegalese name Moussa, has introduced me to some excellent Senegalese snacks. At the market this morning, we sucked on frozen bissap, or hibiscus juice, then slurped smoothie-like drinks called Buy (that’s Wolof), made from Monkey Bread, the fruit of the baobab tree.

His Senegalese mother has prepared the best food I’ve eaten so far in the country. Here’s the group during lunch today:

Lunch -- rice and fish balls -- with Chris Senegalese family.
Lunch — rice and fish balls — with Chris’ Senegalese family.

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Friday, July 18
Nioro, Senegal

Used clothing is a hot commodity here. Old t-shirts and pants from the States are sold everywhere, and I’d say about half of the people walking the streets on any given day are wearing them.

I’m always keeping my eye out for t-shirts with names of U.S. states, towns, teams or groups I know, mostly waiting for the day when I find someone wearing a team jersey from Bethlehem, N.Y., my hometown.

At the market in Nioro this morning, I caught sight of a guy wearing a shirt from Houston’s Channel 11 News! KHOU: Now you know your Spirit of Texas slogan is reaching the masses in central Senegal.

KHOU viewer? He was hanging out at a market in Nioro, Senegal.

KHOU viewer? He was hanging out at a market in Nioro, Senegal.

Thursday, July 17
Kaolack, Senegal

I hitched a ride yesterday from Sokone to Kaolack with a group I didn’t expect to meet in central Senegal: a dozen American Army ROTC guys.

It was the picture of luxury travel: air conditioning, room to move my legs and travel companions who spoke my language. Oh, and the van’s windows actually opened. I was pretty thankful for that when the guy in front of my hurled out his window because the ride was so bumpy.

I met the Army group in a random set of circumstances. Rewind three days. I arrived in Kaolack (a city I’ve dubbed Land of Flies because there are so many here that it’s not enjoyable to sit outside) on Monday via sept-place and made my way to the home of Viola Vaughan. She’s a Detroit transplant to Senegal who moved here seven years ago with her five grandchildren so they could learn the Koran.

Viola started an educational organization that has become known as 10,000 girls. The program helps hundreds of Senegalese girls stay in school through tutoring and providing school supplies. It’s funded partly through donations, but also by the program’s entrepreneurial component whereby girls in their 20s make crafts to export to the states and baked goods to sell locally.

Viola, who the girls call “Mom,” invited me to stay with her to check out the school. But the day after I arrived, it turned out, she was taking about 30 girls to a town called Sokone, 1.5 hours south of Kaolack, for a week of summer camp, where a handful of university students from the States and peace corps volunteers would teach them about democracy and English. So I went with them.

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Monday, July 14
Kaolack, Senegal

One street vendor in particular made Andy and I laugh this weekend. He kept following us around, trying to get us to buy this huge, box-shaped battery.

Did he actually think we might buy it? We joked about what we’d use it for, how we’d fit it into our backpacks.

He was the perfect example of the Senegalese phenomenon of selling one thing and one thing only. Vendors offer a crazy variety of goods here: from Q-Tips to women’s underwear to rabbits. But whatever they sell, they seem to sell just that.

The sport of hawking requires physical fitness, particularly for those who work the freeways. During Dakar’s rush hour, which as far as I can see occurs all day every weekday, traffic crawls in and out of the city’s one major road. It’s horrid for drivers and passengers, but convenient for vendors, who weave in and out of traffic trying to sell their goods.

Occasionally, a passenger will signal he wants to buy something just as traffic speeds up, so the vendor runs alongside the vehicle to make the transaction happen. He’ll pass, say, a cold bottle of water through the car window, take payment and sometimes even make change while running alongside the road. It’s impressive.

Then, of course, there’s the art of carrying whatever the vendor is peddling on his or her head. I promise to dedicate an entire post to that in the future.

Anyways, I’ve been thinking: If I was a vendor who sold just one thing, what would it be? I’ve got to ponder this a bit…

What would your thing be?

Sunday, July 13
Dakar, Senegal

The first time I tried to visit Goree Island, about two weeks ago, there were so many people crowded around the ferry ticket booth that I wrote it off as a tourist trap and walked around the port instead.

But since my college friend Andy is in Dakar for the weekend, we decided to brave the crowds, hawkers and beggers together to check it out.

We set out early today, partly to avoid the madhouse ticket scene I experienced last time (it worked!) and also to see the island before the day’s hottest hours.

Ile de Goree is known for its symbolic link to the Atlantic slave trade, since hundreds of African slaves were forced to leave their homeland via the island. The history in itself is interesting and moving, but the small island offers more than that. Some Senegalese call it home, and the buildings there are painted in beautiful earth tones, lots of red, unlike most homes on mainland Senegal. Andy said it reminded him of the south of France.

Goree Island view

Goree Island view

It also serves as a venue for artists to create, exhibit and sell their work, mainly paintings, sand art and jewelry. Most paintings were a similar West African style, lots of stick figures, very geometric, scenes of life here, such as women carrying bundles on their heads. I bought a brightly colored painting of a baobab tree.

Paintings at Goree Island

Paintings at Goree Island

Vendors on the island were less aggressive about selling their goods, leaving us alone after we rejected their offers several times instead of following us around indefinitely like folks on the mainland, a pleasant surprise considering it’s a tourist hang-out.

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Sunday, July 13
Dakar, Senegal

Back in Saint-Louis, I ventured into the shop of a weaver who was using an elaborate loom to create beautiful cloth. He explained they’re used as table place mats.

I took this video then but couldn’t post it until now. For some reason, I’m having trouble uploading videos onto Flickr; some upload easily and others don’t, and I can’t figure out why. Anyhow, I finally was able to post this video, which shows the loom and fabric. Pretty cool.

Wednesday, July 9
Zebrabar, Mouit, Senegal

Zebrabar has been my home for the last week. I didn’t intend to stay this long, but it has proven a beautiful, affordable and safe place for me to chill out while I wait for a friend who’s meeting me in Dakar on Friday.

I’ve spent my days here kayaking across the Senegal River then walking through the bush to a deserted Atlantic beach, washing my laundry by hand and observing the never-ending project that is Zebrabar.

Planting baobabs at Zebrabar

Planting baobabs at Zebrabar

Martin, the owner, leaves for two months of vacation in his homeland of Switzerland on Thursday, so he has been hard at work finishing various jobs before his departure, mainly using huge trucks to plant baobab trees and move sand for the creation of a water-side dance floor. It’s fabulous to watch him at work with his man-toys; Martin takes joy, it seems, when a truck gets stuck of breaks down, for it presents for him a new challenge.

My favorite part of the day here is dinnertime, when the few guests who have ventured to Zebrabar during the bird-watching off-season gather with Martin and his 6-year-old son Marco (his wife and daughter are already in Switzerland) at what Martin calls “the restaurant.” It’s really a table and chairs set up in a breathtaking spot overlooking the beach. We eat there, and after the stars come out, the group sits talking, switching between French, English and German, sometimes for hours.

Dinner at Zebrabar

Dinner at Zebrabar

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Tuesday, July 8
Zebrabar, Mouit, Senegal

I keep a list in my notebook of Things I’ve Overcome:

* Eating mangoes. I hadn’t done it since my bout with malaria in Cameroon, since even the sight of them reminds me of being ill. But the fruit is a staple here, often served as a dessert, and I don’t have that many choices when it comes to fruit I can peel (it’s safest for the stomach).

* Seeing what I call the Enormous African Bee. I remember it from Cameroon, and it horrifies me. It’s like a bumblebee, but bigger, and its buzzing is audible when it’s still meters away. I imagine it’s furry, but I really have no idea since I try my best not to see it close up. I believe it lives or eats baobab trees, which are common here in Senegal. Bloggie points to the reader who can name that bee.

* First pick-pocket attempt. The guy was decent; he kept asking me to buy a shirt he waved in my face so ferociously that I couldn’t see my bag. He managed to unzip it before I noticed.

More to come…

Saturday, July 5
Zebrabar, Mouit, Senegal

I’m in heaven.

Zebrabar heaven, that is. I arrived via taxi from Saint-Louis yesterday to find a tranquil beach oasis with hammocks, kayaks and an outlook tour. I’ve got my own bungalo here for just CFA 6,000 (about 15 dollars)a night – mosquito net included, with shared, clean toilets and showers.

Zebrabar beach

It’s a mix between a modest resort, since there’s a restaurant here, and a campground, and they do have many visitors who pitch tents during the high season. High season for bird-watching, that is. The place is located in a national parc, Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, on the Senegal River and also next to the ocean.

I spent my first afternoon there talking with an Irish woman who is traveling around the world as a couch-surfer, a Senegalese painter who now lives in Paris but is home for vacation, and a local fisherman who showed me the difference between a male and female sand crab. The beaches here are crawling with the purple creatures, a lovely change from the litter that overtakes the sand in much of the places I’ve visited.

Zebrabar is run by a Swiss couple who began building the compound 12 years ago when it was just land covered with coconut trees. Martin told us visitors – there are only four of us at the moment – about how he fell in love with Africa, is bringing his son and daughter up there, and how he loves traveling in the rainy season, which often is considered a hassle because many roads are impassable. We talked over dinner, switching between French and English, sitting at a table that looked out over the beach at sunset.

The only thing Zebrabar lacks is Internet access, so I hopped a taxi to town today to catch up on this blog and buy some food and bottled water. I’ll return there tonight and stay a few days, so you won’t hear from me for a bit. Here, a few photos so you know what I’m enjoying!

My bungalo

Zebrabar

E (Irish friend) with PianoView from watch tower

Friday, July 4
Zebrabar, Mouit, Senegal

My notebook may not be the most valuable possession I have with me, but it’s the most important. For the last 10 days, it has served as a journal, a reporter’s notebook and a phone book with necessary contacts and addresses.

So I keep a pretty close eye on this thing, making sure not to forget it in the back of a taxi, let it float away with the tide or disappear in the hands of a thief.

What I hadn’t considered was that it might get stolen by a donkey.

As I sat in a hammock at Zebrabar reading this evening, I noticed the camp’s pet donkey, named Piano, who earlier had tried to take off with the keys to my bungalo, was nosing around in my bag.

Before I had a chance to hoist myself out of my lounging spot, he had my notebook in his mouth! I leapt up from the hammock, and a scene ensued that had even me laughing afterwards: Me chasing the donkey through the courtyard while the resident cook yelled, “Peeeeannooo!”

I was a mule in college (Go Colby mules!), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a donkey in person. In fact, I’m not sure I even believed it was a real animal, but more of a cartoon creation.

Not that this is any ordinary donkey. The year-old animal, who has been raised around dogs, thinks he is one. He nudges the dogs to play, then runs around with them in the sand. He makes sounds that resemble barking when he wants to get the dogs’ attention. In retrospect, he probably was trying to get my attention by stealing my notebook.

I bring to you… Piano!

PianoLounging in hammock at Zebrabar

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