April 08, 2014

North and south in West Africa

North: the spirit of Saint-Louis

Once we leave Dakar the country gets arid in a hurry. The landscape is dominated by stands of huge baobab trees, clusters of gnarled limbs reaching skywards from their absurdly thick trunks as if pleading for some kind of arboreal salvation. Some few are selected by a mysterious avian algorithm for group accommodations; I counted twenty separate nests on one particularly large baobab, while others all around it lay empty. There are also thorn trees not quite like East Africa's acacias, a thick-barked species from which foliage grows in sporadic dense clumps, etcetera; but this is unquestionably the land of the baobab.

The road is excellent the whole way north, two smooth broad lanes with gravel shoulders. A wide swathe to either side is generally dusted with trash, mostly plastic bags, proportional to the density of the local population. We pass a children's hospital, a giant mosque towering above a bizarrely large roundabout, pale long-horned cattle grazing on the outskirts of a phosphor mine, an abandoned telephone pole with its wires dangling like tentacles. The sign which announces the sprawling town of Thies declares it -- in English, oddly -- "a place for fun!" This is otherwise not apparent from the road.

At the railroad crossing our driver slows and creeps across the iron road with great care. I don't know why; the line, which once connected the capitals of Senegal and Mali, is long disused. I rode along it once, though, more than fifteen years ago, with two friends, from Kayes to Bamako. I remember we shared our car with a severed donkey's head resting in a bowl, and devoured a grilled chicken passed through our window by a woman at a stop in a tiny village en route.

I remember too that the heat was brutal, like the train was an oven and we too were being cooked. Not here, though, not this far west; this is dry, but not yet desert. Both Dakar and Saint-Louis are as cool as San Francisco by day, although at night the temperature drops only ten or so degrees Fahrenheit. The car's interior is barely warm enough to melt the Snickers bar I brought in Brussels.

We stop at a roadside market to buy groundnuts. There are many such along the way; this road is the spine of all commerce in northwest Senegal. Some stalls are true wooden buildings with tin roofs, some are tables set under umbrellas advertising Tigo (a mobile phone company), some are made of branches lashed together and topped with ragged canvas. Along with bags of nuts they sell watermelons, eggs, both kinds of oranges (West African green oranges, and more traditional orange oranges, presumably from Morocco), mobile recharge cards, dry goods, and meat, too; big legs of beef hang from some of the stalls.

The trucks we pass look both battered and indestructible. While we wait behind them for the road to clear, they fill our cabin with diesel fumes, and everybody winces. The passengers -- yours truly excepted -- are dressed in crisp and elaborately patterned African fabrics, not cast-off secondhand Western clothes; this is upper-tier public transit, a sept-place, meaning eight of us (counting the driver) crammed into a beat-up Peugeot station wagon, travelling nonstop except for brief through-the-window purchases. The woman to my left checks her Galace SQ dual-SIM smartphone frequently. The man ahead and to my right has a T-Mobile branded Galaxy S, presumably secondhand from some European nation. Every time I check my own phone en route I am met with at least two bars of impeccable 3G signal.

Slowly, imperceptibly, as the hours pass, the trees grow sparser and more stunted, and the ground goes from dry but arable earth to something more like hard-packed dust. This whole nation is part of the Sahel, that vast transition zone between the barren Sahara to the north and the equatorial jungle to the south. I overlanded across the Sahara on that trip fifteen years ago, but I flew over it by day for the first time just four days ago. Both times it was staggeringly stark and beautiful.

It becomes dry enough that when we turn a bend and sight a large body of water, it seems alien and dissonant for a moment, as do the towers of the mosques beyond. The Senegal River, and the city of Saint-Louis, in which I write this. A few miles further upriver the water becomes the border between Senegal and Mauritania, which I remember as the most remote and distant country I ever visited. The Senegalese side is busy with action, commerce, and activity, but the other bank, as far as I can tell from this distance, is utterly deserted.

It seems strange to me that it is green. I'm sure I must have seen green growing things during the week I spent crossing Mauritania lo these many years ago, but I have no memory of them; mostly what I remember is heat and sand. Nowadays there is apparently a highway, the Trans-Saharan, presumably the road I saw from the sky, a thin line stretched across the gargantuan majesty of the greatest desert on Earth. That desert begins not far at all from the other side of the Senegal River. I'm both tempted to revisit it and rather relieved that, since Mauritanian visas are rather difficult to come by on short notice, I cannot.

South: Little Britain and beyond

Negotiations for a seat in a sept-place tend to be quick and curt. Timing is everything. If you arrive just as the Peugeot which was previously head of the queue is pulling out, you’ll get the prime front-seat position, but you’ll have to wait; if you’re the last to arrive, you depart immediately, but squeezed into the middle of the back seat.

The waiting passengers loiter around the vehicle, their spaces reserved by their bags. Then, when finally ready, a quick tour around the gare routiere, for paperwork and some kind of payment of fee; a stop at the always-nearby gas station to buy enough fuel for the journey; tiny slips of paper exchanged at the police outpost outside of the town -- and finally away. Next stop your destination. In this case, Kaolack.

We travel south and east. Our Peugeot it is so old it has an analog clock set into its dashboard. Still ticking, too. The land outside is desert-dry between the stubborn, scraggling trees, and sparsely populated. In Dakar there is ceaseless noise, construction, commerce, hustle; here in the sticks, most people seem to pass their time waiting languidly for the day to end. Goats roam along and across the road. We pass occasional horse- and donkey-drawn carts, near villages, and even more occasional cyclists.

Midway through the journey we hit the wall of heat. At first it feels like a gust of hot wind; but it does not cease. Beyond this wall most people we pass have taken shelter from the sun in the shade of trees, or their own thatched or corrugated roofs. The further we travel away from Dakar, the more thatch dominates, at least until we reach the larger towns, sprawling miasmas of heat and dust and trash and strip-mall commerce made of cratered dirt, rotting concrete, rusting metal, trash and crowds. The only color in these towns comes from the people, but they more than make up for it; brightly dressed, loudly arguing, propelled by some of the energy that fuels Dakar.

Kaolack is little more than one of these towns writ large. Further south the proprietor of a lodge will describe it as “the rubbish bin of Senegal.” An apt description. Low and broad, baked colorless by sun and heat, a maelstrom of uneven streets and buildings which verge on derelict. Near the docks -- it is a river port -- I pass a pothole big enough to swallow a small truck, and permanent enough that stepping-stone bridges of pockmarked concrete have been constructed for pedestrians to pass. A hundred huge trucks wait idle near by, belching diesel fuel, loaded and overloaded with bags full of sand for cement, I’m told.

All this time, even when we had to detour around the major highway, the roads have been excellent, but not from Kaolack to the Gambia. Of those roughly seventy kilometers, the middle forty are of paved road so badly potholed that it has become far worse than dirt, so dirt roads have grown up around its edges. We drive for miles with one set of tires on pavement and the other skewed downwards onto dirt; much easier to avoid potholes that way.

After the border, painless except for the creepy-looking jail cage/cell in the middle of the Gambian immigration office, I charter a whole taxi to take me to the Banjul ferry, surprised by the agreeable price. A woman who rode with me in the sept-place asks for a place; I agree; the taxi driver and his employer loudly complain and try to charge me more. At the ferry I am beset by a horde of touts until I escape into the waiting area for those who have purchased tickets. Not a good introduction.

But a representative one. The Gambia is home to mass tourism, English (and to a lesser extent Dutch) holidaymakers by the thousand, and the resultant economic voltage leads to scams, hassle, and hundreds of touts known locally, memorably, as “bumsters.” My passport is checked coming off the ferry, and the official who checks it visibly waits for me to offer him a bribe, although when I don't, he passes it back and waves me on.

At least my hotel is an oasis, run-down but tranquil, locally owned and operated, across the street from a near-Western-style supermarket and a hundred metres from a strip of pubs and restaurants built for British tourists. Not the strip, though; that, called the Senegambia Strip, is five hundred meters of dozens of clubs, bars, restaurants and moneychangers, with upscale hotels at its very end, clashing loudly with the downscale mayhem of the Strip.

On the beach, which is glorious, young men carved with muscle go for runs or do ostentatious push-ups and situps -- “to get a white lady,” it is explained to me, and/or men too of course, judging from the several times I was greeted with a quiet “Hello, handsome man.” I pass plenty of Gambian/European couples on the street. Some are temporary holiday romances; others are ongoing; a Scouser I talk to over my first Julbrew (a local beer) comes every year, in part to spend a few weeks with his local girlfriend. She has never been to England.

48 hours is enough for me. I get a ride to the border courtesy of Ibrahim-the-taxi-man, and his colorful life story while I’m at it; born in inner Gambia, made his way to Morocco and thence on a boat to Spain, spent four years there as an illegal immigrant and hated it, moved to Geneva where he could stay at a friend’s house, met an Irish woman there, moved to Ireland for three years, broke up with her and came back to the Gambia, where now he owns land, and his taxi, and is saving up for a holiday to America if he can get a visa there; he’s heartily sick of Europe. He winds up driving me all the way to Kafountine, where I write this.

At the border he has to pay a bribe -- only a little, a couple of dollars, but still. I do not. A little later we are greeted by a “police” checkpoint manned by lean, lethal-looking men carrying submachine guns and wearing 1st Recon Battalion shirts. They treat him with suspicion and me with deference. The Casamance, this southern arm of Senegal, has had an armed independence movement for many years; it has been quiescent for most of a decade, but the military still patrols here, and there are still land mines in the hinterland.

Kafountine looks like a mess at first, a single road lined by concrete shacks of various sizes topped by tin roofs, but the appearance is deceiving, look a little closer and you’ll see satellite dishes on those roofs, and off on the side streets you’ll fine some fairly large houses. It’s a fishing village home to maybe a hundred pirogues, anchored in the whitecapped sea, whose catch is iced and packed into refrigerated trucks every morning. It’s also only 20km south of the Gambian border, which may explain why I spot a couple of motorcycles piled high with gas cans roaring south along the broad beach; gas is cheaper (though also, reportedly, dirtier) in the Gambia, and at low tide the beach is a great smuggling route.

“Many Gambians and Guineans live here,” says Ibrahim, examining the changes; it has been two years since he has been to Kafountine. “It’s good here. Senegal is good.” Senegal is roughly twice as wealthy as the Gambia per capita. “The only trouble is the Senegalese.”

In a small way Kafountine is a tourist destination, selling art and gifts and food and beer to those who stay in the dozen or so small lodges along the beach. But after the Gambia it feels like tranquility incarnate. Cap-Skirring, further south, is more or less the French Gambia. This neutral zone in between feels practically undiscovered. Long may it stay that way.

Photos on Flickr.