La Casamance/ Au Revoir Dakar

“Gee Sam,” I hear you saying, “here you are with less than 24 hours left in Senegal, and you haven’t been keeping us posted on your whereabouts, activities, and audacious exploits.  Where you been?”  So.  I went to the Casamance, and since then I’ve been saying my goodbyes.

La Casamance is the big chunk of Senegal that exists south of the Gambia, or for the more visually inclined, it’s where Pac Man’s lower jaw would be as he gobbled up the Gambia river and the narrow nation hunkered on its banks.  Historically traded back and forth between French and Portuguese colonial administration, The Casamance is the traditional home of the Diola people, the majority ethnicity in the region who constitute only 4% of the overall population of Senegal.  In 1982, Diola extremists formed the separatist group MFDC to protest ethnic marginalization, and the rebels led a low level but violent insurgency against the Senegalese army from 1985 until a relatively stable ceasefire was negotiated in 2004.  The MFDC has been dormant since then, but in 2010 a shipment of small arms from Iran believed to be destined for the Casamance was seized in the port of Lagos, Nigeria, and there are still a lot of guns and robbers floating around down there.  Everyone I asked about the Csamance told me the same two things: it was gorgeous at this time of year, and don’t drive anywhere at night.  I decided I had to go, my final voyage in Senegal.

My friends T.W., S.O., A.D., M.F. and four Senegalese friends of ours bought round trip tickets on the majestic 500-passenger capacity Aline Sitoe Diatta, a vessel that combines the reliability of German engineering with the excitement of Senegalese maintenance.  The trip is a sixteen hour haul down the Atlantic coast and then up the mangrove-choked banks of the Casamance river to the town of Ziguinchor, and because I had bought the cheapest ticket available I spent my night dozing through a squall in room full of rows of seats that looked kind of like coach class in an airplane.  I woke up early in the morning, went on deck, and found that the lashing wind of the night before had given way to a humid breeze.  I could hear birds crying in the forest alongside, river dolphins leapt in the wake of the ship, and on the banks of the river I could see villages of thatched-roof huts and fishermen pushing brightly colored pirogues out into the water.  It was amazing, indelible.  At times in Dakar I’ll see a donkey cart next to a Landrover or someone boiling water in the street over a woodfire and think how old-fashioned and out of place such things look in that rapidly developing metropolis, but here I was the one that was anachronistic and out of place.  Part of my fascination with Africa was sparked by reading Heart of Darkness in freshman year of high school, and colonialist overtones aside, for the first time I really understood Marlow’s enthrallment and awe as he watched the riverbanks unfold beside his steamboat slowly churning up the Congo River.

Ziguinchor was exactly like I had imagined it—old, colonial, and slowly crumbling.  We had checked into the finest hotel in town, but arrived to find that due to a reservation confusion our rooms were not available.  Our Senegalese friends claimed that they knew another hotel, and when I asked one of them about it he said that he spent all of his nights in Ziguinchor there.  I quickly found out why.  The building was, in fact, the largest nightclub in the Casamance, but they also happened to rent a few rooms.  For $15 each my roommate T.W. and I got placed in a concrete-walled chamber literally 2 yards away from the door of the nightclub that opened up to the hotel.  We dropped our bags and headed out to Cap Skirring, rumored to have the finest beaches in West Africa. 

We drove two hours from Ziguinchor in a rented minivan through thick jungle interspersed with broad flat estuaries.  Cap Skirring, it turned out, had wonderful beaches and nothing else—it wasn’t tourist season, which meant that every hotel, restaurant, and bar in town was shuttered.  The only roundabout in town was blocked for 10 minutes by a congregation of over 200 muslims doing the evening Salah of Ramadan, and after the road cleared we headed back to Ziguinchor.  Cap Skirring and all of the towns and villages we passed through were eerily quiet—whether it was the somnolence of a tourist area out of season or the ghostly emptiness of a region recovering from civil war and conflict I couldn’t say.  Quiet, quiet, quiet.

Back in Ziguinchor we treated ourselves to the finest restaurant in town for dinner, French cusine on a jetty stretching out into the river.  Over a plate of Steak au Poivre Congolais I got to know our Senegalese traveling companions a little better.  First, there was O., who lives in San Diego currently and owns bars and nightclubs in California and North Carolina, shipping enterprises in France, and a variety of stores and houses in Dakar.  He is a millionaire in American dollars, whereas in comparison I am only a millionaire in West African Francs.  He insisted on paying for the whole dinner and a lot of other things besides.  There was also B., who works as assistant director for commercials for an advertising company in Dakar and is like the Don Draper of Senegal.  His most recent production was a hugely popular advertisement for sheep fodder.  There was B.J., a banker who was serving out his contract for a Senegalese bank in Ziguinchor before he returned to Dakar for a promotion, and lastly C., who wore a Miami Heat flatbrim, an Ed Hardy t-shirt, and lectured me on the finer points of wine appreciation.  “Red wine must always be served cold,” he said, “because then it is both tasty and refreshing.” Later in the night he warned me never to drink wine through a straw, because it isn’t classy and only a Nigerian would do that.  That night I got what sleep I could as Senegalese dance music pounded from the club across the hall.

The next day we woke up, visited a local Batik artist, and got back on the boat.  It rained, the trip was long, and we pulled into Dakar at 6 AM the next day.  Now you might be thinking it seems a little foolish to spend a bunch of money and take a 32 hour round trip by boat to spend a grand total of 28 hours in the Casamance, but I don’t think it is.  I like boats and I love to travel, and often I feel that I have to try everything that is possible or different from what I’m familiar with.  The money I spent for an entire weekend traveling to and around the Casamance is about the same as I pay for the 6 hour train trip from my home in Boston to my college in Philadelphia, with a lot more excitement and adventure involved.  I’ve got a lot of years ahead of me to travel comfortably and make plans in advance and go on vacation in places that haven’t recently been under a travel ban.  I’m at the age where I want good food to eat and nice drinks to drink and beautiful things to look at right NOW.  It’s a big world out there.  You’ve got to go see it before it shrinks.

And so now I’m back in Dakar.  My last few hours here read a little bit like Goodnight Moon.  Goodbye mosque.  Goodbye gym.  Goodbye to my cat, so black and thin.  And adios to Paco the barber.  I’m packing up, buying final gifts for my family and friends, walking around Yoff for the last time, and calling clients and friends to say goodbye until my phone credit runs out.  Home tomorrow.  Au Revoir Dakar.



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