You’re On Vacation In this Place? — Up and down Senegal and in and out of The Gambia — Part 3
This article is part of a series. You can read Part 1, where I describe the delights of Dakar and the memorable characters I meet as I explore it, and Part 2, where I get swindled and have a horrible misadventure trying to get in and out of the desert.
It’s 6:30 am and I’m taking what I think is my sixteenth shit since midnight. I am in the throes of full-blown food poisoning and despite the frequent trips to the bathroom, my stomach will not calm down. I am weak and dehydrated and in pain. I creep back to the bed and lay down, trying to summon the strength I will need to pack and leave for the Dem Dikk bus station in half an hour. I’m headed south to Casamance, eight hours by Dem Dikk bus. This region of Senegal is past the small country of Gambia, which cuts through Senegal awkwardly like a knife, because the British laid claim to the Gambia river and the surrounding sliver of country while the French held everything surrounding it. I plan to spend the next few days and ring in the new year in the small village of Abene, where there is a well-known cultural festival taking place. I know nothing about this place other than the fact that it is mainly inhabited by the Diola people, a culturally and religiously distinct ethnic group from the majority Wolof of Senegal. Long dominated by the Wolof, they rose up against the Senegalese government in an armed rebellion that lasted throughout the 1990s and ended in a ceasefire. Periodic attacks and ambushes have occurred in recent years, but things have largely calmed down.
The night receptionist calls me a taxi and wishes me good luck. It’s a short ride to the Dem Dikk bus station where I buy bananas and water for the journey and sit, clenching my sphincter and hoping the worst of the diarrhea has passed before I get on this bus for 8 hours. It has not. I feel a warning rumble and get the fleeting sense that I am not in control. I run in a panic to the nearest WC, where I find a squat latrine and a bucket of water. This is going to be the hardest day of my life.
Eight hours might not appear to be so inordinate a length of time. However, when you’re delirious, holding on to your stomach, clenching your ass, drifting in and out of sleep on a hot bus with a loud engine and surviving only on bananas and water, perceptual time dilation occurs and at some point, you start to forget the time before you were ever on this bus. I open my eyes intermittently to see stretches of dry Sahel, sparsely covered with short brush and every now and then, a baobab tree. After a short rest stop in Kaolack and what seems like a lifetime of driving, the bus slows to a crawl and I look outside to see short squat one-room houses, more Dem Dikk buses, women and children swarming the buses, offering biscuits and water for sale. Have we arrived? I look at my phone and am disappointed to learn that it’s only 1 o’clock and that I’ve been on the bus for about 5 hours. We must be at the border with Gambia. We’re asked to get off the bus and I stumble out into the heat, determined not to faint or shit myself.
Britain first occupied the Gambia river and the surrounding enclave in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War with France, their main rival for the colonization world championship at the time. An American merchant named Thomas Cumming who had traveled extensively in West Africa pitched to the British the idea of capturing Senegal from the French in order to disrupt its trade and weaken it globally. Like any good American, he came out of the whole escapade wealthy as hell. The present-day border that I am now crossing was agreed to in 1889, when the European powers got together in Berlin to divide up Africa. I once read somewhere that one of the root causes of Africa’s political and economic problems is its Balkanization — its division into many small, poor and weak states. The Gambia is smallest country in mainland Africa, surrounded on all 3 sides by Senegal. It’s just 10 miles north and south of the Gambia river. It’s mostly populated by the same peoples that live in Senegal; Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani, Serer. The only reason why I’m suffering through this arbitrary double border crossing is because of some Europeans who were running amok around here 300 or more years ago, fighting each other for control of the trade in gum arabic and enslaved people. And here they still are, in line with me to get our passports stamped for entry out of Senegal. The Gambia appears noticeably poorer than Senegal, I can see it in the airless one-room houses that serve as checkpoints, in the quality of the roads, the outhouse where I go to take a piss, in the desperation in the faces of the women selling snacks, and the tired and disgruntled attitude of the border guards. I get in and out of the bus four separate times, wait in line and enter another hot room full of people who don’t want to be there.
“It’s 5000.” says the Gambian border guard before he stamps my American passport. I know what he’s doing. I feebly protest that there is no fee for crossing the border and he looks at me as if daring me to call the American embassy. I pay up. After a short ride on the bus, I get out again and go to get the Gambia exit stamp. A trio of Italians are in a group hug with a Gambian border guard, singing and laughing. The Gambian speaks Italian and they seem to be bonding over this. “We are all one”, I hear said in English. How nice. It seems that the Europeans have learned to flatter their way through these corrupt checkpoints. I’m in no state of mind to attempt such. Another group of East Asian men press past me and the first hands the agent in front of me his passport. I summon what little strength I have. “Get back! You just got here.” He apologizes, wide eyed. I guess he didn’t notice me because I look like all the other Africans. The woman asks me for another 5000 CFA. I protest that I already paid. “Yes, and you will pay again.” I just want to get the fuck out of here. I pay her and get stamped. I’m finally back on the bus, feeling Gambia’s chronic poverty in my stomach with every pothole in the road and hoping I don’t shit.
As we re-enter Senegal and begin to drive south into Casamance, the dry and dusty brush of the Sahel begins to give way to the lush greenery of the rainforest. I try to eat some sugary biscuits I purchased at the border but something tells me they will run right through my stomach and I can’t have that. I eat another banana instead. They don’t upset your stomach, but they also don’t give you much energy if you’ve eaten nothing else all day. By the time we get to Bignona, where I’m supposed to find a sept-place to take me to Abene, I can barely lift my backpack. I take a private taxi to Diannah where I meet up with someone from the eco-lodge I’m staying in. Abbas is a friendly guy around my age, and I let him arrange another taxi to take us to Abene, where I meet his sister Kady, owner of the lodge and who I have been communicating with on WhatsApp. I tell her my woes and she’s up and about immediately, preparing a meal of rice and vegetables she says will not upset my stomach, showing me to a cool cabana-style room, and bringing in hot water for me to take a shower. She offers to give me a massage with karité oil (shea butter) and I let her. I thank her, take a quick shower and fall into a deep sleep.
I wake up the next morning feeling still fragile but much improved. I venture out and take in my surroundings. The eco-lodge is a large compound with multiple cabana-style huts ensconced in a lot of greenery. There’s a common outdoor area next to a kitchen where Abbas is making breakfast. I thank him for taking care of me the previous night and sit down next to two older white men in their 50s smoking cigarettes and drinking instant coffee. The man smoking is German, taciturn and business-like. The other gentleman is Russian, talks a lot, laughs a lot and is quite jovial. I mention that I’m Nigerian. “Naija boy! Ah, osé ọgá!” he replies laughing. What in the hell? I’ve been through everything on this trip and I should know to expect anything, but now there’s a Russian grandfather speaking to me very fluently in Yoruba and Nigerian slang and my brain is short-circuiting. His name is Sasha and he is a freelance journalist who has spent the last 10 years of his life living and travelling throughout Africa. He speaks fluent Russian, German, French, English and Italian, and a little bit of many African languages. He currently calls Burkina Faso home, but he has lived and travelled in Nigeria, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea -Conakry, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Togo, Benin, Mali, Niger. And as he tells me all this, I realize this man is a living encyclopedia of history and knowledge of Africa. And he loves to talk. His words come out in an uninterrupted monologue, stream of consciousness, and I cannot interrupt with a word or interjection.
“Oh you see, the disease climate saved Africa from extinction, unlike the Native Americans, because the Europeans were not able to penetrate until the 19th century…but what followed was colonialism, robbing the countries of their resources and their people and imposing their culture on the people. And they say colonialism is over it’s really not….let me tell you what the French did… in Burkina Faso where I live, they are truly the best people in Africa, the name of the country means the land of the upright people. And there was hope for them before the French murdered Thomas Sankara…I only report on the positive but there is no hope…The Nigerians, they are a very exciting people to talk to, they may all be crooks, but they’re definitely not boring. When I go to Lagos, I cross the border from Cotonou in Benin to Badagry, I stay in Yaba, where you won’t find a single white man and everybody looks at me like I’m crazy, I stay with my artist friend, he designed the album covers for Femi Kuti, …ah, but the Ghanaians they’re nice if a little boring, and they are very insecure and always don’t want to be confused for Nigerians…so much wasted potential in Nigeria but at least they are in control, unlike the francophone countries where the African elites in power are cooperating with the French and the multinationals to rob the countries blind…and now it’s the Chinese with the loans and the Indians and the Russians are the worst, coming in with the arms, and the technology to rig elections…the IMF, they gutted all of the country’s education with structural adjustment policies , so now the new generation is completely stupid, just looking at what the boyfriend is doing in WhatsApp…and in Gambia, they just got rid of their old asshole dictator, and now there is a new asshole…” On and on he goes like this, he doesn’t seem to pause for breath, only to laugh and keep going and I’m overwhelmed by all the history and knowledge I’m getting and I want to interject and input my opinions and anecdotes too and contribute to this conversation but he won’t let me. The German just listens, cigarette in hand, expressionless.
Since we’re on the subject, I press him about all the terrible Europeans I’ve met so far in this journey. I tell him this is not what I was expecting and that I’ve been blindsided by the number of Europeans and the colonialist mentality still prevalent. As I’m quickly learning, the Russian knows everything and has a 10-minute soliloquy as an answer to every question.
“Listen my friend, there are four types of Europeans you will find in Africa. First, there are the capitalist vultures. They come here to make money, because there is a lot of money to be made in Africa if you know and sign contracts with the right assholes. They care nothing for the continent and take the money back to Europe. Second, you have the NGO types, 22 years old, first job out of the university, they think they are helping but they are just operating in the neocolonialist framework, because they earn far more money than their skills are worth, save more money than they would in France, and get an experience on their resume when they leave after one year. And then you have the sad people, the escapees, the old shameless sex tourists and they come here to fuck 22-year old girls and boys, because there is nothing for them in Europe, and this is the category in which I would put myself.” He laughs charmingly.
“You’re a sex tourist?” I ask, eyebrow raised.
“Well,” he says sheepishly, “my girlfriend in Ouagadougou, she’s 22, I’m 54, we met at a stoplight because everybody rides motorcycles to get around, I want to get married, her parents don’t want that…I was already married with a woman from Cameroon, we have a son…”
Well, at least he’s honest, I think to myself as he continues his monologue. I have to admit I like him.
“And then, there’s a fourth category of Europeans, the ones who truly love Africa and are doing something good, and there’s maybe 10 such people on the entire continent. Damba!! Where have you been you crazy bastard?”
I look and there’s a man joining us. He is African but with Arab admixture, Sudanese.
“This is Damba,” Sasha says, beaming contentedly as always. “My traveling companion.”
The two met in Accra, and Damba is living in Ziguinchor, capital of Casamance, 2 hours south of us. Damba is a Sudanese businessman who left the telecommunications industry and is now looking to do his part in the Sisyphean task of industrializing Africa. He owns a cashew-processing plant, the first in Senegal which grows a lot of the stuff. I learn why this is significant through another monologue from Sasha.
“The situation is hopeless. Can you imagine that he is the first? All over the continent, they don’t manufacture anything. They sell their cash crops for very cheap to foreigners, and they import manufactured crap. The consumers have been convinced that this manufactured foreign crap is what they should aspire to consume, sending their paycheck to importers and foreign manufacturers…the Nigerians sell their crude oil and buy back refined petroleum, though now Dangote says his trying to build one…” He sounds almost upset as he speaks, and i realize the man has a true love and passion for Africa. l also remember wondering why the women at the border were selling sugary biscuits that didn’t look like they were made in Senegal instead of anything natural.
I‘m happy to be in conversation with an educated and worldly African who lives here and can help me make sense of all I’ve seen. On the subject of the shitty Europeans in the country, Damba has a very interesting perspective. “I like to fuck the white girls.” He’s quite in agreement that they are all racist and he believes they find him safe as he’s African but “kind of brown.” His way of fighting white supremacy is to fuck them, and then after, without being emotional about it, calmly expose their hypocrisy and challenge their racist assumptions. Throughout the five or so days we spend together, he repeats this like a mantra. “I fuck the white girls.” And if they decide they want something more from him than sex, it’s goodbye. He would never marry one as he’s a traditional Sudanese man and he has ideas about what a woman’s role is that these European women will not share. He says all this in a matter of fact manner, and in his Arabic accent, it just sounds very amusing to me.
He and Sasha have other friends joining them to ring in the year in Abene, as there is a big expat community of Europeans in Ziguinchor and he made friends with some of them (white girls). And like characters in a play, the archetypes Sasha defined for me begin to enter the stage one at a time. Louis is a tall and lanky 22-year old. I ask him where he’s from.
“Ah…nice.” I say, making a face that communicates that I think quite the opposite.
Damba grins at me and Louis looks taken aback. I guess I’m being rude. The young Frenchman lives in Ziguinchor for his work for an NGO that teaches the local women permaculture and helps them improve the output of their farms. He believes in the work and he’s quite convinced he’s making a difference. He’s with an older Spanish woman named Teresa who moved to Ziguinchor from London and is practicing Chinese medicine. I ask her why her people really like to take pictures of African toddlers. “It’s just different,” she insists. “It’s not because we’re trying to mock them.” I ask her if she takes pictures of kids in public housing in Madrid. “Maybe not.” she responds. Louis is young and earnest and seems a bit apprehensive of me. Teresa is quite unbothered by my grilling and is quite friendly.
Hours later, we’re all seated at dinner and the topic of conversation goes to the French presence in the country. “Well, I think we should never have colonized them in the first place,” Louis intones solemnly. “That was wrong, but now we are trying to help them.” He truly believes it. When I counter him with the fact that the French still have a neo-colonialist presence on the continent, he goes red in the face.
“And what is neocolonialism?! I don’t understand. Can you explain me?”
The old Russian chimes in with a lecture. “Neocolonialism is the continuation of the colonial relationship under a different arrangement, where the domestic policy of the country is controlled from outside, and the old colonial master cooperates with the local elites to continue to expropriate the natural resources of the country…”
“Well, I don’t think colonization was only to take away the resources.” Louis responds indignantly.
“Why do you think the French sent all those soldiers and administrators to come all the way here?” I ask incredulously.
His eyes are bulging now. “To teach them to respect France!”
A chorus of laughter goes up around the table. He is naive. He thinks France sent all their people to come here and fight and die of malaria because they wanted some Africans to respect France? Sasha begins to school the younger man while the rest of us listen. After World War II in which more than a million African soldiers went to Europe to fight the Nazis, the barbarism they witnessed really took the shine off the myth of European supremacy, and the Africans began to agitate for independence from Britain and France. The British saw the writing on the wall and mostly packed up peacefully. The French got stuck in a bloody protracted war to hold on to Algeria, and recognizing that their war-ravaged nation would not have a future if it couldn’t hold on to its African colonies, they became strategic. They predicated granting independence on the signing of cooperation agreements, that would govern future relations between France and its former African possessions. These cooperation agreements covered everything from raw materials to higher education and the military. The goal was to keep the French in control despite the fact of nominal independence.
A key pillar of these cooperation agreements was the franc zone or the CFA, the monetary union of fourteen West and Central African states that were formerly ruled by France. The currency was pegged to the franc, and is now pegged to the euro, allowing France to set the prices for the raw materials it purchases from its former colonies. Since the monetary policy for the euro is set by the European Central bank, the developing African countries have no control over their monetary policy, are not able to ease or constrain the money supply to stimulate their economies as needed. To add insult to injury, a condition for the French guaranteeing the CFA is that the countries have to contribute 50% of their foreign reserves in the French treasury (They used to have to contribute 100% and then 75% until 2005). Only recently, with renewed outcry has the government of Emmanuel Macron announced reforms that will make some superficial changes and rebrand the currency.
However, back in 1960,the country of Guinea to the south of Senegal refused to play this game. Under the leadership of trade unionist Sekou Toure, Guinea withdrew from the franc zone. In response, the French secret services flooded the country with counterfeit bank notes, sending its economy into tailspin within weeks. As a lesson to the other African countries, they were so vindictive in destroying and packing anything they had contributed to the country, that they dumped medicine into the ocean and literally unscrewed light bulbs on their way out. And when a Togolese leader had the same idea of creating its own currency, he was quickly killed by French-trained soldiers. Since the 1960s, the French have wielded political and economic control over their former African colonies. The only difference now is that it does so with the cooperation of an oligarchic African elite. And whenever its control has been seriously challenged, the military option has been brought to bear. As Sasha tells this story, providing example after example, I look at poor Louis and feel a little sorry for him. He really thinks he’s one of the good guys.
I pass the next few days in the bucolic village with this eclectic coterie of travelers, going to the beach and going out at night to watch the music and dancing on display at the Abene Cultural Festival. There is an ersatz Rastafarian beach bum culture in the village, with a lot of young musicians with dreadlocks walking around with instruments, and smoking a lot of weed. There are Europeans, so many of them, some young, but mostly older. And a bizarre phenomenon that I will learn is par for the course up and down the coast of Senegal and Gambia: French, Spanish and Dutch women in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, some overweight, walking arm in arm, kissing and hugging young fit handsome African men in their 20s. The sex tourism Sasha alluded to is out in the open, it couldn’t conceal itself from the most unperceptive observer because it just seems to go so strongly against nature. Every time I see one such couple, I stop and stare open-mouthedly. Sometimes the women are in a more conventional age range, and I spot many mixed-race toddlers running around. I find it so hard to understand. This village has the beach, not even one paved road, not to speak of any other tourist infrastructure, and yet there are just as many Europeans here as Africans, and many seem to have settled here semi-permanently. Why?
At a party one night, I ask Abbas if he’s looking for a girl. He says yes.
“Senegalese or European?” I ask.
“European of course,” he replies, laughing as always. “I want to leave Senegal, travel and know other places.”
Fair enough. Why else would a young man get involved with an old white lady? Money and a chance at a visa to go to Europe. Later on the way home, I ask Kady how she feels about what her brother told me. She hisses in disgust. “No! These Europeans, they don’t respect the Africans. They just come and take what they want and leave.” It’s a tale as old as time in these parts.
On New Years’ Eve, we are joined by Abel, a Senegalese friend of the expats in Ziguinchor. He’s in his forties and lived in Toronto for many years. He came back to Senegal and now owns a farm looking to scalably grow cash crops for sale and create jobs for the community. When asked how things are going, he shrugs pessimistically. “You know the Senegalese way.” We hear there is a big bonfire happening on the beach and that’s where we head. Sasha goes to bed early, I guess he’s seen many a new year. I’ll have to do without his stories of the brothels of Berlin when he was a Red Army Soldier stationed there in the 1980s. Damba keeps joking that he’s in the KGB.
The beach is full of hundreds, maybe a thousand people. Europeans and Africans in equal measure. Where did all these people come from? Some more young friends of Louis from his NGO join us. A couple of makeshift bars have been set up, one manned by a septuagenarian white hippie woman with dreadlocks. Once the new year has been counted down and rung in, reggae music begins to blasts from speakers and we all dance wildly on the beach, young and old, black and white, and for a moment I manage to stop thinking critically about what I’m seeing. I join Abel a few feet away with some other people gathered around a bonfire. People are running in a circle around the fire, stepping and dancing frenziedly to the djembe. Abel tells me this is Mandinka culture. And in the midst of the Africans are several “caucasians of color”, as I’ve heard them referred to on Twitter, sporting braids and cornrows, jumping and dancing even more enthusiastically than the Africans. I ask Abel if he thinks their presence is good or bad. “Bad,” he says matter-of-factly, shaking his head. “They are just here to experience the jungle. This is what they’re here for.” I sense no righteous indignation on his part though, it doesn’t bother him all that much. It’s just not in the local culture to be outraged about these people. Maybe my sense of indignation is an American luxury, one that comes from acquaintance with a social justice online subculture eager to call out “problematic” behavior.
Teresa finds us and sits next to me, resting her hand on my knee. I’m caught up in the spirit of the fire and the New Year and the stars, and I decide to try and make up for my rudeness. I explain that I gave her a hard time because of her fellow Spaniards, and that I just feel that there is a phenomenon of Europeans coming here to exploit the continent without any sensitivity to its people or its issues. She is resistant to the idea that she has any privilege and asks me why I think she does. “Well you can leave whenever you want, right? You can go back to London or Madrid.” As we continue to talk, I begin to realize that this woman has no clue about the history or the context of the place she currently calls home. She tells me colonialism brought benefits to the people and when I ask her what the benefit was, she mentions the French language, which helps me communicate with them. And when I try to connect for her the through-line between colonialism and the present-day problems of Africa, she offers that the sun makes people lazy, and as proof of this, the north of Spain is more industrious than the South. She also complains about the way the Senegalese who work for her do things, and offers that they feed their children only rice, which just doesn’t nourish their children’s brains enough throughout the school day. I suddenly realize that in the first few hours of the Year of our Lord 2020, I’m talking to an old-fashioned settler colonist. Like many of her ancestors before her, she has uprooted herself from Spain, but instead of the highlands of Peru or the valleys of Mexico, she has settled in Senegal, confident in her disdain for the natives. At this point, we’re walking home, I’m drunk and beginning to lose my cool, and I lecture her heatedly about the development of political and economic institutions, and other concepts the woman has probably never heard uttered in her life.
“Well, these political and economic institutions, they are to manipulate people, no?”
Oh. I stop for a moment. It dawns on me that the woman is not being malicious, she’s just not very knowledgeable. I look behind and realize young Louis has been hovering around us nervously. I guess he feels protective of her. I leave them and join Damba, who’s drunker than me and having a fantastic time. “I fucking hate your friend.” I tell him.
The next morning, I wake up very late and go to breakfast. I’m out of cash and the only ATM is an hour away in Bignona and I’m not looking forward to going there. Teresa tells me the ATM there regularly runs out of cash and I might be going on a fool’s errand. She’s pleasant and friendly, as if I wasn’t yelling at her 8 hours ago. She offers to give me cash if I can transfer the equivalent amount electronically. The woman may have zero knowledge about where she lives and may be pretty racist, but she’s certainly pleasant and generous. Damn this woman, she won’t even let me righteously dislike her in peace. They are all leaving that day to return to Ziguinchor, and I say goodbye to Damba, whose company I really enjoyed and who I will genuinely miss. Teresa gives me a hug and smiles. “Keep talking to people and learning.” I can tell she means it.
“I will.” I say. And you, start learning.
Two Nigerian women checked in to the eco-lodge on New Years’ Eve. I find this out from an excessively delighted Sasha. I’m excited to talk to some fellow Nigerians about all I’ve seen, but the conversation leaves me drained and even more pensive. While the first is quite pleasant, the other is excessively haughty and puts on so many airs that I find her exhausting. She lives in London and is a banker, and she does this thing certain kind of affluent Nigerians do where they constantly switch their accents, speaking in a hard Nigerian accent for one sentence, and then suddenly switching in the next sentence to sound like the Queen of England. I think it’s a preemptive defense mechanism to both signal her authenticity as a Nigerian to me, but at the same time highlight her proximity to the UK and its elite schools and institutions, and signal that she is accomplished and to be taken seriously. As I recall my experience in the country and we have a wide-ranging conversation about US and UK politics, she’s contrarian every step of the way, defending Teresa’s theories and dismissing colonialism as relevant to African problems today. She asks me if my life has noticeable worsened under Trump. When I say many peoples’ lives have worsened and cite immigrants as an example, she wonders why the USA should let people from other countries in. At some point, she laments the construction of council estates in the UK because people buy and eventually own them. I tell her dumbfoundedly that this is in fact a good thing as this is how poor people become middle-class, by owning assets. Every topic we touch on goes like this, and I zone out, wondering if there are more Tory Nigerians like this who lament the availability of public housing in the UK. But the conversation forces me to consider that no one people have a monopoly on ignorance and the inability to see the humanity in others. This Nigerian woman shares many of the same opinions that I found so odious in Teresa and I have to concede the point when she tells me that getting upset over people’s ignorance will only leave me constantly in a state of rage.
My last day in Abene is spent helping Abbas create AirBnB listings for the rooms at the eco-lodge. He walks me to the main road, where we take a selfie and say goodbye. I hop on a motorcycle, the first in a sequence of vehicles that will ferry me on a long journey through many towns in Casamance until I reach Banjul, capital of The Gambia. At least for the time being, my adventure in Senegal has come to an end.