Entering West Africa
Where does West Africa begin? Coming from the north, we think that it begins in Senegal. Upon crossing the border from Mauritania to Senegal by boat across the Senegal River, the change is palpable. Women, formerly draped in loose fabrics, now wear tightly fitted two-piece outfits in wax print fabrics which reveal their arms and backs. Their veils are replaced with exuberant headscarves, artfully tied askance on their heads. Children come right up to us and smile brightly, peeping “bon-jour!” The atmosphere is peppered with the humourous sounds of the Wolof language. The air seems to positively vibrate.
The entire car bobs to mbalax beats (which draw their inspiration from Cuban rhythms), which pump from the rear speakers of our sept-place taxi on the way to Saint-Louis. It is no longer desert; it is green and sunny and it is the rainy season. We are no longer arranged carefully by gender, with man beside man and woman beside woman, but instead we are now all crammed in together.
As soon as we arrive in Saint-Louis, we shower and change into beach-style clothes, feeling a sort of liberation as the sun shines down on freed female arms. Our hotel is a thatched hut situated on the Langue de Barbarie. This narrow peninsula, squeezed between the Fleuve Senegal and the Atlantic Ocean, is home to the fishing community of Guet N’Dar, where thousands of people fight for space to live on a narrow tongue of sand just 200 metres wide – even taking turns to sleep, according to our taxi driver. Its crowds and smells and unfinished structures contrast with the old town of Saint Louis, which occupies a tiny adjacent island on the Senegal River. The former capital of French West Africa, the town’s wide streets hold old colonial buildings with wooden balconies and faded pastel exteriors, arranged in a methodically planned grid and linked to the mainland by the impressive 19th-century Faidherbe Bridge.
We watch the sun set that evening on the Atlantic ocean, as young men do their daily jogs past us on the beach and children scream while playing in the water. There is an evening call to prayer, but there is also plenty of chilled beer at the restaurants and bars scattered around town. The chili peppers and lemon that night in our poulet yassa prick our tongues with their familiar taste. We are jubilant with the thought that we have entered West Africa!