Matt Smith experiences the tranquility and natural beauty of Senegal on
his first trip to the country. Travelling from The Gambia he finds great
contrast between these neighbours.
Matt Smith has worked
for us in various guises whilst
studying for a degree in
English and now puts his
talents to good use writing for
is also our e-commerce guru.
I’d been warned about the Banjul/Barra ferry – the ferry across the River Gambia and usual entry point for travellers to Senegal. I was expecting to walk into something that was a cross between Moby Dick and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Which isn’t to say it was a disappointment exactly, just that it all ran a lot smoother than I’d imagined. We arrived in our car around 7.30 and wandered on in the surprising chill of early morning. Around us were people going about their daily business, workers, parties of school children, a huge guy with a fridge on his back; and a collection of vehicles from the smart to the ramshackle slowly trundling aboard, including a vast open-sided white lorry strung with hammocks, each containing a dozing form. Aside from anything particularly hectic, the whole experience had an odd kind of serenity about it: lazily afloat on the light swell, approaching a new destination with the promise of a new country mere kilometres away...
In truth, the crossing acted as a kind of analogue for the difference between the two countries – The Gambia and Senegal – and marked a kind of tonal shift in the atmosphere. For all the love I have for The Gambia, it can be a bit maniacal at times, a puppy biting at your legs. Senegal turned out to be broader, calmer. It could be an effect of simply having more space, and allied to that the lack of a specific zone of tourism where you’re effectively like fish in a barrel. Whatever the reason, I felt the world slip away a little as we drove along the road to the tiny Senegalese village of Toubacouta.
Early evening on the river; the skiff – the hirondelle - sighing on the surface of the water. Before us is the quiet majesty of Keur Saloum, my current home, and embodiment of that gentle Senegalese ambience; everywhere else is the wash of the river and the endless lines of mangroves; the distance is skeletons of baobabs and wide, wide sky. We pull away, the silence broken by the growl of the outboard, and wend our way into gradually thinning tributaries, eventually coming to a stop in a petit-boulong – a mangrove dead end, the trees forming a closed canopy overhead. The roots, now at eye-level, are like a labyrinth, and what appeared from a distance a solid floor is really an aspect of this labyrinth, roots layered on top of roots, a lattice-work rolling into the middle-distance. There is near total silence, save for the creak of wood on wood and the insect-like click of the oysters, clinging in clumps to the exposed roots. As we sit, the heat quickly becomes unbearable, settling like a damp layer of clothes. The pilot’s reignition of the outboard is a blessed relief.
The following morning I’m back on the river, this time my companion is Seku – pilot, fisherman, local expert. We travel 10km upriver, past gaggles of huge pelicans, hunting pied kingfishers and ospreys perched in the tops of the swaying mangroves. It’s hot, penetratingly hot. As the boat speeds up, the nose raises at a 45-degree angle, creating a cooling upturned v of spray. We come to the village of Sipo, a small settlement on the riverbank. I’m here to meet the Queen of Sipo, a semi-legendary figure. The Queen, it turns out, is Fatou, the village matriarch. She must be all of 80, her skin leathered and worn; yet she carries herself with authority – something she carries into her greetings, which are two huge kisses, both aimed at my lips. We sit awhile in the shade of a strawroofed dwelling, divided by language: my French is stammering, schoolboyish, my Jola is even worse; her English is non-existent. After a few minutes of companionable silence, we part with a brief hug, my lips quivering.
Baria, dawn. It’s cold – cold enough to see your breath in the half-light. As the sky starts to lighten in the east, there comes a great squall from the trees, all croakings and metallic chatter. We’ve come to see the bird life at a particularly fertile area near the Gambian border. As the sun rises and the air warms, it’s easy to pick forms out in the surrounding trees: a brown snake eagle, a Bruce’s green pigeon (I’m not sure who Bruce is), a lizard buzzard, 3 glorious Abyssinian rollers in an acacia bush. The vegetation is lush and bright; gardeners appear, tending to vast patches of crops: tomatoes, lettuce, onions. Where a spring rises, we see a huge-footed creeping black crake and a Senegal coucal tackling a 3- foot long snake. Later, we follow the spring to where it widens, and watch by a fording point as people go about their business. 3 women, skirts hoiked up around their thighs wade across the ford with children on their backs, carrying bulging headscarves full of groundnuts; a watercarrier sits atop his cow-powered 2-wheeled cart, the teetering yellow tubs bound for the dozens of surrounding compounds. We sit here for some time, watching the day unfold around us.
Our urges when confronted with scenes like these always tend towards the patronising, but from where I sat there was an undeniable and inviting simplicity to all this: the surrender to the languid rhythms of the day’s necessities, the old old systems of barter and exchange, the ease and genuineness of the companionship. It was like a microcosm of all I’d absorbed in my short time in Senegal. A warmth and calmness I wish I could have packaged and carried home.