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Geotag Icon Baobabs and toubabs in northern Senegal

Blog posted by on Oct 5th, 2009

Bikes by the roadside. © Listen to Africa

Bikes by the roadside. © Listen to Africa

Two or three days before we left St Louis, it was Eid-El-Fitr – the end of Ramadan. ‘Two or three’ because, this year, nobody was quite sure when Ramadan officially ended. After a lot of discussion failed to solve the problem, half the town celebrated on Sunday and the other half on Monday.

So, for two days, St Louis’ people dressed in their best finery, walking from home to home to wish their neighbours well and apologise for any bad feeling that may have happened in the past or (and I like this bit) that may yet happen. The young men-about-town we were used to seeing in jeans and football shirts had dusted off their boubous (traditional robes) and were wearing them proudly. Women – usually immaculately dressed – were scrubbed and glowing, with the scarves knotted about their heads seeming even brighter than usual. Children ran between them all in a state of high excitement – and, probably, sugar levels.

Throughout, a lot of eating was happening. The pavements had eerily emptied of the sheep and goats that had been tethered there for weeks. The chickens though were safe, except in the poorest households; who wants chicken at Eid? This is a time to eat sheep if you can afford it, and goat if you can’t.

A few days earlier, Mamcher, a likeable artist we’d got to know in St Louis and the only working male in his family, had been pulling his hair out trying to find the money to buy a sheep for his mother and new clothes for his nephews and nieces. Sheep, he told us, normally cost around 55 Euros but rose to 80 Euros towards the end of Ramadan. So those who could afford to bought a few sheep in advance, then sold them on to desperate families just before Eid – usually on credit, to be repaid with interest over the next year. Apparently here, like anywhere else in the world, keeping up with the Joneses on big occasions can push families into debt for the year.

Early one morning, while most St Louisians were still recovering from the excesses, we pedalled out of St Louis, enormously glad to be on the move again. The wind in our hair, the open road and… the police checkpoint at the edge of town. We were pulled over.

“Where are your helmets?”

We don’t wear helmets. Nobody in Senegal wears a helmet. From our month off the bikes, we knew that cars were often pulled over for imaginary offences which always carried the fine of one or two thousand francs (a few Euros), generating extra income and a lot of resentment for the police. So we lied, telling him our helmets had been stolen and we didn’t have enough money to buy new ones.

“You are very careless. There are bad people around.”

Having learned on this trip that the only people who warn you about bad people are the people who are about to be bad to you, we waited to hear how much he hoped to extort. 18,000 CFA: half a sheep. We were shocked, and it came down to 12,000. We turned our empty pockets inside out and it fell to 6,000. We pointed out a passing helmet-free cyclist and it dropped to 3,000. We opened our wallet (where we keep only 3,000 francs) and told him we must eat. At 2000, we handed over the money and he jovially waved us on, reminding us to look out for the bad people.

And we were off, following a pot holed road that weaved through acacia-dotted savannah into rural Senegal. This was the first time we’d been off the main trunking route since France and it was the stuff of our English pub, trip-planning dreams. Horses and long-horned cattle grazed on grasses that were turning silver as they went to seed. Being late in the rainy season, bright greens were everywhere. Millet and peanut fields were just a few days from harvest. The sand started to get a little redder and a little earthier as we went south, and the odd thick-girthed baobab twisted into the sky in the distance.

If our days were different to the Sahara, our evenings wild camping were even more so; here, everything was alive. Mosquitoes and beetles and dragonflies and moths and an infinity of legged, winged, flying things all single-mindedly aimed themselves at our cooking pot, and flew into it. If, somehow, they missed, they’d point themselves at the larger hole torn in our tent’s netting instead, then spend the night flapping and buzzing and biting and skimming our faces in the dark. One evening, I picked a praying mantis out of my bra – a sentence I never thought I’d write and I’d be happy never to write again.

One evening, in need of a shower, we asked around a hotel-free town whether anyone had a room for the night. A man called Ibrahim offered us (for a price) the hut in his bean allotment, which also had a tap and a watering can: we got out shower, and it was excellent.

Almost all the way, in almost every village or compound of thatched huts, children would stand up and shout “Toubab!” (‘foreigner’ or ‘white person’) as soon as they saw us. For a stretch of two or three days, the word “Toubab!” was inevitably followed by “Donne-moi l’argent!” (“give me money”) – coming from both adults and children. There was never any sense of a question in this statement – it was an order, and refusing was usually met with disbelief and contempt. Wealthier people – including a woman with an expensive, Italian-built home and a car – joined in. Only the elderly never asked (and often clouted children around the ear if they caught them asking).

We were enormously grateful to the older folk of the region for keeping talking to us as human beings. While our emotional well-being isn’t exactly important when it comes to the big questions around poverty and patronage, aid and obligation, I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t mention that being asked for – and refusing – money several hundred times every day can trigger a strange mix of emotions, from extreme guilt and impotence to anger and confusion.

This was especially the case because we couldn’t work out why it was happening to such an extreme here – more than anywhere either of us has been in Africa except, maybe, post-aid Ethiopia. Senegal – while far from rich – is one of Africa’s more comfortable economies. The rains and harvests this year have been excellent. While there wasn’t much paid work around, we didn’t see desperation either. And this wasn’t a tourist area (we didn’t see a single white face or hotel on this stretch) so it wasn’t caused by tourists handing out pocketsful of money, which we’d seen happening near St Louis.

There were though a lot of signs of that aid agencies had been to this area in droves: we saw granaries from Germany, clinics from Belgium, water systems from Italy, roads surfaced by the US… Our best guess was that this area had seen a huge influx of aid, and that white people who weren’t here to hand out money or build infrastructure were unheard of.

That the area had received a disproportionate amount of aid seemed possible; we were just entering the holy city of Touba, the base for Senegal’s most powerful Muslim brotherhood and its holy men, or marabouts. And, historically, marabouts have tended to make sure aid gets distributed to their own back yards.

Marabouts are widely seen as miracle-performing saints by Senegal’s Muslims, but we didn’t really understand their importance until, one night in St Louis, we invited a few (young, urban) acquaintances around to record a conversation, hoping for a short chat about what life was like in Senegal for them, what mattered to them and how they saw Senegal’s place in Africa and in the world. Immediately, the conversations turned to the marabouts – and stayed there, regardless of what we asked, for over four hours (three of which were dedicated to the life and miracles of one marabout).

At first I was frustrated; I had so many questions to ask about things that mattered. Eventually, the penny dropped: the marabouts are what matters to most Senegalese Muslims – more than everyday life or the economy, and certainly more than government or politics. And, having stood up for rural Senegalese people against, say, slavery and (sometimes) the colonial powers, marabouts are folk heroes as well as spiritual leaders.

This makes marabouts enormously powerful (not to mention wealthy…). Marabouts can, and do, control election outcomes, by instructing their disciples how to vote – usually for the existing government with whom they’ve developed a convenient relationship, but occasionally switching allegiances (think Rupert Murdoch and UK elections). They can and do scupper policies that threaten their power base. And so they’ve regularly received sweeteners from successive governments to keep them onside: ‘loans’, access to credit, land and, apparently, the strategic placement of development projects.

Either way, we cycled into Touba, a state-within-a-state into which Senegal’s police weren’t allowed to enter for several years until the marabouts decided to let them in. We didn’t see any sign of the maraboutic militia’s alcohol / arms / money / contraband smuggling racket based here, but we did discover that it was immoral (and illegal) for us to smoke a cigarette in the city. Between that and the absence of hotels, we quickly pedalled past the markets, past the largest mosque in West Africa and out the other side of Touba to Mbacke, a town that offered both a hotel and ashtrays.

Huw and donkey resting in the shade. © Listen to Africa

Huw and donkey resting in the shade. © Listen to Africa

From there, we were back in groundnut and millet country, and everything changed. The demands for money largely stopped. People talked to us. ‘Toubab!’ was always shouted with a smile, and very often a hip wiggle and a hysterical bout of giggling to boot. We started to feel comfortable joining people in the shade of a tree or outside a shop again, and we’d sit and talk about Senegal, England, football, politics, the rains, football, work, the harvests or football. We were welcomed into villages, sincerely questioned about whether we were enjoying Senegal, and able, again, to sincerely answer that we loved it.

The peanut and millet harvests were now in full swing, with women winnowing millet by the roadside and whole villages sorting peanuts under trees. Most villagers farmed on a small scale, many coming into the local shops while we were there to sell a kilo or two of their millet to the shopkeeper. One shopkeeper told us: “Millet is cheap at harvest time, I buy it at 125 CFA a kilo. Then I keep it until March or April, when I can sell it for 200 CFA. This is commerce.” And these were world market prices. The shopkeeper – a small scale millet farmer himself – was giving villagers the ability to sell millet at global market prices by the kilo rather than by the shipload, and releasing small sums of capital to them when they needed it (while turning a profit himself). The system works, but you can imagine how wildly fluctuating global commodity prices – or a sudden influx of food aid – can destroy these precariously balanced livelihoods.

In another village shop, we met Ahmed, a teenager who talked enthusiastically about Senegal’s intellectual giants. “He’s a student,” the shopkeeper explained, proudly. Ahmed also talked about the lack of work in rural Senegal; all the young people have moved to the cities, he said. Nobody is left apart from the elderly and children.

I asked him, a couple of times, in different ways, whether there was work on the farms for young people. Like both other young people I’ve asked, he didn’t seem to understand the question. That may well have have been down to my French – or maybe, to young people, ‘work’ is something that gets money, and farming just gets a livelihood. Our impression is that, in Senegal, young people (understandably) want cash and the promise of a better life; farming is for the elderly, or the very poor and uneducated. This may be inevitable fallout from the collision between a mostly non-cash based economy and a capitalist one in the space of just a couple of generations, but it’s worrying for a country as dependent on agriculture as Senegal.

So, instead, I asked Ahmed what he wanted to do when he finished school. He beamed: “Something extraordinary!” He thought a bit and added. “Something extraordinary that helps my parents.” His parents were farmers.

Because our new resolution is to keep moving no matter how slowly, it took us eight gentle days to cover the 400 kilometres from St Louis to The Gambian border. But, looking at the word count (sorry, as usual!), our arrival in country number seven of our journey is going to have to wait for another couple of days.

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  1. Just loved everything you described in Baobabs and Toubabs in Northern Senegal – perfect description, full of local colour, I can actually see what you write. Brazilian politicians certainly learned some lessons from the Marabouts (or thaught them ?) – especially in the interior cities in North/Northeast, where aid gets distributed to their own back yards and election outcomes are still controlled through instructions on how to vote, or through distributing food in programmes that are paid by the middle class through high taxes – one of the highest in the world

    All in all, I have to admit, Brazilian economy has been improving considerably, poverty and infant death rates have decreased, but there are still many sins in our country. We have a beautiful country, we are creative and hard working, have a good nature, but the “Marabouts” are a pain in the …

    Keep writing – it is great to read about you and Huw`s fantastic expedition .


    Maria Helena

  2. Forgot to mention that Huw and donkey resting under the tree was a lovely picture

    Maria Helena

  3. So much of this resonates with my own experiences in Gambia and Senegal. I’ve bought some woodland 2 miles N of Kartong, just off the main road, and have planted our first 3 baobabs. If this reaches you before you leave Gambia, and you need a (grass-roots basic) place to stay… welcome. 13 07′ 36″ N, 16 45′ 30″ W Verney Kunda – look for the Flying V. Tel: 00220-7827760 Mambuwe or 7827750 Ibu.

  4. Congratulations to you both on your website being nominated ‘Guardian’s Blog of the Month’. We are all very proud of your achievements and your latest offering is raising the ‘readablity’ standard even higher. Well done! The details of your success have been passed to us by Bex’s mum and she is just as delighted as we are.

  5. Bex and Huw or the art of efficient haggling :-)))

    Congrats on your award!


  7. Aw, thanks folks! All very strange but pleasant (the award, not you) :)

    Marlène, wow, you’ve been prolific since I last checked! Going to catch up on it all tomorrow (my battery’s about to die now.) Oh, and thanks :)

    Peter, brilliant stuff (and similarly, I’ll check your website tomorrow when I have a recharged battery). We’re still in Gambia (Sukuta) planning to cycle upriver next, but haven’t worked out our route at all yet – will have a look at the maps tonight and let you know if Kartong may be on the cards. Anyway, thank you, and maybe see you soon!

    Maria Helena, yep, I did think about Brazil a few times as all this was turning over in my mind, but I didn’t realise it was still so bad. Anyway, thanks for your really interesting comment (have you ever thought of starting a blog?!) By the way, we’re going to Guinea-Bissau next, so I’ll be speaking Portuguese again for the first time in years!


  8. really interesting blog, and how curious about the massive increase in being asked for money. the whole piece was fascinating and the descriptions were great, i can picture it all.
    following your journey is like reading a really good book that you don’t want to put down.
    happy to hear how well you both sound
    daphne xx

  9. If you’ve time, call environmentalist Baboucar Mbye “Garden” (7748234 / 9946991) – he may have a project near Sukuta. Very intelligent and dedicated guy. FYI Mambuwe and I went from Kartong to Abene in Casamance across the river Halahin – with bikes – for the festival. Abene’s a real tonic, and if you go that way, there’s an internet cafe run by Laurie Sonko-Marie – / 00221-773798553 / / . I’m in UK till 2 November, but if you do go to Kartong just call Ibu (speaks French) and he and Mambuwe will look after you.

  10. Thank you Daf and thanks Peter, you’re an absolute star :) Unfortunately we didn’t get this in time to contact him. But we’re trying to decide what route to take next (researching the situation in Guinea), and going back to Banjul for a boat is one of our three options, so who knows!


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