Monday, September 28, 2009

Mud, Mangroves, and Islands made of Shells

Last Wednesday, our group piled into two vans and made our way over the pot-holed filled roads to Toubacouta, a village near the Senegalese border with The Gambia. The drive was long - we left Dakar at 7am and didn't arrive at our hotel until nearly 12 hours later - but filled with striking landscape and no lack of chocolate croissants and delicious Senegalese food on the way. Once arriving at our hotel, I was a little shaky from the ride (only those who have driven the road from Kaolack to Sokone can understand), but the air conditioning and pool that awaited us promised a luxurious stay.

Over the course of the extended weekend trip, we visited several different rural communities in the area. We spoke with two different women's groups who have led successful microfinance projects within their village networks. With one of these groups, we trekked through knee deep mud, planting mangroves to reforest the degraded ecosystem- an adventure that resulted in several mud fights. Later on, we took a pirogue ride through the mangroves, past their roots protruding from the water and covered in oysters, a source of revenue for the women's group. We rode through the delta and the mazes of mangroves, before arriving at an island made entirely of shells. The island, while once inhabited by humans, is now only home to birds and baobab trees, with human remains buried under piles of shells along with their most prized possessions. To me, the whole mangrove experience was surreal, a mix of the fire swamp from the Princess Bride and the floating island in Life of Pi.

We also had the chance to visit both a health post in a larger community, and a health hut in a smaller village. In both places we were sources of pure fascination to the children that lived there, a large group of American students who descended upon them, unable to speak their language. I came away with some souvenirs, two bracelets from young girls that seemed to enjoy my blond hair. Being outside of Dakar in the smaller villages was refreshing, away from all the pollution and hagglers and vendors. Although difficult, life in these rural communities seemed so peaceful, and I try not to generalize, but satisfying. Needless to say, I am very excited to move out of Dakar for our internship phase, to slow down and see another side of Senegalese life, marked by entire village movements to support the local football team and freshly baked baguettes at the market.

One night, we went to a traditional "lutte" in a neighboring village, a wrestling match which along with football is the national sport (followed as religiously as Islam). No one knew what to expect, and when we arrived we were greeted by masses of people dancing, cheering, and playing the drums, all surrounding what appeared to be the wrestling "ring", a sandy circle filled with well toned Senegalese men showing off their best moves. It soon became apparent that we were the guests of honor- there were seats saved for our arrival. Luckily, we were not in the front row, as fighting men were inevitably flung into the crowd. The fight is all about honor and community pride, and the men who lose can not stand up and walk away but instead must be dragged away by their supporters. Unfortunately, this was only explained to me after the fight, so throughout the fighting I thought the men were severely injured and physically unable to leave the ring.

Overall, the trip was great. Driving back into Dakar, in bumper-to-bumper Sunday night traffic, brought us all back to the reality of city life. However, in a month's time, I will be here doing this!

Pictures to be uploaded when I have replaced the batteries in my camera.


  1. I'm reading now, Emma! I hope you're having fun! I miss you and the other Grinnelleans abroad so much.... I will raise a jello shot to you and Ellen at Alumni :)

  2. Hi Emma,
    What is a pirogue? Your description sounds so surreal, I can only imagine how it must have been to actually be there. Looking forward to the pictures. love and hugs, Aunt Judy

  3. Hi Aunt Judy! A pirogue is a wooden boat that is made by hand here, it is kind of like a longer version of a canoe. Sometimes people here use them to illegally immigrate to Spain, which is a long trip and often doesn't work out as planned :-(

  4. Emma,
    The last picture posted with the piroque is absolutely breathtaking!
    It is an incredible shot.