Monday, October 19, 2009

Saint Louis!

On Friday night, I piled in a sept-place with 6 of my fellow students to make the trek up to Saint Louis. Saint Louis was the colonial capital of Senegal, located on two islands about a 4-hour drive north of Dakar, and still remains both a tourist center and a hub of activity defined by beautiful, European style architecture and a 100 year old bridge that connects island to mainland. My host family is originally from a small village just outside of Saint Louis, where they still own a family house, and they really wanted me to pay a visit to see the birthplace of both my parents. Luckily, several of my fellow classmates were willing to make the trip with me, just enough to fill a sept-place which is a Senegalese form of transportation- essentially a station wagon that squeezes in seven people.

We left from the central train station in Dakar (note: trains no longer run in Senegal, the tracks are all in bad shape, but other forms of transport leave from the station) around 8pm, at which point it was quite a hub of activity. Luckily, my brother Diama escorted us to the station and helped us find a car, or else we certainly would have been lost or at the very least ripped off. Besides some traffic leaving Dakar, the ride was smooth, and we arrived in Rao (the village where my family is from) before 1am where my cousin Doudou and brother Basse awaited us. We were all exhausted from the ride, but were invited to stay up for ataya: which I am incapable of turning down. So, needles to say, after the three cups (only 2 of us made it all the way through), I was sufficiently tired and fell right asleep in the mattresses set up for us in the salon.

The next morning, we woke up and ate some breakfast that consisted of bread as usual, alongside kin-kili-ba and cafe touba, two equally delicious hot drinks. We also made eggs which was a nice change of pace, but my cousin directed the cooking in Senegalese style: which means using excessive amounts of oil (let me just say it was disgusting and I tried not to think about it as I enjoyed an egg and cheese sandwich). After a typical example of "Senegalese time", we finally left the house and made our way to a national park called Langue de Barbaries, which literally means Tongue of the Savages (I'm not sure why).

Birds at the national park, the meeting of ocean and river in the background

We took a pirogue out into the river, and saw many beautiful birds and houses (smaller cottages) along the way. We stopped on an island that divides the river and the ocean and is the home to birds and crabs that live together. The most incredible part was seeing where the ocean and the river met- resulting in a spontaneous beach with crashing waves accompanied by strange, bubbly sand that suctioned itself to my feet. The beach was beautiful, and we relaxed there for a bit, catching crabs, wading through the water, and generally enjoying the quiet, serenity, and beauty.

By this time, we were all very hungry, so we drove into Saint Louis and went to a restaurant where I ate the most delicious ceeb-u jen I have ever tasted. The fish was extremely fresh and cooked to perfection. After satisfying the need for traditional Senegalese food, we walked around the colonial part of the city (the northern of the two islands), where the French originally inhabited. The architecture was beautiful and colorful, and the streets were lined with small boutiques and cafes.

In front of the 100+ year old bridge connecting mainland and northern island

After our walk, we took a horse buggy ride around the southern island: where the Senegalese lived during colonialism and still live today. The difference between the two sides was like night and day, and seemed to me to be a constant reminder of the effects of colonialism. As well constructed and aesthetically pleasing as the northern island was, the southern island was clearly still suffering from lack of infrastructure and poverty. The French side was clearly very westernized and felt more like a European city, while the Senegalese side once again reminded us that we were in a third world, developing country. It was very eye opening to me, that although colonization ended 50 years ago, it still has quite an effect on life today.

Saint Louis: the northern side

Saturday night, we ended up going to a concert in the soccer (rather, football) stadium in Saint Louis. Once again, in true Senegalese fashion, the concert was supposed to start at 7pm. Anticipating a delay, we stopped for some ice cream (still stuffed from a late lunch) and arrived at the stadium at 9pm. However, as we should have expected, the concert did not start until midnight. Although we were all extremely tired from a long day, we stayed strong until after 3am. Our determination paid off: the concert, especially the last three acts, were really good but also apparently some of the most famous musicians in Senegal. One song, performed by a group called Fallou Dieng, was called Maana- a song that we have heard many times on the radio and all over Dakar which is one of the most popular songs in all of Senegal. We danced with the best of them, but did get some very strange and confused looks. I guess it is not often that you see a group of toubabs trying to dance like the Senegalese.

Concert set up in the stadium

That night, we crashed hard and woke up the next morning to rain (a surprise considering the rainy season ended a month ago). We ended up relaxing to pastries and coffee in a cafe downtown, took a quick stroll through the market, and then were on our way back to Dakar, arriving back home before dark. I was pleased by my return, as I was greeted by smiles and excitement that I had discovered Saint Louis and even slept in the house where my host mother and father were born.


  1. Hi Emma, Keeping to routine, I must post a comment to your blog. Your trip to Saint Louis sounds really great and exhausting! Was the audience at the concert mostly young people and is the dancing very different then here? What type of music was played?

  2. Hi Emma-
    Sounds like an interesting excursion and the "relics" of British domination after so much time has lapsed is sad but such is the case in so many parts of the world. Looking forward to more updates but can't imagine how tired you must get with outings like this!