Senegal, country with a warm heart, that has conquered me. The Senegalese people call it the country of Teranga, one of those words that cannot be perfectly translated and must, therefore, to be taken as they are.
In the local language, in fact, Teranga means welcoming, but also opening to others, hospitality, story, doors opened to a shared everyday life, respect, sharing of emotions, smiles. If we add the rhythm stressed by the djembe and the delicious thé à la menthe (mint tea), Senegal boils down to something simple, genuine and warm.
Unlike most of the Africa better known and navigated in tourism, that of the east or of the South, that of the most famous safari parks, of the highest mountains of the mainland and of the postcard sea, Senegal, the destination that is opening up to tourism, is an unusual discovery, different for geographical location and also for some cultural aspects, to that Africa that the common imagination expects.
But then what is Senegal, what has it got to offer? And why is it worth going there? Senegal is a mix of landscapes, of civility, jobs and traditions all combined together by the Teranga: the common thread, red thread, that connects the north to the south of this joyous and cheerful state in West Africa.
Senegal is the special friend that perfumes of mango, ripe as its people and greedy as life should be.
But it is also a unique, spicy and oniony rice-based dish: whether it be yassa poulet or poisson yassa (rice and chicken or rice and fish) it is rich in taste and complete and is shared with other diners from a single large plate.
Whether you use the spoon or your hands to take it into your mouth makes little difference: the richest parts of the plate are shared out with those at the table, or most likely sitting on the ground, with us, to remind us that Africa, and this is true for the entire continent, is an anthem about sharing.
If it were a drink, it would be at least three juices: the pink juice of the guava, the juice of bissap and that of the baobab. Refreshing (bissap), regenerating (guava) and anti-inflammatory (baobab). A destination that serves a bit as an elixir for a good life.
This completeness and fleshiness is also found in many ingredients or dishes of the Senegalese daily life: in the shea butter that melts in your hands, protects the skin but does not have all this pleasant scent; in the touba coffee, beautifully black and spicy; in the sandwich with onions for breakfast, strong taste which will then ooze from the skin for days and leave the smell of Africa on everybody.
In Africa, a trip is particularly involving because the places do not exclude consideration of the people. The black continent frightens and petrifies, and yet I cannot define the Senegal dangerous, indeed, far from it.
But it’s not easy to abandon oneself to be permeated by Africa, by its slow and yet constantly chaotic pace, its smells, by the particular conception of time, by its contrasts and rooted typical kindness of those who have little, and the little that he has, he wants to share.
Senegal thanks to its small size can also be discovered in just two weeks, but what are the must-see places that this country offers us?
Senegal Top 10
Saint Louis is the first colonial city of Black Africa. Remained intact over time, it has an enormous hold on me for its border location. It is that far north as to be almost Mauritanian and is a sign of an Africa that has been dominated for centuries and that has had to shake off the burden of a failure to independence.
At the same time it also represents the new Africa.
The city faces the gates of the Sahel and at the same time the mouth of the Senegal River, enchants for its colorful streets and the continued vitality that involves in the lives of the fishermen and the fabric markets.
Saint Louis is quite far from the airport of Dakar, so to be considered above all as a great starting point for excursions in the desert or in the national park of the Langue de Barbarie, a nesting site for sea birds and some species of turtles. We have to go there on purpose but I think the comprehension of the far north will help us understand the complexity of the entire country.
The National Parks
Even in Senegal, as elsewhere in Africa, we tend to protect the environmental uniqueness and the richness of native flora and fauna by establishing parks and nature reserves. To the north, in the Saint Louis area, is located Djoudj, a bird sanctuary where you can take a journey into the journey, in a pirogue among myriads of migrant birds.
Bandia, instead, is the reserve where to do the most desired and classic safari where there is no shortage of zebras, rhinos, giraffes, impalas, tortoises, crocodiles, buffalos and monkeys.
Its location close to the coast, and of transition from Dakar to the maritime Petite Côte, facilitates the access to the park and the absolute change in panorama even during a vacation by the beach.
It is, instead, necessary to embark on the journey of journeys to visit the Ferlo reserve in central Senegal. A difficult pearl to reach where the desert merges with the savannah. A wild place on the way to Mali, of which to assign at least 5-7 days of travel considering the distances, the dilated time of Senegal and the vastness of the park.
Others are the parks of interest for those who love nature and biodiversity, for example, the Niokolo-Koba in Casamance, whose remote location preserves it from being spoilt by man and the region in which it is to be explored by backpacker in slow and sustainable paces.
Gorè Island, World Heritage
The island of Gorée with its Maison des Eclaves has become by right a UNESCO heritage site. Certainly little known, it is worth a visit, so that nothing of what had happened during the terrible deportation of slaves, is forgotten.
Goree Island is reached by ferry from the port of Dakar. There should be two ferries that continuously travel the stretch of sea that separates the island from the mainland, but it is always better to check.
We are in Africa and this is part of the contingencies of the game. Endless queue in the sun and just one fountain to ensure my survival and that of my fellow adventure companions. But at the port also a surprise: a free wifi connection to send a message home after a few days of travel. The magic of the island is already felt before docking at the pier: it is colorful and flowering all year.
The island is home to artists, the Grío, that here, spend days immersed in their more buoyant creativity, and vivid and free vibrations are perceived, in spite of what this place had been.
It is a real and proper pearl in the Atlantic that I have, at an emotional level, lived intensely. Poignant, the visit to the House of Slaves, from shivers of terror looking out on the ocean from where the ships departed for the Americas, and then the big turnover. The life that develops between the pedestrian paths, the climb to the highest hill between works of art, music, flea markets and the sight of Dakar at sunset are unforgettable images. My heart still beats when I look again the pictures of that magical day at Goree.
The pink lake
Its real name is Lake Retba, but everyone knows it for its most audacious feature: it shows its more or less pink waters during different times of the year and depending on the intensity of the sun.
This curious natural phenomenon makes this a unique natural beauty and tourism has been developed moderately around it. You can reach it in a day from Dakar, through dirt and dusty roads, or take it slow and stay overnight in one of the lodges along its banks.
Salt is also extracted from the lake and you can witness its artisan collection that takes place on a daily basis by means of canoes and subsequent manual sorting by the shore.
I remember the long walk along its banks, meeting with the few vendors of fruits and necklaces, my escape from the semi-tourist in style bar-restaurant but super touristic for prices. The horizon here is of dunes that slope down to the lake. Beyond the dunes, the Atlantic Ocean.
Adventure not to be missed? To get there by quad floating on desert sand; I did not have the time to add it to my experience, but I will return and I will surely not going to miss it for the second time.
The great delta of Saloum
This protected area is as vast as it is fascinating. You get there by car almost without noticing the change in the landscape.
You go through a long road between the small villages of traditional huts and large uninhabited areas and then you will end up there, in Kaolack. Navigation by pirogue begins here and in all its slowness allows us to capture the tiniest movements of the local fauna, to admire the lush landscape completely intact and silent, crossing fishermen, watch the flamingos, to walk with feet soaking in the swamp, squeeze through the mangroves. The exploration can last for hours and your eyes will never tire to look.
The heartbeat slows and pierces into perfect equilibrium, definitely pacifying, this harmonious land.
This excursion must definitely be organized with a local guide, partly because driving in Senegal is a challenge to our security and then because only a local can tell you of the life, customs, morals, of the exchange nature-man at the Saloum Delta. Nature is life and allows life to be by donating man its products that here can be purchased in the local market: mango jams, buttery creams, dried fruit, the pulp of the baobab tree and cane, coquillage.
Joal-Fadiouth and the giant baobab
This is a really nice trip outside the town. The inseparable pair of towns, Joal-Fadiouth, do not have receiving places to stop for the night, if not with the local families. This here is about a world of its own from which you can be wonderfully surprised.
From Joal one leaves the coast by pirogue, to navigate the tract of swamp, guided by a helmsman-rower using movements similar to those of the Venetian gondoliers, a bit more uncertain and less secure since the pirogue next to mine has ended in the mangroves.
C’est pas grave would say the Senegalese. And in fact it is not serious, no one tumbled over and the next landing was made in Fadiouth, the island of shells.
Here the locals to gain land and subtract it from the sea, extend the island amassing unimaginable amount of shells. They do this also for the area destined for the Muslim and Christian cemetery. A shared cemetery in which every faith finds its own place, but always next to each other in a fraternal and parallel journey.
Another interesting thing about Fadiouth are the barns on stilts. This is a very humid place and only with this technique may the cereals be made to dry in an appropriate manner.
A few kilometers away and reachable on the same day with a car, stands the majestic sacred Baobab. After traveling along a road of red earth, through smaller baobab expanses and fields, you will get to him: the giant tree.
Her belly has a split so great that we can get. And ‘the tree of life for Africans and I, from there, I felt an embryo that absorbed lifeblood from the belly and wisdom from the bark rugosa.
The Atlantic Ocean
The Senegalese coast is very long and its overlooking the Atlantic Ocean offers beautiful sunsets on the sea. The long sandy beaches are free and in the evening, when the sun goes down, they become populated by young people intent on training fit bodies with hard running sessions, abdominals, leaps, combats.
Wrestling is the national sport and most of the guys are keen to be well trained and to give vent to their vanity.
By varying the various latitudes, the offer of activities vary too: to the north of Dakar you can go surfing, in Casamance are the most popular resorts, in Saly along the Petite Côte, there are villages with private bungalows and Western services, in Palmarin are eco-lodges on the beach, in Malika the indomitable sand of my home. Senegal is in this the new tourist frontier, the first were certainly the French to recognize the treasures and to leave their mark in the territory at an average distance from their home.
I have never considered Senegal as a state of transition in the changing of the natural landscape: to the north it is still Sahel desert while to the south it is great rivers and equatorial forests, through the savannah, and yet here exists a special place.
The desert is not far from Saint Louis, and is called the small desert of Loumpoul, on the cordon of dunes parallel to the large coast.
Roughing it out the night, starry sky, dancing and food prepared here have a Berber charm and captures the soul. To celebrate a new year or a mid-August here must be magical.
The desert remains with you right to the eastern outskirts of Dakar, where the streets are made of sand and solid land is still a virtually unknown substance.
To the south of Dakar instead everything changes and makes room for the savannah. And suddenly the Sahara is transformed.
The Great Mosque of Touba
This place of worship has a great value for the entire Muslim world of black Africa.
The Grand Mosque in white marble is a symbol of a religious cult rooted in most of the Senegalese population and wisely, as well as traditionally, tolerated by Christians living in the country.
You reach it through typical villages of Wolof and Serere ethnics. The lives of the local people, in keeping with the unfolding of the days according to the rhythm of nature, can be observed planning stops during the journey. In Touba, holy city, what is striking are the designs of the Mosque and the high number of rich carpets used in the prayer halls in embarrassing contrast with the villages that are around there.
Fruit markets, cloth markets, fish markets, chaotic, very poor, souk-like. Colorful the first, with wooden stalls often roughly erected and unstable. Sometimes bare of fruit and vegetables when the owner has gathered little from his fields. But always animated by groups of people talking, smiling, and shouting, and also by children, their children, their grandchildren, their friends. In Africa one is always member of a big family.
In the fabrics market one could get lost, my favorite is the raw cotton cloth, rough and of coarse manufacture, usually in tones of beige, browns, blacks. Those fabrics are durable and are used on the ground, to cover floors that often are non-existent, or on the beds or to lie upon on the ground in the afternoon nap.
The souks are often suffocating because covered by tarpaulins and corrugated iron a couple of meters high. The odors are strong and mixed, from spices to the fish, from the fruit to the meat. All of this out in the open air, obviously. Then there are the shops selling beads, fabrics for clothing, accessories to adorn hair, makeup, wigs and more. Here life goes on every day on a regular basis, in an African chaos that speaks for itself and absolutely to be discovered.
It is not a place, in fact, but it is what makes Senegal and the Senegalese, famous throughout the world. You just cannot run away from it and, so very constant and widespread, it materializes in such a way as to become a traveling companion.
The street music is rhythmed by the drumming of the fingers of the young, and those not so young, on the taut skin of the djembe that accompanies each activity. The music gets you dancing and it is not so to say. It gets me, not at all adroit, dancing too.
The music keeps the fest rolling on and if there are no real instruments then you can use an inverted bucket, a colored plastic bowl, a pot, a wooden board and whatever allows you to produce a sound. Along with the music will often be added the songs, that I cannot but only remember by singing occasionally the melancholy Fatou Yo, known throughout Senegal, and often a permit-pass with the locals.
I sang it in Dakar, at the school of Yeumbeul South, on the car rapide, in Saly, with the mayor of a fishing village near Mbour.
Music is also one of the bars, the rasta fahri, of the new discos in Dakar, of the women who dance on Sunday afternoon, gathered together in accordance with the centuries old tradition.
Senegal has been an important experience of volunteer work at one of the schools of Bene Baraque, on the eastern outskirts of Dakar, run by Oltre I Confini Onlus, non-profit organization established in Milan, and thanks to the Meoni Foundation and to Marco, the motorcyclist, its founder, who died tragically during a Paris -Dakar. From this profoundly true experience, came to life the bond that I feel for this land and its people, the affection and the eye to eye looks with those who were around me for weeks are untouchable.
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looking at 3 weeks in Senegal this May to arrive back in Dublin June. – I like slow travel…some beach time – there may be two of us and I know it is Ramadan, but am unsure of the implications of that. Can u help……Claire