A travel piece from a trip to Senegal, published in California magazine.
In 1884, on a beach near my wife’s sister’s home in Dakar, Senegal, an itinerate fisherman named Seydina Limamou Laye discovered the light of Mohammed buried in the sand and declared himself reincarnated as the Prophet.
He later informed his followers that his son Issa was Jesus returned to earth. Slightly spooky black-and-white paintings of Issa dot the long white-washed wall behind my sister-in-law’s home. The Atlantic Ocean crashes into the rocks a hundred yards below. The brotherhood that Sheikh Laye founded is one of four Sufi sects that dominate the spiritual life of Senegal, and much of its economy. Unlike Arabic Islam, which emphasizes a personal relationship with God, the mystic Sufis follow their own prophets, called marabouts. The largest sect, the Mourides, owns most of the “car-rapides” that are ubiquitous on Senegal’s highways and streets. These rusted, hand-me-down buses are painted in brilliant colors, stuffed with passengers, and piled high with goods. Each has the word “Alhamdouliliah”—All Praise to Allah—painted on the front, and quite often a two-foot-high decal of Madonna (the near-naked singer, not the virgin) afixed to the back window.
This admixture of sacred and secular, of an Islam suffused with tribal animism and colonial Christianity, of the medeival and the postmodern, is characteristic of Senegal. There are, for example, the women. The Senegalese are easily one of the most fashion conscious people on earth. In this conservative Moslem culture, you will not see women and men touching or kissing in public, but the majority of the women, even in the villages, are coiffed and made-up and beautifully dressed. They wear both western clothing and boo-boos, a shoulder to ankle gown with matching headwrap made from silk, or embroidered cotton, or cloth dyed in brightly colored patterns. It is common to see roadside groups of wonderfully-turned-out women stepping over the piles of trash and burning garbage that litter every block.
To my American eye, the effect is chaos, but with rules I can only intuit. The justly-famed West African music and dance combine bluesy rhythms with inspired vocal riffs and athletic, possessed, almost jointless spasms of movement. In this land of Muslim mystics, an unpredictable spirit lurks inside life’s steady drumbeat, making way for the truly surprising, even the miraculous.
UC Berkeley Professor Vince Resh came by my office shortly after I’d returned from Senegal, to help me interpret my experiences there. Resh had lived in West Africa for twelve years working with the World Health Organization to eradicate the water-based parasite that causes river blindness. He was soon to return as leader of an expedition to explore its rivers and river societies. While I’d gone to Senegal curious but culturally ignorant, Resh was a fount of knowledge about Senagalese Sufiism and polygamy and a dozen other topics. But for all his knowledge, it’s something ineffable that draws him back. He often feels more fully himself there than in Berkeley.
ONE AFTERNOON, MY WIFE, HER SISTER, AND I and I ran the gauntlet of merchants and hawkers in downtown Dakar, improbably lit up with Christmas decorations. On streets lined with shops and people as dense as a Manhattan block, at least half of the people were selling. Their sidewalk tables and their arms were overloaded with cell phones and telephone cards; cashews, dates, small oranges or carved coconuts; towels, belts, socks, and tee shirts with Cubs logos; plastic and cloth dolls with pink or brown skin and handmade wooden dollhouses; watches, necklaces, ankle chains, earrings, and bracelets; indigo and tie-dyed cloth stacked on heads; gilded-frame photos of maribouts, and refrigerator magnets in the shape of Christmas trees decorated with the stars and stripes.
The sidewalk sometimes disappeared, forcing us into the street, or it turned into a dirt path, only to reappear again. Instead of stopping, drivers honk. After rushing across one street and nearly stumbling, I looked down to check my feet and saw a man planted on the pavement. He appeared to be chopped off just below the rib cage, like a museum bust. He wore a white scullcap, and sat on a board with wheels that he moved with his arms. He smiled up at me, beatifically, before I was propelled forward by pedestrians behind me.
Dazed, we pushed ahead, scrambling around sidewalk tables and mumbling “non, merci” to hawkers until suddenly we were in front of a dust-covered glass door. And just like that, we entered an oasis—a café of dark wood, and Parisienne Art Deco mirrors, and fabulous ice cream sundaes. Eating one, I asked my wife, who is a physician, if she’d seen the man on the street. In all her medical training, she said, she couldn’t understand how he could exist, how he could sustain life.
On another day, we took a boat to Goreé Island, the infamous departure point for thousands of slaves shipped to the Americas. Resh told me that, no matter how many times he visited Goreé, he could not remain unmoved when he stared out at the Atlantic from the rooms, still intact, where slaves were held. But Goreé is also beautiful with its colonial buildings painted in ochres and reds, its children playing soccer in the dust, and its open air cafes. In a home adjacent to the slave museum, we met Marie Jose Crespin, a former Senagalese supreme court judge who gave up the law to become an artist. Walking through her home, which is a museum of remarkable artifacts, she told, once again and with obvious delight, the story that had made her famous in Senegal. When President Bush visited the island in 2003, the Secret Service had cleared the village, holding people in the soccer field under armed guard. Marie Jose refused to go. Senegalese officials were sent to entreat her, but still she would not leave. Finally, it was agreed that two agents would guard her and her toddler grandson.
FOR CHRISTMAS, WE TRAVELED SOUTH to a massive delta where the Sin and Saloum Rivers meet the sea. Dakar sits on a penninsula, the westernmost point of the African continent. The one road out is used by every manner of vehicle, including donkey carts. On one section of the road, not far from the massive soccer stadium donated by the Chinese government, miles of nursery plants in multi-colored pots were piled on mounds of construction dirt. In another section, there were radial tires lined up behind putrid ditches full of lime green antifreeze, and in another, stacks of mattresses in Sgt. Pepper colors. People lined the road, and whereever there weren’t people, there were sheep and goats, tended by village herders living in lean-tos. Some of the animals, which are sold and eaten for the Islamic holiday of Eid, grazed in the shade of Marlborough billboards with American cowboys that dotted the highway.
In Sin-Saloum, we passed the occasional boy driving a horse cart, Ben-Hur style, laden with goods or people, but the villages grew sparse. When we reached delta’s vast salt flats, eagles, parrots, and scissor-tailed bee-catchers appeared in the bao-bob trees. White pelicans, flamingos, and ibises waded or cruised the shallow delta water.
Our eco-resort was run by an elfin, ex-Jesuit French hippie (who regaled us with his four-part theory of creativity), and his wife, who was more solidly built and grave of manner. They had organized a Christmas Eve surprise, which began with a jaw-clenching car-rapide ride over a washboard road to a beach. There, we waded out to a waiting pirogue, a long wooden boat painted in bright colors. And then, for a sunset hour, we glided through smooth delta waters. The air was warm and soothing to breathe. The boat sliced silently through the river, past the mangrove trees whose roots were encrusted with oysters, past lizards and egrets and an owl beginning the evening hunt.
As the light faded, we arrived at a second beach, where a group of horse carts carried us, hay-ride style, through the dusky salt flats to a nearby village. The villagers had formed a large circle at the crossroads. Invited to sit in green plastic lawn chairs, we were immediately surrounded by children who touched my hands with theirs. A series of dancers took the floor, thumping out the drummers’s syncopated rythms in the dust. But not fifteen minutes into the dancing, another car rapide full of people, and piled precariously high with lumber, pulled up behind us. The driver angrily insisted that we move out of the road. But the women dancers lined up in front of him and the driver, whipped, awkwardly turned the bus around.
The village erupted. For the next hour, the dancing and stomping and drumming and singing carried on. I was delighted that, inside our Christmas Eve surprise, we had received another, Sengalese one. And for not the last time, I thought that the unexpected gifts that spring from an unfamiliar land—our own lights in the sand—were exactly what we’d come so far to find.
Originally published in California magazine, November/December 2005 ©2017 Kerry Tremain