Saint Louis: An Audience with Zoumba

Just before the blog leaves Dakar, I have to make one last mention of Monsieur Sall, LASA’s long-suffering truck consultant, who made the trip into town to attend to Big Reg’s needs many times over our two months there, and whom we visited at his workshop in Rufisque and outside his home in Diamniadio just before we left.

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The Big Green Truck parked overnight outside M.Sall’s workshop in Rufisque…

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where his team took out the stiff clutch pressure plate, cleaned all the dust off, greased and replaced it, and welded Big Reg’s broken accelerator pedal back together.

LASA had paid Top Pneus to get the dodgy Foundiougne repair strengthened as it was bulging through the tyre. But the front wheel was unbalanced since it had been taken off, and there was nowhere in Dakar that could do wheel balancing for 14” radials. We found ourselves rather wobbly going above 55km, and Sampson was worriting about it ahead of the Sahara.

So we went back to M. Sall, who was at a loss as to what more he could do. Sampson’s anxiety about the road ahead was manifesting in his tendency never to be satisfied, making a fuss about the tightness of the brakes and the clutch pedal, insisting the revs were set too low, then too high…

I sat with his wife and commiserated about the challenges of managing men. She shed a few tears in memory of her father, whom she nursed to his too early death, and confessed a deep longing to travel. I said she had a wonderful headstart on the rest of us: a qualified mechanic for a husband!

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Our friend Oussèynou Sall, his wife Aïssatou Diandy and their son Mohamed (with toy cars donated by Zola) outside their house in Diamniadio. Thanks so much for your patience!

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We finally left Dakar on the first day of Ramadan.

It was SO great to be Going at last. We trundled through Thiès, an unexpectedly pretty town with cute cafés and colourful raffia bowls and baskets piled on roadside stalls. Despite the slightly muted feel of the first day of the fast, it was a day of brightness: intense bougainvillea splashes on walls and women wrapped in gorgeous cloth gliding along dusty streets.

I was comforted by the thought we could still make it to Spain before my folks’ birthdays in July. My Mom was getting worried about us. On the phone that morning she said “Isn’t it a danger that the old cooking oil stored on the roof might explode in the high temperatures?” I said “Mom, it’s cooking oil. It’s designed for high temperatures!”

On the road north to Kébemer, the scenery was increasingly reminiscent of Angola and Nambia, with the surrounding scrub mirroring the vegetation at the other tropic. We also saw our first camel.

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The road north through the Sahel…

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full of thorn trees…

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and the occasional baobab sporting green shoots.

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Back on the road, with the kids back in the nose cone looking out of the window…

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and the cats back dozing in the nets as we bounce along…

Saint Louis is Senegal’s ‘second city’ but it was not as city-like as I expected. There were no industrial outskirts and the centre was more old colonial town-y, more crumbly, more colourful. We crossed the huge Pont Faidherbe onto the rectangular island of the centre ville, very reminiscent of Gorée but not as well maintained.

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Welcome to Saint Louis

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a city so close to the water…

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that the centre is situated on an island…

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reached by a giant bridge…

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le Pont Faidherbe, named for colonial governor Louis…

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and in the centre of the old town…

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every street ends at the water.

Within minutes Big Reg was through the narrow streets and across a bridge the other side, stranded amidst pony traps and a market full of vividly dressed women. I had a definitive feeling of having crossed into North Africa.

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Off the bridge the other side…

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past the WW1 memorial…

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into the pulsating market street

Up to that point, I had no idea Saint Louis was on an island in the middle of a river! It was utterly charming, but its position on low-lying land in the mouth of the River Sengeal make Saint Louis “the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa” according to the UN Habitat agency.

Big Reg turned back onto the island and we found ourselves outside the Institute Français. We picked up a programme outside its wonderful library, teeming with school kids, but it was just too bloody hot to look at any exhibits. We discreetly hid from those fasting in the truck and had a cuppa bissap and ricecakes with chocolate spread instead. The sugar lift was much needed.

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While Sampson tucked into a chocolate pastry…

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the kids and I indulged our love for Chocopain, Senegal’s peanutty version of Nutella

Nathan had been pressing us to meet his friend Zoumba. Pape Samba Sow a.k.a. Zoumba might be nearing pensionable age, but this father of five still burns with the fiery energy of a 21 year old. He turned up to meet us on a moped.

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Zoumba, on the right, with his wife and youngest daughter plus a colleague and her daughter

He is an all round artist: a famed teacher, writer, actor, dancer, comedian, musician and mentor but above all dramatic performer. He also MC’s the famous Saint Louis Jazz Festival. Zoumba is such a force of nature, his larger than life personality makes you feel you are in the presence of a Senegalese version of Alan Bennett, Robin Williams or some other national treasure. (See footage of him lecturing at the University of Freiburg here.) In Europe he’d probably be fêted with BAFTAs and TV specials but here he’s still scratching a living.

His latest project was featured on the cover of the Institute Français programme commemorating the wreck of the Medusa on the Banc d’Arguin off the coast of modern Mauritania 200 years ago. (Saint Louis is situated right on the border with Senegal’s northern neighbour, though the Big Green Truck still had to travel 100km further north by road to cross it). While ferrying 400 people to reestablish the French colony after the British handover, an inept captain hit the bank on 2nd July 1816.

In May 2016, Canadian artist Adad Hannah and the local community recreated a raft, made by survivors of the wreck to supplement lifeboats, to the exact dimensions for the installation. More than 150 people were cast adrift on the original; 13 days later, having faced storms, drunken rebellion and cannibalism, only 15 survived. In the context of the modern migrant crisis that was beginning to dominate headlines to the north, Hannah was inspired to reimagine the disaster like Franco-Brazilian artist Alexis Peskine did at the Dak’Art Biennale exhibition 2016. You can see Hannah’s Saint Louis artwork here.

Everyone was battling tiredness, getting used to the new routine of Ramadan, eating main meals during the night. So we left Zoumba’s family to rest and found a quiet breezy spot by the riverside to park off. That night’s sleep was disturbed by a massive party happening at Flamingo’s on the opposite bank, with mass drumming and singing sounding out at 4am. I was less upset by being woken up as not having been invited!

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Zola weightlifting with a plastic bottle full of sand while Ruby plaits her hair.

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Flamingo, the live music club on the riverbank opposite

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Zola hard at work the next morning, nevertheless

The next morning, after school, we found Zoumba entertaining a Québécoise visitor Chantelle and her guide, El Hadj, an ex-pupil of his. He took us round the house he built himself, before showing us his publications. He’s written novels (Les Anges Blesses Fama Editions 2009) poetry (Arc En Fleuve Harmattan, 2013) plays and theatre criticism (Théâtre Nawetaan, Théâtre des Valuers).

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Zoumba the endlessly creative entertainer

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Zoumba’s poetry collection, between publications of his mother Amina Sow Mbaye

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Zoumba told us he never travels without this sculpture “my wife”…

The supreme storyteller regaled us with the tale behind a poem he wrote called Double Thérapie “with medical words I didn’t know I knew” about a sudden sickness of his mother. I struggled to follow the rich flow of his figurative French but was very touched by the little I did understand.

Zoumba considers himself so close to his mother that he is like “her twin”. After his father died in 1988, he became her first confidant, was the first reader of her books. When many years ago, she fell ill, he had spent the day playing football and karate, then felt suddenly ill himself and went home to sleep. He woke at 5am to find his mother in a deep coma. When both the doctor’s ministrations and her marabout singing devotional verses failed to rouse her, her son started crying.

“Tears closed my eyes, and I couldn’t see. My imagination entered her stomach as if it were a house. I walked through the rooms, at ease, and started to clean up, mopping up the mess. I pulled on a wire to flush the blood out and I could hear my mother singing outside”. When he came round, his mother woke and said, “I don’t know what you did, but I feel better”. They suspect a blood clot had been cleared.

Regrettably, because of the first-days-of-fast fatigue, we didn’t get to meet his mother Amina Sow Mbaye, pedagogical expert and famous author of a novel about her experiences as a newly qualified teacher in newly independent Senegal called Mademoiselle, now a set work. Aged 79, in her youth she was a 400m African champion, a basketball referee, and founder of the scouts in Senegal. She was also President of the national Federation of Women’s Associations, and is considered ‘the mother of all Saint-Louis intellectuals’. I look forward to the honour of meeting her next time.

We were blessed to pull up in a petrol station with an ATM and a market next door, allowing us to stock up with cash, water, eggs and veg at same time. Thank goodness, because a long afternoon slogging round town in the heat trying to find all that would have finished me off – it was still 30˚C at 5pm. In the depths of the uncharacteristically quiet market, a man tunefully intoned comforting verses from the Quran while sitting crosslegged on a pile of pallets. Below him, fasting tradeswomen squatted next to their wares fanning themselves slowly, or lay on sacks in the shade. The thought of trying to get through just the shopping without some sustaining food or water first was unthinkable for me in this heat; I admired their spiritual inspiration and their fortitude.

I was so happy to find someone selling big dried hibiscus flowers, I bought a huge bagful of this bissap to make tea and insisted on paying 1000FCA (R20) for it, double the asking price. I’m dolefully coming to the end of this supply now…

Sampson stopped the truck on the road out of town when he saw a shop with a fridge to pick up little tubs of yoghurt and fizzy coconut drinks with lumps of actual coconut in. He had to gently but firmly fight off a couple of fake Baye Fall dudes, stylish beggars hassling for ‘succour’ for les talibes ‘les petits enfants’. When one got very insistent – stepping up and placing a handful of heavy silver rings on the steering wheel – Sampson showed ’em a trick and Zola came forward to smile from under his dreadlocks. Confused then mollified, they left.

Did I say how great it was to be MOVING again? The stretch between Saint Louis and the border was notable for the huge amount of bags of onions everywhere, and bright green paddy fields.

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There was really no need to have stocked up in Dakar!

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A new agri project using irrigation canals from the River Senegal was growing rice on the left hand side of the road…

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while the barren flat red dust land continued unbroken on the right.

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Meanwhile Ruby was busy making pictures…

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from Zoumba’s bougainvillea petals, having been inspired by the Butterfly Island artist.

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Aren’t they lovely?

On the road to the border through Ross-Béthio we were beginning to see more Berber headdresses and long baggy boubous on men and baggier outfits on older women. We’d reached North Africa at last.

Big Reg pulled off in a JCB storage place just before the border in Ndiael, which, the way the locals pronounced it, sounded like Nigel.

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Our overnight stop in Ndiael

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thanks to welcoming security guard Mustafa Khan

After a truck tour, the Gambian security guard Mustafa was very enthusiastic for us to stay. He led his elderly and respected boss M. Amadou Nyama Ba by the hand to meet us and translated his formal Pulaar into French:

“May Allah bless you for this brave endeavour and see you safely home. So many of our compatriots are overseas so whenever a visitor comes to us, we show them the welcome we hope they get that side…”

I winced, opened my mouth, then closed it again with a sigh. It seemed too great a shame to cast doubt on such lovely sentiments.

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A raft of cats to cover our pain and shame

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