Waaw Artist residency, Saint-Louis, Senegal, 2017
I was lucky enough to attend my 1st artist residency in August 2017.
After successfully Crowdfunding, I travelled to Dakar at the beginning of the month.
My arrival at the airport in Dakar, following an overnight stay in Madrid was fairly traumatic. I have since read somewhere that a regular world traveller named Leopold Sedar Senghor airport ‘the worst in the world’ and I can only agree. Being a poor french speaker meant I was somewhat vulnerable and after a very hot wait for passport control and baggage claim ( my luggage did arrive!) I was accosted by enthusiastic taxi drivers in the mayhem and dragged away to their car with very little chance of escape. I was meant to be met and deep down, knew these weren’t my designated drivers but once they had hold of my bags had no choice but to follow! Thankfully they did take me to my hotel and charged me handsomely for the ride…welcome to Senegal!
After a good nights sleep I met up with the 2 other artists staying at the same hotel and we waited for the car to take us the 5 hour journey north to Saint-Louis.
What a great way to see the country; leaving the chaos of Dakar we travelled to Thies, past street markets bursting with mangoes and sellers crowding the taxi at every opportunity. As the journey progressed north we were regularly stopped by the police, although never expected to get out of the car and again with little French and no Wolof had no idea why! There were horses pulling carts, women selling peanuts, children shouting ‘Toubab’..that was us; white people, it was a whirlwind of sound and smells and new exciting sites. With my keen bird watching eyes I spotted flashes of blue in the distance and in the trees above the markets yellow Weaver birds.
It was hot, so very hot, hotter than I have ever known, humid too, as August is the wet season.
Our driver stopped at a giant hollow baobab tree for us to take a look. The baobabs, for me reminiscent of ‘The Little Prince’ were majestic and this one was huge. Next to the tree were craftsmen carving animals from the wood and of course we were really there to peruse their wares in the hope of a sale! After a few minutes we were surrounded by curious boys wanting their photograph taken…we obliged and made a quick retreat from the heat back into the car.
Saint-Louis, our final destination, used to be the capital of Senegal…it is a city of ‘used to s’, there was once an airport there and the train used to travel there too…we often glimpsed the redundant tracks on our journey.
There aren’t many big towns in Senegal and so although the road north takes you through Thies, where there is a university, mostly it is villages and a lot of nothing between Dakar and Saint-Louis.
At the approach to Saint- Louis you start to see water, like lakes on both sides of the road. The sky widens as you get closer to the coast. And there is the rubbish, at the waters edge, piles of it, inhabited by wading birds and goats.
Saint-Louis has 3 parts to it, the mainland which we drove through. The streets lined with carpentry workshops, outside of which there are enormous carved beds; metal workshops; clothes stalls and people; sitting, talking, walking and being. As the road goes on, past the bus station, the street gets busier with taxis, often black and yellow Renaults, often with cracked windscreens; horses pulling carts, some carrying people’ la Caleche’, and some pulling goods…the pace becomes a little slower. On the left is the market and on the right the iconic bridge Pont Faidherbe, designed by Eiffel and rebuilt with aid from the French government, across which is the 2nd part (as I saw it) to Saint- Louis, L’ile de Saint-Louis and my home for a month.
On the bridge you can see south along the thin strip of land that is Langue de Barbarie over the sparkling waters of the Senegal river. Saint- Louis is where the river meets the sea and the island is nestled between this and the land that ends in a sandy point to the south and becomes Mauritania to the North.
We turned right, once across the bridge and after 2 blocks, a left turn took us to the Maison Waaw, we had arrived, it was 3pm and I was hungry!
The Maison Waaw is a white painted large building, entered from a dusty back street which leads to the river and into a central courtyard where we met Jarmo, our Waaw host and the other artists from all over the world.
After a tour we were allocated our rooms, mine was upstairs at the front of the building, a large room with a single bed and mosquito net, a desk and cupboard, the essential fan and double doors out onto a balcony which overlooked the street. I had the use of a large space outside my room as a studio, at the end of which was a bathroom with a shower (cold only)and toilet.
There were 10 bedrooms in the house and 2 kitchens with a fridge and camping stove and sink. There were 2 roof terraces, perfect for drying washing and drumming and for me to come, sitting early in the morning watching the swifts and feeling the sea breeze before the onslaught of the sun.
Almost opposite the house was La Linguere, a restaurant well known in Saint-Louis for traditional Senegalese cooking, inexpensive and still with food so late after lunch, we all piled in and I had my 1st taste of Thieboudieune, a mildly spicy dish of rice and vegetables,and very welcome it was.
Everything felt so new and slightly scary, the island is a small place, about a mile from point to point and 6 streets across, everyone knows everyone, and so when Jarmo gave us and little tour later on, a group of white faces, we were noticed and called to and curious eyes followed us everywhere.
It was on this tour that we crossed a smaller bridge, where the waters edge was a mass of painted wooden long boats colourful and a roost for egrets,these were pirogues, traditional fishing boats and they make quite a sight.
We turned right after the bridge, this was the 3rd part to Saint-Louis; 3 highly populated areas between the river and the sea which at 1st I thought was a whole other island. We walked along the river and then crossed back over another bridge back to the house to rest.
A long couple of days and my residency had begun.
Oh, what joy for me to be able to make work in response to a place, not for commercial gain, not dictated by someone else’s agenda just my own, and for a whole month!
It took me a week to acclimatise to the heat; swollen ankles and a new rash appearing each day. It wasn’t sensible to try and do anything outside between 12 and 4pm and so this became my time for thinking, painting and planning the work I was going to make with the wool fibre I had brought from the Cambrian mountains.
On the 2nd day taking a walk in the late afternoon with 2 of my fellow artists, we were offered a tour of Guet Ndar, the fisherman’s village across the bridge towards the sea.
Kita, one of my friends, was french, and so we were able to communicate with our self appointed guide and he soon became aware that I was interested in birds and made it his mission to introduce us to a pelican that lived in the village.
Guet Ndar is a village of breeze block and corrugated tin houses, inhabited by families living many to one room and sheep. The skinniest, clean white sheep I have ever seen, tethered by one leg outside the house during the day and bedding down somewhere inside the door at night. Narrow streets filled with women washing clothes and preparing food and children running around, I would have been too fearful to walk through by myself. It is a place of great activity and we were ‘toubabs’ peering at the spectacle…it wasn’t so much threatening as different, the villagers, not starving but poor.
Our guide lead us through the mayhem while children demanded their photo taken, and I had to watch my step for fear of treading on something, or someone. All the time he told us of the pelican; it was found as a chick and then brought to the house to live with the sheep. So enamoured with one particular sheep it had become that our guide referred to them as husband and wife, and if anyone dared to go near the sheep the pelican would go for them.
Not a fanciful tale at all as we found out when we reached the home of the unlikely pair and he demonstrated. How big Pelicans are and what fantastic beaks they have, and how scary they are when you come between them and their love!….the idea for my 1st piece of work was born!
Our tour continued on through the village and onto the beach, a vast expanse of sand stretching in both directions. Every year, as sea levels rise houses are washed away but what can these families do…in fact without being too gloomy most of Saint- Louis may well be under water one day.
At the far end of the village before the sand stretches on and the few hotels dotted along the beach begin, there is the place where the women salt the fish. A place of brown, of rusty tin barrels filled with crusty fish, the smell was fishy and salty and rancid and of the sea.
As our tour ended so began the negotiation of payment for services rendered. This became fairly heated as the sack of rice asked for was pricey and too much, but Kita drove a good bargain and in the end everyone was happy.
Such is life in Saint-Louis, as I found out, everyone is happy to help.
And so the days slipped into a routine for me, early to bed and rising at 7am, to sit on the roof terrace when the noises from the street were minimal and the other artists still slept. This was my time to drink coffee and think, to write and to enjoy the strangeness of it all with my trusty rooftop companions,the Senegalese thick knee birds.
When I grew braver I would take my camera and walk through the sleepy streets of the island, finding Purple glossy starlings with their iridescent feathers, sheep tethered outside houses, horses being washed for their day ahead, eagles swooping through the air, dogs sleeping in dusty hollows, boys in faded football colours begging with their plastic pots, pirogues returning with the nights catch and the confidence to respond to the regular ‘Ca va?’ with ‘Ca va bien merci.’
A month seems like a long time, and yet time slipped by easily.
I met Mai, proprietor of the Tesss gallery and weaver, to look at her fine collection of Senegalese motifs. I met the weavers who worked for Mai and spent a long time watching them work lulled in to a dreamlike state by the clacking of the loom.
I was wowed one evening, when the sky was pink over the river to see flocks of birds leaving the island and heading to the mainland, only to realise they were fruit bats.
I sought out the bats’ daytime roosts in the plant nursery next to the Governor’s House and marvelled at their size, whilst being cautious of their droppings. Like foxes with wings, their constant chatter was loud as they hung upside down, bunched together like strange wriggling grapes.
I photographed the cats, of which there were many, big and small, living like vagrants on the street eating scraps and prowling through the shade.
There were great trees on the island, Fromager trees, with trunks like the feet of great elephants and flowering Baobabs; beautiful hanging flowers with white petals and many small stamens, short lived and turning to large green fruit in days and where the bats could be glimpsed flitting through the branches at night.
I visited the Parc de la Langue de barbaries National park with guide, Djiby Mbaye and saw monkeys and Pelicans and cormorants, crabs and a juvenile monitor lizard.
We took a pirogue around the island and along the river. With the sun beating down on our heads we saw the land from the water; pelicans fishing; men fishing; birds using polystyrene like rafts; we went under the great Pont Faidherbe and got riverside views of the egrets preening on the lined up boats.
I swam in the big waves of the warm Atlantic a fantastic, joyous experience marred only by the constant hassling and hustling received by passing men, making sitting on the beach a bit stressful. The alien feeling of being the white minority, strange but not threatening.
And there were the buildings on the island……Saint-Louis is an old French colonial city and hence has a look, I can most easily explain as like New Orleans about it.
Mostly 2/3 storey houses all with an inner courtyard, as life is lived most of the time outside. Mixed in with these are 1 storey Portuguese houses with terracotta roofs and then there are the corrugated tin shacks.
Faded paint, crumbling balconies, flaking doors and windows, it is a shadow of what would have been it’s original glory.
There is a strange dichotomy between the buildings that have been faithfully restored or maintained, as I saw when I went on a guided tour of some of the islands buildings.
There were those with pristine wooden stairways, potted palms, original lights fittings, newly painted balconies, splendid colonial museums with the scent of polish and cigars long smoked. And then there were those that crumbled, where I was fearful to walk under the balconies in case they collapsed, where some were just no longer there, where fabric was draped across the windows, were squatted or rooms rented for whole families with only space for one large bed. These were grand once, but without money to be restored and with the help of the salty sea air and summer downpours were slipping into ruins.
I loved the graffiti on the walls, some there by design, to advertise shops and some the scribbling of youth, I photographed the ones I liked and these became the basis of one of my pieces of work.
There were many tailors workshops open all day and long into the night, always men at the machines and with floors strewn with off cuts of the beautiful wax print fabrics so synonymous with Africa.
Each morning I bought a freshly baked baguette from the bakers next door to our house and from which the smell of baking always came.
The smell of the island was , though, mostly of sheep and rubbish and the waters of the river and so when the downpours arrived, which happened only a handful of times, preceded by twisting winds which hurled to sand from the streets in the air and sent all the metal shop signs swinging, they brought a welcome freshness to the air…very briefly!
I wanted, very much, to make use of the gallery space for rent attached to the Maison Waaw, the Galerie Ethiopiques, and to have an exhibition.
I spent 10 days, when not exploring, setting up studio in the space outside of my bedroom, spreading myself out and with the ceiling fan whirling, listened to newly acquired Senegalese music, the likes of Wasis Diop, Orchestra Baobab and Baaba Maal, and like a crazy woman made felt in Africa!
The work I made was inspired by all that I have talked about- the cats; the birds; the sheep; the pelican; the Baobobs; the children and the writing on the walls. And something I have so far only mentioned in passing and perhaps the most shocking for me, the sheer quantity of rubbish; strewn on the beach, along the river, washed up and discarded.
I don’t really know what to say about this except, unless education changes, unless the Senegalese government takes the initiative to do something about it, unless all governments take some responsibility to look after the oceans of the world it won’t be going away.
One morning, early, around 7am, I took a walk along the beach, Goxumbacc to the north, to gather some driftwood for a piece of work I was planning.
My friend, Ann and I walked south along the beach where the houses back onto the sand and saw women emptying the nights rubbish straight onto the beach, where it was picked through by cats and goat and birds. This would have been OK in pre- plastic times, when waste was biodegradeable, but was quite astonishing to see nappies and plastic bags dumped for the sea to claim. I know that this would, realistically, be a minute contribution to the larger picture and done as rubbish collection costs money, which most households don’t have to spare, but coming from a world of ‘beach clean up days’ and consternation at holiday makers abandoned lunch wrappers was quite a sight.
I got my wood, easily, as there was plenty of this too.
I also went out one day with Mogda, a Senegalese sound engineer who was helping Kita with her film, as I had decided I needed to gather some wool from a sheep to use in my work and also, to reclaim some discarded fishing net from the beach. It was easier to have Mogda as an interpreter, he was able to check with the locals that it was OK for me to take the net without incurring anyone’s wrath.
Armed with a tiny pair of orange handed scissors, we set to work cutting the green plastic net from the sand where it was embedded and filled 2 large bags with it before embarking on the more sensitive issue of asking a sheep owner for some wool!
Mogda had already warned me that this was some strange request and may be received with either offence or great mirth, luckily he was going to be the one making it!
As I have said before, these were skinny sheep, not kept for their wool. To have a sheep was a sign of wealth, they were important to the families, who washed them daily and shared their food with them.
One obliging woman agreed to take the orange handled scissors and while I looked on, along with many others, giving me sidelong, ‘crazy toubab’, glances proceeded to give one of her sheep a haircut!
With all I needed to add to my welsh wool, I made 8 pieces of work and my exhibition opened on 28th August.
Working in Saint-Louis, making work that is, was not without it’s challenges but luckily being a maker I am accustomed to solving problems and doing so cheaply!
The heat was an issue and at times I did question my sanity when rolling out the wool fibre I had so kindly been donated by the Cambrian Mountain wool company. One good thing though was that the felt dried very quickly in the heat.
I hadn’t taken a great deal of dyed wool with me and so had to tailor my work around this too.
As well as felt making I managed to fill a beautiful leather bound sketch book I had been given a few years ago. Each day I pushed myself to paint and draw, I say pushed as it is a long time since I have worked in this way, and hence my confidence wasn’t great. It is quite amazing though how, with practice, it is possible to improve…I didn’t really give myself much room for error by using a pen, as opposed to pencil, but that just made me work a bit harder.
I illustrated mostly animals and birds as a commentary on life as I saw it in Saint-Louis and titled each piece in french, my entirely inadequate french, as you can see…for you, if your french is as bad as mine, I have included an English translation! Some of these paintings inspired the work I made in my exhibition.
As you can see I was taking a light-hearted view to all I saw around me…most of the images I drew from photos I had taken, or at least adapted from.
And so to my exhibition..I called this ‘Give and Take’, as I think this summed up myself as an artist thrown into a world so different to that in which I live.
I decorated the table in the gallery with bougainvillea and frangipani flowers, as both were plentiful, and had samples of both welsh wool and Saint- Louisienne wool in order to try and explain how the work was made.
The piece with an outstretched hand was title ‘Give and take’ and was inspired by the begging hands of the Talibes children, as well as my taking from the place. Luckily I found a piece of driftwood which the felt adhered to without problem.
I made a family from the tale of the Pelican and the sheep in Guet Ndar, titled ‘Peliton and She-can and their love child’, this piece caused great amusement to the visitors and included some of the wool we collected on the beach.
Chat Enceinte was just that, a very hot, pregnant cat I saw one morning and empathised hugely with. She looked about ready to burst and very pissed off. My empathy came from memories of being pregnant with my daughter, I was vast and it was a very hot summer. This mother-to-be deserved to be felted and again she has some Saint-Louisienne wool fibre in her.
The Baobab flower was my artistic interpretation of the beautiful blooms.
Next are my celebrations of ‘The writing on the walls’. A couple of years ago I was in Muscat in Oman where at the souq I modestly purchased some silk thread which I had yet had the chance to use, I brought it with me as I thought it might be nice to do some embroidery.
I made felt to look like the crumbling walls of the town and some primitive hoops from plastic bottles and yarn and, although maybe embroidery is elevating them above their station, created memories of my favourite wall doodles..I was particularly fond of the skinny Michelin man!
Next is a piece that evolved from the seaweed I faithfully removed from the fishing net gathered on the beach. This was a lengthy process and so gave me time to think about the fact that each piece looked very much like a tree and they were too good to simply discard. Hence the wood gathering trip to the beach and my attempt at wood work, crudely hammering 3 pieces together! I bought glue at the hardware shop where there didn’t appear to be any choice and so ended up with 2 part glue, this lead to many problems….it was late in the day and so getting dark, I didn’t want to turn on the lights, as that would mean closing the windows but it became apparent this was needed. It was hot and the glue, once mixed set fairly quickly and my fingers were becoming very sticky. After hastily placing all the mini trees, I cut up some woven plastic I had also found on the beach into tiny flags which I wanted to glue onto the trees.I had the ceiling fan on and so the tiny pieces were blowing all over the place but if I turned it off the glue would set even quicker in the heat…it became a comical race against time, my patience and fast setting adhesive! Felt making seemed so much easier!
Despite the farcical scene of its creation the piece was a serious commentary on a time when all the trees have died and their only foliage wind blown plastic, titled ‘Flag’.
I made bird heads by felting wool around the net. These were hung in a ‘v’ formation as an installation, hard to photograph and again a reference to plastic abundance in our oceans, titled ‘Fly or float’.
And finally, a piece called ‘Dawn to dusk’ depicting the seemless change from swifts to bats in the skies above Saint-Louis I witnessed daily.
A few days after my exhibition opened the Waaw artists had an open house event in the other house just along the street from the gallery, soon to be the main Maison Waaw.
It happened to be on my birthday and I had invited Camara Ahmed, a griot, travelling musician I had met in the gallery from New Guinea,to come along to see the work.
Not really being up on the etiquette of such an invitation, I was a little surprised, embarrassed and touched when he arrived with his kora and proceeded to serenade me with a strange version of Happy Birthday for what seemed like a very long time. This then became a set, which lasted for even longer until, Jarmo, our host, wound up the performance. Ahmed’s voice was amazing and carried around the whole building, it was such a treat and we sent him on his way with suitable payment.
I guess after my exhibition was up and the open house event over, the pressure of work production was off for me.
I gave a needle felting workshop to the other artists
I was able to take some time just ‘to be’, to soak up the place and try not to think about the days passing and my return to reality!
Senegal is a peaceful country where Muslims and Christians live happily side by side.
The days in Saint-Louis are punctuated by the call to prayer, it is a fairly conservative place; a city made of of small villages/cartiers where children run around and play football in the dusty streets, women set up stalls at the side of the road and everyone knows everyone.
I was conspicuous as a white European woman, and yet as the month went by I became a familiar face and walks around the island were a stream of salutations, making it fairly impossible to get anywhere quickly.
There was a buzz in the air in this final week of my stay in Saint- Louis as Tabaski was nearing.
Tabaski is a Muslim festival commemorating Allah’s asking of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son. At the last moment an angel appeared and gave Ibrahim a ram to sacrifice in place of his son.
The build up to the festival is similar to the build up to Christmas in the UK, a bit frenzied, a bit pressured as each family is expected to buy a sheep to then slaughter, cook and feast upon that day.
It is a time when families get together, wear their finest clothes and spend time celebrating, eating and being happy.
I visited the sheep market on the mainland the day before Tabaski and what a sight. Sheep and men everywhere. It was hard to take photos but I managed a few, one man asked of me, why are you taking photos? To which I responded, because I love sheep and quickly moved away!
Tabaski is what inspired some of my drawings and gave me my 1st taste of Senegalese ‘Teranga’, hospitality, perhaps the best way of describing it, but really so much more.
I had made friends with a few locals but because my french wasn’t great, I hadn’t formed any close bonds.
Some of the other artists had been invited to spend the day with families to celebrate Tabaski. I was content to have a quiet day, take some photos from my morning, rooftop perch of the well dressed locals; take a walk around the island to soak up the atmosphere and then planned to escape the ‘slaughter’ time at 10am and hide on the beach!
My day started to plan; it was great to watch the families make their way up the street, fathers and children dressed in matching kaftans on their way to the Mosque, in the north of the island. Such beautiful people with a spring in their step, it was impossible not to feel the joy in the air!
Taking photos of people was tricky, the children all wanted their photos taken but it was easy to offend adults and so my hideaway, if seemingly voyeuristic, was ideal to capture these moments.
I braved the streets fairly early, still keen to avoid seeing any sheep have their throats cut! Coward that I am.
I took a walk to the bridge that takes you to Guet Ndar and saw sheep being taken from the roof of a bus, much finery..the pirogues decorated with flags and headed south along the river planning on doing a loop around the island.
I met a fisherman who spoke more Spanish than French and who invited me to visit him in his house for things I won’t go into here…he luckily had places to be, and so after an exchange of addresses, I was left in peace.
I carried on around the southern point of the island where I was shouted at politely to ‘Take our photo, this is my Mother’…this from a young man dressed in a kaftan alongside, as he told me his mother, another young man and a small boy. What could I do but oblige and afterwards showed them the photos on my camera and discussed email addresses, in order that I could somehow get the pictures to them. This all in my inadequate french. And then as the group went to go home, as the time of sheep sacrifice was nearing, I was invited to their home. I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know them, I was a little nervous but was able to put up very little resistance! I agreed to go and see where they lived, which was very close, and on the way in was introduced to the 3 sheep in the alley awaiting the knife!
And so began my relationship with the Diop family.
I was hustled into the room where food preparation was underway and quickly surrounded by children, curious about me and my camera and no-one batted an eyelid that suddenly a strange ‘toubab’ had joined their day of feasting!
Within minutes of my arrival all of the men of the house had shed their finery and were back in their regular clothes ready to deal with the sheep queuing in the alley.
I chose to stay with the food preparation and the women and children!
I wasn’t prepared for a day out, I had only a bottle of water and a long lens on my camera and so my photos from the day were taking from corners of rooms, stepping over cooking pots and children in order to get any worth taking!
I was sitting at the end of a sofa, side on to the internal, outside area in the middle of the house and where the sheep were carried to be butchered. This I watched from the corner of my eye, to the great merriment of my new young friends. It all happened so quickly and cleanly, no rivers of blood, no plaintive cries from the mouton and all the time, garlic was being crushed, potatoes turned to chips and I was made to feel part of the family.
I had no idea who the children belonged to, who was related to who and in what way, I struggled to remember anyone’s name, as the names were all so unusual sounding to my British ear. I muddled through with nods and smiles and one of the women spoke some English, my invitee, the young man, who had asked for the photo, checked on me intermittently with big welcoming smiles and so here I stayed for the day.
I was taken up the rough concrete steps to an upstairs room, two foam mattresses with crumpled sheets filled the floor, unconnected wires hung from the walls and here I hung out with the boys in the family, taking photos as the smell of cooking mouton began to fill the air.
I was feeling slightly anxious about what I would be eating…I eat meat, but not much. I was brought a small glass with tea, strong and black and very sweet, I managed that and gave the glass back as there weren’t many to go around. I was then brought a glass of something milky…this worried me a lot, as I really don’t like milk, and so was relieved when I tasted it that it was sweet and like yogurt.
There was a bustling of activity from the women downstairs, as the sheep was cooked. I really had no idea as to the order of things and felt fairly bemused by it all, everyone was very attentive and I was given a piece of freshly cooked bit of sheep to eat, maybe liver, it was good, I embraced the experience!
It seemed like hours later and I was ushered downstairs and into the salon, where a cloth was laid on the floor and me, and all the men of the family were presented with a bowl filled with mouton and chips and onions and mustard, given baguettes, and me a fork and sitting on the floor proceeded to eat. I had choice pieces thrust in my direction with the order to ‘mange, mange!’ and so I did as I was told and it was delicious.
The women and children ate in the kitchen room. Just like on Christmas day everyone was soon full of food and sleepy. Tea was made and everyone found a space to ‘repose’, even me!
At around 5 o’clock that afternoon, 7 hours after arriving for Tabaski , I walked back to the Maison Waaw, enriched by a real Senegalese experience and with new friends…I never made it to the beach that day!
You will hear more about the Diops if you make it to my return trip to Senegal, they have become dear friends.
Just a couple of days left in Saint-louis and a few of us took a trip North and inland to a town called Podor. A chance to get out of the city and for me a chance to see some more birds.
4 of us and our driver left early the next morning for the 5 hour drive.The sun not quite showing itself, it was already hot and we were heading away from the breeze from the sea. Everywhere was sleepy in the post Tabaski, sheep for breakfast- come down that is part of all festivities, well maybe not the sheep for breakfast bit!
It felt good to be leaving the confines of the island and exciting to see a new part of Senegal.
The journey through the North of Senegal took us inland, along dusty roads, past sleepy villages with round mud dwellings; wind swept trees and in the distance great flocks of birds wheeling over the plains.
The air grew still as we moved inland and the day hotter.
It was 1pm when we arrived at our hotel in Podor.
Facing the Senegal river which was a wide expanse of chocolate coloured water and across which was Mauritania, we entered the hotel through a shady room and into a garden with large trees.
After being showed to our rooms, all of which encircled the garden, being hungry, we were taken to a door just down the road and knocked. Remember it was the day after Tabaski and everywhere was quiet.
We were in luck as the place was able to provide us with some food and a beer and we sat in the shade of the veranda and marvelled at the sculptures in the garden made from flip flops.
The owner, a french man who lived in Dakar during the week and travelled to Podor each weekend, gave us a guided tour of some of the rooms and the beautifully restored bar…he had a fine collection of paintings but i couldn’t help wondering whether there were ever any guests!
After lunch, bearing in mind we were in Podor for only 24 hours, we braved the searing heat of the afternoon sun and took a walk into the town.
Podor is a border town, once colonised by the French, it is well known for the fort that still stands in the town and for 2 famous inhabitants, Baaba Maal a world renown singer songwriter and Oumar Li, a photographer who, when not travelling the country taking photographs, had had his studio in Podor.
Today is was a sleepy place, the air was still and the inhabitants rested. We walked to the fort with only goats for company and trailed through the empty market place, hugging every bit of shade for the sun was intense. We found a shop to buy some well needed water and sat in the shade of an ancient tree watching the shadows dance on the brown waters of the river.
I was happy when we turned back to our hotel, where we could sit in the shade of trees filled with birds, where lizards skulked and shared food with pigeons.
It was a peaceful place. On the riverside men played petanque and the occasional strolling family went by.
We sat, taking turns in the swinging chair and discussed where we might find food that evening, it looked like Podor was closed for the holidays. Whilst we thought about this we met one of the handful of guests in the hotel besides us, a Senegalese man named Amadou Barry. I remember his name because he gave us his card. Amadou was from Podor and was visiting his family for Tabaski. He lived in Barcelona with his Spanish wife and young son who were with him at the hotel.
Instantly, after introductions we were invited to spend the evening with Amadou and his friends and family for another feast. Teranga was to provide again!
As evening fell we trailed after Amadou into the sandy streets of Podor. First we stopped at his family home and met his mother and sisters who were getting ready for the evening. Quickly after this we were taken to the home of a friend of Amadou where we were invited to sit and then given food and drink as though they had always known the 4 of us were coming. Then, after 30 minutes or so we went to the home of Amadou’s grandmother and ushered into a well kept salon with a plush sofa where we smiled and shook everyone’s hand and talked to Amadou’s uncle whose English was great as he lived in America.
One more quick stop after this one and we returned to Amadou’s home, were set down on a mat outside the house and given soft drinks as more and more guests arrived.
It was an interesting evening, filled with lively debates and food…I could only really partake in the food as my French was too poor to get involved but I really wished I could.
We were given a lift home and I looked forward to a quiet nights sleep as my room in Saint-Louis was filled with street noises and so I wore ear plugs to drown them out..in Podor it was quiet….or so I thought.
We arrived back at the hotel to discover a massive sound system had been set up in the property next to the hotel, and dance music was being played very loudly…it was before 11pm and from experience, we knew the event would go on to the early hours!
I did manage to sleep, with my pillow over my head, woken fitfully when the DJ shouted into his mic.
With so much, I had found out in Senegal, it was best just to laugh.
The morning though was a different matter. I awoke to silence, got up and took some photos of the river and the beautiful morning light.
We breakfasted on instant coffee, bread and jam and my friends made plans for another walk around the town. I though, was going nowhere, content to lie in the hammock and watch the birds weave their nests and the lizards slink around. It was a perfect place to take photos and stay out of the relentless sun, for here the was no breeze.
Our driver arrived back at the hotel, keen to get on the road to avoid the rising heat of the day and so we settled our bill, climbed back into the car and waved goodbye to Podor.
We stopped for lunch in Dagana, about halfway between Podor and Saint-Louis at a lovely hotel with a pool, which unfortunately, had been drained of water.
After lunch we headed home to Saint-Louis for the final days at the Maison Waaw.
As soon as we got back I resumed invigilating my exhibition which was on for another couple of days.
I invited all the children from the Diop family I had spent Tabaski with to come and see my work and ended up, on a rainy morning, giving an impromptu needle felting class, all the time trying to stress how much it hurt to stab yourself with the needle felting needle, fetching tissues to mop up the blood and waiting for the rain to stop.
I bought gifts for my family to take home and for the 1st time went in search of some wax print fabric…I had been very reserved about this, aware there wouldn’t be a huge amount of space in my luggage for much.
It is really just as well because I loved them all and the more strange the design the more I liked them, I modestly purchased maybe 5 different designs.
The last thing I needed was to finish making a Pelican I had been commissioned to make by Kita, a fellow artist, i had just about enough wool and wire left to do so.
Apt as a bird that I will always find synonymous with Saint-Louis.
I wrote a piece about my feelings of Saint-Louis which , if you can bring yourself to read more, is this…..
La Ville de Saint-Louis
The streets are holes with sheep Feet shuffle along, barely leaving the ground
Where to walk is vague…..the pavements parking spaces, sometimes not
Battered yellow and black Renaults are taxis…their horns signify they are near, you are in the way or need a ride?
The boys in their dusty oversized sportswear carry plastic pots They scavenge and scrap, delight in the mundane and play like dogs
They move beside you as if ‘un hombre’ with their hands outstretched, muttering their desires as if saying a prayer or reciting lines from an unknown performance
‘CAVA? NENGA DEF,SALAAMALIKUM!’
‘MADAM COME HERE,SEE MY WARES,TAKE SOMETIME. HOW LONG ARE YOU IN SAINT-LOUIS?’
Je ne comprend pas, but sometimes i do, but i do not want to talk to you
I need to look out for moving vehicles sheep in twos and threes for lakes that have formed in the recent rain
I need to protect my thoughts.
What do you want, is it my toubab cash or do you like my eyes?
The fault is mine, I cannot say, as i walk away that i have nothing to give
I am here to take but from the very heart.
To follow you to new places, where trees grow like the folds of a mammoth, where dogs sleep in pits of sand and….
‘LET ME SHOW YOU MY HOUSE’
‘NO WAIT! WHO ARE YOU? I AM NOT SURE, I DO NOT KNOW YOU AND FEEL INSECURE’
….to lines of trees where sheep are tied and cats seek shade to lie. Take me to the river, across the bridge past the pirogues in all their colourful delight the egrets preening on their prows
Dodge the plastic and decay…..’LOOK INTO MY EYES, PLEASE TAKE MY PHOTOGRAPH. TOUBAB!TOUBAB! TOUBAB!’
More oversized sportswear and food encrusted faces football games with balls barely inflated
‘WE KNOW WALES….ROOGBY’ a universal language
In and out of narrow lanes of sheep and lambs and mothers with containers…..
for rice and fish, with clothes to wash- busy all the time
even in quiet moments there are important words to speak, maybe…….
‘give me some space, leave me alone’ except this is not expected.
These are streets like nothing i have seen.
They are narrow and crowded, they are 5 families to a house, they are sheep filled and sheet filled and children under your feet.
They smell of fish that is caught and cooked and dried and eaten
‘Fair play’ I read on the wall- so familiar but so far from home
This place sells ‘lait’, it is painted on the wall
The football team is white…i wonder about this
Follow the road past the pelican that thinks he is a sheep…..past the busy, busy people
Mind the horse and the bus and the waspy taxi
Past the place to salt fish, a land that is all maron
Then more houses built of block and streets paved with plastic… the new village where egrets strut and goats chew on the indigestible
The hum is the sound of ice being made to keep the catches fresh
the smell of a perfumer with no sense of smell- fish and trash and sheep.
The ocean pounds the sandy shores, sometimes jade, sometimes aqua and always so warm.
The rivers carries terns on rafts and pelicans float free from tethers
They are white and clean as if freshly painted and the fish they catch is theirs
There are buoys that appear to move through the waters like the heads of Du gong, towed by an unseen force
The Great Comorants grace the skies with their prehistoric gait
Egrets ,like angels, punctuate the blue blue skies
There are illusive reptiles, lizards the size of dogs the coconut palms bend to the winds and hold tight to their fruit
The ocean is pulled towards a man-made gap, stealing land and homes year by year
The river flows like coffee with milk as the street fills with water
The rain takes no prisoners as we cower in corners, under eaves and in door ways
I wonder what the new lakes contain as i brave the skies and make my way to my Saint-Louis home.
A place of contrast not just from the outside.
UNESCO, the higher power, Saint-Louis must hold onto it’s colonial past
The buildings crumble with age and humidity and it seems concern.
There are moments when warzones from the evening news come to mind.
This though is a different war- against the past, when lives were commodity and traditions such that women were queens before they were placed in chains.
The Europeans came and took and built and changed a way of life.
It is a luxury to think of a future, to think ahead and plan
When yesterday your ancestors were sold as goods…when today there is shit to be moved, floors to be swept, food to prepare and washing to be done
When this was your everyday and again for others in houses more beautiful than yours
with polished wood and painted walls and furniture to elevate, soft cushions and linen, fans to circulate the air- alien places for cigars and gin.
While this space (still) exists, still out on the street a woman sits, her baby on her back, hand outstretched, feet bare, no faded leather couch and crisp linen for them
These places feel like oasis
like rescue from a storm but not quite real with a not quite feel of a past i can’t relate to.
To take the very soul, like we did, to mould it as if it were soft enough, into something different, better, more suited to existence above the sand.
If you always lie om the ground, you can always be looked down upon
There is other richness here for everyone, in the colour of the starlings, in the music and the stories and in the way the sun slows life down
A richness that cannot be stolen (except by the sea)
but sometimes it is hard to see through the forest of unwanted conversation, unwelcome bodies by your side and hands trust to your hips
If i look up to the baobab flowers, to the swifts as they flit through the sky, to the kites and their silent vigil.
See the balconies of the past, faded and crumbling, polished and restored
The fruit bats clattering in their daytime roosts and the terracotta roofs
If i just listen to the singing from the mosque, to the birds in the flamboyant tree
If i just breathe deeply, there is the scent of damp and wast in every corner, piss in unlikely places
Eau de poisson et mouton and sweat…of onions cooking and in the early hours bread.
The paint flakes, the metal rusts…… the joys of Saint-Louis!
And so my time in Saint-Louis was at an end, I felt like I had changed and grown and reflected. I had new friends and so much to think about.
I have to thank everyone who helped me to get to Senegal…too many to name! Also Cambrian Mountain wool for sponsoring me with wool fibre and to Jarmo and Staffan from Waaw for putting up with me and especially to Abdul Aziz for helping me hang my show.
If you made it this far, thanks for reading…there will be part 2 at some point because i have been back…watch this space, Ruth x