Podor, Senegal. 2021.

If over the years, and

passing through the realities of life,

dreams die,

I still keep intact my memories,

the salt of remembrance.

― Mariama Bâ, So Long a Letter.

May 2021

Se-ne-gal, the name alone evokes such revelry: the UNESCO World Heritage town of Goree, the slave trading center for over three centuries; the vibrant city and port of Dakar; the former capital of French West Africa, St. Louis; a dusty road trip along a desert highway hugging River Senegal and the Mauritanian border through the colonial outposts of Podor, Matam, and Bakel; the magnificent mangrove swamps of Casamance, the Sine Saloum delta, and the long coast with tropical beaches and picturesque fishing villages. And this is the land of teranga, Senegalese hospitality that treats you like family…

St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.

After ten days in bustling Dakar, I head North to photogenic St. Louis, celebrating Korité/Eid. The legendary boat Bou el Mogdad that followed the colonial trade route along the Senegal river to Mali sits melancholically on the river bank due to Covid. Instead of a scenic cruise, it’s a wild road trip, a mini Paris-Dakar desert safari of sorts, along the sleepy former colonial towns of Podor, Matam, and Bakel. It’s 45C and dusty. Time to go down south to the green grain basket of Senegal, the Casamance, a step back in time to enjoy sublime pirogue rides between village islets and participate in colourful local animist festivals, all under the influence of constantly flowing palm and cashew nut wine. I end my six-week stay in the UNESCO World Heritage Sine Saloum delta before returning to Dakar by a late-night express shared taxi and flying North to the Sahara in Mauritania…

A six-week itinerary in Senegal and Gambia. 2021.

Dakar is an assault to the senses, especially after the quiet capital cities of East Africa – Kigali, Lilongwe, and Maputo. Dust in the air, sand on your feet, calls to prayer punctuated with neighbours’ chickens crowing and goats bleating, and music everywhere. As always, I am excited to discover a new country. Each morning, I try a new Dem Dikk bus, colourful car rapide, 7-places (almost-falling-apart Peugeots dumped from France), or vehicle the name of which I could neither pronounce nor recall in Dakar’s dizzying transport networks. The sprawling city is made of village-like neighbourhoods, each filled with history and character. From the university area, my friend, Lucia, takes me along the Corniche (which somehow reminds me of Beirut) to the Lebu fishing communities of Ouakam, through the posh expat area of Almadies to Ngor with colourful murals…

My first ride on board an ultra rapid car rapide. Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
car rapide awaiting passengers in front of a Covid-19 public health message wall. Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
A Lebu child playing in the beach. Ouakam, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
There’s always time for prayers. Ouakam, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
A national passion: washing the sheep! Ouakam, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.

Dakar feels like a giant market; everything is being sold, at every street corner, at all times. In the former colonial market Kermel, I sit down to lunch – my first tasty thieboudienne, the Senegalese national dish of stewed fish and rice lovingly prepared by third-generation Chef Amy – next to M. Doudou who dresses like a lawyer but works at the port as a trader. Outsiders are usually not allowed and photos were strictly forbidden, but Doudou takes me under his wings, giving me a crash course of History and Politics of Fishing in Senegal 101 while meandering through containers, refrigerated warehouses, and truck loads of frozen fruits de merThe Chinese own most of the fishing fleets and plied the coasts of Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, he said. Sure enough, some Wolof-speaking Chinese fishermen are negotiating in the background. I imagine the vast quantities of fishes needed to feed a billion people and the massive plundering of fish stocks already condemned by Greenpeace…

Former colonial Marche Kermel – it was “for French only”! Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Third-generation Chef Amy serving thieboudienne in Marche Kermel. Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Thieboudienne, the Senegalese national dish of stewed fish and rice. Marche Kermel. Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Elegantly dressed M. Doudou showing me the bustling fishing port. Dakar, Senegal. 2021. 
M. Doudou trying out a suit 3-sizes too large for him. Fishing port, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.

Dakar has an exceptionally vibrant art scene including Dak’Art, the biennale. The founding president of post-independence Senegal, Leopold Senghor, had the foresight to invest in art and created a rare African art colony in a prime seaside location, Soumbedioune. I meet the young and energetic President of painters, Abdul Fall, who proudly shows me his latest work, The Covid Doors, and various workshops of wood carving, sculpture, leatherwork, textile, ceramic… Opposite the village, a line of antique shops compete for the attention of a rare potential foreign client. Venez voir, pour le plaisir des yeux/come see for your eyes’ pleasures! they urge, reminding me of smiley souk merchants in Morocco…

President of painters, Abdul Fall, in front of his latest work: the Covid doors (“there is light at the end of the doors!”). Soumbedioune art colony, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Wood carving workshop at the back. Soumbedioune art colony, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
An antique shop owner showing me a sun mask from Burkina Faso. Soumbedioune, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.

The highlight of Dakar is l’ile de Goree though, this soulful island with a tragic past right off the coast, reachable by a short ferry ride. If not for a great-great-great-great-great grandchild who lived in a former slave trading warehouse and who was determined to tell the world the not-so-glorious past of European colonization, one could have mistaken Goree as a Mediterranean hideaway for celebrities. Famous politicians, filmmakers, writers, and philanthropists made Goree their second home. George Soros owns a modest-looking house here and opened an institute to encourage the much-needed democratic discussions. There’s no place like Goree. Prime colored walls and narrow alleys, boat-shaped houses and an artist colony, photogenic ruins and charming locals, and a constant sea breeze…

Goree, Senegal. 2021.
A local resident standing in front of a boat-shaped house during his morning walk to get fresh baguette. Goree, Senegal. 2021.
Goree, Senegal. 2021.
A painter’s studio in the artist colony in front of the castle. Goree, Senegal. 2021.
Slow-going during Ramadan. Goree, Senegal. 2021.
Goree, Senegal. 2021.
“The door of no return”: from Goree, slaves were shipped off to the Americas. Goree, Senegal. 2021.
The freedom Statue. Goree, Senegal. 2021.

There is still much to explore in the busy capital: the much-talked-of mammoth African Renaissance Monument and the nearby Mamelles lighthouse in the Westernmost point of Africa, a day trip to Lac Rose, and miles of scenic beaches… It’s Ramadan, when day becomes night and night turns into day. In otherwise bustling Dakar, a collective lethargy descends each slow morning that would not lift until around 5-6pm when pots of coffee start brewing in local neighbourhoods and families get ready for ndogou/fast breaking. After a full day of fasting, snacking begins at 7pm and dinner would not be ready till 10pm. At midnight, vast quantities of food are still being consumed… Forget about asking the hotel receptionist, Ou est le/where is the… in early morning. Je suis désolé/I am sorry, he would say, with his eyes at half-mast…

Standing in the Westernmost point of Africa, wondering where to head next…! Mamelles Lighthouse, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Stuck in traffic for hours on board a Dem Dikk bus… Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Lac Rose, Senegal. 2021.
Slow going during Ramadan. Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
A typical beignet snack to break fast. Ngor, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.

The dust, noise, and traffic jams – reminding me of the other Dhaka, Bangladesh – quickly become overwhelming. Time to flee the polluted city, in search of solitude in the Lampoul desert, midway between Dakar and St. Louis. It ain’t no Sahara; nothing would ever be like the Sahara, but in Senegal, it is a consolation and reprieve…

In search of solitude in Senegal… Lampoul desert, Senegal. 2021.
Lampoul desert, Senegal. 2021.
Lampoul desert, Senegal. 2021.

By the time I arrive in St. Louis, my cold has become a full-blown chest infection. On the day of Korité/Eid, instead of night-clubbing with the Chatrain family at Hotel Oasis, I head to the Regional Hospital Emergency, being treated by a young, kind-hearted Malian doctor speaking BBC English. Helas, my hacking cough is so bad that I could barely crawl out of bed to get breakfast. All-night dancing is out of the question. It’s hard to stay put in a photogenic city, but illness is always a great teacher. Patience – if not acceptance – is one thing I have learned in this epic journey. Rarely do you see any faintest sign of impatience, in long bank queues, bus stops, water and electricity cuts, and life’s endless inevitable inconveniences and even tragedies in this continent. I hope you like this set of St. Louis portraits, post-recovery, of faded walls, colourful residents, and the rich traditional fishing life in Guet-Ndar that no photos can do justice…

St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Fashion designer, Ismaila, in characteristic Baye Fall style. St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Anta Fall, in characteristic Baye Fall style. St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Local residents at their Korite/Eid best. St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
A supersized plate of thieboudienne to nurse my chest infection. St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.

No photos can do justice to the rich traditional fishing life in Guet-Ndar, an entire world of its own, filled with customs and rituals…  

Guet-Ndar fishing village, St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Guet-Ndar fishing village, St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Guet-Ndar fishing village, St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Guet-Ndar fishing village, St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.
Guet-Ndar fishing village, St. Louis, Senegal. 2021.

From St. Louis, it would have been an adventure to follow the Senegal River to go all the way to Mali, except that the borders are closed due to Covid. This Northern part of Senegal, hugging the Mauritanian border, is rich in history, culture, and tradition, of the Tekrour kingdom (10th century), the Fulani tribe, and French colons who ran trading posts. The Podor-Matam-Bakel-Tambacunda route covered nearly 1000km, along a dusty desert “highway” that isn’t always paved. It is not for the faint of heart, but I always fall for desert hospitality and free-flowing ultra-sweet mint tea…

Bubu fishing in early morning. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Koumis doing Sunday laundry by the Senegal river. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
MK. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Baba, enjoying a mid-morning pause. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Amadou Thiam, Podor’s tinsmith. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
M. Sy, Podor’s muezzin. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Malian marabout, Mamadou Sow. “Take my number. Call me and tell me what you want, and I will come to you!” Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
El Hadji, butcher, enjoying morning coffee. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Hassan, cement labourer. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Little Raky. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
With a group of high school students in early morning. Podor, Senegal. 2021.
Another long dusty day, along the desert highway. Waiting for the 7-place to fill up, a quintessential Senegalese experience! Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Mosul. Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
Ismail inviting me for mint tea. Bakel, Senegal. 2021.
A weekday animals’ market. En route to Bakel, Senegal. 2021.

After another 400km of dusty desert “safari”, it’s a relief to arrive at laid-back Ziguinchor, in the centre of Casamance down South, not far from the Guinean-Bissau border. The best way to explore this enchanting region is to hop on a pirogue villageois that navigates between the islets. When I arrive at the port, one is about to leave for Niomoune, so that would be my destination! The five-hour ride along the river and mangroves, with sightings of giant pelicans and jumping dolphins, is easily the most pleasant journey in my stay in Senegal. The island is a step back in time, off the grid (no running water and solar energy only) and steeped in animist fetish practice. The Casamancais are known for their warmth and hospitality. I spend an entire morning with the family and friends of Martha, an Anglophone Gambian who treats me to a delicious shrimp lunch and mango. The pirogue wouldn’t be returning until two days, and there is no network signal. Casamance time begins; the world could wait…

Chef Yaye Fall. Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
On board a pirogue heading to Niomoune (I have no idea where that is!). Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Magnificent Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
The daily ritual of a late-afternoon palm wine drinking gathering. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Fresh palm wine. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Little Marianne enjoying a mango. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Martha with her child, Marianne. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Edouard, drawing water for the plants. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Jean-Baptist, helping Sally with her luggage on pirogue day. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Pirogue day. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Empty jerry cans and bottles to bring back cashew nut wine from Ziguinchor. Niomoune, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.

From Niomoune, the pirogue takes me to Pointe Saint Georges, famous for the elusive manatees that pop their heads up for a fraction of a second in a specific fresh water area at low tide before disappearing in front of your eyes. When I arrive in Ossouye, there is a local animist festival, the Kulee, a combination of thanksgiving and St. Valentine, with colourful wrestling, music and dancing, mounds of tasty Bamakheme served with a special diola sauce, and nonstop flowing palm wine. What a memorable day! Diembering, with its giant kapok trees, and Cap Skirring, famous for its beaches, are only an hour away. Casamance has so much to offer… I have to catch my breath!

En route to Pointe Saint Georges, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Catherine, elegantly dressed and peeling dried shrimps. Pointe Saint Georges, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Alexandre, with his catch. Pointe Saint Georges, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Wrestling starts early here! Traditional Kulee celebration. Oussuye, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Wrestling, Casamance style, during the traditional Kulee celebration, a mixture of local Thanksgiving and St. Valentine. Oussuye, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Thomas, dressed like a woman, at the annual Kulee celebration. Oussuye, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Jean-Caulin playing the local horn during the Kulee celebration. Oussuye, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Traditional tam-tam during the Kulee celebration. Oussuye, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
M. Edouard. Diembering, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Abdullah, Gambian fisherman. Cap Skirring, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.
Prayer time. Cap Skirring, Casamance, Senegal. 2021.

I feel ready to take an express 7-places to return to Dakar, but the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Sine-Saloum delta beckons me. Taxis, mini-vans, and a 7pm pirogue crossing later, I find myself in Mar Lodj, the biggest island in the area, sharing a horse cart ride with Awa and her friend. A well-known tourist destination filled with resorts, Mar Lodj shockingly still has no electricity. After a sticky night of little sleeping and a slow morning with Awa’s family, I leave for Fadiouth, a man-made island built entirely on seashells, and make it just in time for sunset in the phenomenal fishing port of Joal before catching a late-night express taxi back to Dakar.

Sharing a horse-cart ride with Awa and her friend. Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
Local wrestlers training in early morning for an upcoming competition. Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
Enjoying a slow morning with Awa’s family. Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
Le bois sacre/sacred trees where one could make a wish… Top secret! Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
Fadiouth, Senegal. 2021.
Fadiouth, Senegal. 2021.
The phenomenal fishing port of Joal. Joal, Senegal. 2021.

The travel conditions might have been rough, but Senegalese teranga and the tasty cuisine more than make up for them. Above all, I see so much strength and resilience in everyday life. What a generous country and people! Jërejëf/merci!

Awa, art object vendor. Mar Lodj, Senegal. 2021.
A Talibe child, begging “as part of their madrassa training.” Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Sadoa, inviting me for a glass of mint tea by the roadside. Bakel, Senegal. 2021.

The past is reborn

with its procession of emotions.

I close my eyes.

Flow and ebb of sensations…

I close my eyes.

Ebb and flow of images. 

– Mariama Ba

Oukam, Dakar, Senegal. 2021.
Ziguinchor, Senegal. 2021.

Teranga: Senegal

This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.

As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.”  The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.

1. Third Time Lucky: Tunisia

2. One and Only: Ethiopia 

3. Rebirth: Rwanda

4. Zikomo: Malawi

5. On Board My Love: Mozambique

6. Teranga: Senegal

7. The Old Towns of The Gambia

8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania

9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali

10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations

All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan