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Sahara

Day 33: St-Louis

St-Louis, Senegal 
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Life in St-Louis. Outside a shop with a tall, dashing salesman and short plaster figures of the colon, the caricature of the French colonialist in Africa.
Michael Palin - SaharaIt was already too late. The mixing of French and African cultures had been going on long before Faidherbe. Soldiers and traders from Bordeaux settled the town in the mid-seventeenth century and many married the local Fula women, creating an aristocratic class of mulattos, or métis, as the French called them. Many of these women became powerful and successful matriarchs, known as signares, and they wielded great influence in St-Louis.

My thin and straining horse, his coat worn black by the harness, seems happier when we are off the bridge, on which he slithered awkwardly. As we explore the quieter backside of the island, along by the wharves where the warehouses for the rich trade in gum arabic were located, it becomes clear that the French dream of urban orderliness is not shared by the majority of the Senegalese. The roofs of the old, red-tiled, balconied colonial buildings are full of holes. Their once neat shutters are missing and the rutted dirt streets beneath are full of people, talk, small-scale enterprise, food and rubbish.

Another, shorter bridge takes us onto a long thin finger of land between the river and the ocean. Having water around is such an unfamiliar experience that I hire a pirogue to take me back to the hotel. On the way, we pass an extraordinary Dickensian scene. Stretching along the banks of the river is a great concourse of fish smokeries. Long racks of darkening fish stretch across a fuggy landscape of makeshift ovens, tended by fierce and grimy women. They scream abuse and wave their arms at us when the camera turns towards them.

Eat a late lunch at the house of Jacob Yakouba, one of the best-known Senegalese artists. His house is surrounded by a pink-washed wall covered in bougainvillea and there is a large tent in the garden, where friends, fellow artists, writers and politicians can hang out. Here Jacob, like a cultural Godfather, dispenses advice, encouragement and artistic protection to a considerably extended family.

He's a stocky bear of a man, a Senegalese Picasso, with a massive head and thick calves emerging from capacious navy-blue shorts. He's been painting since he was seven. Despite his bull-like size, his gaze is gentle and his speech unexpectedly soft. I watch him working in his studio on a disappointingly conventional portrait of a pretty, loosely clad woman. The walls of the studio are thick with similar paintings, all quite joyfully sexy.
St-Louis, Senegal 
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Women return from the market, heads full.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 33
  • Country/sea: Senegal
  • Place: St-Louis
  • Book page no: 108

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