Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

Filtering by Tag: Casamance

Imma Cashew

Paco takes us on a walking tour of the village adjacent to Ossouye where our hotelier Pier’s family lives. Pier is wearing pink sporty capri’s and a gold speckled tee shirt when we mean him but changed into a Barcelona jersey for the trek where we passed his aunts, great aunts and neighbors on the way to the cashew farm at the edge of town. 

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

I’ve never given much thought to how cashews are produced but as I’m sure many nut enthusiasts have, I’ve lamented the cost of nuts. Now that I’ve witnessed first hand the amount of labor and effort that goes into their production, I actually think nuts are under valued.

Jean Sebastian (Pier’s friend’s) father created 3 factories when he retired. As we learned from the potter’s retired husband, Senegalese workers enjoy months, not years of pension support and have to take retirement jobs of be supported by their children. Jean Sebastian (who was wearing a yellow tank top and jeans) told us his father wanted to bring jobs to the villages and make something to sell. As per always he spoke in French and Megan translated for us English speakers.

Cashew trees (pronounced caj-shoo in Senegal) produce after 5-6 years of being planted. The fruit looks like a bell pepper hanging upside down with an additional green conical “stem” where an individual cashew nut resides. The fruit itself is edible raw (though a bit bitter and pithy, I didn’t like it) and the juice can be drank or turned into wine called Bon Bon. The fruit can also be processed into rum, or jam. The nuts have a more involved process to take them from the tree to edible. 

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

Once the nuts are picked by hand they’re taken out of the green stem and roasted and left in the sun to dry. The outer casing is broken to free what we would recognized as a cashew nut and those are laid onto cookie sheets and baked over a wood fire. Cashew nuts have a corrosive oil surrounding them that burns the mouths if it’s not cooked and burned off. Cashews also have an inner shell like a peanut that must be pealed before packaging.
Jean Sebastian speaks slowly and deliberately. The workers are done with the day’s shift by the time we arrive at 5 p.m. but he’s clearly ready to deliver the information. He looks taken aback when Megan asks for a Facebook or website to help promote the product. No, he says, they don’t sell online, only in town and at the factory. We buy five bags at 2,000 CFA or a little less than $4 a piece. Jean Sebastian is happy with our purchase and invites us back any time. There are also star fruit and mangos on his property. He warns us to walk quickly between through the mango grove because they are ripe and could fall on us without warning. 

Jean Sebastian reminds me of a Sudanese man named Ashraf we met at our first hotel in Casamance. He studied to be an English teacher and he showed me his teaching certificate, which he keeps folded up with his passport and ID card, but he never taught. Sudan is too unstable and government paychecks aren’t consistent. He came to Senegal on an exploratory mission to see how he could buy land and make his own Cashew factory. 

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

Senegal is a peaceful country and Ashraf wants to sell his cashews to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where they would fetch a good price, much better than a teaching salary in Sudan. 

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

He invited us to visit (which the US government under no uncertain circumstances expressly warns against. Knowing the amount of labor and time involved in growing and processing cashews, I’m impressed that this young entrepreneur who didn’t speak French, is contemplating a cross continent move to such a seemingly poor country. Opportunity is always relative.  

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Making Petite Jarres

A few days ago Paco dropped off a bag of brioche with a group of boys on the road and told them to take it to their grandmother. He told us we would come back to see her pottery studio and learn about traditional ceramics. When we come back Paco brings soccer cleats for one of the boys. When he’s not guiding Paco runs a schools and summer camp and has a big interest in seeing the kids of Casamance succeed. 

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

The potter’s husband is a retired police officer. He tells us he received a pension for the first three months of his retirement but now the government doesn’t give him anything. An adult daughter with intellectual disabilities sits in the corner and laughs. She shakes our hands but she doesn’t speak French. The three young boys huddle around us and spread out a bamboo mat for their grandmother, Megan and I to sit on. 

The grandmother explains that she digs up the earth and mixes it with pulverized sea shells to create her clay which is grey and gritty when wet and red when fired. She fires the pottery she makes in a patch of earth just outside the wall to her house. She sets the pots on the ground, builds a fire of palm branches and lets the pots cook in the fire over night. She says we can pick up our creations the following morning. 

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

We break the gritty clay into tennis ball sized blobs and roll them out on 2”x6” slabs of wood the boys have laid out for us. Her name is Démonde and she speaks French to Megan who translates to English for me. She’s wearing floral print pants, an over sized tee shirt from an even in 2012 and very French-looking hat with a red stripe. She isn’t wearing shoes. 

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

The technique she shows us is a spiraled coil pot. There is a reused plastic bucket of slip the same grey color as the clay and a few wooden dishes to be used as a sort of wheel to turn the pots as we smooth the coils inside and out. She is a strict teacher and quick to tell us, “Not like that,” then take the pot from us and fix it herself. 

We were supposed to just watch her make a pot but, as an art teacher, I asked Démonde if we could participate and she acquiesced. We rolled the clay into 1” diameter snakes, secured in on the inside of the pot and continued the coils until the earth resembled an orb. She then told us to use small, smooth pieces of wood dipped in slip to smooth the inside and out better than what we had done with our fingers. She slapped the outside of the pots with a slab of wood to perfect the shape before rolling a piece of twine over the outside to make a pattern.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Inside her workshop, which doubled as a chicken coop filled of tiny cheeping chicks and their mother, were rows of finished clay pots. Small Grecian-esque pots, large water vessels, vases and similar pots to what we made were waiting to go to market. 

Once the pots come out of the fire, they are varnished with the juices of a local plant, deep purple in color and watery in texture. It looks like the Bissau jus laucaux we’ve been drinking in the restaurants. Our pots are almost too hot to touch when we come back in the morning to retrieve them. Paco said we’re the first tourists who have participated rather than just watched the pottery demonstration. He said he was proud of us for getting our hands dirty. Americans and Europeans seem to have the reputation in Senegal of not knowing how anything works and not wanting to do any manual labor or walk anywhere. I’m sure it’s a carry-over from Senegal’s colonial past which ended not even 60 years ago. 

Village Life

Our driver is Samba, the same driver who picked us up from the ferry dock and brought us to the hotel and showed us the calabass fruit. HIs station wagon is cramped with he and Paco in the front and Chris, Megan and I in the back seat. We’re going to Samba’s village to experience every day life in Casamance. 

The drive is dusty with divets every so often in the road where the rainwater will drain when the rains finally come. There are also speed humps translated as “donkey’s back” in French. There are more Christians down here and Paco tells us there is only one god so the Christians, Muslims and Animists get along just find and respect each other’s traditions and share what little they have. 

Cesar is the pet monkey.

Cesar is the pet monkey.

The village, Agnack has 700 inhabitants, several schools with kids on summer break, several mosques and a small church that looks like it hasn’t been used in quiet a while. None of the roads are paved and families are mostly gathered outside their cinderblock houses with thatched roofs. 

We find our later that the house we are visiting is the family of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO Casamance a Provance.  Everyone is related here. The cook in the hostel in Dakar walked us to the canoes to go to Ile N’gor and had his friend pick us up to take us to his restaurant. Our driver to Lake Reba bypassed two other tour companies to hand us to his friend’s jeep and boat tour. Senegal runs on kickbacks and relationship building. Everyone has a cousin or a brother who can help us. Social currency matters more than income in a poor country with few options. 

The children run up to us and shake our hands when we approach the house. Some of the women are roasting cashew nuts over hot coals and offer us some. There are no men around. Perhaps they’re dead from the rebellion or working or simply elsewhere. The children show us their pet monkey, Cesar. He’s tied up by his waist to a tree and tolerates being man handled by the kids. One woman (who must be close to 6 feet tall) has a foot pedaled Singer sewing machine set up under a tree. She took part in a course on sewing and is practicing what she learned. We sit in green plastic chairs under a mango trees eating the yellow fruit and trying to get our bearings.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

I get the sense that while the family doesn’t mind our presence, they are as baffled as we are as to what we’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to act. To them the idea that we would want to do something rather than sit around in the shade during the hottest part of the day seems foreign to them. Sitting around in chairs after sitting in the car makes us antsy. We ask for a tour of the village. You, short for Youseff, shows up on his motorcycle with a friend and joins us on the tour. He’s the younger brother of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO and is a mechanic in Zigunchor. You wears stylishly torn jeans, a fanny pack and a tee shirt that doesn’t look dirty or torn at all. He wouldn’t look out of place walking down the street in any US city. 

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

You and Paco show us the various plants and architecture styles in the village. We see women making fishing net weights from clay and a man soldering a mold to make cinderblocks. His colleague looks on and asks me about myself in English. I am taken aback. He says he is from The Gambia as he pours himself a cup of tea from the pot heating over hot coals. 

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

There are half-naked and shoeless children running every where. There are goats and sheep and pigs. The chickens, we are told, are inside the houses because they get run over when trying to cross the main road that splits the village in two. 

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

There are overturns and rusted mills for separating rice grains from the husks. We are told the women are back to doing it by hand. The NGO who brought the machines isn’t around any more and no one kept them up. 

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

You buys a pack of cigarettes and Paco buys a water from a shed that is as close to a store as we’ve seen. I don’t fault You and his brother for getting out and wanting something different, something better than an outdoor kitchen an a mattress on the floor in a house of 10 people. 

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

We eat communally at 5 p.m. we are ravenous as we had nothing but mangoes for lunch. Paco brought the fish and the women made thieboudienne, the national dish of Senegal.  We are all given a spoon and sit around a giant platter of rice in tomato sauce served with fish, carrots, eggplant and onions. It’s delicious. I drink tea out of tiny glass cups that are refilled and passed to the next person. They may not have much but this village has warmly shown the spirit of teranga, the Wolof word for the welcoming and helpful spirit of the Senegalese people.

The Other Senegal

Paco came to pick us up at 8:30 but Chris was doing some work and we didn’t get on the road until after 9. Today’s driver picked us up with a bush taxi, a beat up station wagon with three rows of seats and room for 8. I’m in the back seat by myself. It’s not comfortable. The inside of the car is rusting to the point where I can see the smooth pavement flying by in a hole between my feet. I wonder if the back end of the car will break off and what would happen to me. I don’t like the thought and focus on the dried up rice paddies we’re passing. It’s the end of the dry season and everything is dead. It’s dusty and smells like diesel fuel. I cover my mouth and nose with my bandana. 

Me with my bandana.

Me with my bandana.

We drive an hour and a half back toward the Atlantic from Zigunichor and stop at a village with a two-story house made of packed dirt and sand. The house was completed around 1950. The builder was inspired by his time in WWII fighting for the French. He saw two story houses with staircases instead of a ladder and two balconies for air. He wanted to bring that grandeur and comfort back to Casamance. The house was built between October and June, in the dry season. Every two weeks the builder added on to the pillars and walls with a sandy cement mixture 2-3 feet at a time with ample days to dry in between. 

The current woman of the house wasn’t home so a man from the neighboring museum shows us around. The grandmother died two years ago and the grandfather died 20 years ago. The house has 2 granaries for storing rice, one for the men and one for the women. The men’s side has been empty a long time. The women’s granary is musty and dark. I cover my face with my bandana again as the museum man tells us about rotating the rice crop and eating the older grains first.

Eight children aged 6 months to about 12 or so are home alone as were poke around the house and hear about the construction. We’ve seen plenty of 6-10 year olds in charge of their younger siblings. I asked Paco who was taking care of his 11 year old daughter while he was with us as he said he’s not married. He looked very confused and told me she was grown. I said I thought she was 11. He said she was. We have such different ideas about the roles of children. 

The inside of the bush taxi.

The inside of the bush taxi.

Paco has worked for the past year for a French-backed NGO called CAP. There are two other guides, none of whom really speak English. Paco has some words and phrases but we all rely on Megan as the intermediary. Paco refers to “the two Senegals.” He is Muslim and lives in Zigunichor. He tells us that Casamance used to be it’s own region and that at one point it was a Portuguese colony before Portual traded it to the French in some deal involving territory in the Caribbean in the late 1800s. In 1982 there was a big rebellion where the people of Casamance tried to break free from Dakar, which they thought didn’t properly represent them. They did not succeed and instead got soldiers from the north running check points throughout the region that exist to this day.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

The bush taxi had seen better days but we survived unscathed.

Casamance is more Christian than the north. We see sows and piglets roaming around. It’s a poor region, much poorer than the area near the capital and for a long time it was cut off from the north by The Gambia. Today there’s a bridge and driving, flying or taking the ferry are all travel options, though we only met one person from Casamance who had traveled out of the region. 

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Paco and Megan stand outside the two-story earth house in Casamance.

Cachiouane, Cassamance, Senegal

My non-airconditioned room in the impleuvium with a circular courtyard and slanted roof for the rain to fall into during the rainy season wasn’t actually too bad. The animals started waking up around 6. I could hear goats and sheep calling out in the pre-dawn light. The stars last night were incredible since the island didn’t have electricity and the solar lights that most households rely on were few and far between. The Milky Way shown brightly and I spotted the Big Dipper on its side and Orion. 

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

The round building called and impleuvium was constructed by hand and has 8 rooms around the courtyard.

Breakfast was fresh baguettes from the baker in the house next door. He has an outdoor wood-fire oven and makes mini-loaves of French bread. Instant coffee and sugar cubes and powdered milk is the norm and Titina cut open a soursop for us before we took a group photo and got onto the boat back to town. Michel drove us and two other villagers to the Elinkine. If they want to take the public boat off the island it has to be full, meaning 30-40 villagers also have to want to go, so a lot of the 700 people who live on the island hitch a ride with the hotel boat, which leaves whenever guests are coming or going. 

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Michel drives the Campenment Sounka Chez Papis motorized canoe.

Titina showed us the women’s garden last night. It’s surrounded by a chicken wire fence to keep the animals out and each family has a plot. It’s the end of the dry season and not much was still growing but we saw turnips, tomatoes, mango trees, soursop, and white and red bissap, which looks like a weeds and is used to make juice and cook with. 

We stopped by some of Titina’s relatives’ house. Two young women had a baby girl named Marie. Titina took the baby who eventually peed on her. The baby wasn’t wearing a diaper or any pants, likely to make clean up easier since it didn’t seem like there would be money for diapers or anywhere to buy them. We were offered (but declined) tea made on a metal stove over coals by a woman also named Marie who was undoing her corn rows. 

The man of the house looked to be in his 50s or 60s. His French was not as good as the hotel staff, but our guide Paco said that unless Senegalese people have interaction with foreigners or international business, they don’t practice their French since they speak Wolof or Jola or another local language with their family and friends. 

Paco took us on a tour of the village, which included stops at two sacred wells that never dry up, even in the dry season. The wells are safe-guarded from the pigs, cows, sheep and goats that roam free by a stick fence. Legend has it that a man from the very north of Senegal had a vision of a light in the south that he was compelled to find. He dug wells by hand along the 2,000 KM journey including the two in Kachouwne. People come to drink out of the calabass fruit bowl and wash themselves. The calabass is a green fruit the size of a watermelon that grows on bushes and looks like it has no business hanging from the branches rather than sitting on the ground. The fruit is cut in two and dried to make bowls that are sometimes used as drums. As a symbol of respect for the sacred well, people leave their shoes outside the gate when they go in to pour water on themselves and drink. 

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

Awa, Youssou, Modou and Titina welcomed us with drumming and dancing on the beach.

We finished our day back on the hotel bar patio where we play a dice game and mancala with the hotel staff. Their uncle owns the hotel and the 6 of them take care of it. Their French is good since they interact with foreigners all the time at their 11-room hotel. Youssou had a bum right leg that’s smaller than his left and ends in a stunted, curved foot. Michel drives the boat. Awa and Titina, run the kitchen and bar. Modou and Samba play cards and hang out while they’re waiting for the rains to come back. They’ll work in the rice fields until they go back to school in the fall.  

Île de Gorée

Getting to Île de Gorée, a small island off the south coast of Dakar, was the first major backpackers hump we’ve experienced on this trip. I lobbied heavily not to leave our packs at the hostel all day, which would require a 90 minute round trip to get them at the end of the day it didn’t make logistical sense to me so we packed up our stuff and hailed a cab. I didn’t cover my backpack on the dusty cab ride from the hostel to the embankment and it got blackened in the trunk which was unpleasant. I know better than to not cover my bag in transit. I usually use my rain cover but for some reason didn’t. You are presented lessons again and again until you learn them properly. 

The cab was an old Camry with dents up and down the bumper and sides. My window didn’t roll down and the rubber window seal was falling off in my face. The ceiling, too was falling down and when I tried to roll it up a bunch of debris fell into my eyes. It was 9 a.m. and my day was starting out sweaty and dusty. We drove passed the African Renaissance Monument that was designed by a North Korean. It initially featured a bare chested woman, but the conservative Senegalese thought it improper and she now wears a cloth over her breasts. It’s twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and looks very Stalinistic on the hill over looking the city.

We drove past the beach and the lighthouse-turned night club, which we didn’t have the opportunity to visit. We drove past the embassies and rows of merchants selling paintings and souvenirs. We arrived at the ferry terminal and were immediately inundated with a swarm of men wanting to sell us their services. Megan spoke to them in French while Chris and I stood around. Our driver was confused because we had originally asked him to stay because we were originally going to go to the train station to drop our bags but he had taken us straight to the ferry terminal. 

One of the guides helped us find the counter to redeem our code for our tickets but then hung around. The man sitting next to me who was from Casamance and was meeting his son and daughter-in-law who were coming for one month from France, told us we didn’t need a guide on Gorée. I asked Megan to tell him we didn’t need his services. There was a man with a dolly who wanted to charge us 10,000 francs to watch our bags which seemed crazy to me and I said we would find a better the solution. 

The better solution was the luggage drop off for the Casamance ferry where we could keep our bags in the corner for free all day and pick them up or check them into the ferry hold any time before 7 p.m. Now that we had our ferry tickets and deposited our big back packs it was time to catch the 11 a.m. boat to Île de Gorée. Tickets cost 5,200 francs, or about $10 for a round trip ride to the former slavers island. On the boat Megan spoke in French to a group of Islamic high school girls who were on a field trip. I spoke to Mohammad, a sand painter with a British accent who lived in the Golf neighborhood on the North side of Dakar but commuted to the island to make and sell his art to tourists. 

The island is home to a variety of sheep, pheasants, stray cats and cows. The residents live in a variety of dwellings including former WWII fortresses half underground. There are rusty cannons and artillery and a military fort from the 1800s turned history museum.  Most of the residents are either farmers or sell handicrafts and art or work in hospitality at the various restaurants and guesthouses on the island.

The Ford Foundation has donated money to restore the Maison des Esclaves and the mansion across the street that were former residences and store houses for human cargo heading to the New World during the triangle exchange of the tras-Atlantic slave trade. Over 300,000 West Africans (the majority being women and children) bound for slavery in the Americas boarded ships on Île de Gorée to start the difficult and horribly uncomfortable journey.

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama have visited the island and spoken out about the horrible legacy of slavery in America, but the truth of it is, there are more slaves today than there have been at any other time in history. Between sex trafficking and forced labor, it might look different and more invisible, but the reality is there are still millions of people on the plant who are not in control of their own destiny.