A riot of creativity in Saint-Louis, Senegal

Saint-Louis, Senegal – N’Dar in Wolof – is the sort of place that should see far more tourists than it does.

It is a gorgeous, atmospheric star of a place, gently reminiscent of both New Orleans and Port Louis, Mauritius. For its French colonial architecture it received a UNESCO World Heritage site designation in 2000.

 

 

I visited Saint-Louis late last year as part of a short residency organised by waaw, an artists’ residence. Founded by Staffan Martikainen and Jarmo Pikkujamsa, two Brussels-based Finns with long histories of working and travelling in West Africa, waaw promotes Senegalese culture and works to connect local creative types with visiting artists and writers. Staffan and Jarmo and their staff provide guidance, facilitate connections between visitors and locals, and offer simple, comfortable rooms to residents. Informally, the residents themselves band together somewhat for meals and town exploration. I relied on waaw staff to answer my many questions or direct me to answers provided locals and their own library. The residency also organised tours – to Guet N’Dar, about which more below; to the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary north of Saint-Louis, and even a city tour of Saint-Louis itself, which focuses on the town’s architecture.

A five-hour drive from Dakar, Saint-Louis has a fairly peripheral presence in contemporary Senegal. This is the case physically – the city itself borders Mauritania – as well as economically. Today, Dakar is the beating heart of Senegalese culture and economy, the place where big things happen. Saint-Louis, quite simply, is not. According to 2005 population estimates, is the country’s eighth-largest city, its airport devoid of commercial traffic. Once upon a time, Saint-Louis was the most important city in the region. Founded in 1659, it was the capital of Senegal for 225 years; it also served for a time as the capital of the entirety of French West Africa.

It’s understandably easy to get lost in the faded colonial grandeur of the city. This is fine – Saint-Louis is a beautiful place, and those haunting colonial buildings are a big part of the island’s appeal. Two important buildings among many are the city’s Grand Mosque and its Catholic cathedral – the oldest church in West Africa – both built in the 19th century. 

But any fixing of Saint-Louis in the past does this dynamic city a real disservice. The city has a buzzing cultural life, with several annual festivals. The most famous of these is the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, held in May. There is also an African documentary film festival in December and religious festivals held in September (Tabaski) and October (Tamxarit). And no reading of culture in Saint-Louis can be made without reference to the Baye Fall, adherents of the Mouride Brotherhood. The Baye Fall wear extremely colorful clothes. They also chant in a kind of trance music called Zikroullah, often at night. One morning I was awoken by Zikroullah chants around 3:30 am.

But more to the point, perhaps, outside of the domain of explicit festivals, is the presence of local creatives doing interesting, contemporary, hybrid things. 

Maï Diop, originally from France, runs a textiles shop and studio called Tësss – the name means “beautiful” in Wolof. After thoroughly researching the textile traditions of the Casamance region, tracing them back to centuries-old Portuguese influences, she works with a small team of craftswomen to breathe new life into an old practice.

And there’s the incredibly beautiful guesthouse Au fil du Fleuve to contend with, a perfect synthesis of Senegalese and French traditions designed with care by its owner, Marie-Caroline Camara. Rather appropriately, Camara is herself of mixed French and Senegalese background. She commissioned a refurbishment of an old family residence that also served as an Arabic gum store. Observing local traditions, the courtyard is made of sand. Much of the furniture and other furnishings were made by local artisans. Staffan at waaw told me about the guesthouse’s breakfasts in glowing terms, and they were indeed pretty amazing. The local offerings included millet porridge, vegetables, fresh juices, goat’s cheese, tamarind, hibiscus, and some delicate fruit jams. I decamped from waaw for two nights for the high design and the exquisite breakfasts. 

Next to Au fil du Fleuve is another great example of Saint-Louis’ hybrid creativity, which takes the form of Meissa Fall’s small, densely packed studio. Fall’s studio has two functions. He repairs bicycles and he creates sculptures out of old bicycle parts – some of faces; others of bodies; yet others of objects that resemble toys. Some of these sculptures are strewn about the neighbourhood and others are on display at his studio, where sculptures, bicycle parts, and scrap cover the walls. The resultant products provide a master example of upcycling and reuse.

The city’s municipal market, located just over the elegant Faidherbe Bridge in Sor, sells more traditional things. It is a riveting, intense place. In terms of general intensity, however, it doesn’t hold a candle to Guet N’Dar, the incredibly crowded, infrastructure-poor fisherman’s town on the barrier island parallel to Saint-Louis. 

A fantastic guide named Birame Seck provided a thoughtful tour of the fisherman’s village. The main issues in the town are overpopulation and erosion. There are some thirty thousand residents of the island, the vast majority under 10 years of age. The local fishing culture keeps families tethered to the island despite the fact that its erosion is transpiring so quickly that its effects can be observed from year to year.

Guet N’Dar is lively and youthful. Even its tiny passageways are crowded. Crossing back into Saint-Louis after the tour, the streets seemed empty, their elegant European grid somehow inappropriately wide. 

For more inforamation on waaw click here


 

By Alex Robertson Textor

 

Markets of Durban

 


Of all the markets we visit on our walking tour of central Durban, South Africa, the most memorable is the Bovine Market.

As the name suggests, you come to this simple space within a low metal shed to eat beef – but not a standard cut. The women working here dish up cow’s head, served with steamed bread. 

It’s a traditional Zulu treat, and a popular one in this maze of markets at Warwick Junction. There are outlets for all sorts of food and clothing, scattered across different levels in and around Berea train station.

By ourselves it’d be impossible to navigate without getting lost, but we’re being expertly guided through the markets by Jabulani, a local man who works for the Street Scene tour company (www.streetscene.co.za). He’s a relaxed guy with dreadlocks, who’s also a traditional healer and is very familiar with the markets and their traders. 

I skip the serve of cow head, but I’m fascinated by the colourful variety of products on sale, and the buildings around them. An arcade leads us through a building of Indian-style architecture near a mosque, to an undercover market with racks of bright women’s clothing.

 

 

Nearby there are pots for sale, and flowers, then we arrive at a curious side market where powdery brown and white balls – looking somewhat like cannonballs - are stacked up in pyramids. These are made of lime, which our guide tells us is ground up and used to paint houses, among other purposes. 

The Early Morning Market specialises in fruit and vegetables, and I’m impressed by the neatly arranged bowls of produce lined up for sale. At one stall, the seller has stacked green peppers in small pyramids, ready to go.

The most remarkable stop, however, is the Herb Market. Located on a former flyover, it’s a jumble of tiny stalls selling items used in traditional remedies. As we walk through, men are crushing ingredients in buckets using long poles. 

I spot different types of bark for sale, and Jabulani says you can buy animal parts here too. If a student is doing badly at exams, he explains, you might feed them something containing monkey, as that’s a quick-witted animal.

Not for me, but I’ll settle for bunny chow. This dish, unique to Durban, consists of curry served within a half loaf of bread, a legacy of the British Empire’s importation of sugar cane workers from India. 

Other than the obvious Indian culinary link, its origins are a mystery. Some people say the sugar cane workers used hollowed-out loaves of bread to take their lunch of curry to the cane fields.

There’s no rabbit in the curry, despite the name: bunny chow generally contains lamb or chicken curry, or vegetarian fillings such as curried vegetables or beans. 

Our tour ends with bunny chow at the Oriental, a famed restaurant inside a grand former railway station. Here I order the quarter-loaf version filled with spicy beans around a chunk of potato. It’s a filling lunch, even at half the usual size, and contains the unmistakable flavour of Durban.

Tim Richards visited Durban courtesy of South African Tourism

 

You can get Durban included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge

 

 

 

Memories of Mandela: A Tour to Robben Island

 

 

My one bout of bad weather in Cape Town comes on the day I’m sailing to Robben Island.

But gloomy weather seems appropriate for a tour to a former prison. For it was on Robben that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, after the freedom fighter was captured and tried by South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 1960s. 

The tour to Robben Island starts at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, an attractive tourist hub of restaurants, shops and hotels. We’re bypassing pleasure for history, however, and take our seats aboard the ferry that will bear us to the low-lying island in Table Bay.

Though the prison is now a museum, nothing much seems to have changed since the days it held political prisoners. Standing in the cold morning air, we can see its old gate framed by grim grey stone walls and a stark sign with a message of “Welkom” in Afrikaans. 

Boarding a tour bus, we’re welcomed by guide Thabo (“It means ‘joyful’ in Xhosa”), who gives us an overview of the island’s history. Named after the Dutch word for seal, Robben had a variety of uses from the 17th century onwards.

Isolated by the bay, it was used as a place of incarceration by the Dutch settlers, then their British successors and finally the Republic of South Africa. Thabo dwells on the final period when Mandela was held here, explaining the severe restrictions in place for family visits; generally prisoners could only receive visitors once every six months, but such visits could be arbitrarily cancelled. 

 

 

“Any questions?” asks Thabo, adding: “The mood’s a little bit sombre now.” He’s living up to his name, chatting happily, but we can’t help but feel subdued by the stark surrounds and the facts we’re learning.

We stop at a quarry where inmates once chipped away at rocks to extract lime. It was hard work, with the men exposed to the sun’s glare off the white, dusty surface, and prisoners often suffered damage to eyes and lungs as a result. The one positive aspect of the site, says Thabo, was that the workers could talk privately within the small cave on one side. “That cave was the first democratic parliament of South Africa,” he says. 

After the bus tour, we enter the prison buildings on foot. Our new guide is Sparks, who was himself imprisoned here in the 1980s. He leads us to a big cell which once held 60 inmates, and describes to us the privations the prisoners had to deal with: including the lack of appropriate clothing and bedding during winter; and punishments such as beatings and solitary confinement.

A highlight of the tour is a walk past Mandela’s cell, a tiny enclosure set up as it would have been in his prison years: with a latrine bucket, a small table, and basic bedding on the floor. It’s hard to imagine living one day in this austere space, let along two decades. 

As I try to process this thought, I’m struck by Sparks’ measured, almost upbeat tone when talking about this grim locale where he was once incarcerated. He mentions that he was 17 years old when he was sent to Robben Island, which means he’s only in his early fifties now. I wish I had half the resilience to life’s hardships that he embodies.

As the clouds grow darker and rain begins to spit, the walk back to the ferry seems the perfect time for reflection. Injustice is always with us, it seems, but so is hope. A visit to Robben Island is worth it for that truth alone. 

Robben Island tours operate three times daily, fee ZAR 360 (about £20).

Tim Richards visited Cape Town courtesy of South African Tourism

You can get Cape Town included as a stopover on our Discoverer round the world

 

Published by Stuart Lodge

 

A walk on the Cape Town waterfront

 

 

For me the Cape Town Waterfront starts at the City Lodge. You stood by the main door for a glimpse of the Waterfront’s iconic Clock Tower in the distance, while gangs of rag-clad men with bulging Mandrax eyes watched your moves like lions monitoring a lone, lost impala.

Not any more; I have to reset my bearings: the only jungle that comes to mind nowadays is the disorder of construction that stretches into the Silos and the North Wharf. As for the posse of men, who made you hail down a taxi rather than walk past them, they’re all gone.

I now have to align myself properly to discern the deep red of the Clock Tower, buried as it is between the Diamond Museum on the right and the Golf Hall of Fame on the left. But as I walk and wonder in the New Brave Waterfront, I ask myself: would I get an impression of London by just visiting Canary Wharf? Do I want every place in the world to look like Dubai or Singapore?

I have my own pet theory about the Waterfront. It became popular for two reasons: it used to be the only place you could walk around safely at night and because this is where the boats to Robben Island used to sail from, so it was a must-get-to.

The boats still leave from here, although a new, sheet-glass Nelson Mandela Gateway and Museum now dominates their docking. Like many new South African museums it is big on explanations and low on exhibits. Only one corner with original photographs – sorry, copies of original photographs – can be deemed interesting. At least entrance is free.

I have mixed feelings about the Waterfront, because the new structures – including the obligatory Ferris wheel – surround a truly historic centre. The V&A Hotel dates from 1904 when it was a coal store later converted to a warehouse for shipping. The Robinson Dry dock is one of the oldest in the world still in use. The North Wharf, which you can hardly recognise as a wharf today, was the location of the original 1840 jetty; a wooden deck at North Wharf square marks its position. The Silo Buildings and Nelson Mandela Gateway conceal long standing seal colonies.

The preponderance of fast food outlets, hipster cafes and designer shops, makes it difficult to visualise that this was the gateway to southern Africa. For three centuries every trek to the interior started under the shadow of the Table Mountain ever since Jan van Riebeeck established a small Dutch post in April 1652. I wonder what the old sea-salt would have made of today’s complete smoking ban over the Waterfront that extends to the open air.

Cape Town prospered even without natural or artificial docks; but come here outside the summer and the gales will blow you all the way to the top of Lion’s Head. Ships often ran aground by the Cape’s infamous northwesterlies, which is why by the middle of the 19th century Lloyd’s of London refused to insure them point blank: they had to winter in False Bay instead. This provided the impetus for the construction of the V&A Waterfront in the 1860s.

 

 

Locals love to correct you when you interpret the initials as ‘Victoria & Albert’. No, the A stands for Alfred, the Queen’s second son. He joined the Royal Navy and visited Cape Town in 1860 to inaugurate the Waterfront works; he returned in 1867 to see them complete.

Despite the prevailing funfair feeling, we should be thankful that new buildings in the centre have some historical awareness with no gherkins or shards among them, but this makes it more difficult to tell the new from the old.

The Ferryman’s Tavern, a magnet for craft beer enthusiasts, correctly claims to be the oldest surviving edifice in the harbour dating from 1877, although it’s only been operating as a pub since 1989.

Opposite, the Information Office is quartered in the Sea Rescue Shed, built around the same time. It housed an apparatus that could be rolled out to fire off of a rocket with a rope attached to any ship wrecked in the area, so that sailors could hold on to it and be rescued. It was last used in July 1966.

If you walk up Dock Road, beyond the Information Office, you enter the realm of the 2010 World Cup regeneration. Here rise buildings like the rugby museum – offering a Springbok experience – and the vast V&A Food market hall, before the biggest modern success: the Two Oceans Aquarium opened in 1995 and still going strong. You can certainly spend a whole day in there with demonstrations like shark feeding that vary from day to day and from hour to hour.

I may moan and I may grumble, but what do I do come midnight? Gone are the days when Ferryman’s was the only place in Cape Town open to 4am, yet I’m drawn there for the crowds and the memories. Although I have a choice of craft beers, I go for the traditional pint of Old Wobbly with its 11% alcohol, that I used to down in minutes and still able to count backwards from twenty.

Yet this time when I finish there are no more gangs of marauding men outside, so I walk home to my Green Point B&B in safety.

Progress comes in many guises.

 

You can get South Africa included as a stopover in the Discoverer round the world

 

 

 

Madagascar

 

Culture shock comes quickly in Madagascar. Even as the plane swooped over the outskirts of Antananarivo I was scanning streets of red-clay houses and emerald patchworks of paddy fields for an image that would confirm my arrival in Africa. As a dilapidated Citroen taxi shuttled me onward into the capital, swerving around rickshaws and garishly painted carts drawn by hump-backed zebu cattle, I struggled even more against the illusion that I had landed in the Far East. Even the taxi driver’s fine-boned, café-au-lait features only served to confound my efforts to convince myself that this was Africa.

 

Since Madagascar first sailed away from the African continent over eighty million years ago, the 250 miles of fierce currents that make up the Mozambique Channel’s have done more to insulate the island than the entirety of the Indian Ocean. The intrepid Indonesian sailors who were the island’s first settlers have left their legacy everywhere: from the pirogue outriggers of the reefs; to the stilted huts that evolved on other, distant islands to withstand the tropical monsoons; to the ecologically disastrous slash-and-burn agricultural system that may have driven them from their homelands in the first place.

 

They also brought their own complex religious beliefs that revolved around a fear of supernatural spirits and a respect for the dead. Mysticism and, to our eyes, superstition still govern every important stage of rural life in Madagascar, but in no other area are they more important than in the question of death. ‘A house is for a lifetime but a tomb is forever’ the Malagasy point out and there can be no worse fate than exclusion from the family tomb. For many, the duties of burial, re-burial and the famous ‘bone-turning’ ceremonies (along with the accompanying cattle sacrifices and feasts) are the paramount obligation of the living. In some areas 80% of income is spent on the ancestors…but these ‘investments’ must be made if the living are to continue enjoying the protection of the dead.

 

The Malagasy as a whole (and particularly the powerful Merina and Betsileo tribes of the high plateau) are descended primarily from Malay-Polynesian pioneers who arrived within the last 2000 years. But there are now eighteen main tribes, each with their own unique cultural and ethnic backgrounds. On the southern scrub-pastures and cactus deserts, there are Bara and Antanosy people who would not look out of place in the Mozambique of their forefathers, while along the eastern coast there are the Antaimoro (keepers of sacred texts written in ancient Arabic script) and the Antambohoaka whose bloodline dates directly to the Arab sailors who knew Madagascar as Gezirat Al-Komr - the Isle of the Moon.

 

You can waste a lot of time shifting Madagascar from Asian to African pigeonholes, and back again, before you come to accept the fact that the world’s fourth largest island is at once a combination of many things…and an island continent in its own right.

 

By Mark Eveleigh

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