Meet me in Saint-Louis (Senegal)



Greta's visit continues. We took a short trip to Saint-Louis, Senegal (pronounced san-loo-EE) for a few days. The folks at Greyhound Bus Company's advertising agency wanted everyone to believe that "getting there is half the fun." Don't be misled! There is no fun in the way people travel here!

The "public transportation system" for long distance rides within Mauritania has a limited number of choices. One category is an assortment of trucks. It is not unusual to see passengers sitting on the top of large trucks or filling up the bed of a pickup. This applies to both in-city travel as well as long distances. Other than that, the transport "system" on which people rely is limited to taxis (called taxis brousse, pronounced "taxi Bruce," meaning "bush taxi").

The cost structure of taxi brousse trips is based on both the distance to be covered and the manufacturer of the vehicle. For the most part, the cars are of two makes: Peugeots (less expensive) and Mercedes (more expensive). There are usually no schedules for departures, as the cars take off for their destination when they are full.

Mauritanian "taximen," as they are called, have their own definition of "full," which is to say that there are two passengers in the seat next to the driver and four in the back. Some of the Peugeots are station wagons with yet another seat further back, and that is a place where "full" means three people - three short people, since there is not a lot of leg- or head-room.

Greta and I took our places in the back of our Mercedes at 9:00 AM. Fortunately, we arrived at the taxi garage with one other person who wanted to go to Rosso, our intermediate destination, so we did not have a long wait before we filled the taxi and left. There were two other adults in the back seat with us, and one of them had a toddler on his lap; the mother of the family was in the front seat with an infant in her arms.

The guiding principle of travel in the back seat is "Find a position you like and stay that way for as long as the car is moving because there is not enough room to change positions." As I grumbled under my breath about being uncomfortable, Greta, now in her ninth visit to this continent, kept telling me, "Il faut africaniser." ("You have to Africanize," meaning that I have to get used to the ways that people do things here.)

That is a thought worth considering: how I am facing the "Africanization" process. I sleep on a matala on the floor; I use whatever toilet facilities are available - and this includes my successful transition to not using toilet paper; I am getting used to people stopping by my house to visit without having called first; and when people say that they will come by at 10:00 AM, for example, I am learning that their arrival window may extend to 11:15, with not so much as a "Sorry for being late."

At the same time, when it comes to squeezing into the back seat of a car, I realize that I have physical limitations, based on the size of my body and its configuration of bones and muscles, which rebel at being jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with three other adults for hours at a time and with no extra space for "wiggle room." (For the sake of this discussion, we are not even going to get into such factors as the temperature inside or outside the vehicle, and we are also going to bypass the musings concerning the last time my fellow passengers had washed either their bodies or their clothing. No. We are just going to limit ourselves to my selfish consideration of bones and muscles.)

The Nouakchott-Rosso portion of the trip took two and a half hours. I fell out of the taxi, mumbled "plus jamais" (never again) to Greta, gave her "the look" that I perfected during my many years of teaching, and we walked over to the port where the pirogues (boats) were waiting to take passengers across the Senegal River to Rosso, Senegal. The boat trip was short, and then we waited for our Saint-Louis-bound taxi to fill. It was refreshing to notice that in Senegal, the taxi drivers have a different definition of "full." I was the only passenger in the seat next to the driver - a deluxe accommodation! - and there were only three in the seat behind me: Greta and two British volunteers, living in Nouakchott, whom I had met at Thanksgiving dinner.

The Rosso-Saint-Louis trip took an hour and a half. During that time, I could see that there are a few other unnerving features of car travel that are not limited to Mauritania. First of all, there are frequent stops by police. In an hour, the car comes to at least three full stops for checking of some sort of papers, and almost as many slowdowns, where the driver ultimately gets waved on. Another aspect to driving is a practice that would be worthy of an Olympic event - something that I think of as the "pothole slalom," which consists of the driver swerving his car all over the road - including into the lane reserved for oncoming traffic - so that he can avoid the many ruts that riddle the road.

My first impression of Senegal was that it is cleaner and better maintained than Mauritania. Note the relativity of this statement, though, as I can't imagine how I would have viewed it if I had just arrived there from the United States. Nor can I imagine what your perceptions would be - perhaps that it is dirty and falling apart.

Saint-Louis, established in 1659, was the site of the first French settlement in Africa. In the early 1800's, it became the capital of the French West African colonies. That distinction was shifted to Dakar in 1904; even then, Saint-Louis remained the capital of the combined territory of Senegal and Mauritania until 1958.

(When Mauritania was separated from Senegal and became independent in 1960, there had been no seat of government in this vast geographic area, which led to Nouakchott, then a small town, being named as its capital.)

Saint-Louis has an air of what the Lonely Planet guidebook calls "faded elegance." It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2000. One of its landmarks is the Pont Faidherbe, which links mainland Saint-Louis to its island. The bridge was designed by Gustav Eiffel, of tower fame, and was originally built to span the Danube; it was transferred to Saint-Louis in 1897.

In Saint-Louis, all the streets are named, paved, placed in a grid pattern, and have sidewalks - a vast difference from Mauritania! I didn't see any goats wandering the city's streets, as they do here. I have written about the new ATM at my Mauritanian bank, but that only grants access to my local bank account. In Saint-Louis, I was able to use my Visa card to get money from home!

There is no significant Moor influence in Senegal, with the exception of a few merchants wearing their boubous. While there are some Senegalese who wear traditional clothing, a great many of them wear Western attire. This is still West Africa, but it is clear that it is sub-Saharan, with its majority black population.

There is another telling difference between Senegal and Mauritania. The latter, as an Islamic Republic, is 100% Muslim, including the government. The former has a Muslim population that is more than 90%, certainly the overwhelming majority. But Senegal has a secular government. The major difference that this means for tourists has to do with the availability of alcoholic beverages; in Senegal, they are on sale in restaurants, bars, and in markets. In Mauritania, it takes some doing to find them, and even when they can be ordered in a restaurant, they are never listed on a menu.

Our return trip to Nouakchott was not only uneventful, but more comfortable than the trip south. I attribute this to the fact that the taximen are willing to let passengers buy extra places for extra comfort. This is a practice that only "rich" foreigners do, but at least it is an option available to us. Greta and I shared the cost of three seats, which meant that there were the two of us and one other person in the back seat of the car. The additional cost to each of us was about $2.50 - something that I will most certainly be willing to pay by myself, even if I have to pay the entire exorbitant (?) fee of five whole dollars!

Greta provided many of us with a tremendous laugh this week. She purchased a mulafa, which is a combination gown/veil covering worn by Moor women. Mulafas are a fairly lightweight length of gauze-like fabric and somewhat transparent; women always wear other clothing underneath. The overall effect is very similar to that of the Indian sari - feminine, flowing, and delicate. Because she is on a trip of several months, the only substantial shoes that Greta is wearing are hiking boots. So there she was, with the soft contours of her mulafa coming to a halt in the middle of her… hiking boots! It was a jarring juxtaposition and a picture we will not soon forget.

I learned a new cultural lesson this week. It was with Mamadou, who was employed by the Peace Corps to do maintenance work at our training center in Kaédi last summer. In a conversation with him, Mamadou told me that he is a tailor and that he is saving his money so that he can travel. He gave me his phone number in Nouakchott, but I never called him when I got here. It's not that he isn't a nice person - just that I am sometimes overwhelmed by the number of people who invite me to their homes. (Most of the people who worked during PST live in Nouakchott; it is very common that people travel long distances to work, and stay in those faraway places until the work is completed.)

A few weeks ago, I ran into Mamadou on the street. He reiterated that he would like to invite me to his house. He asked where I lived and I told him the general area. Within a week, he was in my neighborhood, asked around, and found out exactly where I live! Then I ran into him on the street again and within a few days, he came to visit.

When he came by to visit Greta and me, I pulled out some fabric that I had on hand, thinking that I would like to see how skillful he is as a tailor, and asked if he could make a khaftan for me. He said yes. Then I asked how much it would cost. He said he could never take any money from me for that - that it would be a gift because, "You are my father." Not, "You are like my father," but, "You are my father."

I tried to remind him of the savings he told me he was working on for travel, but he said no, he could not take my money for making the khaftan. I let him measure me and take the fabric, thinking that during the week or so that he would need to make the garment, I could get some assistance with the cross-cultural implications of my conversation with him. For the time being, I was not concerned about the "father" comment; I took that as a sign of respect. But how would I deal with the financial aspect?

I surveyed a few Mauritanians as well as seasoned Volunteers. The overwhelming majority felt that I should pay him, but they advised me not give him the money at the time that he gave me the khaftan. One person suggested that I find out how much a tailor would charge for the work, as a means of figuring out how much to pay Mamadou; I asked one and he told me that it would be 500 ouguiya.

In getting to know Mamadou better, I also found out that his sister Fatou, who was a cook during training, was the person with whom I had spoken Spanish. (One day, talking to her in French, she simply asked me, "Hablas español?" and when I said, Si, un poco, that got us started. Fatou has lived in Spain, which accounts for her facility with Spanish.) I had not known during training that they were related. This is relevant to the story only in that I now had Mamadou telling me that two members of his family were inviting me to visit their home on the outskirts of town, as Mamadou told me that Fatou also wanted me to come.

On the day I was to visit the family, Mamadou took a route taxi to come pick me up. This is a large van that packs in dozens of people and takes a laborious trek from one end of town to the other; its chief advantage is that it is significantly cheaper than private city taxis. He had to pick me up because there are no street addresses here, and the only way I could find the house was by going with somebody who knew where to go.

When Mamadou came into my place, he proudly gave me the khaftan; he did a good job. I thanked him and gave him no money. I offered to pay for the taxi to go to his house, which would be quicker than the route taxi. He accepted that idea, but when we arrived, he refused my payment of 500 ouguiya for it, which made me uncomfortable because this is a very expensive fare for Mauritanians (about $1.70).

The family was very welcoming. I stayed for a few hours and ate lunch with them; they had prepared it especially for me, taking my vegetarianism into account. I had to leave abruptly because I got a phone call from a Volunteer who was visiting another Volunteer and couldn't get into the house without the key, which I had with me because I was feeding the cat while our mutual friend was away.

Mamadou, Fatou, and other family members walked me to the road where I was able to get a taxi back into town. During that short walk, I took out a 1,000-ouguiya note (500 for the khaftan and 500 for the taxi ride) and put it into Mamadou's shirt pocket, saying that it was a gift for him. He didn't look at it while I was there. He just smiled and thanked me.

During the last week or so, several of my correspondents from the United States have asked me if the people here celebrate Kwanzaa. I asked a few Mauritanians about this, and I have received only puzzled looks. All-righty, then. It was time to do a little research about this holiday!

Kwanzaa was created in the United States by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who, on his website,, calls it "an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community."

The seven days of Kwanzaa celebrate and pay homage to Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles, which derive from kiswahili. The nomenclature itself, therefore, gives it an East African flavor, as that is the region where kiswahili is spoken. At the same time, though, these are values and principles that are very much shared by other nations on the continent.

One of the misconceptions that many people have about Africa is that it is one place that shares a common heritage and language. This continent of more than fifty countries has an abundant variety of peoples, languages, and customs. There are individual countries where the number of languages spoken is in the hundreds. Overall, then, the continent is host to thousands of languages. No, Africa is not just one place. It is many places, home to an assortment of peoples and their associated cultures.

That being said, I am struck by a phenomenon that I frequently hear in the speech of many Mauritanians. Many people, both in and out of the Peace Corps, have referred to certain aspects of life here as being "African" - not "Mauritanian," but "African."

Coincidentally, December was the month that I read Ebène by Ryszard Kapuscinski. It took me a month to read this 326-page book, translated into French from the original Polish. The author was a newspaper correspondent who lived and traveled in Africa for more than thirty years, starting in 1957, at the beginning of the time when the colonized countries were gaining their independence.

(The title of the book translates to Ebony. I imagine that it would have been too easy to use that for the English version of the book; its English title is The Shadow of the Sun, and I highly recommend it if you are interested in getting a flavor of African life.)

One of the striking elements of the book is Kapuscinski's use of wording - referring to things as being "African," despite the fact that his travels and reporting took him to countries as widespread as Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. The manners and values he refers to are "African," rather than being attributed their individual countries.

This presents a paradox to me: how is it that on a continent as vast and varied as Africa, with peoples who have lived in civilizations that have developed during the course of centuries without contact with each other, that there are so many values and manners of doing things that all these many peoples have in common? How do we account for that?

If you are curious to find the answers to this question, I have both good news and bad news for you. The good news is that I, too, am curious, so I am in the process of researching the matter. The bad news is that it's going to take a little time before I have some results.

My French lessons are one arena where I am doing some of my research. I began going over my notes from Ebène with Ali, my French teacher, this week. It's a topic he likes to talk about. This way, I get the triple benefit of hearing Ali speak French, speaking it myself, and learning about the culture.

So far, Ali is in strong agreement with the observation that there are many values that are, indeed, pan-African. His initial explanation is that Africans, at their core, see themselves as members of a collectivist society, which gives them greater power and strength. When people refer to themselves as "African," they derive value from being part of a larger society than when they consider themselves simply as the nationals of any one country.

One immediate contrast to Western thought in this regard are the many people in Europe who have resisted the recent aggregation of the European Union. As one Frenchman told me in 1998, "I am not European. I am French." Americans can also identify with this point of view, as the United States has a highly individualistic society.

I will continue my delving into this topic and will post more about it when I can develop it more completely.