Oh, what fun we have with place names on this trip. We spent the last two nights in the fishing village of Warang. “Look, there’s a sign advertising Liqueur de Warang”, said Justin, who’s always quick to see the funny side of things. “It sounds kind of rude – Licker de Warang”, he said, taking a selfie in front of the sign, with the impish smile of a man who knows a good Warang when it slaps him round the face.
Yesterday, four of us decided to give the programme a miss and while away the day at the pool doing sweet FA instead. Warang is near the seaside resort of Saly, which attracts foreign tourists. There are even paved pavements and you see some quite swish cars, as well as hotels that are quite fancy, as well as a nightclub too. But Yass had in mid a trip to the peninsula of Joal-Fatioudh, the birth place of Sénégal’s post-independence leader Léopold Sédar Senghor. Apart from an island that’s completely made of shells, there’s a cemetery in which Muslims and Christians have been laid to rest in the same grounds, a symbol of peace and tolerance between the religions (“after the Muslims killed off all the Christians”, I whispered in Justin’s ear, not to let an opportunity for an inappropriate joke go to waste.)
While the others went exploring in the Transit, the rest of us were hanging out by the beach, collecting shells from underneath our feet as we stood in the placid waters. Quite a few of these were inhabited by tiny little hermit crabs, their feet wriggling desperately as we held their whole world up into the air. I swam far out into the sea, floating on my back, wondering idly whether I should surprise the fishermen by swimming up to their gaudily painted pirogue. As I got back, my friends were chatting to a local of about 25, splashing in the water with his shirt on (Senegalese culture prizes restraint and modesty in men as much as in women). Apart from the stranger’s beautiful smile, I was instantly taken by his gentle manner – he also wore a spectacular turquoise ring, its flashing brilliance accentuating the blackness of his skin.
The man with the turquoise ring
Ousman and I soon established a connection. It turned out that a group of German doctors had built a children’s hospital in the village; now they come every few years, working with Ousman whenever they are here. “I love Germans”, he said. “If I had to be anything other than Senegalese, I’d want to be German.”
We’d encamped at the beach bar, which boasted a handful of recliners under palm tree as well as a few tables under a roof of straw. Three guys were giving some more loungers a lick of paint; one of them wore a T-shirt bearing the ominous legend “Brutal Hero” as he dipped his brush into a tin of pink. We’d invited Ousman to sit with us and have a beer. When I asked him if it was ok for him to drink as a Muslim – and on a Friday too, he replied it was ok as long as one knew one’s limit. “I follow the rules, but in my own way.”
When the conversation slowed, I produced a deck of cards. I love playing games with strangers – they ease the awkward burden of small talk while still providing shared companionship, and the competitive element as well as the high drama of lucky breaks and cruel setbacks reveal much more about a new acquaintance’s character than an exchange of pleasantries. At some point I asked Ousman where I could buy some cigarettes, preferably Menthols. He offered to go and get me some and didn’t return for an hour. I’d almost given up hope when he came back, drenched in sweat. He’d gone all the way on the bus to the nearest city but hadn’t been able to track down my Menthols – I was quite embarrassed by the effort he had put himself through but he said not to worry. “You’re with me, in my place. We’re together.”
We went our separate ways to spend the afternoon, but not before Ousman had extended an invitation to take tea on the terrace of his house, which was just opposite our hotel, the basic but delightful Les Manguiers de Warang (its pool quickly becoming our social focal point both during the day and after dark). It would have been easy to forget about it all. We were leaving for our next destination at the crack of dawn the next morning and who knew whether the invitation for tea wasn’t just a ruse to sell to us or solicit funds? Either way, Ousman knew where we were, so he could come and find us. Nevertheless, it would have left a bad taste in my mouth not to try and meet as we had said, and so I called him on his mobile.
A few minutes later, Ousman came to the hotel and offered to take me on a tour of the village.
It was the end of the day. As we walked down the dusty road, a couple of stray dogs regarded us curiously. Bougainvilleas in white, yellow and red spilled out over the walls that lined the streets, handsome cashew, mango and breadfruit trees occupied clearings and crossroads as if they were the landmark architecture of creation.
Here and there was a man walking his sheep, two kids driving a donkey cart, others sitting on steps or low walls chatting. Soon we arrived at the Sage hospital for children, built by German volunteers. Ousman, who sews clothes, makes jewellery and trinkets as well as paints (“Je suis artiste, chaque minute, chaque jour”), had painted the wall with a big red cross; they had hoisted an old Peugeot ambulance onto the roof to make the building stand out even more. It’s here that the German doctor’s performed surgery on Ousman’s daughter Ami – in a container that had been kitted out as an operating theatre. Little Ami had a hernia, which made her belly protrude. Since there’s no public health system in Sénégal – any treatment must be paid for in advance by the family, including emergency care – Ami seemed condemned to growing up with the condition until the doctors from Berlin treated her. o wonder Ousman holds the country and its people in such high regard.
As if I were a visiting dignitary, Ousman opened the gate and ushered me into the grounds, introducing me to a smiley, softly-spoken man of around 30 who was the nurse. (“Drink Moxie!”, his T-shirt said, “It’s wicked good!”). The hospital was, as expected, basic. With its paper-strewn desks, antiquated equipment and hand-me-down medical illustrations on the wall (“le système digestif”, “le cancer du colon”), it looked exactly as one would imagine a medics’ station in a remote colonial outpost time forgot. I inspected every room clasping my hands like Her Majesty the Queen, asking a question here and there, at once shocked by the relative inadequacy of the hospital, but also glad it was there at all). Soon we left Ibrahim to his cot from which he watched TV, but his smile stayed with me for a long time.
If I had to sum up this trip in one word, it would be “humbling”. Humbled not only by Yass’s energy, initiative, humanity and good humour, but also by the brilliance of my fellow travellers, who teach me something new every day.
More than this, however, I am humbled by the circumstances in which people here live with such dignity. Whatever problems I might have, they surely pale into insignificance compared to the daily struggle here in Senegal, yet the doubts, fears and neuroses that seem to plague affluent societies seem to be absent here.
We explored more of the village. One part belonged was inhabited by the Serer, one of the smaller tribes of Senegal (the largest one being the Wolofs), whereas the other part across the paved main road was inhabited by a mixture of other tribes. The Serer section comprising the beach, it attracted tourist francs and as a result was safer and more affluent than its counterpart. “There are no thieves here”, as Ousman’s brother Ibrahim later explained. They, too, are Serer.
In the meantime night had fallen. We walked in pitch blackness even though the streets and alleys were still teeming, yet it suddenly occurred to me how vulnerable I was. We made our way back to the hotel, where Ousman presented me with the blue ring I had so admired earlier.
A short while later, I walked across the road to have the promised cup of tea. Ousman’s house, where he lived with his wife and daughter, as well as with his brother and his family. Despite its spacious yard it was very basic overall. Carrying a bottle of gas upstairs, he set up on the terrace as I chatted to his brother, who was quite a bit older and had one or two teeth missing. My friends mentioned in passing that they hadn’t had a chance to eat. Ousman immediately suggested that his wife could cook for us if we got the ingredients and before we knew it, she and her husband made a whole delicious meal right there on the roof – which was only bare concrete – from scratch, carrying up tables and chairs and everything else that was needed. “This was the best meal I’ve had on this holiday”, said Vijay, “because it was made with love.”