We leave Warang behind with a twinge of sadness at friendships which were all too brief. Not only that, we also have to say good-bye to three members of our group: Khris, Shannon and King have only booked one week in Senegal. It’s been an early 6am start for us as we tackle the longest leg of our journey so far – a day’s driving that will take us all the way to the town of Kolda in the Casamance region of south Senegal. Here, Yass has his centre, the headquarters of his NGO SenExperience+. Staffed by volunteers from abroad and locals, the centre provides an impressive variety of services that are sorely needed in this area: from education to leisure and sports and hands-on support for people in distress.
It’s hard to believe that Yass works full time as a personal trainer in London and manages to run his international organisation and organise holidays at the same time, but there it is – the centre is impressive proof of the results hard graft and the determination to help others can bring.
Compared to the relative wealth on display in Dakar and Saly, the Casamance is desperately poor. It’s hard to spot a car that’s less than 25 years old; the road is lined with small villages consisting of no more than a bunch of thatched huts and a mosque. In Senegal, 47% of the population live below the poverty line and unemployment runs at 48% (even though many unemployed will hustle together a living of some kind in the informal economy). GDP per person stands at US$ 2,300 per year – a fraction of that in the UK, where gross domestic product per person comes to US$ 42,481. As in St. Louis, donkeys are a common sight, often pulling carts driven by kids who are not always kind to the animals. Every time we stop for the police or a pee break by the roadside, we open the sliding door and are immediately crowded in by a swarm of women selling produce such as bananas and peanuts.
Reaching deep into the van, they hold their wares aloft to chants of “cinq cent, cinq cent”. Every now and then, we buy what we need, but after a while, the hard sell gets tiring. We tell ourselves that we can’t save the world but we probably don’t really want to save the world – not if it involves a substantial sacrifice. At best, we give what we can spare and then applaud our own generosity.
Worse still are the begging boys. Barely five years old, the snotty-nosed street kids silently offer their begging bowls, looking at us with their big eyes, strangely disengaged. These are the talibés, pupils boarding far away from home at koranic schools where much piety is imparted, but little else of practical value. The children are completely at the mercy of the teachers – beatings and abuse are not uncommon, to say nothing of the enforced panhandling, which is designed to instil humility in these little boys. Again, we make small offerings, aware of their futility in the grand scheme of things. What future lies in store for them?
While there are children everywhere, you hardly see men over twenty in Kolda. Chances are that they went to Dakar in search of work, or had a shot at migrating to Europe. Either way, the exodus must surely take its toll on families and society at large.
Despite economic adversity, at 5.03 children per woman (2015), Senegal’s fertility rate remains high, leading to a population growth rate of 2.9% per year – a fact Emmanuel Macron raised, touching a nerve. A number of African commentators feel it wasn’t a French president’s place to lecture a former colony on its way of life, while others think that Africa should be less sensitive about criticism from abroad. I asked Yass where he stood on this. “From my point of view, arranged marriages are the problem. They’re still common in Senegal and happen at an early age, bringing girls’ education to an abrupt halt, especially if they have children early, as most of them will. So arranged marriages are at the heart of the problem. If girls were free to choose their own path in life, they might opt for education and a career, resulting in fewer births and better economic development. That way, when they do have children, they’ll also have the means to raise them in better conditions. For this reason, we lay such an emphasis on advancing girls’ education at our centre in Kolda – for example by teaching them practical skills that enable them to provide for themselves instead of depending on a husband.”
It’s typical of our trip with Yass that amid all the fun and adventure, every now and then he’ll draw our attention to a burning social issue of which we otherwise would have been ignorant, or an event from the past whose physical traces have long since disappeared. “There’s nothing I don’t know about Senegal”, he boasts – and I believe him.
Whatever the problems, Kolda is a joyful place, like the rest of Senegal inhabited by incredibly warm-hearted people. This weekend, Yass is throwing a party to which everyone’s invited. The occasion is the circumcision of his nephew, which for the Mandinka people marks a boy’s initiation into manhood (Yass’s family, who belong to the Fulani people, have adopted the custom). Not so long ago, this entailed a 40-day-stay in the forest, where a whole group of boys would be prepared for the rigours of adolescence and adulthood, but now, even the Mandinka have gone soft and skip the ordeal. What’s remained is an almighty bash centred around a mythical figure, the Concurrant.
In theory, the Concurrant is a powerful spirit who leads the dance and with his two machetes wards off evil from the boys under his care. In practice, he’s a dude in an outfit made of coconut fibre dancing madly in the heat until he vomits with heat stroke or collapses with exhaustion, or both.
We got a foretaste of the madness the night before, when there was no costumed monster. Instead, the centre of attraction was a drummer who played frantically while continuously blowing a whistle, as if he were a cop vainly trying to direct out-of-control traffic, or an apoplectic referee protesting at a whole raft of fouls simultaneously being committed.
I’m pretty sure that crystal meth is unheard-of in South Senegal (praise the Lord!), which made the ringleader’s sheer inexhaustible stamina and high-octane zest all the more mind-blowing. Around the drummer, the guests had formed a circle, entering the fray to express themselves in dance whenever they felt like it. Women were allowed (they had to watch from the van the following day), but my favourite was a bare-chested boy who seemed quite pissed and used his (blunt) machete to make slicing motions as if he were cutting off his own nipple or earlobe, smiling provocatively at us all while. God knows what went through his mind, but I admired how in love he was with his frightful implement. At one stage a gaggle of children threatened to close in on him. Machete-man wasn’t having it and shooed away the kids with a swoop of his blade in their direction. Justin and I laughed heartily at the madness of it all, egging on Tanya and Natalie as they, too, entered the circle of the dance. Well after midnight, we went back to our hotel, the delightful Firdou, and fell asleep to the faint sound of drumming, whistling and cheering in the distance – an African party that continued until dawn.