Today, Yass has organised a boat trip to some islands in the delta of the river Casamance, after which this region, which was the scene of an uprising not so long ago, is named. We head off on one of the gaudily painted fishing pirogues, powered by an outbard motor and driven by a cheerful skipper in a hat that wouldn’t be out of place in trendy Shoredicth. Our driver Bapa and Yass’s nephew Ibrahim sit on the bow, facing backwards as a low concrete bridge approaches. Just in time I manage to shout a warning at them to duck – otherwise this holiday may well have ended in tragedy.
Catastrophe averted, we chug down the peaceful waters lined with mangroves to whose roots innumerable oysters cling. Fish are jumping out of the water while birds in all sizes swoop over us, among them pelicans, egrets, spoonbills and cormorants. The small, inhabited islands we visit are untouched morsels of an imagined paradise that once encompassed the whole world, but life must be tough without what we consider the bare necessities. Nevertheless, the small island of Ourong, which like the rest of the entire country teems with children, has a maternity ward of some kind, with a local woman trained in midwifery. In the middle of the village is a tamtam, a large, horizontal drum. Drumming was once a way to transmit messages, notifying the community of births and deaths, and approaching dangers. There’s also a pole festooned with chicken bones and feet – evidence that witchcraft is still alive and well here. Thankfully, the slavers scouring these lands are history, but once they were a common sight: the local port of Ziguinchor derives its name from a corruption of the Portuguese creole: “se vem, chore” – “cry when they come for you”.
We stop on the island of Caraban. According to Yass, this tropical paradise is popular with tourists during high season, but I shudder at the thought that this place would be spoiled by too many people like myself. A booming tourism industry may be a blessing for the local population, but I’d hate to share this secret spot: now I’ve discovered the Casamance, I selfishly want to keep it to myself. At the Barracuda, the island’s restaurant and guest house, we sit down for an excellent poisson de capitain, accompanied by traditional music.
As I listen to the man with his tobacco-stained teeth singing folk songs in a falsetto voice while strumming his traditional instrument, any other worry I might have seems completely irrelevant. The part of me which wandered off in search of peace had found a place to anchor.
Still, anyone who thinks they can anchor their asses for too log on this trip doesn’t know Yacine Diallo. We head back to our boat and even though we are drenched by a shower, we set off on our return journey after the rain has stopped. I assumed that we’d be steering away from the bad weather, but no such luck: soon the drops are coming down on us accompanied by a cold wind which had us crouching as low as we could, covering ourselves in spare life vests. Only Bapa stayed dry, cowering in the bow’s cavity.
“This is how refugees travel to Spain”, says Yass. “Imagine a crossing in bad weather like this, multiplied by a hundred, because the Atlantic is much rougher and colder than this river.” After twenty minutes, finally the near-fatal concrete bridge comes back into view, and after thirty, we have made it to the shore, freezing. But our troubles aren’t over yet: the van refuses to start. We all ditch our flip flops and push with all our might but to no avail – so we go back to the starting position and push again. “Eins, zwei, drei!” Justin counts, and I join in, shouting at the Transit in the scariest German I can muster. The engine sputters to life and we all cheer. “Vorsprung durch Technik!!, exclaims Justin triumphantly.
“Isn’t it great of Yass to organise this crossing in the rain, followed by a roadside breakdown?”, I whispered to him. “It all feels so authentic!” “That’s right”, he replies, “real-life adventures like these are the ‘plus’ in SenExperience+.”