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Art Residency in Saint Louis du Senegal

First Week in Senegal

SENEGAL | Sunday, 26 May 2013 | Views [1052]

   My 8th day in Senegal. I intended to post something sooner but it's taken a week for me to begin to process the sensory overload that is Africa.  It throws us toubabs off balance.  The smells,  blazing sun,  dust, garbage, horse carts, crazily painted blue buses with people hanging off the back.  The  tireless vendors who follow you blocks with "madam, madam, parle francais,  how much you want to pay for this, just give me a price". The brilliant colors of the robes worn by both men and women even on the fishing beaches where the muddy sand is soaked with rotting fish.
    The Waaw Center where I am spending this month of my residency is an oasis of calm, although the water and electricity are off frequently during the day.  But my room looks out on the white walls of a tiny terrace alcove with magenta bougainvillea and a bright blue circular stair that take me to the roof terrace.

The leafy courtyard at Waaw 
Stair to the roof terrace outside my room

  From the roof terrace I can look down on the sand street that leads to the Senegal River a half block away and I can see the white river boat, the Bou el Mogdad, that makes 6 day cruises up the river that divides Senegal and Mauritania.  I can see through the dusty haze the distant river bank with minarets and palm trees and the low skyline of mainland St. Louis,  the silhouettes of distant pirogues. 

     Dakar lived up to its reputation for chaos.  (see my Dakar blog post for photos)  The Air France flight from Paris was delayed a couple of hours so I arrived around 10 pm having been awake for about 36 hours.  I was not prepared for the onslaught of helpful guys wanting to find me a taxi, so I overpaid and discovered later that one had unzipped my baggage and took my neck pillow as a "cadeaux" while the driver from my hotel watched complicitly.  I had opted for the 14 euro per night hotel that did have mosquito nets but a dark and distant bathroom and no lighting to light the way across the densely planted terrace and dark hallways.  I was glad to have the flashlight app on my iphone (thank you Jeff!)  But even the goats in the courtyard below did not interrupt my sleep that night.  Breakfast was tea and a baguette with the Senegalese versions of Nutella using the local peanuts instead of hazelnuts - spreadable Reese’s Pieces for breakfast.  Finding healthy food here is a challenge, but I'm gaining on it. 
    My iphone was out of service, except for the flashlight app, so I set out with the taxi driver to buy a SIM card but after two stops and an hour later was told my phone was locked and would cost $125 to unlock it.  So I purchased a cheap Chinese phone ($15) that might last the month I am here.  My experience with the man who helped me buy that phone is another  story.

Pirogues on the river

      The city of St. Louis du Senegal is luminous, like Provincetown, sitting on very flat land surrounded by sea and river.  It's lovely French colonial buildings with their balconies and arched shutters are in various states of decay, the crumbing plaster and fading paint creating rich texture and color patterns.  Some of the streets are beach sand, like ours,  Rue Paul Holle, that ends half a block away at the river boat mooring.  The residence is a few blocks from the center,  mixed with restaurants, hotels, boutiques, as I'm writing this it sounds grander than it is.  I mean,  the streets are sand.  It is not elegant.  There is lots of garbage, the ever present dust from the Sahara coats everything - the shutters, the walls,  our computers and sunglasses, and of course our feet and between our toes.  But the dust on my feet is minimal when I realize what I walk through on the beaches and riverbanks. 






    There are fruit and vegetable vendors on the corners selling mangoes, bananas, papayas, limes, apples and oranges, and women with large basins of fresh fish covered with flies.  But nothing like the flies on the fishing beach.  I went there this morning at 8am to watch the pirogues unload their catch.  I went deliberately without my camera, just sketchbook.  On the way I bought some beignets to give to the talibes,  small boys from the Koranic schools who are sent to beg for their meals by their marabout masters.  It's hard to say no to them they are 7 - 9 years old and if we give money it just goes to their masters,  so after lots of discussion with Staffan about the talibes, I have decided to have portable food of some sort in my bag to give them.
     At the fishing beach the pirogues are just starting to come in.  The trucks are lined up in the street to take the catch,  packed with ice to foreign ports.
The women are gathered, sitting on their plastic buckets in their colorful robes and headdresses, some  using umbrellas for shade.  The colors are brilliant in the hot sun.   At 8 it's hot and the sun is already fierce.  Men in green waterproof jackets with round cushions on their heads wade waist deep to the pirogues,  hand up their empty fish boxes and then hoist the boxes filled with fish onto their cushioned heads and make their way from the water up through the crowds of women to the trucks, where the fish is dumped, then they make their way back to the boats for another load; a continuous line, like ants. The pirogues are long - 60 - 70 feet. Filled with green and blue nets with yellow floats,  some of the crew are bailing red water.   There are probably 50 pirogues lined up on the beach and   hundreds of people.  I am the only toubab and stick out, although I feel invisible until I pull out my sketchbook and immediately am surrounded by  a crowd of curious onlookers.  They speak to me in French and Wolof,  ask my name, ask what I'm doing,  on "vacance?"  When I say I am "working" their expression changes. They want to see the sketches.  They laugh and point to a person that might be in the sketch although in reality no one is recognizable,  just a black spot on the page.  This is a much better experience than a few days ago when I took my camera and was told my many - "no photos" with a wagging finger, or demands of money in exchange.

        I buy a café touba from a man with a portable soup pot of his brew.  This is a weak coffee mixed with a pungent herb and sugar.  It is poured back and forth from the pot to a small plastic cup until a froth has built.  Café touba costs the equivalent of $.07.  I stand in the mud and rotting fish on the riverbank sipping my touba and numerous people comment, asking if I'm drinking "Nescafe".  When I say café touba I get accepting smiles. When I sit on a pile of broken concrete chips just watching the amazing scene around me, those next to me strike up a conversation, trying to teach me Wolof greetings.  My French is bad enough, but I must learn a few Wolof words if I want to be able to take photos in the next few weeks.  The people move too to quickly for me to draw them accurately and there is so much incredible visual material here that it's hard to know where to look. I need to be able to take photos. The boats, the nets,  the minarets and palms in the distance,  the brilliant colors of the robes against black skin,  the smell of the fish - the fresh and the rotting.  The smell of incense, the clouds of flies,  the voices addressing me - "madam,  ca va bien?  and I hear the word "toubab" over and over discussing me.  I am especially  pleased when older women  address me and offer their hand to shake.  I don't want to be just a tourist.  But I will have to be patient and show up here every day until they soften to me a bit and hopefully allow me to take some photos. By 11 it's too hot and even with sun block the tops of my toes are fried so I make my way back to the Waaw center for lunch and siesta.

Waaw.  The awnings shade the courtyard below.


Tags: africa, artist in residence, dakar, fishing, senegal, st. louis, waaw


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