An aerial view of mangroves (top left) along the Casamance River near the village of Karabane in the Casamance region of Senegal, and scenes in and around Cap Skirring.

As the low-slung pirogue hummed along the Casamance River in the remote southern portion of Senegal, dolphins accompanied us. I had first spotted them on the overnight ferry from Dakar to Ziguinchor. But here they were within reach, companions who swam alongside the boat, nudging their noses toward us as we headed upriver.

My 8-year-old son, my friend Catherine and her 5- and 7-year-olds, and I were all whooping with delight. And we weren’t even close to our final destination, a ramshackle settlement in the Petit Kassa region of Casamance, where violet touracos, bright blue plantain-eating birds, could be easily spotted, according to a birder I knew.

Casamance is literally and metaphorically a country away from busy, worldly Dakar. The north is dry; the south is lush. The north is a major African hub; the south is rural African backwater. In between them lies Gambia. We fell asleep in a big, modern city fighting off the encroachments of the desert and woke up in a mangrove-lined river so rich with life that fish flopped out of the boat’s wake as if in some biblical parable. The dolphins had followed them.

Casamance was at the forefront of the ecotourism movement from early 1970s until a separatist movement began in 1982. There were luxurious accommodations, travel resorts in Cap Skirring on the coast, and quality hotels in Ziguinchor.

Senegal is a beacon in West Africa – a model of peace and prosperity since its independence -€” but the civil conflict in Casamance, though slow-burning, has taken between 3,000 and 5,000 lives in the last 30 years. The Diola, who live along the river, are famous resisters, first of Islam, then of the slave trade, then of the French colonists.

The Diola queen Aline Sitoe Diatta, who refused to accept the French rice tax, was exiled to Mali in the 1940s; they could ship off her body but her spirit remained. Schools, ferries, hospitals and stadiums all bear her name. The separatist movement is little more than a continuation of a history that has been going on for a millennium, the history of the Diola saying no to the power of outside forces.

Traveling through the area today is full of grim reminders of an earlier golden age that the movement disrupted. Glamorous hotels, now abandoned, have grown over with vines beside tiny villages along stretches of mangroves. Abandoned airstrips now field birds like barbets and red-cheeked cordon-bleus. It was the sort of setting that would change the minds of idealists who bemoan tourism and the development it brings. Locals stopped us regularly, saying, “Tell everybody it’s safe to come.”

Some have bought that message. There has been a small resurgence in recent years, people drawn by miles of spectacular empty beaches on the southern coast. The Club Med in Cap Skirring reopened in 2010. Still, whole hotel complexes held single groups of French sportfishermen, who would happily share their enormous and hugely varied catches with us for dinner. They couldn’t eat it all.

The actual business of travel -€” getting from one place to the next and finding food and lodging there – is a bit of a gamble, especially with children. Still, from Le Perroquet, our hotel in Ziguinchor, Cath and I could organize whatever boats we needed to move us around the river.

Senegal cap-skirring-04The walled-in Club Med resort in Cap Skirring, which reopened in 2010

Bad infrastructure can make for interesting travel. The ruins of a French depot in Karabane was overgrown with vines: the perfect jungle gym. In the marketplace at Elinkin, we rented a sept-place vehicle, so called because it has seven places to sit. One of the women in the market did the math: two adults plus three children plus one driver equals one vacant spot. She asked if we would mind if she rode with us to the next village. Sure, why not?

Only then did she bring out the four large baskets of fish she was carrying with her. Strapped to the roof – I would later see a live pig strapped to the roof of a sept-place – the fish did well enough until we hit a bumpy stretch of road, when they started tumbling off, fish juices dribbling through the window. The kids found this hilarious. We trundled down the road singing “€œIt’€™s raining fish”€ to the tune of “It’€™s raining men”.

For all the natural riches that the region was once known for, its biggest assets are likely the villages themselves. The Casamance region is almost entirely animist -” they believe in the spiritual nature of plants and objects.

Each village has a set of sacred drums, which they use to communicate with other villages. The religious shrines are collections of objects that nobody will explain, no matter how you ask, because their power is bound up with their secrecy.

The children found ways of amusing themselves. Boys and girls returning from school provided instant community. Our Canadian and the Senegalese children were both in French immersion (for different historical reasons) so they chatted about what children chat about: television and who could run fastest. The girls skipped rope. The boys wrestled in the dirt. The adults moved through a landscape of differences, the children through a landscape of similarities.

Nowhere was that dichotomy more obvious than when we reached the region of Petit Kassa. After the boat took us north for an hour, we arrived at a tiny village tucked deep in the mangroves, and headed off into the jungle.

 

Senegal CASAMANCE6-articleLargeYves Lanneu (second from far left), who calls himself a hippie, and his wife, Josephine (far left), eat with guests at their restaurant.

Almost immediately, we stumbled into a clearing, where 10 men sat around preparing and drinking palm wine, the soft, delicious liquor used in several sacred rites. It’s fair to say they hadn’t expected a bunch of white children and parents to disturb them.

Nonetheless, they were extremely generous to us. We all tasted the wine, which they had just harvested. They offered my son one of their many dogs. They offered Cath’€™s daughter a baby Senegal parrot just taken from a nest. It took a lot of effort on our part to explain to the kids why they couldn’€™t keep them.

At the end of our hike around Petit Kassa, what we found was, in some ways, more unexpected than the villagers: a kind of restaurant run by a self-described hippie named Yves Lanneau. He had moved to Casamance 10 years earlier and married a local woman, Josephine. He prepared for us the best salad I have ever eaten – French mustard with a local basil-like herb that was intoxicatingly savory.

And then all of us sat there chatting, for the whole day, about politics, about what makes a really good vinaigrette, about how life zigs and zags. One reason I had brought my son to Senegal was to show him that life isn’€™t one big air-conditioned Toys “€œR”€ Us. I ended up showing him the commonality rather than the difference. The children played with the parrot; our compromise had been that they could have the bird as a pet until we left.

I never did see the violet touraco.

As we left Diembering the next day, we were stopped by soldiers. They didn’€™t look much like soldiers, but that’€™s probably because they were swimming naked in the river. The guide manning our pirogue hastily tossed us the regulation life jackets and told us to find our passports, as the two young men stopped their frolicking and swam over to inspect us. They quickly decided that we were probably not separatist rebels, and waved us past.

Cath and I started laughing: It was the strangest military checkpoint either of us had ever passed. The children overheard the word “€œmilitary”€ and joined in: “€œThat was the army?”€ The children had found the presence of the military mostly hilarious, although the jeeps on patrols with their huge, 50-caliber machine guns were impressive enough.

We were all laughing, but the guide was not. He relaxed only when we had passed out of the swimmers’€™ view.

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