Catching a sept-place to Ziguinchor, the capital of the Casamance, was a breeze, and a stark contrast to the fight that had almost broken out amongst the bus boys in the Gambia that morning to get us to take their bus to the border. Even more astonishingly, the shared taxi really did only take the seven people it logically could fit, although given the general state of disrepair it was in, perhaps the driver didn’t want to chance it.
And then we were off, with a treat straight away as we watched green monkeys frolic by a watering hole whilst we cruised past. There was also the surreal sight of young mangroves, all parabolic roots arcing out of the water just to support a few meagre green leaves. As we drove through villages normally located in the slightly drier woods, I was worried to notice logs laid out across the road. Could the insurgency be heating up?
It turned out just to be an army roadblock, one that they could often not be fussed about, meaning all drivers had worked out a way of slaloming through whilst barely dropping speed. Still, the sept-place could only make about 30mph, so it wasn’t like there was much to drop in the first place. Every now and again someone would wave us over and we’d all troop out, show him our passports or ID cards, and then he could go back to sleeping in the shade. At one point we sidled past a squad of soldiers descending into a rice field, their guns drawn. On the front of their jeep glowered a fierce fetish, something we noticed every army vehicle had, no doubt to increase their fighting ju-ju.
It is officially impossible to dislike Ziguinchor, or Zigi, as everyone seems to end up calling it. Even the overly persistent souvenir seller outside our hotel didn’t detract from the torpid atmosphere of delicious decay. The town seems built for drinks overlooking the river, watched over with dead-eyed wisdom by the yellow billed storks who haunt the trees with folk memories of plague doctors. The river is alive with fishermen and commerce, and pirogues, or motorised canoes, are the main way of getting around for locals.
Our hotel was quite frankly ridiculous for the price they asked. It was designed in the style of half of a local case à impluvium, the communal circular houses that channel rainwater into a central reservoir. In this case, they’d stuck in a swimming pool instead. I cannot stress enough how much this was appreciated. Days were spent wandering the streets, drinking in the post-colonial charm, perhaps taking a turn down to the psychedelic Alliance Franco-Sénégalaise, who took the case à impluvium style to joyous extremes, with colours that mimicked some of the most over the top African fabrics.
I do wonder if this will change as smartphones become more ubiquitous among locals, and they get used to taking photos themselves. Certainly the Gambia and Northern Senegal were already filled with them, and the richer West Africans seem well versed in the world of the selfy and just taking photos rather than actually experiencing something. Still, I feel it is important to respect locals wishes on this as much as possible, and it can be a good reason for just throwing yourself into something without always considering capturing the perfect shot.
As dusk falls and the strings of Christmas lights that hang between the street lights come on, we would invariably head down to the riverside for a beer or two and a wonderful meal at the poshest hotel. Meals seemed to be much the same price everywhere, but the quality here was fantastic, the beers were cold, and the waiters were genuinely friendly. It also gave us a real sense of luxury, as the sun set and the moon arose out of the gently steaming Casamance.
And then we were off, back into the mainstream of the Casamance, crossing over and plunging into a tributary. Here the mangroves closed around us, and as we twisted through the tight vegetative labyrinth birds would flap from side to side over our heads, keeping the busy interlopers in check. Mangroves have a curious ambience, as they’re not as high or all-encompassing as jungle. The sky never loses itself amongst the green, and the mangroves seem quite happy to expand in area rather than reach for the light. There’s almost a temporary feeling to them, or an idea that you’re just on some great estate whose rhododendrons have got somewhat out of control.
Our guide was fascinating, telling us about all the local plants in French. I’d never seen a loofah plant before, and I guess my child mind had made them sub-aqueous, like sponges. In fact they are a cross between okra and squashes, and can be eaten when young and green. Once they grow and dry out you crack the shell and the intensely fibrous loofah is right there in your hands, travelling through time and space from lime green 80s bathrooms to the modern day African bush.
He also told us of the mighty silk-cotton trees, whose seeds can indeed be used to make clothes. In French they’re called fromager, though as far as I’m aware they mong no cheeses. Despite their huge size, the wood is very light, so it is used to make pirogues. Their roots also stretch as far as the tree is tall, and whilst I can’t verify the exactitude of this claim, they did indeed sinuously weave their way through the village just beneath the earth’s skin.
On the way home we saw great flocks of birds swarming and flowing over the isle of birds, and revelled in the impossible grandeur of nature.