I had set myself three tasks for the Casamance, the south-western part of Senegal. (MAP)
The first one was to take a break! To seal myself off. To calm down.
I desperately needed some time alone. Distance from the hustle and bustle, the many people, the continuous noise and also a break from “wanting to understand.”
I am a person who is often very busy with finding answers. I want to comprehend, but continually trying to understand can be very exhausting in the long run. Especially here in Africa, where almost everything is new to me.
It just so happened, one of my loyal readers offered me his house on the beach in Abene. I was desperately looking for a place to relax, and so his offer came right in time, so Abene was the place to go first.
Regrettably, Abene wasn’t what I had hoped it would be. The beach wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any Westerners around to have a relaxed conversation with, one of the main things I was looking for in coming here. And to top it off there was no electricity or internet, which I would have gladly used for working on my blog and switching off.
As a result, I had to postpone task one for another while.
The second task was to do an American friend a favor. He had worked here in the Casamance as a missionary some 40 years ago and had built a house in a small village. He asked me to see who lives there today and what happened to the house.
When I rolled into the village, I called him and “together” we explored the place he had not seen in so many years. He led me by verbal description to the house, and he couldn’t believe it when I told him that his home was in ruin.
“Are you sure? Are you standing in front of the right house? Why isn’t anyone living in the house? Built with cement block and a tin roof it was nearly termite-proof, certainly still unique in the area,” he said shocked.
Looking through the now dilapidated windows, I described the inside to him. He could still remember every detail, and the more I explained to him what his house looked like today, the quieter it became on the other side of the line. It was the only house he had ever built for himself.
Although I don’t think much of missionary work myself, I know that he had put all his strength into that project. He wanted to do something good, but in the end, he failed because of the difficult circumstances he found there. He still feels guilty today.
For me, it was somehow another piece of the puzzle that I put together to understand the mentality of the West Africans, in this case, the Senegalese.
For sure, I don’t know all the circumstances, but I was still surprised that people would allow a house built to a high standard to deteriorate rather than using it. Especially since it wouldn’t have cost them anything?!
Task three was to get a visa for Guinea-Bissau in the big city of Ziguinchor, which was really quick and very easy.
In Zuiginchor, I was able to find a campground where I stayed alone for three weeks and sealed myself off to fulfill task number one. Fortunately, at least for one evening, a few Spaniards showed up with whom I had a stimulating conversation.
Every night there was a party somewhere in the neighborhood. Music was played continuously at full volume to the point where the speakers vibrated and rattled insanely; no matter, the main thing was it had to be loud. Neither was it a lovely African drum concert, no, hip-hop music.
One night the party was at the campground; luckily the power went off at five o’clock in the morning so the “music terror” finally ended. It was a weird party; people appeared bored, they stood or lay around; no one danced, no one seemed to be having fun, exuberance was not there.
The best thing about the city was the shopping. And I shopped mercilessly. Good food is scarce in this part of the world.
The market women were very intense in promoting their goods. They even pulled my hair to draw attention to their products.
Something else different was, there were expats, old Frenchmen who had hooked up with, pretty young black women.
Also, an American woman who had been working in development aid programs for 20 years. She told me that one of her Senegalese protégés had fled to Italy, and later called her bitterly crying because he didn’t like it at all in Europe. But he couldn’t tell his people back home the truth because they had all put so much money together for him to fulfill his dream of a life in Europe.
At the border, I asked if some Westerners had crossed the recently. And indeed, a couple of cyclists had arrived three hours before me. According to the entry in the registration book, they came from Switzerland. So, I knew that I might have the chance to meet other cyclists down the road.
Toubab now became “Branco Pelele – Branco Pelele,” which means white skin. It honestly sounded much more melodic than “Toubab Toubab.” It accompanied me through the whole of Guinea-Bissau, through every village. Unfortunately, the cry “dinheiro” also followed me again and again.
Guinea-Bissau was once held by the Portuguese and so the “dinheiro calls” were nothing less than asking for money.
I probably made a big mistake by following the main road, which almost always takes revenge, because people along the main roads behave differently than people in the remote areas. I should know that by now.
Juan was my first joyful encounter. Juan comes from Spain, is about my age and is on foot. He had started in Spain and had already walked 4000 kilometers by the time we met, only having taken the bus through the Western Sahara.
When I saw him from afar, I was really curious what he would have to tell me, and I was also glad that in the end, I had decided to go by bicycle and not on foot for my African journey as I had initially planned.
At an average of 20 km a day, I’m pretty sure I would have gone bonkers by the time I had walked in Juan’s tracks. The landscape is not that exciting here, and I would have been extremely bored.
Even with the speed of my bicycle, Guinea-Bissau was almost enough to break me, endless cashew plantations, a few rivers and lots of normal small villages, not much variation.
Juan and I camped together amidst the cashew trees and exchanged thoughts. And we had a lot of similar views, because of course with his walking he feels the intense load of Africa anew every day.
Juan’s words flowed nonstop like a waterfall, finally an outlet for his thoughts and emotions, pent-up and accumulating over the weeks of solitary walking. A phenomenon which is common among solo travelers.
I found Juan’s bending of my ear a bit amusing, and I will hopefully remember this encounter in the future when finding like-minded souls with whom I am comfortable. And in Juan’s case, the ear-bending was positive because he knew what he was talking about, and, always I like this.
This encounter with Juan was significant for me because it is always encouraging from time to time to meet people who think alike. People who notice the same issues, who don’t walk through life mindlessly and who I feel I can learn from and share something “together” with them.
Guinea-Bissau has a higher proportion of Christians than the countries I had passed through on this journey. The first signs of this were the many pigs, the alcohol consumed in the pubs and the arcade game machines in every village pub. Another sign, more dogs, although I have to say that most of them lie in the shade and sleep.
What I always appreciate most about Muslim countries is their abstinence from alcohol. There is nothing more annoying than being made a fool of by a drunken guy on the street in broad daylight. Moreover, Muslim countries, as already mentioned, have significantly fewer street dogs or guard dogs. There are, of course, exceptions, such as in eastern Turkey.
Invitations became rarer. Nobody called out to me to join them for a glass of tea or let me eat a bit of rice from the communal bowl.
Muslim countries and their hospitality are merely pleasant and enriching – not because it may save me some money – no, certainly not – it’s about respect for people. The cohesion to be allowed to be present, to be warmly welcome, are invaluable for a solo traveler like me.
The second evening in the country I met an Italian who has been working as a pastor in a small village for 20 years. I asked him how he found the locals here. His answer was not very positive, which surprised me a lot.
He let me sleep in a separate building in a guest room. While I stood naked in the shower, children looked through the windows and broke out the screening. They threw stones against the glass, and wouldn’t stop or go away no matter what I did.
After the gang had tyrannized me long enough, I dressed quickly, grabbed a stick, and ran after them, but of course, they had a head start and were much faster than me.
There were many adult on-lookers, both before, when the children almost smashed the windows, and after when I ran after them with a stick. But nobody seemed to care about what was happening in any way.
Can you imagine if the situation were reversed, with a black woman chasing white children down the street with a stick in a Western country? The police would be on the scene in less than a heartbeat.
Harsh discipline is not uncommon here; I have witnessed it on several occasions. Thrashing with sticks to bring the children in hand, I’ve even seen mothers throwing rocks at their kids. This behavior certainly cuts across my grain, but apparently, sometimes it’s the only thing that seem to work.
Adults also often deal very roughly with each other. It is simply another world.
Curious, I asked the Italian if begging came into the country with cell phones, he said; “no, it has always been about money” since I came here. “When people need to go to the hospital, they come and ask me for money. But when I need to go, then no one even cares how I get there.”
We walked together to a bread seller, and when the woman who worked there; made it clear to us that she didn’t feel like selling me anything, the Italian started to get quite loud. He was also very loud and irritated with people who showed up at his house to get something from him.
His frustration with his life was evident, and I just felt sorry for him. What faith makes possible is always fascinating. The fact that people sacrifice their whole lives in the hope of helping others and almost drown themselves; is pure self-abandonment.
The question is then, why doesn’t he understand he is not a welcome guest? What makes this Christian from Italy think he needs to share his faith with the people of Guinea Bissau?
Bissau the capital is a noisy city and precisely during the rush-hour I had a flat tire. I fixed my puncture in front of a supermarket in the presence and scrutiny of some astonished men.
The main reason why I cycled to Bissau was to get the visa for Guinea. One of the many unpleasant side effects of traveling in West Africa are the visas that one has to purchase for each country.
Of course, I am aware that despite everything, I am incredibly privileged to get a visa for these countries at all. Many other nations are not even allowed to visit their neighbor countries.
Luckily, I was able to find a charming accommodation, in a guesthouse where the owner cooked delicious fish. Now and then I need some luxury. Africa was too exhausting so far, so I allow myself some time out now and then. The only problem is that such oasis of well-being are not always easy to find.
On the way to the embassy, I met the cycling couple from Switzerland. Much younger than me, and it was apparent we also had quite different views of life. And yet our conversations were interesting because of course, I thought about their attitudes towards life.
Not much happened in Guinea-Bissau. It was downright boring. Cashew nuts as far as the eye can see, in between a few villages and not very interested locals.
What I liked were the painted houses – real works of art. I also enjoyed the many baguettes with fish sauce, which I could buy at small stands in nearly every village.
I had a great night in a convent, including dinner and breakfast. By far the cleanest accommodation since Europe and where almost everything worked, except the outlets, but you can’t have everything. The nuns came from Angola. .
The remaining nights I spent in my tent in schools along the way. I shared the accommodations mainly with bats or ants and with mangoes falling from the trees, hitting the tin roofs with such a loud bang that I thought war had broken out. And also, with goats, who made themselves comfortable on the verandas.
But never with curious children who might have wanted to see what I was doing. Also, never with adults who would have been interested in whether I would give the key back or whether I would keep the classroom in order.
What saddened me, most of all was the fact of how humans have ravaged the environment here. Deforestation, plantations, and no natural forest left. No wildlife, hardly any birds – all dead. Devastating!
Although I don’t really like traveling fast, it was time to increase my speed to get ahead. I was bored.
From Qebo, I rode on isolated tracks and passed by a national park. It became greener and wilder, and I even saw monkeys.
At one of the most heavily guarded borders in the world, ?, there was a stamp pad with a stamp, a soldier and a couple of kids in a good mood.
Guinea was next, another world lay ahead of me. Guinea was great, but more about it next time.
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