Hitchhiking Senegal: Part Five


For years the Casamance region of Senegal was a relative no-go zone for all but the most intrepid travelers. The seemingly endless conflict that has been ongoing since 1982 has recently died down and tourism has increased once again in the presence of peace. This is excellent news not only because unnecessary killing is tragic (obviously) but also because Casamance is one of the most beautiful places we have visited.

Our first stop was a small village called Cap Skirring. It sits right on the border with Guinea Bissau and was once a site of fierce fighting but is now a quaint town full of dedicated seafood vendors and aging French expats. We were staying with one such man via Couchsurfing and we were fortunate to catch him on one of his infrequent trips to Ziguinchor, the capital of the region, and score a ride back to Cap with him.

The road out winds around multiple mangrove forests and inlets of varying sizes hosting a wide array of different multi-colored birds. The presence of so much tropical flora and fauna was a welcome break for us as we had grown increasingly tired of the desert, which we had not realized encompasses much of Senegal.

The first night in Cap Skirring, our amazing host treated us to a nice meal. At the restaurant we were introduced to an American, who upon hearing our accents jumped at the opportunity to chat with some fellow yanks. He had been living in the area since the 70’s and was all too keen to go into the gory details of the war. Despite the fact that there hadn’t been any major skirmishes in 5 years, he spoke of the conflict as if it was currently happening outside. When we told him how we were hitchhiking around Africa he was aghast.

“I just wouldn’t do it and I just don’t know that I feel comfortable with you guys doing it here,” he told us. “Do you guys have a website or any page I can follow? I just want to see how long you guys live for.”

To be fair, during the height of the tension, traveling like we are would have been highly ill-advised. According to our host, Luc, it was common for rebels to stop cars carrying tourists and rob them at gunpoint and he himself got lucky numerous times during such encounters.

If you look at a map of Senegal, you will notice that the country is almost completely bisected by a sliver of land. This finger looking country is Gambia. During colonialism, the British wanted access to the Gambian River and so the French sold them the strip of land surrounding it. As with many of the decisions of colonialism (not to mention the entire concept), little thought was taken into how this would affect the local political situation, especially upon independence. As a result, the population of Casamance is physically removed from the rest of the country, most importantly the capital, Dakar.

The Casamance region is known for it’s agricultural production and most of the domestically grown produce comes from this region. However, a significant portion of this ultimately gets exported to other countries such as Mauritania and Morocco via Dakar, the only commercial port in the country. During one of the ceasefire agreements, there was a stipulation that the Senegalese government would build another commercial, international shipping port in Ziguinchor, giving them more control over the exporting process and the monetary gains that come with it. The project never came to fruition, however, and people in the region suspect the inaction was a ploy to keep Casamance financially dependent on the metropole and therefore the state. For Casamance to stand a chance at being a viable independent nation, having their own port is crucial. The Senegalese state knows this and is determined not to budge on the issue.

For the people of Casamance, this is infuriating. The quickest way to reach Dakar is by either cutting through The Gambia, which entails dealing with customs both ways, or by taking the 30 hr ferry around. Being so isolated from the capital is a common issue in many African states and fuels ethnic and social divisions that are exacerbated by the political and economic disenfranchisement. These issues of disenfranchisement manifest themselves in a variety of ways we noticed all too often during our time in Casamance.

Walking along the beach in Cap Skirring we found ourselves on a deserted beach scattered with little huts and managed to find a local bar constructed with bamboo where we peacefully sipped on beers and caught up on reading. Continuing up the beach not more than a kilometer, however, we encountered a completely different scene in the form of Club Med.

I am aware of how hotel construction is good for the local economy. It brings jobs to the area in construction and hospitality. Tourism is good for the local economy yaddayaddayadda. These are all valid arguments, HOWEVER….

Walking up to Club Med we didn’t get within 100 meters of the property before we were approached by security guards demanding to know what we were doing. I guess we didn’t look the part and when I glanced around at the Club Med patrons, I immediately saw the stark contrast between us and them. We told the guard we were simply trying to get back to the main road but he made it quite clear we would not be cutting through the property to do so. We weren’t even allowed to walk another 50 meters up to the trash cans to throw away our garbage.

I get the security protocol. However, we then noticed the Senegalese vendors who were also being restricted from approaching the french Club Med beach goers. There they were, black Senegalese merchants on their own beach, forced by armed police behind an invisible do-not-cross line so as not to disturb the white tourists. The contrast was stark and I wondered then how this place was actually contributing to the local economy.

Club Med is a self contained operation. The Cap Skiring airport is less than a 5 minute drive away. One could easily just fly in, stay a week at Club Med, and fly out without ever setting foot, or spending a dime, in the actual town. The hotel does employ locals and I’m sure they get paid well. But how does this affect existing ethnic and social tensions that are actually a reflection of deepening economic divisions? The issue becomes more complex when you look at the instability of the region at large and how easily destabilizing factors (be it ideas, people, or products) slip over already weak borders.

Cap Skirring sits right on the border with Guinea Bissau, the proximity to which has not made the conflict in Casamance any easier. Guinea Bissau is another country with a volatile history and their instability has often made the border with Senegal more salient for smugglers and militants.

One night we were drinking the cheapest box wine we had found in the supermarket and our host, Luc, asked how we had gotten it.

“From the store?” we replied, confused by the question.

“This wine is not allowed here,” he responded and I laughed because I thought he was making a joke about how shitty wine wasn’t allowed in his house. However, it wasn’t the quality of the wine but that this specific wine was made in Guinea Bissau and had been smuggled across the border by people attempting to avoid paying the steep import taxes. It was technically illegal to sell in the country, but as we’ve learned in this part of the world, if there’s money to be made, legality doesn’t really factor into the equation. The border with Guinea Bissau is porous and ill-defined as we found out when we accidentally crossed over it on a beach outing!

We spent almost a week in Cap Skirring and became accustomed to the leisurely pace of the laid-back beach town. However, as is always the case, it was time for us to continue on to our next location: Kafountine.

Cap Skirring and Kafountine are both situated on the coast and when looking at a map they are about 60 km away from each other as the crow flies. However, unless you are able to travel by crow or have access to a boat, the only way to get there is by backtracking to Ziguinchor and then heading back to the coast. I still had the American’s warning in the back of my head as we left Cap Skirring, but even before we had made it to a spot, I was back to realizing that hitching here would be no different. People still smiled and waved at us and still tried to offer barefoot Gabe their shoes.

We walked for a while to the outskirts of town and were picked up by a man in a truck that looked like it had just come off a safari and were taken to the next big crossroads. Walking a bit farther, we barely had to wait at all before a pickup truck came and gave us a ride to Ziguinchor.

It was still early, which was good because we had a long way to walk to get through Zig and to a good spot. The city is busy and polluted and was a hefty contrast to where we had been the past week but once we crossed over the river that separates Ziguinchor from the mainland, we were back in rural and rugged Senegal.

The day was beginning to heat up and there was no shade to be seen. We walked on, past an informal checkpoint and decided to seek shade in the sliver of a sign on the other side of the street. We ran across the road to flag down every car that passed but it was mostly already full taxis or buses. Looking at the map, we saw we were in the middle of a mangrove forest and it was unlikely there would be shade for quite some ways. Eventually, we got picked up by a guy who said he was just going a few kilometers down the road and we hopped in hoping he would take us out of the mangroves and into a more wooded area.

We made a safe bet and the driver ended up taking us farther than he was going and dropped us off at the edge of the next big town. When we got out we were approached by a man who told us that it would be impossible for us to continue because the police weren’t letting any vehicles other than licensed taxis pick people up. It sounded like the familiar scam of a taxi driver so we took our chances and were quickly picked up by a man named George in a lorry truck (stay tuned in Part 6 for more George stories!)

George took us another 10 km or so and upon being dropped off we were again hassled by a group of desperate bus drivers who pulled out all of the stops to get us on their bus.

“It’s impossible!”

“No one will pick you up!”

“There are no cars going this way!”

We always tell these people we have done this from Morocco to wherever we are currently and every time they laugh and scoff.

“That’s impossible.”

Again, deceiving the law of physics and achieving the impossible, we were picked up by a father and son who stopped for us and were shocked that we were fine riding in the bare back of their truck. Sometimes I think that people in Senegal don’t stop for us because they don’t have a proper seat for us and assume we will not be okay riding in anything other than one.

When the father and son dropped us off it was the hottest part of the day and again there was no shade in sight. It was also in the lunchtime window of 1-3 pm so very few cars were on the road. We would have to wait.

Fortunately, a pickup truck going to The Gambia pulled up after a few minutes of waiting and took us to our last big crossroads! From there we got two more rides and had made it to Kafountine!

The city felt much bigger than Cap Skirring and definitely not as touristy. We got the sense that most of the tourists probably take buses or taxis directly to their hotels or resorts and then spend their days on the beach away from the hectic main thoroughfare which is packed with vendors selling anything you could want. However, most things were brought from Dakar so they were far more expensive here than they would’ve been in the capital. Or than they would’ve been if they had come directly into the proposed port in Ziguinchor. Again, I understood the Casamance frustration with the separation.

As in most places where violence has tormented the population for decades, people were done with the conflict. Every local we spoke to about the fight for independence said it was unlikely to bring prosperity to the people. Most said they didn’t have confidence in the government (or in politicians in general) to bring positive change or get things done and were thus disillusioned with the idea that participating in politics was anything but a waste of time. People seemed to have relegated their hopes for change into projects they could complete themselves. Grass-roots social organizations, transforming their properties into sustainable agricultural sites, these were things that could bring tangible change to a population largely left to its own devices for fear that any meddling would result in a collapse of the tentative peace everyone was all too grateful for.

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