Podor and the small town syndrome

The mean streets of Podor

Lovely scene.

Fuels romantic notions of African sunsets in quiet stress-free backwaters.

Walking around a town on a Sunday does not really give you a feel for a place. But this is Podor, the northernmost town in Senegal, on the river that has given the country its name. Population around 12,000. It’s staunchly Muslim, so Sundays do not really matter much. And sure enough: the shops are open and the “commercants” (traders) are out in force.

On one street.

The rest looks pretty much like that picture above. Or below.

Podor riverside. The bar is on the far left corner.

Does anyone remember that John Cale/Lou Reed album “Songs for Drella”? It was dedicated to their friend Andy Warhol and it opens with a song called Small Town. One memorable line: “When you’re growing up in a small town/you say nobody famous ever came from here…”

Well Podor has not produced one but TWO world famous children. The first is Oumou Sy, who almost single-handedly has turned Dakar into an international fashion centre. Here‘s a brief profile I once wrote about her.

The second was the one I came to see. Baaba Maal. In concert in his hometown Saturday night December 26th – make that Sunday morning December 27th – in the company of his life-long friend Mansour Seck and his band Daande Lenol (the name means “Voice of the People”).

The crowd adores him. Baaba walks off the stage, stands in the middle of the arena. He expresses his thanks for the support the town has given him and his unique music festival Blues du Fleuve, held for the fourth time. And he has a message: I believe in the people of Podor, their creativity, the youth of this town and their energy. And just to show how much influence he can muster: one or two words from the master at the end of his mega show, at five in the morning – and the stadium empties out like a flash. I have never seen anything like it.

The festival over – and the town reverts to this.

My street for one day.

My Bed&Breakfast in the middle, beyond the road is the river and Senelec is the national electricity utility.

Baaba loves his town and its cultural heritage. Indeed: Podor is old. It was a royal capital in the 12th century. It was a French trading post (or “comptoir”) in the 18th century, when slaves, ivory and gum arabic were shipped downriver to Saint Louis, a journey of 200 kilometres.

But that was then and this is now. Much of the town, like the riverside, has fallen into disrepair. One world-famous son and one world-famous daughter cannot on their own reverse that. And besides, how long before their successors come along? Theirs are rare talents in any community.

And in the meantime…..

‘Aaaaaah, you’ve come to see Baaba Maal. Very good! He’s my friend!! I have known him since he was this small!!’ ‘My father taught him in primary school.’ I lost count of the people who came up to me, within one hour of arrival at the riverside bar pictured above, who told me of their connection with the great star, told me how great this town was, regaled me with their family history – and then proceeded to ask for beer, cigarettes, gin, money or a combination of the above. All convivial, all fine – but something felt not entirely right.

It all came together when I visited Baaba at his home. A fine building, tastefully designed, with a large garden. And instantly, it became clear why an interview here would be an impossibility. The place was overcrowded with family, praise-sigers, passers-by, hangers-on…and one Dutch journalist.

We had a two-minute chat. He smiled when I told him I admired the way he handled all the attention. Here, it’s an obligation – but one that would get on my nerves pretty quickly. But Baaba is graceful throughout, pays attention to everyone, talks, beams at a group of performers who have come to sing his praises. And when I leave after three hours in his court, the crowd shows no sign of thinning…

He also has a house in Dakar.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this. Podor has a lot of history – but not much of a future. It is far away from where the action is. Saint Louis: 215 kilometres; Dakar: close to 500. It lives off agriculture, a small amount of trade, a few visitors and its sons and daughters who have made it big. For the rest and especially the young ones, the options are few: hang around, become a sponger, or leave, just like the subject of the Reed/Cale song.

Across is Mauritania...and Dakar is far away

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One Response to “Podor and the small town syndrome”

  1. The Africa Express – 2 « Bram Posthumus – Yoff Tales Says:

    […] quite a few artists on it that I once interviewed. Baaba Maal for instance, the regal singer from Podor, North Senegal, where I had visited him (briefly) at home early 2010. Or the hugely original […]

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