Posts Tagged ‘Saint Louis’

Relentless Trends – 3. What have we got here…?

January 9, 2011

The Mourides are Senegal’s most influential religious brotherhood, founded late 19th century in the holy city of Touba, by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a cleric whose teachings were strongly anti-colonial. The French sent him into exile for his troubles.

The Grand Mosque of the holy city of Touba

Today, the Mourides have become a business empire that encompasses international banking, wholesale, retail, petrol products and transport, to name a few. There are other brotherhoods as well but they none are as influential as this one. This also applies to politics. They have the ear of government.

Baye Fall before the Grand Mosque. Photo from anonimundo blog

The Baye Fall were established by Ibrahima Fall, with the explicit permission of Amadou Bamba. These were their values in the beginning: be non-materialistic, hard-working, pious – and musical. Cheikh Ndiguel Lô, for those versed into music, is a good example: a quirky, very laid-back man and a fine musician. He is Baye Fall. So is Carlou D, formerly of Positive Black Soul, who starred in the Sahel Opera a few years ago and last year released a truly wonderful album called Muzikr (a play on words, incidentally: zikr is the religious chanting you can hear all over Senegal).

Carlou D in fine form at the 2010 Hertme Afrikafestival. (photo: Bram Posthumus)

If you hear a zikr on the street, accompanied with the trademark clang of money in a calabash – that’s a Baye Fall. It’s an old ritual: religious folks giving some of their piety and spirituality in exchange for victuals. It  is practiced in India, Europe – and Senegal. But it seems that there is a tendency among some that makes a mockery of that old practice.

Picture this scene. A car moves slowly into the street. Zikr reverberates from two giant megaphones, attached to the roof. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they move in: large strides, robes aflow and clanging calabashes. They fan out across the street, stop cars – if the drivers don’t stop they pursue them; they move up to people and no longer ask for money – they pretty much demand it. Simple tradespeople, shopkeepers, children, mothers, they really cannot miss a hundred francs but awkwardly give in. Ten minutes on, the invasion has passed.

Something  jars between the original mission and this temporary takeover of a whole street.


Baye Fall in Saint Louis, September 2009. (Photo from gosong.)


Every September, thousands of Baye Fall occupy the centre of Saint Louis, and not all inhabitants are happy with this: they consider it an invasion. Ostensibly, the march on Saint Louis is in memory of a minor historical event (a religious leader refused to show sufficient deference to a French governor) but the real reason is simple: they do it because they can.

Now – let’s return to those demographic statistics: Senegal is overwhelmingly young and urbanising fast. If one subscribes – even only in part – to the youth bulge theory, a few uneasy questions must begin to be asked. Is this one of the many ways in which essentially redundant men create a niche for themselves, in a society that has no room for them? Then it’s a case of tough luck: if your environment constantly reminds you that you’re on your own, then said environment must not complain if you create your own…

And that opens the next set of questions. Does the state, or more to the point, do the religious leaders in this land have an opinion about this? And if they do: do they condone this kind of behaviour? How many steps away from not just demanding money but simply no longer taking “no” for an answer? And short of sending them packing, what other solutions may there be for the excess young male population?

Answers NOT on a postcard. There are no quick fixes. The West is very unlikely to have any answers to a problem that has ceased to exist, even in its collective memory.

Fesman glimpses and it ain’t pretty

December 23, 2010

The Global Festival of the Black Arts (Fesman, in French) was originally planned for December 2009. It also costs something like 70 billion CFA Francs, according to the Gazette, a decent weekly here. That’s a cool €107 million. So here’s the question: what the @##!!$$ have the organisers been doing with all that time and all that money. Because Fesman is, in all honesty, a bloody shambles. Take a look at these:

1. In Walfadjri (one of Dakar’s better newspapers) today, the report of a bitter press conference by the architects who were supposed to have had their public conference about architecture and urban development in Africa, an incredibly important issue. They were, according to this report, chiefly talking among themselves and some of their exhibition material never left Customs. Fesman did not pony up the cash to have it released.

2. Upstairs from the restaurant area at the exhibition space CICES: two tables. Parked on top of them, still in their plastic packaging: eight brand new Apple G5 desktop computers. These things ain’t cheap. I bought mine four years ago for €1,700. Do the math, that’s easily 20 grand parked there, without supervision. Three days later I pass the same scene. They haven’t been used once. Ten days on, some have been switched on but left standing. In the “children’s corner…’ There’s only one word for that: waste.

3. Same week, the Gazette reports that the festival has splashed just shy of eleven million euros on roughly one hundred luxury vehicles, acquired through a non-existing company, Six Senegal. You get the picture, right?

a fleur de presse. The lady on the cover is the president's daughter and therefore a Fesman top boss.

4. I meet a local musician who tells me that the organisers had not even considered him for the music programme, even though he lives and works in Dakar. Then, he tells me he gets an SMS in which a show is announced – featuring himself and a few colleagues. An SMS…riiiiight.

So basically, I ask him: you don’t know exactly when you are supposed to play, you don’t know where you are going to play, there is no contract and you have no time to rehearse. ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘and that’s why I will be demanding cash up front. Otherwise, we won’t go. Besides, I have my own show coming up soon. I’ll concentrate on that – and my new clip. Fesman is secondary.’

5. The mayor of Saint Louis claims that his city’s organising committees never received any info about the Global Festival of the Black Arts. Corroborated by a few members in the organising committees. Quote: ‘In the morning we don’t know who will show up in the evening.’ Now this actually makes perfect sense: Saint Louis is run by the Opposition and this is very strictly a Dakar Showcase for the Ruling Family and Its Party.

6. Those hundreds of pretty festival hostesses in a special festival dress! Well, they only perk up when strictly necessary. Most of the time they spend talking among themselves, because the guests have – once again – failed to show up. Tell you what: when you are supposed to smile at incoming celebrities and VIPs but you don’t get paid as promised  (according to a report in Le Populaire), you quietly decide that said celebrities and VIPs can go %%##@@ themselves. You just don’t tell anyone.

PS: just done a spot check. They still haven’t been paid. There is a word for that but we’re trying to run a decent blog here…

7. Taximen!! Too may cars chasing too little money. Fesman would be manna from heaven…er…forget it. Quote: ‘We get nothing out of this festival. I tell you: nothing!’ All guests are transported by one and the same company, Senecartours. Here’s how.

‘Fesman?’ asks a man. Just him and the driver on a 40-seater passenger bus. ‘We’re going to town.’ I was actually just leaving for lunch in my own neigbourhood restaurant – otherwise I would have had an entire bus to myself. That’s why taximen don’t even bother to show up at the festival hotels and the festival sites. All business gone… and if you want to know how one company got to hog all Fesman transport, a trip to the Ruling Party headquarters might be instructive…the Fesman main site sits right opposite…

8. I really could go on. A few well-connected individuals and by chance also some small businesses are doing OK out of the festival but for most it’s like the FIFA World Cup in 2010: hot air, empty promises and no cash.

Some final thoughts on Fesman – tomorrow.

Tread with care

February 10, 2010

He is an intellectual. Historian, thinker. And he would love to see his town re-established as a place that actually matters. It’s got it all: 350 years of history, a meeting place of Arabs, Africans and Europeans and an immensely rich cultural heritage as a result. But it’s not going anywhere. Saint Louis is…well, not exactly dying but it does not have the pulse, the drive, the vibrancy.  This place, the former capital of French West Africa today feels distinctly – provincial.

Not for want of trying. There’s plenty of culture. The arts, really. Literature, theatre, modern dance, music. This town has its own international jazz festival. There’s an artist association. Good work by a lot of good people.

So what’s holding it al back? Here, we need to tread carefully. Unlike those who invade this town every year in September for a massive religious event that sucks the life out of everything else. ‘It’s like being assaulted in your own home, it is terrible,’ says the intellectual. ‘The only thing you can really do is…leave town while they are there.’

“They” – are the religious brotherhoods. Fanatics? No, that does not exist here. Zealous? You bet. Zealous enough to constrict free thought and free speech. Note that I do not say: “ends free speech”. It does put limits, though. How?

Well that can be put in a very practical way. What does Saint Louis need to bounce back? It needs restoring. It needs cleaning up – the place, quite frankly, is a mess.

Done up only a few short years before: Point Sud, St Louis

‘What this city really needs is an economy,’ pursues the intellectual, ‘enough income that allows people to come to the festivals, the theatre and appreciate art.’

And indeed: art itself could be part of that economy. But for art to flourish – you need pretty much complete freedom of thought and expression. And for that to arrive, or to put it more bluntly: to restore the great tradition of Senegalese intellectual life…you need to roll back the zealots.

There, I have said it. I can – he cannot. At least not in public and not if you have responsibilities beyond your own little self. Address religion and the stranglehold it has on speech and thought – that is one thing. But criticize it at your peril. You don’t do ostracism as a hobby.

Pont Faidherbe, to be replaced and none too soon

This is what happens when you don’t paint a steel bridge for more than a decade. The same can be said for free speech and thought. It needs maintaining,in the subtlest and most comprehensive sort of ways. The French are paying for a new bridge, this one is beyond repair. But the cost of having your thinking space corroded is arguably much higher. Here’s hoping it does not get this far.


January 6, 2010

Oumar runs the only decent CD shop in Senegal and it’s in Saint Louis. His CD stand changes little. For five years, Miles Davis’ On The Corner has been sitting atop his modest but cool collection of jazz CDs (Coltrane among them).

music man

Still, he’s got most of the latest and best music in store. (And if you’re looking for an artist to interview, chances are that he’s got their number…)

So what have I taken home this time?

Omar Pene’s new acoustic album, Ndam. An absolute must. ‘It’s too good,’ as Oumar always says when he likes an album.

An old Baaba Maal release, only locally available. He’s also has a new local one, coinciding with “Television”, but that one’s not out yet.

New music by the highly talented Ablaye Cissokho, from Saint Louis, who mixed jazz trumpet with kora on his first album and has gone a bit more poppy this time – but still good.

The African Jazz Project. A refreshing jazz project featuring (among others) French sax player Philippe Sellam and the incredible balafon player Ali Keita. Also features vocals, drums, percussion, bass, fula flute – nice.

Thanks Oumar, once again…

New Year in Saint Louis

January 3, 2010

A minor scene, to set the stage for the new year.

I am sitting on the fly-infested terrace of Hotel de La Poste in Saint Louis, the old capital of French West Africa. Within earshot, the sounds of cars rattling along on the old, rusty bridge, named after the Frenchman Faidherbe, who ran this place in the 1860s. The bridge has been here for well over a century and is being replaced.

Pont Faidherbe, Saint Louis

Amidst the flies and the noise I am reading a new magazine: Melting Pop. It’s not the best of names but still: with a daring picture of South African dancer Neliswe Xaba on the cover you are sure to have an impact in this deeply conservative country. Melting Pop celebrates “métissage”, the mixing of minds, cultures, bodies and souls.

Enter a large fiftysomething French woman. Dressed to the nines, hair in an authoritative bun. Slippers. She is quite clearly of the opinion that we are still in the era of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man who delivered mail by plane from France to Senegal – then still an internal flight.

She starts ordering Moussa about: take my luggage there, get my seat in the car ready, that sort of thing. Moussa is her servant, apparently, and maybe even her temporary toy-boy, who knows. He listens quasi attentively, decked in a bright “Fly Emirates” T-shirt, baseball cap on his head, jogging trousers, sport shoes. A cigarette loosely fits between two fingers of his right hand. The woman uses the kind of rapid-fire guttural French, which with time becomes indistinguishable from bubbling water in a French country river. I am sure Moussa misses at least two-thirds of what she is on about.

Melting Pop, meanwhile, turns out to be an interesting mix of photography, music (it features Mulatu Astatsqé’s sensational 2009 album and also Lisbon-based kuduro band Buraka Som Sistema), there’s also visual arts, reviews and fashion. Trendy stuff from the city. And then there are the more conventional things: the long interview, the resuscitation of Panafricanism and the long highbrow analytical article so beloved by Francophone authors. But on the whole, it’s interesting and challenging. Made in Dakar.

Melting Pop also has the obligatory “who’s up who’s down” page. IN and OUT it’s called. My predictions for 2010, the 50th birthday of Senegal and a baker’s dozen of other African countries: old Pont Faidherbe, Saint Exupéry and that rather insufferable French woman will be OUT. The new bridge, Melting Pop and the happy mixing of everything are coming IN. Oh, and Moussa too, although he may not be aware of it…

Getting out of Dakar…

December 25, 2009

First step: lengthy negotiation with a taxi driver, whom I managed to slightly mollify by greeting him in Wolof and offering cigarettes. Our man brought me here:

gare routière (courtesy: Flickr)

Looks calm and serene, hm? In reality your car will be surrounded by a whirling crowd of vendors who sell everything. It’s like a giant open air supermarket – except that this one is in never-ending motion: talking, shouting, insisting, walking, running, thrusting items in your face (and they do that to absolutely everyone), haggling and that whole hyperactive crowd will be trying to sell you their wares until the taxi is out of the station. If my life depended on it I would do exactly the same….

Now, a word about the car.

a brand new bush taxi

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Peugeot 504. First one produced in France in 1968, last one in Kenya and Nigeria – in 2006. I wonder why they ever stopped.

This is also Africa’s most enduring vehicle. It can negotiate roads about as well as any FourWheelDrive. I have driven it across sand roads, dirt roads, dry river beds, empty, full of passengers – this car can do it all. And it’s easy to use and maintain. Which is why I guess governments and development bureaucrats insist on expensive, complicated 4WDs that hardly ever leave town…and transport entrepreneurs still haven’t found a decent replacement for this beauty. As a result, your 2010 taxi is likely to look like this…

a real life bush taxi (by neddoscope on Flickr)

Mine was actually rather better looking.

6:30 in the evening, we have finally left the “gare routière” – and these cars don’t leave until they are full. One man up front. Me slumped against the window with a lady next to me who nods off as soon as we are moving – next to a grumpy elderly man in a big garb. Behind us: two sportsmanlike youngish lads and a very fashion-conscious lady.

Off. We. Go. Well………..

embouteillage!!!! (elo mopty on Flickr)

Ten minutes into the trip… and it’s the all-pervasive, inevitable, dreaded, hellish traffic jam. Something out of that classic 1976 Italian film, L’Ingorgo. But worse. Exhaust fumes. Noise. More vendors. A pair of singing boys has decided to target our taxi for prayers. They are ear-piercingly loud and expect to be rewarded for their efforts. It’s a widespread form of begging, something Senegalese frown upon, although giving alms is one of their duties as Muslims.

This takes all of two hours to clear. Meanwhile, we have all smoked the equivalent of 40 cigarettes and looking ahead there’s nothing but more cars, taxis, “cars rapides”, lorries and carts. But at least, we’re moving. Sort of.

By the time we reach Rufisque, an old run-down settlement between the road and the sea, our average speed has increased to a massive 14km/hour. It’s 8:30 and dark. Bad news for the next stretch.

Now the road has one lane for one direction each and an alternating lane in the middle for those who want to take turns overtaking. Except that in Senegal you don’t take turns. You GO. Until someone hurtling in the opposite direction flashes his lights and tells you to get the hell back to YOUR lane.

I hate this stretch of road with a passion…but traffic’s very thick tonight and when we reach Thiès, the next large town, we are cruising at the eye-watering velocity of 36 km/hour. This could get dangerous…

Except – it didn’t. At half past midnight we cruised into breezy and chilly Saint Louis and my first priority was of course to get my back sorted out and into shape. First destination: the bar. Found one on the river, next to this.

Blessed bliss!

Senegal’s most famous bridge. But Pont Faidherbe is falling apart (no maintenance does that) and it’s being replaced. So hurry if you still want to see the famous landmark.

Saint Louis Airport is just outside the town. I live next to Dakar Airport. Flying to Saint Louis would take all of 30 minutes. 50 euros one way? I’d pay. And so would half the passengers I was with. So…

…and I honestly don’t care who it is… Got the picture yet?

en route….

December 23, 2009

Finally on my way! For the next four to six hours I will be doing the following:

1. getting a taxi (after protraced negotiations about the price) and then being hurtled at breakneck speed (no matter what its condition) to the “gare routière”

2. finding a “7 places” (that’s an old Peugeot 504 station car that seats seven people (not 12 as is the case in Guinea where the roads are more dangerous and the cars even older and the drivers suicidal)

3. getting and ignoring offers to buy telephone recharge cards, telephones, telephone holders, belts, jewellery, radios, cigarettes, wallets (for some reason everyone here thinks I need one), biscuits, bananas, lighters, oranges, onions, pocket knives, airport art, watches, pens, toolboxes, individual tools, newspapers (which I’ve already got), whistles, torches – I think you get the idea

4. being whisked off in the now filled up 504 and quite probably sitting in an almightily monstrous traffic jam for two hours trying to get out of town

5. facing oncoming traffic as the driver ignores all road signs and overtakes all manner of lorries and other taxis between Dakar and the first major town Thiès – it’s a stretch of road I have come to fear and loathe (belated thanks to Hunter S. Thomson!)

6. finally settling back a little for the long and excruciatingly boring stretch of 200 plus kilometres that will finally bring me to the old Senegalse capital. Which is celebrating its 350th birthday.

Wish me luck!

Music and another city

December 22, 2009

Off to Saint Louis up in the North and Baaba Maal’s music festival.

We’re in list making mode – so I’ll offer you mine. It consists of one item and I made a prediction some ten months ago that this would become album of the year.

And so it is. Ethiopian jazz veteran Mulatu Astatqe (the living breathing definition of “cool”)  with the wonderfully eclectic London group The Heliocentrics. The album’s called Inspiration Information (number three of a the series on Stonesthrow Records).

Just listen to the first tune, where this lot manage to throw Ethiopian chants, funk, a whiff of Herbie Hancock, wild electric guitars, a cello (!) and an irresistible pulse in a whirling six and a half minutes’ mix. Breathtaking stuff even after 100 plus plays. It never bores – and that’s only for starters.

Here’s some more Mulatu Astatqe and the Heliocentrics to enjoy. Inspiration Information!