The Birds, and Fishing Communities of Senegal

Mina2 in the Caribbean - Where's The Ice Gone?
Tim Barker
Wed 11 Nov 2009 12:47

Position: 14:00.78N 016:41.9W

Date: 10 November 2009


Yesterday morning we motored in convoy five miles up the river to Hakuna Matata camp, which is a basic riverside holiday lodge catering to a fairly limited number of Europeans from Dakar and groups of ornithologists, sports fishermen and scientists who come to the camp to explore the delta.


Olivier, the charming young Frenchman who had rebuilt the lodge four years ago was laying on a traditional Mechoui feast for us that evening. Two large pits were dug in the sand, filled with logs and set alight. When the flames had died down, young pigs, goats and lambs were roasted over the glowing embers as we tucked into plates of cockles, collected that morning from the shallow water at the river’s edge. The meat, once carved on the plate, turned out to be disappointingly fatty and tough. As with my two meals in Dakar, I managed only to get a couple of mouthfuls of meat out of it all. Still, the couscous and vegetables were delicious, as was the fresh fruit which was served afterwards.


Once the meal was finished, a group of the local villagers came and performed some traditional dances to the hypnotic beat of the Djumbo drums. They then performed a sort of pantomime with singing and drums re-enacting the Arab traders taking the villagers off to be sold as slaves. Very moving. Finally we were treated to a wrestling match by two giant and muscle-bound examples of Senegalese manhood. All great fun. Some of the rally audience said it was a shame that the dancers were not in traditional dress, but in T-shirts. But this, I think, was to miss the point. This was not a troupe wheeled out to entertain tourists. These were just the local villagers who had turned out to welcome the rally and entertain us (the arrival of the rally fleet every year is a big event which brings in a significant amount of money which ripples beneficially through the community). It was a memorable evening.


This morning we had another early start. We had arranged for a pirogue to come and collect about 15 of us to explore the bolongs, the narrow mangrove-lined backwaters separating the hundreds of islands of the delta. Armed with cameras, binoculars and bird books, off we went. Colin had been in seventh-heaven since our arrival. The place is absolutely stuffed full of exotic birds of every size, colour and habit. He had gone ashore for a walk in the salt-marshes and coastal grassland behind the camp the evening before and couldn’t turn the pages of his bird book fast enough. By the time he had returned from his walk he had already identified nearly 40 different species. He was wetting himself with excitement at the prospect of adding further to his already long list. His greatest ambition was to see a Goliath Heron which stands a full five feet high. The pirogue trickled along the banks of the mangrove swamps and an enormous number of birds flitted from tree to tree, dive bombed the water for fish (which were leaping out of the water all around us) or walked in the shallows, picking tasty morsels out of the sand with their long pointed beaks. A twitcher’s paradise indeed. Everybody wanted to sit next to Colin who was giving a fascinating running commentary on the different types of birds and their characteristics. We rounded an bend and there, side by side, were an osprey and the Holy Grail, an enormous Goliath Heron. A double whammy. Colin, at that moment, had a small orgasm.


Having passed a group of men putting a net out in a large circle and then drawing it in onto a sandbank we arrived at a small fishing village. We were introduced by our pirogue captain to the village’s headman who was enormously proud to show us all around. We visited the hospital, two small rooms, where the clinician explained that one of the rooms was used for the numerous child deliveries. Until recently a woman would have had, on average, about ten children. Now, however, they were putting contraceptive implants into their arms (voluntary, of course) and this had reduced the average number of children to about five. There was a sad little chart on the wall showing the number of monthly deaths of children under the age of five from malaria, diarrhoea or pneumonia.


We then went to the school room where a classroom of fifty or so extremely lively young children were being taught. They were frightfully excited when we were ushered in and sat down at their benches next to them. I immediately had my Tilley hat nicked from me and it was grabbed by one then another of the little things who all tried it on to much hysterical laughter. Once order had been resumed, the teacher told us about education in Senegal and the dearth of teachers. Secondary education was also a problem because the children had to go away for that, living with other families who required money to feed the youngsters. The money often not being available meant that most children were not able to progress to secondary school. The children were all naughty, happy, pretty little things. A delight. Once the lecture had finished, they all sang us a song with great gusto and clapping, and then we all joined in a rendition of Frere Jacques. Honestly, it brought tears to the eyes of many of us.


As we made our way back to the pirogue, a number of women had got a out a selection of wood carvings, jewellery made from shells and fishing line and paintings made from different coloured sand sprinkled onto painted glue (made from fish bones). Amongst one of the displays were three old and intricately carved small wooden doors – about 18 inches square. They are the traditional doors to the family granary used by a particular tribe and found in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania. They were asking quite a lot by their standards so after some good-natured negotiations we agreed on a price and I am now the proud owner of a lovely memento of my time in Senegal.


The following morning the fleet was to return to Dakar in preparation of their passage to Cape Verde on the 15th. Due to admin error (on behalf of the organisers I hasten to add) Neil was not going to join us until the morning of the 18th, so Colin and I were able to stay alone in the delta for a few more days. A number of friends I had made amongst the crews of other boats were to leave in Dakar before Colin and I returned, and the next time we were to rejoin the fleet would be in Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands in ten days time, so Colin and I decided to hold a drinks party on board. I knew that had the Absent Downstairs Skipper been on board, everything would have been perfect. But she isn’t, and we simply had to try and use her impeccable standards as a target. It was actually a jolly good incentive to get the boat into some semblance of cleanliness and order, the standards of which had inevitably slipped a little. So the afternoon was spent tidying up, cleaning, polishing, hovering and generally making good.