A riot of creativity in Saint-Louis, Senegal

Saint-Louis, Senegal – N’Dar in Wolof – is the sort of place that should see far more tourists than it does.

It is a gorgeous, atmospheric star of a place, gently reminiscent of both New Orleans and Port Louis, Mauritius. For its French colonial architecture it received a UNESCO World Heritage site designation in 2000.

 

 

I visited Saint-Louis late last year as part of a short residency organised by waaw, an artists’ residence. Founded by Staffan Martikainen and Jarmo Pikkujamsa, two Brussels-based Finns with long histories of working and travelling in West Africa, waaw promotes Senegalese culture and works to connect local creative types with visiting artists and writers. Staffan and Jarmo and their staff provide guidance, facilitate connections between visitors and locals, and offer simple, comfortable rooms to residents. Informally, the residents themselves band together somewhat for meals and town exploration. I relied on waaw staff to answer my many questions or direct me to answers provided locals and their own library. The residency also organised tours – to Guet N’Dar, about which more below; to the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary north of Saint-Louis, and even a city tour of Saint-Louis itself, which focuses on the town’s architecture.

A five-hour drive from Dakar, Saint-Louis has a fairly peripheral presence in contemporary Senegal. This is the case physically – the city itself borders Mauritania – as well as economically. Today, Dakar is the beating heart of Senegalese culture and economy, the place where big things happen. Saint-Louis, quite simply, is not. According to 2005 population estimates, is the country’s eighth-largest city, its airport devoid of commercial traffic. Once upon a time, Saint-Louis was the most important city in the region. Founded in 1659, it was the capital of Senegal for 225 years; it also served for a time as the capital of the entirety of French West Africa.

It’s understandably easy to get lost in the faded colonial grandeur of the city. This is fine – Saint-Louis is a beautiful place, and those haunting colonial buildings are a big part of the island’s appeal. Two important buildings among many are the city’s Grand Mosque and its Catholic cathedral – the oldest church in West Africa – both built in the 19th century. 

But any fixing of Saint-Louis in the past does this dynamic city a real disservice. The city has a buzzing cultural life, with several annual festivals. The most famous of these is the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, held in May. There is also an African documentary film festival in December and religious festivals held in September (Tabaski) and October (Tamxarit). And no reading of culture in Saint-Louis can be made without reference to the Baye Fall, adherents of the Mouride Brotherhood. The Baye Fall wear extremely colorful clothes. They also chant in a kind of trance music called Zikroullah, often at night. One morning I was awoken by Zikroullah chants around 3:30 am.

But more to the point, perhaps, outside of the domain of explicit festivals, is the presence of local creatives doing interesting, contemporary, hybrid things. 

Maï Diop, originally from France, runs a textiles shop and studio called Tësss – the name means “beautiful” in Wolof. After thoroughly researching the textile traditions of the Casamance region, tracing them back to centuries-old Portuguese influences, she works with a small team of craftswomen to breathe new life into an old practice.

And there’s the incredibly beautiful guesthouse Au fil du Fleuve to contend with, a perfect synthesis of Senegalese and French traditions designed with care by its owner, Marie-Caroline Camara. Rather appropriately, Camara is herself of mixed French and Senegalese background. She commissioned a refurbishment of an old family residence that also served as an Arabic gum store. Observing local traditions, the courtyard is made of sand. Much of the furniture and other furnishings were made by local artisans. Staffan at waaw told me about the guesthouse’s breakfasts in glowing terms, and they were indeed pretty amazing. The local offerings included millet porridge, vegetables, fresh juices, goat’s cheese, tamarind, hibiscus, and some delicate fruit jams. I decamped from waaw for two nights for the high design and the exquisite breakfasts. 

Next to Au fil du Fleuve is another great example of Saint-Louis’ hybrid creativity, which takes the form of Meissa Fall’s small, densely packed studio. Fall’s studio has two functions. He repairs bicycles and he creates sculptures out of old bicycle parts – some of faces; others of bodies; yet others of objects that resemble toys. Some of these sculptures are strewn about the neighbourhood and others are on display at his studio, where sculptures, bicycle parts, and scrap cover the walls. The resultant products provide a master example of upcycling and reuse.

The city’s municipal market, located just over the elegant Faidherbe Bridge in Sor, sells more traditional things. It is a riveting, intense place. In terms of general intensity, however, it doesn’t hold a candle to Guet N’Dar, the incredibly crowded, infrastructure-poor fisherman’s town on the barrier island parallel to Saint-Louis. 

A fantastic guide named Birame Seck provided a thoughtful tour of the fisherman’s village. The main issues in the town are overpopulation and erosion. There are some thirty thousand residents of the island, the vast majority under 10 years of age. The local fishing culture keeps families tethered to the island despite the fact that its erosion is transpiring so quickly that its effects can be observed from year to year.

Guet N’Dar is lively and youthful. Even its tiny passageways are crowded. Crossing back into Saint-Louis after the tour, the streets seemed empty, their elegant European grid somehow inappropriately wide. 

For more inforamation on waaw click here


 

By Alex Robertson Textor