It was at an Outback Tourism conference in Lightning Ridge, of all places, that I met two West African brothers and musicians, now living and working in Australia, and my mind immediately began formulating just how I could incorporate their next workshop in their home village of Senegal into my 2011 African Adventure – a summit attempt of Mt Kilimanjaro followed by a safari through some of Tanzania's best known wildlife sanctuaries.
This workshop turned out to be the most amazing, unique holiday – a journey I would never have even considered without that chance meeting. Experiencing the vibrancy and warm traditions of Senegal and their ancient culture and living amongst the Griot (the keepers of tradition through music and storytelling) Mbaye family ensured I was treated as a guest, not a tourist ... sharing village life with the family and their friends including mealtimes, everyday rituals and mystical cultural ceremonies not normally witnessed by westerners.
Africans move to an inner rhythm that cannot be truly understood without experiencing their music, drumming and dancing... and that is exactly what this 2 week workshop was all about. I joined 4 other Aussies, taking lessons in drum (sabar, djembe and tama), African dance (Sabar and Djembe) and traditional cooking, living in the seaside fishing village of Yoff, on the western most tip of the African continent.
History came to life when visiting the now beautiful and serene tiny Isle of Goree, 3km off the coast of Dakar, but beneath its quaint façade the island hides a brutal history. Wandering through the House of Slaves, staring out the 'door of no return' and imagining the horrors from within these walls when, from the 15th to the 19th century it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast, gave me goose bumps. Ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French, its architecture is characterized by the contrast between the grim slave-quarters and the elegant houses of the slave traders.
We experienced many traditional spiritual healing ceremonies (Voodoo is firmly entrenched in the West African way of life) and I privately participated in a ritual to promote health and vitality and another, which involved painting intricate henna patterns on the soles of my feet, to ward off knee problems whilst climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. My knees had given me grief on the Kokoda track but caused no problems at all on Mt Kili. Whether it was the fetish or the knee bandages I'm unsure.... But it worked!!
Integrated into village life, we lived (very simply) amongst welcoming, good-humoured, friendly and hospitable people... people who, despite living in poverty, are always smiling... and we attended some of the best street parties I've ever seen! Drumming, dancing, singing and socialising cost nothing and they were a nightly occurrence. The dusty, sandy streets and alleys became venues for simba parties, saba parties, weddings and any manner of excuse to gather and pass the time.
Being a fishing village we naturally ate fish, always accompanied by rice (and vegetables if they could be afforded) for almost every meal, squatting on the ground around an enormous dish – laughing, chatting and sharing the same meal. I can still recall the utter sense of loneliness I felt on arriving into Tanzania after a fortnight in Senegal, having modern conveniences such as a bed, flushing toilet, shower and meals served at a table with a knife and fork. I almost cried and so missed the companionship of a West African meal.
French is the official language in Senegal, but in reality less than 10% of the population speak it correctly – so the fact that I didn't get past lesson 4 of my CD's in the months before the trip didn't matter. My Wolof (the local dialect) improved as the days passed, but I constantly carried a pen and notebook, making notes as I went... and having to refer to them to communicate!
I loved the challenge of having to make myself understood, in a village that rarely saw Toubabs (white people,)and apart from Jerejeff- thankyou, salaam malekuim - peace be with you, Ana Pape ak Thiass (where are Pape and Thiass, the English speaking brothers!!) and nyarta lay jar – how much?... my most used phrase was Umna djecker....I have a husband!
It's hard to describe just what it was about this trip that so touched my heart. I had read that people go to Africa because of the animals and return because of the people ... and I guess, in essence, that was it. Totally.