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The Sufi Muslims in Senegal have a strong belief in the importance of giving alms every day. It doesn’t have to be much, but at least a token offering to someone less well off than you. I have always believed that charity was a fundamental good. However, I know that the one thing that can change lives more than anything else is empowerment through dignified work.

Being here, I began to wonder if I would be a bad Muslim. Would I hand someone 500 CFA just because they ask? No — a banana, orange, or apple maybe, but cash, no. I’ve seen too many examples of how small change can corrupt and create a cycle of poverty that is unbreakable, especially for the children involved. Throughout my own life experience, I have only ever seen a handout (few extreme exceptions aside) disempower. An exchange, on the other hand, I have seen empower beyond measure. An exchange proves to both parties that they have something of worth to offer.

As I get ready to leave Senegal, I think about this as I realize how much I have collected here. My pack is suddenly bursting at the seams, filled with objects that I never knew I wanted. Necklaces and bracelets I will never wear spill out of new batik jewelry bags. Tie-dye fabrics need to be folded and refolded to fit properly into the remaining crevasses. Looking down at all of these items, most of which I know I paid too much for, I realize the joke is one me. Senegal’s sea of endless entrepreneurs has won me over. I didn’t think twice about the 5000 CFA piece of fabric, the 3000 CFA necklace, or a 2000 CFA contribution for a beach mat, because each time I exchanged money for goods, I gained a conversation and the seller gained resources and capacity.

I look down at my bag again, packed and so much heavier than it was when I got here. I take note and think, perhaps, in my own way, I actually have been giving alms all along.

The Casamance is unique in Senegal for its greenness. While most of the country lies within the arid Sahel region, the Casamance represents the end of the desert and beginning of the rainforest. Getting there requires a 9-hour sept-place ride around or through The Gambia or an overnight ferry ride down the coast. Needless to say, we went for the ferry.

My favorite moments on the ferry came during our ride back up to Dakar. Walking onto the back deck of the ferry, I decided on taking one of the only shady seats in the place. A 20’ by 30’ awning stretched out over the bar and 2 double-sided benches. From here I had the perfect viewing spot over the Ziguinchor port. I watched as goats roamed the pier, as ferry goers who had just passed through 6 armed check points to board the ship passed by a simple wire fence draped with laundry and offering a gaping hole out into the parking lot, and as the green cargo boat moored in front of us off loaded a free standing bath tub.

As the ferry began to fill, the bar under the awning became the place to be. Music played at such a level that ordering a soda resembled an interaction one might have at large nightclub in New York or London. Rain began to fall and the 300 people on the ferry rushed into the small space taking the only cover provided that wasn’t an interior cabin. The sound of the engines floated up adding to the excitement, and suddenly we were off. 300 people, one German ferry boat, and no goats (that I saw at least!) cruising away from the Casamance.

I have to begin this with a disclaimer – I am a sucker for pretty textiles. If there was ever a hotel that fed on that weakness it is the Siki Hotel in Saint Louis. Charming, spotlessly clean, and chocked full of gorgeous Western African batik fabrics (on the beds, the chairs, the lamps, and the walls), this place is a textile lover’s dream. Add to that a romantic setting, bright courtyard, super friendly service, and great restaurant and you just know it has to be favorite find. Next time, I am staying for a week!

Check out those pillows and that chair back – see what I mean about awesome textiles.

For you Anglophones out there, I have to clarify that “7 places” is not a metaphor for seven places I have been or seven places you should visit before you die, but is in fact a type of transport. A Peugot 505 to be precise — better know to the Senegalese as the best way to get around if you want to go long distances in the country.

The view from my back window. And yes, that goat is going on top of the car.

As an American, I don’t have much experience with Peugots so when I first read about this intriguing form of transport, I pictured in my mind a jeep-like vehicle that could comfortable fit 7 people and all their luggage. Needless to say, I was a little off.

Imagine instead a small station wagon, the trunk having been cut in half to allow for another row of seats. The driver is, of course in the front along with one lucky (this term is debatable considering that most of the 7-places have windshields so broken they look as if the smallest breeze might cause them to collapse completely into your lap) person sitting shotgun. Three people then go shoulder to shoulder in the middle, and the unfortunate remaining 3 (again debatable because you have to wait for all 7 places to fill before departing so these people have the shortest wait) people get to nuzzle into a tiny bench placed just high enough that anyone over 5’5” needs to slouch to keep their head out of the ceiling. (Luckily I am only 5’2”)

Add a goat, some creepy looking fruit (that is my official name for them), no A/C, and an immensely potholed road, and you have a cultural experience that everyone visiting Senegal must partake in at least once. Although, once might be enough.

Finally there, and it looks like the goat made it too.

A must do in Dakar is the Ile de Goree – a small, romantically crumbling island off the coast that is eerily charming considering its dark history. For hundreds of years this was a shipping point for the African slave trade in Western Africa. Africans would be brought from the interior to this island to be packed up and shipped off to the West as if they were salted fish or peanuts. An amazing percentage, as much as 50% (according to the island museum) of the people captured as slaves never made it to the auction blocks in West.

A part of my own family owned and used slaves before the American Civil War. Knowing this fact made me strangely apprehensive as I stepped off the boat and onto the island. It was as if I thought the people here would be able to sense my family’s history in the air around me.  As if I thought they might hold me responsible for something in a past that I am connected to but took no part in. What I didn’t realize is that the day had something else in store for me, something even more interesting than a discussion about family pasts.

A fire burning off the end of a pier as we wait for the ferry to arrive.

The day was wrapping up and we decided to walk back to pier to see about the 4.30pm ferryboat. Several friends in Dakar had commented on the precision and efficiency of the ferry system, so when we arrived at the pier and there was no boat, our assumption was that the boat had been early. As we sat along the beach, 6pm turned to 7pm and three supposed ferry times had passed. Masses of people were in the water swimming and a similar masses were piling onto the two piers to start bonfires of palm leaves and plastic chairs – “an offering for rain,” as it was described to me by a young lady selling jewelry. “Hmm,” I thought, “civil discontent turning into acid rain perhaps.”

Finally a little before 8pm, a boat appeared on the horizon. Hysteria ensued as the hundreds of people saw this as their only opportunity to get back to Dakar. The gates to the small pier were pushed open and people ran out to boat as if the history of this island made it an impossible place to pass the night.

So many people were pouring onto the pier that those on the boat had no way to get off. The small wobbly railings lining the pier shook and bent under the pressure of so many people. The pushing, shoving, and screaming were so intense that they could only be broken by the sudden burning sensation of pepper spray in the air. Everyone ran towards the beach and stones began flying through the air. We backed up behind the stone throwers, covered our faces with whatever we had, and watched the chaos unfold.

Now night and the overcrowded ferry gone, we sat again by beach wondering if we would be staying until tomorrow. I called my friend in Dakar to let her know we might not be back. As I described the scene, she was shocked. “I have never heard of that happening on Goree,” she said. “It is usually so quiet and calm.” I guess I have a way of bringing out the best in places.