If you are the type of person who is ill at ease in a crowd, you may react to the Senegalese intercity transport system the same way you react to going into a skid.
"Where are you going?" comes in a chorus as two or three sets of hands struggle to help you with your bags. A salesman in a caftan-like robe called a "boubou" and a wool cap pushes forward with two handfuls of merchandise: a coat hangar draped with six pastel shades of women's panties and a wide-toothed comb from which dangle lengths of gold chain. Other salesmen, their wares in their hands or perched on their heads, crowd around. You can buy a radio, a watch, cookies, combs, bras and an assortment of fruit. Depending on the season, there are mangoes, guavas, pineapples, coconuts, oranges, and the national crop, peanuts, a handful of which costs only about a nickel.
In this West African country on the Atlantic Ocean, any place where more than a dozen people pass is likely to turn into a makeshift marketplace. In the dusty open yard where people wait for buses -- Renault station wagons and pick-ups to which the generic "bush taxi" is applied -- there's a vendor's haven under towering baobob trees.
A friend and I waited 45 minutes before the pick-up reached its 15-person limit and pulled out from Ziguinchor, the largest city in southern Senegal, about 200 miles south of Dakar, the capital. The station has no schedules. The bush taxi departs when it is full. (Later, we learned that there are no expresses -- the taxi may stop for a passenger who wants a kilo of meat from a roadside butcher's stand, for instance -- -- and customers may have to help push to get the engine started.)
We were on our way to visit a village "campement," part of the government's program of cross-cultural tourism. Instead of offering visitors a view of Africa from a European-style hotel, complete with pool and tennis courts, the idea is to receive tourists in huts within the villages. The cost is inexpensive -- $15 per person will cover lodging and two meals -- and the villages keep the profits.
Last year one of the seven participating villages earned more than $12,000, a significant sum in a country where the average annual income is $465 per person. The program has become so successful that the Senegalese newspaper now talks about the need to limit the number of campements in order to "avoid saturation of the region" of Casamance, which is where the program is based.
Our first stop was Diembering, a village of Diola, one of Senegal's five main ethnic groups, on the country's west coast.
The trip covered about 50 miles, and it was not long until we discovered that beneath the gentle anarchy of the bus station lay an unexpected system of pleasure. Public transport here is not the shortest distance between private enterprise and private dwelling. It is a saunter through common terrain; an hour or two for people who, enjoying human contact, take a question not as an imposition but as an invitation to "waxtan" -- the local word for discussion.
The Senegalese spirit is a hybrid of raconteur and biblical exegetis, and in the back of the pick-up exaggerated tales are interwoven with minute analysis. The stranger's participation is welcome and, in fact, it seems particularly important for a Senegalese to make himself understood to the newcomer. All that is needed is a rudimentary knowledge of French. The Senegalese, proud of his hospitality, often boasts that a stranger could knock on any door in any village and be welcomed, fed and lodged.
Diembering at night -- we arrived at about 8 after a two-hour ride -- is dark; there is no electricity. A woman from the taxi, whom we only knew as "mere," a name of respect for all older women, led us up sandy trails under huge fromager trees. The night was alive with the cries of animals. (The best introduction to why Africans scoff at a westerner's separation of the visible and invisible worlds is perhaps to walk through the African night not sure of where you are going.) We were looking for Chez Edouard, one of two campements in the village. You can make reservations, but after living six months in Dakar, we had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get out of the city of one million people. (A bush taxi had taken us to Ziguinchor, across the Gambia River, in six hours.)
Edouard greeted us. There were "rooms" available. He showed us to one of eight compartments in a circular hut made out of sandy brick with a straw roof. We had two foam rubber mattresses on bamboo frames, a lantern for light and two mosquito nets (whicch were necessary). There was a bathroom just outside the hut, and the shower worked after several guests threatened not to pay unless they got a shower.
We had missed dinner. But a little patience (they seemed confused at first by our request), a little waxtan (a first "no" hardly ever means "no") and a little homemade palm wine (Edouard handed us the strong-smelling stuff) seemed to break the ice. The cook, a bare-chested woman, fixed us an omelet.
The next day we walked about one-quarter mile to the beach: long and flat, it gives the feeling of vast space. We were the only sunbathers. Down the beach a fishing boat, a hand-made dugout called a pirogue, had just come ashore. Several dozen villagers gathered to hear the news: the gondola-shaped boat had been sacked by a wave and half the catch had been lost.
Francois, a 17-year-old, told us -- in a village-learned explanation curiously filtered through a school-learned vocabulary -- that "it appears" the whales agitate the water and create the waves. A sacrifice is needed to calm them, he said.
The list of campements still to visit was long, but we decided to stay in Diembering an extra day. It was the best decision we could have made. When you slow down even a little from the rhythm of the tourist to something closer to the village pace of herding and cultivating, you are permitted a more revealing approach.
Even a second or third day in the village affords an opportunity for sorting out the onslaught of new sights, a moment or two for possible friendship. What we discovered was that the village was not a place of exotic folklore but a peasant society whose temperament has been molded by a lack of crime and a social organization that gives a member a place not only in the family but in the community. Villagers made an assumption of trust, turning the visitor not into an invader but into a window on the larger world. People wanted to know about New York and Reagan and our opinions on Dakar and their president.
Leopold Sedar Senghor, the former president and poet of Senegal (who, if he preesided over the country's economic ruin, should still be praised for the atmosphere of tolerance he instilled), always referred to his village as "the kingdom of childhood." It is easy to see why. While men in boubous sit in groups drinking tea and playing checkers and women crisscross with infants tied onto their backs, the children share the sandy lanes with stray goats and pigs, inventing games. With no inculcated reticence toward the stranger, everyone is a potential playmate.
A sitting tourist may find his lap claimed by a village child, just as a dangling hand is likely to be taken for the pleasure of keeping you company. Their hospitality is particitory. They want to show you how they live, not just rent you a place to stay.
At the Catholic Church, the tallest structure in the village of 6,000 Muslims, Catholics and animists, we met Ambroise, 14. He tends the priest's garden and, in return, is housed, fed and sent to the Catholic school which, unlike the village's public school, costs about $25 a year. Ambroise, who studies at night by latern, has never been to movie. He took us on a tour.
Following the winding paths past the sturdy brick and mud huts, we saw the maternity clinic, run by Catholic nuns, the mat-weaving shop, the soccer field. The village is not wealthy -- there is no concept of accumulation and thus no possibility of surplus here. But there is a congenial quality of ease. It is not like Dakar with its extremes of balconied high-rise units (which cost more monthly than a Senegalese earns in an average year) and its shacks of salvaged aluminum and cardboard.
Staying in Diembering, we moved from Chez Edouard at the top of the hill to Chez Charles at the bottom. The prices are the same, Edouard's is more scenic; Charles' better equipped for the tourist. At Chez Charles you can take a ride in a small pirogue through the inland waterways, reminiscent of backways of the Florida Everglades. (The alligator is now extinct here, however.) Charles arranges through a local hotel for a night of folk dancing for tourists.
The dance might be dismissed as nothing more than cross-cultural gluttony, with camera bugs snapping away at staged enthusiasm. But for the villagers dancing is a true pleasure, something they do for themselves, not tourists. This is not the period in the summer months when they work 12 hours a day in the quarter-acres of rice and are too tired for night activity.
The young girls dominate the dancing, shooting out of the semi-circle of clapping hands. Knees kicking and bare feet flying with the speed of oil shooting off a scalding pan, the drum leads them for a minute and then they dissolve back into the crowd. The villagers chant "CASAMANCE," the name the Portuguese gave to their region in the 15th century. A man enters the center and, to shouts and laughter, does a heavy-stepped caricature of the female dance. A woman, baby wrapped on her back, enters in retort, insisting on the correct appreciation of the steps. This is a high-stepping dialogue, a rhythmic conversation, punctuated by shouts and singing.
The next day we left Diembering. We took a 24-seat camper bus that would head us toward Zinguinchor on what will someday be a four-lane highway, a prospect which does not augur well for the virgin beaches. We wanted to get on to Elinkine, a smaller campement where one can stroll alongside the mangroves and eat fresh oysters grilled on a branch over a small fire; and to Enampore, where a specially constructed roof collects rainwater inside the hut; and to Karabane, a small Catholic island surrounded by beach which you can only get to by pirogue.
Ambroise came to say goodbye. He asked us if we couldn't help him buy a pair of shoes to replace the torn plastic sandals he had. A visitor is often asked for a "cadeau" and can feel he is being hustled for a handout, but Ambroise was not looking for an easy mark. We offered him what we had -- a shirt, a pair of sunglasses, a pen and socks.
Ambroise was thankful but subdued, then he hurried to show his gratitude properly. He signaled a younger cousin, who climbed one of the many palm trees that ring the village, wrapping his legs around the trunk. He threw down a half dozen plump coconuts, which Ambroise expertly worked on with a long knife. He broke off the top of one and offered up the juice. (We recalled how earlier Ambroise had said he liked the village because, if you were hungry, there was something to eat and you didn't need money. For villagers, who have long lived without monetary relatins, it seems money will always be associated with deprivation, not abundance.) It was a wonderful "thank you." We exchanged addresses. He said he hoped to come to Dakar and we promised to take him to a movie.
For the traveler who wants to see Africa, but not on the guided tour circuit, the campement is a reasonably priced middle road. The accomodations are not luxurious, but they are sturdy and clean and with a limit of about 20 guests they remain personal. The meals are adequate, mainly local foods, rice and (always fresh) fish.
You need only a yellow fever shot to enter the country. To avoid any problems, you should probably not drink the water and have a doctor prescribe an anti-malarial medication before you leave the United States.
For a break from the village circuit, there are several hotels of good quality. La Pailotte down the road from Diembering has a spectacular overlook of the ocean, good dinners ($25 for two) and an air-conditioned bungalow ($30 double). In Ziguinchor, the Hotel Aubert has poolside dinning and is in the same price range. The Aubert can make your reservations at the Paillotte.
Pan Am, Air France and Air Afrique service Dakar from New York and excursion fares are available. A stop in Dakr will permit you to see this charming, modern city as well as Goree, a beautiful, car-less island with a tragic history of slave-trading, 15 minutes from the capital. Information on Senegal can be obtained from the Senegal Tourist Office, 200 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.
The campement may not be the way you always want to travel, but in Senegal it is the best way to enjoy the country's natural beauty and its people.