Imagine if you will a garden stretching far and wide with every tropical plant and tree you can think of, plus a hammock in a shaded area, two traditional straw-roofed hut buildings and an open kitchen with its own straw roof cover with a huge well to its right hand side: this is The Little Baobab in Abene. Simon and I had arrived and he was showing me around his home. I was amazed. I’d never seen baby avocado and pineapple trees nor a baby baobab tree growing either. I saw real aloe vera as opposed to the pictures you see on moisturising bottles. There were plants and trees all in different stages of growth and the bright greens and orange earth mixed with all the living colours were a dream for my eyes. I was fascinated and I was happy that I’d chosen to make the journey here. I dropped my bags where I was staying in the guest cottage which was beautiful in its construction alone. Inside you could look up at the elaborate wooden beam web ceiling that the straw was neatly packed into, the floor was tiled and lead to a separate wash room to the left and toilet to the right. All of this had been achieved by the labour of Simon, his partner Khady and their extended Senegalese family in the Casamance.
This was the perfect environment to stretch my legs after hours and hours of scrunched up sept-places travel and I spent a little while just walking, looking and breathing: taking it all in. I heard a voice call out, it was Khady who welcomed me over and introduced me to her sister Mimi and Ibbo and Wachibba, who hailed from the Gambia and now worked at the ‘Little Boabab’, here was a real sense of family, I’d been hoping for that and I wasn’t disappointed. Simon and Khady have a son, the adorable toddler, Gulliver. Gulliver provides a lot of the entertainment here. There are also two dogs Banji and Mango and a friends dog Tutti who they were looking after. Tutti, whether I liked it or not became my special friend. He would trail round my feet and would wait outside the hut I was staying in until I woke in the morning. Tutti also didn’t like it if we went anywhere without him. If we took off in Simon’s jeep ‘Kermit’ we’d hear his yapping and then see his face appear in the car mirrors jumping alongside the vehicle. Tutti even ended up coming to the Reggae party in Abene on Wednesday night. There we were chilling, chatting and dancing and Tutti appeared yapping and running around people’s feet, funny little dog!
The first afternoon after eating some delicious Diola rice (rice with peanuts, beans and palm oil) we walked to the beach with the family. We walked through rice fields with huge palm trees dotted around within them and bushy mango trees covering the roadsides. A lady working the rice fields spotted my camera around my neck and beckoned out for me to take her photograph, which was a nice surprise and of course I happily complied. We wove our way around the red orange mud and water of the narrow road dips with green vegetation either side until we reached the opening of the wide, sand main road in Abene. To the left was the beach and to the right the tiny market which only had what small offerings were available that day. Unless you went to the bigger resort of Kafountine then you were limited as to what you could eat, somedays meat and fish weren’t available . The main road is wide with rows of small concrete shops and bars with corrugated iron roves lining it all the way up and down. Here is where the life is. Sounds of reggae filled the air and different waves drifted in and out as we passed various different radios and sound systems. Sat outside the stores were Rastafari with dreads, hats and red, gold and green embellished clothing. Everyone had a wave and a smile and everyone knew Simon. They all cried out his name ‘Simon, Simon!’ before raising a hand in salute. Such a good vibe in this place and very, very relaxed. I think Abene has its own source of ‘Jamm’. The shops became sparser in their layout as the road got sandier as we approached the beach. Babacar, an Abene Rastafari approached me and told me about his shop, we walked with me and talked. He told me I was most welcome and wished me a good day ending the conversation with the words ‘Luvvly jubbly’ said with an Abene twang. ‘Luvvly jubbly’? Where did he get this phrase from? It made me chuckle. Apparently his Dad had taught him the phrase, I loved it. It endeared me towards Babacar and I walked on still smiling muttering ‘luvvly jubbly’ under my breath.
There is an interesting amalgamation of cultures and religion here. Babacar wore a picture of Serigne Fallou, the son of Cheikh Amadou Bamba around his neck. Some Abene Rastafari also wore pictures of Serignes’ they worshipped around their necks, and they all knew my Senegalese name of Mame Diarra. Many greeted me with the Baye Fall salute of pressing the hand to each other’s foreheads. So, many people here were also Muride. It is true that both Rastafari and the Baye Fall dress similarly with long dreads and share certain ways of dressing and style. I wondered what other links there were? Both Rastafari and Baye Fall are spiritual and it felt natural here in Abene. There is a special sense of unity without boundary. There is acceptance and everything exists in its own right defying the need or possibility of labelling or defining. I was curious and I asked the questions to myself but could not define; the irony for me. So the reggae plays and the people are united by the mystic. I think also of how amazing it would be if Cheikh Amadou Bamba and King Haile Selassie were to meet. Here in Abene, a small village in Casamance, Senegal, West Africa, could this be petit Zion?
I was in for a treat when I reached the beach. Yes, the beach was picture postcard perfect and the late afternoon sun cast golden light on the waves. I ran straight for the sea. The sea was so warm that you could bob there for a while and float. I washed the previous days’ journey away with the warmth of the water and the sun on my cheeks and forehead. The beginning of sunset was coming and still the air was warm. The treat came when I walked up to the nearby beach bar and Simon introduced me to Ibbey, the beach bar owner. Ibbey has the biggest of smiles with huge greying dreads and a big heart to match. I also met Ibbeys friend Karimou from the Gambia. Karimou spoke no French but English and Diola, Wolof and other local languages. He had a huge bushy beard and a charming chilled vibe. They were a great team and double act. Over the next few days they’d disarm me with their generosity, friendship and personalities. They were true gems and I felt lucky to have met them. Thy asked if I was going to the weekly reggae party in town, I said I was and we all arranged to meet.
Simon drove us all to the reggae party that night in the jeep. We went with the whole family and I was really looking forward to it. The reggae night is run by a Swiss reggae D.J who has decided to make Abene his home, and why not? This place is just so inviting and chilled and full of love. I met Ibbey and Karimou who were already dancing. Ibbey had a flask of what I think was palm wine and when he came over and greeted me, full of exuberance, I got a hit of heady sweet tropical diesel fumes from his breath. That stuff was Strong! Simon had warned me about palm wine in this period. At the end of the rainy season the wine is not so good to drink it just becomes very strong and alcoholic without the pleasant flavour. Karimou invited me to try the local drink – he wanted to go and buy some from the local store. It was a nice thought but I declined this time. Karimou was enjoying the tunes and the tunes were indeed good. He was reiterating the lyrics in my ear. He was solemn yet uplifting in his words and genuine in his questions ‘You feel o’ight? You feel Good?’ At the reggae party, everyone wants you to have a good time and they are so sincere through their body language and what they were saying, on many occasions I recall being told that I am ‘most welcome’ and not in a resigned or forced way but with a hug and a relaxed and open smile. I felt like I could be myself and I let my body do the talking with the moves and the songs along to reggae beats. Ibbey was doing some sort of head bang throwing his dreads wildly and back with an awesome laugh, Karimou was gently rocking and quietly singing, every now and then stopping to talk to me about the lyrics. I also met Balla from the local group ‘Wakili’ who I would see in performance the next night. It was a great night with the Fenton/Diop family. When we tried to leave even Kermit resisted: the car battery had gone.
Kermit the jeep caused quite a commotion. The car wasn’t starting so Simon had asked a few friends to help him push the jeep to crank it back into power. This excited everyone and unfortunately for Simon, pretty much half the club seemed to have emptied, descended on Kermit and were trying to get involved pushing the vehicle. There was so much shouting ‘Simon do this, Simon do that’ I felt for Simon as he was getting plenty of ‘advice’ from random people, but he handled it really well. In hindsight it was pretty funny to see the jeep being run up and down the road with an entourage and a party of its own. Ibbey, who was already sailing two sheets to the wind had come out and tried to help too, being the kind person he is, but whilst pushing ended up falling face first, arms outstretched on the earthy, sandy road. I don’t think he noticed for a while but eventually he got up and eventually the jeep coughed and jumped into life. We all drove back in the darkness: Khady, Mimi, Gulliver, Ibbo, Bacary, Banji the dog with Simon at the wheel. This is the end of the rainy season in Casamance. Casamance is the mangrove region with lush vegetation and inlets and lakes and pools of water dotted around everywhere. So, in the rainy season the roads can become impassable and vehicles can get stuck, which is what happened to us only a short distance from home. The road was filled with a pool of water and once the jeep was stuck there it was extremely difficult to get out. It was pitch black outside save the bright moon in the sky, we could hear the loud, incredibly loud night chorus of the frogs and also the grasshoppers. The people in the back jumped out. Wachibba had heard the commotion from home as the engine revved and we tried to get the jeep up and out, he had come immediately to help us. Everyone tried hard to put planks of wood beneath the wheels and to dig to drain the water away in wellie boots and barefoot. We couldn’t budge Kermit so we decided we’d walk the last part of the journey home and leave the jeep there until morning.
I slept really well that night in my hut under a huge mosquito net, listening to the sounds of nature all around me. I felt really alive and I was looking forward to opening the door in the morning to see the little paradise again, drenched in sunlight with plants I’d never seen before. And I wondered what would happen tomorrow…