Outside Maddy’s shop, a boutique that sells everything from butter to attachable hair weave, hungry locals and visitors sit awaiting Awa’s delicious food. She has spent all morning preparing fish and drawing the shiny red oil from palm nuts to make stew and now, as night falls, she is sharpening her kitchen knife on the stone wall outside. It may take up to an hour for her to arrive with food, but when it does you understand why you’ve bothered to wait at all.
In her small shop and with the help of women from the village, she prepares fresh mayonnaise, fried aubergine slices, delectable crudités and hot fries, each lovingly peeled, sliced and fried and laid in symmetry around the plate. She sends a girl next door to Maddy’s shop for a baguette, baked in the open fire further up in the village, and comes to find the customer who may have wandered off to play Maddy’s kora or gotten involved in lengthy negotiations over a piece of batik made by one of the artists in this village by the sea.
All of this is done by candlelight. There’s no electricity in Abéné and although each year they say it’s coming, it seems a far-off event. The village is on the coast of Casamance, in tropical southern Senegal. Casamance has been in the press because of its civil war, a fight between separatists from the Joola ethnic group and the government. But in January 2005 peace accords were signed by the groups, a promise by the government to invest in the region (whose roads, any traveler will testify, have been neglected for too long) and an agreement by the separatists to turn in the rest of their weapons. Some locals will tell you there hasn’t been any evidence of fighting for the last two years and people are optimistic that they’ve seen the last of the troubles in the region.
The Abéné festival was unaffected by the struggle and has been running smoothly since the first edition in 1993. It was started by a visiting European and was soon handed over to Abéné’s youth committee, an organization set up by young people themselves to unite the diverse groups of the village’s multi-cultural population. The committee organizes sport and music events, anything to keep young people entertained and open to cultural exchange.
Each year, committee members travel around the region visiting dance and music groups, finding performers for next year’s festival, those they feel are developing something new while representing their culture. At the end of the festival, the profits go to the elderly, the uneducated and the sick of the village.
The festival is a community at work, with women from the village helping to clean the stage during the day, guesthouse owners giving over rooms for reduced rates to artists, and women like Awa setting up cafés to nourish hungry visitors.
The Casamance region is a dominated by its river, stretching from the capital Ziguinchor (pronounced Zig-an-shore) to the sea. The low-lying region is cut with waterways, lagoons and creeks and is green with mangroves and palm forests. The road from Abéné to Ziguinchor takes you through this fertile landscape, crossing rickety wooden bridges (one fondly named the balafon bridge by locals because of its uncanny resemblance to the west African wooden xylophone), passing two-story mud houses unique to the area, and across mudflats into Casamance’s capital city.
Ziguinchor is a tranquil city, feeling more like a village when compared to Dakar’s enormous sprawling mass, and is a friendly place to stay while deciding where to go next. Musically it’s the most exciting place in Senegal and when I told a friend from Dakar where I was headed, he said, "Now you’re going to hear music."
There are nightclubs dotted around the city, small bars with sloping roofs where local bands play throughout the week, proving that the Senegalese passion for real music performed by real people is far from dead. In
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Places to Stay
Les Belles Etioles, at the end of a sandy track leading off the main road that runs through Abéné, is an excellent family-run guesthouse. This collection of round houses is set within beautiful gardens and run by very friendly staff. A double room with bathroom and running water (pumped, so be resourceful!) and breakfast will cost $27 for two people sharing. Call Lamine on +221 522 64 76, but remember that mobile phone connection here is erratic. Turning up on the day is fine.
A bit more up-market, Le Kossey spills onto the beach. Full board is $61 for two people. +221 936 96 58
From Senegal’s capital, Dakar, Air Senegal (www.air-senegal-international.com) flies daily to Ziguinchor for $114 return. The flight takes one hour. From Ziguinchor gare routier, seven-seater shared taxis, run to Abéné or nearby Kafountine and back every day, taking up to three hours. Allow plenty of waiting time.
Alternatively, fly direct to the Gambia (Banjul) and take a taxi from the airport over the border to Abéné, crossing at Seleti. The drive is 50km.
Places to Eat
Apart from Awa’s café and a couple of other tanganas (literally “hot places”), guesthouses are the places to find food. At Les Belles Etoiles, the staff will cook fresh fish and rice for $4.50, often in a spicy sauce. There is a fish market at Kafountine where the daily catch is sold and a market where vegetables and fruit are sold.