Before I came to Senegal, the only St. Louis I was familiar with was the one that houses The Arch as its feature tourist attraction and was the inspiration for a musical in which Judy Garland belts out, “Meet me in St.Louis, Louis, Meet me at the fair…” And don’t get me wrong, I love the city of St. Louis, Missouri. But I’m going to be honest, it ain’t got nothin’ on St. Louis, Senegal.
St. Louis is hauntingly beautiful in the way that, when you are there, it’s almost as if you blinked your eyes the wrong way and landed yourself in a European city that had been poorly taken care of. In the French colonial period, French colonists picked a seemingly perfect spot to build their city: on an island in the middle of the River Senegal. If you go to St. Louis today, natives and tourists alike can be found bustling across the brilliantly lit bridge between the mainland and the island. The bridge walk is a must, but be careful—it is also a favorite location for pickpockets. While Senegal has been independent for many years, the lingering aura of Europe is made even stronger by its island isolation.
As I wandered through the narrow streets that boasted French bakeries, upscale hotels, and everything from Moroccan to Italian cuisine, I couldn’t help but feel dreamily displaced. Even the hawkers were more subdued in their attempts to harangue me to their small stands of artwork and the talibe were less goggle-eyed at my pale skinned presence in their city.
What I appreciated most about St. Louis was the myriad of artisanal shops found throughout the city. The shops are crammed full with beadwork, brightly colored tapestries, hand woven fabric, leather work, and carvings. Far from my home in Kolda and freed of my usual desire to fit in with the locals, I reverted back to my American tourist self and bought a small leather purse, a beaded belt, and some traditional Pulaar fabric, known as leppi. Plus, I got to do one of the things I love most in the world: barter. If you are headed to Senegal, be prepared to barter for almost everything. There are places where bartering is inappropriate, but the artisanal village is definitely not one of them. After one extremely heated barter with a large, jolly woman draped in beautiful indigo fabric, I wiped the sweat off my forehead and shook hands to seal the deal.
She cracked a gap-toothed grin and spoke in broken English. “You,” she said, waggling a fat finger good-naturedly at me. “You know the peoples here.”
I shrugged. “I’ve been here a little while.”
She shook her head vigorously. “No! I hear you. You speak the Pul.”
I laughed. She must have heard me bartering with the Pulaar man who was her neighbor in the artisanal village.
She swept her arms out, giving her the look of a grand sorceress. “I give you a gift!” she cried, marching to the table stacked and draped with beads of every size and color.
I watched her select an amber bracelet from one of the nails on the wall.
“Thank you, Nee-nee,” I said respectfully, as she laid the bracelet into my open hand. This is what I love most about the Senegalese. It doesn’t matter if I am in my poor and tropical southern region of Kolda or on the northern tourist island of St. Louis, Senegalese are some of the friendliest and most-giving people I have ever met.
That night, decked out in my new belt, purse and bracelet, my friends and I hit the Iguana Bar for some drinks and dancing, just like any other night out with the girls in America. But the best part was that I wasn’t in America; I was in Africa. So come, come if you dare, and meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me in Senegal, West Africa.
Whitney Jenkins, raised a country girl on her family’s cattle ranch in Nebraska, has always had a taste for adventure. After graduating from Creighton University with a degree in creative writing, she joined the Peace Corps. Now she lives in Senegal and works with local farmers propagating fruit tree orchards as a way to make her local community more sustainable. Whitney’s talents include singing with her mouth closed, disturbingly accurate impersonations of Jay Leno, and finding the magic in every place she goes.
Photos by Michelangelo Lieberman