From the waterways of Sine du Saloum to the jungle-merged town of Oussouye, Muslims and Christians in Senegal live peacefully side by side – their lives are woven together like interlocking trees. Darren Loucaides journeys through the country to meet the locals for whom “tolerance is the order of the day”.
The sound of oysters clacking open is the only thing to dent the silence as I enter a dense mangrove forest. Minutes later, flamingos take to the skies before me in a vast pink flurry.
Every turn our traditional wooden pirogue takes down the waterways of Sine du Saloum, something wondrous waits around the corner. And yet the most amazing thing in this UNESCO-protected corner of Senegal isn’t the nature. It’s the people.
After parking our boat on the beach of a small palm-fringed island called Mar Lodj, my guide Ahmed and I embark across the soft, damp sands towards a makeshift shelter.
Shaded from the sun, half a dozen women wearing bright fabrics sit making bracelets and necklaces. Greeting us with ear-to-ear smiles, they proceed to show me their wares – wooden sculptures, woven baskets and clothing.
While the women here work together daily and all wear traditional Senegalese clothes, there is something that differentiates them.
One of them, Marie, who is something of a polyglot and keen to tell me about each of her loved ones living in Europe, gestures warmly at a couple of the women: “Those two are Muslim,” she says. “The rest of us are Christian. No problem,” she grins.
Ahmed explains that Christians and Muslims live side by side on the islet of Mar Lodj, near Ndangane. “You can tell which is which by whether they have goats or pigs,” he says, as we wander the village.
A young local in his early twenties, Ahmed seemed shy as he drove us down the myriad rivers, but now his pride in his country’s religious harmony is stirring him into life. He shows me inside a 20-year-old fuchsia-coloured church. A few steps away we encounter a mosque.
We come at last to a mighty tree that provides some welcome shade from the searing African sun. Looking closer, I realise it’s actually two trees whose trunks and branches have wound round each other in an inseparable embrace.
“The trees have become one,” says Ahmed, who is Muslim, meshing his hands together as though praying. “They live together. Like the Christians and Muslims here, as one.”
While, elsewhere, the idea that Christian and Muslim communities can’t get on is perpetuated, the two largest religious groups in Senegal co-exist peacefully. Compared to nearby countries such as Mali and Nigeria, religious harmony reigns here.
Islam has existed in modern-day Senegal for a thousand years, while Christian missionaries started to have an impact largely in the south in the 19th century. French colonialism also led to Christian converts. Although the vast majority of Senegalese call themselves Christian or Muslim, animist beliefs also live on, often fused with Christian and Muslim teachings.
In this pool of religious fluidity, Christians and Muslims invite each other to religious celebrations and intermarry. The first president of Senegal was Catholic, while Christian holy days are observed along with Muslim holidays, and middle-class Muslims often attend Christian schools.
Most importantly, the Senegalese are proud of their unity. “We are one together,” says Ahmed. And it’s not the last time I’ll hear this.
Besides religious diversity, Senegal boasts more than a dozen ethnic groups, each with their own languages. Remarkably, they nearly always get on.
In the 1980s, a separatist conflict in the southern Casamance region scared off tourists, but there has been little violence in years and rebels sued for a peace deal in 2014.
Western foreign offices have since lifted their travel warnings on the region.
Keen to see the now peaceful Casamance, I spend a day wading through the Gambia to reach the town of Abene on the other side.
The inhabitants of this area are largely Muslim. Khady Mane, owner of jungle retreat-cum-B&B, The Little Baobab, attends mosque every Friday, and a deep-rumbling adhan can be heard near her lodgings in the mornings.
But Khady also cherishes her people’s pre-Islamic traditions. Her young sons wear all manner of necklaces and charms “to ward off evil spirits”, she says. She sees no contradiction in this – tolerance is the order of the day here.
Soon after my arrival, Khady is keen to show me Abene’s sacred tree. In a land free of skyscrapers and grand monuments, trees tend to be the principal landmarks, and I’m coming to realise that they hold huge significance for the Senegalese.
The Abene tree turns out to be colossal, twice the size of the one on Mar Lodje. The resident expert Amdou, a tall man with long dreadlocks, claims it’s not only a thousand years old, but the biggest in Senegal.
As in Mar Lodje, I realise that this isn’t just one tree – in fact, there are six coiled together. Amdou considers it a symbol of the different ethnic groups in Senegal, which include the Diola, Mandinka and Wolof.
“Like the tree, it’s the same for us Senegalese,” Ahmed tells me, resting his palm on the bark. “The different trees grow together, support each other.”
Interestingly, the tree is considered sacred mostly for pre-Islamic reasons. Sufi mystics still come here to perform ceremonies. “A woman who wants a baby can wash here, and it will bring her fortune,” Amdou offers by way of example.
My journey leads deeper into the Casamance, to the jungle-merged town of Oussouye, home of the animist Diola king. Although the biggest town in southern Casamance, it’s almost overrun by nature, just a few dusty, dirt track plunging through dense trees and vegetation.
When temperatures cool a little one afternoon, I join “Carlos” for a tour of several jungle villages scattered through Oussouye’s bush.
He isn’t really called Carlos, but he has adopted the name for his work. The affable local-born man speaks more than half a dozen languages, including French, Spanish, English and several Senegalese tongues.
He takes me on a scintillating trek, brimming with rare birds, fruits and all kinds of trees – palms, ceibas, mango and almond trees to name a few. Meanwhile, children chase us down the winding tracks, demanding sweets.
In the tiny village of Edioungou, we admire its famous pottery, which is made from silt collected from a nearby river. Another village we stop in is known for finely crafted wooden sculptures, largely depicting small birds and other animals.
Carlos, who himself is Christian, tells me that these villages are mostly Catholic, but suggests that the people’s beliefs are really animist with a gloss of Christianity.
Case in point, the “fetishes”. Each village has a formidable looking “fetish”, a kind of altar with horns jutting above and adorned with various shells. Carlos says these are used for ceremonies such as baptisms, as well as marriages, and deaths.
In one village, he takes me to a small hut to show me a hollow tree trunk sitting inside, a kind of giant tom-tom. It’s sacred and we’re not allowed to touch it. Later we come across another, less sacred tom-tom and Carlos gives me a drumstick to pelt it with.
The lightest of touches sends booming sounds echoing through the jungle – Carlos says they can be heard up to 7km away. “That’s enough,” he says, as my beats grow more enthusiastic. “You can’t play it too much or the people will think it is something urgent.”
Finally we come to the centrepiece of Carlos’ tour. You guessed it – a tree. This time the ceiba is solitary, but the centuries-old behemoth is impressive nonetheless.
Banging on the trunk of this tree produces a thunderous sound louder than the tom-toms. In the past this was used to warn of invading enemies. “It is hollow inside, so women and children would be put in there,” Carlos explains. “Because the tree is sacred, no one would harm them.”
Thankfully, the tree hasn’t been used in such a way for a long time. And despite the Casamance conflict still being fresh in some memories, I’m left awestruck by how the many different ethnic groups and religious beliefs co-exist in Senegal. Muslim, Christian, no problem.
Images top to bottom (left–right): Hector Conesa/123rf; Eitan Simanor/Alamy; Yoann Gauthier/Flickr; Tom Burke/Flickr; Mireia Saenz de Buruaga/Flickr; Juan Falque/Flickr; Barbara Durand/Flickr; Yoann Gauthier/Flickr