Simon was born and educated near Oxford. At an early age he set off for Asia for several years, staying as far off the beaten track as possible and financing himself by teaching English & acting in Bollywood movies. Upon his return to the UK, he realised he far preferred off the beaten track to city life and went back to work as a farmer in Vietnam for four years. Eventually, however, the call of the not particularly wild was heard, and he returned once more, living in London & Brighton, setting up the award winning social enterprise StreetShine. One day, he woke up and said to himself ‘goodness, I forgot to cross the Sahara’. Reader, he crossed it and the rest is history. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Simon in Senegal.
This post was originally published in 2012. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Following personal upheavals in England, I journeyed across the Sahara, ending up in Senegal. Eighteen months on, I settled here with my partner Khady and our baby son, Gulliver. In June, we bought land in Abene, a coastal village to the south of the country. We’re building a house, which is the first step of a sustainable eco-lodge for tourists to enjoy the nature and culture.
I have four builders working to complete the house, which they told me would take a week, so I thought this would be an interesting week to describe my day-to-day life and the experience of developing a tourism business in Africa. It’s also Ramadan. I have joined in with the fast, to show solidarity and as an enforced detox. Not one of my better decisions, whilst doing physical work in a sauna.
Day 1: Monday
We live in a thatched round house ten minutes’ walk from our land. We wake about 7am. Khady’s of the Diola tribe and given the choice of a rational explanation and a magical one, they opt for the latter every time. The Diola won’t speak to anyone until they’ve washed their face, so after that, I light a fire to make coffee. I can give up food for Ramadan, but not coffee.
As I sat playing with Gulliver, Maiamoona (a local girl) came – her mother died and father remarried. The new wife doesn’t feed her, so she spends a lot of time with us. She said she’d seen our kitten, Jaifonday, who’d gone missing and presumed eaten but was now inside a hollow baobab full of bats and lizards.
Herein lay a problem. The Diola believe big trees are haunted by Genies, evil spirits. Following a recent fever, blamed on a genie, I’d made a promise to no longer visit big trees. Also, Khady said it may be a genie in disguise.
We have a hectare of jungle and have created a beautiful space, planting coconut, mango, orange and more. The builders had been making bricks, mixing mud from termite mounds with cement. They now had enough and the land was ready for blessing, where we sprinkled local medicine. The sun was setting as we finished and sat on a log, watching the sky turn purple. I thought about cold beer, but then remembered Ramadan.
That evening, Khady prepared maffe, a sauce made from peanuts and dried fish that looks like diarrhea but tastes better. During rainy season, there are thousands of insects at night, so we ate and watched a movie under a mosquito net.
Day 2: Tuesday
A rasta is building us a gate and arrived to take some measurements. Khady suggested painting it white, myself green, yellow and red – the reggae colours and those of the Senegalese flag. Everyone loved that idea.
We cleared a space perfect for our fireplace – somewhere to sit and play drums or just relax in the evenings. In the afternoon we went to the beach, resting at the shack of our friend Ibby. Jumping into the sea, Gulliver didn’t cry – it was so hot he was relieved.
Empty sands run for miles. I felt a tingling and saw a jellyfish. Gulliver was fine but for the next week I was covered in agonizingly itchy spots.
We ate fish and palm oil, a pungent red oil that causes diarrhea. Then we drank attaya, a tea drunk the same way across the Sahel. The process of making it takes a couple of hours and is a social experience that involves lots of pouring back and forth from impressive heights between shot glasses and the pot. I’ve only ever seen somebody miss once. That was me. The end result is a shot of green froth with enough sugar to make your teeth squeak. More water and sugar is added for a second brew; afterwards a third.
The first cup is strong and bitter, for death. The second cup is sweeter but still strong, for life. The third and final cup is very sweet and my favourite – for love.
Day 3: Wednesday
We’d arranged to meet Khady’s cousin Dembo in a nearby village. He’d negotiated straw for our roof. We were late, but he was later. “African time” said Khady as he arrived an hour late. We loaded the car roof and I stood covered in dust with rivers of sweat pouring through the dirt. Then the seller said it wasn’t ready for thatching and needed to be woven into bundles. We needed to unload it. Why was I the only person who seemed bothered?
Returning to the land I found a 2 meter snake skin that had been shed in the night.
Did I mention that the builder is blind and his house fell down in the rains last week? I’m a nice guy and like to give people a chance. Or maybe I’m crazy. But, he’s doing a fantastic job and has a great set of guys who are his eyes.
I went home to catch up on some writing – my income source at the moment. Distant rumbling got louder and as I looked towards the village I stared into a vast black tunnel with forks of lightening. Behind me was a glorious red sunset, lending a surreal edge to the occasion. Although it’s not yet raining every day, when it rains…it really rains.
Tonight we had…you’ve guessed it, rice and fish. Except Khady made me french fries which made me a happy toubab (white man).
Day 4: Thursday
After rain it is fresh with clear air. Then the sun arrives and it is as if somebody has taken a blanket, soaked it in boiling water, twisted it around and whacked you around the head.
We planted manioc, sweet potato and corn. Khady made holes with a stick, I chucked in the seeds and Maiamoona followed filling the holes.
Later I went for a walk through swamps that are normally dry. As I approached, the track turned into a river. Before long, I was up to my hips, hitching up my camera bag and hoping I wouldn’t slide in the mud. I then remembered being told me there were crocodiles here in the wet season. Only another 400 meters. Then I remembered bilharzia, a disease carried by snails and the reason you shouldn’t enter fresh water in Africa. Bilharzia starts off with a little blood in your urine. Then, after years with no symptoms, your liver and kidneys disintegrate and you die an agonizing death.
I walked back down the main street where it’s impossible for me to go two minutes without hearing my name and enquiries of family. It’s this sense of community that I love about life here.
I saw some Spanish tourists who always come in the rainy season. I last spoke to a Brit in May and have met only a handful here. Thirty miles to the north are the inferior beaches of the Gambia, with big hotels and English breakfasts at every roadside shack. Unlike Asia, there isn’t a mainstream backpacking route through West Africa. It’s adventurous and off the beaten track. My hope is that by providing an affordable but quality and safe experience, I’ll be able to attract people who want that adventure.
We don’t have refrigeration, so visit the market daily for fish. During the rain the fishermen don’t go out, so today we had spaghetti with tinned meat that I wasn’t consulted about. A meal without fish or meat is not a meal for the Senegalese.
Sometimes we drink bissap, a red hibiscus juice. Tonight, Khady gave me a bottle – bissap Anglais – red wine. I was exhausted from work, communication problems, snakes, tropical disease, Ramadan and other things. The Islamic builders were partial to a drop of bissap and soon we were blasting reggae, before I taught everyone to harmonize on “a wimbowey” whilst singing “in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.
Day 5: Friday
This morning we were gutted. The seeds we’d planted yesterday had been eaten by squirrels. After a morning of labour under a hot sun, I had a siesta, then visited the nearest town, Kafountine. The road is terrible and it takes 30 minutes for 7km. I went to the internet cafe and Khady to the market to buy vegetables.
We checked the progress of the land paperwork. Earlier, I’d been given a tax bill for $500, which should be paid by the seller. This seller is an influential guy who told me it was just “monkey business”. After a call, the bill was discarded and we collected the papers.
Later, we saw a garish green chameleon. Khady whipped out a breast and squirted milk at it. She laughed and said if she didn’t do that, Gulliver would get skinny and look like a lizard.
“You know that baby we saw that looked like a gecko? The mother didn’t offer milk when she saw a chameleon”.
“Well there’s probably a lot of other things she didn’t do, but I don’t think that would cause an ugly baby,” I reasoned, knowing full well that reasoning is pointless.
“I’m not taking any risks, this is Africa”.
That told me.
Day 6: Saturday
This morning, Khady’s uncle, a marabou (witch doctor), turned up after going MIA for a week. We’d hired him to help clear our land and made the mistake of paying him halfway through the job. As he’s family and a holy man, we hadn’t expected this. We heard rumours that he had a habit of taking advantage of naked women that he was giving “cleansing showers” with forest herbs. Never work with children, animals, family or witch doctors.
Although Khady wouldn’t talk to him, we let him work. After checking the building – the guys were commencing building with bricks on the foundations, we went to visit my African mum. Diatou is a wise lady who I met last year with her Danish husband, Tom. (That was a strange time; Diatou, Tom, Khady and I travelled to the provincial capital together. Khady and I left early and our bus crashed. I dragged Khady unconscious from the wreckage and we were lucky to survive. That was nothing – Tom became ill, went to the local hospital and died.)
Diatou lives in a traditional thatched house with a hole in the middle. If you’re looking from above, it would resemble a donut. We chatted in her garden and ate fish and rice – something I hadn’t been craving.
I went home and built a scarecrow. We have some new corn seed and I’m taking no chances. The builders arrived with a bottle of cashew liqueur. It was like vodka brewed from mud. After fish in a bean sauce, Khady and the builders kicked back with a Bollywood film and I retired with Tom Waits, a glass of bissap anglais and wrote.
Day 7: Sunday
I was doing quite well with Ramadan but Khady said I was too thin.
“You petite homme, c’est pas bonne…people will think I don’t feed you. Me no like”.
Then, when I was wondering what variation of fish and rice we’d have that night, I drove past the French mini-marche. Gerard, the proprietor, had painted a new menu outside, including hamburgers – a new addition. Why did he do this during Ramadan – to tempt me?
Once I had hamburgers in my head I started salivating and they wouldn’t leave. I ordered one and a beer. He told me there were no hamburgers. Too late, the beer was open, so I settled for a steak and had a pleasant afternoon reading, eating and drinking. Gerard wasn’t taking part in Ramadan either – he called out, raised a glass of pastis, and we both smiled guiltily as his thirsty wife looked on.
Simon is a fellow author of From The Grand Canyon to the Great Wall, with some riveting stories of his travels through Africa. Next up, Simon is off to Gambia to buy solar power and that’s bound to be another adventure. His guest house The Little Baobab is open. Do come and visit.
UPDATE: Simon Fenton wrote two amazing books about his life in Senegal: Squirting Milk at Chameleons: An Accidental African and Chasing Hornbills: Up to My Neck in Africa. I recommend the first if you want to visit, and the second if you’re not squeamish. Unfortunately in 2017, Simon was tragically killed in a traffic accident. His eco-lodge The Little Baobab is still open and run by his family.