Bustle of life on the shore
Thanks to its geography, St Louis has a lot of beach. Unfortunately it is very much treated as a public dumping ground. Rubbish, including broken glass, was routinely thrown there, though to be fair I never saw any obvious alternative. Once I saw dogs picking at a severed cow’s head, and dead goats were a relatively common sight. I’d like to think that they realised that their time was almost up and they chose the sandy expanse as their final resting place, but it’s more likely they were disposed of there or an attempt to wash them in the sea went wrong.
The town section of the beach was never dull; along with children playing their games there was also a constant stream of pirogues setting out to sea. Whenever they did there would be a large party would gather to help out: mothers and fathers watching as their sons set about earning the family income; friends helping with the physical effort of shuffling the boat down to the water’s edge; children anxious to feel as if they were contributing to the cause. The boats would normally take between five and ten fishermen. Outboard motors would power the flimsy craft over the incoming waves, though sometimes it would take several false starts to overcome the swell. Hitting the waves front-on, the boats would rise and fall dramatically while pitching at frighteningly alarming angles.
At either end of the town there is a mini-village where the newly caught fish are smoked. Apparently staffed exclusively by women, row upon row of grills are covered in drying fish. One day I took a stroll past the fish smokers to the empty beach beyond. My arbitrary destination was a tidy Muslim cemetery where fishermen’s gravestones were denoted by a covering of a fishing net. Between there and the town the beach lay pristine and deserted.
On the way I caught the eye of a local sunbathing not far from the shore. An elegantly attired middle-aged male, he beckoned me over and we struck up a conversation in French. I told him the purpose of my visit and he told me he was a teacher of couture, opening up the secrets of the vibrant Senegalese clothing to all those wishing to learn. After a while he proposed we walked further down the beach, for what purpose I was unsure, as it was all much the same. My traveller’s instincts began to suspect that something was up but at first I wasn’t sure what it was.
The beach close to where I stayed
After further idle chat he pointed to another bather in the distance, remarking to me that local custom was to swim naked. Pausing only briefly, he then asked if I’d like to take a dip. I didn’t have to wait long for him to confirm the subtext of the enquiry. Having declined his request to bathe naked as politely as I could he then asked the question I’d been waiting for, “Not married then?” accompanying it with a knowing raise of the eyebrow to underline this was more than an innocent enquiry. Trying to find a conversational escape route for us both, I countered with a rather crass attempt to clarify my sexual orientation by somehow steering talk, accurately enough, towards the beauty of Senegalese women. I rather hoped that he would realise his mistake at this point and we could return to talking about the weather, but the conversation instead took an even stranger turn.
African women, he said while gazing at me earnestly, were interested only in large “sexe”. In French the word carries an anatomical meaning. To ensure I had grasped this he drew a large phallus in the sand, still with an utterly serious demeanour. “Not small, no, no, only large”, he repeated. “How is it with women in your country?” he inquired. He asked again. Rather than give him what he wanted (an answer I mean) I decided to leave.
Quite what made him think this bizarrely vulgar conversation was appropriate I can only speculate. Perhaps it was an attempt to cover a mistake he’d made in all but admitting his homosexuality in a society where it remains taboo, or maybe he genuinely thought this was how two men from different continents should converse within half and hour of meeting each other. The episode rather sullied what had been a nice walk and pleasant conversation until, as it were, sexe raised its ugly head.