My trip to Kedougou a few weeks ago was that perfect combination of something beautiful, something unfamiliar, and something absurd that constitutes an ADVENTURE. The area around the town of Kedougou, in the far south-eastern corner of Senegal, is hilly, green even in the dry season, and peopled with friendly Pulars. I went with Molly and some other PCVs to see a Bassari initiation ceremony; Molly’s great idea was that we bike the 83 kilometers from Kedougou to Salemata, the biggest town near the Bassari villages.
I had intentionally postponed going down to Kedougou—I’d been hearing since PST about how gorgeous it is, with forests and waterfalls and the closest thing to mountains that you’ll find in Senegal; I didn’t want to know what I was missing. Now that I’ve been, all I can say is that Kedougou volunteers are lucky bastards. I can’t begin to imagine how my service might have been different if every morning I could have hiked up to the top of a hill to watch the sunrise or every week biked a few kilometers to swim at the base of a waterfall.
They do, however, have to bike a lot—and not the short, flat ride that I have between Tamba and my village. As we found out, biking in Kedougou means going uphill, through gravel, against a headwind (in the rainy season, add to that plowing through mud and wading across rivers). Fifty kilometers took us five hours. Who knows how long that would have been if serendipity hadn’t been with us the entire way. All the villagers we met were happy to show us the road we wanted; every time we came to an unknown fork in the road, someone happened along to point us in the right direction. It was quintessential Peace Corps—setting off on some crazy whim, getting in way over our heads, and succeeding thanks to luck and the help of people who were entertained by a bunch of white kids who magically spoke their language.
The fête was well worth the grueling bike ride. The Bassari are a small ethnic group who are nominally Christian but maintain strong animist traditions. We attended an initiation ceremony for the village boys. We had been told it was a circumcision ceremony as well—which added a certain level of drama, especially once we saw how old the initiates were—but ultimately we decided the initiation only involved being beaten with sticks. Everyone was incredibly friendly (maybe in part because they started on the millet beer and honey wine at 8AM) and happy to answer questions about what was happening. It was fun to see something that fit my preconceived ideas of “authentic” African festivities. Go to the gallery for photos and captions.
We all managed to secure rides back towards Kedougou (biking that road once was enough) that evening with Senegalese friends of PCVs; when everyone else left in one truck, Molly and I waited for the second truck, which was taking our bikes. When the truck, an old blue Land Cruiser, pulled up and the five guys who spilled out were the ones who’d been hitting on us that morning, Molly and I rolled our eyes. When the guys then pulled a freshly dead sheep out of the back of the truck and started gathering wood, we exchanged desperate looks. The sun was already going down, we had a three hour trip ahead of us, and they were going to cook dinner first? It was one of those times when you have to deliberately choose to find your predicament funny because otherwise you’ll start crying—”Hey, remember when those guys slaughtered and roasted a sheep when all we wanted was to get the hell out of there? That was awesome.”
So they roasted the sheep on a jerry-built contraption of sticks (it only fell into the fire once), we ate it, and then we were finally ready to leave. I got the front passenger seat while the other six people were crammed into the middle and back rows because the driver was the guy who had been declaring his love for me earlier. He insisted I sit next to him, but then, luckily for me, the car was too noisy and the steep, rocky road required too much attention for him to be able to continue persuading me that I should accept his advances because my (fictional) boyfriend back home wouldn’t be faithful to me.
Three hours and one stop to take off a wheel and pound pieces of metal back into place later, we reached the campement where we were staying that night. The guys unloaded our bikes, gave us their numbers, and then continued on to Kedougou. We got up early the next morning and biked to the waterfalls at Dindefelo. It was painfully beautiful—lush undergrowth, fern-covered rock faces, clear cold water. I felt like I was back in Austin, on a day trip to Hamilton Pool—hiking through the woods, swimming, and then maybe going out to eat Tex-Mex afterwards. And it was pretty close, except that we had Gazelle and yassa poulet that night instead of Shiner and enchiladas.