August 31, 2002 - New York Times: Senegal RPCV Michael McColley returns to his Country of Service

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Senegal RPCV Michael McColley returns to his Country of Service

Read and comment on this story from the New York Times on RPCV Michael McColley who returned to Senegal and wrote about his return to his country of service at:

To Africa With Family, to Meet Friends*

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To Africa With Family, to Meet Friends


I'd dreamed many times of returning to the Senegalese village where I lived while in the Peace Corps in the early 1980's, but I always found some excuse not to go. Then my older sister, Jody, cornered me in her kitchen last Christmas with her plea: "When will I ever have a chance to visit an African village, if you don't take me?" All these years she'd heard the stories and seen the slides. Now it was her turn.

After I had spent a month on my own in Senegal researching a book, Jody joined me for 13 days last March and we traveled more than 1,000 miles in a country that after 20 years, still possesses me. We went from Dakar, on the Atlantic, southeast through villages where I was stationed, near Gambia, to the highlands of the Fouta Djalons and through Niokolo-Koba National Park, then back to Saly-Mbour, a beach resort area south of Dakar. We stayed in comfortable and very affordable accommodations and traveled with guides, a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver; the cost was under $2,000 for both of us. That did not include our purchases: textiles, custom-made clothes for Jody, a djembe drum and folk art.

I could have served as guide, but I knew that Senegal is best experienced through its people. From the outside, it is easy to see only the poverty in West Africa. But through Senegalese eyes, you see a complex country that has successfully united several West African peoples with influences from Europe and North Africa. So I found two excellent guides to help us interpret the land and its people.

Knowing how exhausting it is to arrive in West Africa for the first time, I booked our first two nights at the modern Novotel in Dakar. On our second day, after resting by the pool, we walked across Place d'Indépendance, where you can now get cash at an A.T.M., and caught a ferry to Île de Gorée.

Historically, this island was the first port on West Africa's coast, and subsequently it became a major post for the transfer of goods and thousands of slaves to the Americas. Over the years, Gorée has become a powerful shrine to the ignominy of the slave trade and its devastating effect on the peoples of West Africa and a pilgrimage site of sorts, particularly for African-Americans.

After a half-hour ferry ride, we were greeted by a rousing band of singing, drumming teenagers jamming on the stone steps of the dock. We ambled about the sandy streets, reminiscent of a Mediterranean fishing village with pink and ocher colonial buildings that house schools, restaurants, small art galleries and residents.

At the Slave House, there is a small, newly renovated museum, which has exhibits on the slave trade and offers tours in French on the hour. Afterward, we walked quietly under hanging bougainvillea and 18th-century wrought-iron lamps, until we reached the artisan village, where we bargained for beautifully crafted jewelry made of sea glass, coral and amethyst.

Before Jody arrived, I learned of the West African Research Center, in Dakar, which assists in scholarly research, and where I was referred to AbdouKarim Sylla, who became our guide in and around Dakar. On our first Sunday, AbdouKarim hired a taxi and we headed 30 miles outside Dakar to the Benedictine monastery of Keur Moussa. The simple whitewashed chapel was packed with Senegalese. While listening to the monks chant and play traditional instruments, we marveled at the abstract Coptic-style panels over the altar, depicting the life of Jesus.

Later, AbdouKarim and our driver took us along the road another 20 miles to Thiès to visit the artisan village, actually in a restored French barracks from World War II. There, you can buy leather, carved masks, jewelry and cotton clothing from the artisans themselves. Thiès is also home to a tapestry workshop, Manufactures Sénégalaises des Arts Décoratifs, where you can see huge tapestries and the elaborate process used to create them.

The arts are a Senegalese treasure, particularly in their everyday expression, where the commercial mixes with the sacred and the aesthetic. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, you can see colorful depictions of services and products painted on houses and stores. Nowhere are color and design more artfully used than on the stunning long wooden fishing boats and the ubiquitous ultramarine-and-mustard local buses, which are painted in a collage of Arabic prayers and religious imagery so as to protect passengers.

For the second leg of our tour, I found another guide from Bassari Rutas Por Africa, a travel agency in Dakar that also handled our accommodations and transportation. On our third day, Ibrahima Top, tall, relaxed and fluent in English, met us at our hotel to discuss our itinerary. He became more than our guide, accompanying us for seven days across his country and interpreting during our visit with the people of my village.

Our first stop was Kaolack, 150 miles southeast of Dakar, where Bassari had booked us into the Hotel Relais de Kaolack. It had a pool, comfortable air-conditioned bungalows and views of children bathing and the sun setting over the salt flats along the Saloum River.

Kaolack (pronounced kow-LACK) is no more than a crossroads, but because it is connected to Mali by train and the coast by the Saloum River, it has a market covering several blocks, where goods from all over West Africa are sold. I had fond memories of spending mornings in this maze, and decided to take Jody myself. I promptly got us lost, which is what shopping in an African market is all about. We meandered from stall to stall, looking at stacks of eye-bursting fabrics and mounds of produce, as we were greeted by shopkeepers selling gold jewelry, spices, amulets, electronics and suitcases made from tin cans.

Our car stocked with ceremonial gifts, our driver, Gaye, took us some 40 miles southeast, close to the Gambian border to the villages of Darou Mouniaguene and Keur Sett Diakhou, where I worked in my early 20's, and which I had revisited before Jody's arrival. When we got to Darou Mouniaguene, my village mother rang an old tire rim and called the women to the chief's compound to greet Jody and begin the preparations for the ceremonial meal. After Jody was given a Senegalese name Khady Mbaye, the same as the chief's wife we were blessed and greeted by waves of villagers, who howled with laughter when I tried to recall names and speak in my broken Wolof.

Between trips around the village to pay respect to elders and see what was left of my garden projects, I must have taken a hundred Polaroid pictures of kids playing soccer, families, women with their babies and handed out scores of them. Our day was complete when Ibrahima went with me to Kaolack's cultural center that night, where Ismael Lo, one of Senegal's best-known musicians, offered a concert for the community. Exhausted after an emotional day, Jody headed straight for bed.

We spent the next day traversing some 200 miles of dry savanna, passing through roadside villages and the eerie stands of ancient baobab that cluster about them, before finally reaching the frontier town of Kédougou, near the borders of Mali and Guinea. Ibrahima took us to the Hotel Relais de Kédougou, outside of town. This French-run encampment basically serves hunters, but offers rustic, air-conditioned thatch huts for only $25, with a lovely garden pool and restaurant overlooking the Gambia River.

From the rugged highlands of the Fouta Djalon outside of Kédougou flow all of Senegal's major rivers the Gambia, the Senegal and the Casamance as well as West Africa's grandest, the Niger. This area, known as Pays Bassari, has increasingly become popular for trekking. Ibrahima specializes in tours that combine hiking with visits to hilltop villages. So we hiked a mile or so up and along a ridge to a Bedik village, Iwol.

The Bediks have lived for centuries in this region, holding fast to their animist beliefs. Ibrahima introduced us to one of the families and the local schoolteacher as we wandered among circular huts that surrounded an enormous sacred baobab, which villagers claim is over 1,000 years old.

That afternoon, we crawled south in our air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle, over rough terrain and through a few Fulani villages to reach Dindefellou, a village that runs its own eco-camp, with several inexpensive and rustic huts. We bought a few sodas and walked along a creek bed a mile to waterfalls, where we had lunch and cooled off by a verdant pool, gazing up at the 300-foot cascade.

On our last day in eastern Senegal, we drove about 50 miles from Kédougou to Niokolo-Koba National Park. Covering nearly 3,500 square miles, Niokolo-Koba is one of the largest game parks in West Africa. We spent a long day with Ibrahima and our obligatory guide, weaving through forests and semi-jungle along the Gambia River, gazing out at the open water holes in the grasslands at hundreds of animals.

We missed seeing three lions that our guide said he had seen the day before, but we did see monkeys, elands, gazelles, wart hogs, antelope, scores of birds and four hippos feeding in the river. There are about 450 species of animals, including elephants and leopards, in the park.

After our day in the park, we drove northwest to Wassadou. This peaceful, newly constructed encampment, with round whitewashed thatched huts, sits on a bluff overlooking the Gambia River. We hired a guide to take us by motorized raft down the river, where we saw hippos popping up only 20 yards away.

Later, we hiked along the river observing birds and troops of baboons on the cliffs and in the trees. After dinner, we had tea on the bluff under the silk cotton trees looking out over the river, absorbed into its silence.

Early the next morning, we started the long drive back to the coast. At Saly-Mbour, just north of Mbour, we said goodbye to Ibrahima and our driver, Gaye. There, resorts line the coast, interspersed with fishing villages, homes and huge baobabs. Soon, Jody was reading under a cabana on the beach and I was doing laps in the pool at the Teranga Hotel and Villas. We had booked two nights, but after the first day and the great food, I knew we needed a third.

We found a fabric shop near our hotel and Jody soon had a pile of colorful fabric and was being fitted for several tie-dye dresses. She bought so much, we had to come back the next day to pick up our purchases, including a Malian blanket, mud-print tablecloths and shirts for her sons and husband.

One night after being serenaded at dinner with a kora, a large string instrument, we grew nostalgic and decided to call our parents. We strolled into the evening and spotted a family outside their storefront telephone service making tea with their neighbors, enjoying the Islamic holiday a month after Ramadan that the Senegalese call Tamxarit. Children were parading in groups, chanting songs and beating on plastic buckets, hoping to get a few coins or candy from shopkeepers.

It was hard to hear my parents' voices, but not because of the connection. There was too much noise the sound of the children, the joy of Senegal that I had wanted Jody to experience all these years.

Visitor Information

Getting There

Americans do not need visas to visit Senegal for up to 90 days. The Senegal Embassy is at 2112 Wyoming Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20008; (202) 234-0540, fax (202) 332-6315. The official Senegal tourism Web site is The United States Embassy in Dakar advises Americans to defer travel to the Casamance region of southern Senegal because of separatist-movement violence.

There are no direct flights from the United States to Senegal. We flew Air France, (800) 321-4538,, which like most airlines goes to Dakar via Europe (Paris). Royal Air Moroc, (800) 344-6726,, stops in Casablanca.

Bassari Rutas Por Africa, Rues Masclary et Robert Delmas, No. 7, Dakar; (221) 822-0299, fax (221) 822-0280; e-mail, made most of our bookings. At 670 CFA francs to the dollar, we paid $20 to $25 a day for guides, plus food and lodging. Tipping is customary.

Timbuktours, 10 Commerce Steet, Newark 07102; (908) 654-8204, fax (908) 654-2954; e-mail, specializes in cultural tours to West Africa.

The West African Research Center, Boîte Postale 5456 (Fann-Résidence), Rues E et Léon G. Damas, Dakar, Senegal, (221) 865-2277, fax (221) 824-2058,, helped us find a guide.

Seeing Wildlife

Senegal has six national parks. Perhaps the best for viewing wildlife is Niokolo-Koba National Park, a good day's drive from Dakar over some rough stretches of the national highway, in southeast Senegal near Guinea and Mali. Dakar tour agencies can arrange three- or four-day package tours with flights, car hire, accommodations and guides for $250 a person and up. You can also hire a car, driver and guides in Tambacounda for $100 to $150 a day.

Where to Stay

Outside of Dakar and the beaches on the Petite Côte, accommodations are limited and it's a good idea to book ahead. A very good Web site for hotels and resorts in Senegal is

In Dakar, we stayed at the Hôtel Novotel, Avenue Abdoulaye Fadiga, Boîte Postale 2073, Dakar, Senegal; (221) 849-6161, fax (221) 823-8929; e-mail, It has 258 modern rooms; an ocean-view double costs about $110.

Hôtel Lagon II, Route de la Corniche Est, Dakar, (221) 889-2525, fax (221) 823-7727,, has 56 air-conditioned rooms. Doubles from $87. It also has probably the best restaurant in Dakar, a piano bar, private beach and fitness center.

Hôtel Le Savana, Pointe Bernard-Petite, Corniche, Dakar; (221) 849-4242, fax (221) 849 4243, (in French), looks out at Île de Gorée. The 100 rooms and 4 suites have dataports, satellite TV and 24-hour room service. Doubles, $120; breakfast, $12.

In Kaolack, we stayed at Relais de Kaolack, (221) 941-1000, fax (221) 941-1002, (accommodations). It has 30 air-conditioned rooms in bungalows with hot-water baths, a restaurant, pool and tennis court. Doubles are $30 to $60.

In Kédougou, we stayed at Hôtel Relais de Kédougou; (221) 985-1062, fax (221) 985-1126; and by e-mail, Its 20 huts are air-conditioned, and there is a pool and a garden restaurant. Doubles are $26, meals $8.

Hôtel Wassadou, (221) 982-3602, fax (221) 981-2428,, is on the northeast edge of Niokolo-Koba National Park. Doubles with a shower cost about $30 a night, Continental breakfast $3.30. A half-day boat excursion on the Gambia is $4 a person.

In the Saly-Mbour area, we stayed at the Teranga Hotel and Villas; (221) 957-3072, fax (221) 957-4501, e-mail It has 40 rooms in terra-cotta two-story cottages set in a grove of baobab and bougainvillea, with a large pool. Rates are $40 to $61 a person a night, with breakfast and dinner.

MICHAEL McCOLLY is writing a book about AIDS activism that includes Senegal.

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