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THE BOU-EL-MOGDAD’S DREAM (60 photos) Send this reportage Send this reportage
Looking for an unusual experience for your next vacation in Africa ? Once upon a time there was an old town on the edge of a big river. On this river there was a boat, a beautiful white boat. On the bank was standing a boy, a very young boy. The young boy was dreaming; one day he would be on board, take over the commands, and slice through the green waters of the big river towards the North, the Moors’country, towards the dephts of this Africa, witness of his birth, and that he loves like a son. One day if God allows it, he will command this ship.
© C. Béné./
Categories: History, Human & Ethnology, Marine & Boat, Transportation, Tourism, Travel, Men Interest
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We are in 1969, this town is St-Louis of Sénégal, the boy is called Jean-Jacques Bancal, the boat is the Bou el Mogdad. Built in 1950 in the dutch shipyards. It is a 52 yards steel ship with low water draft, for river navigation. It was named after a negro-mauritanian, well-read, crafty diplomat, faithful to France which he would serve in the 19th century and who would be, function as the first interpretor of governor Faidherbe, conqueror, administrator and great master-builder, the first african to receive the legion of honor.
The “Bou” is gonna start its carrier on the Senegal river in 1951. It’s owner, Senegal’s shiping services, makes it do the freight, the mail, the passengers, from St-Louis to Kayes, in Mali. It connected the original capitals of Senegal and French West Africa to the old trading posts which had been France's bridgeheads on the continent, in this tumultuous Fouta Toro, land of the Fulas and the Touscouleurs, neighbours of the Moors on the right river bank, that was so often agitated with rebellions and wars.
The river Senegal, west-african Sahel’s life-belt, was, like all african rivers, an ideal way of penetrating the huge territories of which the West was helding their wealth. Doors on travels until the end of the night, in the heart of the darkness of a continent that was fascinating and frightening at the same time. These waters have they carried arabic dhows, slender pirogues, royal vessels, merchant ships with bellies full of gum, ivory, and captives !
The war drums stopped, the malouin or vendean sailors, the dreaded moors, the arabic industrials, the audacious half-blooded and the beautiful signares, mistresses of the saint-louisian trade, are not anymore. Remains the slow, majestic, uncontested river.
And on the river, the Bou el Mogdad.
Today Jean-Jacques Bancal is not the child of the 60’s anymore, he is an entrepreneur who combines tourism, hotel business, travel and gastronomy. He is also the heir of an important saint-louisian family, of which the founder, a naval surgeon, came to settle in 1780, on the island, in order to forget an impossible love. He was one of these adventurous Europeans, that came to develop this wonderful city, first french town of Africa, and that, by mixing to the locals while keeping their traditions, created a Christian half-blood aristocraty that dominated the town’s activities and even, for some, like André Guillabert, the country’s politics.
Jean-Jacques Bancal is still dreaming and one day this dream becomes possible. The last owner of the “Bou”, Georges Console, anchored from his life of adventures – and God knows he lived well ! - He took the boat back from the Senegal Shiping Services, that had abandoned it in 1968 where, docked, children were using it as a playground. Console the “King of the river”, is going to exploit it for the freit as well as a for aids convoys during the droughts of the 70’s. It is in those years of misery that begins the “Bou Saga”, the boat of Santa Claus, the saving ship, the nave of hope and light. The Bou becomes a mythical vessel, a fairy tale character. A link of passion grew between the people on board, the pepole of the banks and this boat, a link that will be handed down over the years. But Console, following the construction of the Diama Dam, sees himself obliged to quit the river in 1982, to settle more in the south, in the Saloum, and to make from the Bou a tourist boat, a river cruiser. He will do it for more than twenty years, before deciding to sell it.
Jean-Jacques Bancal is quickly gathering some friends. They buy the Bou el Mogdad in july 2005. The saint-louisian kid made its dream come true, now it has to be made durable, profitable, and bring it to take its old route again. There is an important obstacle : in order to bring the Bou back to Saint Louis it has to pass the Faidherbe bridge with its seven arches of steel, but its mobile arch did not work for twenty years and no one knows if it will close again after its hypothetical openning. On october 16, 2005, under the hurras of the crowd the arch opens and the Bou el Mogdad is back and recovers its dock. Jean-Jacques Bancal has tears in his eyes.
Inaugural cruise in november 2005, friends, notables, a few stars too of which Richard Borhinger, a big Senegal lover, are on board of the only cruiser on an african river. But the spectacle is elsewhere : on the banks of the river, disbelieving, amazed, in a transe, a whole crowd is there to greet the mythical boat’s return.
The children have deserted school, the washerwomen are dancing or throwing themselves into the water, the men are shouting their joy, are praying, and some, as a tribute, are firing antic popguns, remembrance of slave trade time. The secret link, magical, almost religious that united the boat to the river’s people and that one thought to be lost, forgotten, drowned in the heats, the sand winds, and the bitterness of life was reestablished again, as strong, as deep and true as before. The twenty years of lacking has not counted, because in Africa of course, to live is to exist in the memory of others.
« E la nave va… », the cruise starts in this festive atmosphere ; from the first day on the river is gonna unpack its beautifuler gifts.
The “Bou” stops in the middle of reeds, the banks are fully covered with them. On a lighter we enter the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary. The guide’s clear voice enumerates the encountered species : grey herons, golden eagles, african fish eagles, cranes, pelicans with their heavy flight, discreet Nile Ibises, cormorant colonies. Suddenly a family of warthogs charges down a track. A leazy crocodile gazes at a duck tribe with a bored eye. Here are gathered, in 370 species, more than 3 million birds, half of which is coming from elsewhere (Europe, Middle-East, Asia). They come to reproduce under the african sun, and are quite happy to find, among the reserve’s peace, bountiful fish ressources (capitaines, red carps, brown bullheads...). Created in 1974, on 29653 acres, the Park (third in the world) has got 44479 today. It is rigorously guarded and protected.
After the Diama Dam, the water changed, it is more quiet, greener, deeper. The sandbanks have disappeared under sufficient volume of water, but Baba the taciturn pilote, the country’s child that, at more than seventy years (but who knows his real age) is leading the boat again. Remembrance of the bygone deep waters ? A wink to the spectator ? Or a way of assuring his art ? He seems to be saying “ You are my river Senegal, I am ploughing you without fright, the Bou vibrates under my grip, I do not fear the waters’spirit.” Towards Richard Toll now, who made many experiences in the « jardins de Richard » (Richard’s gardens) that became huge sugar cane plantations; each night their foliage is taken away from them with fire and it is giving the sky crimson gleams, each morning they are cut and the Senegalese Sugar Compagny manages to produce 70% of its needs. The rest ? Just observe at sundown, the strange movement of pirogues, that come and go from the mauritanian bank to the senegalese one, to understand where does it come from...But Richard Toll’s factory allowed the development of the town and its hospital, free for all, an exeption in Senegal.
Some passengers join the boat, we are full in the 28 cabins, all of them give on the exterior deck; the dining-room and the bar come to life, tonight, on the menu, spiny lobster and capitaine with fresh salad from the river’s gardens. Nearby on the left river bank, in the middle of giant acacias, a magnificent ruine, the “madness” of Baron roger, that a governor of the 19th century had it ericted. Another of the river’s caprices.
The banks are closer now, some small villages, a few ferries connecting the cousin populations : yesterday the border was 19 miles more north, the river is a hyphen more than a barrier and the negro-mauritanians cross it on any occasion, selling or buying all kinds of goods. Habitations are made in banco, old material close to adobe, with insulating properies superior to mortar bricks, that alas is supplanting it. Here, Wolof and Fula people allready mix with the Toucouleur people, it is the Fouta’s approach, territory of huge catels, vast savanna plain swept by stuffy sandwinds.
A bank planted with big kapok trees, ruins of a fort, houses ligned up in a provençal decor that look like coming out of a moovie by Marcel Pagnol : Dagana, former merchant trading post, of which today’s only richness seems to be the splendid children playing in the river.
In the past, enterprising sons of Bordeaux or Marseille came there, sometimes attracted by exoticism, the perspective of succeeding far from their land, or for having been pushed aside for some minor sin. They discovered the heat, the loneliness, the diseases, hard work at the other end of the earth. Of course that was called colonialism, but these “little white people” where not so far from their african neighbours and gold never flowed in Dagana.
A day of rest for the Bou. On the groung a Tiep bou Dien meal awaits us in a very welcoming mango tree village. The Tiep bou Dien is a meal made with rice, vegetables and fish, cooked in red oil and flavoured with tamarind. This country style picnic is an occasion for the group of passengers to know eachother better, and to meet the villagers.
It is almost the end of the journey, and in the distance, in the river’s curve, one can see the roofs of Podor, last port of call for the moment; the boat probably will be allowed to go further in the future. Podor is without any doubt the picture of the trade post at the end of the earth. A bank, its christian mission and its school, merchant storehouses in ruins, that the sundown still enlives, an old fort erected by Faidherbe that knew that Moors and Toucouleurs, fierce warriors, and burning muslims, would come to fight the french little boys. There were two hundred, in their uniforms not at all adapted to the baking heat, worriedly contemplating their “Tartars’Desert” where the cavaliers of sands where coming from.
Today, Baba Maal, the Pular popular singer, child of Podor, tries to bring life back in his town with his festival « Blues du Fleuve ». His fight is the same than Jean-jacques Bancal : to restore hope, to respect cultures and bring the other, the visitor, the stranger to discover them. What will remain to this one, of this slow-paced, five-day, 155-miles journey ? A kaleidoscope of another Africa, less known, off the tourist track. A pelican’s flight, the foal of an ass running around, kids playing in the green water, standing girls, a loincloth around their waist, strained breast, supple and hard body as a leather strip, and that leave their endless laundries to a moment of emotion just the time of the Bou’s passage. The feeling of having been part of a preserved nature, so much that the boat, silent cicerone, makes relations more easy and maybe even the feeling of sharing the dream of an eight years old kid, dream of adventure and love, but of a kept promise above all. Africa is there, omnipresent, always changing, beautifuler even, seen from water.