Chez Relax

I made a documentary about my hometown recently. In the film I am asking people to tell me about their relationship to their town, Saint-Louis, in the north of Senegal by the Mauritanian border. In its final stages of post production I came to realize that I may have chosen to shoot with mini-DV quite subconsciously: it creates a rather rough but at the same time soft view of the footage.

Truth to be told, this town is dirty.

If you have been to Saint-Louis, a town that still carries the Unesco World Heritage label, you may have wondered how it is possible that the river has become a dumping site for domestic waste. In the old days people used to give food as offerings to the river spirits but these days it is just trash, and more trash that finds its way into the river. Ngagne Dabo Ndiaye, who has traveled extensively in his life and who returned to Saint-Louis, had enough of this and has transformed the river side into a small oasis, right next to the bridge and opposite to Hotel Sunu Keur. Now there are plants, tables and chairs and benches for anyone to have a break. He took the initiative to clean this area and planted trees and set up a place where you can have a coffee and snacks and just sit back and relax.

Ngagne Dabo Ndiaye

Ngagne Dabo Ndiaye’s dream is that he will find collaborators with whom he could create more activities for everybody with canoes, paddling boats, games for children and so on. He has been running Chez Relax now for a year without any support and any small gain from selling coffee goes to keeping this place running. If you are in town, please do visit him and stop for a chat and coffee and maybe a sandwich! In case you show up there in the hot hours of the afternoon and he is nowhere to be seen, check under the bridge: he might me having his siesta down there in the cool river bank.

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View from Chez Relax coffee tent

Maka-Diama

Right next to Diama on the Mauritanian border there is a small and picturesque village called Maka-Diama. We had a ride to the village today and visited a project that makes paper out of a weed called typha that grows by the Senegal river. This plant can be used for thatched roofs or cooking fuel, or even paper. In order to create better working conditions for the women who make paper out of typha, the NGO behind the initiative has build a house out of local materials. The building project started in April 2019 and the house is now proudly standing and almost ready to be used. Before operating fully as a work space and a show room, some finishing touches and interior decoration is now all it takes. In the future this beautiful  house will serve also as a meeting point for people interested in local crafts, ecological architecture and design.

The reddish earth that has been used for the bricks  has been brought here from near Dakar and we witnessed how the construction technique with silt provides an amazing cooling effect inside the house: when we entered the building we could immediately feel it. Next to the main building there is a separate lavatory in which the waste water is collected and processed to irrigate a garden of aromatic plants. So the workshops will not produce just paper but also soaps and aromatic oils. If you are on your way to or coming from Diama and crossing the Mauretanian border, do drop by in this beautiful small village. The village women can make you a delicious yassa poulet for lunch in no time at all and while waiting for your meal, you can visit the workshop and cool down in this beautiful house and perhaps buy some handmade paper and fragrant oils and soaps.

Crossing borders

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A shop in the oasis village of Varess.

There is only so much in a small Mauritanian boutique. Looks like a very healthy way of creating order in life with just a few cardboard boxes.

This is a short travelogue to begin this brand new year. I just took a Trarza minibus from Nouakchott to Saint-Louis and spent those three hours listening to old women babble in Hassanya and at times in a very animated accent in Wolof. They all laughed a lot and their tiny mobile phones kept ringing and since the mobile coverage was bad, they shouted into their phones and the calls would just drop and after each call there was this sudden silence for about thirty seconds. And it all started again. Half way on our route we had a stop for breakfast with a rather predictable menu: grilled meat, baguette and mint tea. No coffee in sight.

I had a small artist’s crisis lately with a thorough feeling that nobody is interested in what I do, at least not in this town anyway. Everybody seems to be more interested in just telling what they do.

When you cross borders here between countries, you are asked about your profession and I would answer: “artist,” or “artist photographer.” The border control then checks what they can find in their system based on what you had told them previously, or they write it up for future record. I always feel like I have committed a small crime having changed my profession from “commerçant” – that’s what stands on my residence card –  to “artist.” Now, crossing the border I again found this question a little intimidating and while the officer scrutinized my data with a very confused look on his face I thought it would have been so much easier to say “fisherman” or “pirogue owner.” Although I probably don’t look like neither. What if I said that I’m an “art residency coordinator?” They would probably choke in their mint tea, or just kick me out.

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Crossing the Senegal river from Rosso-Senegal to Rosso-Mauritania.

Back in Saint-Louis, after the usual hundred or so handshakes, the desert still lingers in my mind and I predict that this year I will go quieter about my art practice and will concentrate more on the actual work. Perhaps I will show some of that work in the summer, somewhere.

Doun Baba Dieye

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Time to make new plans for a brand new year… As an incurable planner, I also need to remind myself of where I am, not just where I am going and here is that photo. Plastic trash has not been cut out of the photo – as there was none – nor have I used any filter or photo-shopped the image in any way. Looking at the photo one might consider this place as some sort of a paradise. But whose paradise are we talking about?

Two days ago we had a boat ride in Doun Baba Dieye, the “sunken village.” Although part of this village is now under water due to a man made mistake of connecting the Senegal river to the Atlantic ocean, the population of the village has been able to turn newly formed and salty land arable with the help of traditional knowledge and can now feed over seventy families. That’s just thrilling!

Wishing you all a very inspiring New Year 2020!