"Everyone is trying to sell ... something ...but the problem is, who is going to buy?"
My guide Hamoud stares out the window at the crowded streets of the 150-year-old city of DAKAR. Big department stores anchor the town center, surrounded by small shops lining the streets as far as you can see. The sidewalks in front of each are jammed with peddlers of all sorts, selling - at least trying to sell - everything from colorful cloths to bent nails. On the fringes of town center are dusty fields where small, neatly organized herds of goats, sheep, cattle and hay are also for sale.
We are headed for LAKE RETBA - or Lac Rose, the Pink Lake - 40 minutes outside of the capital city. Along the way we pull to the side of the road at what remains of a BAOBAB forest. Though it is Senegal's national tree, the once-proud forest has been reduced to just 17 of the still-impressive trees. Renowned to have spiritual connotations across Africa, considered good places to bury wise men or minstrels and believed to have magical powers, baobabs are also known as the upside down tree, thought to have been plucked by the gods and thrown back down in anger thus its upside-down appearance. I like that it is known too as the palabra (question) tree where elders have historically gathered in its shade to ponder the big questions of the day. Its seeds are called 'monkey bread,' and can be eaten or made into a drink; its pods are used to make cups or bowls. The rest of the tree is used for fuel, which is why there are so few of them left today.
There are two seasons in Senegal, Hamoud explains. Winter lasts from January to April, the rest is summer. These days the HARMATTAN, the dry wind that blows from the north, lasts longer each year. Since the early 1980s rainfall has diminished across Africa; wells are drying up, wet season starts later and later, and then unexpectedly heavy rainfalls during dry season wash away just-planted seeds.
"It rains only three months now," says Hamoud. "The rest of the year we do not have enough water. The water we get for drinking and cooking comes from the Senegalese River, 400 kilometers from Dakar. And it is shrinking.
"DESERTIFICATION is coming. Fast. Trees are cut for charbon (charcoal), there's less rain and the desert just keeps coming. Soon it will cover all of Senegal, like the Sahara. We are trying to fight against the desert because every year it is coming. We plant trees to try and keep desert back, but too often they are cut by people needing firewood."
Big dams are a problem too, and so is coastal erosion and deforestation. Fishing, once a mainstay of both diet and economy, is suffering. While the 10 to 15 meter long pirogues still leave the fishing beach at Soumbedioune each dawn, they must go further and further out to sea to find fish. "They used to go five kilometers from shore, now it's more like 25 kilometers," says Hamoud. Extra money earned goes to buying extra petrol, so it's a lose-lose option. Fishermen wages go down, poverty goes up. Big factory ships from Europe and Asia, highly efficient and most pay for the rights to fish, a good source of money for the government. But quotas are often ignored. For the small fisherman, netting is seen as too slow; dynamiting has become a more popular option. But only about a quarter of the fish killed by dynamite are actually 'caught' or collected. The rest sink to the bottom and now the seabed is covered with dead fish. Living from the sea here is becoming more and more precarious.
On the road to the Pink Lake we pass a small handful of gated communities boasting big, obviously expensive homes scattered through the sand. "Only the politicians and singers can afford those," laughs Hamoud. A democracy since 1960 the former French colony's first independent president stayed in office 20 years. The nation's current chief executive is 86 years old.
The Pink Lake took me by surprise. I thought its significance was simply its mineral-rich color. Instead, for five kilometers along its shoreline - known as Niaga-Peul - is a booming, cottage industry salt mining operation, the kind of 'farming the sea' scene I love.
Muscled young men stand in the shallows and shovel salt off the murky bottom into flat-bottomed boat. From the drying piles in the boats - which nearly sink under the collected weight - salt is shoveled into plastic tubs weighing 10 to 15 kilos, which are then lifted onto the heads of carriers (most often wives, girlfriends in t-shirts, sunglasses and colorful skirts) who carry it to shore and dump it into neat, conical piles. Each finished pile is marked with their initials so they can be paid when it is picked up the following morning. Most of the salt bagged into 20-kilo bags is off for markets in Mali or Burkina Fasi, where a tincture of iodine is added.
I walk knee deep into the lake and spend an hour talking with the shovelers and their wives/girlfriends, giving them some dollars as recompense for their time and to be allowed to take photos and video. I ask if the lake is really pink; from where I stand it looks very muddy and brown.
"It absolutely pink," says one girl, in an Adidas t-shirt, colorful kikoi and flip-flops, "when the sun is straight above. Try swimming. You will never sink here."