Passing Diouloulou district and continuing towards the southeastern coast, we soon encountered the village of Abene, a settlement in the rural community of Kafountine in the department of Bignona. Although Abene is small, it offers a few seaside lodges and beaches and a lot of natural wonders.
Seeing huge and sometimes intertwined trees is by itself a majestic experience that gets upgraded by folktales told by the guides. Already on our first destination, we realized that while in Casamance, the traditional animist spirit is brought into almost every experience, for natural fetishes are the core of traditional Jola religion.
Bantaworo, or six silk-cotton trees, is a sacred place of cultural significance where animist rituals were performed. The story began with the formation of six villages around that place. When they were founded, a spiritual person told the villagers to plant one tree representing each village. If all six trees come together once they grow, villagers will live in harmony – so it happened. From then on, the six trees are used as a fetish: it is believed that if somebody has a wish, they must come to the six trees where they meet a group of village women, the guardians of the trees. The women fetch the water from the trunk of the tree, mix it with fresh water, bless it and bathe the wishing one with it. If there is no rain, the sand that is accumulated in the part of the trunk will be used to mix with fresh water. The narrator explains that the wish will come true if, on the way home, a person making a wish won't shake hands or look back.
From Abene, the road took us to the nearby fishing centre of Kafountine. A busy place is filled with builders of big mahogany boats, fishing nets, fish cleaners, sellers, and people buying the fish. If you get lucky, you may also encounter the return of the fishermen from the sea and will be able to make a first-hand check of their catch. Getting a taste of the fishermen's way of life is a key experience in understanding the dynamics of Casamance's coastal region.
Although the sun was already starting to set, we wanted to check what an ostrich has in common with gold-painted trophies, massages and women's shoes. It turns out giant ostrich eggs from Mlomp Garden ostrich farm can be used by a local creative artist to make unique statues and trophies. Another craftsman can make quality shoes from the leather skin, and it is also good to use ostrich oil for a massage. Part of the farm is used for a hatchery and a butchery where visitors can buy other ostrich products.
Casamance offers many accommodation possibilities, and we decided to try out really basic ones as well as those facilitating more comfort. Each is an experience of its own, allowing different types of travellers to have enough choice when it comes to preferred lodging type.
After taking a shower under the starry night and spending the night in the remote lodge around Thiock Essyl, we took a morning walk to the nearby bank of the Casamance River, crossing another sacred forest where, according to the tradition, people can go to repent for their sins. From there, we drove over to the beautiful Camanor women's garden not far away, where local women grow their vegetables (cassava, cabbage, eggplants, lettuce, pepper...), fruits (orange trees) and herbs (mint, basil...) to sell them on the market or to eco-lodge owners. A walk through Camanor garden can give you a clue about the appearance and usage of different plants, typical for the wider region.
Since Oussouye was our next destination, we absolutely had to pay a visit to the most visited person in Casamance: the king of Oussouye, Sibilumbaï Diedhiou. Even though the real kingdom ended in the thirteenth century, he still represents the »spiritual (non-formal) king« of the region of Oussouye since 2000. We were welcomed by the guides, some of whom belonged to royal families, to allow us to enter the king's chambers. There are certain rules which apply when visiting the king. One should avoid wearing clothes of entirely red colour, and women should not enter if on their periods. Visitors should greet the king by standing up and saying »man«. After the introduction, visitors are invited to ask questions which will not necessarily be answered by the king himself. But he will never deny taking a photo with him. Even though the formalities of this visit may seem odd, it is important to respect them and take this chance to learn and understand the tradition.
Casamance boasts magnificent old trees, especially baobabs and cotton-silk trees. Jola's belief is that once the tree dies in nature, you have to plant a new one. This rule is still being followed, keeping the forests vast and intact. But there is one special elephant tree in Kanouffa that you can climb on top of and have a perfect view of the surroundings while feeling the power of years old tree bearing you. Secured and guided, the climb is much easier than it seems as you look at the hanging ladder from the ground. And it is worth every drop of sweat or tremble of adrenaline. The view from above is simply magical.
The cashew tree is a very common and versatile plant in Casamance, but while the cashew nut is probably familiar to most people, we can not say the same for the juicy cashew apple that grows below it. Jamakun cashew processing farm is committed to producing the nuts and fruits in a manner that safeguards the communities' social fabric and environmental resources. Pattern Jamakun takes us over the stages of this under-the-tree small-scale factory: removing kernel from the fruits, steaming, opening, roasting and finally packaging the sweet nuts. On the other hand, the fruit is used to make a juice or jam. Compared to another environment and community-friendly cashew processing factory in Zuigenchor that we visited on the last day of the trip, run by charismatic Madame Noelle Niouky, also known as the lady with the donkey, uses cashew apples to make much more products: from cakes to meat substitutes.
Another peek into Jola's lifestyle was made on our next stop, which brought together a sacred tree, a traditional Jola round mud house, transformed into a museum with everyday objects hanging from the walls, and an architectural wonder: a colonial style inspired building with pillars made from the mud.
Part of the Casamance is strongly connected with the Casamance River, creating various islands and peninsulas, rich with mangroves and an animal world. Boat trips on the mighty water while spotting colourful birds and being splashed by drops of the water are experiences of their own.
After spending the night in the lodge on one of the peninsulas, we visited the Carabane island, which was strongly influenced by colonial history. Two magnificent remains of the french settlement period are the tremendous colonial-style church and "special school" where the first Africans learned to read and write European languages. Later it was used as a correction centre where young were trained with different skills.
Another remarkable museum is located in the village of Boucotte Diola, a museum on the open called Kadioute. The knowledgeable guide presents Jola culture through the demonstration of the use of different tools used in the daily life of the Jola people. Following the path of elephant trees, one gets a deep insight into animistic religion, connection to nature and everyday life in the past.
Probably the most immersive cultural experience was left for the last day. Travelling almost one hour through the creeks was well worth it when a village appeared on the horizon. Already from the boat, we could hear the trance-induced vocalizing and instrument blowing. Disembarking on the island, we were first taken to a peripheral house where the local guides explained a ceremony happening at the moment in which we could not take part. The ceremony was indeed spiritual, summoning the spirit of a dead person into somebody else's body, who could then talk in their name. Even though we could not participate in the ceremony, the echoes accompanied us on the walk through the village. Traditional houses and chores were presented, a fetish, a shrine, a water tank built by an NGO, a hospital, a school and more. Jola traditions are still alive and well in this village where the only money you need is to buy telephone credit.
Tree fetishes that make your wishes come true, colourful fruits in different shapes and sizes waiting to be picked and a peaceful boat ride along the creeks while the sun is setting and the heat of the day subsides. Casamance is a perfect destination for nature and culture lovers, allowing visitors to interact with Jola culture.
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