Last summer I found part of Senegal in St. Martinville, Louisiana.
I camped at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park nearby and spent a few days exploring the town of 6,000 on the banks of Bayou Teche.St. Martinville Historic District includes buildings that date to the 1800s, a large oak, and a much-visited grave that might or might not have a person in it.
The African American Museum is shaded by the Evangeline Oak and overlooks the Teche. At the first display I traded wrought iron balconies and live oaks for a kora (stringed musical instrument) and kel (large mixing bowl made from half an outsized gourd). When you want to compliment a Senegalese cook you tell her that your stomach is as full as a kel.neem tree.
Many of St. Martinville’s earliest non-Native American residents were African slaves, some of whom might well have spent time in Gorée’s Slave House. The Louisiana town recognized this connection by becoming a sister city of Gorée Island.
Spidery 17th century script in an open ledger at the museum revealed the names of a dozen ships that traveled the Middle Passage with human cargo. The display noted that survival rates were higher on French ships than on British, due to better care for passengers.
I browsed the young readers’ shelf in a corner and ran across a book about Senegal, part of the Enchantment of the World series. In grade school I had been enchanted by a story in Young Miss magazine about a woman who went to Africa with the Peace Corps. I saved the article for years: I was going to join the Peace Corps and go to Africa.
I left St. Martinville that evening as a pink flamingo sunset painted mounds of clouds with color. I turned on to progressively smaller roads that wound through ever-smaller towns. The first homes were brick and had Greek columns. A man struggled to the curb with a tub of grass clippings from a lawn that could have produced a good amount of beef.
Farther on manufactured homes sprouted above ground swimming pools or a lawn-scale forest of columns topped with colored metal balls. As the road lost all pretense of shoulders the mobile homes no longer aspired to manufactured status, then surrendered to a burned out shell with tan insulation oozing out of its carcass. Finally, an ancient school bus colluded with a lean-to of found materials with a corrugated metal roof.
Youssou N’Dour filled the car. That day the show started with A United Earth, by Youssou N'Dour and Alan Stivell.
Youssou N'dour released his fourth album, Giande (The Lion), the year I arrived in Senegal. Giande and Set (Clean), his next album, were the sound track for my Peace Corps experience. When one of my trips to Dakar for a periodic gamma globulin shot coincided with N'dour being in residence, he serenaded me, and everyone else not sleeping in Fann Hock, from his nearby nightclub until nearly dawn.
N'dour is still making music and I'm still buying his albums. But I no longer buy them as cassette tapes from a box balanced on the head of a music seller on the Ponty, in Dakar.
By the time I pulled back into my campsite at Lake Fausse Pointe I had traveled much more than the 25 mile round trip shown on the odometer.