Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Finding Senegal in St. Martinville

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I found a piece of Europe off the coast of Africa. I caught the chaloupe on the docks in Dakar, Senegal, chugged out a couple miles, and landed on Gorée Island. I traded diesel-fueled congestion and constant attention from traders and potential marriage partners (or partners of a more informal nature) for nearly deserted sandy paths between bougainvillea-draped villas and prim bistros along Gorée’s calm harbor.

Last summer I found a found a piece of Gorée in St. Martinville, Louisiana. I camped at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park nearby and spent a few days exploring the town of 6,000 that straddles Bayou Teche.

In the St. Martinville Historic District I found buildings from the 1800s, a large oak, and a much-visited grave that might or might not have a person in it.

The African American Museum nestles under the Evangeline Oak and overlooks the Teche. At the first display I traded the wrought iron balconies and live oaks outside 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 your stomach is stretched as tight as a kel.

A photograph of men eating cheeb u jen (rice and fish) sent me back to lunch at the communal bowl in the deep shade of my Peace Corp family’s neem tree. Many of St. Martinville’s earliest non-Native American residents were African slaves, some of whom might have passed through Gorée’s Slave House. More recently, the Louisiana town forged a happier connection by becoming the sister city of Gorée Island.

Spidery 17th century script in an open ledger at the museum listed 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 ships, due to better care for passengers.

On the young readers’ shelf in a corner, I found 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 and planned my Peace Corps trip to and go to Africa.

I left St. Martinville that evening as a pink flamingo sunset painted mounds of low clouds behind me. I turned on to progressively smaller roads winding 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.

Somewhere between manufactured and oozing, the Thistle and Shamrock came on NPR. I turned up the volume, expecting to hear the pipes and fiddles of the highlands. But the rhythms of African filled the car as Youssou N’Dour and Alan Stivell sang A United Earth.

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 life. When one of my trips to Dakar for a periodic gamma globulin shot coincided with N'dour coming home from the road, he serenaded me, and the entire neighborhood of Fann Hock, from his nightclub until 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.