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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Senegal's decaying city of charm
Tidiane Sy
BBC News, St Louis

A woman sitting by a colourful house and doorway in St Louis, Senegal (Copyright BBC News website reader Michelle Donnelly-Bray)
The architectural charm of St Louis is under threat

Steeped in legend and watery charm, St Louis - one of Senegal's oldest and most famous cities - likes to live in its glorious past.

Built on the Atlantic coast, it recently hosted the 13th International Jazz Festival and is considered by Unesco as a world heritage site.

But for decades it has been living with the consequences of a decision taken in the early years after independence in 1960 to transfer the capital from St Louis along the coast to Dakar.

This was the second time the city was downgraded, after losing its status as colonial capital for French West Africa and Mauritania in 1902.

Nostalgia

These political decisions seriously affected the city and its residents, says veteran St Louis resident and storyteller Kolo Diakhate.

St Louis resident and storyteller Kolo Diakhate
Some still wonder, is St Louis to die or to resuscitate?
Storyteller Kolo Diakhate

He is considered by fellow city dwellers an aficionado on everything St Louisan.

"St Louis lost its strength and essence, with its youth heading to Dakar," Mr Diakhate says about the transfer of the capital.

"The city remained, recounting its history with nostalgia, but life came to a standstill and morale was very low.

"Some still wonder, is St Louis to die or to resuscitate?

"But I'll tell you, St Louis is a beautiful city which has an asset rarely found anywhere nowadays: Tolerance."

Threat

Furthermore, with the river meeting the sea here and water bordering almost everything, the city offers beautiful sceneries and landscapes.

St Louis' Faidherbe Bridge
Mystery surrounds the true origins of St Louis' famous bridge

But with the decrepit walls of its decaying colonial buildings, most of the architectural charm of St Louis is now under threat.

Among the few reminders of past glories which still impresses is the Faidherbe Bridge.

Named after Gen Louis Faidherbe, a former colonial governor, it has become the most visible feature of the city's identity.

Designed to connect the two parts making St Louis - the island and the mainland - the bridge has a history of its own surrounded in mystery.

St Louis' nose

One story has it that the bridge was designed for Budapest, and the Hungarians rejected it because of its metal frame. On hearing this Gen Faidherbe requested it to be sent to Saint Louis.

Senegalese fishing boats in St Louis (Copyright BBC News website reader Michelle Donnelly-Bray)
With the river meeting the sea, water borders almost everything

"Untrue," says Mr Diakhate, whose already tall stature seems to grow as he tells his stories.

"On the contrary - the colonial powers launched a bid for the construction of the bridge. But their representative ignored that and freely asked an entrepreneur to build this bridge."

But more than history, this bridge represents for St Louis what the nose is to the human being.

Tasty

And the city's fame also has culinary roots, being the home to Senegal's national dish: Ceb-u-djen - rice and fish.

"This is no myth: We have the right to claim paternity for the rice and fish," says Mr Diakhate, explaining that Penda Mbaye - once a cook at the governor's residence - was the inventor of the dish.

"She used to prepare a fish sauce to be served with barley. One day because of a barley shortage, she was inspired to cook rice instead.

"The quality of this meal so impressed St Louisan gourmets that the governor himself decided to go for ceb-u-djen all the time."

Corridors of colour

St Louis is also renowned for the elegance of its residents, partly because it attracts more than 10,000 foreign tourists every year.

And also for its tradition of afternoon outings: When in the rest of Senegal the afternoon - or takussaan as it is called locally - was coming to an end, St Louis was livening up.

For St Louis, takussaan has a special meaning, Mr Diakhate explains.

"Before dusk and after having done all their home duties, Saint Louis' residents used to dress up, to go visit someone at the hospital, to go to the market, to go attend some family ceremony.

"All these diverse but converging movements would create a fairy atmosphere, a combination of colours, of perfumes and jewellery, which would make the streets a corridor of beauty every day.

"That's what we call the St Louis Takussaan."

Storyteller Kolo Diakhate can go on like this for hours recounting the history of this city created in the mid-19th Century, always correcting a myth here, adding lyricism to a legend there and embroidering some historical facts.

And he hardly ever admits that St Louis' glory and golden days belong in the past.


SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Senegal
12 May 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Senegal
30 Dec 04 |  Country profiles
In pictures: Senegal pilgrimage
30 Mar 05 |  In Pictures
Senegal celebrates the sheep
17 Jan 05 |  Africa


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