The Casamance region of South Senegal is a region in flux. Nestled directly South of The Gambia, Casamance embraces its own unique identity typified by its uniquely lush green sub tropical climate compared to the more arid regions of Northern and Eastern Senegal.
Getting to the Casamance is a job easier said than done, unless you’re blessed with your own private jet or yacht. Senegal’s only international airport lies far to the North in dusty Dakar. Traversing the cratered roads and epic Gambia river on the way to the Casamance will probably go down as the most painful travel experience I’ve had to date. The journey can take anything from 10 hours to several days, depending on the situation at the militant Gambian border crossing, road congestion issues and the decrepit ferries that will take you to the other side. Other than being an absolute bastard of a journey, it just goes to show how isolated this region truly is from the rest of Senegal.
On arriving in the Casamance, I noticed two things in particular. An abundance of thick green forests brimming with fruit tress and the obvious presence of military vehicles packed with armed soldiers patrolling the roads. I had read about the past violence notorious in the region, but was taken aback by the quantity of military encampments still present along the roadside. Something of an ominous undertone to the visually beautiful landscape that welcomes weary travellers into the Casamance.
In my experience, people here are Casamancians first, Senegalese second. A proud people recovering from the recent memory of widespread violence across the region. The breakaway MFDC Casamance independence group fought a long lasting insurrection against the Senegalese government lasting over 30 years. Violence officially ended in 2014 with the signing of a unilateral peace settlement. However, rural areas continue to bear the scars of warfare. Unexploded land mines are still a cause of major concern in some areas. Families have been widely dispersed after fleeing conflict and young people are struggling to pick up the pieces caused by a generation of fighting.
This fluid movement of people has lead to major obstacles being laid in the way of the future educational progress of affected young people. School registration is a major issue due to the lack of governmental certificates being issued. Huge numbers of young boys in particular don’t officially exist as residents within the new regions they have fled to. Access to training and apprenticeships are inhibited by this knock on effect of mass population dispersal.
Despite the past upheavals, peace seems to have found a permanent place across the Casamance. The capital of the region, Ziguinchor is as wacky, noisy and chaotic as any Senegalese city but violence and crime aren’t words I’d use to describe it. After 11 weeks living here, I feel pretty safe walking the streets alone or hailing cabs hours after night fall. Road safety isn’t exactly at a premium and Ziguinchor won’t be winning any awards for waste disposal management, but things just seem to work here despite the obvious lack of basic amenities and city council funding.
Along with the beauty of the Casamance interior, the region also boasts an impressively untouched coast line. The gem of this being the small former fishing village of Cap Skiirng, a semi established tourist resort popular with French and Spanish holiday makers. The hotels, built far back from the beach luckily don’t spoil its rustic beauty and by European standards you pretty much have the place to yourself even in ‘peak’ holiday season.