Crossing borders to the Casamance Region of Senegal

By now, our time in West Africa was coming to an end. As you know, we’d spend our time learning about things like the West African Slave trade and Islamic Polygamy. We also visited the smallest country on the African mainland.  Lastly, it wouldn’t be a proper trip to West Africa without having our fair share of wildlife excursions.

However, the adventure was not over yet. We still had few days left, and we were ready to move on from The Gambia. Since the Gambia is completely sandwiched between Senegal, we managed to use our visit to the country to cross through the southern border into the Casamance region of Senegal.

Back to Senegal – Arrived in the Casamance

Casamance 101

The Casamance region occupies the land south of The Gambia, adjacent to the Casamance River. Thanks to ample rainfall, the area is very lush. Most of the land is covered by dense vegetation; predominantly mangroves, oil palms, and raffia palms.

The main ethnic group in the Casamance region is Jola, however, they are still a minority if all the other ethnic groups of the realm are combined. Most of the tribes from the south are Christian, with a small minority of Animists and Wolof (Muslim). Keep in mind that the Wolof are the overall largest ethnic group in Senegal.


In the mid-1960s The Casamance as a whole, including all the different ethnic groups, felt they were not benefiting from the riches of the region as much as the northerners were. This sense of economic disenfranchisement from the greater Senegal was the spark that ignited the rise of a separatist movement that advocates for the independence and autonomous administrative division of the Casamance from Senegal.

As years went by, resentment grew from the marginalization and exploitation of Casamance by the Senegalese central government. This increase in popular resistance against the government helped unite all the ethnic groups of the Casamance region against the northerners. This sentiment gave rise to the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), which was officially founded in 1982.

The Casamance population is religiously and ethnically different from the rest of Senegal and has been seeking independence for about a half-century now. Since the late 90s there’s been ongoing low-level conflict waged between the Government of Senegal and the MFDC.

Eventually, the separatist movement became a full-out civil war between the North (predominantly Wolof – Muslim) and the South (predominantly Jola – Christian).

The bloodiest years of the conflict were during 1992–2001 with over 1,000 battle-related deaths.

In the 1990s, the discovery of oil in the region motivated the MFDC to organize mass demonstrations and call for immediate independence. Protests were suppressed with brutality by the Senegalese military, pushing the MFDC into armed rebellion.

The decade would prove to be vicious, and even though there were several ceasefires, none lasted – this was mostly caused by conflicting views within the MFDC.

Factions were formed, not only by ethnic lineage but also by those ready to negotiate and those refusing to compromise. In 1992 the MFDC divided into two main groups. Front Sud, Jola dominant and calling for full independence; and Front Nord, composed of Jola and non-Jola tribesmen ready to work alongside the Senegalese government.

During the 2000s the movement saw long strides as peace talks ensued. Compromises were made, and both sides attempted to end the military conflict with the common aim of restoring political and economic efficacy to Casamance. In 2004, the two sides signed a truce, which lasted all of two years – almost.

In 2006 the MFDC and the government reached an agreement that promise the Casamance political representation in Senegal; allowing them to become a political party. Sadly, the hard-line thinkers of the MFDC defected, resulting in the collapse of all peace talks and efforts. All the progress made was thwarted.

Since then, the low-level conflict has continued throughout the region; displacing thousands of civilians who’ve crossed over the border to the Gambia seeking refuge. Not to mention the thousands who have died in battle. Really quite sad.

I should note, even though divergent ethos does play a part in the Casamance conflict, it is not the root of the problem. In fact, Senegal is a religious country with a secular state. Its population is predominantly Muslim, however, there is also strong Christian representation.

People in Senega tend to co-exist peacefully. There is very little religious segregation – if any. There are churches and mosques, festivals and holidays for both. They even invite each other to each other’s festivals and attend these festivals for one another. I found this to be quite refreshing and great to see.


Laying at the mouth of the Casamance River, Zinguinchor is the chief town of the region. Despite being quite removed from the rest of the country – separated from the north by The Gambia and all – Zinguinchor is the seventh-largest city of Senegal. Unlike the semi-arid to arid north of Senegal, Ziguinchor has a tropical savanna climate, with heavy rainfall and luscious woodlands.

On our first day in Casamance, we drove straight to the capital. It was quite a long drive, but we enjoyed driving through such green scenery. As mentioned before, Casamance is rich in rainfall and flowing lakes, making for a beautiful and vibrant landscape.

After we arrived in Zinguinchor, we checked into the Riverside hotel and had some lunch there. We took the afternoon to relax. The last few days of travel were quite hectic and we wanted to recharge before the full day of exploration we had planned for the next day.

Ziguinchor – With 1863 deaths, the 2nd worst disaster of marine history started in this place. The MV Joola, extremely overloaded, sunk on the way to Dakar in 2002

Cap Skirring

Early the next day, we got on the road to Cap Skirring, a small town located at the very bottom of Senegal.

The town is actually just a few miles from the border with Guinea-Bissau; a Portuguese-speaking country to the south of Senegal. Alana and I have already made plans to visit GB and Mauritania later this month. So, by the end of October, we’ll also have seen the countries just north and just south of Senegal. 🤩

Just 1km to the border of Guinea-Bissau. But that’s for another trip in autumn. Now it’s time to fly back to Germany to be in time for my birthday party

Back to Cap Skirring – the town is located right on the Atlantic coast, at the very bottom of the Casamance region. It’s a popular spot for Europeans to vacation including stays at seaside resorts the likes of Club Med and other popular chains. To put it in perspective, this tiny area in West Africa has its own airport and golf course.

A little background, initially, the town was occupied by fishermen. In the 1960s however, it was “discovered” by the French of Ziguinchor and declared a recreational beach zone.

Today, the place is very well kept with lots of big hotels and luxurious resorts. The resorts are often used to host private events and big parties. While we were there everything (except a few resorts) was closed due to COVID… Naturally 🙄

On the way to Cap Skirring, we actually made a stop to visit the King of the Jola, who resides in the sacred woods of the commune of Oussouye. This was quite the experience.

The Jola

The Jola people are animists, they hold the belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Although each animist culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, animism is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ “spiritual” or “supernatural” perspectives.

Unlike the dominant cultures of West Africa, most Jola communities lack any social or political stratification such as being organized into families or neighborhoods. However, some communities do have a central authority, a king, whose role resembles more that of a priest than that of a conventional secular leader.

With the guidance of the spirit, the elders appoint the king. The king always comes from one of the three main families of Oussouye. The Jola believe in a god called ‘Ata Emit’ and the chosen king is the connecting vessel between them and their God.

Once a king is chosen, he remains king until he dies. Once dead, the kingdom is non-hereditary and a new king must be chosen. It can sometimes take spirit a few years, or sometimes even decades, to choose a new king. For instance, the current King of Oussouye is Sibilumbaï Diedhiou (Olivier Diedhiou before induction). He was chosen in 2000, 16 years after the death of his predecessor Sibacouyane Diabone.

We got to have Royal Audience with His Highness and some of his court. We met and asked him some questions about local customs and such, it was really neat. He has quite an impressive personality and an imposing presence dressed all in red. He doesn’t consider himself a dictator, instead, he’s very community-oriented and cares deeply for his people.

Royal Audience with His Highness, the Jola King Sibulumbai Diedhiue of Oussouye, Casamance, Senegal.
His animist kingdom is non-hereditary, the king being selected by the spirits of the nature. Impressive personality caring deeply for the local communities

From what I gathered, he is responsible for ensuring peace and social cohesion among the Jola. In the face of conflict, his people seek his council. His role is to reconcile the parties, not act as a judge, jury, and executioner. He also ensures that all of his people have food, distributing the rice from the royal fields fairly.

It was really interesting to learn that he was once a successful businessman in Dakar, and somehow, one day nature and spirit chose him to go live in the bushes among his people. He feels very honored and lucky to have been chosen to lead the Jola to autonomy and peace. Our meeting was great, we learned a lot.

Portrait of The beloved King

After meeting The King, we visited a local museum dedicated to the Jola culture. Big baobab trees, no surprise there – the Senegalese really love their baobab trees!

Baobab Tree

Alana getting bewitched by animist artifacts

After our brief detour, we finally arrived at Cap Skirring and went straight to check into our resort, we had booked a stay at the lovely Hotel Kadiandoumagne. We took a short nap and then went to the beach for another quick dip in the Atlantic before heading out on another excursion.

Cap Skirring

We drove to this sacred forest with a local guide. We wanted to learn more about the local fauna and the relationship of the Jola with nature. He took us to see some temples and how they worship their gods, etc. Eventually, we got to this part of the forest that had a big “circumcision tree”.

Animist Temple

We had a lot of questions there.

So, in the past, when boys turned 9, they were taken to these ‘sacred woods’ to undergo circumcision at the roots of this tree – without anesthetics, obviously. During circumcision, the children were not allowed to cry – this was imperative if they wanted to leave the woods as men.

Cap Skirring – Circumcision tree. At the age of 9, young boys gather a month in this sacred forest to initiate their adulthood. Wise elders will chop off their foreskin on the roots of this tree – without anesthesia. It is forbidden to cry if you want to become a man!

Today, tradition remains but the circumcision part of the rite is done in hospitals. After circumcision, however, the boys still have to go spend a month in the woods to learn how to be men. During the whole month, the kids stay in the forest with the elders of the community.

During this time, they are meant to learn from them all about the basic values in the life of a man… you know? Like courage, bravery, the difficulties of life, and how to keep a secret no matter the cost. The idea is that they enter the woods as children and leave as men.

Once they return to their home, they are no longer kids, they are men with rights and able to do everything a grown man can do. A very interesting culture indeed, I appreciated that they leave really aligned with, and grounded in nature. You can really see and feel it while there.

Eventually, we made our way back to the resort. We had a PCR test scheduled at our hotel room. We were flying to Germany in just a few days so it had to be done. Thankfully, it was no hassle at all. We had a guy come to our hotel to collect the sample in the comfort of our hotel room, it was a very quick and effortless process.

Once the test was done, we had some time to enjoy all the nice offerings of the resort. We spent some time at the beach and by the pool catching the sunset. We also had some great food at the restaurant of the resort.

Sunset in the Casamance

Once again, I dared to have raw meat, it was a really nice carpaccio and steak tartar. Keep in mind you really shouldn’t eat such things in Africa. After all, I did have a mild case of food poisoning after this meal. Nothing too bad, no spewing or anything, but I did feel like I was dying for a little bit.

Two times raw red meat in West Africa. Shortly before my birthday, that’s quite a risk. Last year same date in Croatia I had the worst food poisoning in my life.

Les Hibiscus restaurant

The next day we were already heading back to Zinguinchor to catch our flight back to the North. On the way to the airport, we made a small stop at another local Jola village to see how the women and children live. We took some nice pictures with the kids and continued our journey straight to the airport. We had a short flight to Dakar for our final days in Senegal.

Casamance Village life

African Children

In the capital, we rented a car and drove straight to Sali, which is the main beach resort area in the north of Senegal, quite a big town with a lot of European tourists and big hotel chains and resorts. The drive wasn’t too long since it’s located about an hour south of Dakar.

In this area, there is actually quite a good infrastructure, especially when compared to the rest of the country. We had booked a stay at a nice beachside resort there as well. We had a lovely dinner at the restaurant and enjoyed our last night in West Africa. The next day, we were traveling to Germany in the late evening but had a full day planned before flying out.

To start, we ventured around Sali for a bit and then went on a Safari excursion at the Bandia Wildlife Refuge. We had done a few safaris a few weeks before during our time in Namibia, but we hadn’t done any Safaris thus far in Senegal.

The park we visited was actually really nice, not a lot of big game, so no lions, no cheetahs, no leopards, no elephants… We did get to see some rhinos and some buffalos, which was quite special.

During our time in Namibia, we got to see everything except buffalos, which as you now know, are part of the Big Five, so we were pretty thrilled. The Big Five game animals of Africa are lions, leopards, rhinoceros (both south-central black and southern white species), elephants, and Cape buffalos. The term came from big-game hunters, it refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt by foot in Africa.

Animals of the Bandia forest

Bandia Wildlife Refuge

On the ride, we also saw a lot of gazelles and warthogs, crocodiles, giraffes, also a lot of birds and monkeys. We spent almost 2 hours driving around looking for animals. At some point, we even saw some hyenas in a cage – they are kept isolated, otherwise, they would eat all the other animals.

Not entirely Koscher

After the Safari, we had a visit planned to the Somone lagoon, a mangrove area spanning 700 hectares. It’s located really close to Sali, only about 30 miles off the coast. There’s a nice beach there, and you can do some water sports and enjoy the nice water. We opted for a boat tour of the area instead.

Last beach fun in Senegal
at Lagune De La Somone

We found ourselves driving through mangroves once again. We saw lots of interesting birds and took lots of pictures. The area is famous for having a large pelican population, so we got to see some. We simply explored the waterways a bit, we just wanted to take in the West African scenery one last time. Before we knew it, we were heading back to the hotel to have some lunch and enjoy one last relaxing afternoon at the resort.

Alana worked out a bit and then had a massage while I worked. In the late afternoon, we packed our bags and made our way to the airport.

Final thoughts after my first time in West Africa… While The Gambia is indeed a shithole, Senegal is a great place to visit. A melting pot of diverse cultures and tribes living together in peace (for the most part).

I really wasn’t expecting such an abundance of landscapes, really great mobile infrastructure (good internet everywhere!), great food, and surprisingly nice hotels. Last but not least, I found the Senegalese to be really friendly and welcoming people. We really enjoyed our time here.

While The Gambia is indeed a shithole, Senegal is a great place. Lots of cultures and tribes living peacefully together and an abundance of different landscapes. Extremely good mobile infrastructure (Internet everywhere), great French food, friendly people and surprisingly nice hotels to stay. Really enjoyed our time here.

A stressful return to Europe

This is a good time to tell you about the struggles we faced on our way to Germany. We had booked an overnight flight to Frankfurt with a stopover in Madrid; which is normally not a big deal. This time, it still wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was likely to be a big deal for Alana as an unvaccinated Brazilian.

You may be aware that at that time of these travels, there was still a travel ban across the European Union against unvaccinated non-EU nationals. I had to do A LOT of research to find the loopholes and prepare any paperwork we would need. In my research, I found out that unmarried life partners (common-law) can accompany their partner and come to Germany.

All they have to do is meet the requirements and complete all the forms and paperwork. In order to be allowed to enter, you have to declare you are in a long-term, committed relationship and you must have some supporting documentation.

Luckily, we had traveled a lot together over the last months; so we could prove we’d been in a serious relationship for a while. After all, we had dozens of hotel reservations and plane tickets booked together. So, we got all the papers ready and hoped it would work out. We were not sure it would work, after all, in gray-area cases such as ours, it is really up to the customs officer who manages your case.

Spoiler alert: In the end, entering Germany was super easy. Surprisingly, the issues we had were at the airport and not COVID-related.

As you know, I travel with carry-on only; and as you would expect, Alana travels with a big, big suitcase. Being used to carry-on, I didn’t think to book checked-in luggage for the trip. I included 23 kilos of luggage but as hand luggage. 🤦‍♂️

So, we had to pay for checked-in luggage, which was 150 euro. Quite expensive when you opt for these things last minute. Turns out, I’d given all my cash to Abu and our driver as tip for the amazing service they provided during our time in Senegal. When the time came to pay for the luggage, they didn’t take cards and I had no cash.

I had to exit the check-in area and go past security control to look for an ATM. Thankfully, Abu was waiting for us to go fly off before leaving, so he was there to help point me to the ATMS. I found one that didn’t work. At this point Abu offered to give back his tip so I could pay. Luckily, we didn’t have to resort to that because I found an ATM that worked just in the nick of time.

I got the cash and rushed back to security, only to realize I had left all my documents at the last ATM. I ran back, stress levels rising and running out of time. Happily, my papers were still there, and in the end, everything worked out. I was able to pay for the luggage and just like that we were flying to Frankfurt via Madrid.

This was actually Alana’s first time visiting the EU. She didn’t really know anything about the Schengen zone and how there are no border controls between these countries, so when we landed in Madrid, she was a bit nervous she wouldn’t get in.

Turns out all the hassle of the research and getting the common-law documentation ready was totally in vain. Noone asked us any questions upon arrival to Europe. Getting through customs took us no more than 5 minutes, they just looked at her passport, stamped it and we were officially in the EU.

In Germany, same thing, no one even asked to see our common-law partnership documentation! I was surprised to see there was no police control when we were getting out of the plane or by the luggage collection like there was the last time I was in Germany.

In Germany, Alana was still pretty scared that the police would come and send her back and she would miss my birthday. Even after we were past security, at the Sixt counter getting the keys to the car, she still didn’t believe everything worked out so easily.

It wasn’t until we finally left the airport that her excitement set it and she began to cry. She couldn’t believe she had made it to Europe and now no one could stop her or send her back. From the airport, we got into our convertible and drove straight to the castle to start my birthday celebrations.

The rest of our time in Germany is a story for another post. Until next time!

Sali – Goodbye Atlantic. Hope to be on my boat on the same latitude other side in 5 weeks again