The Shell Island of Fadiouth

The first thing I see on the Senegalese island of Fadiouth are the wading pigs. The first thing I remember seeing. Only the camera has recorded the woman who wades beside the swine.

“God willing, you’ll return here for your wedding,” our guide, Jean-Paul, tells Ben and me as we cross the bridge leading to the island. Ben’s dad looks on without comment.

In my memory, Jean-Paul is wearing a Senegalese outfit quilted from thin, multicolored stripes of patterned fabric. In reality, he sports a polo shirt above his quilted pants, and a woolly red hat and headphones above that. The large cross around his neck proclaims that he’s as Catholic as his namesake pope; he appears keen to share a religion with us. He already shares it with 90% of the inhabitants of Fadiouth – an island of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim nation.

Christianity explains Fadiouth’s substitution of pigs for Senegal’s omnipresent goats. Clams explain the pigs’ partial submersion: the animals are digging for food. The local pork, Jean-Paul reveals, is naturally salty.

In fact, clams explain the entre island, built over centuries from discarded shells. For a moment, I’m skeptical: where did the first clam-eater stand before there was an island? All I can see of the ground is scalloped whiteness, yes, but what if this is only the outer layer – the shell, if you will – above a pile of ordinary dirt?

Then, I remember the tide. My skepticism washes away; we walk on. The detritus of history crunches underfoot.


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At first glance, the corrugated-metal church is the least interesting building on the island. I change my mind when I enter: birds perch on the rafters, singing angelically. I imagine my childhood priest regarding these feathered desecrators with horror; then, I visualize St Francis rubbing his hands with glee.

As we stop by the holy water, Jean-Paul asks if we’re Christian. We all shake our heads; I’m not feel like bringing up my Catholic heritage. “Can I give you a blessing?” he asks. We nod and are besprinkled; his prayer goes on forever. I want to get going, learn things I don’t already know.

“God willing, you’ll come back here for your wedding,” Jean-Paul. repeats as he takes our picture at the front of the church. “God willing,” Ben’s dad nods, deadpan.

And then: “Today was a big day for you: the day of your baptism.”

I imagine my godlessness flowing out of me and into the body of the pig, still submerged in its unholy waters.

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On the cemetery island (connected to Fadiouth by a bridge), crosses, shells, and baobabs combine into austere perfection against a glistening, watery backdrop. I wouldn’t mind resting here myself. In one area, little plaques substitute for crosses; Jean-Paul proudly explains that Muslims lie beside Christians in this cemetery.

At the exit, he lifts up what appears to be a little pouch which had been hanging on the gate. His circumcision charm, he explains. “I am a Christian; I am from the Serere tribe. I keep both customs, but they don’t mix. I leave the tribal here; what is non-Christian stays off Fadiouth.”

I don’t see any other charms in the cemetery, and for a moment, I’m skeptical again. What if Jean-Paul is performing his Serere traditions the way his ancestors performed Christianity: to appease the white foreigners?

No, Jean-Paul, I believe you. I know so little about you, but I do know this: your polo shirt and your rainbow pants, your charm and your cross – all are yours.

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If you enjoyed this story, you might like Three Boys and a Suitcase (a small meditation on walks through Dakar), or Between Scam and Symbol: Gorée Island’s House of Slaves (which partly explains my skepticism towards tour guides.) And if you’d like to receive future essays in your inbox, sign up for my mailing list below.

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