Fadiouth is an island village, and a rather unique one. It is also known as Shell Island, and the reason for this is pretty obvious; it is built on layers and layers of shells. These have accumulated over the centuries as the locals subsisted on cockle fishing in the shallows of the mangrove lagoons and simply discarded the shells, or used them as building materials.
The village of Joal-Fadiouth lies on the Senegalese coast just north of the Sine-Saloum delta region. It consists of a large and fairly ordinary village (Joal) linked to a smaller, much more interesting one (Fadiouth), both for administrative purposes and physically via a bridge.
Visiting Shell Island
Our driver Cheikh, he who also took us to market in Nguéniène, parked near the bridge to the island. He explained that he would not be able to act as our guide here; as if you want to visit Fadiouth you have to hire one of the syndicated official guides. He arranged for us to visit with Edouardo, who lives in the village and proved to be an excellent guide.
We started our visit with a walk across the wooden bridge. This is about 500 metres long and used only by pedestrians and donkey or horse carts.
The village has no motorised transport; both bridge and all its streets are designed for pedestrians and the ubiquitous horse and cart alone.
This makes it a relatively peaceful place, which Edouardo clearly loved. He talked a lot about the contrast with Dakar, which he enjoys visiting for occasional lively weekends but where he would not want to live. And he enthused about the magical evenings here; with everyone relaxed, visitors all gone home and the lights of the village reflected on the water.
A walk through the village
Edouardo took us on a meandering walk along many of the village’s streets; and on all of them we were walking on shells. With no cars to worry about, and small houses, it seemed to me that many locals live much of their lives on these streets; not just going about their business (working, shopping etc.) but also meeting friends for a gossip or simply relaxing. It also seemed to me, perhaps unfairly, that the women were doing most of the work and the men most of the sitting and gossiping! But I shouldn’t judge on just an hour’s visit, and I did see one man weaving.
Apart from tourism the main source of income here is of course fishing. We saw conch meat and other shell fish drying in the sun.
The villagers also farm land on the mainland, with the main crop being millet which they use as couscous. We saw women washing the grain in the waters of the lagoon using large calabashes. This, with fish, forms the staple diet here.
Religion on Shell Island
A significant difference between Fadiouth and most other Senegalese villages is that the religious balance here is the exact opposite of the country as a whole, with 90% Christian (Roman Catholic) and 10% Muslim. Edouardo told us that the two religions live side by side in harmony, as they do generally in Senegal. When the church roof was destroyed in a storm a few years ago the whole village addressed the problem; everyone contributed to its repair, with left-over funds later being put towards restoration work at the Friday Mosque.
But older than either of these religions is the ancient belief of animism, which continues to be practiced to some extent today. Christians and Muslims alike overlay their official worship with traditional elements; and a sacred baobab tree stands side by side with an impressive Calvary in the main square. Edouardo explained that at funerals the body is paraded through the streets and brought here to be blessed according to the customs of both faiths.
The village is divided into six districts. Each has its own patron saint whose image can be seen on the large red and white coloured plaques around the wall of the church, and as a statue at the heart of ‘their’ district. I didn’t manage to get any good pictures of these statues however, as they are protected by glass; but we were able to take photos of those around the church. We also caught a glimpse of the main Friday mosque at one end of the village, and passed another small one.
Another thing that struck us here was the large number of pigs; as of course the largely Christian population is happy to eat pork. These roam freely around the streets – truly ‘free-range’ meat!
The religious tolerance of which Fadiouth is so proud extends to its famous cemetery. This is located on a smaller neighbouring island, joined to the village by another wooden bridge. It accommodates deceased Christians and Muslims in two distinct but undivided sections. The Christian graves are marked with white crosses, the Muslim for the most part with simple iron plaques; and the latter are notable for being all aligned with the head facing east, to Mecca, while the Christian graves are more higgledy-piggledy in their arrangement.
On the highest point of this tiny island (high being a relative term – we are talking about an elevation of only a few metres) is a large cross. From here we had extensive views back to the village and to the nearby old granaries, raised on stilts above the water. These are no longer in use but are kept to show tourists.
From the cemetery you can either cross by boat back to the mainland, detouring close to these granaries; or as we did retrace your steps over first one and then another wooden bridge.
We ended our walk, which I am sharing with Jo’s Monday Walks, back at the car where Cheikh was waiting patiently. Here we said goodbye and thank you to Edouardo, and tipped him well for his informative tour, one of the highlights of our visit to Senegal.
I visited Senegal in 2016