Village street with men sitting on bench
Culture & tradition,  Monday walks,  Senegal

A village built on shells

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.

Low wooden bridge
Looking back at the bridge
Man wheeling trolley on wooden bridge
On the bridge

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.

Plates of shellfish pieces on the ground
Conch and other shellfish drying

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.

Square with trees and people sitting
Calvary on the left, bayan tree on the right

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!

Shell Cemetery

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.

Small thatched buildings on stilts by mangroves
The old granaries

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

25 Comments

  • rkrontheroad

    Another fascinating journey. Women’s work is never done, it seems, especially in villages where the work is so physically intensive. I love the shells, how nice that they incorporate them into their lives in so many ways. And it’s encouraging to hear that the religions live together without conflict, unlike so many places in the world.

  • leightontravels

    What a fascinating place. I came across a shell village during my wanderings around the city of Quanzhou in China. Quite a few similarities, minus the pigs 😉

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Great post Sarah, the women are in such colourful clothes. And without judgement, we also think that in many cultures the women seem to work hard whilst the men are sat chatting and drinking tea. Even closer to home in Greece you often see the women doing the household chores and the men at the Kafeneon with their worry beads, playing drafts and putting the world to rights. Its what’s wonderful about travel, seeing the way of life in that country. I (Michaela) have briefly seen life in Senegal, but we would so like to have the experience you have had in this country.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 Yes, you’re right of course – now I think about it, I have noted this elsewhere too!

      We had a fantastic week in this part of Senegal. The lodge we stayed at was a little paradise and very comfortable indeed, but the focus for tours was very local and intimate – the market, Mass at a local church, a fishing village etc. A great place to stay 😀

  • restlessjo

    Isn’t it great that different religions can live alongside each other harmoniously? Why do we find that so hard? It’s fascinating to read of other’s lives. Not sure that I’d swap though 🙂 🙂 Many thanks for the link, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s something Senegal is very proud of and you can see why – although wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where this was the norm and not even worthy of mention?!

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow Sarah, this is a wonderful story. I love the idea of no motorised vehicles … I can just imagine how peaceful this island must be when everyone left and it’s just the locals there.
    And I’m always amazed when different religions live so closely together without fighting/arguing – maybe a very good example to some parts of the world …
    Beautiful photo’s as always and a really nice post!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Corna, I’m so pleased you liked this 🙂 I think you’d love visiting here! Edouardo painted a lovely picture of the island at night.

      Senegal is a good example of religious tolerance generally, although elsewhere the balance is more like 90% Muslim, 10% Christian. But there are some exceptions, like Shell Island and a village we visited another day with Cheikh. We met his in-laws there. He is Muslim but had married a Catholic girl – another example of their well-integrated society 🙂

  • margaret21

    Fascinating stuff. Is this all from memory, or do you keep diaries during your travels? I slightly regret that for me, blogging at the time has taken the place of diaries. Perhaps I should revert to my older practice – I used to record far more, and not all of it for publication!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Gosh no, not from memory! For most of my travel-related posts I’m adapting old Virtual Tourist reviews and/or my online travel journal on TravellersPoint which I started when VT was closed down. This particular story started as a VT review of our tour, was adapted to be included in a TravellersPoint retrospective journal of our time in Senegal and then I further tweaked it to work as a stand-alone blog post here 😀

      Since the quite early days of my involvement with VT I adopted the practice of saving all my reviews as Word documents, mainly because back then it had an annoying habit of crashing just as you’d finished writing and all would be lost! But it’s also proved a great way of keeping my memories alive and now those old reviews are a wonderful source of blog material 🙂

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