Tabaski in Saint-Louis

The journey from Dakar to Saint-Louis should take around five hours. It took me nine hours instead.

Let me set the scene. It’s the night before the final day of Tabaski, and the final wave of people are travelling home to be with their families. Tabaski is the Wolof name for Eid al-Adha and it’s an unmissable event for Senegalese people. Our vehicle — an ancient delivery van with bench seats retrofitted in the back — is overcrowded and stuck in gridlock.

There are too many people on the makeshift bench seats and there’s hardly any leg room. The bus keeps stopping to load and unload sheep on the roof, which people were buying to slaughter on Tabaski the next day. Nevertheless, me and the other passengers had a good time. A wise old man lectured people about religion, to which he received a mixture of reverence and eyerolls, while a young guitarist made sure everyone knew the lyrics to his favourite songs.

As we near Saint-Louis, the driver stops by the side of the road in darkness to pick up an extra passenger. There’s an audible groan reverberating around the van. Everyone is tired of having to constantly adjust and take turns in using the back rests. But the driver insists, so we accommodate yet another person.

This guy is a bit of a joker, and also a bit drunk. Before long, the whole bus has warmed to this newcomer. He’s chatting about music with the guitarist and about religion with the old man. Suddenly, the rear window smashes and glass flies everywhere. The driver pulls over in dismay, but before the bus can even stop, the joker is pushed out the back and a few of the bigger guys jump out with him. I feel a bunch of random hands holding me back in my seat.

A fist-fight erupts in pitch black next to the highway. It’s three against the joker, and he doesn’t stand a chance. He ends up on the ground, bruised and with his clothes badly torn. The three other guys get back on the bus and the other passengers begin to chat hesitantly. I still have no idea what just happened. Just two people on the entire bus spoke English — a Nigerian sex worker who lived between Dakar and Saint-Louis, and a Malian student was visiting his aunty in Saint Louis.

From what I could piece together from these two, the guy had completely overreacted to an innocuous joke from the guitarist. In his drunken rage, he punched through a window. The consensus is that the bus driver had it coming; he got greedy by picking up an extra passenger when the bus was already overcrowded, and now the cost to repair the window is more than the extra money he would’ve pocketed. “That’s what he gets for having big eyes,” the Nigerian woman told me.

The tone for the remainder of the trip is much less jovial. As we pull into the bus station, the Nigerian lady invites me to stay with her. While I do not at all doubt the genuineness of her hospitality, when we arrived at her room in the brothel I got bad vibes, especially from the guy she referred to as the night guard who was passed out drunk on the floor. 

We decided to go into town so she could show me some of the clubs. They were all closed because of Tabaski. This lady, a Christian, did not celebrate the Muslim holiday which explains how we ended up in that situation. We had dinner at the only restaurant that was open, and return to the brothel where I collect my backpack and head off into the night.

Saint-Louis Senegal travel blog
This photo of a buzzing Sanit-Louis street was taken at exactly 2:55 AM.

I’m in a weird part of town a long walk from the city centre, but I have a good sense of direction and can retrace my steps. It’s 3 AM and the streets are still buzzing. People are buying everything — food, clothes and even last-minute sheep — for tomorrow’s celebration which is technically the same day given the early hour. A man approaches me in one of the sheep markets curious as to why a tourist is in this part of town at this hour. He’s one of the few Senegalese people I met who spoke good English, and after chatting for a while, he invites me to join his family feast tomorrow (technically the same day!!)

I keep walking through the sandy streets until I reach the Faidherbe Bridge, which links the old part of town to the mainland. The iron and steel structure is the main landmark of Saint-Louis. It was supposedly designed by Gustav Eiffel, however Eiffel’s company actually lost the tender to a rival in the late 1800s.

Faidherbe Bridge in Senegal
Saint-Louis’ main landmark, poorly illuminated in my late-night photo.

When I reach the old town, pretty much everything is shut. The streets here are much darker and emptier than they were on the mainland. My offline maps app lists one hostel within walking distance, so I head there. I knock on the door for a good 15 minutes to no avail. It’s super early in the morning now. As a last resort, I ring the number listed. I can hear their phone ringing from the street, and then somebody picks up. Awa, the owner/manager, was one of the kindest and most hospitable hosts ever, even though I woke her up at an ungodly hour to let me in.

In the morning, I wake to Awa standing at the end of my bed. She’s with the only other guest, a young French guy, who is about to check out. He says that she’d like to invite me to join her family’s feast for Tabaski. I’m extremely flattered, but my first response is to say I already have plans to eat with the family of the guy I met last night. “I don’t think you can say no to her,” the French guy says. He’s right.

My guilt is later absolved by the fact my phone did not charge overnight and is completely dead. I later find out this is due to water damage which causes me some trouble in Mauritania, but those are stories for another day. For the time being, the guy I met last night cannot call me and I cannot call him. Yes I feel bad for not being able to see him, but I’m technically not ditching him either.

Awa tells me to explore the city a bit and to meet her back at the hostel around midday. The sandy streets on the Island of Saint-Louis are filled with blood. On every corner a family is slaughtering its prized sheep. There’s no drainage so the blood just forms puddles in the sand. Tails, trotters and some organs are strewn across the ground (however, very little is wasted and almost all of the animal is cooked and eaten).

Saint-Louis fishing boats
People washing sheep meat and organs in the river mouth.

Every time I sit to take in the atmosphere, kids approach me. Some only speak Wolof, but others speak French and assume I do too because of my whiteness. It’s always funny when people genuinely don’t believe I don’t speak French. Despite the language barrier, it’s clear that many of these kids are inviting me to join their family feasts. It seems the spirit of Tabaski has completely taken over Saint-Louis, and everyone is being welcoming and hospitable to everyone. My guilt returns each time a child cannot understand my polite decline of their generous offer.

Eventually, it’s time to return to the hostel. Awa would be waiting for me. We walked a few blocks down the island to her family’s home. Like many homes in the area, it was several rooms arranged around a courtyard. Today, that’s where everyone was hanging out — hacking bones, soaking meat, or just sitting around and singing, gossiping and laughing.

Tabaski cooking in Senegal
Preparing the sheep is a team effort.

I felt like the dopey neighbour dragged to join in on Christmas lunch. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. What’s important is that Awa’s family was lovely, and the food they cooked was incredible. All through the day we snacked on different pieces of mutton cooked in different ways. The highlight was a dish stacked with meat, chips, onions, salad and, of course, mustard.

Meanwhile, I spent much of my time hanging with one of the teenage sons who was training to be a videographer. He was interested in my camera, and because of him, I now have plenty of behind-the-scenes videos from the day.

Tabaski meal in Senegal
Our Tabaski feast. This is modern Senegalese cuisine.

After lunch the adults — myself included — grew fat and tired. It’s a natural response to such an enormous feast.

This is the part of the day where the kids come our, wandering from house-to-house around the neighbourhood, asking for coins. They’re all dressed in their best clothes — often brand new outfits without a single crease. As the kids enter the courtyard, they go around to each of us and extend their hand for a coin or two. I copy what the others do. For some groups of kids, one of Awa’s relatives subtly tells me to give a bigger or smaller denomination.

Tabaski festivities in Saint-Louis, Senegal (travel blog)
Kids from around the neighbourhood started wandering in.

As the sun moves lower in the sky, the flow of kids peters out to a trickle. It’s time for everyone to have a serious nap, and more importantly for me, it’s time to go.

I spent the late afternoon wandering the streets of the two islands. I was probably the only adult around, save for the men who sold lollies to the kids. That’s what all the young ones did with their newfound riches — buy heaps and heaps of lollies. I couldn’t stop drawing parallels to Halloween back home.

Tabaski festivities in Saint-Louis, Senegal (travel blog)
Kids mingling on the last afternoon of Tabaski.

Eventually, some of these hyperactive, sugar-addled kids ask for photos. Everyone’s dressed up so nicely and they all want to see what they look like.

Suddenly, a crowd forms. Everyone wants their photo. Kids start grabbing at my camera. I try to let them have a go taking photos but they instantly put their finger on the lens and hold it upside down. I figure I’d have to show them how do to things myself.

One group of girls worked the camera as if they were magazine models. Their outfits were stunning but it was their own fierce energy which made the photos pop.

Tabaski festivities in Saint-Louis, Senegal (travel blog)
The kids suddenly decided to have a Tabaski photo shoot.

Some younger boys who didn’t have fancy outfits then wanted a turn making the craziest faces possible. This was the effects of the sugar, and it was so much fun.

I hate the idea of white dudes gallivanting around Africa (or anywhere outside the West, really) taking photos of random Black kids. But to me, this wasn’t one of those times. It was a crazy, fun, moment that was completely initiated and led by the kids. I took the photos on their terms, with their eagerness to work the camera bordering on aggression at times. But it was all good fun, and I smile thinking about it two years later.

The travel blogger in question
It’s me!

Suddenly, it’s dark. Everything is closed. The kids are becoming exhausted. I start to wander home.

Thus far, my stay in Saint-Louis had been dominated by the joy of Tabaski. But what actually brought me to the area in the first place was the French colonial architecture of the old town on Saint-Louis Island, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This tiny island at the mouth of the Senegal River was the capital French West Africa until 1902, and the capital of Senegal and Mauritania until 1957. The old town has a modern layout and uniform architecture. Add in a few decades of tasteful decay and the whole place feels really quaint.

Buildings in Saint-Louis, Senegal
The Citroën 2CV was a nice touch.

I hope I don’t sound like some sort of colonialism apologist. I realise that this same architecture and town planning is a grim testament to France’s brutal domination of this corner of Africa, and of much of the world more generally. But it’s still quite pretty and, more importantly, these buildings are now the homes of Africans rather than French colonisers. Nowadays, the quays that once facilitated French “trade” and plunder are now used by the nearby fishing village to park and unload their boats.

During my stay, the streets of the old town were either almost dead because everyone was busy celebrating at home, or buzzing with kids. Both of these situations where great to wander the streets in.

Buildings in Saint-Louis, Senegal
In case you were wondering… the crepes were pretty good.

The next day, I make a point to finally go the beach. I was so keen to go for a dip but somehow kept putting it off since arriving in Senegal. The Langue de Barbarie is a thin, sandy peninsula that shield the river mouth from the Atlantic Ocean. It’s home to Saint-Louis’ fishing villages as well as its beaches.

Of course, it being the day after Tabaski, the beaches are still littered with animal parts. I decided to keep walking down the sand towards the border with Mauritania, where the sand is more pristine.

The beach at Saint-Louis, Senegal
I really needed this.

The water was divine. It was exactly what I needed after a week and a half of being a sweaty tourist in Senegal. As an Australian who is used to excellent beaches at home, I’m usually pretty underwhelmed by foreign ‘beach destinations’. But the beach at Saint-Louis is truly excellent for those of us in dire need of a swim.

Sal Sal Beach in Senegal
Sal Sal Beach, looking north towards the border with Mauritania.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the town and mingling with people who were incredibly friendly and generous. At one cafe a Mauritanian tourist saw me having trouble ordering food, so he did it for me and sneakily paid as well. He gave me his number to stay with him in Nouakchott but, as I mentioned earlier, my phone died so I spent the next few weeks pretty much off-grid. Later in the evening, a Senegalese farmer around my age shared his whiskey with me as we watch a group of kids and teens play drums and dance long into the night.

Sanit-Louis is a gorgeous little town and a worthwhile destination at any time of the year. But I was truly blessed that my unplanned trip coincided with Tabaski, and I will forever treasure the memories of everyone’s hospitality there.

The fishing village of Santhiaba
The fishing village of Santhiaba, where Saint-Louis meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Senegal travel blog
The colonial architecture on Saint-Louis Island.
Senegal travel blog architecture
Ok, I’ll admit the colonial vibe is perhaps a little too strong at this building.
Saint-Louis travel blog
Empty streets before the Tabaski lunch.
Saint-Louis Tabaski travel blog
After lunch, the streets are full of kids running around, playing games and eating lollies.
Senegal beach travel blog
The beach was pretty polluted, not just with litter but with sheep organs from Tabaski.
Senegal travel blog
The sun sets over the Langue de Barbarie, as seen from Saint-Louis Island.
Senegal sunset
The palm trees are a constant reminder you’re in a beach town.
Senegal sunset
Fishing boats pointing out at the Atlantic Ocean.


  1. The scene of kids lining up to receive coins from the adults reminds me of something similar in Indonesia. The difference is, back home this usually happens during Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Meanwhile, for Chinese Indonesians, this tradition occurs at Chinese New Year where children and those who are not married yet will get a red envelope containing money.

    That scene during your journey to Saint-Louis was wild! I would have probably spent the rest of the ride sitting still if I were there. That dish you had at Awa’s family’s home looks delicious!

    You know, when it comes to beaches, I’m on the same page with you. Like Australia, there are so many great beaches here in Indonesia. So when I travel abroad and someone recommends some local beaches to me, I’m usually very skeptical. Sometimes they turn out nicer than I thought, but most of the time they’re just meh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah it was definitely a trip that was made by the human interactions! That’s not to say the town itself was boring but Tabaski really just brought out the best in people and I feel so lucky to have visited during that time.

      Liked by 1 person

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