The Shell Island of Fadiouth

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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 my partner 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.

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 don’t 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.

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.

All photos mine.

Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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