Writer and guesthouse owner Simon Fenton on Abéné, Senegal

The author of Squirting Milk at Chameleons has found a slice of paradise in a beach village where reggae rules, mangoes drip from the trees and the sense of community is strong

I knew I had a lot to learn about life in Africa when I was walking one day with my partner Khady, who had our son on her back, and she suddenly pulled out a breast and squirted milk at a chameleon crossing our path. “If I don’t offer it milk, our son will grow up to look like a lizard,” she said. There were a lot of traditions, beliefs and rituals held by the local Diola people that I had to get my head around. But it gave me the title of my book.

I thought I had found paradise when I first arrived in Abéné, in the Casamance region of south Senegal. In 2011, I had been travelling down through Africa, crossing the Sahara. After the bleakness of the desert, I wanted to go somewhere tropical, with beaches. And here was a small village on a beautiful beach – full of Rastafarians. I later found out that these guys wearing dreadlocks, patchwork robes and masses of prayer beads were actually part of the Baye Fall Brotherhood – a Sufi Islamic sect who also happen to love reggae.

Simon Fenton with partner Khady and children.
Simon Fenton with partner Khady and children. Photograph: Simon J Fenton

One of my lifelong dreams had been to live in a thatched cottage, but I wasn’t envisioning a round mud hut with a straw roof in west Africa. I built my own house and guesthouse and live there with Khady and our two sons. We have created an eco-lodge surrounded by forest and powered by solar electricity, and we grow our own vegetables and fruit. Since we opened a couple of years ago, we’ve received a steady stream of guests.

The people are friendly, the landscapes beautiful and the beaches like computer screensavers. It’s not difficult to see why other toubabs (white people) who have travelled across Africa decide on Abéné as somewhere to settle. It’s a village of artists and musicians. There doesn’t appear to be much here at first glance – one main street with a few shops, all selling the same items – but the village sprawls into the forest and there’s a vibrant djembe (drumming) scene with festivals and ceremonies throughout the year. It doesn’t attract people seeking five-star luxury or package-type holidays.

I always say that the Abéné festival is our version of Glastonbury – but on a smaller scale. It’s a cultural showcase for musicians not only from Senegal, but from around the world. There are djembe drumming groups, rappers, reggae bands, stilt dancers, lion men, clowns and contortionists. Whereas normally you can count the tourists on one hand, during this week between Christmas and New Year, all the hotels fill, pop-up restaurants and bars appear, and there’s a great vibe, with people from all around the globe mad for African music and culture.

Abéné market, Senegal.
Abéné market. Photograph: Simon J Fenton

In Abéné, you can see live music most days – drumming or reggae, usually in a small, sweaty bar. As we leave the house, we’ll hear a beat and just follow it down pitch-black sandy tracks through palm groves. We’ll arrive at a bar where a sound system has been set up and people will be dancing around on a sandy dancefloor. This isn’t a tourist show, as there are usually very few white people around.

There’s no rolling news, no cold-callers, no reality television. I’ll do some gardening in the morning until it gets too hot. We have 30 citrus trees and mango trees dripping with fruit. In the late afternoon, I’ll often head to the beach with the kids. I sometimes have a cold Gazelle beer at Ibby’s shack, often over a large platter of freshly grilled fish, prawns or lobster straight from the ocean. Here, there is just daily life: chatting to friends, staring into the distance, floating in the sea.

Many people tell me they want to see the real Africa. For some, it’s vast wilderness, safaris and Maasai warriors, but that’s not the reality. Often it seems like people are just sitting and chatting, not doing much, but it’s more complex than that. A 10-minute walk can take me an hour because about 2,000 people in the village seem to know me by name and stop to say hello. Maybe this is the real Africa – the sense of community.

Simon Fenton runs thelittlebaobab.com guesthouse which offers B&B from £15 a night. He is the author of Squirting Milk at Chameleons: An Accidental African, published by Eye Books at £7.99. To buy a copy for £6.39 including UK p&p visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846


Interview by Andy Pietrasik

The GuardianTramp

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