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View from St Louis, Senegal

Italo Calvino would have felt at home in Saint-Louis, the former capital city of Senegal, and the Venice of Africa, reports Paul Brislin

There is an island on an African river that has something of Venice about it, and something of Italo Calvino too. It seems almost a city of dreams: a faraway world where anything is possible as it balances on the cusp of its future between the brown currents of the Senegal River and the rolling green waves of the Atlantic.

This is Saint-Louis. Once the capital city, the tides of its economy have waned. The high water marks are still there to see in its architecture. But the shift of rule to Dakar, the cessation of heavy harbour trade, and the failure of the single railway line have cut Saint-Louis off. Ironically, the isolation has made it special. Although threatened, there is still a vibrant fishing economy. And the layers of its battered and faded architecture all remain: 19th-century French colonial double-storey villas, rendered in lime mortar and horsehair, their courtyards and shaded balconies designed for the tropics; 1920s Art-Deco houses; early ’30s modern civic buildings; small international-modern office blocks from the ’50s. For all these layers, and their human scale, the island was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

St_Louis__c__Rees_Brislin

Adrift in the Senegal River, the island heart of the old colonial city is protected from the fearsome Atlantic breakers by an urbanised sand spit, the Langue de Barbarie

But Saint-Louis is important for more than its beautifully disintegrating plasterwork. It is a living experiment in tolerance; a negotiation of the complex relations between past and present in the uneasy transitions of Africa. ‘For a long while’, says an indigenous Saint-Louisian, ‘we did not care about the history or the buildings. They represented the worst of the past, a colonial oppression. But this is what made us what we are today, a new African nation. If we destroy the past we destroy part of us, and part of our future too.’

It is a living, working city under pressure. Pressure to move the tough fishing quarter, because sanitation is non-existent and the waves that blow from the US roll right over the island in storm season. Pressure from the quickening pace of decline. Some buildings have fallen completely. In places, where restoration has been done, delicate timber fretwork balconies are replaced with bollards from a local precast concrete catalogue, and naturally ventilated spaces stopped up forever.

The question is how to chart the path ahead. Fishing − and tourism of a particular kind − will remain the economies of the future. But what is especially interesting is that somehow, Saint-Louis is choosing the kind of imagination it wants to attract. Nearby Mali is the heart of the desert blues, the origin of a host of Western music forms. Fear of kidnap makes Mali inaccessible, now Saint-Louis has established itself as a centre of West African music, its annual Jazz Festival attended by major African and international artists. There is an air race from Paris, across the dunes of Mauritania; and a transcontinental rowing race to Cayenne in French Guinea.

At the level of architecture and city planning, there is imaginative intervention, all at small-scale, personal level. Activists such as Yves Lamour and Marie-Caroline Camara are central to these fragile efforts; both culturally and in urban planning terms. With the help of French universities, a planning guideline has been set in place that demonstrates how the essence of the city can be maintained, without rejecting responsive contemporary architecture. Intelligent, considered buildings are the result. Yves has revitalised a French colonial villa. Meals are held in a stair sheltered courtyard while air flows through verandas and shutters to naturally ventilate beneath two roofs. Marie has chosen an entirely different approach, stripping her house to its essence. A Zen-earthed palm courtyard flows into the living spaces with no separation apart from movable fabric screen for the harmattan that blows in winter. Through the spirit of a half dozen individuals like these, a fragile course is being charted.

I hope that the winds and currents are beneficial for those who love Saint-Louis. It could go in any direction from here. The funds generated by UNESCO may dissipate and the buildings fall into ruin. Or the imminent tourism might pickle the island in a pastiche of its past. The city is in balance. But it may well be successful too: if only for the fact that to reach Saint-Louis from, say London, requires a leg to Paris, an six-hour flight to Dakar, and a five-hour car journey through the baobabs and palms, where the police will certainly stop you for transactions of one sort or another. So if you are the kind of person for whom the journey stirs a sense of adventure, reach out a hand to Saint-Louis. It is a very unordinary place − and this is a very special time to be there.

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