Waves lap gently at the pylons beneath the boardwalk as we stroll slowly towards the pink and yellow hues of the buildings perched on Seashell Island. During the traverse we pass motorbikes, donkey carts laden with wares and women in colourful dresses and matching headscarves. Children with beaming smiles animatedly greet us with exuberant ‘bonjours’ whilst a withered elder prays in the shade of one of the outcrops. Around him tourists amble, stopping to capture pictures of the captivating approach to this charming island off the shores of West Africa. Our guide indicates where the submerged football pitch emerges at low tide, raucously laughing as he highlights the peculiarity of the site and soon we step onto a bed of crunching shells.
Where is Seashell Island?
A 500-metre wooden causeway links Seashell Island, known locally as Fadiouth, to the town of Joal. It is one of 218 shellfish mounds nestled in the Saloum Delta, a stunning wilderness South-East of Dakar. The 5km2 comprises three rivers, 200 islands, mangroves and dry forests and is a world away from the bustle of life on the mainland.
The island took shape over hundreds of years and is now home to around 5,000 people. Made entirely from millions of empty seashells accumulated over thousands of years, mangrove roots, reeds and giant baobabs weave together to create this enchanting island.
The village on Seashell Island
As we step off the boardwalk, sharp ridges dig into the soles of our flip flops and the crunch of shells accompanies every step. We wander past stray pigs rummaging in the undergrowth and stall holders who display trinkets on stands and colourful blankets on the ground. Children in vibrant outfits and cute hair knots hide shyly in the folds of their parents’ clothes. Huge brown eyes peer inquisitively at the visitors traipsing through the narrow decaying alleyways of the Island.
We head towards the centrepiece of the island, the huge Catholic Church which towers above single stories. Razor sharp shells occasionally nip our bare feet but the shells are no hindrance to locals. As we pass the empty surfaces of a small market we spot men dozing in the shade. One ceremoniously displays his bare bottom for all to see as he sleeps unabashedly.
Fadiouth Catholic Church
The Catholic Church is a simple design with stark wooden benches and open doorways. The epicentre of life on the island, it seems to house enough seats for the entire island. Indeed, it is like honey to a bee on weekends when the masses congregate at the church for worship and celebration. Worshipers on simple wooden benches worship beneath simple stained-glass windows. Sunbeams create kaleidoscopic light rays that dance across the concrete floor and gusts of wind whistle through the church.
Outside, we stumble across a New Year’s Day celebration. In a narrow alleyway, residents gather, united by the rhythmic beat of drums. Whilst the elders perch on battered plastic chairs, visitors and locals join together to sway in time to the music. We sidle past the colourful group careful to not impose and continue exploring the alleys of the Island.
Islam on Seashell Island
Not far from the Catholic Church, is the more humble Mosque. Only 5% of the island’s residents are Muslim but locals take pride in the harmonious interactions of the two communities. Muslims and Catholics intermarry and live peacefully together on this tiny spec of land. Nowhere is this more evident than on the adjacent island where catholic and Muslim burial grounds abut.
We continue towards the cemetery passing locals who welcome us with huge grins and cries of ‘ca va?’. Small groups chatter in the shade whilst toddlers play at their feet. They greet us warmly but refrain from pestering, only occasionally do they encourage us to admire their wares.
We pass kids in dusty clothes and fraying flip flops who race around a football pitch of shells with little regard for the serrated shells scratching their feet.
Via a shorter causeway, we reach the cemetery where Muslims and Christina alike are laid to rest. Muslims face east towards Mecca whilst Christians lie in haphazard plots strewn across the shell covered hillside. Fresh flowers adorn gravestones in vivid reds, pinks and oranges and all around the mangroves are an emerald oasis of peace.
What makes Seashell Island special
Apart from the novelty of the Islands, this is a fascinating excursion which showcases the vibrancy of West Africa. From women in bold, multi-coloured outfits and splendid headdresses to children beaming with joy despite their modest surroundings, I am astonished by the warm greeting we receive from all. Young and old wave gaily and engage in animated chatter in the melodic French accent common of the area. It is just a shame we only have a short time on the Island before it is time to return.
How to get to Seashell Island
It is possible to book taxis in Senegal but the tourist infrastructure is under-developed at the time of writing. Trips are mainly the preserve of international travel companies and a few entrepreneurial locals. This means that you will be unlikely to find a bargain but these trips do take the stress out of travel in an unfamiliar area where you may feel a little wary. We booked a half day trip with Tui to Seashell Island which included a visit to the shore of the Mangroves and some other brief stops. The island is of course the star attraction and if you get the chance to go do not miss it.