My first breakfast at the Keur Saloum hotel, in the heart of Senegal’s Sine Saloum Delta, is turning out to be a mixture of pain au chocolat and politics. For my Francophone fellow diners, the opportunity to rib a Brit over Brexit is too good to pass up. Looking out over the nearby mangroves, I half-heartedly defend perfidious Albion in mangled schoolboy French.
Thankfully, Alain Goetghebeur, the amiable owner of Keur Saloum, comes to my rescue.
“I hope you packed a shirt and tie,” says the silver-haired Belgian with a smile, patting me on the shoulder. “Today, you’re going to meet a real African queen.”
Lying at the heart of Senegal — a stone’s throw from the Gambian border — the Saloum Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of West Africa’s ecological jewels. Formed where two rivers — the Sine and the Saloum — converge on the Atlantic, the delta’s network of shallow channels, beaches, mangrove swamps and sand islands are home to an array of wildlife, including monkeys, hyenas and a huge variety of birds.
Alain, a keen fisherman, who established his hotel before Senegal became a favourite destination for Francophone Europe, doesn’t need to be reminded about its attractions. Taking a break from hotel operations, he wants to show me the village of Sipo, a settlement of barely 100 people that’s a short boat ride away.
Joined by a couple of Belgian guests, we crowd into one of the hotel’s wooden pirogues, and power off up a winding branch of the Saloum River. Grey pelicans and Goliath herons take to the air as we make our way past thick mangrove forest, suspended above the water on a tangle of spindly roots.
Minutes later, the pirogue is grounded on a beach of fine white sand. We make our way towards a sprawling collection of thatched huts, their distinctive conical roofs made from a succession of grass skirts. Dogs, donkeys, goats and children roam sandy streets, or take shelter from the fierce mid-morning sun beneath giant baobabs.
The diminutive, heavily wrinkled ‘Queen of Sipo’ — real name Fatou Mané — is waiting for us outside a mud-brick building in the centre of the village. Dressed in a white headscarf and lime-green blouse, she beckons us forward with open arms and twinkling eyes.
“The tradition is that she has to kiss every new arrival in the village,” explains Alain. “It’s a sign of courtesy. She’s not always so accurate with the kiss, so make sure you turn your face pretty well.”
After pecking us all on well-turned cheeks, the queen invites inside for a chat. Through Alain’s translation, we learn that our friendly monarch has been ruling the village for 85 years. She still assists the village women with childbirth, but is slowly delegating some responsibilities to her son.
“I will stay queen as long as my people need me,” says Fatou. “Besides, my son doesn’t perform the meeting and greeting with as much enthusiasm.”
Leaving the royal court, we wander down to the beach for a riverside barbecue of grilled fish and sweet potato. We invite the queen to join us, but she politely declines.
“Maybe it was your informal dress that put her off,” says Alain later, with a wink. “I thought you British were sticklers for protocol.”