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Senegal: Seashell sanctuary

The ground crunches beneath my feet as I walk along the streets of Fadiouth. Made entirely of empty shells, this island supports a population that literally lives on seafood; for more than a century its inhabitants have been harvesting molluscs, quaffing the contents and using the empty shells to make their gorgeous little island. It’s recycling in its purest form.

Senegal: Seashell sanctuary

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Everything is shells here; they are the reclaimed land under my feet, the building facades surrounding me and the trinkets being sold by friendly hawkers. Of all the other places I have visited in Senegal so far, Fadiouth is unrivalled in its ability to impress.

But it’s not just the ubiquitous seashells that fascinate; wandering along the streets I’m intrigued by the depth of integration between the 9,000 islanders, a mix of Muslims and Christians.

That they live harmoniously together is fairly unremarkable, but the proximity of their places of worship and the fact they are buried in the same cemetery is particularly unusual — but then again, so is an island made of shells.

“We are a multicultural society and we work together,” enthuses my guide, Paul. He then tells me how the islanders have formed a cooperative to help raise the standard of living and keep Fadiouth clean. That’s quite a challenge in a country as poor as Senegal, but they seem to be succeeding.

I crunch through town, heading vaguely towards the cemetery. The fierce, afternoon sun reflects off the white shells and although the heat is tempered by a cool breeze, most people are inside, escaping the sweltering temperatures. Along shady streets, traders display their wares and exchange banter, while children with big smiles make mischief.

I cross a small wooden bridge from the main town over to the cemetery. It’s peppered with the headstones of deceased inhabitants, but as well as being a resting place for the dead, this graveyard sustains life; huge baobab trees grow up out of the shells and pelicans stalk the water’s edge looking for fish.

I rest in the shade of a baobab and think about Fadiouth’s gravediggers struggling to shovel through this shelly terrain. But mostly I think about how relieved I am to be here. Only an hour ago I had been in Fadiouth’s twin village, Joal, a short hop across the water. Here I had also been amazed, not by Joal’s beauty but by the breath-taking ugliness of it; the beach there had been strewn with carrier bags, fish entrails and thousands of plastic coffee cups. Incredibly, children had been playing football in the rubbish, while fishermen paddled through dirty waves clutching their catch. At one point I tripped over a dead chicken.

I had nearly given up looking for Fadiouth; every fibre in my body wanted to jump in a taxi and get out of there. But I pressed on and made it to this seashell sanctuary, an improbable oasis which reminded me that sometimes, even in the darker moments of travelling, it pays to persevere.