This weekend I took a trip to the city of Saint-Louis, Senegal (pop. ~170,000).

Historically, Saint-Louis was the capital of the French colony of Senegal from the late 17th to the 20th centuries. It was also a stop-off point for famed French aviator Jean Mermoz, whose presence can be felt at the Hotel de la Poste where he sometimes stayed.

Today, Saint-Louis is where Senegal meets Mauritania, a tourist destination, and home to fishermen, merchants, educators, and many others. It is a small city but concentrated and compact, including a small number of islands as well as newer parts of town, including Gaston Berger University, stretching eastward on the mainland.

UNESCO has dedicated the Island of Saint-Louis as a world heritage site, in large part for its distinctive architecture. The first cathedral in West Africa was built here, currently under renovation, and so was the only mosque I have seen that uses a bell for its a call to prayer. Colonial buildings surround you as you walk down the streets of the approximately 5-kilometer circumference main island.

Saint-Louis mosque with bell

Our tour guide told us that the colonial archicture is not without controversy. Some people want to get rid of it because it is a reminder of a colonial past, which I find understandable. The counterpoint is that each building has a history that cannot be denied, whether the building is there or not; and furthermore, the colonial buildings were built so well that many 200-year-old (or older) buildings are in good condition today because they were build with red brick from Bordeaux, while many buildings built 50 or 60 years ago with inferior materials are falling apart, their facades slowly wasting away in the salt air. No one wants to live or work in a dilapidated building. The controversy seems likely to continue for some time.

There is more to say about Saint-Louis. I hope to follow up with more soon.