The former colonial capital of French West Africa, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, is seeking to rise from its ashes after a long political and economic decline and the deterioration of its historical heritage.
"Revitalizing the city while preserving its identity" is the credo of Amadou Diaw, a pioneer in the establishment of business schools in West Africa and a great fortune in Saint-Louis. He buys old dilapidated houses to restore them and turn them into places of culture.
Seven small museums have opened their doors, in particular on photography, "and this will continue", declares the patron who claims to have already invested some two million euros. "We must put this city on the cultural map of the continent", he proclaims.
With its regular urban plan, its houses with galleries or balconies and its metal bridge which connects it to the mainland, the island of Saint-Louis, in the delta of the Senegal River, keeps the memory of the golden age of city, enriched by the trade in slaves, gum arabic or skins.
In 1957, the capital was transferred to Dakar. Saint-Louis, neglected, enters into lethargy, a city of the past with a certain but largely untapped tourist attraction.
Hopes and threats
While the city has never been so threatened by rising waters, the prospect of seeing the large gas field discovered off its coast begin to be exploited at the end of 2023 and the development of new infrastructures give hope to the Saint- Louisians a rebirth.
For conservation actors, a dynamic has also been set in motion, driven by private actors and followed by public donors.
After the rehabilitation of the cathedral was completed in 2020, the French Development Agency (AFD) launched renovation work on 16 houses belonging to private heritage for a budget of approximately 2,2 million euros, to which is added a owners' contribution of 15% on average.
Work that had convinced the World Heritage Committee not to include the island of Saint-Louis on the list of heritage in danger.
Unesco has long pointed to the "extremely poor" state of conservation of many buildings "endangering their occupants", "non-compliant restorations", new constructions "affecting the integrity and authenticity" of the city. and the absence of a monitoring and control mechanism.
Alpha Ndiaye, 69, stops in the middle of a street, in front of a ruined building, whose wide rounded doors and vast rooms suggest the splendor of the past.
"Our house was there, very pretty. You entered through the front door, then you climbed the stairs opposite". He traces the plan with his finger in the sand.
"When everything collapsed, I was very sad. I would have liked it to be rebuilt as before, for someone to help me, but how? I am not the only owner and I don't I can't afford it," explains Mr. Ndiaye, a long-time assistant pharmacist in Dakar, now retired. He lives in the rubble of another house in the historic center.
"The big problem with dilapidated houses is inheritance. Sometimes we don't know who the heirs and therefore the owners are," explains Deputy Mayor Aida Mbaye Dieng.
"There are also those who prefer modern comfort to the charm of old houses, those who do not respect standards because it costs less and owners who have left the city and no longer want to invest", underlines Fatima Fall, director of the Center for Research and Documentation of Senegal, which insists on the awareness-raising work to be carried out so that the Senegalese become aware of the richness of their heritage.
That day, students from the Center for Studies in Information Science and Technology (Cesti) in Dakar are on a trip to the former capital. They discover the wealth of the city, such as the Bou El Mogdad boat, which transported passengers and goods on the river and is now used for tourist cruises.
"I have always heard of Saint-Louis without really knowing it. For me, this city was associated with France. It suffers from this image while its history is very rich and complex", estimates El Hadji Yadaly Ba.
"This city could be a bridge between cultures. The Senegalese should realize this. Saint-Louis has the means to bring in so many tourists," thinks the 26-year-old apprentice journalist.