21st Century Charlatan

“Charlatanism” is not a common charge in a modern court of law – even in Kolda, Senegal where spiritual forces play an important part in daily life. Yet in late June Thierno Mamoudou Diallo stood in a crowded court charged with charlatanism, in addition to defamation and extortion. His crime: creating and disseminating a mp3 recording of the confessions of a young woman to all manner of sorcery – including cannibalism – that went “viral” via the social networks in the city of Kolda and surrounding villages.

Belief in a spiritual world that interacts with our own is common in West Africa. This story is about “ñañebe.Ñañebe, in the Pula Futa language, are people who have flirted with dark magic in order to gain special powers such as shape shifting and flying. They are most notorious for eating other people, literally and figuratively.

Where there is dark magic, there is also a savoir, and ndurebe are people who make their living revealing ñañebe in their communities. Not all ndurebe are the same. Some peripatetic ndurebe offer their services over a wide area while others might never leave their village and only use their secret knowledge a handful of times in their lives.

Ndurebe find and expose ñañebe using their own brand of magic. Some mix written Qu’ranic verses with various leaves and powders and store this under their pillow at night in order to stimulate ñañebe-revealing dreams. Others concoct brews they claim to be truth serums (usually local mild hallucinogens), which induce a state where suspects divulge their secrets.

Thierno Mamoudou, a self-described ndurebe, originally hails from near Bafata in Guinea Bissau. No one knows exactly when he arrived in Senegal and up until a few weeks ago he was peddling his services in a small village outside Kolda.

Thierno Mamoudou’s case began when the worried parents of a 15 year old sought his mystical assistance to heal their perpetually sick daughter. They paid 150,000 CFA (around US $250) for the “medicine” but when they turned their backs to leave he played them a recording on his phone in which a young girl claimed she wanted to kill their daughter.

This three hour, 22-megabyte recording of questionable sound quality is at the center of this story. In the recording, the young woman who identifies herself as Mairam claims she is a ñañejo and relates specific details regarding her victims, her powers, and her co-conspirators.

Throughout the recording a familiar pattern develops where she ignores Thierno Mamoudou’s questions, then answers before re-starting the same process: ignore, answer, ignore, answer. Her voice drones monotonically; could she be drugged or in a trance? There are also a few whiney groans and during one episode Thierno Mamoudou encourages her to yell even more – “scream so I can really hear you!”

In the recording she claims to change into a black cow and a donkey while her mother turns into a black bird; they change at night and roam the earth searching for victims. She says she can fly, from Senegal to Spain in one night, explaining that it was her mother who taught her dark magic. In addition to her mother, she also names other people as ñañebe, details their crimes, and reports on the whereabouts of a ñañebe secret lair in the forest nearby. There she claims to have met with the other ñañebe, learned the craft, and hid the knife she used to cut people into pieces before eating them.

There are many reasons to question the authenticity of the gruesome recording. The accused girl denies the voice on the recording is hers and she says she never met Thierno Mamoudou. Moreover the person in the recording is speaking Pula Futa, while the girl speaks Fulakunda, two different variants of the Pulaar language in the Kolda area.

Ten or twenty years ago the story might have stopped here with these accusations being heard only by only a few. However with the cell phone being a ubiquitous tool of modernity throughout rural Senegal, all with a microphone, speaker and Bluetooth –it is easy to record anything and transfer that recording to people 1 km away and 100 km away. The recording went viral, passing from cell phone to cell phone along long established networks of kinship and friendship.

Thierno Mamoudou’s skeptics say he made the recording for self-promotion and to attract more customers. They suggest that as the recording spread Thierno Mamoudou has seen a huge increase in “patients” looking for “cures”; his fees now range from 15,000 CFA (US $25) to 250,000 CFA (US $425).

The girl accused of being a ñañebe says she has been stigmatized at school and in her community. According to a local journalist, the situation in her village got to the point where village leaders had to intervene to avoid outright conflict; this led to reporting Thierno Mamoudou to the authorities in mid-June.

Thierno Mamoudou was arrested on June 20 and appeared in front of a judge nine days later. As he was led into court, handcuffed and wearing a Barcelona football jersey, the assembled crowd rushed to catch a glimpse. There were over one hundred people and court authorities had to limit spectators to half that number who could be seated in the unusually chaotic courtroom.

The first to testify were the worried parents of the 15 year old sickly girl who heard the recording suggesting that their daughter would be killed by Mairam, the young woman accused of being a ñañebe. Next Mairam told the assembled she went with her father to confront Thierno Mamoudou after hearing the accusations against her; Thierno Mamoudou denied making the accusations of cannibalism.

When it was Thierno Mamoudous turn to speak he began by explaining he heals the sick through verses of the Qur’an. When the sickly young woman and her parents first visited he just did his job and tried to heal her: “after I did my ablutions, I covered my face with a black cloth and said the verses.”

But under cross examination his story quickly fell apart. When pressed about Mairam stalking and infecting other young women, he said he “did not know.” His demeanor sank as he repeated those words, “I do not know”, to further questions about Mairam’s supposed powers. When the judges asked Mairam if the words on the recording were hers she replied simply, “no”. At the end of the questioning one of the presiding justices asked Thierno Mamoudou to look at the people he accused of sorcery. After a brief moment Mr. Diallo responded, “these people are not sorcerers.”

On July 13th Thierno Mamoudou was sentenced to two years in prison and a ten-year ban on entering Senegal. This was met with various reactions. According to Madame Toure, a believer, “he came to cure people, and they lock him up? Its not good”. Others, such as Boubacar Badji, are less sympathetic – “he cheated people, he should be in prison!”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary many people still believe Thierno Mamoudou. Rumors and myths about his abilities and their source continue to circulate the city. A common rumor describes how when Thierno Mamoudou goes to pray every day walks through the walls of his cell and prays outside the prison, returning after he finishes.

We tend to think that as the accoutrements of modernity spread and more people become connected western ideas will supplant local beliefs and traditions. This is too simple and does not give enough agency to the adopters of technology. Instead, as Thierno Mamoudou and his recording shows, the trappings of modernity can facilitate the diffusion of unique cultural concepts to a wider audience then ever before.


Fulakunda as an Oral Language

Fulakunda speakers participate in an oral culture. While most westerners take in a significant amount of information through reading and writing, Fulakunda speakers place more emphasis on speaking and listening. This has both strengths and drawbacks as the Fouladou faces its future.

For the vast majority of its history as a language Fulakunda has been spoken but not written. Indeed it was first given written form by Europeans, and in many parts of the Fouladou the language is not formally standardized . The focus on the spoken word is apparent in how most people receive information from the outside world – almost every compound has a well-used radio but few have newspapers.

The most popular mass media format

The most popular mass media format

The most convincing examples for the focus on the spoken as opposed to written word come from Fulakunda itself. Janngude is the one verb for to study, to learn and to read. In English those are three different things, but in Fulakunda studying, learning and reading are all the same thing – and none of them as valued as the spoken word.

Yet in Fulakunda there are many different words for “to hang out.” To spend time talking in the mid-morning is weetde, to spend time in the afternoon is ñallude, and to spend time at night is hiirde. And then there’s also haccude and yetere – catch alls for any time of day. And this is only a sliver of the words that Fulakunda speakers know.

As is often noted about many cultures in Africa, Fulakunda speakers place special emphasis on sayings and proverbs. A less rude way to say someone is lying is to say they speak wind only. To say someone is stupid you say their head has no water. To call someone greedy you say they have a big stomach. The language is rich with imagery and metaphor.

There are all kinds of proverbs for all kinds of situations. One I learnt recently is “si daio celngi, ko didi woni,” which translates to “if bracelets are clanking, there must be two” – basically “it takes two to tangle.” That is pretty straight forward. There are all kinds of other proverbs and sayings that while I understand all the words, I can’t for the life of me understand what it means. One of the more opaque proverbs I’ve heard is “si a tintinaaka fabi, si a fusi fayda, a yobat” which translates to “if you are not invited to the ceremony, and you break a cooking pot, you will pay.”

"Your road is being fixed" in French, Fulakunda and Mandinka

One of the few signs in Fulakunda (or Mandinka for that matter) – “Your road is being fixed”

Yet as the Fouladou heads to the future the deep Fulakunda is being lost in the city where people mix in French, Wolof and English. City slickers borrow more from French than just words that did not exist before European contact, but parts of speech and basic words such as après and heure. There is a strong prestige attached to the Fulakunda spoken in rural villages, but at the end of the day it is being lost as education and economic opportunity pull people from the villages to the city and connect them with the rest of Senegal and the wider world.

While there is a unique beauty that Fulakunda speakers capture with the spoken word, the lack of reading and writing brings many problems – namely in basic education and economic opportunity. Most Fulakunda speakers cannot really write in their mother tongue. Instead they learn to read and write in the colonial language – French. When people send text messages in Kolda, they send them in French. There is a sad irony to how I as a foreigner butchering their language on a daily basis can write it, while many around cannot.

There is much to value in an oral culture. There is a depth and beauty to Fulakunda that captures the uniqueness of life in the Fouladou, but also underscores everyone’s basic humanity. At the same time, reading and writing is of great importance in bringing economic prosperity. I have to wonder if learning to read and write in one’s mother tongue wouldn’t make someone place more value on those skills as well as allow for the preservation of the language. But that’s a topic for another day. Until then, I’ll be stumbling my way through some obscure Fulakunda saying.

What does the Ebola crisis say about Senegal?

Over the last few weeks I have overheard a number of fellow PCVs calling home to reassure family and friends they are safe and the Ebola virus has not been detected in Senegal. Their families have some reason to be worried about Ebola – over 1,700 people have been infected and over 930 have died from the virus, mostly in Guinea (Conakry), Sierra Leone and Liberia, since December of last year.[1] Isolated cases have been recorded in Nigeria. West Africa (not America) is at risk. The crisis has been exacerbated by the lack of resources, and poor governance in the affected countries. The Senegalese government on the other hand, is relatively more competent in matters of governance and public safety, and enjoys more legitimacy from its people.

The disease probably transferred to humans and claimed its first victims in January of 2014, before the first cases were reported in southern Guinea in February.[2] When I asked my host dad Ibou how the virus broke out, he told me “people in the forests of Guinea and Sierra Leone don’t have civilization. They eat bats.” Despite his comment on their lack of “civilization,” he was most probably correct about the source. Bats are known to be reservoirs of Ebola, and bush meat is a much-appreciated source of protein in many rural areas.[3]

After 59 deaths in the southeast, Guinea finally officially announced the presence of an Ebola outbreak on March 25th. A few days later the virus was detected Conakry, the capitol of 2 million people. The virus then hopped the border to Liberia. While people continued to be infected, international relief organizations set up shop and the world believed the virus would be quickly stopped. As late as June Senegal PCVs got an email saying “most public health authorities would not agree with the MSF statement” that the situation was “out of control.”

A nice graphic of a Ebola victim vomiting blood

Part of the public education campaign had graphics of Ebola victims vomiting blood and other symptoms.

But the virus continued to spread, and in May new hotspots in the north and west of Guinea killed another 50 people. On the 26th of May Sierra Leone announced its first deaths from Ebola. The first half of June saw a 60% increase in deaths with new outbreak hotspots being announced across the three countries. In late July the outbreak reached Freetown, and a Liberian national died (in quarantine) in Lagos, Nigeria. The virus became a regional issue. Victims fortunate enough to have an American or European passport have been flown to state of the art facilities to receive care.

This outbreak of Ebola has been so devastating partly due to the lack of an efficient and competent response by the government and public institutions of the affected countries. Recently in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, a woman with Ebola was allowed to go leave the hospital and die at home, surrounded by her family who carried her highly infectious body to the grave. In Liberia bodies have been buried in mass graves near where people are living – and some were not even buried completely In the last week these governments have issued sweeping measures (closing borders, deploying the army, all day curfews, mandatory death registration) to stop the spread of the virus – hopefully they will be efficiently carried out.

While affected states have been late at best, incompetent at worst, to mobilize state resource to combat the spread of Ebola, the Senegalese government has shown itself more effective than its southern neighbors. A few days after Conakry officially reported the outbreak in March Senegal closed border its land border with Guinea. This had significant repercussions for traders, which I saw manifested in a poorly stocked Kolda market.[4] Yet while the border was officially closed, many continued to cross the border informally (including some friends and myself who accidentally crossed on a camping trip in the Kedougou region – we only realized later when we put our GPS coordinates into Google Earth). In May the border was reopened, and remains so today. While its fair to question the effect of closing the border, the act itself shows the seriousness with which the Senegalese government approached the initial outbreak.

Another positive step I’ve seen taken is a public education campaign. After the initial outbreak I saw television spots about how to spot Ebola and safety measures. In the last week the ministry of health has aired a new more in depth announcement before the evening news. Posters have gone up in public places. People in the city take the virus pretty seriously. People have spoken about how scary it is because of how fast it kills, how easy it is to spread, and the lack of a remedy. The big caveat here is I am having these conversations in the city. These messages have not gotten to rural areas, where many cannot read, and televisions are few and far between. Similarly to the border issues, while the government in Dakar has taken positive steps towards prevention, it has a harder time making its voice heard in rural villages.

That being said, compared to its neighbors the Senegalese state enjoys a high degree of legitimacy from the people. Around Kolda people generally respect public institutions like hospitals, the firefighters and the police/gendarme. This is related to the stability Senegal has maintained since independence. Guinea has suffered a series of military coups, and Liberia and Sierra Leone spent the 1990’s amidst horrendous civil wars. Instability makes it hard to build well functioning health systems. It also makes it even harder for many people living in rural areas to trust their government. Rumors of the government starting Ebola to postpone elections has kept people away from health officials in parts of Guinea.

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has been greatly exacerbated by a lack of efficient and competent government response. Yet if Ebola were to reach Senegal, I believe the competency of, and legitimacy enjoyed, by the Senegalese government would spare the country from the horrors experienced further south.


The completly open (and beautiful) border between Senegal and Guinea

[1] The New York Times recently reported that researchers suspect a two year old boy who died on December 6th in Guéckédou, Guinea, was Patient Zero.

[2] Ebola shows symptoms between 2 to 21 days after infection.

[3] But not all. In Dar es Salaam in the Kedougou region Jahanke speakers teach their children to immediately see any bats because according to them they bring illness. Also cooking the meat will kill the virus, so its suspected to pass from the handling of raw meat.

[4] Specifically Guinea honey and all manner of delicious fruits and vegetables. The market in Diaobe, which is attended by traders from five countries, saw significantly less activity during this time as well.

Korite (Eid al Fitr) in Kolda

Yesterday in Kolda we celebrated Korite .[1], or Eid al Fitr to the rest of the Muslim world, one of the biggest festivals of the year. Korite celebrates the end of Ramadan.[1], a month of fasting and cleaning of the heart. People started the day by going to the mosque together to pray. I told people as a Christian[1] I did not want to pretend the pray like a Muslim and thus offend god. Then women began preparing a special communal lunch of cous cous and fonio with generous helpings of meat. Way too much food was cooked, but none of it went to waste as extra food is immediately sent to families with less means. As my friend Papa Daio proudly exclaimed in the evening “Today I ate more meat than rice!”

After lunch I went around and greeted the compounds in my neighborhood, followed everywhere by children demanding salibo (small candies or coins). Greeting the neighborhood is the main part of the holiday, especially women and young men, who use it as an opportunity to walk around and flaunt their fancy outfits. My tailor friend said some women spend 25,000 to 40,000 CFA (between 50 and 80 US$) on their outfits. Unsurprisingly some here (generally heads of households who end up paying for everything) complain that people eat all their money on the holidays, and then are left hungry the day afterwards.

That being said, the main point of Korite or any holiday is to strengthen communal bonds, which was definitely palpable. I retired early around 10ish, but many people continued making the rounds, hanging out, and drinking tea into the early hours of the morning. My friend Mamadou Daio summed up the holiday well – “some people spend a lot of money on their clothes, but what is more important is when they eat and drink until they are full, and they sit under the tree drinking tea and talking with their neighbors.”

Mustafa, Karim and Aliou, all host brothers, put on their finery to go to the Mosque in the morning.

Mustafa, Karim and Aliou, all host brothers, put on their finery to go to the Mosque in the morning.

Usman Daio returning from the Mosque.

Usman Daio returning from the Mosque.

Laman and other hair stylsts get lots of business before Korite.

Laman and other hair stylsts get lots of business before Korite.

Karim Baldes new haircut, a style known here as "Zulu"

Karim Baldes new haircut, a style known here as “Zulu”

Abdoulaye Djamanka waits to get this monstrosity shaved out of his head.

Abdoulaye Djamanka waits to get this monstrosity shaved out of his head.

Basiru Balde, one of my host brothers, hanging at his fathers boutique.

Basiru Balde, one of my host brothers, hanging at his fathers boutique.

Issa gets to work on a cow leg in preparation for lunch.

Issa gets to work on a cow leg in preparation for lunch.

Young girls showing off their new threads.

Young girls showing off their new threads.

Tenan Daio takes a quick break from cooking for a photo with her son Aliou.

Tenan Daio takes a quick break from cooking for a photo with her son Aliou.

Papa Daio relaxs with a bucket of sugary drink.

Papa Daio relaxs with a bucket of sugary drink.

My host dad, Ibou Balde, poses like a patron outside his boutique.

My host dad, Ibou Balde, poses like a patron outside his boutique.

He set up a small "promotion" on onions, potatoes and bullion for the holidays.

He set up a small “promotion” on onions, potatoes and bullion for the holidays.

Ibrahima was sent out to get a block of ice on a bike that was a couple sizes too big.

Ibrahima was sent out to get a block of ice on a bike that was a couple sizes too big.

After shaving my head some people thought I looked like a Nar (Arab).

After shaving my head some people thought I looked like a Nar (Arab).

Omar stands at the inersection of  tradition and modernity, gangsta hats and lime green threads.

Omar stands at the inersection of tradition and modernity, gangsta hats and lime green threads.

Samba poses with his Nike swish haircut.

Samba poses with his Nike swish haircut.

Roving neighborhood boys demanding candies and coins from unsuspecting victims.

Roving neighborhood boys demanding candies and coins from unsuspecting victims.

Papa and Eunica spending time together as the sun sets.

Papa and Eunica spending time together as the sun sets.

Moona Daio, one of my host mothers, while she walks around greeting neighborhood.

Moona Daio, one of my host mothers, while she walks around greeting neighborhood.

Fatoumata Daio doing the rounds in her lime green basin outfit.

Fatoumata Daio doing the rounds in her lime green basin outfit.

No food gets wasted with all the kids in my compound.

No food gets wasted with all the kids in my compound.

[1] Easier and better for my credibility than being an agnostic at worst, and a Bokononist at best.

Cleaning the Heart

Karim Balde studies the Quran with neighborhood youths

Karim Balde studies the Quran with neighborhood youths

Since the end of June the Muslim world has been observing the holy month of Ramadan.[1] Ramadan occurs during the ninth month of the lunar calendar, according to tradition the month Allah began to uncover the Quran to Muhammad. This is what Muslims celebrate today. Observing Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is obligatory for all Muslims except in a few cases. I fasted for the first half of Ramadan, and then on and off for the second as my work picked up. The following account is based on what I’ve seen in Kolda over the last month, and does not necessarily represent practice in the rest of Senegal and the wider Muslim world.

The practice most associated with Ramadan is the sun up to sun down fasting from food and water. However children, travelers, sick people, pregnant and nursing mothers, and women on their period are not expected to fast. People still eat three meals, just at different times. There is a small meal before the sun rises, then the breaking of the fast right after the sun sets, and then dinner a few hours later.

The breaking of the fast is a special moment in the day. I usually break the fast with my host dad Ibou at his boutique over cold water, sugary instant coffee, dates, meat sandwiches and mango.[2] The standard greeting after breaking the fast is “a yarii ndiyam” (have you drank water), and one I like to throw in is “a wursi” (have you come back to life) Afterwards people can talk again, and thus the next few hours are for socializing with friends and family before a late dinner and an even later bedtime.


But Ramadan is not just about fasting. As my friend Papa Daio put it, Ramadan is also about “cleaning your heart.” During Ramadan Muslims are supposed to avoid gossiping, swearing and lustful thoughts. Instead people are supposed to strengthen their relationship with Allah through prayer and acts of piety, as well as give thanks and show their appreciation for friends and family with small gifts and spending time.

While a general increase in piety and communal togetherness is palpable, unsurprisingly people differ in how strictly they follow these guidelines.[3] Many people in my neighborhood did not start the fast with the rest of the world, claiming they did not see the moon the previous night. Throughout the month there are those who just do not want to fast– and thus eat and drink during the day hidden in their rooms or in a few secluded restaurants around town. Many people take a day or two off fasting, claiming ill health. Baye Falls do not fast at all, instead showing their faith to Allah through acts of labor.

In regards to the “cleaning of the heart” aspects of Ramadan, people are only human. Gossip happens. That being said, I have also seen people get called out for gossiping during the holy month. Same goes for swearing. While some people specifically avoid their girlfriends/boyfriends (as to not have lustful thoughts) others have gone into too much detail telling me about their lustful thoughts and deeds.

I was a little nervous going into Ramadan, but fasting has definitely given me credibility and the nightly social time has forged bonds with some really nice families in the neighborhood. I have had a lot more conversations about spirituality, religion and right versus wrong, which I have really appreciated. It has been really interesting to see how different people approach Ramadan, and has furthered my belief in the tolerance of the Islam practiced in Senegambia . That being said, while I have been pleasantly surprised by the holy month, I am looking forward to eating a ceebu jen lunch with my host family in a few days.

[1] Ramadan is called sumie in Fulakunda. In Arabic the word Ramadan means intense heat or dryness. In Fulakunda sumde is the verb to burn.

[2] I am very lucky. Volunteers and their hosts in rural areas or with less means (those two usually go together) break the fast with bread, lukewarm water and mangos.

[3] Ibadu refers to a pious person in Fulakunda. Those less pious are called ibandit.

Senegambian Islam


Cheikh Ibra Fall of the Baye Fall sect

When it comes to Islam in Africa, all the news shows these days is Boko Haram kidnapping young girls in northern Nigeria and Al Shabab killing innocents on the Swahili coast. But this is only one side of the story. Senegambia, especially the southern half, is an example of how diverse and generally tolerant religious practice is in Africa.

I live in a 95+% Muslim community, but every morning when I leave my compound I see pigs on the side of the road (along with goats, chickens and all manner of barnyard animals). In many neighborhoods in the south there are one or two Christian families who keep pigs, which roam around the neighborhood during the day. Muslims tell me pigs are dirty, but they don’t really mind them running around.

Alcohol is frowned on, but available. There are a handful of places around Kolda that serve the delicious beers Senegal has to offer. A little outside the city one stumbles across palm groves where animists, Christians, and a handful of not so pious Muslims make and drink palm wine. In other places people make a stronger drink from cashew apples.

In Senegambia, and especially in the south, Christians do not work on Muslim holidays – and vice versa. Christians make a sweetened peanut butter snack on Easter and share with the whole community. On Christmas some better off Muslim families will slaughter a chicken for lunch. Christians also celebrate the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr (known locally as Korite) and Eid al-Adha (Tabaski).

There are historical reasons for Senegambias peaceful religious atmosphere. The West coast of Africa is a long way from Saudi Arabia, and as any religion spreads around the world its preachers get less stringent about all the tenants, allowing for blending with indigenous beliefs. In the context of Islam, this is called Sufist practice, and exists from Senegal to Indonesia and everyplace in between.

Many Muslims in Senegambia belong to Sufi orders, or religious brotherhoods. These are organized around historic West African Muslim leaders and their slightly differing interpretations of Islam. Some of the brotherhood’s practices show the flexibility of Islam. For instance, Baye Falls are not required to fast during Ramadan or even pray all five times of the day. Instead they show their devotion to god through hard work. I’ve heard both Baye Falls and Mourides say if you visit the holy city of Touba enough times, you don’t have to go to Mecca. Fasting, praying and going to Mecca are three of the five central tenants of Islam.

On an institutional level, Senegambias religious brotherhoods have not only cultivated and propagated Senegal’s open and inclusive religious practice, but they also have a long history of working with the state to foster stability. After the founder of the Mouride brotherhood, Cheikh Amadou Bamba , returned from French exile in 1902, he successfully showed the French his religious order could work with the colonial regime for mutual benefit. This carried through into the independence era, and according to some scholars goes a long way to explaining Senegals state stability and lack of religious radicalism.[1]

However, one way Senegambia is less tolerant is when it comes to animist beliefs and atheism. I’ve heard well-educated Senegalese call animists “savages” and “uncivilized.” Peace Corps specifically told us that if we were atheist or agnostic, as much as it might go against our personal beliefs, it would be better to just say we’re catholic and leave it at that.

On the whole Senegambia is an outstanding example of religious tolerance, both culturally and institutionally. Indeed, this corner of Africa is more tolerant than some parts of the Western world. The religious practice I’ve seen here, from cultural interpretations to religious institutions is something all Senegambians should be proud of, and can perhaps offers a model to others.


The Mosque in Mbour

[1] For more on this I’d suggest Andrew F. Clark, «Imperialism, Independence and Islam in Senegal and Mali,» Africa Today, 1999: 149-167.

Election Season in Senegal


This last Sunday Senegal went to the polls in local elections. After weeks of campaigning Senegalese style, across the country over 5.3 million people voted for 2,700 local councilors from over 600 districts. In Kolda, a free and fair election saw a victory for the current ruling party (APR) who have only been in power for the last two years. Senegal has a strong democratic culture which has fostered stable institutions that could serve as a model for neighboring countries.

Senegal’s democratic culture did not develop over night. Since gaining independence for France in 1960 Senegal has held 7 multiparty presidential elections successfully, and many more parliamentary elections and referendums. For the first 20 years of independence Senegal was lead by Leopold Sedar Senghor, who in a first for African leaders, resigned in 1980. Power has since changed hands peacefully three times. In many ways Senghors initial move set the bedrock for Senegal’s commitment to democracy.

That said, politics is always a dirty game. The 2012 presidential elections still hangs over peoples head, where Abdoulaye Wade ‘s Parti Democratique Senegalais (PDS), in power for the last 12 years, lost to Macky Sall’s upstart Alliance pour la Requblique (APR) in a bitter run off. Sall built the coalition to win, but Wade and his party still have many strong supporters across the country. These elections were a test for Macky Sall ‘s party within the APR coalition and against Abdoulaye Wade’s longer established (PDS).

Sunday also saw the continuation of an interesting experiment in Senegal of decentralizing power. Many African states have a similar demographic of a significantly more development capitol city, and an impoverished rural area. Any money goes straight to the source of power. Until political power is decentralized, development will not reach the rural areas. Unfortunately there are few incentives for the ruling class to decentralize power – thus the significance and importance of Sundays vote.

Politicking in the most recent elections was done in pure Senegalese style. In addition to posters and radio spots, politicians organized trucks with huge speakers, a loudspeaker, and a bunch of local kids to drive slowly around town playing music and hyping up their supporters. I would strongly suggest Joe Biden and any other American politician consider this tactic for any future political campaigns.

In many ways the “big man” or “ patron ” style of politicking still remains strong in Senegal. This refers to a common trend in Africa where the leader of the party is almost as, if not more, important that the party itself. As evidence many PDS posters featured a picture of now ex-President Abdoulaye Wade instead of the local candidates they were running.

Unlike Western democracies corruption here is at a grassroots level as opposed to being confined to the elites. Unscrupulous politicians have been known to come through rural villages and handing out crisp 5,000 CFA (10$) bills or distributing rice, cooking oil and onions at rallies. That said, according to the polling officials in Kolda, despite widely known small cash distributions by the PDS, they were still beaten in the polls.

Perhaps the most telling sign of a strong democracy is how the losers take their loss. From what I saw around my neighborhood, supporters of PDS took their loss in stride. Amadou Balde told me “The people voted, and we were beaten. We must respect and move on.” Another friend had similarly temperate statements.

The legacy of Leopold has left a country where elections can deliver opposition candidates peaceful to the capitol, power can be decentralized and where “patron” politics and small scale bribing can’t buy an election. Congratulations Senegal for showing the rest of the world (including Africa) that African politics and democracy can be one and the same.



Cukayel (the c is always pronounced ch) means child in Fulakunda, but considering the number of kids I see every day, I usually use the plural – sukabe.

Being around children has been a huge part of my experience here thus far. In my host families in Samba Laobe and Kolda half the household was children under the age of fifteen. On weekends I see young kids mucking around on every other street corner. I have seen more nursing mothers in the last two and half months than in my last twenty-three years of life. I have been pooped and peed on (separate incidents) by babies under one. I know of at least five baptisms that occurred in the last two weeks. One of my host moms in Kolda is expecting at the end of the month.


Over 40% of Senegal’s population is under fifteen years old. The median age is 18.2. Each woman has, on average, 4.69 children. Infant mortality has fallen drastically in Africa in the last 50 years. The birth rate is only soon going to catch up. This population structure is the norm in most sub Saharan African countries. It has huge implications for Senegal, and the continent’s future. A youthful bulge could provide the creative and physical workforce to catapult the country into the future. It could also lead to an unemployed mass of disenfranchised youths.

Hadja, my host sister in Samba Laobe, is in her late twenties and has three children. A few times she asked if I thought that three was enough. I always replied affirmatively. She said she was done having children. But there was always a caveat. One time she pointed to her mother in law and said she wanted Hadja to have more children. Another time, she sighed and said that men in Africa (namely her husband Musa) want many children.

SambaLaobeKidsSmallAdding to the generally high birth rate, it is common here for rural families, or families without resources, to send their offspring to the houses of more urbanized or well-off relatives. Some kids stay just for a school season – others until they marry. It can relieve a mouth to feed in a house without means. It can provide a child with access to better education and resources. It can also be a solution to family tragedy or drama. I have seen all of this in both host families.

Children are, and will continue to be, an every day part of life for me here. From telling kids on the road off for calling me toubab, to roughhousing and playing karate with my younger host brothers I interact with kids every day. While the chorus of toubab will never warm my heart, I can tell I will grow attached to some of these little tykes.

A Fulbe Gem in a Sea of Jolfe

Instead of focusing on a theme of my life here in Senegal like I said I would in my About Me page, this first post recounts the two months as a Peace Corps Trainee.

I spent my two months of training to be a Peace Corps Volunteer shuttling between training sessions at the Peace Corps Senegal training center in Thies and Samba Laobe, a suburb of Mbour, where I started learning the language Fulakunda and living with a Fulbe (Fulakunda speaking) family.

While French is the language of government, Wolof is the dominant mother tongue in Senegal, followed by the Pulaar languages (which includes Fulakunda). Thies and Mbour are in the Jolfe (Wolof speaking peoples) heartland. Kolda, where I am living for the next two years, is the Foulakunda heartland in Senegal.

My Culture Based Training (CBT) language learning group

My Culture Based Training (CBT) language learning group

Samba Laobe is a Fulbe gem in a sea of Jolfe. The home stay families my fellow Foulakunda-learning trainees and I lived with are first or second-generation immigrants from northern Guinea-Bissau. Only about half of Samba Laobe speaks Fulakunda, and only a slim minority of people in greater Mbour speak Pulaar. It was definitely an interesting experience to start learning a language in an area where the language is a marked minority.

Samba Laobe is about an hour and a half walk from the heart of Mbour, and is one of the poorest parts of city. Most compounds do not have electricity or running water (but you may be better off with a well due to water shortages). The soil is mostly sand, making it hard to grow anything. Those fortunate enough to find employment receive their income from outside the neighborhood.

Yet never as a complete stranger have I been greeted with such openness and generosity. In my experience thus far Senegalese have every reason to pride themselves on their teranga which translates to hospitality. While families were compensated for room and board, I never felt that sullied my relationship with my family (unlike some of my volunteer friends). For a total of a month they not only fed, housed and clothed me, but they put up with all my cross cultural foibles without ever showing anger or frustration, helped teach me their language, and slowly let me into their world.

That is not to say it was easy the whole time. For the first two stays I had a hard time with some of the young kids in the compound, privacy issues, the heat of my room, and looking back, mainly just not being able to communicate what so ever. But during the longest stay of a little over two weeks I grew close to the family as my language started to barely improve.

Three generations live in Mamasallu’s compound. Mamasallu (mama means grandparent) is the head of the household and is easily the oldest, followed by his two wives Adama and Asmau. Their only male son, Moussa (my namesake) lives in the compound, with his two wives Hadja and Asu. They’re all in their late twenties and early thirties. The youngest generation is the most represented and all in their first decade of life. Kadi and Yaya are Hadja and Moussa’s children, and Asmau, Marie and Fatou are children of various relatives.

Kadi, Yaya, Hadja, Me, Moussa, Fatou, Asmau, Marie, Asmau and Adama (left to right)

Kadi, Yaya, Hadja, Me, Moussa, Fatou, Asmau, Marie, Asmau and Adama (left to right)

I think my breakthrough moment in Samba Laobe was when I made a simple joke at one of my sisters in law who came by for lunch one day. She and her co-wife, my sister Fatou (lives in a different compound with her husbands family) kept telling me the lunch was wellaani, or no good. Finally I looked up at said “If lunch bad, why are you eating?” Hadja lost it laughing, and she proceeded to relate the story to the rest of the family and most of the visitors over the next day. I think after that the family saw me less as a strange outsider and more as someone who genuinely wanted to take part in their day-to-day lives.

One thing I’ll briefly touch on here, and expand on later, is Senegal’s joking culture. Every family group has a playful rival with whom to exchange harmless insults. In Samba Laobe it was the Djamanka family down the road from me that I regularly called fat, bean eating, cattle thieves. One day while walking back to my house with a watermelon for desert, one of the younger Djamanka sons, Moussa, jokingly accused me of stealing the melon. I rejected his accusations, but he said he would beat me and take my melon. I looked around to see if there were any adults around, and then looked him in the eye and said “mi lippat ma haa cula” (I will beat you until you poop).

While threatening children was fun, the most meaningful part of the stay was the relationship I developed with my host sister Hadja. Hadja is in her late twenties (age is not so certain for everyone in Senegal) and is from Gabu, in Guinea Bissau. She moved to Samba Laobe and married Moussa in 2005. Since she’s had three kids, Kadi, Sallu and Yaya.

I got to know Hadja drinking warga and talking after dinner every night. Hadja always spoke slowly, enunciated words, and when I still didn’t understand found different ways of explaining. We ended up having very basic conversations about things far beyond my language level. Topics included the differences between African and American women’s daily workloads, how the concept of family is very different in Africa, and Apartheid in South Africa. Despite the heaviness of some of our conversations, we also laughed a lot (mostly her at me). Numerous times she told me “You are not a toubab , you are a Fulbe” and “tell your parents your name is Moussa now, I don’t know James.”

I’ll never forget the total of a month I spent in Samba Laobe and the warmth and hospitality I was shown by Mamasallu Balde and his family. Any visitors who make it over here will definitely be treated to lunch at their house. That said, I am really excited for the next two years down here in Kolda working on urban gardening projects and getting to know Fulbe and their way of life over cups of hot warga.