Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Aline Sitoé Diatta: the Joan of Arc of Africa

It is 1943. Colonial French soldiers have penetrated a coastal village, deep in the South of Senegal. The soldiers are looking for a young woman; a woman who, for some time,  is posing a great threat to the established French colonial order.

Some say she is a witch. Some say she can heal. What is certain, is that like Joan of Arc, she has acquired a strong following of anti-colonialists and is much revered. Like Joan of Arc, she has spoken against 'an invader', the French, and is leading a form of resistance against the colonialists. The young woman has such an influence, that following the death of their King, the Djola people of Casamance have made her their Queen.

By 1944, this woman, the Priestess Queen of the Kingdom of Kabrousse, who bravely chose to surrender to the French and spare her people from reprisals, will have endured ill-treatment in numerous jails from Sénégal to Gambia, and eventually Timbuktu in Mali. In less than a year, torture and miserable conditions will have broken her body.  Deliberately untreated by her jailers, abandoned to illness, the young woman will die in prison at the age of 24.

Who was this strong spirit, and why were the French so afraid of her?

Why does her memory endure in Africa today such that even 2008 Senegalese coinage exists with her face upon it and the bold inscription, "La femme qui était plus qu'un homme" - the woman who was more than a man.

Who was she?

Her name was Aline Sitoé Diatta. She was born some time around 1920, in the coastal village of Kabrousse in Casamance, a region of rich and varied flora. Her people, the Djola, who today contribute only 4% of the population of Casamance and 8% of Senegal's population, were traditionally rice cultivators.

Casamance is a sun blessed land that represents one seventh the size of Senegal. Through it, runs Senegal's second largest river. It is a green paradise of mangroves, lagoons, beaches, rice fields and sacred lush forests. Prior to the French, the Portuguese saw in it a great potential. From the 16th century, the Portuguese founded a commerce of wax, ivory, skins and sadly, slavery. In the 17th century, they created a port which will later become the region's capital, Ziguinchor. Long before the famed island of Gorée which US President Obama will eventually visit in 2013, Ziguinchor will have served as a major transit port for the slave trade.

It is in Ziguinchor, that the young orphan, Aline, arrives at age eighteen, to seek an employment. There, she is hired by colonialists to work as docker on the port. Life at home is a life of poverty, but the rudimentary conditions and the exhausting work of loading and unloading ships also take their toll on the young woman. Aline travels to Senegal's capital, Dakar, and is soon employed as a domestic by a French family.

When Aline is around 21, her life takes an interesting turn. One day, she hears a voice. The voice tells her to return to her village at once, and to free her people from the colonialists.
The voice adds that if she fails to do so, misfortune will befall her.

Aline ignores the voice. Four days later, she awakes paralyzed, possibly from a stroke, albeit, one that is rare for one so young.  Aline finally requests to be brought back to Casamance.  No sooner is she returned to the village of Kabrousse, that the paralysis leaves her. According to some, she will retain a limp from her ordeal.

Aline begins to take her voices seriously. Soon, she is encouraging her people to reaffirm their roots. This, she says, is the essence of resisting the influence of colonialists.

What are these Djola roots?

The Djola, or Jola, had no caste system. No griots (storytellers/historial class), no slaves, no nobility class. In terms of world cultures, theirs was a rare egalitarian society. They were highly respectful to, and integrated with nature, and were adept at herbal medicine. They were also a musical culture, their instruments playing a significant part in their many rituals. These rituals favored a strong sense of collective consciousness which aligned their political system to that of true socialism.

Djola women from Kabrousse

Rice growers, the Djola had developed a sophisticated form of rice preservation. In fact, the cultivation of rice was strongly tied to their identity, in as much as it bound them to the earth and to their religion and social organization.

But alas, the flavor of the day, at least, at the time of the French colonialists, is the forced cultivation of cash crops - namely peanuts. It is this that Aline is quick to denounce. She calls upon her people to stop growing cash crops, to return to growing rice instead.

Coming from such an egalitarian society as the Djola, one who has long resisted either Christian or Islamic conversion, Aline's indignation at the injustices perpetrated by the French rulers continues to fuel her quest. She goes further. She encourages her people to disobey French orders: they ought not to pay taxes to the French; they ought not to join the French army.

All in all, Aline urges her people to refuse the influence of the colonizers, to instead return to their own Senegalese roots. She explains that her message is a divine order.

At first her people only partly pay heed to her calling. There is, at the time, a great drought in the region of Casamance and the Djola have understandably more pressing preoccupations.

She is summoned to prove that her voices are divine. "Why not make it rain?" they ask. At this, Aline suggests incantations along with animal sacrifices.

Following these ceremonies, by some enchantment, and much to the surprise of everyone, water, at last, descends upon the rice fields.

And Aline is proclaimed a true divine servant. The message spreads beyond the region and her name finds repute. There is more, they say. It is told that she heals, and that by merely touching her, the sick are soon restored to health.

Delegations from all over Senegal, no matter their ethnic group or religion, make pilgrimages to meet her. They are touched and enlivened by her simple yet bold message: the return to tradition, the return to roots.

I, too, when I read of Aline, I became instantly touched.  Whether she was the Joan of Arc they say she was, it matters not.  There is in the Djola culture, and its kinship with nature, something that we can all learn from. It is something that, more than ever, should matter to us and that we are in danger of losing. There is, in the return to roots, and to Djola collective consciousness, something that we could be inspired by, if only to better nurture each other and learn to empathize again. And last, there is in Aline, a courage and conviction in the face of a tremendous opponent against whom she never had a chance, that serves as inspiration to all oppressed people. 
By her renown and her great influence, it is no surprise that Aline's name reached the French. Here was a woman that could rally the Senegalese against them.  Ironic, that at a time when France was itself faced with its own invader, Germany, it remained not only fueled by economic self-interest and a ruthless quest to maintain a hold on its world colonies, but also blind to the plight of those it had invaded.

For the French, it was clear. Aline had to be stopped. No, such a people with a history of independence as those of Casamance could not be silenced. She had to be eliminated, officially "for inciting rebellion and for refusing to submit to the established order."
And so she was.

I was saddened by Aline's treatment by the French. She was arrested on May 8, 1943. I read that colonial prisons did not necessarily cater to women in those days. In 1943, according to the National Archives of Senegal (ANS), the prison population of Senegal was 1,766 and rising. The number of females was sparse, rising to only 29 compared to 3626 male inmates in 1967.  Research (Konaté, 2003) argues that 'the female inmate's triple status as woman, convict and African, accounted for the colonial state's indifference and neglect towards that category of prisoners'.  Poor Aline. Even twelve years after it became independent, Senegal had no prisons for women.  It was only in 1972, that the first women's prison, The Rufisque women prison, was opened. 
Aline was perhaps an anomaly in French colonial prisons, but what she will forever be remembered for, is her defiance in the face of oppression, and her resolve to save her people's culture.
This page is an homage to her and her message.

Archives Nationales du Sénégal. 3F/00133. (1942-44). Prison des cercles.
Direction de l'Administration Pénitentiaire (DAP). 1968. Enquête sur la criminalité au Sénégal année 1967. Dakar, Sénégal.
Konate, D. (2003). Ultimate exclusion: Imprisoned women in Sénégal. In F. Bernault (Ed). A history of prison and confinement in Africa (pp. 155 - 164). Porstmouth NH: Heinemann.
Aline Sitoé Diatta, reine rebelle et insoumise de Casamance.