Looking Back to Move Forward


Find out why members of one African village are trying to return to ancestral ways to bring back women’s rights.

by Fatou K. Camara, PhD

The following excerpt was written by Fatou K. Camara, associate law professor at the University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar (Senegal). Fatou is part of a project called Temple for Women Initiates (TWI), in which African women from the village Baback Sereres—one of the most ancient populations in Senegal—are seeking to return to ancestral village practices in order to increase their rights as women. It is a project carried by a whole village, men and women alike, regardless of religious affiliation (the village is composed of Catholics, Muslims, and followers of the indigenous faith).

“We can do something other than look to Saudi Arabia or the West, we can look to the interior of Africa, its culture, its spirituality.”

—Sembene (a prolific African writer)

Young people demand return to Black-African culture

The young people of the village of Baback Sereres in Senegal held a meeting, October 15, 2007, to discuss the project of a Temple for Women Initiates. In a letter summarizing the views expressed in that meeting, they wrote the following in support of the project:

“Culture, which can be defined as the ways of doing things, the way of life, the beliefs, in short the ways in which a group sees the world, occupies a major place in the life of people. However, the phenomena of Westernization, combined with the attempts at Islamization, have caused the negation of the existence of Black-African cultures. Without culture it is impossible to reach development.”

Modernists consider indigenous culture and anything related to it as something of the past, totally irrelevant in today’s world. Muslim and Christian religious leaders are keen to dismiss indigenous sacred rituals as satanic or pagan practices. But in spite of these efforts to erase indigenous faith from the minds of Senegalese men and women, it is still there.

Officially Senegal is a country where 94% of the people are Muslim, but those statistics overlook the fact that the majority of people continue to believe in the taboos and prohibitions established by their ancestral pre-Islamic and pre-Christian faith. Senegal’s first President, famed poet L. S. Senghor, who was a Catholic raised by missionaries and who belonged to the Seereer ethnic group, wrote the following:

“If today a Muslim Head of State consults the ‘sacred wood,’ offers in sacrifice an ox or a bull, I have seen a Christian woman, a practising medical doctor, consult the Seereer ‘Pangool’ (the snakes of the sacred wood). In truth, everywhere in Black Africa, the ‘revealed religions’ are rooted in the animism which still inspires poets and artists, I am well placed to know it and to say it.”

Everything has a life of its own

Animism, the indigenous faith of Senegal, is based on the belief that everything that exists has a life of its own, and the ability to feel and suffer like you and me. Animals, plants, soil, “inanimate objects” feel. We must therefore respect and love all those with whom we share the earth. The following examples were given to me by Issa Laye Thiaw, the son of a high priest of the indigenous faith:

“When you eat under a tree you want to give it its share, which you deposit at the foot of the tree. After a busy morning of toil, when the farmer sits in the shade, he must also put his hoe in the shade and not let it lie in the sun. If he forgets to do that he will be reminded with these words (he told me in Wolof because I don’t understand Seereer): ‘Da fa am bàkkan ni yow.’ (‘It has life—the ability to feel—just like you’). When the hoe falls from your hands, we say: ‘Do not pick it up immediately. It is tired. Let it rest.’”

Issa Laye Thiaw is from an ethnic group, Seereer, with a long-standing tradition of resisting conversion to Islam and the Christian faith. He made the following statement:

“Since Islamization and Christianization, Africans do not respect nature. Conversion starts with a change of mindsets and as soon as that happens, any further change is accepted. Each religion has plundered the tradition of its community of birth. Where Islam was born women had little if any rights. Islam has led us to the marginalization and inferiority of women.”

As a matter of fact, in Senegal, Islam in particular, has been officially used as a way to deny women equal rights.

A return to Matriarchal roots

Fortunately, the matriarchal nature of Seereer culture makes it possible to engage into culturally meaningful discussion and actions promoting human, and most specifically, women’s rights. Indeed, Seereer cultural values preach gender equity, respect for the environment, education of all children in the values of self-respect, respect for others and care for the community’s interests. The temple will be established as a place where these ancient principles will be taught. It will be a temple of learning as well as a cultural centre open to visitors and researchers, because the revitalization of black African culture, moral values and spiritual foundation, is the best way to circumvent religious fundamentalisms in Africa. The TWI will be a shelter for indigenous African culture, and the promotion of its matriarchal values through the Temple will help strengthen a feminist message all the more effective because it is tightly wrapped in traditional clothing.

The popular songs, the folk tales, the legends, the ancestral faith are the elements that constitute the base of Seereer culture and traditional values. All these elements have the women as their principal agents. In the tradition of the Seereer, as is the case of many black African communities, women are the guardians of ancestral knowledge, and have the responsibility of transmitting it from generation to generation. Traditional knowledge forms an integral part of the education, the well-being and the thriving of families and the community, particularly in rural areas. Building a temple to the initiated women will serve as a way to ensure a larger respect for, and a greater protection of, this knowledge and its holders.

How to go back in time

For the initiators of the TWI project, the first challenge is to successfully lobby national authorities into assuming responsibility on the matter. Project members must take practical steps to ensure that Africans’ specific cultural heritage holds its own in the face of the Middle-Eastern and Western civilisations rival attempts to pose themselves as the unique conveyors of a universal message. M. André Youm, the head of the village of Baback Sérères has officially written to the President of the rural council (Conseil rural) of Notto Diobass, a letter dated October 18, 2007, to inform him of his decision to allot one hectare (10,000 square meters) of land to the project.

So the Association of the women of Baback have the support of the village’s chief, and the land on which to build the Temple. What they need now is the money to build it. The project has been sent to several government agencies and a few non governmental organisations, but the best answers the initiators of the project have received so far are messages of encouragement.

However, perseverance being at the heart of all successful endeavours, the promoters of the project are in the process of identifying ways to bring in private donors and funding agencies to invest in building a “pilot” TWI in the Senegalese village of Baback Sereres.

About the Author

Fatou K. Camara, PhD
The excerpt above was taken from The Temple of Initiated Women: A Framework for Culturally Meaningful Feminist Expression in Rural Areas by Fatou K. Camara, PhD. In addition to her job as assistant professor of law in the Law Faculty of Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal, she is a consultant to government and private-sector clients on alternative dispute-resolution issues. She has written a variety of books and articles on traditional African law and is currently in the final stages of preparation on her new book, The Fundamental Philosophy and Mythology of the Constitutional Rights of Negro-Africans.

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