I never imagined I’d end up living in Senegal for six weeks, it just sort of happened. I applied for a French Study Abroad program on a whim, always hoping but never really expecting for it to become a reality. But somehow or other I ended up on a plane to that little pac-man shaped country I knew so little about.
My very first Senegalese interaction was with Aminata Sow Fall, arguably the most renowned francophone African female author. Our program director was good friends with Aminata and together made the itinerary for our trip. Our first evening in Dakar was spent having dinner at her home. Her home was decorated with elaborately carved furniture and vibrant traditional fabrics. It was lovely, yet much more humble than I would have expected for an author of her status. Her voice was soft and low, but she commanded the room without effort, seated like a Queen in her striking boubou of bright yellow.
As we sat there drinking homemade bissap juice and eating the famous (and rightfully so) Senegalese mangoes, we were all completely enthralled by this grand intellectual in our midst. She was powerful and bold, and as we later found out by reading two of her novels, she wrote about women who were powerful and bold – despite their oftentimes-distressing circumstances. And even from the window of our rented Blue Bird Bus, it became immediately clear just how distressing those circumstances were.
I wasn’t so shocked by how many people that asked me for money, but by who asked me for money. It wasn’t just the crippled or the homeless who were begging, it was every person you came into contact with. If a vendor couldn’t sell you on a hand-carved statue of ebony, or as they would say repeatedly, “the gold of woods”, they would simply ask for a handout – arguing that America is rich, so I must be too.
One woman was dressed in an elaborate boubou with expensive-looking jewelry. She was positioned near our hotel so everyday we would walk past her and hear her loud and sometimes angry demands. She would send her two young children running after us, shoving their plastic containers in our faces. They were not at all like the other children, usually the talibé- boys in oversized and filthy clothes, usually barefoot, who were sent to beg for their Islamic schoolmasters. These two children were well dressed and clean, both wearing a sturdy pair of shoes.
I didn’t really understand these differences until in St. Louis, while reading and discussing Aminata Sow Fall’s second novel and winner of the winner of the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Noire- La Grève des bàttu (The Beggar’s Strike). Here in an effort to improve tourism and advance his own career, a politician vows to “clean up” the city by getting all the beggars off the streets. The leader of these mistreated beggars is a fearless woman named Salla Niang. She, unlike many of her peers, is dignified and confident for she was not born a beggar. Salla had given birth to twins, which in Senegalese culture, means that she has been cursed. This curse can only be removed after living a certain period of time, usually several years, as a mendiant (beggar).
The face of the woman I saw in Dakar came immediately to mind as well as those of her two little sons. They weren’t begging out of need for food or shelter or clothes. The mother was begging to regain her status in society, to win back the respect she lost by giving birth to two strong, healthy boys. And her boys were missing school to chase strangers down the street, a punishment for circumstances completely beyond their control. What amazed me was that even though I could see these issues first-hand, it was the words of Aminata that brought me a greater understanding of the Senegalese sufferings and sorrows.
A second strong female character from La Grève des bàttu, Lolli Badiane,embodies the deep wounds that are commonly felt by women living in a polygynous society. Lolli is the wife of the previously mentioned ambitious politician, named Mour. Lolli is the mother of their eight children and a wonderful support to her husband. During a time where Mour was unemployed, Lolli sold all of her clothes and jewelry to support the family. She is educated and beautiful and well respected. As Mour’s prominence rises, he becomes persuaded that another wife will add to his high status. As he shares his decision with his dear wife, Lolli expresses at first disbelief and then “all the rage of a wounded lioness. Her feline stare shot blazing rays on Mour’s face.” (p.43) After listening with shock to her uncommonly open resentment, Mour rebukes his wife for not accepting her “destiny” that God has dictated. After his sharp words, Lolli accepts his decision, but is described as reserved and lifeless throughout the rest of the novel. “People were no longer saying, ‘that’s Lolli Badiane’, but, that dress is Lolli Badiane.” (p.44)
This particular exchange illustrates the differences in male and female perspective on the practice of polygyny. The conflict represented here is in no way rare. As a nation, Senegal currently maintains the highest rate of polygyny in all of West Africa, as 32% of all married men and 40% of all married women practice polygyny. Although the number of polygynous marriages increased due to the rise of Islam, the practice itself has existed there for much longer, originally influenced by the traditions of West African animists. Yet with a population that is 94% Muslim, polygyny is often attributed to religious beliefs rather than cultural ones.
For many Senegalese men and women alike, polygyny is seen as part of the will of Allah. One woman named Saminista said “It is necessary for women to accept this practice if they are believing Muslims. We practice it because we are Muslim, and it’s necessary to accept that which the good God has written. Each must follow their destiny… It’s God who decides if a man will have several wives. A good Muslim woman must always submit to her husband and accept what he says.”
Yet not everyone sees polygyny as a religious duty, as seen through the words of imam, Ousmane Sow, who said “It is a recommendation of God and not necessarily an obligation. It is something one can do if one feels pushed to do it and has the means for it.” In the Quran it reads “And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice between them, then marry only one or what your right hands possess: this is more proper that you may not deviate from the right course” (4:3).
While their religion does permit this practice, many of the Senegalese are motivated by economic or social reasons. For a man, additional wives mean more children. In Senegalese society, having a lot of children merits a lot of prestige for the man because his name will continue and he will be well known. Posterity is also considered a sort of social security system, for it is the children’s duty to take care of their parents when they are old. Additional wives are often as additional helping hands – as one man put it “The more wives we have, the more we are assisted.”
From the perspective of a woman, co-spouses can also mean “more arms”. This additional help around the house allows the wife more free time to spend with her children or her elderly parents, or enjoy other activities like work outside the home or participation in political life. But in the eyes of a second or third wife, social pressures for polygyny are often not viewed as kindly. In Senegalese society, a woman who is of age and single or childless, is regarded without respect and is usually treated very poorly. Fear of becoming an “old maid” is deeply ingrained in Senegalese girls, so they will choose to become a second, third, or fourth wife so as not to end up alone. Pressure from parents is strong as well, for a man is considered wealthy if he has many wives, and a daughter becoming a third or even fourth wife would bring honor and an added social status to her family. This measure of wealth is not always a safe bet however, because a man who does not have the means to provide for several wives will often do so regardless in order to merely have the appearance of wealth and high status.
Other reasons for the practice included that there are “way more women than there are men in Senegal” (Population: 52% female and 48% male). Others praised the custom of “l’evirat” – where when a woman’s husband dies she becomes the wife of her husband’s brother, even if that brother is already married. A justification that I had not been expecting was that polygyny is a way of avoiding adultery. The man’s argument was that almost no man can be faithful to his spouse anymore so “it is better to have 4 wives than 10 concubines.” Whatever the reasoning for the practice, the decision has to be made before a man’s first marriage- for it must be registered as either monogamous or polygynous under the Family Code. As seen through the variety of responses the practice is extremely complex and therefore the reactions are as well. In the final statement of a University of Gaston Berger student who claimed to be completely against polygyny, “But one never knows…”
When I think back on the women of Senegal, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the number of troubles they face in the quest for equality. Polygyny, poverty, lack of education for girls, circumcision, to just name a few. But then I think back on my cherished interactions with Aminata Sow Fall. In my opinion, she embodies the hopeful future of Senegalese women, as well as the intent of every WomanStats member. That is, to use our education, compassion, and creativity in order to help improve the lives of our fellow women.
(Thanks to Mndy Leavitt for some of the information included in this blogpost.)