Mondi: chi sono i Mandinga?The report of Chiara, a Italian volunteer in Senegal with the EVS project Voices from around the world III.

“Entering a new world is like entering a mystery which can hide many labyrinths, depths and enigmas”

Arriving is a long journey.

The ship leaves Dakar at night, it crosses the northern arid area bordering the Sahara until to reach the green and mystic lands of  Casamance and it goes up the homonymous river leaving the ocean behind. Then, the following mourning it lands at Ziguinchor. However to reach your destination you must leave the fresh air and the vivid life of Ziguinchor on a sept place, that is a very rusted Peugeot 7 seater, and go on for 4 hours until to reach the red and sunny streets of Sédhiou. Here you are in the middle Casamance and Sédhiou is the most important city since 2008 when it has become a region.

Sometimes, while you are travelling, it can happen that somebody asks you where you are going, where you live and as you answer ‘Sédhiou’ only few people can say they have been there. Some people ask you: ‘Sédiou? What is special in Sédiou?’, ‘Sédhiou is a big village, isn’t it?’. Other will repeat a stereotype regarding Mandinga, the main socio-linguistic group in this area: “Mandinga-men do nothing while women do all the work”, “Men sit or lay all the day drinking tea, while women work in the fields or in the house”. Sometimes they ask you: “Is it true that only women work in Sédhiou?”, as they want to confirm their stereotypes or create a sense of complicity with you tubab, white emancipated woman.

Trying to find the truth is useless in an environment characterized by cultural biases and stereotyped images about ‘the Other’. What is more interesting to me is woman and her difficult living conditions.

Mariama is my sister in Sédhiou and she is very young. She is 19, no she isn’t, she is 20 or maybe 24. In Sédhiou, both men and women lie about their age because of bureaucratic reasons so that they can enrol at secondary school to obtain the BAC (baccalaureate), even if they are 5 years older. However Mariana doesn’t go to school, she lives with her sister’s family and she sometimes attends a computer course.

She doesn’t like Sédhiou, she regrets her exciting life in Ziguinchor but now only her father lives there. Her sister Fatu needed her help so she came to Sédhiou to take care of the house, the children and us, three volunteers. I often look at her and while I am learning to know her I can’t help wondering how she can accept her life so repetitive, tiring and, above all, I wonder how she can accept a life that doesn’t belong to her. I look for some rebellion symptoms in her eyes (only long afterwards I understood that they were inside me), she could keep studying, she could look for a job and live in Ziguinchor, she could…she really could? I’ve never understood if she could change her life, if she could make a change that isn’t marriage. However with the passing of time, I understood that she is waiting or dreaming of marriage to begin the story of her life. Maybe Mariama likes her life and despite the direct confrontation with young Europeans she hasn’t changed her mind. After all, she is lucky, she doesn’t have to work in the rice paddies, bending over the field, or in the jardins des femmes[1] and, most of all, she didn’t give up her studies because she had to get married, as some girls I met had done. Awa is one of them.

Awa is a young woman working for an organization in Sédhiou, when I met her she told me that when she was still underage she agreed to marry a man chosen by her parents, in order not to lose their approval and to respect their will. She wasn’t happy for this decision taken on her behalf and she envied her friends whose parents let them freedom to choose. Now she has a child and when I asked her how she is going to act she answered me she would like things to be different for her daughter. I really don’t know if she will be able to give her child everything she didn’t have. I was very impressed by the way she told her story, she accepted her parent’s will because she knew that if she had disobeyed them, she wouldn’t have lived in peace. The practice of early marriage is widespread across the country and it is linked to the high women illiteracy rate. Once families marry off their daughters, they are forced to leave school to take care of their husbands and kids. Who are Mandinga? I’m trying to find out what they are characterized by, the answer that came in my mind includes their main values: language and Muslim religion. It’s an ancient population of warriors, they conquered other lands and imposed Islam over other people, so language and religion were the main values on which they founded their identity. They are often considered one the most conservative group of the country, a rigid hierarchy governs their relationships so that women and young people occupy subordinate positions more than in any other ethnic groups in Senegal. Even if female circumcision is forbidden, this group still practices it and it has a very important social function. Uncircumcised women cannot speak in public and they are unlikely to be married, in other words they are excluded from society.

As a western woman it’s really difficult for me to understand how a person can sacrifice him o herself to respect custom traditions and community roles. Senegalese society is founded on the regard toward family, older people and on the moral impossibility to refuse parents’ blessing. When I was there I would have written a sort of eulogy of refusal, naughtiness and ‘betrayal’, in my opinion such actions  appear to be necessary for the protection of our life and well-being. These values can’t explain everything, we must also consider a dimension of dependency that makes people unable to take a decision autonomously. Although about 80 percent of women work in the field, they aren’t owner. Indeed, the access to the field is a crucial theme now.

But these thoughts are vain and incomplete.

The reality of these women comes out and it inflames my tubab soul. If I hadn’t stayed there for a long time the differences I saw would have given birth to an idea of inequalities. I wouldn’t have been able to see anything else in this feminine world that instead is more rich and intricate than it seems. Sédiou is a hybrid in evolution and it confuses you. It  has 20.000 inhabitants so it has the size and the ambitions of a town, but in the depths of its life it remains a village, a big village that gets bigger every day. There are schools and centers of vocational training that offer more study opportunities than the rural zones and, according to me, it is this situation that has created some contradictions. On the one hand, going to school shows you a world that still doesn’t exist. On the other hand, when you are back at home, you find another world with its duties and prohibitions that establishes how things must be. I remember one afternoon: a boy and a girl, very young, dressed in close-fitting clothes and with sunglasses, they were walking with a cut throat chicken in their hands. This image sums up a universe balanced between ‘tradition and modernity’. It’s like a snap-shot of a piece of this world, with its young people thinking and dreaming of Europe and America, but with their feet on the red soil of Casamance. In this confrontation encounter with the West, so real and insistent, the traditional rural African world is puzzled and it transforms itself, in its own way. During the women’s day celebration, a speaker declared that in Africa women’s emancipation will engage women and men together. With this surprising statement, the speaker wanted to highlight a characteristics of African feminism in contrast to the Western one. The idea is symbolic and it implies the core of the question: the way. When they think of a change or a possible evolution of their social conditions, African women consider men as allies.

When they greet each other or make arrangements or organize something, you often hear them say: On est ensemble. This sentence represents a way of doing, that is the core of everything they do.

They cannot know what it will happen, if things will work out or not, everything can happen, inch’allah, if God wants. But everything will happen in the common dimension of on est ensemble. This is the most valuable lesson I learnt.

At the beginning I couldn’t see anything else than the injustice and the difficulties of the life of these women but as the time passed by I was able to open my eyes and widen my view. Their patience, their smiles never tired, their kindness that doesn’t mean weakness and the balance of their back under their burdens contain the strength of will and the dignity of those people who are able to accept their conditions completely.

I know there are many things I wasn’t able to see, but I’ve learned that is not easy to watch the world around you.

It’s a great and noble apprenticeship that makes you interrupt your judgment, in this way you can take a step back and let “the Other” show him or herself so that you will be able to meet him or her, inch’allah.

Chiara Bonafede


[1] The term literally means women’s garderns, they are big community vegetable gardens where women produce their means of subsistence.