“Holy War”: Ramadan and race riots in a Senegalese marketplace, 1989.
By Patricia Smith.
Images by Amie Oliver from the series “Heaven, Earth, and Sea.”
In Senegal, the sun rises sharply at seven. First the birds, and then the sun slips into the sky to burn and burn.
It’s Ramadan, the Muslim holy season, forty days of fasting. For this one month, the eating is done before sunrise and after sunset. All cooks have been up already for at least two hours.
Couscous, lait caillé, dates. Fish and lamb. Meat.
My neighborhood bread shop, a rectangular wooden shack with the word Boulangerie scrawled in childish yellow handwriting across the top, is at the intersection of one of several dirt roads and the paved one, across from the gare routière. Inside, loaves of French bread, dusty with flour, always sit upright in paper sacks, and a man with long slim fingers the color of coffee sells me my daily baguette.
“Salaam aleikum,” I will say to him.
“Aleikum salaam,” he will answer. “Ça va?”
“Oui, ça va.”
My bread seller is a thin man, with dark curls and an easy grin and eyes black like warm pools of licorice. Like most of the Mauritanians, or Nars, who run the boutiques in Senegal, my bread seller wears a long white robe and pointy wizard shoes. Each morning when I arrive to buy my bread, he smiles and asks how I am doing. I tell him I’m fine — and it’s all we say to each other. I wish him a good day and he says, “God willing.”
But on this day, when I arrive, the little bread shop is shut. Boarded up.
Surprised, I try a different boutique down the road with another shopkeeper, a Senegalese. This one has half a dozen baguettes left, and I buy one.
The year is 1989. The month, April. The end of one Senegalese year and the beginning of another. I am here on a Fulbright Teacher Exchange, having swapped my position in a Massachusetts middle school with a Senegalese teacher for one academic year.
Both our school years are winding down, but I am not yet ready to leave. Living in a small government-owned house in Ziguinchor, in the Casamance region of Senegal, south of the Gambia and near to the border of Guinea-Bissau, I am only now, seven months after my arrival, feeling settled, comfortable. Only now have I begun to adapt to the rhythms of Senegalese life, the demands of teaching fifty and sixty students at once. Now, the market ladies have given me the nickname “Madame Santhiaba,” for the neighborhood in Ziguinchor where I live.
At twenty-eight, a New Englander, I have come to this part of the world, this part of Senegal, with Jim, forty-one, a Midwesterner, a French teacher like me. We had both applied to be sent to France — dreamed of Paris or Provence or even northern factory towns — but never imagined papaya and mango, drumming the djembé, long Wolof greetings that could make you late for your next appointment. In Senegal, it is best not to have appointments. The pace of life is slow.
These days, now that Ramadan is here, life has slowed more than had seemed possible to me. Only sound has movement. The rest is heat and air and waiting. Waiting first for the new moon that marks the beginning of the fast and the Muslim New Year. Waiting for the sun to set and the shrill call to prayer from the mosques. Waiting, too, for the beginning of the rainy season and the end to this thickness and heat. Even the mangoes hang suspended, full and ripe, ready to drop, expectant. In my courtyard, the bougainvillea bleeds pink, a shock in what is otherwise a kind of black-and-white stillness, a lull in my everyday life. Sometimes it seems that this entire Senegalese year is a lull in my life, a sort of time out, and I have to remind myself that mangi fii rekk, I am simply here — me, an American woman, a neighbor, a teacher.
On this April morning, I face a lively group of quatrièmes, the equivalent of ninth graders. But before I can start my English class, before I can launch into one of the dialogues in our EFSA (English for French-Speaking Africa) book — “Excuse me, have you any mangoes? Yes, I have some mangoes” — there, waiting, scrawled on the blackboard in childish handwriting with precise French loops, a call to violence: Death to all the Nars! Meet at 6 p.m. to pillage.
“Who has written that?” The force of my voice surprises even me. I march to the board, toss my backpack, and wipe away the words with shaking hands. I turn and face several dozen students, who in this class range in age from fourteen to eighteen and sit in twos and threes at the rows of long, wooden tables. All my teacher instincts are on alert. “What is going on?”
One boy — I’ll call him Boubacar — stands before me. A good student, his round face is set, his eyes black and hard. “Revenge,” is what he says.
Forty or fifty angry voices erupt. They shout in Wolof, French, English. I hear “revenge” over and over in each of the tongues.
What I learn from my students is this: at the border between Senegal and Mauritania, some cows belonging to Mauritanians ate plants belonging to Senegalese farmers. Despite the farmers’ warnings, the cows continued to wander over and eat their plants, so the farmers killed the cows. The Mauritanians killed the farmers. Within days, the fighting back and forth has escalated to the point that the Mauritanian people have decided to slaughter all Senegalese living in Mauritania.
I look at Boubacar. “But the Mauritanians who run the boutiques here, many of them have never even been to Mauritania.” I’m pacing now, looking from one face to another. Frowns. Furrowed brows. Empty, passive eyes.
“Et alors? We let our brothers die over there and do nothing?” Boubacar poses in front of the rickety table that is my desk, hands on his hips. His arms protrude from his worn, limp T-shirt like flesh-covered bones.
Boubacar’s outburst silences the rest of the class. All hope of holding our English lesson is now lost.
“Do you…” I look directly at Boubacar and then to all the students … “or any of you … have relatives living in Mauritania?”
Two older boys in the back wave me away with their hands, make clicking sounds deep in their throats.
“It is no matter,” Boubacar says. “These are our brothers.”
“But it’s Ramadan.” I’m standing in the middle of the classroom. Sweat runs down my back beneath my batik shirt. I wipe my forehead. “What about the holy season?”
Boubacar takes three steps towards me, finger pointed, accusing. “The Nars, too, are Muslims. It is their killing that has marred the holy season.”
My voice when I speak is quiet. “But it’s still wrong to hurt the Mauritanians here. They are innocent.” I turn to the open door that leads from our classroom out to the courtyard. Lycée Djignabo looks like the military barracks it once was. Long, low buildings arranged in a U around the bare, dusty courtyard; each houses two classrooms. They are dark. Most have no electricity. Along the side facing the courtyard, windows are covered with heavy wooden shutters. Now, during Ramadan, the students prefer sitting in these seats. Many students are fasting and because they are not permitted to swallow anything — not juice or water or saliva — they need to spit. Every few minutes, someone pushes up the nearest shutter and spits out into the dust.
We spend the rest of the hour battling back and forth, holding firm to our positions. When the bell rings, I pick up my backpack and turn to leave.
“Miss,” I hear a soft voice say.
I turn and see a girl — Aisha, I’ll name her — standing a few feet behind me wearing a simple, pale dress and flip-flops. She is a timid girl who writes with a strong voice, even in English. To me, she speaks in French.
“My sister,” she says, “she is married to a Nar.” Then she lowers her head and walks out into the burning glare of the late morning Senegalese sun.
Since it’s Wednesday and there are no afternoon classes, I take a long siesta. I want to sleep and sleep. At four, I walk plodding the dusty streets to my drumming class, the one I have been looking forward to for weeks, the advanced class. But I can’t stop thinking of my students and their fervor for revenge.
And dead Senegalese scattered throughout Mauritania.
On Michel’s rooftop patio, Lamine and Baccary and the others are waiting for me, ready for class to begin. It’s my first time drumming with Michel, Laurent, and Nicole. They have been playing the djembé much longer than I have, but Baccary says I catch on quickly. I learn the rhythms fast, keep the beat without trouble. It’s like learning a foreign language, I tell him. I’m used to looking for patterns.
We start with Kotéba and play hard. I sweat. My palms sting below the base of my fingers, where they hit the skin of the drum. We play steady. We play Mandjiani, my favorite. We jump from rhythm to rhythm, shift easily, each drum’s voice harmonizing with the others. Lamine plays bass, deep and somber. Baccary improvises, scats solos with his fingers. I feel myself relax, settle into this repetition, hypnotic, like a mantra. I forget about Boubacar and Aisha. I forget everything except for what my hands are doing.
The call of Baccary’s drum changes and we switch to Assiko. I am no longer here on Michel’s rooftop patio. No longer overlooking the street that leads to the lycée. No longer across from the restaurant where Jim and I first ate cheb u jen and Jim bit into a hot pepper thinking it was a tomato.
We’re drumming and I’m gone to a quiet village deep in the Casamance where the women pound manioc and dance and laugh in front of the banyan tree. But then what I hear is not laughter. I stop drumming and so do the others.
Down below, in the street, the sounds of a restless crowd, the swell of a growing murmur like the buzzing of thousands of insects come to devour the village. Glass shatters. Michel, Laurent, Nicole, and I put our drums down and race to the edge of the rooftop. The crowd grows in the dusky light, its collective voice buzzing louder, insistent, angry, covering more land and more. It takes me several minutes to realize that I’m watching people storm the Mauritanian-owned boutique next door to Michel’s.
“We have to something,” I hear myself say. “Stop it!” I yell to the crowd below. “Go home!”
Of course, they don’t hear me. The crowd grows and swells. Three or four men, the ones who started it all, maybe, break away and hurl rocks against the boutique, smashing all the windows. Three or four others run forward and begin to tear the wooden shop to pieces.
In the early days, after I had just arrived in Senegal, it was my ritual to stop in that boutique to buy an Orange Fanta, a drink I had never tasted in America. How many times had I spoken with that shop owner and smiled at his wife as she nursed their baby in the tiny room beyond the storefront? I’m close to tears, frantic.
The others say nothing. Michel leans over the edge of the rooftop, Nicole and Laurent quiet behind him, looking. We watch as if it is a film being made before our eyes. Below us, this mob of real people throwing real stones, breaking real glass. Now, in a surge, the crowd rushes forward. They push their way into what is left of the shop and emerge one by one, waving victory prizes: bottles of Coke, packs of cigarettes, plastic bottles of palm oil. A woman scurries at the edge of the crowd, arms loaded with cans of condensed milk.
I tell the others about my students, their calls for revenge.
Baccary and Lamine are not excited. “Tu ne comprends pas,” they say. “The Senegalese and Mauritanians have a long-standing hatred of each other. Historically, we do not get along.”
I keep waiting for the crowd to drag the Mauritanian family, beaten, from their room behind the shop. I search below for Boubacar. From the ground where he has fallen, one young boy tosses a bottle.
What I don’t yet know is that the Mauritanian government has decided to repatriate the murdered Senegalese. Worse perhaps than the murders, the local television news reports, is that the dead bodies have all been mutilated — body parts chopped off. In anticipation of this very reaction that we are witnessing from the roof, the Senegalese government has moved all the Mauritanians to the safety of mosques. They will all be deported to Mauritania.
The crowd grows louder. Rocks fly. Soon, the pam-pon! pam-pon! of the police cars blare.
Nicole points farther down the street, where a herd of people rushes toward us, kicking dust like water buffalo. In tan uniforms, police chase behind them, useless with their waving clubs and commands to stop. One officer throws something in the air that explodes into smoke and covers the mob in a cloud, and a man cries out as if struck. Police sirens wail. Somebody shouts. Men and boys and women and girls run, a whirling chaos of arms and legs in the smoke and panic.
In French, Nicole mutters that this is a real war. I agree. For the first time, I think about leaving Senegal and returning home. Normally, I don’t get homesick; I don’t know what that feels like. I’ve lived in Paris, in Brussels, and now in Ziguinchor, Senegal. Each new place — even here, a place so foreign I couldn’t imagine it before I left the States, a place where my white skin sticks out — I have felt some sense of belonging, some desire to settle in, forge a new identity.
Naïvely, I think we would never see this in America.
Race riots. Kent State. South Central LA.
Lamine must read my mind because he comes over and takes my face into his hands. “I’m sorry,” he says, “for you to see this. It is a bad impression of my country.” I wait for the usual lecture about how this is Africa and there is so much I cannot understand. This time, I will agree.
“Let’s go,” is all Lamine says, and turns to head for the door.
“We’re going down into that?”
“We will be okay.”
It’s not much reassurance, but I believe it. Or I don’t. But I follow Lamine anyway, and he carries my drum on his shoulder as we make our way down from Michel’s rooftop patio to the street and the crowd below.
On our way out, we run into Jim. He opens his apartment door as Lamine and I pass by. He tells me he’s had his television on all day and that Dakar is in a state of emergency. He says there’s a curfew and that the mutilated Senegalese bodies are arriving in Senegal, have landed recently at the airport in Dakar.
“There was one angry crowd waiting for them,” Jim says.
He reminds me that we’re supposed to go to Dakar ourselves in two days. We have permission to miss school in order to cash checks and get our gamma gobulin shots at the American Embassy.
“I need that money,” I say. “I’m nearly out.”
“Me too,” says Jim. “Plus the shot. We’re already overdue.”
On Friday, after more mayhem, I hail a cab from the gare routière, stop for Jim, and together we continue on to the airport that sits at the end of the road beyond the lycée. The Embassy has advised us to fly to Dakar. Our grant money will cover the costs. The roads, we are told, are unsafe.
We don’t know what to expect in Dakar, what life is like under the curfew. We will stay there only for two days, with Helen Picard, the American cultural attaché. Leo and Fiona, two Fulbright professors, American friends of ours, are also at Helen’s, stuck in Dakar on a trip from their home in Fatick.
“Leo’s a hostage,” Helen has explained on the phone. Leo is Cuban-American and with his dark skin, he looks like a Nar. These days, such a mistake could be deadly. On the streets of Dakar, anyone who might be a Mauritanian is killed. Neighbors have turned against neighbors. One man was shot not far from the American Cultural Center as he walked home on his lunch hour. The officials hope the curfew will help.
Our little commuter plane lands in Dakar and the rear door opens onto the runway. I brace myself for crowds and chaos and guns. But instead, I am stunned by the silence and the rows of crouched figures — thousands — in white robes that blow like curtains in the breeze. Peaceful and eerie, the ghostly figures wait for airplanes to take them back to Mauritania. They cover the runway as far as I can see. There might be women and children in the crowd too, but all I can make out are the robes rippling in the bright sun, rows and rows and rows of them. I nudge Jim, but he’s already watching too.
At Helen’s, we cheer up Leo, who is beginning to feel stir-crazy, and Fiona, who is afraid Leo will get too bored and go outside. We sip cold beer as the dull roar of airplanes fills the air for two days, until the last Mauritanian leaves Senegalese soil. When the silence finally comes, it hangs heavy like the heat.
My bread seller is gone. Killed or in hiding or safely back in Mauritania. Disappeared. If I had peered into the faces crouched there on the airport runway, I might have seen him.
Be safe, I would have told him.
God willing, he would have answered.
It is the holy season of Ramadan. We are in the midst of a holy war.
Patricia (Patty) Smith is native New Englander whose nonfiction has appeared in the anthologies One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories; Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day; Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing; One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Discuss What Has Gotten Better… and What Hasn’t; Salon.com, Broad Street, Gris-Gris, and So to Speak. This essay received a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology.
Amie Oliver’s artwork has been exhibited in hundreds of solo and group exhibitions, and she has held artists’ residencies in the United States, Europe, China, South Korea, Tibet, and Australia. The Heaven, Earth and Sea series consists of drawing and ink wash painting on paper. Read her artist’s statement here.