“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.
Take a deep breath. Count to 20. Exhale. Love it your way.