Bees in the baobab

The Bedik people came to south-east Senegal from Mali in the thirteenth century. They now number around 8,000 people, living in and around seven villages in the hills of this remote corner of Senegal. I came to spend a few days in the ‘capital’ of the Bedik country, the village of Iwol.

Bees are an important part of the history of Iwol. When Alpha Yahya attacked them from his base in Guinea to convert them to Islam, they fled into the surrounding hills, hiding in the caves. But realising that they could not defeat Yahya and his army, they offered their 12 fittest young men as a sacrifice to the village’s guardian spirit so that the village could be saved. The spirit accepted this offering and sent a swarm of bees to attack Yahya’s soldiers. The stings were so bad that they all fell down dead on the spot (only Yahya himself survived), and the Bedik got their village back.

At one side of the village is an old, gnarled baobab tree, some 23m in circumference. This sprouted, many centuries ago, over the burial place of some members of the Camara family – which somehow makes it sacred. As the bees now nest in it I suppose it is doubly sacred.

A nice by-product of this is the honey, which the Bedik add to palm wine to make a delicious mead drink.

Whilst many of the Bedik are now Catholic, they are at the same time still animist – having decided, apparently, to maintain this alongside their Catholicism so as not to lose their traditions. An important part of those traditions is the annual initiation ceremony by which the boys of this and nearby villages come of age. Whilst the whole initiation takes some five months, much of it taking place out in the sacred forest, it begins with a public ceremony in the village and it was this I had come to see.

It starts with the presentation by each boy of a cockerel to the village spirit. The cockerel is slaughtered, cut open, and the colour of the inside of its testicles checked – a healthy white and the boy may be initiated, but if this is black then further consultations with the spirits are required. In the worst case it may be decided that it would be bad luck for the boy to be initiated and he has to come back again the next year. Thankfully this possibly traumatic experience (for the boy) is rare, and this year all 18 boys were able to continue.

The cockerel is plucked and cooked over the coals, then skewered with a big stick that is placed in the roof of the initiate’s home, to mark his location. Then the masks appear from the hills – men from the village in a mask costume made from raffia and leaves – carrying big sticks and hunting for the boys. They find the huts with the chickens and try to take the boys, but the villagers are prepared and protect the boys whilst fighting back against the masks with their own big sticks. It is all quite chaotic and it seems some people do end up with some big bruises, but everyone involved sported big grins – it is obviously an event that the villagers really enjoy!

Over the following few days one can hear occasional drumming and shrieking coming from a specially built little hut in the middle of the village, and the boys emerge from time to time to parade around. Their appearance is suggestive of girls at this point, with an elaborate hairdo and earrings, and they stamp their feet rhythmically as they move, so a bunch of iron hooks dangling on their backs jangle loudly. I didn’t get the whole of the story behind these parades, but the boys move as if exhausted, and have one or two villagers who support each of them – although occasionally the boys throw off that support and try to make a run for the church at the top of one hill, from where the girls are watching the ceremony. They are always caught and pulled back before they get there, however.

This goes on for some four days but everyone told me I should stay as the ceremony ends with a massive celebratory dance which the whole village attends in their best attire. This dance was supposed to start Tuesday afternoon and go on all day Wednesday, but on Tuesday nothing happened (my guide told me it was because the women had work to do, both the regular work such as the long walk to the well to collect water but also the preparation of food to give to those organising the initiation). On Wednesday the atmosphere was a little different, and there was plenty of millet beer being drunk all around. So much millet beer though that the final dance never happened. I was disappointed, but had to remind myself that it was a part of the village life, and that it was this real village life (rather than dances put on for tourists) that I had come to see. Perhaps if they were better at organising things they would not still be living in a picturesque village without a water supply, holding traditional animist ceremonies, and the women would no longer be wearing porcupine quills through their noses.

Living in the light

It rained on Wednesday. Now I realise that this won’t sound particularly momentous to those of you living in rainy London, but this is Dakar. We don’t have winter and summer, we have a rainy season and a dry season and right now we are in the dry season. In the dry season it doesn’t rain. It is usually hot and sunny with blue skies, though sometimes the harmattan blows in from the Sahara desert and a white haze of dust hangs over the city, but it doesn’t rain.

So when I woke on Wednesday morning I thought I must be dreaming when I heard rain sounds – thought it was some strange trick, perhaps the leaves of the mango tree tapping against the roof in the wind – but then I heard thunder and knew it was for real. & it was the day I was moving house.

With my northern European background I groaned inwardly at the rain, thinking about all my books, clothes and CDs getting wet as the removal men carried the boxes out to the lorry. But in a semi-desert country like Senegal such unseasonal rain is considered good luck, especially for new ventures, and this portentous rainstorm was even mentioned on the evening news. Locals associated it with the presidency of the newly elected Macky Sall, but I knew better – it was for me, for my move to the new apartment.

& so far it seems to have worked. My only loss on the move was one small glass. But more importantly I now live in a beautiful apartment. It has two bedrooms and one open plan lounge/diner/kitchen, with both the latter room and the master bedroom having large French windows opening on to the enormous south-west facing balcony with its sea view (OK, the sea is behind the rooftops and a big road, but I can still see it and its cooling breezes still reach my balcony). The contrast with the old house I moved out of could not be greater as this place is flooded with light – and I realise now how I suffered from the dark, gloomy interior of the house, built in the typical African way to face north and so avoid as much as possible of the sun.

I didn’t set foot outside the apartment block for the whole weekend as I couldn’t bear to leave it. Just a trip downstairs to the shared swimming pool, which I had all to myself.

The place does have its faults (otherwise it wouldn’t be within the budget of an NGO), but the planes flying overhead in the night have not woken me once. There is no generator, only little machines that keep the lights on during power cuts – but not the fridges, the hairdryers or the cookers. So far we haven’t had any power cuts but I’m sure they’ll come once we move into the hot and steamy rainy season. But I don’t think I’ll care because I am truly in love with this apartment. I don't know at the moment how long I have left in Senegal (as a management restructuring of my department is looming) but in a way that is making me treasure each day there even more.