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.


Pat said...


we are a publishing company specialized in school books for french speaking Africa. We are currently working on a history/geography manual for Senegal and would like to use your picture of the B├ędik woman.

Could you please give us the authorization? We will of course mention your copyright in the picture credits.

Thanking you beforehand,

Patrice Anodin
Les Classiques africains

Simon Fenton said...

Hey - just a quick message to say I've enjoyed reading your blog - it came up in a search when I was searching for info about Guinea Bissau. I am a fellow Brit blogging from Abene in the Casamance ( see ). Any plans to return to Senegal?

Louise said...

thanks Simon! I've just spent an enjoyable hour going through your blog, and it's made me feel homesick (again) for West Africa. No plans to visit at the moment as I'm trying to immerse myself in my new region (Latin America).
If only I could find a way around the tendency of so many Africans to view me as potential wife/bank (by which they usually mean the same thing) I would come back to live there, but I never got around that problem and so am trying (so far failing) to fall in love with a different part of the world. If I do get back to Senegal then I may well visit the Little Baobab, it sounds great!