My trip to Casamance, the southern region of Senegal, was not just a visually pleasant journey, but also a revealing experience about the culture and the way of life of the Diola people, an ethnic group living in Gambia, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.
I was lucky to visit Diakene Ouolof, a small village out of the tourist’s track. As soon as I arrived, I could taste the happiness and the freedom vibes: people walking barefoot along the unpaved sandy paths, smiling children running close to our car, and the calmness and warmness of the people that welcomed me under a huge mango tree that shaded the guest house. I stayed at Casamance Cultural Centre, so I got to know the traditions and the Diola culture from the inside.
I was curious to know as much as possible about the Diola culture and their habits, and immerse myself into their daily life. I was impressed by people’s sense of community. Family structure is very different from Western culture. Children do not belong to their parents, they belong to the community, so in a practical way, a child has many dads, mums, brothers and sisters. That way they learn not just from their biological parents, but from a richer and wider perspective coming from many different people in the village. Seeing the kids happily living and playing together by the paths, the forests and the rivers, I couldn’t help but recall my own childhood, that amazing sense of freedom during the summer holidays, always playing outdoors, under the sun, with my cousins and summer friends.
Contrary to other hierarchical societies in Africa, an egalitarian social organization and a spirit of isolation and independence is the rule among Diolas. Every single day I received kindness and generosity “lessons”, either mingling with them, or simply as an observer: young kids, old men, they all treat each other in an admirable, generous way, always attentive, sharing the few things they had.
Diolas mainly have an animist religion. For them, everything has a soul: animals, plants, trees, forests, rivers, storms, even objects do; therefore, nature and all its creations are respected. As an ancient culture, they also treasure a deep knowledge about the animals, herbs, trees and plants that surround them: they know how to use them for their well-being, either for cooking or for healing. Western medical treatments or doctors do not exist in these villages, so people rely on the ancient wisdom, a memory that is passed down over generations.
Ceiba tree is sacred in Casamance, but I was especially curious about Baobab. These giant trees have a very important role in Diola culture: they are considered harbingers of the rainy season because they produce leaves just before the rain arrives. And they believe there are spirits living inside. Many social meetings, ceremonies and rituals are held under the branches of the baobab, which are considered the pride of the community for its many benefits and protective character.
Superstitious as they are, Diolas are really fond of their amulets. They call them grigris, and they have to be made by marabouts, the community spiritual guides who are connected to the esoteric world. I was so lucky to meet a marabout, it was an incredible experience. This trip had also a spiritual, mystical (and sometimes scary) side that I will never forget. Many questions remain in my mind after that week in Casamance --so many that I’m eager to go back.
Words and pictures by Clemente Vergara