Water and Aura: Water in the History and Imaginary of West Africa


Mor Gueye, reverse-glass painting of Cheikh Amadou Bamba praying on the waters, 1998


Water is a bustling theater of history and the bed of a fertile imagination. Decisive moments in the evolution of humanity have played out on the waves, which serve as the framework for mythic-religious representations. The aquatic world thus forms a bridge between the real and the unreal. It abundantly nourishes the beliefs and rituals that punctuate the two, as well as the representations that govern social interactions and practices.

In West Africa, key figures often owe their status to their relationships with water. Ndiadiane Ndiaye, a central figure in the structuring of Wolof political entities during the 12th century, is traditionally portrayed as a master of water. Alternating stints in the river with appearances on solid ground, he passed from his native Futa to Walo, where his wisdom and oratory skills established him as the leader of the community before relocating inland in order to found the Jolof Empire.

The Wolofs’ neighbors bathe in the same cosmogonic universe. In Sine Saloum and in Casamance, ancestors are also gifts from the river. The legend of the two sisters lives on there. They are said to have been surprised while crossing the Gambia River by a violent storm that destroyed their vessel. They were thus led in opposite directions. Jamboñ went north and met a fisherman along the way who offered her shelter and married her. The couple gave birth to the Serer people. Ageen, on the other hand, who had gone south, met a rice farmer. They in turn gave birth to the Jolas people. This origin myth is the basis of a joking kinship[1] between the Jolas and the Serers.

The Serers have a similar connection with the Fulas, some of whom live in the eastern part of Senegal. In that place far from the coast and the riverbanks, it is the well that we find at the center of life. The well also gives the territory its name: Boundou. The marabout Malick Sy, who established the first theocratic state of Senegambia at the end of the 19th century, is renowned for the scientific approach he utilized in exploiting the precious source of water. Originally from Futa Tooro, the hero, according to the stories, quickly becomes integrated after he brings a technique that allows users to equip wells with a rim and thus facilitate their access to potable water. This significant contribution allows him to settle comfortably among his hosts, to progressively spread his influence, and to exert control over a part of the county. His authority was to be further reinforced by the strategic position of Boundou, which is situated on the commercial routes linking the bend of the Niger River to the Gambian coast. The actions of Malick Sy and his descendants inspired warrior folk songs that remain among the masterpieces of Fula culture.

The yelaa, the musical repertory of Fula women griots,[2] shares the West African musical landscape with other story-laden lamentations. Mali Sadio, one of the most reinterpreted classics of Mandinka music, is the condensed version of a legend that still inspires tears to this day. Its protagonists are the hippopotamus (mali in the Bambara language) and a young girl (Sadio) from Bafoulabé, a village at the intersection of two rivers: the Bafing and the Bakoy. Having fallen in love with Sadio, the animal put himself at the service of the human populations. Those who came to collect water or bathe themselves, along with the fishermen looking for areas abundant with fish, all benefited from the services of the “horse of the river.” Mali was thus adopted by the village. But one day, another pachyderm made a sudden appearance in the waters of Bafoulabé. Unlike his predecessor, he hurt and killed the villagers who were hoping to enjoy his company. Deeply upset, they tried to get rid of the intruder. The hunters tasked with eliminating him (under the influence of jealous individuals who lusted after the beautiful Sadio, according to certain versions of the legend) got the wrong target and slaughtered Mali instead. Upon hearing the terrible news, Sadio, faithful to her beloved, decides to join her partner.

Monument for Mali Sadio in Bafoulab√©, Mali.Monument for Mali Sadio in Bafoulabé, Mali.

These poignant compositions, forever dug up and amplified, span the ages. In the 20th century, these tunes take on a particular tonality in the struggle for independence, and in the framework of the construction of national identity. These evocative verses will touch a patriotic nerve and push citizens to find inspiration in their country’s glorious past in order to face the challenges of their time. In Guinea the echoes of tributes to the Djoliba (another name for the Niger River) fill the air of decolonization. Amidst this galvanizing chorus, we can make out the scores of poet, musician, and playwright Fodéba Keïta inviting his compatriots to give thanks to the “venerable” river in “La chanson du Djoliba”[3]. Whereas Sory Kandia Kouyaté, one of the greatest voices to come out of Africa, makes the name “Djoliba” resonate throughout the mobilizing refrains of his LP record Tour d’Afrique de la chanson.

The big blue is also a focal point in Senegal. Ceremonies in its honor are regularly conducted in the four corners of the country, as most of of the cities’ guardian spirits live in the water: Leuk Daour Mbaye (Dakar), Coumba Castel (Gorée), Coumba Lamb (Rufisque), Mame Mindiss (Kaolack), Coumba Bang (Saint-Louis)… Among these cities carved out by the water, Saint-Louis is notable for being the place that sealed the marriage of river and ocean. That city, which wasn’t home to the governor’s palace by accident, is the setting for multiple confrontations between the colonial administration and the native populations. The tenure of Louis Brière de L’Isle, who was stationed there from 1876 to 1881, is punctuated by numerous clashes.[4] But in the collective memory of the habitants of Futa, it is his duel with the priestess Penda Sarr, daughter of Moussa Boukary of the Ngawlé[5] village, that persists. The result of this power struggle is endlessly recalled with delight in the lyrics of renowned singers like Baaba Maal:

"Penda bent the river
Repelled the sea
Humiliated the white master."

The masters of pekaan (a form of epic chants sung by Fula fishermen) revel in echoing Penda Sar’s prowess, which is at once a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression and an expression of deep knowledge of the aquatic world so intrinsic to the values of the Soubalbé (Fula fishermen from Futa Tooro, in the north of Senegal).

In Islamic culture, divine appointment also often manifests itself as an overcoming of the forces of nature in general, and as a capacity to manipulate water through the power of words in particular. Some years after the spectacle of Ndar (the Wolof name for Saint-Louis), attention turned towards Dakar, the capital of French West Africa. Here, too, it’s a fisherman who arouses curiosity. Libasse Thiaw, a Lebu from the Yoff neighborhood of Dakar, received his revelation in 1883, at the age of forty, and preached from the bluffs as “Imamoul Mahdi,” the imam of the “Guided Ones,” whom Muslims had been eagerly awaiting. One of the first acts Seydina Mouhammadou Limamou Laye[6] performs is to control the sea with a confidence that dazzles the crowd. The waves, propelled by a high tide, used to flood the houses along the shore during the night. This miracle further intensifies the sermon of the “black prophet,” whose anniversary is still celebrated by the Layène community each year: “Hear God’s call, you men and jinns: I am God’s messenger.”

View of the crowd of Layéne disciples praying on Yoff beach, Dakar, Sengal, May 2016.

In the decade that follows the ocean raises another clamor. Once again, the sea had made waves. The Atlantic is witness to a memorable battle. The principal actor in this incident is Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood. The religious leader had just been condemned in 1895 to deportation by the Colonial Council, who accused him of preparing a “holy war.” The marabout emerges from his hold to face provocations from his detractors, who intend to prevent him from peacefully performing one of the five pillars of Islam while on the boat carrying him to purgatory. Serigne Moussa Ka, one of the best-known eulogists of the Mouride Brotherhood, offers this inaugural stanza on Amadou Bamba’s perilous journey from his poetic narrative immortalizing the event:

"That day the boat sailed to the outskirts of Tisbaar
The angels of Badre placed him on his prayer mat
And set it on the waves, and it did not sink into the water.
Séex Bamba performed his ablutions and finished his prayer."

This act generated a flourish of imagery (thousands of reverse paintings on glass) and fed a vast musical repertory that, together, nurture the faith of disciples from one generation to the next. This voyage, which precluded a seven-year exile in Gabon, is celebrated each year with a pilgrimage to Touba (the city founded by the holy man), which has become the largest gathering in Senegal.

Due to these numerous stories scattered throughout history and/or inhabiting the imaginary, the idea that the name Senegal came from “sunu gaal” (“our canoe” in Wolof) has easily taken root, despite the reservations of the scientific community.[7] This etymology offered a clear advantage in the search for national identity and national unity. The image constituted, for poet and president Léopold Sédar Senghor, the best possible illustration of the “common desire for a common life.”[8] The winds of nationalism that fluttered the flags during this period led to the popularity of the song “Senegaal Sunugaal,” written by Abdoulaye Mboup at the end of the 1960s. The song, with the speed at which it spread through the waves, became a kind of a second national anthem. “Senegal is our canoe / Let us row in unity,” the singer proclaims in plain language. The last line stirs spirits and cheers hearts as it compares “rowboat Senegal” to Noah’s Ark.

Nearly forty years after the “unified party” phase, the metaphor fully retains its effectiveness. In 2001, on the eve of a bitter electoral competition typical of the “full multiparty system,” the duo Pape & Cheikh release their first CD, featuring a call to reason aimed at the political class. Emphasizing national interest, the artists evoke the symbol of the canoe:

"Focus on steering the canoe to a safe harbor
Wouldn’t that be better than beating yourselves with the oars?
Focus on steering the canoe to a safe harbor
The sea is stormy

The children are on board
The adults are on board
Don’t rock the canoe."

The musicians were the first to be surprised by the impact of their work. During the run-up to the election, each candidate attempted to appropriate this unifying message in order to get in the good graces of the electorate. The song “Yaatal Guew” soon became the theme song of the campaign, played on loop on all of the candidates’ buses and during interludes at rallies.

On the day after every election, the captain of the Senegal ship finds himself between the devil and the deep blue sea. Faced with the water’s ambivalence, he asks religious leaders from every corner of the country to pray for rain and bountiful harvests on the one hand, while ardently hoping, on the other hand, that the downpours won’t cause the floods so dreaded in the urban areas.

And history continues its course…

[1] A social practice whereby members of one ethnic or patronymic group are allowed to mock members of another without consequence. These lighthearted kinships can also be established within the same family, between first cousins.

[2] Ibrahima Wane and Fatimata Ly-Fall, Yéla, les mélodies de la mémoire, documentary film, 52 min., 2008.

[3] Fodéba Keïta, Aube africaine et autres poèmes africains, Paris, Pierre Seghers, 1952.

[4] Francine N’diaye, “La colonie du Sénégal au temps de Brière de l’Isle (1876-1881)”, Bulletin de l’IFAN, T. XXX, sèr. B, n°2, 1968, p. 463-512.

[5] Ibrahima Sow, “Le monde des Subalbe (vallée du fleuve Sénégal)”, Bulletin de l’IFAN, T. 44, sèr. B, nos 3-4, 1982, p. 237-320.

[6] As Libasse Thiaw later came to be known. (Translator)

[7] Saliou Kandji,  Sénégal n’est pas Sunugaal ou De l’étymologie du toponyme Sénégal, Dakar, Presses universitaires de Dakar, 2006.

[8] A national address delivered on April 3, 1961, the eve of the first anniversary of Senegalese independence.

Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan.

Ibrahima Wane is holder of a doctorate degree in Modern Languages and in Social Sciences and Humanities, and an associate professor of African Oral Literature. He is head of the African Studies graduate program at l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. He also teaches the social history of music at the Institut Supérieur des Arts et des Cultures in Dakar (ISAC), and the techniques for collecting immaterial cultural heritage at l’Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis.
Wane is the vice-president of Réseau Euro-africain de Recherches sur les Epopées et les Traditions narratives (REARE, the Euro-African Network of Research on Epics and Narrative Traditions). His current research focuses on folk art and political conscience in Africa. Especially interested in audiovisual art forms, Ibrahima Wane has co-directed documentary films on West African cultural heritage, including Yéla, les mélodies de la mémoire, 2008.

Emma Ramadan is a translator living in Providence, RI, where she is co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant, an NEA Translation Fellowship, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translations of poetry by the late Moroccan writer Ahmed Bouanani. Her recent translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx (Deep Vellum), Anne Parian’s Monospace (La Presse), Frédéric Forte’s 33 Flat Sonnets (Mindmade Books), and Fouad Laroui’s The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (Deep Vellum).