The traditional Africa is real... but so is the rest of Africa!
27.06.2016 - 30.06.2016 42 °C
A cluster of small round huts, build by clay and with roofs made of straw., and usually hidden behind a wooden palisade. It almost seems like this is the standard idea of what an African village ought to look like. Throw in a couple of local women, wearing nothing by skirts, cooking over the open fire and its pure National Geographic. This is Africa. The ‘traditional Africa’ or – as I’ve seen it referred to, with no lack of slightly racist overtones – the ‘real’ Africa. Racist because it assumes that development and improvements of livelihood are not African – not ‘really’ African, anyway.
Not surprisingly, things here on the ground are a lot more complicated. Let’s just get that ‘real Africa’ nonsense out of the way. The ‘realness’ of Africa is whatever Africans choose it to be. Whatever they want it to be and whatever they can afford it to be (the African continent is, after all, still a poor continent). The glitter of Dakar’s high-class bars, the Mauritanian nomads in their tents, the Nairobi slums and the fishing villages all over the African coast. This is all the real Africa – a hugely diverse continent. Maybe the most diverse in the world with more than fifty countries and thousands of languishes and ethnic groups.
Travelling along Senegal’s coast, or in Morocco and Mauritania, I didn’t see one village that would fit the National Geographic description above. Everywhere, houses were built of concrete bricks, they were square and had tin or brick roofs. Many had multiple floors and was painted in all the colours of the rainbow. Modern commodities, satellite television, mobile phones, etc., etc. was available in abundance. To such a degree that I was beginning to wonder whether the continent had moved completely beyond the straw-roofed huts. After all, Africa is also a continent progressing rapidly. What seems more likely, is that the further I get into Sub-Saharan Africa and the further I get away from the coast, where much of the region's economic is centred, the closer I get to the ‘traditional Africa’. All in all, it primarily seems to be an economic question.
Beelining 600 km inland from the Sale-Saloum National Park towards the Bassari Country in the southeastern Senegalese highlands, the roadside villages began to change character. Smaller huts began to emerge amongst the concrete houses. More and more, until most villages only had a handful of these houses amongst the huts. ‘Traditional Africa’ seems to be alive and well the further I get away from the economic centres. However, this is also a truth with modifications. While many of these towns and villages do not have electricity 24/7, they do have it at certain times of the day. One village I stayed in had power between 8 am and noon, and again from 5 pm to 2 am.
I’d been lucky enough to be invited the house of former campartment owner and guide. His campartment had been temporarily closed down, due to a lack of visitors, so he figured he could make a little extra by setting me up in his hut for the night. The hut was one of those clay and straw things, placed inside an area fenced off by that wooden palisade. Inside the palisade, most buildings were round huts, meals were prepared on the open fire, but at the same time, the television showed Egyptian sit-coms and mobile phones were used to light the huts that were unlit as often as flashlights were used.
To my innate interest, the small fenced-off cluster of huts and houses were inhabited solely by brothers and half-brothers of the same father (who had a number of wives). They were living here with their wives and children, while their sisters (and half-sisters) had moved to their husband’s family's compartments. Thus, the village was ordered into family homes that formed smaller communities within the main village.
However, finding those entirely traditional villages, without modern commodities, is a matter of exactly that: finding them. For there are not all that many left. Though it is possible, you need to know where to look. One of the most accessible regions for these traditional villages is the Bassari Country. Named after the largest of the tribes inhabiting the region there is actually three tribes living in a few dozen of villages, the Bedik, the Fula and the Bassari. These tribes are fiercely independent. They have fought off influence from Islam, colonialism and globalisation in turn and still keep a largely animalist belief system (though elements of Catholicism have made headway). The tribes don’t intermingle or intermarry, and each village consists of just a few extended family with the same roots. I visited a Bedik village of 650 people. All being members of one of four extended families. Only eight other Bedik villages exist, and it’s between these nine villages – thirty-six families – that the tribe have survived for generations.
Here were no mobile phones, no televisions and no electricity. For visitors to be granted access to the village, it is still necessary to bring tribute to the village chiefs. I and my guide and translator brought groundnuts, soaps and candy. Larger groups sometimes bring whisky. Currently reading about Livingstone’s explorations in Africa, it was hard not to make the comparison in my head (though it’s a very silly comparison). The guides are typically part of the communities or neighbouring communities and are thus an excellent introduction to the cultural aspects of these villages. Whether they are able to point out the holy Baobab trees or talking the villagers into sharing their corn stew with me. I particularly enjoyed how my guide was able to get us some large tasting sessions of the village’s mullet beer and palm wine.
And for those wondering. Yes, upper body clothing were optional for women - primarily because it makes breastfeeding of the young a lot easier.
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