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Whom should I marry? Genealogical purity and the shadows of slavery in southern Senegal

Hard choices are made when arranged marriages collide with a slave past.

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It is early morning. Demba is driving Mamadou, Ndilla and me towards the Senegalese town of Velingara, on the eastern side of the Kolda region. All of a sudden, Ndilla cries “the jiyaabe!” and points to a troop of Guinean baboons that has appeared in the fields beside the road. A small joke, as Fulfulde, the majority language for this part of Senegal, uses the expression ‘black monkeys’ (baadi mbaaleji) to talk of that part of the population consisting of jiyaabe (sing. jiyaado): people of alleged slave ancestry. Baboons are black, big and sturdy: these three qualities are stereotypically associated with slaves in Fulbe communities throughout West Africa. In contrast ‘red monkeys’ (baadi mboodeji) attaches to the rimbe (sing. dimo), people like Demba, Mamadou and Ndilla who are of free (or noble) ancestry. In addition to be smaller and leaner than baboons, ‘red monkeys’, which are actually green monkeys, sport a clear and red-flashed fur.

Ndilla called my attention to the baboons beside our car because the oral history we have been collecting in the Kolda region uses the metaphor of the ‘black’ and the ‘red’ monkeys to describe regional political conflicts, as well as collaborations between the jiyaabe and the rimbe that have taken place since the second half of the nineteenth century. In popular wisdom, the physical signs of rimbe ancestry include long limbs, light-coloured skin, and curly, soft hair, which men and women of past generations styled in braids. The marker of the jiyaabe is blackness, although there are dark rimbe and light skinned jiyaabe. Stereotypes address also intellectual and moral qualities. “People look at the intelligence” remarked Ismailou, another of my rimbe friends. “The rimbe tend to consider their own children brighter than the jiyaabe’s ones.”

Racism in Senegal?

Is the metaphor of the black and red monkeys a clue to undergoing racial arguments? Government, media and public opinion confine racism to the lives and experiences of Senegalese abroad (either in the colonial homeland of France, or in the many destinations of the Senegalese diaspora), while Muslim piety and republicanism underplay internal discriminations. All men are equal before God, and the constitution assures “equality before the law of all citizens, regardless of origin, race, sex, religion” (Article 1). “There is in Senegal no constraint or privilege arising from birth, from person or from family” (Article 7). For historian Ibrahima Thioub, however, nineteenth century internal slavery and the slave trade bequeathed an ideology of genealogical purity to contemporary Senegalese society.

When the jiyaabe are not around, the rimbe of the Kolda region are happy to detail their old stereotypes about the slave. Purportedly, the jiyaabe lack shame and moral control, and have limited capacities of social and economic organisation. “During the rainy season”, Ndilla tutored me, “the jiyaabe easily run out of food. You see them going to the rimbe’s villages in search of rice and millet to feed their families.” It is a winning game: although economically distressed as well, the rimbe would prefer to starve than to admit they have no rice, millet or milk to share.

The jiyaabe make little secret of their contempt for rimbe pretentions to social superiority.

The jiyaabe, in turn, depict the rimbe as arrogant, cunning and malicious, and unfit for harsh agricultural labour. They also make little secret of their contempt for rimbe pretentions to social superiority. The day we visited Ibrahima, a returnee from Spain whose grandfather served as jiyaado, he looked Ndilla and Mamadou straight in the eye before joking that “a pullo without cows is a jahanka”.

It’s a complicated joke to translate and requires some explanation. Pullo is equivalent to dimo, while jahanka are a regional minority ethnic group. Rearing cattle is quintessential to the rimbe tradition, but not all rimbe have cattle today. Ndilla’s father lost his herd, and Mamadou has but few heads. Ibrahima, in contrast, is the descendant of slaves yet built his own herd thanks to migration. His reference to Ndilla’s and Mamadou’s social debasement was evident. Are you a pullo because of your ancestors, he challenged them to answer, or because of your personal qualities and economic capital?

Demba’s marriage story

In terms of social reproduction, rimbe families have always been very selective. The reckless behaviour of the father constrains the marriage opportunities of his children, their purity of origins notwithstanding. If a woman has a child out of marriage, potential in-laws will be sceptical of her brothers’ suitability as bridegrooms. When parents agree to the marriage of their children, the moral posture of the entire family is as important as wealth. Qualms extend to slave ancestry.

The reckless behaviour of the father constrains the marriage opportunities of his children

In 2013, Demba felt in love with Bintou, a young girl from his same village. Bintou belonged to a jiyaabe family originally owned by Demba’s grandfather, the founder of the village. Demba was determined to follow his feelings, but his mother even more: the marriage was not to take place. Demba lacked an independent income and lived in his father’s large family entourage. The possibility of winning over his parents were naught, as nobody could force his mother to accept someone she deemed unsuitable. The two women, after all, would have to cohabitate.

Eventually Bintou married a man of her same social background, and moved to a nearby settlement. Demba’s father selected the daughter of one of his best friends as a more appropriate wife for his son. He paid the proper bride-wealth in cattle, and Demba abided by his parents’ desires. It was a good match in terms of similar physical appearance and social origins – both the bride and the groom displayed the features and the fair colour of the rimbe. Unfortunately, the couple did not fit in terms of character and expectations. After one year, and a baby boy, everyone in the village knew that the couple quarrelled every other day. Rumours arose, especially among village youths, and in their eyes Demba’s arranged marriage demonstrated that elders needed to stop interfering in marital choices.

Demba’s mother felt compelled to defend her course of action. She called Ndilla, one of the few educated bachelors of the village and most assuredly on the side of free choice in marriage.  In a confidential manner, she recounted Bintou’s jiyaabe background and explained how Bintou’s grandfather had overstepped the boundaries of his servile position. He had also chosen to marry girls from other villages without the consent of their parents – a sure-fire way to bequeath an unhappy marital life to his offspring. Furthermore, the family’s economic situation was poor, as the wealth that Bintou’s grandfather had accumulated rapidly dissipated after his death. To her, these were reasons enough to justify preventing Demba from marrying his choice.

Conclusion

Rimbe families of the Kolda region have tended to their genealogical ‘purity’ by favouring intra-lineage marriage or marriage with other rimbe lineages. The jiyaabe, as well, have developed their own marriage strategies. Dembayel, for example, is an elderly man of slave ancestry that helped Ndilla and me in the course of our research. He overtly declared the enslavement of his ancestors, and denounced the haughty attitude of the rimbe. When asked why the jiyaabe were so numerous in some parts of the Kolda region, he replied promptly: “because, we do not make marriage discriminations”.

In order to increase their ranks, jiyaabe families have kept building alliances with people of their own background and members of ethnic groups historically subordinated to the Fulbe. They dislike their girls marrying rimbe men, knowing that their future in-laws will neither fully respect their wives nor her kin. When we asked Dembayel to comment upon the possibility of a marriage between a man of slave ancestry and a girl of high birth, he wondered about our sanity. How could the husband rule over his wife? Would she ever obey? For sure, the children of such a marriage would face the prospective of never been fully accepted by their rimbe grandparents, maternal uncles and cousins. Which man would bestow this future on his own offspring?

Since the beginning of the 2000s, Senegalese social media have started to debate individual rights to free marriage choice. They have also discussed the stigma of slave ancestry. In both urban and rural areas of the Kolda region, it is easy to bump into groups of youths that argue against arranged marriage, and old social boundaries. In practice, however, they tend to respect their family orientation, even if parents refrain from behaving like Demba’s mother. Filial piety is, after all, a major value.

Although he knows that it already happened in his family, Ndilla cannot imagine marrying a girl of slave ancestry. It would be a daily struggle to defend his choice, at least among his rural relatives. So far, he is a bachelor because he longs for an educated wife, but none of his choices met his parents’ idea of a good wife. On the other hand, although of high lineage, all the girls they proposed were either illiterate or too young. “I cannot marry this kind of woman. Education will always be a boundary between us, and she will feel that the husband does not truly understand and love her”.

This article builds on fieldwork in the Upper Casamance supported by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant agreement n° 313737: Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond: A Historical Anthropology.


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Giupeppe Maimone, Luca Nevola, and an anonymous contributor to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Alice Bellagamba is Professor of Political Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Milano Bicocca. She holds the ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). She carried out long-term fieldwork in The Gambia and Southern Senegal.


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