It is 1943. Colonial French soldiers have penetrated a coastal village, deep in the south of Senegal. The soldiers are looking for a young woman; a woman who, for some time, has been posing a great threat to the established French colonial order.
Some say she is a witch. Some say she can heal. What is certain is that like Joan of Arc of France, she has acquired a strong following of anti-colonialists and is much revered. Like Joan of Arc, she has spoken against ‘an invader’, the French, and is leading a form of resistance against the colonialists. The young woman has such an influence, that following the death of their king, the Jola people of Casamance made her their queen.
By 1944, this woman, the Priestess Queen of the Kingdom of Kabrousse, who bravely chose to surrender to the French and spare her people from reprisals, endured ill treatment in numerous jails in Sénégal, Gambia, and eventually Timbuktu in Mali. In less than a year, torture and miserable conditions broke her body. Deliberately untreated by her jailers, abandoned to illness, the young woman died in prison at the age of 24.
Who was this strong spirit, and why were the French so afraid of her?
Why does her memory endure in Africa today such that even 2008 Senegalese coinage exists with her face upon it and the bold inscription, “La femme qui était plus qu’un homme” – the woman who was more than a man.
Who was she?
Her name was Aline Sitoé Diatta. She was born some time around 1920, in the coastal village of Kabrousse in Casamance, a region of rich and varied flora. Her people, the Jola, who today contribute only 4% of the population of Casamance and 8% of Senegal’s population, were traditionally rice cultivators.
Casamance is a sun blessed land that represents one seventh the size of Senegal. Through it, runs Senegal’s second largest river. It is a green paradise of mangroves, lagoons, beaches, rice fields and sacred lush forests. Prior to the French, the Portuguese saw in it a great potential. From the 16th century, the Portuguese founded a commerce of wax, ivory, skins and sadly, slavery. In the 17th century, they created a port which will later become the region’s capital, Ziguinchor. Long before the famed island of Gorée which US President Obama visited in 2013, Ziguinchor served as a major transit port for the slave trade.
It is in Ziguinchor, that the young orphan, Aline, arrived at age eighteen, to seek an employment. There, she is hired by colonialists to work as docker at the port. Life at home is a life of poverty, but the rudimentary conditions and the exhausting work of loading and unloading ships also took their toll on the young woman.
Aline travelled to Senegal’s capital, Dakar, and is soon employed as a domestic by a French family.
When Aline is around 21, her life took an interesting turn. One day, she heard a voice. The voice told her to return to her village at once, and to free her people from the colonialists.
The voice added that if she failed to do so, misfortune will befall her.
Aline ignored the voice. Four days later, she awoke paralysed, possibly from a stroke, albeit, one that is rare for one so young. Aline finally requested to be brought back to Casamance. No sooner did she return to the village of Kabrousse, that the paralysis left her. According to some, she retained a limp from her ordeal.
Aline began to take her voices seriously. Soon, she is encouraging her people to reaffirm their roots. This, she said, is the essence of resisting the influence of colonialists.
What are these Jola roots?
The Jola had no caste system. No griots (storytellers/historial class), no slaves, no nobility class. In terms of world cultures, theirs was a rare egalitarian society. They were highly respectful to, and integrated with nature, and were adept at herbal medicine. They were also a musical culture, their instruments playing a significant part in their many rituals. These rituals favoured a strong sense of collective consciousness which aligned their political system to that of true socialism.
Rice growers, the Jola had developed a sophisticated form of rice preservation. In fact, the cultivation of rice was strongly tied to their identity, in as much as it bound them to the earth and to their religion and social organisation.
But alas, the flavour of the day, at least, at the time of the French colonialists, is the forced cultivation of cash crops – namely peanuts. It is this that Aline is quick to denounce. She called upon her people to stop growing cash crops, to return to growing rice instead.
Coming from such an egalitarian society as the Jola, one who has long resisted either Christian or Islamic conversion, Aline’s indignation at the injustices perpetrated by the French rulers continued to fuel her quest. She went further. She encouraged her people to disobey French orders: they ought not to pay taxes to the French; they ought not to join the French army.
All in all, Aline urged her people to refuse the influence of the colonisers, to instead return to their own Senegalese roots. She explained that her message is a divine order.
At first her people only partly paid heed to her calling. There was, at the time, a great drought in the region of Casamance and the Jola had understandably more pressing preoccupations.
She was summoned to prove that her voices were divine. “Why not make it rain?” they tasked her. At this, Aline suggested incantations along with animal sacrifices.
Following these ceremonies, by some enchantment, and much to the surprise of everyone, water, at last, descended upon the rice fields.
And Aline was proclaimed a true high spirit. The message spread beyond the region and her name found repute. There is more, they say. It is told that she healed, and that by merely touching her, the sick are soon restored to health.
Delegations from all over Senegal, no matter their ethnic group or religion, made pilgrimages to meet her. They were touched and enlivened by her simple yet bold message: the return to tradition, the return to roots.
According to Unesco’s African women, Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance, 2015, Diatta denounced the colonial government’s looting, and she was joined by a large part of the Casamance region in rejecting the efforts by France to enlist the men from the region to join the army.
By her renown and her great influence, it was no surprise that Aline’s name reached the French. Here was a woman that could rally the Senegalese against them. Ironic, that at a time when France was itself faced with its own invader, Germany, it remained not only fueled by economic self-interest and a ruthless quest to maintain a hold on its world colonies, but also blind to the plight of those it had invaded.
Fearing that sedition would spread in the region, the French officials retaliated. They launched their attack in January 1943, attacking Diatta’s house and opening fire. Fortunately, Diatta was not home. Unfortunately, a woman of Diatta’s complexion and stature was killed. The repression spread throughout the village, forcing Diatta to give herself up to the authorities. She was tortured before being sent to Timbuktu, Mali where she stayed until her death in 1944.
She is considered one of Senegal’s symbols of resistance, especially in Casamance. To honour her, a university hostel, a passenger ferry in the region and the main stadium in Ziguinchor were named after her.
She is referred to as the Rebellious Queen of Casamance, and an official coin calling her ‘La femme qui était plus qu’un homme” (“the woman who was more than a man”) was issued in 2008 in her honour.
For the French, it was clear. Aline had to be stopped. She had to be eliminated, officially “for inciting rebellion and for refusing to submit to the established order.” And so she was.
She was arrested on 8 May 1943. Colonial prisons did not necessarily cater to women in those days. In 1943, according to the National Archives of Senegal, the prison population of Senegal was 1,766 and rising. The number of females was sparse, rising to only 29 compared to 3,626 male inmates in 1967. Research (Konaté, 2003) argued that ‘the female inmates’ triple status as woman, convict and African, accounted for the colonial state’s indifference and neglect towards that category of prisoners’. Poor Aline. Even twelve years after it became independent, Senegal had no prisons for women. It was only in 1972, that the first women’s prison, The Rufisque Women’s Prison, was opened.
Aline was perhaps an anomaly in French colonial prisons, but what she will forever be remembered for, is her defiance in the face of oppression, and her resolve to save her people’s culture.