• Democracy, human rights, and castes in Senegal.

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    • Abstract: Democracy, human rights, and castes in Senegal.Translated from the article by Penda MBOWReflection on democracy, human rights and castes in Senegal doesn’tnecessarily belong in the agenda of this issue on contemporary forms of slavery, as

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Democracy, human rights, and castes in Senegal.
Translated from the article by Penda MBOW
Reflection on democracy, human rights and castes in Senegal doesn’t
necessarily belong in the agenda of this issue on contemporary forms of slavery, as
caste-cleavage isn’t founded on the principle of servility. But the necessity of
building a democratic society where respect for human rights isn’t simply a matter
of rhetoric sufficiently justifies inserting this article in the debate opened by the
Journal des Africanistes. A new citizenship demands scrutinizing African societies
and eliminating barriers that hinder both individual and citizen fulfilment. The new
definitions of human rights imply directly facing the fundamental issue of order and
caste cleavages. Of course, for some Senegalese intellectuals, the problem of castes
seems to be outdated, to be part of a backward struggle, especially when the
continent is faced with all sorts of difficulties. According to them, there is no need
to contribute to afro-pessimism, as if one could forget it is the duty of Africans
themselves to look critically on their own societies. Daniel Etounga Manguelle, in a
book with an evocative title (Does Africa need cultural adjustment?) mentions,
among other impeding factors: excessive conviviality, rejection of any kind of open
conflict and placement of the individual in the shadow of the community. In short,
all characteristics of pre-industrial and pre-modern societies. And yet, analysing the
situation in our countries by considering solely their material foundations and the
evolution of their political classes would be singularly reducing the capacity of
transformation of our societies.
With the development of “L’Ecole des Annales”, the “Nouvelle Histoire” and
structural anthropology, African researchers have access to conceptual tools
enabling them to distinguish with greater precision the current mutations in
continent societies. Today it is possible to practise what Roger Bastide calls “clinical
anthropology”, which consists of applying an analysis to special cases, the condition
of a social group or of a community undergoing a crisis, with a view to determine in
each case the suitable socio-therapeutic treatment. The debate on castes in Senegal
must define one of the aspects of the serious crisis of values this society is
undergoing, as well as defining its current mutations. Indeed, the feeling both
groups and individuals experience regarding their respective positions and the
conditions that result in this feeling, are not immediately determined by the reality
of their economic conditions, but by the image they have of it; an image, which is
never reliable but always manipulated by a set of complex mental perceptions.
Analysis of the caste-system enables understanding the long and complex
process through which any change of society is achieved: studying mentalities is
then of fundamental importance. This prospect requires every African or Africanist
researcher to consider African societies in the long-term, while favouring the notion
of structure, as it is defined by Fernand Braudel and applied by observers of the
social phenomenon. What does one mean by structure? It primarily means an
organization, a coherence of somewhat fixed relations between realities and social
masses. This is precisely what historians speak about when they use terms such as
“assembling” or “architecture” to characterise a reality that has disintegrated with
time but which firmly continues. Certain long-standing structures become
unwavering constituents for countless generations: they obstruct history, thus
calling for its collapse. Others will crumble more quickly. But they are both supports
and obstacles. Mentalities are thus also prisoners of time (Braudel 1969). Like Guy
Bois ( 1989 : 17-18), we believe old societies die slowly. Even when dying, they
hold out a long time, and their widely spread roots prevent new shoots from
emerging. Today the social condition of caste people has changed but the caste-
system has survived. Its survivors have a real impact on the collective conscience
imposed by the Wolof, Balpula and Bambara systems and they are a hindrance to
the arrival of real democracy, especially in regard to – particularly in the beginning -
the individual’s own self-awareness.
Can a comprehensive study of the caste-system aid in understanding how
deep transformations in Senegalese society have been? Impeding factors will no
doubt be identified in the area of hierarchy reproduction mechanisms, a major
phenomenon in social history. From precise examples we will evaluate the impact of
the caste-system on beliefs and the strength of the ideological discourse underlying
it. We will then attempt to clarify the concept of the caste-system with the aid of
different works and studies. But let’s look at first at the attitude of Senegalese
society faced with this problem.
Senegalese civil society in face of the caste-system.
The emergence of civil society in Senegal is connected to the reinforcement of
the democratic system, the complete multiparty system, and the triumph of cultural
adjustment policies. But the main interest of the phenomenon lies primarily in the
strong will of the Senegalese to be seen as citizens. In Senegal, the characteristics
of civil society are both its dynamism and variety. This reflection on castes,
therefore, can constitute a starting-point to looking at the relationship between civil
society and intellectuals, who form a subgroup of it. The complexity of this
relationship goes much further than our area of focus calls for. Nevertheless, the
difficulty of debating this question in Senegal can be grasped from Madeleine
Mukamabano’s reaction: “when I wanted to make this programme, certain people
said to me “ but there is no point, it is not really a problem, it is something
psychological that will be resolved, it has no impact whatsoever on people’s lives.
So today I don’t even know if I was right to bring up the problem.”(cf note 2). Such
a reaction reveals the nature of civil society in our country and the lack of
determination of Senegalese intellectuals to face their own society.
In fact, the organisations in Senegal which work on promoting human rights
never carry out investigations to evaluate the impact of hierarchies of order and
caste on the lives of individuals and their social relations, on their married lives and,
subsequently, on their personal fulfilment. What is the meaning of the system of
statutory hierarchy? The human rights organizations are not very motivated as far
as this important question is concerned as, most of the time, their own concerns are
defined according to those of Northern NGOs, who themselves don’t always have
good knowledge of African social realities. Regarding the problem of slavery in
Mauritania, it was only after the Senegalo-Mauritanian crisis in 1989, with its train
of human tragedies, that the debate was at last raised on an international level. Of
course, the caste problem is not on the same level, but there is crucial education
work that needs to be begun, notably to accelerate the process of the individual’s
Instead, a good proportion of civil society deliberately maintains total
vagueness in regard to the disappearance of order and caste hierarchies. Is it, as
some think, a real logic of exclusion to keep whole areas of society out of all
decisions ? Has the system established taboos so firmly fixed in the collective
unconscious, that many people don’t want to transgress them, because of the
immanent unhappiness they are supposed to cause here and there ?
The issue of castes reveals one of the weaknesses of Senegalese democracy,
which is still far too formal. For a long time, men said caste people hardly ever tried
to found or lead a political party, because the social origin of individuals always
determines their relationship to power. Even in marxist-feminist parties, in which
the large number of activists of caste origin has always been noted, these activists
have almost never been leaders, in spite of their intellectual qualities. It was not
until 1992 that the former Minister of National Education, I.D.T. created the first
party lead by a descendant of blacksmiths. Today there are many either at the head
of a political party or aspiring to take over from the present leaders. O.N. is at the
head of the “Parti pour la Libération du Peuple”(PLS), while I.S. is in a good position
to take over from M. Wade at the “Parti Démocratique Sénégalais“(PDS). Among
the most important activists in so-called leftist parties, .P.G., M.T. and the “Guissé
de la Ligue Démocratique” can also be mentioned.
In the 1990s, one notes a small presence of caste people soliciting elective
mandates due to universal suffrage forty years after independence! If until now
caste people have often held very important positions, including the position of
Prime Minister- a nominal function- they are rarely to be found in elective functions.
Thus, in Parliament, the elected caste people are usually elected on the national list
and hardly ever on the “department” list, where the election is carried out locally. At
this level, the candidates’ individual qualities, political talent or social origin remain
determinant. Obviously the paradox lies here, since social origin always overrides
other criteria. According to Landing Savané, the leader of And-Jëf PADS, (a leftist
party), his party was faced with the reality of castes being involved. One of his
most committed activists who wished to be a candidate in the Fouta region told him
that, as a “griot”, he met strong opposition including within his own party from
electors who considered he wasn’t going to stand as a candidate. According to an
enquiry in “Le Nouvel Horizon” the risk for a caste person of not being elected is still
high In the “Fouta” or Wolof countries, it is not rare to see activists of some political
party not allowed to speak at meetings, because, traditionally they were not entitled
to speak in public gatherings. The PS (Socialist Party), which has been in power
since independence, has contributed in perpetuating such political ostracism by
leaning on traditionally important families.
Now, with the “Refoundation” they are endeavouring to change this situation,
to the extent that the man who leads the reforms, O.T.D, is said to be a caste
person. But the man is so controversial within the area of public opinion, that one
wonders if negative reactions surrounding him are really linked to his being a caste
person or to more objective criteria: lack of political experience, or his privileged
position in taking over from President Diouf, who passed on his prerogatives to him,
not only in political matters but also in the administrative field, which, of course,
arouses jealousy.
Whatever it may be, the caste problem can in no way be underestimated.
This is what M.N. understood, in 1981, when the succession to Senghor went to
Abdou Diouf instead of him. Although he denies it, many thought his caste origins
put him at a disadvantage. From then on, he became closer to the TALL Families of
Fouta (Toorobe) by creating family bonds with every marabou family in the country.
But for a long time, people referred to the blacksmith origins of the “Niassenes” -
powerful Kaolack marabout - to which his father belongs. He seems to happily
ignore this aspect and recalls with pleasure, that his wife is a “descendant” of Blaise
Diagne; the first Senegalese deputy in the Bourbon Palace during the first world
war. (1914-1918).
He feels therefore strong enough, regarding his origins, to confront president
Diouf in the February 2000 presidential election. Yet, genealogical questions, which
many Senegalese hold important are often manipulated. For a long time a rumour
circulated that M.N. wanted to build himself a new genealogy. “L’autre Afrique”
takes this up by asserting that ”M.N is distributing a letter in political circles sent
from Kaolack, his native town, by an old woman who retraces his genealogy: if it is
to be believed, M.N is a apparently a descendant of a family rich in prestigious
ancestors.” Aside from this statement, the debate brought up around the issue
illustrates the considerable importance given to the social origins of individuals. In
fact, everyone knows perfectly well that Keur Madiabel, the natal village of M.N.,
was founded and peopled by caste people, who had their own graveyard. If M.N.
feels the need to close the chapter on his origins, it is simply because neither
Senegalese civil society nor the so-called caste intellectuals, have done their work in
awareness and education.
As far as we know, the first important public debate regarding the caste
phenomenon, was organized in April 1992 by a group called ACTANCE, made up of
intellectuals and artists and lead by Issa Sam (Joe Ouakam). All Dakar’s
intellectuals, artists and diplomatic representatives (from western countries)
attended the debate. The only intellectuals of caste origin who dared to face the
subject were the mathematics professor Sakhir Thiam and ourselves, being those
that introduced the discussion. All the other supposedly caste intellectuals, many of
who were present, carefully avoided saying anything, even to refute such and such
idea with which they did not agree. One fact that was extremely revealing was that
every time a participant spoke, they began by stating who they were: they did not
want any ambiguity about themselves. For the first time in our lives, we were faced
with the dilemma. : “Did we have the right to raise this debate?” as we were fiercely
reprimanded by certain caste people: they reproached us for breaking a pact “for
speaking publicly of ourselves when our strength had always been to be feared.”
How to understand the attitude of the elite, as a whole, in the face of this
phenomenon ? Landing Savané probably best accounts for it : “Actually we started
from the principle this phenomenon had to be totally ignored. We never mentioned
it, but in reality, some of us fully supported it. (cf “L’autre Afrique”). And yet
Landing Savané belongs to the May-68 generation, known for its revolutionary and
generous ideas, nevertheless like their elders they carry on elucidating the debate.
This is what accounts for the surprising reaction of one of the first lawyers of the
Senegal-Bar, Maître Ogo Kane Diallo, also in l’Autre Afrique, where he declares :
“Senghor had surrounded himself with caste-people because all the intellectuals
loathed him as a French creature and nobody wanted to join him”. This vision is not
rare in Senegal. For some, Presidents Senghor and Diouf surrounded themselves
with caste-people so as to have people indebted to them for their social rise. What
place for competence, talent, rigour, honesty ? As a young counsellor near the
Ministry of Culture in the 1980, we had had to record Senghor’s opinion regarding
the problem (shortly before he left power): “ I nominate caste-people to positions of
responsibility because they are more intelligent than the average and I marry my
nieces to well educated caste-people.
Finally, as regards social stratification, civil society remains idealistic and
generous. One of the symbols of this rising civil society at the end of the second
millenium allows us to measure how far we still have to go: one's caste origins are
still brandished to exclude, humiliate or hurt. What does "being casted" mean ? The
question is justified.
Before turning to other aspects, let’s close this chapter about the place of
castes in administration. Sociologist Abdoulaye Bara Diop doesn’t think the
phenomenon can play a part in the sphere of modernity. To back up his theory, he
leans on an enquiry which shows that blacksmiths are proportionally more
numerous in the Senegal-administration than in other categories of the population.
Even if it is true that the individual’s social status intervenes neither in recruitment
nor in nominations, there is no denying it is present in the relationships between
colleagues. At the time of independence, the Foreign Office, then led by a caste-
person, Mr Doudou Thiam, had chosen to be called ‘the jewel-shop”, a name that
seemed stigmatising. Besides, many cases are found in administration of
subordinates refusing to obey their boss, under the pretext that he is in no position
to give them orders, being himself a jeweller or a cobbler or a wood-worker. DM
admits to once losing the head of a service in the River Area : he chose to be sent
somewhere else, as he could no longer stand the contemptuous reactions of the
people around him.
And yet because civil society is being reinforced, because public-spiritedness
needs to be rooted into the Senegalese people, interesting phenomena are
appearing. El Hadj Mansour Mbaye, known until then to be the President of the
Republic’s griot and special counsellor, announces to general surprise : “I want to
be either a member of Parliament or a Senator, like other socialists, to take part in
the development of Senegal. The time has now come when it is necessary to think
about this.” As the authorities now use the talent of griots to mobilize and
instrumentalize the values they incarnate for its legitimisation, one now sees a shift
in the labelling: they are no longer referred to as griots but as “traditional
communicators”. The phrase is both less connoted and more flattering. The
authorities, by manipulating them differently, gives them the impression they are
indispensable, which probably accounts for their sudden ambition. Moreover some
values of those called caste-people prove precious in the modern world.
Communication, a world whose control is practically in the hands of griots, is the
strongest example of this. They excel at the press, above all the spoken press, but
the written press too, and one of their best representatives is still Bara Diouf,
former General Manager of the national daily (Dakar-Matin and Soleil) who boasts
about being a griot. About this acquired awareness, a new phenomenon, let’s
remark that l’”Association des Boisseliers” (the Laobés do all the work that has to do
with wood) have given themselves the aim to reforest the whole of Senegal. In spite
of this will to go forward, what explains the persistence of castes and perpetuates
the phenomenon ?
A few considerations about the caste system
The Geography of castes in western Africa
In a thesis about the whole group of endogamic artisans and musicians –called
castes- of western Africa (Sahelo-Sudanese area, border areas with Sahara and
forest Africa), Tal Tamari comes back on to the spatial delimitation of castes. These
groups, the most famous of which are associated with the work of iron, wood or
leather, or else with music, are to be found in about ten ethnicities, in particular the
Mandingues, Soninkés, Wolofs, Peuls, Toucouleurs, Songhay, Senoufos, Dogons,
Touaregs, Moors. The repartition zones of the castes includes Mali, Mauritania,
Senegal, Gambia, Guiinea, Guinea-Bissau, the north of Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso,
Niger, the East if Ghana, part of Algerian Sahara, a few spots in the North of
Cameroon, Liberia and Sierra Leone (Tal Tamari 1988; 1997) . What can this
stratification in castes be linked with ?
Hypotheses about the origin of castes
The work of Georges Dumézil (1956, 1958) about Indo-European societies
has highlighted the situation of the caste-system : the shock of cultures seems to
be one determining element of it all. In the example of India, one is facing the
transformation of a society of order into a society of castes. Indeed by the end of
the Vedic period the society of orders was divided into 3 ”colours” (Varna) : Brama -
poet and priest- , Kishastra –warrior and chief- Vis – of common birth- . A fourth
colour, inferior, composed of defeated Black people –Dasa, Sudra- meant to serve
the Aryas (other orders) then came and made the situation more complicated. From
this time the Brahmin-order offers every characteristic of a caste : a functional
group occupying a precise place in a hierarchy, shut in on itself by heredity,
endogamy and a very strict code of interdicts.
Before India, the same process had been noted in “casted” Egypt. According to
Dumézil (1958 : 17) ”Greeks, in the 5th century, thought they were discovering
there the prototype, the origin of the oldest Athenian functional classes […].
Actually this structure only took form on the Nile after contact with Indo-Europeans,
who, suddenly appearing in Asia minor and Syria in the middle of the second
millennium before our era, also revealed to Egyptians horses and all their uses. It’s
only then that, to survive, the Pharaohs’ old empire gave itself a new organisation,
and notably, a permanent army, a military class.
CheikAnta Diop, in “L’Afrique noire précoloniale” questions Dumézil’s thesis
about the origin of castes in India. Relying on a text by Stratbon (who, himself
relies on a more ancient author, Megasthènes) Cheik Anta Diop thinks that castes in
India fit with a division of work, excluding any ethnic difference, and indeed a
Dravidian can be a Brahmin. The criteria allowing to tell one from the other are
either moral or material, not ethnical. In black Africa, particularly in western
Sudan, it is possible to attest to an Egyptian origin of castes, a very old
phenomenon. One can agree with Cheik Anta Diop when he says that work
specialisation, which has brought hereditary transmission of jobs in the caste
system, on either family or individual scale, started with clan-organisation. At the
time of the great empires, and Ghana, the most ancient, probably dates back at
least to the 2nd century before Christ, detribalisation was already effective over the
whole territory of the great empires.
In western Sudan, the origin of castes can be apprehended from the
hypothesis developed by Yoro Dyao about the Noole caste, “the buffoons”,
biologically constituted, and which might have been born during the Jaa-Ogo
emigration from Egypt. Researchers unanimously acknowledge that Jaa-Ogo master
iron-metallurgy (Bocoum 1990). Captain Steff, in his “Histoire du Fouta Toro” puts
forward a very interesting idea : “The Jaa-Ogo were very poor, owned little cattle
and cultivated only the minimum to feed themselves. Their chief was Coumba Waly
whose family had the prerogative of melting and selling iron. They went far away
up the mountain to find the ore, which they melted in furnaces "
According to Cheik Moussa Camara : “The Jaa-Ogo not only sell the iron but
they also govern Fouta” One can, then, question the origin of the debasement of
the blacksmith’s social position. How could he fall from the top of hierarchy to the
position of an inferior caste-man ? Why such decline ? How has this loss of power,
which perpetuates through history, been possible ?
Military defeat seems to be the most plausible explanation: the Jaa-Ogo were
defeated by the Soninkés of Ghana as Sumanguru Kanté, the last blacksmith king of
Sosso, was beaten by Soundjata Kaïta in the famous battle of Kirina (1220-1235).
The hypothesis of Abdoulaye Bathily (1989: 221) to explain the social decline of
blacksmiths in upper Senegal is very stimulating: “the fall of the regime of
Sumanguru was perhaps followed by a dispersal of blacksmiths in all countries. The
massive circulation of iron in West Sudan, as much through the intensification of
regional trade as through the access of an increasing number of peoples and groups
of individuals to the techniques of metallurgy, lead to gradually break the traditional
monopoly of a minority.”
One can assert that even if the “social enlargement of the metallurgist
profession had contributed to the decline of the blacksmith’s social influence,” the
problem remains intact. Why, despite the increase in economic resources, has a
caste consciousness involving fundamental changes not developed? African
societies, up until recently, did not give major importance to material accumulation
and disassociated the control of weapons from the access to power.
The centralising monarchy, created with Ghana, went further in the political
domination of inferior castes. According to Abdoulaye Bara Diop (1981), it
developed caste relations not in the sense of a socio-economic interdependence
based on the division of labour, but in the sense of a dependence of inferior castes
on superior ones. We will return to this fundamental idea, even if it contradicts the
racial theory of caste formation developed by Abdoulaye Bara Diop, which is an
attempt to root culture in biology: the so-called caste hierarchy is not based on the
wealth of their members, not on their role in the mode of production, but on to their
degree of purity or impurity.
It is impossible, within the outline of this reflection, to go over the entirety of
problems connected to the evolution of castes in our societies (all the historians
have amply tried to do so). Let’s remember16, however, that its structure had
already taken shape in the XIXth century at the time of the colonial penetration and
that two significant cleavages divided society. They were, on the one hand, the
criterion of freedom and, on the other, hereditary professional specialisation
(castes). The criterion of freedom opposes free men or geer (sing.gor) to slaves,
jaam. Castes oppose the ñeeño – those who practise crafts, music, singing, praises
– to all those who are not tied down by this kind of limitation, the geer, from which
results the idea of social bipartition. When they analyse the caste system,
researchers generally include among the ñeeño the griots, who have an ideological
function, as well as a singing and praising role (sab-lekk, “those who live by the
word”, cf. A.B.Diop). This classification lends itself to confusion. The term ñeeño
actually connotes a more restricted sense; it is applied predominantly to
craftspeople castes, who are often excluded from political power, whereas the griot
is an indispensable element of the centralising monarchy. It remains that,
generally, people within castes are “characterised” by endogamy and impurity.
Let’s again refer to several of Tal Tamari’s important conclusions regarding
the relation between caste-people and slaves and the reproduction of caste-people.
In certain regions, people within castes have increased in number through the
integration of people who did not originally have caste status17. The most common
process, at least, the most frequently admitted by those concerned, concerned
It is my own reading of Boulègue (1987: 53): “It is more difficult to know if these structures were already, in their
essence, identical to what they would be in XIXth century.”
In our time, one observes rather the inverse phenomenon. Even those that originate from egalitarian societies such
as the Diolas, established and fully-integrated foreigners (Cap-Verdians, generally citizens of other African
countries) are all geer.
children of a man within a caste status and his concubine of servile origin: the
children accessed the father’s status. Descendants of captives held by a caste
family could, in certain cases, become eventually integrated into the master’s
family, conforming to the model that prevailed in the relations between noble
families and their slaves. This case occurred regularly with blacksmiths. In other
circumstances, nobles passed themselves off as people of castes in order to escape
slavery. We know that people of castes could never be reduced to slavery (Tamari
1997). Moreover, in Senegal, it is easier to hide a servile origin than a caste origin.
Concerning the notion of impurity, one can assert that it is a theorised
phenomenon, to say the least: the geer are superior by birth, they are of pure
blood, of wolof, halpulaar origin, as far as one goes back in time; the ñeeño are
biologically inferior, of a foreign origin. According to Yoro Dyao (Cahiers): “If it is
said that the sweat of a blacksmith is ill-fated, it is because he remains between two
bodies: iron and fire. One is hard, the other is hot. His work is tiresome and the
sweat that results from it creates pain and unhappiness to he/she who touches it.”
In reality, the place occupied by ideology in the caste system is fundamental since
such a system is not only a mechanism but also the mental representation that
individuals within groups have of what the behaviour of other groups should be in
regard to them. However, a question remains: through what processes did the
internalisation and formation of values by the castes themselves occur for as long a
time? We will come back to this by analysing the experience of castes from a
matrimonial perspective, but let’s first look at the explanation Cheick Anta Diop and
Abdoulaye Bara Diop give.
Cheick Anta Diop (1987: 11) estimates that for “each caste: inconveniences
and advantages, alienations and compensations balance each other out” and he
adds: “the stability of the caste system is secured by the hereditary transmission of
social functions that corresponds, to a certain extent, to a monopoly, disguised in
religious interdiction, in order to eliminate competition” (Ibid: 17). What Cheick
Anta Diop is saying is mostly relevant for a pre-capitalist society and it must be also
acknowledged that the fact of being removed from areas of decision is not easily
compensated for. As for Abdoulaye Bara Diop (1981: 73-90), he explains the
situation by the domination of an agricultural economy, resulting in the dependence
of artisans on peasants in a trade system controlled by the latter. One can not help
holding several reservations. Peasants did not control trade at all, especially in a
long-term perspective. Trans-Saharian trade had generated a class of merchants
closer to Muslim scholars, while the peasants would be Islamised later: XVIIIth,
XIXth century?
Moreover, the ñeeño were not forbidden to work in agriculture. They played
not only the same role as the geer badolo (peasants) in an economy of subsistence,
but they also had control over the tools of production. Why, then, did the ñeeño
not follow the same evolution as the European bourgeoisie, which was in practically
the same situation at the end of the middle ages?18 Perhaps because the communal
Regarding this subject, we had a most interesting discussion with the sociologist A.B. Diop, who I thank here for
his advice and suggestions. Our viewpoints diverge a little on this subject as, rightly, he estimates that the caste
system was created within the framework of an economy of subsistence. Yet, the divergence of our opinions resides
movement initiated by the European bourgeoisie within corporations would be the
spearhead of social and economic mutations in Europe between the XVIth and the
XVIIIth century. In its beginnings, the communal movement’s sole objective was
for the bourgeois to be recognised by a three-party society made up of those that
pray, those that fight and those that work the land. The ñeeño had no need
whatsoever for this kind of recognition as they were born through detribalisation.
Recognition has often been the objective of emancipation movements.
Lastly, in the clientilistic relations maintained by caste people and geer, the
gift function must not be over-estimated. Only the griot was truly economically
dependent, and as much on the gor as on the craftsperson. One can also presume
that contempt, which is often emphasised, was reinforced by the monetisation of
Daily life, matrimonial status and castes
Societies in crisis, such as current African societies, live in a paradoxical
situation: money has become the sole real value, but the need to avert the crisis
develops identity reflexes in the individual and the group. The exaltation of values
specific to our traditions and to our culture often determines inter-individual
relations. The reality of the caste phenomenon can therefore be grasped also
through examples that reflect the everyday reality, primarily at the level of the
lower social classes.
Everyday life and caste
To respond to an offence received by his daughter, an old jeweller from Dakar
preferred to recognise his grandson rather than the father who is geer. On the
contrary, someone else pressured his daughter into choosing celibacy, forbidding
her to marry the man of her life because he was a griot. These sorts if incidents are
not only limited to matrimonial aspects. Some ordinarily explain their misfortunes
from having had such and such contact with a so-called caste person. A woman
acknowledges having never had her hair plaited by a woman of blacksmith origin
out of fear that it would lead her hair to fall out. If she touches the hand of a
person of blacksmith origin, her own hand would be immediately covered with
bumps. For S.L., a driver, it is enough for him to sit on the bed of a blacksmith for
the same effects to occur.
There are numerous such examples. Obviously impossible to prove, they rise
from the worlds of fantasy and the imaginary. The existential reality of caste people
deserves therefore more attention, even if one can observe a certain evolution in
the everyday attitudes towards them. Each time that an individual is faced with
difficulties he/she tends to accuse the other - the neighbour, the friend - and the
caste people generally represent an easy target as ideological justification is deeply
rooted in the collective memory. It is thus that the caste person is regularly
primarily in the fact that the caste person constituted an integrating part of society, despite its stratification, whereas
the bourgeois was excluded from the three-party society and felt more need for recognition; however, the attitude of
a caste person today corresponds more to that of the bourgeois of the beginning of the XVth century.
accused of having the ability to change the fortune of another: they bring bad luck.
The caste people may reach the height of success but they will always be reminded
of their origins. What Sartre says in Réflexions sur la question juive (1954: 108,
113) is relevant to caste people in our societies: “They (the Jew) may accumulate
legal protections, wealth, honour but they are only more vulnerable and they know
it (…) but at the same moment that they reach the height of legal society, another
amorphous, diffused and omnipresent society is revealed to them in flashes that
refuses them. They feel, in a very particular way, the vanity of honour and wealth,
since the greatest success will never gain them access to this society that claims to
be the real one: minister, they will always be a Jewish minister, both an excellency
and an untouchable. However, they will not meet any particular resistance: but a
sort of escape, an impalpable emptiness will hollow around them, creating in
particular an invisible chemistry that devalues all that they touch.” To various
degrees, the caste people experience the same reality. Whatever their success may
be, they will always be reminded of their caste origin; this origin is the cause for
their false steps and they will be forgiven no failure. In lower class neighbourhoods
where the caste people are often accused of witchcraft, it is believed that one must
beware of their thiat (their evil-purveyor words). One witnesses here an abusive
and completely warped generalisation of the belief in the mystical powers of the
blacksmith. The control of fire required magic faculties, the blacksmith was
responsible for circumcision, he possessed healing abilities and practised
incantations (jat) to tame iron. This fear of the caste people’s words sets up
relations between friends that are not founded on confidence; reasons to mistrust
sleep in the unconscious of the individual and the weight of culture and education is
Matrimonial relations and castes
The caste system is particularly rigid in matrimonial relations. As Proust
remarked at the time of the Dreyfus affaire: “When it comes to the Jewish question,
the driver like the aristocrat have the same attitude” (Sartre 1954: 36). The
majority of intellectuals, men and women who hold an important position in the
state apparatus share with the local housewife nearly all the same reflexes on
marriage: caste barriers are crossed with difficulty. Matrimonial investigation is a
preliminary that all marriage suitors must comply to: one must avoid, above all,
mixing one’s blood. The consequences of this situation are numerous but the most
common remain premature divorce and a split from the family. In our societies the
notion of a couple is uncommon: marriage is primarily a matter of families and not
of individuals. Other consequences are abortions –problems of caste are not always
the cause for this, but they can be the basis –, most of the cases of suicide and
suicide attempts, infanticides and life traumas connected to unhappy love affairs19.
Is the matrimonial question an individual affair then? Most of the time – no.
A recent survey carried out in a study on Muslim women and development provides pathetic life records. F.D.
confirms having attempted suicide because her family refused to let her marry her friend with who she has two
children. Her father turned her out of the family home; only the love she held for her mother enabled her to resist.
Among the numerous causes of infanticide cases reported by the daily press where the mother is an accomplice,
inter-caste relationships are involved. The case of marriages of people we know that end badly, by divorce, by
maraboutage, by spells designed to separate two individuals that love each another are manifold. In the survey of
There is certainly no individual revolution, and yet it is the amount of
individual awareness that will be the basis of a revolution in mentalities. Because
caste people are the only ones on who endogamy is strictly imposed, they have the
highest rate of polygamy and arranged marriages between close relatives, resulting
sometimes in harmful consequences on the child’s health. It is true, however, that
caste people share these characteristics with the marabous. Are Islam, school and
urbanisation factors of transformation?
The presence of Islam in West Africa is very deep-rooted as it goes back at
least as far as the VIIIth century; but it was not until the slave-trade period and
particularly that of the colonial invasion that Islam penetrated the lower classes.
However, its presence did not fundamentally modify the caste system. On the
contrary, the Islamic religion adapted itself perfectly to this system, replacing
aristocratic officials with religious ones; in many aspects, the marabou house
reminds one of the royal court. Of course, certain small cities of Senegal such as
Bambey, Mekhé and even once Tivaouane had caste people as great imams, but
this is altogether exceptional in a big city like Dakar. The results of a study carried
out by Abdoulaye Bara Diop (1981: 94-95) are still relevant today: “In religious
society, they (sab-lekk, the griots) fulfil certain seconda

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