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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Senegal’

Senegalese Tribe Sounds Jewish, Acts Jewish but Says It’s Muslim

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

He will welcome you into his earthen-floor home, introduce you to his three wives, and let you sample their cooking. But Dougoutigo Fadiga does not want foreigners to come near the sacred tree of his village deep in the Senegalese bush.

“The tree is holy grounds,” says Fadiga, president of this remote settlement of 4,000 souls. “Our Jewish ancestor, Jacob, planted it when his people first settled here 1,000 years ago.”

The lush kapok tree towers over the parched shrubbery at the edge of Bani Israel, a dusty community in eastern Senegal near the border with Mali. The residents, all Muslims, are members of a tribe whose name means “sons of Israel,” and they trace their lineage to two clans – Sylla and Drame – they say are descended from Egyptian Jews.

“We are all practicing Muslims and we don’t want to become Jewish,” Fadiga says. “In fact, we don’t like to talk too much about our Jewish background, but we don’t hide it either. We know our people came from Egypt to Somalia, and from there to Nigeria, where they split about 1,000 years ago. One branch of the two families went to Mali, another to Guinea, and we settled here.”

The truth of such claims is difficult to establish, but West Africa has had a documented Jewish presence since at least the 14th century, when several Jewish merchants set up shop in Timbuktu, in western Mali. Jews kept trickling in from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries, and later from Morocco.

Gideon Behar, Israel’s former ambassador to Senegal, says Jews maintained a constant presence in the area until 1943, when the last Jewish settlement was uprooted from Guinea-Bissau, Senegal’s southern neighbor, then a Portuguese colony under the rule of pro-fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

“Bani Israel is a striking example because of its name, but there are many, many other ways in which this area’s little-known but rich Jewish presence has influenced it,” says Behar, one of the few Westerners to have visited Bani Israel.

Behar believes the historic presence is responsible for some of the faint Jewish traces still visible in the region. West African musicians often decorate the traditional, 21-string bridge-harp known as kora with Jewish symbols, including the Star of David. And some words in Wolof, a widely spoken language in Senegal, bear more resemblance to Hebrew pronunciation than Arabic, which is spoken in neighboring countries.

The Wolof word for cheek is pronounced “lekhi,” as in Hebrew. One of Wolof’s words for wise is pronounced the same as the Hebrew word “chacham.” A weaver or fabric merchant is called “rab,” similar to rabbi.

The Bani Israel also have a cultural trait in common with Jews: an aversion to intermarriage. According to Fadiga, the community tries not to assimilate, preferring to wed with members of the tribe who live in neighboring villages.

“I believe there is an element of truth to the tradition of the Bani Israel, especially since they have nothing to gain from pretending,” says Behar, who returned from Senegal in 2011. “They’re not seeking Israeli citizenship, nor are they claiming to be Jewish. In fact, their Jewish ancestry and name can only give them problems.”

The story of Bani Israel’s origin is not universally accepted in Senegal. Abdoul Kader Taslimanka, a Senegalese writer who published a book last year about the community, “Bani Israel of Senegal,” says the name has nothing to do with Jews and in fact is taken from the title of a chapter of the Koran.

Some accounts do, however, support the last leg of the journey that Fadiga describes.

In his village, Fadiga is known as the marabou, the local equivalent of a shaman or bush doctor.

Unlike most villages in the area, the Bani Israel live in houses made of brick instead of mud and thatch huts. It also was the first village in the area to have a clinic and electrical generators, according to Fadiga.

Such relative luxuries are financed by about 1,000 Bani Israel who live in the Senegalese capital of Dakar or in France, sending monthly donations back to the village. Unusual for the region, the money is not sent directly to relatives but is placed in a communal trust that pays for health services and schools, which in turn service not only the village but the entire remote region.

Jewish Filmmaker Running for Parliament in Senegal

Friday, June 29th, 2012

Laurence Gavron was born in France to a Jewish family. She’s lived in Dakar, Senegal, for the past ten years, where she is a film director and a writer. Fascinated by African cultures, Laurence Gavron has produced documentaries on local musicians, and on the work of film director Djibril Diop Mambéty. She also writes regularly for the local papers, took part in several photo exhibitions, and wrote two novels: “Marabouts d’ficelle” (2000) and “Boy Dakar” (2008).

And she’s running for parliament, a white, Jewish woman in a black, African country.

“I’m a Senegalese of French origin, ‘a product of diversity,’ as they say in France,” the 57-year-old redhead told AFP in the garden of her Dakar home.

“If all the people who have said they will vote for me really do vote for me, then I shall certainly be elected” on Sunday, she said.

According to AFP, if Gavron wins, she’ll be only the second white person to have taken Senegalese nationality and win a seat in parliament. The first was Jean-Baptiste Collin, a Frenchman who was did all of the above in 1961.

“Laurence is entirely Senegalese, even if she has white skin. She has a place on our electoral list,” El Hadji Sarr, one of the leaders of the left-wing Party for the Emergence of Citizens – Tekki told AFP.

The group, which currently has only one member, a woman, in the outgoing National Assembly of 150 seats, is led by economist Mamadou Lamine Diallo. His principles appear to be: competence, morality, fairness, good governance, transparency and participation by citizens. Gavron says she identifies with all of them.

“I’ve always had a left-wing bent. I am incapable of voting for the right, it’s something that I’ve never done,” she said.

Gavron will benefit from a new law passed under former president Abdoulaye Wade, demanding complete parity between men and women on voting lists. The law will be applied for the first time in Sunday’s election.

“This is something very good, particularly in Senegal, where much injustice is done to women,” Gavron said.

Gavron was married to German cameraman who died when she was 32 and pregnant with her second child.

“The first time I set foot on Senegalese soil was 25 years ago. I’m in love with this country,” said Gavron. According to AFP, she is now married to a Senegalese man, speaks fluent Wolof and reasonable Peul, two of the country’s 20 or so official languages.

Gavron’s agenda is “to work against all kinds of injustice, the terrible things sometimes done in the name of religion or tradition … excisions, forced marriages with young girls, the exploitation of children.”

She is in 28th place on the electoral list presented by Tekki which, judging by the last election, will probably get only one or two seats.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/news/breaking-news/jewish-filmmaker-running-for-parliament-in-senegal/2012/06/29/

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