ALINESITOUE Diatta (1920–1944) was a young West African woman prophet who gained a substantial following among the Diola ethnic group of Senegambia and Guinea-Bissau during the early years of the Second World War. She also attracted followers among other ethnic groups of southern Senegal and Guinea-Bissau. The people of rural Diola work primarily as rice farmers and are often described by agronomists as the best wet rice farmers in West Africa, even though droughts are common and often result in crop failures. Prior to the time of Alinesitoue, the Diola had a long-standing tradition of direct revelation from the supreme being Emitai, yet most of these prophets had been men. (Emitai dabognol translates as "prophet"—an epithet meaning "whom God has sent.") Alinesitoue introduced to the Diola a series of new spirit shrines that were focused on the procurement of rain, which she claimed were given to her by Emitai. She also introduced a series of religious reforms and provided a series of teachings that were highly critical of French colonial agricultural policies. Since the time of Alinesitoue, most Diola prophets have been women who self-consciously proclaimed their prophetic calling in the tradition of Alinesitoue Diatta.
The Beginnings of a Prophet
Alinesitoue's visions began during the period of Vichy occupation of French West Africa, a particularly repressive time when Senegalese who had enjoyed the status of citizens were reduced to "native" status and when government requisitions of rice and livestock from Diola communities dramatically increased. Abandoning long-standing French traditions of secularism, the local Vichy regime supported efforts at Christian proselytization among the predominantly traditionalist (awasena ) Diola. This, coupled with severe drought, created a spiritual crisis of conquest, in which Diola questioned a wide range of recent community borrowings from the colonial society, from conversion to Christianity or Islam, to the cultivation of peanuts as a cash crop.
Alinesitoue Diatta had her first visionary experience in 1941, while working as a maid in the French West African capital of Dakar. Walking through the crowded Sandaga market, she heard a voice calling to her, commanding her to go to a nearby beach and to dig in the sand. As water filled the hole, she realized that she had been commanded by Emitai to introduce a new series of spirit shrines (ukine ) focused on obtaining rain to end the drought and to nurture the rice crops. Initially reluctant to teach, she returned home to the southern Senegalese township of Kabrousse. When she began to share her message, she was able to link the increasing hardships imposed by the French colonial regime, the challenges of Christian and Muslim proselytization, and the drought to the erosion of Diola communitarian values and the abandonment of traditional crops and religious practices. By introducing a new spirit shrine, Kasila, she renewed an emphasis on community-based ritual while underscoring the role of the supreme being and challenging the hegemony of community elders and wealthy individuals.
Alinesitoue emphatically rejected the claims of priestly groups to control ritual practice and the specialized knowledge of the shrines. She opened her shrines to full participation by women and men, young and old, rich and poor. Priests were chosen by divination; as one song of Alinesitoue described it, even an idiot could be chosen. Everyone in the community was expected to participate in the community sacrifices, feasting, and dancing for six days and nights, eating and sleeping in the public squares for the duration of the ritual. Kasila's emphasis on shared experience without the usual hierarchies based on age and gender revitalized Diola religion by creating a new structure for the renewing qualities of what Victor Turner has termed "communitas." It so happened that the rice harvest of 1942 to 1943, nurtured by abundant rainfall, was the best in years.
Alinesitoue's teachings provided more than a new ritual for the supplication of the supreme being to provide life-giving rain. She explained that the causes of the drought were rooted in Diola people's neglect of a day of rest every sixth day (Huyaye ). Those who chose to work in the rice paddies on Huyaye denied the land its day of rest. Furthermore, the planting of new varieties of what were seen as European rice (actually Asian forms of oryza sativa ) disrupted what she described as a spiritual link between rice, the land, and Emitai. While permitting the continued planting of foreign rices, Alinesitoue insisted that only Diola rice (African, oryza glaberrima ) could be used in rituals, thus requiring continued cultivation of what was seen as a gift from Emitai.
Alinesitoue banned, however, the new cash crop of peanuts, which French agricultural agents had been pressuring Diola farmers to plant. Communities that accepted peanut cultivation found that it undermined family farmers' sexual division of labor, leading men to abandon their tasks of building dikes and irrigation systems and of doing the arduous work of plowing by hand. Whereas men concentrated on the new cash crop, women were left to do the plowing, sowing, transplanting, and harvesting. Dikes and irrigation were neglected, harvests declined, and farmers used their earnings to buy the rice that they had not planted. Alinesitoue argued that Emitai had made Diola—both men and women—plant rice, claiming that this was their central task. Furthermore, she argued that the forest land used for peanut cultivation should be left for the harvesting of palm wine and other forest products. These teachings brought her into direct conflict with the French administration.
As people flocked to Alinesitoue's community of Kabrousse, French officials worried about the possibility that she would lead a revolt. Catholic church officials saw churches emptying of catechumens and converts alike as Alinesitoue's movement gained strength. In January of 1943, a French expedition proceeded to Kabrousse and arrested her and a number of her assistants. They were taken to the state capital of Ziguinchor, tried under the Native Law Code (Indigènat ), and sentenced to various terms of exile. Alinesitoue was exiled to the city of Timbuctou, in French Sudan, where she died of starvation in 1944. No one, not even her husband, was told of her death. It was only in 1987 that it was revealed that she had died over forty years before.
Within a few months of her arrest, two other women rose to prominence, claiming to be prophets sent by Emitai. Since then, more than thirty other prophets—mostly women—have taught about reviving rain rituals, observing the Diola day of rest, and rejecting economic dependence on external groups, be they European or Senegalese. Sixteen such prophets are active today, one of whom played the role of Alinesitoue in a play performed by a Diola theater group in Dakar (twenty years before she began to have visions herself). Another woman had a vision of a night journey to Kabrousse where she received the blessings of Alinesitoue's widower.
Although there had been prophets before the time of Alinesitoue, she gave new prominence to this tradition, insisting that Emitai was directly involved in the lives of Diola communities. She emphasized the role of Emitai in empowering the spirit shrines and a kind of covenant in which Diola farmed rice and performed the required rituals in exchange for life-giving rain from Emitai. It may well be that this prophetic tradition is a primary reason why the Diola contain the largest number of adherents of traditional religion in Senegambia. Others have sought to appropriate Alinesitoue's memory for their own causes. Senegalese officials and northern Senegalese literati have hailed her as a heroine of resistance to European colonialism. A separatist movement in the Casamance region of southern Senegal claims her as the Joan of Arc of Casamance and leader of a Diola specific resistance movement, not only against the French, but against all groups that have tried to establish political, economic, or religious control over the Diola.
African Religions, overview article, and articles on Mythic Themes and New Religious Movements; Diola Religion; Gender and Religion, article on Gender and African Religious Traditions; Prophecy, article on African Prophetism.
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