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The place is unavoidable.
E. Glissant, Tout-monde
Mise-en-Scène: Locating the Siin
Sitting on the northern bank of the Saalum delta, the Siin lies at the heart of Senegal's old peanut basin, long the country's most productive agricultural region, which still accounts today for the bulk of national grain and commercial crop outputs. Named after the erstwhile kingdom of Siin, the province is regarded as the geographic center of the pays seereer (Seereer country), a loose territorial designation coinciding with the area traditionally inhabited by a number of ethnolinguistic subgroups sharing the Seereer ethnonym. In the course of this book, and unless indicated otherwise, I will use Seereer as shorthand for the Seereer people of Siin.
While the past three decades have witnessed considerable demographic transition and a concomitant rise in social, ethnic, and economic diversity, public discourse in Senegal continues to bundle together the Siin, Seereer peasantries, and agricultural life in a tight knot of metonymic association. Siin acquired its image of rural area par excellence during the colonial period, thanks to its flourishing agriculture. Its agrarian penchant flowed in part from geography, owing much to the region's oceanfront, and to more clement rains, better natural irrigation, and more homogeneous soils than its northern neighbors. The cornerstone of Siin's rural economy, however, was the sophisticated agropastoral system forged over time by its Seereer populations. Through careful practices of landscape management, Seereer farmers crafted an agrarian park that supported elevated human densities, high peanut yields, and bountiful harvests. These favorable conditions breathed life into the colonial sentiment that the province was home to one of the most iconic peasant societies in francophone Africa, a perception that retains strong currency in Senegal today.
Since the 1970s, the combined blows of environmental degradation, desiccation, agricultural policies, and overexploitation have accentuated pressures on land, landholding, and natural resources and eroded the integrity of Siin's agricultural edifice. Stresses on peasant existence have been further compounded by internal demographic expansion and the rise of land speculation, which have intensified problems over inheritance, conflicts between property regimes, and the fragmentation of familial estates. As subsistence farming has become ever more precarious, a growing number of villagers have turned to other activities, mostly petty trade and urban jobs. Every year, flows of seasonal and more permanent migrants crisscross the country to relocate to Dakar, Thiès, or Kaolack, or to the smaller towns and village agglomerations that have grown in and around the Siin. As in other parts of Africa, Senegal is becoming increasingly urban. The Siin does not escape this phenomenon. As administrative centers, places of business, and stepping-stones to a broader geography of opportunities, towns like Fatick, Kaolack, or even the smaller Joal, which all originated as colonial escales (trading points), absorb a growing number of residents, pulling in people from neighboring provinces, and thus redirecting the gravity of social relations. While these dramatic economic reconfigurations and pockets of urbanity are remodeling Siin's sociology and altering its spatial ecology, the region retains an indelibly rural character.
In Sahelian societies practicing rain-fed subsistence agriculture, weather regulates the tempo of daily life, binding farmers to their milieu in a relation of ecological closeness, intimacy, and savoir faire — a mode of dwelling that recursively connects the seasonal contours of the landscape to the labor and activities that constitute it. During the dry season, which runs from November to May, Siin's hinterland drapes itself in a mantle of undulating dunes, mutating into a sun-scorched plain almost ethereal in its minimalism: denuded stretches of beige sand, carved into a mosaic of asymmetrical fields, speckled by knotty trees, thorny shrubs, and spectral silhouettes toiling away in the distance (figure 2). Villages seem braided into this agrarian tableau, springing here and there from the patchwork of arable lands, their edges dissolving into the earth to surface again every few hundred meters and give rise to the next settlement. Moved by a residential gestalt that can best be described as constellated, Siin's habitat diffuses cloud-like across the landscape, forming a semicontinuous network of single farmsteads, hamlet clusters, and more densely concentrated hubs. When the rain goes away, agricultural operations are brought to a near halt. Able-bodied youths and adults depart for the city, leaving behind older men, married women, children; a few artisans, traders, and civil servants; relatives visiting on the weekend, and so forth. Under winter's hazy sun, rural life slows into a scene of sleepy farmsteads wrapped in blankets of smoke, awakened from their seasonal slumbers by the rattle of drums cheering public celebrations.
By contrast, in the few weeks preceding the rainy season, the pace of life picks up. This period ranks among the busiest in the agricultural calendar, and everywhere peasants can be seen pursuing their tasks with laborious industry: preparing the fields, clearing brush, or transporting wood and equipment in ox-drawn carts. Fertilizing fires fill the humid air with clouds of pungent smoke. Here and there, tufts of green — orchards and gardens — sprout from the ground, adding touches of color to the monochrome sea of sand. With the return of precipitation, the verdant shades accentuate. Depressed areas become pools of stagnant water. Activities intensify. After the first rains, residential units mobilize all working hands to plant the precious peanut crop, which still brings the majority of revenue in peasant households. Attention then shifts to other fields, where the seeds of subsistence cereals (millet, sorghum) are sown. Planting schedules are often staggered, to distribute the risk of crop failures, and they are followed by grueling weeks of hoeing, weeding, and crop monitoring to the fickle pulse of precipitation. As the cultivation season advances, fields are gradually overgrown with the scraggly tangle of peanut pods and tall stands of millet stalks, though uneven rainfall may bring unluckier outcomes. The time of harvest, which generally begins roughly three months after the first sowings, marks the last major expenditure of labor, when all participate in the collection, processing, and sorting of cash and grain crops, as well as their storage for sale or subsistence needs. A flurry of festivities concludes the cultivation period and sets the next cycle of seasons in motion.
While this picture of broad continuities in milieu, activities, and social time imparts a certain identity to the Seereer hinterland, Siin's cultural landscape is not a homogeneous canvas. Broad consistencies of social ecology cohabit with variations in landforms, spatial arrangement, and economic practices that tend to concentrate along the province's geographic margins. Siin's southern fringe, for instance, is dominated by the Saalum delta, whose two main channels, the Siin and Saalum Rivers, have historically granted distinct personalities to local ecologies. The Saalum River meanders inland about 230 kilometers, past Kaolack and Kahone, before branching out into a dendritic series of small marigots (tidal channels). The river once defined the political border between the Siin kingdom and its powerful rival, the Saalum polity. More diminutive, the Siin River is a subsidiary of the Saalum delta, whose sinuous course once traversed the entire province and at its northernmost point grazed the border with the Bawol polity. Today, all that is left of the riverbed is a desolate fluvial valley, made up of shallow marigots etched into the earth, where seasonal rainfall occasionally accumulates. The main trunk of the ria advances toil-somely to the latitude of Fatick, beyond which its water level rapidly plummets, leaving only faint impressions of a once flowing riverbed. Some elders still remember an earlier time, some sixty or seventy years ago, when now dried-up channels were flush with water and fish and formed thin ribbons scrolling far beyond the regional capital. In the early part of the colonial era, the Siin River was an active commercial axis. During the trading season, it carried a procession of watercrafts transporting peanuts and merchant goods to and from the port of Foundiougne and beyond. While these two rivers' outflow never permitted recession cultivation, their presence over time has favored higher water tables, humidity, and agricultural fertility. In contrast to the ubiquitous dry savanna grasslands, the northern bank of the Saalum valley enjoys comparatively lusher vegetation and better growing conditions than the rest of Siin. The local milieu also favors the development of salt flats (tann). Produced by the effects of evaporation on saline soils, infertile tann expanses often grace natural terraces that overlook waterlogged or tidal terrains.
South of Foundiougne, the point of confluence between the two rivers, the main arm of the Saalum opens onto an estuary, which announces the microhabitat of the Saalum Islands. Clogged by silts and earth, the delta fans out into a Byzantine network of tidal channels lined with mangrove, vegetation, and compact shell islands rising above the water (figure 2). This partially submerged environment has long housed the villages of the Seereer Niominka, fisherfolk-farmers whose activities have straddled land and sea. These activities perdure to this day, and many men are employed in the fishing industry, locally or in fishing ports further up the coast. Likewise, in the summer, as one travels by motorized pirogue across the maze of tidal corridors, it is not uncommon to see small groups of women in dugout canoes collecting oysters and other mollusks, while men make the daily journey to grain and peanut fields located on drier ground inland. As elsewhere in the Siin, however, subsistence labor is losing ground to more lucrative businesses. Local residents increasingly take advantage of the Saalum Islands' breathtaking scenery and enter the growing tourism sector, working as guides, campground managers, or hotel personnel. Another distinctive feature of the region is the nature of the human habitat. In stark contrast with Siin's interior, where settlements accrete and disseminate like mist across the countryside, villages dotting the Saalum delta, and the littoral more generally, are compact and self-contained, an anatomy of crowded dwellings veined by narrow alleyways. The small fishing village of Fadiouth exemplifies such spatial arrangement. Even in nearby Joal, which has outgrown its modest origins to become a small town in its own right, this logic of residential clustering continues to influence urban space.
If Seereer peasants have lived to the pulse of their milieu, they have also, within the compass of its constraints, endeavored to make it their own. Through a choreography of improvised acts and everyday practices staged in the longue durée of local ecologies, Siin's residents have landscaped the environment into a profoundly social world. Weaving together the routine gestures of agricultural work, the mundane rhythms of social organization, and shifting fields of cultural signification, they have incorporated material surrounds into the flow of their lived existence. The outcome of this practical engagement is a lived world at once objective and subjective, both natural and cultural, a meaningful terrain critical in orienting the course of social action.
The distinctive aesthetic of the Seereer social habitat has long captivated outside commentators. In the early years of colonial rule, French observers were often intrigued by the Seereer countryside's manicured landscape, with its tidy fields, neat network of hedges and footpaths, and choreographed activities. Writing many years later, in a more analytical vein, cultural geographers resorted to the concept of terroir to capture how the Seereer have occupied their natural milieu and directed their activities in it. The idea of terroir — which loosely translates as "human-made, agrarian landscape" — denotes the qualities of geographic identity conferred upon a region by the combined influence of ecology, weather conditions, agricultural system, and farming technology. In evoking the concept, geographers have sought to lend attention to the projection of social relations in space and the assemblages of practices put in place by the Seereer to concretely organize their milieu. An integral aspect of elucidating the Seereer rapport à la terre, their relationship to the land, has involved meticulous studies of Seereer landholding arrangements: modalities of access, ownership, and control of land; regimes of rights; modes of tenure; effective exploitation of land lots; and logics of development; as well as the relations of labor, kinship, production, and social reproduction underlying agricultural schemas.
The idea of terroir, however, denotes more than the crystallization of social relations in space and hewing out of the landscape into a sociable world by way of human labor. Sitting at the interface of land and territory, the terroir also conjures a sense of place, a being-in-the-world that translates into a variety of subjective attachments. The crafting of linkages to milieu and its perceptible rhythms via bodily sense and activity creates a ground of collective experience, cohesion, and recognition, which plays a key role in the constitution of cultural and political identity. Most ethnohistoric and ethnographic sources concur that, historically, being Seereer has entailed an acute sense of belonging to a social geography. Until a few decades ago, a majority of Seereer defined themselves through the craft of agriculture and their organic ties to the land, which provided not only the material means of existence but also a physical connection to the cement of local histories and identities: kin, ancestors, and spiritual forces.
The Siin countryside entwines the deep past (the time of myths, legends, and long ago events), a more recent history of biographies and collectivities, and the changing present into dense gnarls of temporality, scattered unevenly across its surface; as such, it makes up an elaborate topology of memory, charged with affective resonance. Around villages, for instance, the assortment of land plots, cultivated patches, and cattle herds stands as a visual transcript of lineage and collective wealth, which calls up contested stories of inheritance, community formation, and disagreement with other families or the agents of the state. Beyond the theater of the visible, however, Siin's physical milieu is also the dwelling ground of myriad invisible and occult forces. Its landscape, for those who can read it, is full of ghosts and spirits, and replete with material signs pointing to their presence and intentions. While the recent explosion of Islam has reconfigured Siin's religious geography, in earlier times, the region boasted a complex pantheon of natural spirits and ancestral figures congregating around salient natural features: earthen mounds, streams and rivers, freshwater wells, imposing trees, and sacred woods. Those were generally adorned by shrines of various makeup, ranging from broken ceramic vessels and the residues of libations to upright posts covered with charms and enclosed by short palisades, to consecrate them as places of worship and supernatural potency (figure 3). Other sacred places include the tombs of famous ancestors and memorable characters, as well as the earthly abodes of mythical figures such as lineage or dynastic founders. Oral traditions often recall the auspicious intervention of supernatural forces in the narrative of Siin's formative moments, representing the province's past as a product of the twinned actions of spirits and humans. Hence, in addition to offering signposts to the high points of Seereer history, places of memory and sites of ancestral attachment have over time provided critical coordinates for the settlement, movement, and relocation of Seereer people and communities.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Reluctant Landscapes"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments Note on Orthography
Prologue: Opening Frames, Orientations
Part One Framing Perspectives 1 Reluctant Landscapes 2 Writing Senegambian Political Pasts
Part Two Visions of Colonial Subjects: Imagining and Constructing the Seereer Landscape 3 What’s in a Name? Notes on the Making of Seereer Identity 4 “The Very Model of Egalitarian and Anarchic Peasantry”: Seereer Cultural Landscapes and the Ethnographic Imagination
Part Three Atlantic Passages: World History and the Ambiguity of Materiality 5 Ambiguous Kingdoms: States, Subjects, and Spatialities of Power 6 Object Trajectories: Atlantic Commerce and Genealogies of Material Practice
Part Four Colonial Indeterminacies: Entangled Landscapes, Overlapping Sovereignties 7 Hesitant Sovereignties: Logics, Logistics, and Aesthetics of French Rule 8 The Politics of Absence: Peasant Lifeworlds and Colonial Government
Conclusion: Archaeological Pasts, Postcolonial Presents, Traditional Futures
List of Abbreviations Notes Index