Bad Faith: Notes on My Return to Senegal
It happened at dawn. A peaceful dawn, softened by glowing light-dark streaks painted across the sky. A fresh dawn, the sun’s nascent beams still innocent. A creamy mist. The immaculate charm of the early morning blanketed the village with a soothing balm. Languishing in a delicious slumber, we were carefree, sublime, and beautiful. A dawn when even the cockerels were stilled by the silence of a sober morning. Majestic. This dawn was a respite from the commotion and chaos of the world. A quiet breathing space. Somewhere, in a Senegalese village, Coubanao, one day in the mid-nineties.
A dawn which would, alas, before long, die inexorably amidst streams of blood and piles of freshly-cut flesh. A dawn condemned, offered up in ancient ritual.
We did not even hear them as they strode through the village calling at every dwelling. We had no inkling of their early morning or night-time expeditions. None whatsoever. They were an army of discreet and experienced old women. They knew their trade. These women arrived at each door like soldiers, in tight lines, as unemotional as an elite task force. They made a special sign to the colluding mothers, and, from a single gesture of response, they knew whether to leave or wait for the goods to be handed over. Those in the know made good use of this curt yet efficient system of non-verbal communication. In one hour, whilst the village was still drowsy, they had done their rounds. They had reaped a fine harvest that day. Hundreds of young girls and teenagers were now in the women’s hands. Half-asleep, nervously, they emerged out of the soft morning mist, somewhere in the forest, far from home.
And suddenly, horrifyingly, amidst the exquisite harmony of the morning, from deep within the scrublands of the steppe, a silence rose to the surface, a silence so powerful as to take one’s breath away. Stifled, the noises seemed to get louder still. No one saw a thing. But we heard the noises well up, their significance colouring the atmosphere. Macabre screams muffled by gags. Deep in the forest, something was going on. Compelling noises in the distance. Indistinct and unsettling. Certainly serious. The sound of young girls crying and moaning. Almost in unison. In pain. In pain? Perhaps in the throes of death. Not in the official version. No one heard a thing. Silence descended over the village once more.
Somewhere in Coubanao forest, girls who had been rounded up at dawn, some young, some not so, were having their clitorises cut and were undergoing crude surgery on their genitals. The blood of hundreds of little girls drifted up through their screams, dissipating into the village sky.
The noise did not stop all morning for the unlucky chosen ones. It got worse. Never-ending, unbearable torture. The screams of childhood innocence on trial. They reached a crescendo, followed by a period of quiet. The girls continued to cry. At midday, crippled by the pain, doubtless defeated by the suffering, beaten down, they slept beside pools of their own blood. For them this crimson spring was like a sleep-inducing bath. This post-traumatic sleep had been their only respite. The most painful point of the test had passed.
I knew nothing of this at the time. But I was afraid. I was only a child. I woke up one morning without my playmates. I did not know the meaning of these mysterious outpourings that grew louder as they echoed throughout the whole village. The adults knew. They kept quiet; the children were kept in the dark. Now as an adult, I know what went on. At least, I know what was meant to happen there.
The screams were not only the screams of pain of young girls losing their clitorises. The screams were not just reactions to brutal excisions, no! In some of the other regions of eastern Senegal girls were suffering the ultimate violent act, that of infibulation. Different territories have different practices. But the facts remain the same. On frail and immature bodies, whose defining feature was their fragility, old women also practised the closing of the vagina. They sewed up the vulva. Infibulation, as this torture is known, increased these young girls’ pain tenfold. Infibulation was not to be undone until a few days before the wedding of the mutilated girl. In Coubanao, however, simple circumcision was the only type practised. Once they had been purified and “become women” as they say in those parts, the girls would stay in the forest for a few weeks to convalesce and undergo the rites of initiation into womanhood.
The excisors did not have sophisticated equipment. In fact, they used old, worn-out blades as cutting instruments. The same ones they had always used. Simple blades butchered these young clitorises in accordance with ancestral practices. Without analgesics or any other medical intervention, without any anaesthetic; this pain was a badge of honour, a coming of age. These old women had a secret knowledge gained through decades of repeating the same practice. They knew exactly where to cut. They knew which part contained desire, and how crucial it was to cut this part out. Pleasure, perversity, the taste for filthy sex, these were the enemy. The excisors possessed an ancient knowledge, veritable proof, according to tradition, of the superior moral integrity of what they were doing. They were, in a word, benefactresses: devoted and generous souls who sacrificed themselves to glorify the cultural heritage of their ancestors. It was second nature to them. Their certainty stemmed from habit. They were the headline act in a shadowy world. When it came to very young girls, they said it was “only necessary to cut off a tiny little bit”. This showed they had a “tiny bit” of heart. They kept busy. Always ice-cool, insensitive, incapable of emotion. As a matter of fact, this indifference is the sole requirement for this type of work. They were all living proof of this. They knew how to hold these girls down and tie them up, and hold them tighter when the pain made them flinch. When the girls fought back, these old women stepped up their efforts and in groups of three or four, regained control so they could carry on with the job.
The parents of these young girls had no say in the matter, even if they had wanted it. They were parted from their daughters at dawn on the day of circumcision and would lose them for a month. Access to the “sacred wood”—this place of confinement, the theatre for these forest operations—was restricted and no one could outwit these women, who had the knowledge, and for so long had been the keepers of the traditional wisdom associated with this custom.
A few days later, our friends could walk again, but painfully. Some wounds would turn nasty, and in rare, very rare cases, without treatment, girls would die in the quest for this bizarre form of femininity. Secrecy, splendidly triumphant, hushed up the forest crimes. Nothing got out, and for the whole village it had all gone extremely well.
Coubanao had always circumcised its daughters. Using the same process, without ever modifying the methods or questioning their appropriateness. It was an ancestral legacy that had to be preserved at all costs. Every generation, here, as in the other villages, kept up the tradition. Little girls and older ones were gathered up to be circumcised. So that they could not experience sexual pleasure. So that they could stand tall. So that they could be model wives. These were the almost benevolent arguments that served as a bedrock. The men kept out of it. They did not actually carry out the torture. It was the women themselves who oversaw the practical side of things. Being circumcised for them was the ultimate guarantee: the guarantee that they would have an honourable life. They would keep up appearances within their community. The guarantee of sexual modesty, the only proof of a woman’s integrity. Cutting the clitoris was the accepted way to discourage desire and fornication. Circumcision was a given, never questioned. Nobody in Coubanao shied away from it. The families were proud to send their children there. Not one case of rebellion was ever noted. Not even the dead troubled them, or, if they did, only slightly; to die from being circumcised was to die on the altar of their culture, an act of bravery in other words. In the woods the initiation rites were in full swing, and often one would see older women, married women, and mothers return there to get themselves circumcised. They wanted to rediscover their identity, their culture. They felt dirty with this little piece of flesh, this little bit of superfluous flesh, the removal of which set them free.
Then the pomp and ceremony would begin. The celebrations and the coming together. The large-scale communal dances. Joyful processions. Coubanao celebrated its heroines. The day the girls came out of the woods there was singing and dancing. The neighbouring villages joined in. There was plenty to eat and drink. The seriousness and anxiety of the dawn gave way to a joyful midday.
We got our friends back. We did not see anything different in their eyes. Except perhaps a new cautiousness or reserve. The fact is that neither circumcision nor infibulation leave any trace on the face, nor any visible damage; their devastating effects are internal, invisible, and therefore private. The relative absence of obvious wounds renders any suggestion of mutilation pointless; it would only fall on deaf ears. These innocent faces remained just that. Nobody could detect even a hint of uneasiness. Was there really any uneasiness? In short, the answer is no, and conclusively so. The inevitable social outcome of this cultural ritual, once it has been set in motion, is a vicious cycle, a downward spiral, that destroys everything in its path. Even a crime is no longer a crime; it is simply a custom. Created over time. By tradition. That unshakeable, indestructible blade of the guillotine. Tradition.
Ndeey B., my childhood sweetheart, was a child of this tradition. She was one of the group of girls circumcised that dawn whilst I slept. I can’t stop thinking about that morning. Ndeey B. was not alone, but she wouldn’t let on. My female cousins were circumcised. As were many members of my family. And most of my female acquaintances in Coubanao. They were circumcised because tradition demanded it. Tradition . . . Shhh! It silences all dissent. Its enemies are progress, reform, criticism. So, have Coubanao, Ziguinchor, and Senegal learned anything? Looking back, is there a legacy from that violent dawn, long ago when I was seven? Who knows, but I see a ray of light.
Jean was lynched. Maybe they even hunted him down with the intention of killing him. Was it premeditated? It seemed like it. Was it attempted murder? Possibly. It was one morning, or midday, I don’t really know, I wish I’d never known. The sky blazed over Ziguinchor, as usual. The setting was a street away from the main thoroughfares, in the scrublands on the outskirts of town. They laid into him for ages. More than twenty of them, an angry, hate-filled mob of men and women of various ages, beating him to a pulp. Around twenty against one slight man, his slender physique typical of those from the Sahel region, lying on the ground, a white flag in his eyes. It was obvious he had surrendered and was crying for mercy. It was not a fair fight, not at any point; it was an execution. A primitive urge. A shocking illustration of the depths of depravity to which mankind can sink. They were really going for it. Unmoved by pity, the crowd worked itself up into a frenzy, growing more bloodthirsty with every passing minute. Insults flying, amidst the deafening rumble of the pack, they set upon Jean like starving hyenas tearing into their prey. They struck him with extreme violence, armed with anything they had to hand, sticks, stones. Others were punching him with their bare fists, in the ribs, in the face, on the buttocks, on the head, on the back. As if caught in a mystical trance of some pagan ceremony, the torturers seemed to glean a kind of sinister joy from the beating, an otherworldly intoxication from the victim’s pain. The stream of insults pouring forth, and the resulting indistinct hubbub produced a dreadful racket in the vicinity of the assault. And they kept on hitting! Over and over again. The louder the poor victim’s screams, the greater the barbaric sadism. Whenever it looked as though Jean might get away, the rumble doubled in volume, the thirst for violence swelled and they pinned him down again. Tied up and overpowered, Jean was returned to the middle of the furious crowd, and the thrashing continued, wilder than ever. They finished their task some minutes later. Now that their human punch bag was a real mess, bloody, unable to speak, groaning, they felt their job was done and left Jean lying lifeless in the middle of the street.
The scene took place in a hidden backstreet in the brushy terrain of Ziguinchor, in one of the areas few people frequented. Neither those passing through, who were few and far between, nor the local residents, in fact no one, came to the victim’s aid. No hint of condemnation from the other side of the street. Not even basic human compassion. It was as if this were a completely normal, everyday occurrence. From their front-row seats in doorways, courtyards, and windows, the audience watched the tragedy unfold. Despite the initial coldness and indifference, the rumours and gossip ended up imbuing the neighbourhood with a kind of infectious and festive cheerfulness. In others, one could sense a tacit approval of what had happened, through their body language, the nods of the head, the smiles of complicity with the tormentors. Small committees came out to greet the young authors of the assault.
The body was still lying on the ground. Between two pools of stagnant water and two plots of farmland. Blood oozed from two gashes in the forehead. Contusions on the face compounded the horrific scene. Battered, bruised eyes still reflected the traumatising image of the mob, etched on the retina. Every so often, agonising gasps were heard, the kind let out by mangled bodies about to leave this world. His legs were twitching; they were badly fractured. His shredded clothes revealed shocking wounds all over his body. The image of this human heap, curled up and broken, his visibly very young, frail body subjected to such cruelty, was shameful enough. It was, however, only a pale reflection of the excruciating suffering that welled up inside this almost-corpse, whose scarcely audible breath signified the end was near.
The minutes ticked by.
And the body was still lying there, moaning as if calling for help. Almost inaudibly. For a long time. Never-ending minutes. An hour lying on the ground in the throes of death. His torturers had not put an end to his misery: they said they wanted to correct him, set him straight, teach him how to behave. This was the gist of what could be gleaned from the little they said. These were their words, as they tore through the dust to go home. They didn’t want to kill him, no, but to re-educate him. To accomplish this task, they had to leave breath in his body, but disfigure him enough to dissuade him. Dissuade him from what? The beating was clearly premeditated, but the details were still unclear. The body on the ground, oblivious to all that, like an animal that had been inexpertly slaughtered, cried tears of blood. Arousing neither emotion nor compassion.
More interminable minutes passed.
Those tempted to go to his aid, held back by their cowardice, tried to approach, to do something, even if it were just to get the number of the fire brigade or the police. But they were persuaded not to. This is what their stony-faced neighbours told them:
— You’ll regret it.
— But we can’t leave him like that, it’s barbaric.
— You don’t know why they did it, don’t get involved. Think of your reputation. And anyway, the police don’t come out for this kind of thing and the firemen only come when there’s a fire, or if a child falls down a well.
Strange, powerful and contradictory feelings were at work. They were swayed by the majority’s refusal to act, despite themselves.
Then a passing old lady stopped, crossed herself, shed a tear and, moved by the horror of this body right in front of her, decided she had to do something. Faced with the indifference of others and the disapproving looks that defied her, warning her she would go to hell, she didn’t dare even ask a question. Feeling completely isolated, as if she had no right to be there, she nevertheless followed her conscience, both awe-inspiring and humane. She tried her best to administer first aid. When she saw how severe the wounds were, she tried to call the emergency services. No response. She unknotted her pagne from around her hips, covered the body with the cloth, and ran to the hospital unit of the nearest military camp to get help. A few minutes later, she came back, accompanied by two officers who took the body and put it on a stretcher. The soldiers questioned the local stooges, witnesses who had been planted at the scene to look like innocent bystanders, and were informed that the lynched man was a thief, a repeat offender, who had been caught red-handed. The explanation satisfied the two officers. They didn’t pursue it. This brutal justice is the norm here. If a thief gets killed, the only crime that has been committed is his. So be it. Without any further investigation, the two officers went away and handed the body over to the medical teams. And so, the case was to be closed. As the two men were leaving, several cries were heard, calling the lynched man a “deux puces”, along with accompanying raucous jeers. A local expression. Far from complimentary. Anyone labelled as such would be subject to condemnation. Jean was one of those.
Meanwhile in the hospital, Jean had been left with some or maybe all his ribs broken. His legs were fractured and horrendous wounds covered his face and back. Not one inch of his body had escaped the bruising. He was bandaged up from head to toe. He could neither move nor speak. His words were unintelligible. When the doctors asked about his parents, he shook his head to signify that he had never had, or no longer had, any. “Who can we contact?” they tried again. “No one”, he whispered. The doctors’ prognosis was a long convalescence, with perhaps, despite his youth, permanent damage due to the severity of the beating.
Despite having been beaten to a pulp and now lying motionless on his bed, Jean was given a lecture by the soldiers who had brought him to hospital. They reprimanded him for the thieving and told him, without batting an eyelid, that he deserved what he got. These were the only words of comfort he was given, and of course no attempt was made to take his aggressors to court. But Jean accepted the telling off without a flicker, as if petrified that the true reason for the lynching might be discovered. He even seemed to nod in agreement, as if to convince them he had understood. He felt lucky to have survived. Even more so as the doctors were not aware of the real motive for the attack on him. Jean had been lynched because he was what was called locally, a “deux puces”.
The heaven-sent old lady who had saved Jean had not come to see him in his sick bed. In the meantime, she had been told the motive for the attack. The spectators had felt annoyed when they saw her helping a child on the ground. They explained to her in some detail what the boy’s preferences were, what kind of company he kept, and what he had been up to. She was swayed by the assumptions and the prevailing judgements. From a cultural point of view, she was like them. Feeling distressed, she came to regret her gesture of help and sided with the aggressors. To understand this unlikely change of attitude, you must realise that his crime was despicable, unforgivable; in fact, so abhorrent in the local consciousness that even to save a child who had been left for dead became a heinous crime. Nobody came to visit the invalid. It must be said that this was not the worst experience in Jean’s life. The boy had lived an excruciatingly painful existence since he was a young child. This was just one more run-of-the-mill incident, one of a few that he confided to me from his abysmal life story.
No one knew much about Jean’s life. He had lost his mother very young, at around ten years old. Breast cancer struck her down, bringing a swift end to her suffering. Bang. Over there, these illnesses are not diagnosed, they just turn up unannounced, feed off defenceless human souls, corner them, and kill them, with no form of prevention, care, or detection. The illness left him all alone; he had no brothers or sisters. Because of this he had left school and ended up hanging around on the streets. It had toughened him up and he had learned how to get by doing odd jobs. His father had beaten him up several times, insulted him, thrown him out of the house and told him never to come back. His immediate family, his uncles, aunts, and cousins had disowned him, and he was completely isolated. He had been forced to leave the area, to go far away, to build himself a new life, hoping to turn a new page, unsullied by his previous reputation. He lived in a one-room hut, built with baked bricks, a little out of the way. He did not have any male friends. He had a few close female friends. But above all, what he had constantly and unfailingly was an army of people who hated him wherever he went. They were angry at him, they treated him with scorn, with a visceral, hostile, and violent hatred that made his life an unbearable hell, and worst of all confined him to a life behind closed doors. Society was against him, did not accept his difference, even less so at his age. He had had a few romantic notions, buried one by one. He had wanted to create clothes for women. He dreamed of being a shining star in fashion design circles. He had given up dreaming. Even this vital ingredient of life, especially vital for someone of his age, had eventually shrivelled and died.
In fact, everyone in the neighbourhood knew Jean.
Jean was about eighteen. He was tall and effeminate. He was extremely good-looking. He was an elegant, fine-featured young man, despite the traces of a painful life that marked his face with resentment. Jean was not like other boys. He used to dress differently. He was smiling, happy, and flirtatious. He had an androgynous appearance. He was vivacious and jovial. He did not hide his true self. He had his preferences, his tastes. This difference had fostered a feeling of hatred towards him. Everywhere forces were conspiring against him. Those with influence in the community tormented him with their spiteful comments when he passed by. They threatened him with an imminent death, punishment, correction. But he, as if liberated by the innocence of youth, continued to indulge his whims and his passions. These were all things that Ziguinchor society, Islam coursing through its veins, could not tolerate. The day of the assault, the neighbourhood had suspected sexual activity in his hut because he was in there with one of his friends, or acquaintances, who knows. And so the rumour took off, spreading like wildfire. The attackers came out, enticed by the smell. All the hatred stored up by the community burst forth from blackened hearts on that day. And so, based on rumour and long-held resentment, he was “punished” with the aim of educating and changing him. Jean was a “two sim cards”, a play on words based around the phones, commonly used in West Africa, that work on two networks. The expression means homosexual. The ultimate stigma.
In Ziguinchor, like elsewhere, gay men live on the margins, keep themselves hidden, meet up to be together and to support each other. This parallel, low-profile life is their only chance to enjoy a certain freedom. These meetings, which are held in secret, are becoming a kind of underground movement, at the mercy of informers and malicious gossip. But it is a form of resistance, of solidarity and survival.
The assault did not move or shock anyone because the motive for this crackdown transcended all else. Homosexuality is viewed as deviant behaviour here. The Islamic text says so. The culture says so. That is enough. Society has taken on board the judgement of the two supreme protectors: God and one of his progeny, tradition. Any form of justice that conforms to this cultural and religious ideal is held in high esteem. Homosexuality does not exist here; this is a fact and it is repeated over and over. In the beginning, Ziguinchor was pure. This is the world’s depravity, floating in from the West, towards these noble lands, polluting the town and flooding into Jean. Standing tall and united, the people of Ziguinchor reject this pernicious deviance that comes from the Whites. Shored up by cultural cornerstones built to stand the test of time, they fight against homosexuality and propose solutions that entail killing deviants, excluding them from public meeting places and from cemeteries. Unequal in life, unequal in death. Homosexuality is regarded as an unspeakable monstrosity, which, together with the intolerable image of sodomy, is proof of the moral sickness of these people. No deviance can be tolerated. It cannot conceivably be otherwise in a society ruled by a heterosexual god; even to discuss it is forbidden out of hand, as this might pave the way to greater permissiveness. The stubborn question of sexual orientation, backed up by the certainty of tradition, is thus settled by a religious and cultural court, that in its name allows children, whose only crime is to have different feelings and to have been born a certain way, to be killed, pure and simple. The judgement rings out like the blade of a guillotine, with no wavering, no remorse. Indeed, virtue must take this extreme form. The upholders of this order are unlikely heroes, protectors of local moral values, inspiring something akin to admiration amongst the common people.
They couldn’t give a damn that Jean lives his life behind closed doors, hidden from the world. These missions in the name of justice root out those who dare to break the law from their hiding places. They are not interested in discretion. They don’t want to know about the intimate side of homosexuality either; the act alone is sufficient to require repression. Even a rumour, a suspicion, or a particular walk is enough to invite punishment. Neither modesty nor discretion move them to leniency. They give closet gay men a hard time just the same. This anti-deviance squad, made up of thousands of soldiers protecting their community, is the ultimate police force, a people’s police, a truly fearsome army. Jean is bringing their neighbourhood into disrepute, they say. He is destroying their moral standards and their values, they continue. This leads to competition between neighbourhoods as they hunt down deviants. Jean’s despicable lynching would serve as an example to those reckless fools who dared flout the law. It is a precedent to which all the religious and traditional authorities give their full consent. As do the political powers. Complicit in their silence, giving their support. The few organisations that defend gay people are groups that are based far away and are powerless. Their pitiful resources cannot cover the whole of Senegal from their offices in Dakar, not when up against the beliefs of the people. There is something impenetrable and irreversible in their resolve, which is terrifying. These people are capable of killing gay men to satisfy their God, even though it was he who created them.
Jean is not dead. “You have to break his teeth so he can’t suck anymore”, joked his torturers during the assault, and afterwards during the discussions to which I was privy. No one was outraged by his fate. Jean had a choice at that point: fake it and invent himself a heterosexual identity, leave, or accept his fate and die.
Around here, people conform. Your secrets fester inside you. Society has no defects. Local pride depends on these ideas being kept alive. As a matter of fact, they boast, “we don’t have much, but we do have that”.
Children, it’s fine to kill homosexuals. Or just try to. It’s gentler. It sounds better. It transforms the horror into a kind of enforced fun.
One week after his admission to the Ziguinchor military hospital, Jean was told to either pay for his bed or leave. He was still in a critical state. As he was completely broke, he made up his mind to leave and go back to his hut, even though he could not walk properly and his face was still badly bruised. At the point of writing, that is the last I heard of Jean. Who knows if I’ll ever hear anything more.
translated from the French by Claire Wadie and Emma La Fontaine Jackson
These excerpts were translated from the French by Claire Wadie. She is currently working on a book-length translation of Un Dieu et des Mœurs : Carnets d’un voyage au Sénégal (Bad Faith: Notes on My Return to Senegal), with Emma La Fontaine Jackson.