BOUYOUYE, Senegal – I’m submerged waist-deep in brown water, trying my best to catch up with two fast-moving Senegalese women ahead of me. Jeannette Diatta, 40, thin-framed, and her curvier friend, Therese Diatta, 27, are wielding machetes like butter knives.
Both women have protected their heads from the sun with colorful scarves. Bang! Yet another branch falls into the water with Jeannette Diatta’s swift arms. The branch is covered with black oyster shells.
She suggests I try cutting too. I pick up the weapon but give up after nearly chopping off a finger. Oyster fishing is not as easy as it seems.
The Diattas are subsistence farmers from the village of Bouyouye (pronounced BOO-yu-yee) in the Casamance region of Senegal in West Africa. With their husbands and children, the women cultivate their own rice and onions and hunt for their own food every day, mostly fish and seafood.
We have spent a sunny April morning navigating a network of shallow rivers in hopes of finding lunch and dinner. I’m slightly worried we may even end up as fodder ourselves, since crocodiles are known to inhabit the riverbanks in Casamance, which is the southernmost part of the country, below Gambia. Jeannette Diatta says, however, that there is nothing to be afraid of here. The villagers, who practice traditional beliefs, supposedly banished the crocodiles with animistic rituals years ago, and none have been spotted since.
Our hunt is indeed a success: after a few hours, both women are balancing plastic buckets full of fresh seafood on their heads. Some oysters are still attached to the branches while others have been chopped off individually.
We slowly make our way back to the village, home to about 300 people. Like Jeannette and Therese, most people in Bouyouye belong to the Diola ethnic group and share the Diatta last name, though not everyone is directly related. The village consists of clay huts and some sandy paths in between. There’s a middle school financed by Action Culture, a French nongovernmental organization. To attend high school, the children need to move to bigger towns in the region.
I have landed here at the invitation of Manon Harwig, a free-spirited Dutch woman who lived with Jeannette Diatta’s family for five months in 2011. Harwig, 39, still resides in Casamance but in the slightly bigger village of Boucott. This one-street town is about a 10-minute drive from Cap Skirring, the main tourist beach in Casamance, popular with Europeans.
It took Harwig and me about 90 minutes to walk from Boucott to Bouyouye at a leisurely pace, passing through picturesque rice fields and tropical forest scenery. Upon arrival, some village children met us by the river. In a town completely off the tourist trail, we were treated with friendliness and curiosity.
Now more than a half a year removed from her life in Bouyouye, Harwig says her best memories are those from the rice cultivation days. For two months in the summer every adult and child takes part in the yearly farming ritual, planting seed after tiny seed of rice in the fields nearby.
The villagers do this from morning to evening to ensure food for next year. They also pour about 200 liters of palm wine into the ground to bless the future crop, in keeping with their animistic beliefs.
“During rice planting they don’t even have the time to cook or bake, because everyone is working the field,” Harwig said.
Come September, the whole town celebrates the end of the planting season.
“We host a traditional festival,” said Enrique Diatta, Jeannette’s 19-year-old son. ‘The men will dance and we all eat together, the whole village.”
Harwig tells me how the young boys shave their heads but leave bits of hair here and there to form funny shapes onto their skulls. I hope I get to witness this sometime. For today, I enjoy taking part in the Diattas’ everyday activities, like oyster fishing.
After our hunting trip is over, Jeannette Diatta lights a bonfire outside her family’s bare three-bedroom clay house. She lets the newly picked branches roast long enough for the oysters to get slightly cooked before carving them out of the shells with a knife, a process that takes a few hours.
In the meantime, I am told to wash up in the open-air bamboo shack, a makeshift shower next to the tree that serves as the designated toilet spot for the household. No waste disposal system is needed: the village pigs eat whatever the humans dispose.
While scrubbing myself clean with soap and a bucket of sun-heated lukewarm water, I can’t help but think that I’m now visiting the people I’ve always read about – those who the United Nations says make less than $1 or so a day.
For my host family – Jeannette, her husband Jean and their half a dozen children who still live at home – the main source of income is an occasional sale of palm wine, known as bunok. This vinegar-tasting gray liquid is tapped from the palm trees and allowed to ferment a few days before it’s sold or consumed.
Sometimes Jeannette Diatta also weaves baskets from palm leaves and sells them in local markets with the other village women. At best, these two small businesses bring in tens of dollars each month. The financial situation of other families in Bouyouye is no different, though some receive money from family members working outside the village.
Nevertheless, the lives of these dollar-a-day villagers are not as grim as I had imagined: nobody is dressed in rags, goes hungry for days or has swathes of flies on their faces, how Africans are sometimes depicted in international media.
Instead, children and adults in every house sit around delicious communal bowls of rice and fish big enough to accommodate unexpected visitors, whom they welcome; wild drumming parties go until late at night; and bunok flows freely. To an outsider, the sense of community pervades the village so much that there’s no concept of homelessness.
Nowadays, the villagers also get a few hours of solar-paneled electricity at night, courtesy of a Belgian investor. It’s just enough to charge up their flip-model cellphones, although they may not always have money to buy phone credit.
Life is still not easy. No one has running water or much furniture, and the children sleep together on rough hay mattresses. The clay houses have holes in the walls for windows, shut with corrugated iron plates. The villagers wear mismatched European and American secondhand clothes.
When the children attend school – which is free and compulsory by Senegalese law — the parents practically break their backs working twice as hard on the rice fields, since the tiny hands helping them are in class. No home has a freezer, so food is prepared from scratch every day.
An oyster-picking trip down the river is not just a fun activity for Jeannette Diatta but a necessity. Sometimes the day’s catch is plentiful, other times the meal consists mostly of rice. Lacking money to buy a proper fishing net, Jeannette relies on her creativity: a mosquito net catches tiny sardines successfully.
Watching the villagers drumming and dancing in circles at an impromptu Sunday night party, I wonder whether we relatively affluent Westerners can learn a lesson or two from the people of Bouyouye. The villagers may have few material belongings, yet they express joy in everything they do.
I learned at least one thing during my weekend visit: to appreciate oysters, especially now that I know the hard work that goes into picking them.