- West Africa’s Women of God: Alinesitoué and the Diola Prophetic Tradition by Robert M. Baum
Robert M. Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegal (Oxford University Press, 1999) challenged conventional scholarly notions regarding change-resistant African societies by tracing precolonial Diola responses to the Atlantic slave trade through innovative religious rituals and the emergence of particular shrines and [End Page 254] their attendant ceremonies. His latest book, West Africa’s Women of God: Alinesitoué and the Diola Prophetic Tradition, continues and strengthens this overall research thrust by extending the time frame forward into the colonial era and by focusing specifically on prophets as an innovative form of religious response to the particular political, economic, and environmental challenges that confronted rural Diola in the context of intensifying colonial pressures. Although the time periods and specific foci are different, Baum’s punch line remains largely the same: Diola are both exceptional and exemplary, and their innovative religious practices help transform our image of seemingly static rural African societies.
In West Africa’s Women of God, Baum charts the emergence of a predominantly women’s prophetic tradition through meticulous historical detail, an especially admirable feat for a region and a people with scant and scattered written historical records. Baum’s skillful use of oral history and contextual sources provides a rich account of an otherwise obscure tradition of prophetic practice among the Diola of the Upper Guinea Coast. By identifying precolonial examples of Diola prophetism through a painstaking reconstruction of the elusive processes of religious incorporation among neighboring ethnic groups such as the Koonjaen and Bainounk, Baum convincingly locates the advent of Diola prophetism prior to Muslim, Christian, or European colonial influence in the region, thereby debunking a widely held contention that it was derivative of European and/or Islamic practices. (E.g., “A primary example would be Jean Girard’s study of Diola charismatic movements which he attributes almost exclusively to the disruption accompanying the colonial conquest . . . ” ; see Genèse du pouvoir charismatique en Basse Casamance [Sénégal], Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, 1969).
Baum is at his best when detailing the life and teachings of Alinesitoué Diatta, the most well-known Diola prophet whose short, influential, and ultimately tragic life in colonial Senegal during World War II culminated in widespread and profound transformations in Diola religious practice. French colonial authorities perceived Alinesitoué’s powerful impact across Diola communities as a threat to their regime; she was arrested in 1942, tried and convicted of fomenting rebellion, and exiled to an internment camp in Timbuctou, where she died from scurvy in 1944. Baum not only details her life story, but also delineates the multilayered aspects of her teachings, emphasizing the religious bases of her economic and political critiques.
She saw a strong connection between the loss of autonomy, the arrest of awasena [Diola traditional religion] leaders, agricultural innovations facilitated by the French, the growth of invasive new religions, and migrant labor. She linked them to the Diola failure to observe a day of rest and retain a family-focused method of rice farming, and their neglect of ritual obligations. . . . In the short time that she taught, Alinesitoué radically reshaped awasena religion and the basis of Diola community identity.(126) [End Page 255]
Uncovering the history of Diola prophetism and its transformation from an exclusively male to a predominantly female tradition might have been enough, but one of the book’s broader and more enduring contributions lies in Baum’s elucidation of the significance of this otherwise neglected or misinterpreted history for our understanding of African religions. Baum argues (contra John Mbiti) that Diola prophets are on a par with those of Abrahamic religions (Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad) because they communicated directly with a supreme being (in this case, Emitai), conveyed their teachings to groups beyond their own, and changed the status quo—even while demanding...