- West Africa's Women of God: Alinesitoué and the Diola Prophetic Tradition by Robert M. Baum
Robert M. Baum
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016; pp. 301, $80.00 cloth; $16.00 paper; $9.99 ebook.
Anyone who has visited the Casamance region of Senegal has likely encountered the name Alinesitoué Diatta—a modern-day "Joan of Arc" imprisoned by the French in 1943, whose legacy has been appropriated by both a regional separatist movement and Senegalese nationalist narratives of anticolonial resistance. Robert Baum's exceptional book, West Africa's Women of God, disrupts this common portrayal of Alinesitoué, suggesting that she must be understood not as an isolated heroic figure but as part of a long-standing tradition of prophets within the Diola awasena, or religious path. In a broader sense, he argues that this largely women-dominated prophetic tradition demonstrates religious adaptability and innovation in response to various challenges, including colonial rule, the spread of Abrahamic religions, and changing ecological conditions.
West Africa's Women of God builds on and extends Baum's earlier work on religious traditions among the Diola of Casamance, as exemplified by Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia.1 Baum's analysis is based on decades of sustained ethnographic research and oral testimonies, as well as archival materials from Senegal, The Gambia, France, the UK, and Portugal. It is enriched by his social connections within southern Diola communities, his fluency in the language, and his long-term cultivation of trust with elders holding historical and ritual knowledge.
Tracing the roots of the Diola prophetic tradition, Baum describes early prophets among the Koonjaen and Felupe peoples, the progenitors of the Diola. He suggests that fifteen prophets—all men—were active prior to European occupation, followed by another group of men who introduced spirit shrines. Both groups are described as returning to the supreme being, Emitai, rather than dying in [End Page 146] the manner of humans. They were succeeded, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by men who died normally, but who were described as messengers sent by Emitai. Reflecting the shared etymology between Emitai and life-giving rain, early prophets focused on precipitation and fertility, required for rice cultivation; in contrast, later prophets more directly addressed changing material and political conditions in the context of increasing warfare and slave raiding.
Women prophets emerged in the context of colonization and profound social upheavals. Prior to the nineteenth century, women's shrines had been focused primarily on healing, and women could not hold ritual office. According to Baum, colonial disruptions of Diola society created opportunities for women to assume ritual leadership in new ways. Less visible to colonial administrators, women prophets emerged amid the erosion of the awasena priest-kings' ability to effectively protect their communities.
From World War I through the start of World War II, women prophets responded to deepening colonial power and increasing demands for forced labor, military conscription, and taxes. As Baum illustrates, women's leadership in this period was partly attributable to changing social relations around migrant labor by men and the perceived corruption of gerontocratic and patriarchal ritual authority. Describing Alandisso, the first Diola prophet who directly confronted colonial rule, Baum states that she challenged both European domination and the authority of the priest-king, and called for increased rainfall and strengthened ties with Emitai.
According to Baum, Alinesitoué's leadership emerges out of this longer genealogy. Alinesitoué advanced Diola religious traditions by drawing causal connections between persistent drought, migrant laborers' absence from rice paddies, French colonial agricultural development schemes, changing social patterns and agroecological practices, inequalities based on gender and age, and religious competition among awasena, Muslim, and Christian communities. Her continuous communication with Emitai generated a common explanation for these seemingly disparate processes; it also furnished a solution, in the form of the Houssahara and Kasila shrines and their associated rain rituals. As a public, community-wide shrine, Kasila encouraged cooperation across religious belief systems and greater equality in ritual participation and authority. The spread of Kasila, combined with Alinesitoué's teachings about ritual prohibitions of foreign...