Very few of the Bassari people live in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Fewer still worship in the mosques that appear in most towns and villages in this West African country.
The Bassari homeland is about 14 hours driving time from Dakar in the far southeastern part of Senegal and extends south into neighboring Guinea. This group numbers about 15,000 people most of whom live in small and difficult to reach villages.
Chibikiling, with a population of about 100, is typical of Bassari villages. To reach this community, located about 30 miles from the city of Kedougou, one travels west on a paved road toward Senegal’s major national park and game refuge, Niokolo-Koba, on across the Gambia River and past the more densely populated areas near the river. Continuing on, the landscape becomes stark and uninviting. Eventually several miles of dirt road will lead to the destination. The dry season that extends from November to June causes most trees to lose their foliage. The loss of foliage reveals an occasional beehive placed high in the branches. Termite mounds as much as 20 feet tall punctuate much of the landscape. During the rainy season, the earth turns to mud, the dry creeks become torrents, and many of the roads become impassable even with a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Many years ago the Bassari fiercely rejected the wave of Islamic teachings of the Peul, the dominant ethnic group in the area. The cry to be left with their own beliefs of worshipping rocks, trees, and hand made fetishes was so strong that many Bassari escaped to caves in the hills. Today, fewer than 100 of the Bassari are followers of Islam.
The rejection of Islam has cost the Bassari personally, economically, and politically. They are a sad and beaten people. It shows in their faces as they go through the daily tedium of surviving day by day in this hot and dusty land.
The great excitement for this day was when a man on a bicycle brought ten loaves of bread to sell to the village. The price was less than 10 cents per loaf. The fresh bread was prepared early in the morning for delivery to the villages in the area. The bread was baked in his mud and stick oven located about a mile from the village of Chibikiling.
Water for the village is from springs in this otherwise dry creek bed. Mothers and daughters dutifully perform the household chores. Mom scrubs out the daily laundry while daughter cleans the dishes. The task is made more difficult since soap is too expensive to use on a regular basis. The plastic bowls are prized possessions of the household. Woven bamboo is used as a fence to keep the cattle from polluting the spring. Chibikiling is fortunate in that it was not necessary to dig a well for their water. The water source for most of the villages in the area is hand dug wells -- some of which exceed 100 feet in depth.
Cattle are an important economic asset but as they search for food, they are unable to find green grass at this time of the year. It is still three months until the rains come to give new life to the landscape.
All of the residential dwellings are single-room, dirt-floor buildings with walls of mud and sticks or hand made concrete block.
The bamboo-walled structure is the barn used to confine the goats at night. Nearby is the chicken coop. The goats and chickens provide the major meat source for the residents. Fish caught from the Gambia River also provide a source of food.
The preparation for a wedding is underway. The bride is very pleased with her choice of the modern square house of concrete block. The groom prepares the grass for the roof of their new home. This carefully constructed roof will withstand the heavy rains that will begin sometime in the month of June. The Bassari are known for their roofing skills. The groom displays this skill as he carefully places the bundles of tall grass in place on the bamboo poles used as rafters.
Behind a fence, seemingly guarded by a sleeping goat, is a large supply of roofing materials. This will be used prior to the rainy season to repair houses in the area.
Meals are prepared over an open fire usually in the outdoors, but sometimes a well-stocked indoor kitchen is used. The indoor kitchen is important during the rainy season. The leaves of the baobab tree provide an ingredient used in a sauce for their bland tasting rice, fonio, or millet porridge. These leaves are carefully pulverized and cleaned by the women and girls of the village. Clearly, the cooking and meal preparation is women’s work with the girls learning the skills at an early age.
The Bassari are among the country’s poorest and least educated. Parents are divided between the desire to see their children go to school and to have them available to help cultivate the fields, harvest the crops, and keep the animals. The Catholic Church built and staffs most of the elementary schools. The instruction given is in French. The students are well disciplined and eager to learn. This school is located in a village about two miles from Chibikiling. Very few children from these villages are able to find the means for attending high school. The nearest high school is some 30 miles away in Kedougou.
Traditional or folk religion dominates the spiritual lives of almost all of the Bassari. They pride themselves in holding on to their ancestral values despite the intense pressure from the Muslims. The Bassari recognize their deep attachment to their ancestral values. This may look like just a pile of rocks but to the Bassari it is a very important place for worship. Men anoint these rocks with a millet paste for blessing on their grain harvest or the blood sacrifice of roosters for their petitions, emphasizing the religious significance of the shrine. They now consider it necessary to be open to other cultures and other religions. The Bassari appear to be the most open of all ethnic groups in Senegal to Christianity but very few protestant missionaries are working with the people.
Although Christianity was first introduced more than 40 years ago, the animistic practices prevail. Today, there are fewer than 200 Christians among this people. Those who consider themselves believers are poorly taught and they do not have access to Scriptures in a way that is understandable to them. Giving up their old well-established beliefs completely is a major problem among those who profess some Christian faith.
Christian linguists began a project in 1999 to develop a written language for the Bassari and then to translate the Bible for this people group. It will take several years to complete. In the meantime, someone needs to share Jesus personally. Will you be that someone?
Recently, when members of the Language project team were talking to some elderly men in this village, the men let out this seeming cry from the heart: “We are nothing more than blind men concerning the things of God. We need someone to guide us. When someone who can see meets a blind person heading towards a large hole or a thorny bush, he must help him to avoid these dangers. You, who know better than we the things of God, help us, guide us! You have more light. Don’t forget us!”
What will you do with the Light of the World? Will you hide Him or take Him to the Bassari and teach them God’s Word? Will you pray that there will be many who are eager to let their light shine among the Bassari? Will you pray that many Bassari will be enlightened as they hear about Jesus? Will you pray that the cry from the heart of the Chibikiling will ring in your heart … “YOU HAVE MORE LIGHT. DON’T FORGET US!” How will YOU send the Light?
“If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” … Isaiah 8:20
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