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Senegalese Village - Expo Paris 1889

Senegalese Village at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1889

This is the first time that our great colony of Senegal has been given such a large share in an Exhibition alongside the others. Even so, the exhibition was not quite what it should be, and the actual display of products was sacrificed to the external setting.

Of all the villages of the same kind which follow one another on the Esplanade des Invalides, behind the Palais Central des Colonies, the Senegalese village is the one which occupies the most considerable space.

It does not appear to us, like most of the villages of Senegal, with their huts pressed against each other and their earthen enclosures. It is above all a conventional village, intended to represent to us, in the same group, all the types of constructions used in Senegal and the Sudan. To further summarise the architectural labour used in the black country, the organisers of the Senegalese village first show us a military construction, which serves as a sort of entrance to the village. It is a reproduction of the Tour de Saldé. This is the name given to a blockhouse on the left bank of the Senegal River, between Podor and Matam, which was built in 1859 by Commander Faidherbe, now a general, when he was governor of our great colony. This blockhouse served as a model for several others. The one we are reproducing is shown at half its real proportions. It is a military work considered to this day as very serious... there, but of course of less importance than the forts which defend our main posts on the river, such as that of Fiakel. To speak only of the Tour de Saldé, it is situated, with the village whose name it bears, in the middle of toucouleur country (the Fouta), that is to say in the middle of unsubdued Muslim populations, very turbulent, who do not mind, during the dry season, when the waters of the river, which have become very low, require the use of barges, to attack our convoys and to cut off our telegraph line. The blockhouse, or the Tour de Saldé, therefore serves as an indispensable reference point until the day when an even more important fortress is built, because the present construction could well disappear, dragged away by the waters of the river which eat away at the banks more and more each year at the time of the great floods. Nevertheless, behind these blockhouses, which are generally equipped with one or two pieces of artillery, a negro army can be kept at bay for at least a short time.

It is in this construction, which is the Tower of Saldé, that part of the Senegalese trade exhibition is accumulated. We say "part" on purpose, because the Palais Central des Colonies has already reserved a fairly considerable space for the products of this exhibition. It would probably have been preferable to avoid this pile-up in the restricted space of a building where the public hardly ever goes, attracted as it is by the village huts and the appearance of its inhabitants. There are, however, some very interesting things there, from the usual objects of ordinary life to things of great luxury. The former can be found in the village huts. The latter are made up of very artistically executed leather works, weapons, and richly coloured carpets made on the right bank of the river, by the Moorish tribes of the Sahara. A few samples of silk fabrics, feathers and jewellery can still be found here as well as in the Palais central des colonies.

But the main interest of the Senegalese exhibition is, in spite of everything, in the village itself, where we will hasten to penetrate by leaving the Tower of Saldé.

In front of us are scattered what are called, in the colonies, huts of all shapes and sizes. First, there is the Toucouleur hut, made of dry earth, a sort of rotunda with a pretty pointed thatched roof. To enter, a low door. On the outside, there are some diamond-shaped drawings to enhance the appearance of the house. The furniture in this house is also made of dry earth. It only consists of a few seats and a kind of couch. All of this is part of the wall. The Toucouleur, who is a little at ease, lavishes mats on it. The hut in the village of the Exhibition is an exact reproduction of one of the huts in the village of Dagana, the land of the gargoulettes, on the Senegal River and on the border of the Oualo.

Let us remember that the gargoulette is a porous vase in which water is kept fresh. It is one of the pieces of furniture in a Senegalese hut.

Next to it is another Toucouleur hut which is a reproduction, reduced by a third, of the hut inhabited by the chief of the Toro, in Guédé, the capital of this country. Toro is a territory on the left bank of the river, of which Podor is the residence of the French commander.

We are attracted by the sight of a beautiful hut of exceptional dimensions and an almost elegant construction. It is the type of hut of a rich Ouolof, inhabitant of the Oualo and by extension inhabitant of Saint-Louis and in general of the cities where the European is established. The Ouolof is certainly the most civilised of the Senegalese blacks; firstly because he was in contact with us before all others; secondly, because he is very intelligent, very industrious and very French. He is proud of this last title and adorns himself with it at all times. The hut in front of which we stopped is made of straw, reinforced by pieces of wood in the main parts. The roof is, of course, made of straw like the rest. However, this hut, which is shaped like a parallelogram, is quite large and has an interior division, in the European manner. The arrangement is not lacking in relative comfort. All in all, Gela costs between five and six hundred francs to build. Unfortunately, the duration of a hut of this kind is short. It has been calculated that it hardly lasts more than two years. One evening the fire consumes it, and the inhabitants hurry to rebuild another one.

At the end of the village, we come across a model of a Bambara hut. It is the most original of all the huts in the village. It is made of dry earth and is almost square in shape. The front door is surmounted by a sort of pediment which protrudes over the crest of the hut, forming round battlements. There are reminiscences of Arab, Moorish, Egyptian and... Auvergne styles; in any case, there is certainly an artistic attempt, completed on the outside of the wall by drawings that their naivety makes cabalistic. On the left is a man on horseback; on the right is a caiman with outstretched legs. Finally, it is also the eternal open hand, like a mysterious imprint, which can be seen at the door of all Arab houses.

Here is now a hut in Fouta-Djallon, a country which we cannot yet say is part of our possessions, although it is included in them and treaties have placed it under our protectorate. Black countries are countries where territorial commitments need to be sanctioned. This will come, hopefully, for Djallon as for the rest.

The hut that is typical of those in this country is quite curious. It is a rotunda which is 5 or 6 metres in diameter, surrounded by a small wall which forms a corridor with the house. The house is topped by a pointed roof, very overhanging, which also covers the corridor and the small wall. All this is made of dry earth and straw. It is not surprising to see huts of a more resistant construction in a country where the temperature sometimes drops several degrees below zero during the night.

Finally, here is a model of a tent such as is possessed by people of quality among the Trarza Moors, a powerful tribe who live on the right bank of the Senegal, in the vicinity of the district of Saint-Louis. Here the carpet plays an important role in the furniture.

Alongside this type of dwelling, an attempt has been made to reconstruct the door of Koundian, such as it existed in this village of the upper Bambouk when, at the beginning of this year, Squadron Leader Archinard, superior commander of the French Sudan, thought it necessary to have it destroyed. The gate itself, made of wood of a formidable thickness, is exactly the same as the one that existed at Koundian and which had to be broken down with cannon fire. It bears the terrible marks of our shells!

If we leave the dwellings of the Senegalese village to consider its other details, we notice several things which are the complement of it and are also, in the same way as the huts, the complement of the exhibition of our interesting colony. In short, it is the very life of our good blacks that they wanted to show us, and they succeeded. We can say for a few moments that we are living their life in one of their villages.

Here is the pond where we see one of the women of the village squatting, whose job it is to wash the clothes of the inhabitants. And you can be sure that she is not idle. The negroes are clean and like to wear clothes that are always fresh.

Here is a blast furnace, like those used by the blacksmiths of Fouta-Djallon, a country rich in iron ore.

Further on, a sown field has been depicted, with the same devices as ours used by the farmers there to scare off plundering birds. In addition, however, there is a small watchtower, a sort of observatory in which the black kids climb to keep an eye on the fields.

There is a weaver's workshop, where the loom has nothing in common with Jacquart's, but produces no less beautiful fabrics. Further on, there is a blacksmith's workshop, from which magnificent weapons and no less magnificent inlaid canes emerge. For they do everything, these black smiths. While their wives make pottery, they make cannons and gun dogs, daggers and knives, sabres and spurs, watch chains and keys, earrings and scissors; all with a hammer and file! Where this marvel of labour is most appreciable is in the hut of Samba Laobé Tiam, a vigorous and intelligent Ouolof from Saint-Louis, who runs a workshop in the Senegalese village of Esplanade with his brother and young son.

We must also mention the small mosque established in the middle of the village, a mosque represented simply by a low wall, crenellated in the shape of a quadrilateral. Gela can be 2.5 metres wide and 3 metres long, and 1.5 metres high. Such are the small private oratories found in all the courtyards of wealthy Muslims. The one in the Senegalese village of the Exhibition is the object of incessant frequentation, for the daily population is always at least thirty individuals. There are there, apart from the few art workers to whom we have alluded in mentioning their workshops, four women who share the laundry, the cooking and the care of a small negro; and about twenty pirogue men, people from Guet'Ndar, a village separated from Saint-Louis by the distance of a bridge, all of whom are men of the sea, valiant and happy fishermen. All this population is composed only of Ouolofs, except for two Peuls, one from Baol and the other from Djallon. But Senegal has not been content to send us artisans, boatmen and soldiers, it has also sent us some of the noblest samples of its crowned heads, the king of Boundou, Ousman Gassi, several chiefs of the French Sudan, and finally the lively Dinah Salifou, king of the Nalous. The latter, who reigns over a few hundred Negroes in the vicinity of our post at Boké, has had a great success in Paris, where he has shown himself everywhere, at the Opera, at the Circus, at all the festivals. This tiny potentate even competed for a moment with the Shah of Persia, the king of kings, one of the illustrious visitors of our Exhibition.

Before leaving the Senegalese section, it remains for us to say a few words about two products of this colony which, under their humble appearance, have hardly excited the attention of the visitors and which are nevertheless called upon to play an important part in the development of the trade of our African possessions. We are referring to the precious kola and shea nuts.

Barth, Mage, Gallieni, Marche, Ollivier de Sanderval and others have repeatedly pointed out the special interest of the kola nut. However, Colonel Gallieni is the only one who has given precise information on its nature and usefulness. What is certain is that the kola nut, which has been studied closely for some time, will undoubtedly play an interesting role in nutrition and therapy.

In general, and to the point of detail, it is recognised as having properties similar to those of South American coca. The blacks, in fact, use cola with the same respectful care and the same purpose of foresight as the South Americans in the use of their coca.

The shea nut or fruit of the butter tree, though mentioned by almost all the explorers of the Soudan, is still an almost ignored product, and the French trade has not hitherto sought to use it.

The shea tree," says Colonel Gallieni, in his book on the French Sudan, "is very common in the valley of the Haut-Niger and in those of the Bakhoy and the Ba-Oulé; one meets immense forests in Fouladougou, Bélédougou, Manding and Gué-niékalari. It is a beautiful tree with oblong and curly leaves, belonging to the Sapotea family; the fruit is the size of an ordinary walnut, wrapped in a fairly thin shell covered with a tasty and excellent tasting flesh. The nut is ovoid in shape and has a compact white flesh, which is used to make vegetable butter. The harvest begins at the end of May and ends in the last days of September. The women and children then go daily into the forest, especially after the frequent storms or tornadoes of the winter, and bring back to the village large baskets or calabashes filled with the fruit that the wind has blown away. They are poured into large cylindrical holes, dug here and there in the indigenous villages, in the middle of the streets and squares. In these holes, the fruits lose their flesh, which rots; they are generally left there for several months, often even during the whole winter season. The nuts are then placed in a sort of vertical clay oven inside the huts. They are then dried by fire and even lightly roasted. As soon as they are dry, the shells are broken off and the white flesh inside is crushed to form a homogeneous paste. It is then put into cold water and, after having been beaten briskly, it is packed and wrapped in tree leaves to preserve it. All these operations, very long with the rudimentary means of the negroes, are usually done during the dry season.

"Shea butter is in constant use among the Bambara and Malinke populations of Upper Senegal and Upper Niger: it is used for cooking, for the country's crude lamps, for preparing soap, for dressing wounds, etc. The Dioulas export a large quantity of it to their country. The Dioulas export a small quantity to the Southern Rivers, especially on the English rivers. We believe that this product could be used on a large scale in Europe, no less than the peanuts of which our ships carry such large stocks in our ports of Marseille and Bordeaux. It could, we believe, be used not only in the manufacture of soaps, but also in candles. The fact remains that there are immense forests of karite on both banks of the Niger, which are only waiting to be easily and conveniently exploited to provide an object of exchange, perhaps even more precious than groundnuts.

This quotation shows the multiple uses to which the precious fruit of the shea tree can be put. Colonel Gallieni's wish will soon be fulfilled. We are already beginning to know and appreciate many Sudanese products better. Let us hope that in the near future our industrialists will know how to take advantage of them and find even more numerous uses for them than those granted to them up to now. From this point of view, the Senegalese exhibition was very timely.

© L'exposition Universelle de 1889 - Louis Rousselet