Spurred by Tragedy to a Life of Female Empowerment

6:57 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

 


THIAROYE-SUR-MER, Senegal — Sometimes when she’s alone and looking at the sea, Yayi Bayam Diouf imagines the silhouette of her son passing over the waters offshore.

Not usually the sentimental type, she softens when asked about the personal tragedy that would spur her to challenge her town’s traditional patriarchy and become a path breaker for female empowerment.

“C’est la vie,” Ms. Diouf, 62, says softly, of the tragedy — “that’s life.”

It happened in the spring of 2006, when her son, Alioune, a 26-year-old fisherman, went on a yearly trip to the normally rich fishing grounds off Mauritania with others from their town of Thiaroye-sur-Mer, an impoverished suburb of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. But the catch was lean, and they were reluctant to return home with little to show for their efforts.

Instead, he and about 80 others crowded onto his fishing boat and headed to the Canary Islands on a route called “Barsa wala Barsakh,” or “Barcelona or die” in the local language, Wolof. They vanished along the way, and their bodies were never found.

“I wish I had at least seen his body,” Ms. Diouf said. “Sometimes I wonder if he really died. One day, I was out in the sea fishing and I really thought I saw him pass by. It hurts a lot. It’s very hard to talk about him.”

That set her on a course that has led to a plethora of awards for community activism — a photo in her house shows her receiving a medal from Senegal’s president, Macky Sall. She has encouraged dozens of women to set up not just fishing operations, but also hair and clothing shops, as well as businesses making soap and makeup, all supported with microfinancing from government and nonprofit sources. In 2015, she used a grant from U.N. Women Senegal to build a farm to grow mussels, providing work for about 100 women.

But all that came later. Ms. Diouf says that after Alioune’s death she felt drawn to the sea and began thinking of leaving her office job to fish. Yet she faced resistance in the form of a patriarchal culture that expected women to stay in the home and men to work outside.

When she approached a group of community leaders one night after evening prayers seeking permission to fish, she was told that “the water doesn’t need women.” Moreover, they said, one of the traditions among the Lebu ethnic group common in the area was that women couldn’t touch the fish if they were menstruating.

“I told them, ‘That’s fine — I already went through menopause,’” said Ms. Diouf, who is herself Lebu. “I am now feeling so self-confident, and I want to transmit that to other women.”

“I had to win them over” she said. “It takes strength of character and commitment to do this.”

 

Read the rest of the story on the New York Times' website.

 

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