skip to content

Living the Sine-Saloum Delta: rhythm and practice between wet and dry

In Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal, molluscs are everywhere. They mediate quotidian practices and basic needs as well as relation, memory and meaning. Delta inhabitants interact with them mainly through gleaning, manufacturing, consumption, trading and governing, but also through everyday movements, visual and auditive engagement. Furthermore, molluscs foster communication between ancestral spirits and humans, and their shells are used for roads, dams, houses, incense, jewelry, amulets, as future-telling devices and, formerly, for pottery and medicine.

Key to the continuation of human–mollusc relations was and is the gleaning for molluscs in the mangroves and on the sandbanks of the Sine-Saloum Delta. Gleaning has a longstanding history in the delta, yet has also undergone profound changes in recent decades that relate to and mirror the region’s socio-political, environmental and economic transformations. The delta has long been a so called hypersaline inverse estuary with little fresh water reaching the sea and with high salinity levels upstream due to evaporation, but from at least the 1950s on, the rain massively diminished (Pagès and Citeau 1990). This again has entailed salinization, siltation, subsidence, erosion as well as freshwater shortage and led to a drying up of terrestrial resources such as rice or oil palms. In reaction, delta dwellers (mostly Serer Niominka in the northern part and Soce Mandinka in the southern part) started to embrace a more and more aquatic lifestyle comprised mainly by fishing and transporting (men) or mollusc gleaning (women), which today is the most important female livelihood activity in the delta.

In my dissertation I trace the becoming of female mollusc gleaning to its present form(s) and inquire its (social) organization as well as the phenomenology of the practice itself. I work out how gleaning entwines action and pause, engagement and omission, as well as plan and situated action and remains always partial and gradual, but at the same time is directed, skillful and rather a gleaning for than a gleaning of. Gleaners are thereby caught up in and co-constitute a deltaic rhythmicity that encompasses humans and non-humans and produces relation and possibility through movement, pattern and multiplicity. Such a rhythmic gleaning for is going beyond producing or cultivating, yet is lucrative, helps people to forge generative continuity amidst increasing volatility and co-configures social organization in and beyond the delta.
From mollusc gleaning and in 'following the thing and being' I then further trace some of the contemporary and past deltaic relationships between humans, spirits and molluscs and inquire their material, socio-economic as well as their experiential and symbolic-semiotic dimension. I work out how sea snail trading helped women to build institutions out of the ruins of industrial fishing and follow the trade of molluscs for consumption and the feet of certain sea snails for incense. I sketch the history of shells used for infrastructuring and how today, in the absence of the state, they are used for damming against seawater intrusion – and how this again collides with conservation legislation and tourism. Or I assess how molluscs act as mediators between humans and (ancestral) spirits and how their shells are employed for protection or as future telling devices.

My methodological approach to these multiple human-spirit-mollusc relationships is based in thick participation, i.e. apprenticeship and practice, conversation and observation, lived experience and sensuous research (Spittler 2001) and accompanied by a multimodal practice comprised of audio/visuality and creative writing. Thereby, I also draw from several experimental artistic works that play with de- and re-assemblage in the quest of forging ways beyond stable or anthropocentric audio/visual and textual representations of a deltaic lifeworld in flux.

This sub-project is run by Sandro Simon. He formerly focused on the Tana Delta (Kenya) but had to cease research due to security concerns.