If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Ziguinchor as you feel/see it?
One is hopeful from the moment one enters the city of Ziguinchor. It is Friday, and there is a fine breeze escorted by seawater from the Casamance River, which is linked to the Atlantic Ocean. It is Friday, after the prayer hours at the mosque. Folks are gathered under mango trees for the ataya that helps them digest the appetizing mafé. The mouthwatering étodiéey. The luscious chéebon. The juicy fiiteuff. The delicious käldou. Warmth is welcoming to the natives; the wind greets those who are aware of it. It is about to rain. The umbrella shop’s owner is a Wolof man from Ndar. It is said his name is Mouhamed Diop; he is happy because there is a massive line of buyers who are waiting to buy umbrellas. Street vendors are rushing to catch a refuge from the deluge. The streets are flooded. Though life goes on. Those who visit this city will leave crying. The most fecund city of Senegal, Ziguinchor is the country’s torso.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Almost two and a half decades ago, the Joola ferry tragedy drowned an estimated 1,896 people in the Atlantic, near the Gambian coast. The shipwreck left sixty-four survivors old and young. It is said that the wreckage is one of the worst sea disasters of the last two decades. There is a fable that the drowned people are now ghosts who will protect Ziguinchor forever. The Joola ferry tragedy and heartbreak left a wound that will not heal for generations to come.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The sunset and the sunrise as you enter the city by the second bridge of Ziguinchor.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Writers to read are Ousmane Sonko, Joséphine Loppy, Ayo A. Coly, Elgas, and Ousmane Sembène.
Is there a place here you return to often?
My grandmother’s house, where I grew up, is adjacent to the cemetery, and the abattoir is a sacred place that I return to for inspiration.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The library at Assane Seck University of Ziguinchor, and the Alliance Française de Ziguinchor, which is a discreet place to read and write.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
I am seduced by Bignona, the biggest town in the region, which is about forty-five minutes from Ziguinchor. There is also Oussouye, which is historically important and traditionally rich and is located between the border of Guinea-Bissau and the Casamance River. I am also seduced by cities close to the Atlantic Ocean—Diembéreng, Kachiouane, Kafountine, Abéné, and Diogué.
Where does passion live here?
In Ziguinchor, people do not sleep, and that drives passion in pulsating ways. There are the tibiteries, for example, butcher shops that double as serene retreat spots where one may turn up at two, three, or four in the morning for grilled beef, snacks, or soup. Tibiteries have become romantic spots where one may take a lover for a feast.
What is the title of one of your works about Ziguinchor and what inspired it exactly?
My lyrical novella-in-progress, Madame Diawara, retells the story of my grandmother and her fifteen children. It explains how she moved from the north of Senegal to the south, where she met my grandfather. The book’s style mixes African/Senegalese rhythm and syntax in French, Wolof, and Diola, demonstrating the possibility of appropriating the French and English languages to reflect an African perspective. At the same time, Madame Diawara explores networks of families in different registers, across experiences of mortality, violence, hospitality, race, exile, history, and African myth.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Ziguinchor does an outside exist?”
I was born in Bignona, moved to Brooklyn when I was eleven, and grew up in the Bronx. I am in translation, bodily and linguistically, no matter where I go. I carry my Senegalese-ness, which is anchored in my rich childhood and forged in my grandmother’s home, in the muddy roads, wildernesses, and the rainy season. Outside exists only when I don’t return to Bignona once or twice a year to visit the warmth of my grandmother’s home.
Baba Badji is a Senegalese American poet, translator, and researcher, and an Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow Associate with the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice (ISGRJ) and Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. He is also an Inaugural James Baldwin Artist and Scholar in Residence at the University of Virginia’s Department of French. Badji earned his PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow and an Edward A. Bouchet Honor Society Fellow. Besides English and French, he is fluent in Wolof, Mending, and Diola, and he calls on these languages in his writing. Badji’s first full-length poetry manuscript, Ghost Letters, was longlisted for the 2021 National Book Awards. Badji’s Ghost Letters, Volume II is in progress. His novel, Madame Diawara, is also in progress, and several scholarly works are forthcoming.
Copyright © 2023 by Baba Badji. All rights reserved.