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Aminata Sow Fall: La Grève des bàttu (The Beggars’ Strike)

The word battù in the French title is nothing to do with the French word battu (without the grave accent) meaning beaten. Battù is the Wolof word for begging bowl which, by extension, also means beggar(s). As the English title tells us, this book is about beggars.

The book is set in a large town which is clearly Dakar. The newspapers have been loudly proclaiming against what they call the human detritus, who are to be found everywhere in the town, i.e. the large amount of beggars. They must, according to the newspapers, be got rid of. They pester people when they are stopped at traffic lights and as they come in and out of shops, offices and banks, and, worst of all, they are driving away the tourists, whose money the country needs.

Keeping the streets clean is the responsibility of the public health department, whose head is a political appointee, Mour Ndiaye. Sow Fall tell us a lot about Mour Ndiaye and most of it is not flattering. He had stood up for himself in in his early days. He had a European boss who treated him badly and eventually, after one last insult, he could take no more and hit the man. He was sent to prison and, of course, lost his job. However, he has come back, primarily, he feels, because of Serigne Birama. Ndiaye found him in the streets of the city, looking lost. He had come to the city to get the compulsory identification card but being illiterate and not knowing the city did not know what do. Ndiaye helped him. Serigne Birama is a marabout, a Muslim guru. Ndiaye
became close to Birama and gives him a lot of money and food. In return, his guidance has helped and still helps Ndiaye’s career.

Ndiaye has a very able assistant, Kébo Dabo. It is Dabo who essentially runs the department, with Ndiaye taking the credit. Dabo has tried to deal with the beggar problem but to no avail. With more complaints coming, Dabo is now given extra resources. With a large fleet of men and lorries, the plan is to round up every beggar – no exceptions – and ship them to a remote village some three hundred kilometres away, where there are few or no transport facilities for them to return to the city. Dabo does this and, very soon, there are very few beggars left in the city.

Everyone is very impressed with Ndiaye and he gets a lot of credit. Indeed, the President is about to appoint a vice-president and there is talk that Ndiaye is a candidate. He is naturally very excited about this and consults not only Birama but other marabouts about what he needs to do and follows their detailed instructions about sacrifices to the letter.

Meanwhile, there is trouble at home. He has a faithful, loyal and obedient wife, Lolli, who has given him eight children. However he has met a very attractive sixteen year old, Sine, and plans to marry her. Lolli is, of course, furious, but she is eventually persuaded by her family that she has no alternative but to accept. Sow Fall goes along with this but, through Lolli’s daughter, Raabi, who is highly critical of her father’s behaviour, she lambasts Ndiaye.

Though we have been following the story from the officials’ point of view, we also meet the beggars. They are naturally not happy at their treatment and, under the organisation of Salla Niang, a woman, whose husband was a union organiser but who was fired on trumped-up charges when he complained about the treatment of the workers, they decide that the only way to deal with the situation is go on strike. This is not an idle threat, as it is a key tenet of Islam that Muslims must make charitable donations and, if they do not, they will not prosper.

Ndiaye is now working hard to becoem vice-president and one marabout tells him that he has to sacrifice a bull, cut up the meat and distribute it to beggars in the four corners of the city. The problem is that there no beggars in any corner of the city. If he does not make the sacrifice according to the marabout’s instructions, he will not become vice-president and, if he lets the beggars back into the city, he will be criticised in the press and by his minister.

Obviously, this is a satire on officialdom and corruption. The government seems to have only one honest man, Kébo Dabo. Ndiaye is mercilessly mocked for his incompetence, for his inability to speak French, for his treatment of his loyal and faithful wife, his corruption and for his excessive dependence on marabouts. Indeed, corruption seems to be rife, with Sow Fall giving several examples of it. But she also mildly mocks the beggars, who feel that they have the right not to work and seek alms. Some have no choice, particularly the infirm, and, of course, they do feel that they are performing a social service, given the Muslim obligation to give to charitable causes. It is certainly an amusing story and well told and, surprisingly, is available in English.

Publishing history

First published in 1979 by Nouvelles éditions africaines
First English translation 1986 by Longman
Translated by Dorothy S. Blair