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Senegal: A Tribute to Coumba Kebbe Thiam (1904 – 2012)

For true sustainability, ecovillages need the wisdom of the elders. For our elders are the link to the past. Through the legacy of their wisdom, they will never be lost when they connect with the invisible world. Dr. Ousmane Pame, Mayor of Guede Eco-Community, Senegal, shares the story of his grandmother.

Ma'am, or Grand mother, Coumba Kebbé Thiam was born when the last century was just four years old. It was time when her native Fouta toro province was no different from the biblical Eden. An exuberant area with such big trees that a traveller would rarely see the sun through the trees of the île amorphile or “elephant island” as they formed a giant umbrella. On her island, she could see every day lions, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, boars, monkeys and thousands of colourful birds of all kinds.

During the rainy season, grandma had to take a canoe from Alwar to Guédé or to Ndioum as the whole area would be covered by floods. 

On one ordinary day, as grandma‘s herd drank from the Senegal river under her majestic supervision, a crocodile suddenly attacked one of her calves. In her place, I would have probably run away, hidden somewhere or shouted for help. However, Ma'am Coumba was not the kind of person who would consider any of these options. Without hesitation, she ran to the rescue of her animal. She solidly grabbed one of the hind paws of her calf with one hand while firmly holding a stick with the other. Maam Coumba started hitting the giant reptile until it finally let go of its prey. But Maam Coumba did not feel happy all the same, as her calf did not survive the attack.

Another day, a lion attacked her cow and from a distance she cried so loud that the lion was scared and left her cow.

For Maam Coumba, no living creature was, is and will ever be more precious than her cattle. When we were teenagers, my brothers, sisters and I used to help Ma'am look after her cattle. But when we came to a pond after a long walk in the burning sun, her animals would always be allowed to drink first before her own grand children. Of course her spoilt animals would wade into the pond, urinate and turn the water into a bad smelling pond. We would then have the right to fetch water with pots and wait for the water to settle. This was a way to teach us humility and respect for all living creatures.

For over a century Maam has seen almost everything around her dwindle into nothingness. No more cows, lions or trees. Her once luxuriant elephant island is nothing but an immense desert. Now for most part of the year, the Harmattan wind blows its pitiless flames, turning mud into stones, stones into burning charcoal, charcoal into ashes. Sand storms add a greyish tone to a world coming to a close. The river by which she has always lived has become a motionless snake with no soul. The invisible beings that used to live in it and people our legends seem to be mourning in silence.

Today Maam’s grandchildren are entering a different world as they take their first steps towards formal schools and education.

Coumba Kebbe Thiam is the millennium baobab on the Elephant Island,

A sacred link between the invisible and visible worlds, 

A sturdy bridge between the past and the future.

She‘s resisted countless sand storms and calamities that carried many away 

Present and future generations will come to her for benediction, inspiration and wisdom. 

No travel or adventure will hold its promises without her prayers.

For, Adja Coumba is a Divine Light.

Maam has seen so much and so many souls. 

She knows all the secrets and legends of the Elephant island community.

She binds the community together with its heritage and wisdom.

Maam is the culture of the Dande Maayo

She knows the blues of the Maayo Rewo,

Maam is a living library to which many come to find a meaning to life,

A holy water fountain which truly quenches the thirsty 

She is the strength everyone in the community wants to be

Maam teaches the community to be strong and respectful of Mother nature

She reconnects us with the soul of nature 

Maam, three moons after you’ve joined the invisible world of our ancestors, you’re still with us. 

You are will always be our community daily inspiration, our teacher and spiritual guide through life.


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