Africa Dreaming Gallery
Galagos Monsters & Men

To Scientists the African manatee is just a large, albeit very interesting, mammal that inhabits the coasts and rivers of Africa from Senegal to Angola. It is a harmless herbivore, which spends its time feeding on water lettuce and sea grass. There are several manatee species but the West African one remains the rarest and the least known to scientists.

Manatee showing tail
Manatee showing tail

The Traditional View of the Manatee

To the Balanta people of Senegal the manatee was more than an animal. It was possessed of a "big spirit". Its power and presence touched water, land and the spirit world. Its uses were many. The presence of a manatee indicated fresh clean water. Its meat, bones and oil were highly prized and its skin was believed to have magical properties. Above all else its powerful spirit was in constant contact with the spirits of dead fishermen trapped in the water and manatees were used in divination to contact these unfortunates. Not anyone could hunt a manatee or even contact one. It was dangerous to be in contact with such a powerful spiritual force. Certain families had through the generations developed the skills of calling the manatee and even in contacting manatee spirits. As a medium for contacting the drowned, the manatee had no equal, though crocodiles performed the same function to a lesser extent. The manatee families were

Manatee with baby
Manatee with baby
called "neon-demallah". The art was passed down from father to son. Manatees were called by rattling special magic gourds adorned with cowry shells. The Neon - demallah would perch on a special platform constructed so that he could look down into the water as he called the great beasts. If a manatee was required for use in magic then the neon-demallah would first ask its permission before plunging a magic tipped harpoon into it. His first requirement was then to release the manatee spirit back into the water in a special ceremony. More often than not the manatee man would enter the spirit world either through dreams or trance and in that state would ask the manatee spirit to make contact with the dead.
Fishing with a hand net Fishing with a hand net

My Childhood Passion

When I was a child I was lucky enough to know a neon-demallah. I was named by this man, given his own name in fact. We crossed a spiritual divide together when we skimmed the magical waters in his canoe looking for the manatees. They were common then. Now they are rare. The old manatee men have almost gone. A way of life has vanished. In the 1970s a new breed of fishermen entered the equation. They were armed with huge nets and they did not have the traditional respect for the manatee that the Balanta had. They caught manatees in great numbers. Manatee flesh was thrown away and its oil poured into the earth because it could not be consumed fast enough before more were caught. Soon the manatee had all but vanished.

There Remains One Place……

There remains one place in Senegal where manatees are still sacred, however. In this one town they are regarded as the spirit guardians of the town. They swim lazily beneath the bridge. Sometimes people stop to watch. Many no longer know the true significance of the manatee for their town. In June 1999 a group of itinerant fishermen decided that they would catch the manatees under the bridge. They found a huge net and soon had two of the creatures entangled in its mesh. With the aid of a pickup truck these unfortunate sirenians were hauled out onto the bank and machetes were sharpened for their execution. Then suddenly a tall man appeared. The crowd parted. He had fierce eyes. He ordered the fishermen to immediately release the manatees they had caught. If they didn't, he told everyone, the town would suffer a catastrophe since these manatees were the spirit guardians of the town! They were immediately dragged back into the water and swam off none the worse for wear!

Senegal sunset
Senegal Sunset

My Story

This is a story for my search for the remaining manatee men. It is a last opportunity to meet both them and the creatures they were linked to. We will travel throughout Senegal, to all the former haunts of the manatee. My story will touch on the spiritual and natural history dimensions of the wildlife we encounter. As we travel we will have the chance to see many fantastic creatures, some of them now rarely seen. We will meet many fantastic people whose ways are vanishing fast. We will be able to film the sacred Colobus monkeys of the Casamance, and the magnificent and endangered maneless lion. The Colobus are living in a town, far from the tropical forest they normally inhabit. The bird life we will encounter is utterly fantastic and includes the Senegal Finfoot, one of the world's strangest birds. It will be a journey of discovery through magnificent landscapes, down rivers shrouded in thick forest where three species of crocodile can still be found and 400 species of bird are recorded. In addition there are 80 species of mammal, many of them never filmed before. It will be an adventure like no other. With my fluent use of the local language and my extensive knowledge of the local cultures I will take the viewer into another world that is not normally accessible and may soon be lost forever!

A Journey in Time - Following in the footsteps of Mungo Park

Un Bing N'Ghala - A Journey in search of the rainbow

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