A Woman Started It
Adji Sarr is the name of the woman who ignited one of the biggest and deadliest sets of protests in Senegal’s modern history. She reported being raped by famed politician Ousman Sonko, who frequented the massage parlor she worked at. He was arrested while on his way to court to answer to the rape allegations. There are now thousands of people across the streets of Senegal chanting his name, not Adji’s. They demanded his immediate release, not justice for Adji. Adji and her family have since received death threats and she is in hiding as her trauma bleeds into political conspiracy theories. Blood has spilled in the name of an alleged rapist. Children are being killed by the government that capitalized on Adji’s trauma. The world hears the cries of mothers with dead sons, they hear the cries for democracy and human rights, Adji hears chants of the name of someone who harmed her.
In the past few days, the dynamics of the uprisings in Senegal have changed drastically. The demands from the crowds have shifted from the release of Sonko to the resignation of the President. Youth are asking for employment, food security, and overall respect for the citizens’ constitutional right to protest. It is clear that the reasons for the protests have gone beyond the initial arrest of an alleged rapist. The glaring omission in these historic demonstrations is the support for the woman who started it all. While I don’t doubt that there are women in Senegal who believe Adji, empathize with Adji, and many who’ve experienced the ordeal Adji reported, the streets still chant Sonko’s name, not her’s.
The silence on Adji has been so palpable that many people, myself included, did not initially realize that it was a rape charge that got Sonko arrested. Upon first hearing news of the protests, I assumed the playbook for African Presidents was in use once again. With the #EndSARs movement and the massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate fresh on my mind, I anticipated and confirmed the per-functionary. The government was once again failing to uphold its end of the social contract with its citizens. The citizens took to the streets to voice their dismay at the violation — and the government indiscriminately shoots at the citizens to shut them up. The citizens film the violence to show the world. The government shut down all access to social media and eventually the internet itself. Darkness falls, there is a blackout, but phones on the other side of the world are already lighting up, with Twitter and WhatsApp alerts screaming #FreeSenegal. News has gotten out.
From the messages I received from relatives in Darkar, to the bits and pieces of news I saw on Twitter, I assumed that at the center of this mess were two men, not a woman. I didn’t dig any further, because there are always men at the center of these matters. It’s as if rule number one in the African President’s playbook states “1. If the end goal is to be a brutal and murderous dictator, it’s really best if you identify as a man and adopt all the toxic traits that come with that. Heavy on the ego and obsession with power, and hold off on any ideas of term limits, any ounce of flexibility that you might have… put that towards changing constitutions every time your term is coming to an end. ” So when I read President Macky Sall and his political opponent Ousman Sonko’s names in the tweets and WhatsApp messages, I assumed one power-hungry and morally devoid dictator, was trying to clinch on to power, while another man, who will likely do the same in a few years, was fashioning himself to be the democratic savior of the nation. This made perfect sense to me as my home country of The Gambia is on the same dictator cycle. Our “democratic savior,” who Macky Sall was instrumental in placing in office, has finally developed his taste for power and distaste for term limits. I figured the protestors being killed in Senegal just got caught up in this tug of war between two men. I prayed that my family would be ok and took to Twitter and Instagram to voice my outrage in the best way my first-world fingers knew how.
By the next morning, my timeline was riddled with Senegalese flags and #FreeSenegal and #LibérézSonko hashtags, no knowledge of Adji. I was happy that word was spreading, and spreading fast. Then I saw a tweet about Sonko “not being a victim.” I responded to the tweet asking for more insight and was filled in. The name on the hashtags, the righteous opponent of the murderous dictator, the man at the center of the uprisings, is an alleged rapist.
Context is everything. The viral images of the opposition party leader being arrested were in fact images of an alleged rapist being arrested. Albeit prematurely, while he was already on his way to court to answer to the rape allegations. Nonetheless, this arrest wasn’t a Museveni arresting Bobi Wine mid-campaign speech type of deal. However, you wouldn’t know that from many of the tweets and news reports of the situation. The publications that mention the rape charges say so in a few sentences and quickly pivot to the Senegal’s-democracy-is-in-jeopardy narrative for the remainder of the articles.
There is a potential survivor of sexual assault, who very few are talking about, let alone empathizing with or seeking justice for. Macky Sall and his government certainly did not arrest her alleged rapist from a place of goodwill. Instead, they took full advantage of her pain and trauma and used it to entrap a political opponent. The supporters of the opponent have decided to weave a narrative that dismisses this woman’s trauma. They’ve instead placed her as a pawn to a larger scheme of the President trying to hold onto power. Funny how even as the match that ignited the literal and figurative fires in Senegal, the woman is relegated to the side. Even at the center of what will hopefully be the downfall of two men, she is relegated to the side. In her own trauma and pain, she is relegated to the side.
There is tension here.
While the fight for basic human rights and democratic standards is noble, the fight for those ideals has come at the heavy price of dismissing or full-on erasing Adji. There are rape apologists in that crowds of people the Senegalese government is shooting at. How do we reconcile the pain of seeing the military attack unarmed civilians, while hearing the names of our own abusers in the chants of the protestors? Sonko has officially been charged with rape and released on bond. People are celebrating his release as a victory. Adji is still in hiding. The story we’ve been told about the uprisings in Senegal centers two men; Sall and Sonko. Many of the images we’ve seen are of young men with stones and catapults, and men with guns and uniforms. The battleground on which they stand is a woman’s body. Who will tell her story?