THIAROYE-SUR-MER, Senegal — Sometimes when she’s alone and looking at the sea, Yayi Bayam Diouf imagines the silhouette of her son passing over the waters offshore.
Not usually the sentimental type, she softens when asked about the personal tragedy that would spur her to challenge her town’s traditional patriarchy and become a path breaker for female empowerment.
“C’est la vie,” Ms. Diouf, 62, says softly, of the tragedy — “that’s life.”
It happened in the spring of 2006, when her son, Alioune, a 26-year-old fisherman, went on a yearly trip to the normally rich fishing grounds off Mauritania with others from their town of Thiaroye-sur-Mer, an impoverished suburb of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. But the catch was lean, and they were reluctant to return home with little to show for their efforts.
Instead, he and about 80 others crowded onto his fishing boat and headed to the Canary Islands on a route called “Barsa wala Barsakh,” or “Barcelona or die” in the local language, Wolof. They vanished along the way, and their bodies were never found.
U.N. Women Senegal to build a farm to grow mussels, providing work for about 100 women.
But all that came later. Ms. Diouf says that after Alioune’s death she felt drawn to the sea and began thinking of leaving her office job to fish. Yet she faced resistance in the form of a patriarchal culture that expected women to stay in the home and men to work outside.
When she approached a group of community leaders one night after evening prayers seeking permission to fish, she was told that “the water doesn’t need women.” Moreover, they said, one of the traditions among the Lebu ethnic group common in the area was that women couldn’t touch the fish if they were menstruating.
“I told them, ‘That’s fine — I already went through menopause,’” said Ms. Diouf, who is herself Lebu. “I am now feeling so self-confident, and I want to transmit that to other women.”
Women’s Collective for the Fight Against Illegal Immigration to persuade young men to resist the dangerous temptation to take to the high seas and instead make a life at home.
Not surprisingly, she is constantly on the move. When she is not busy at the training center, she is pushing women to start small enterprises, finding funds for micro credits or wrestling with government officials to bolster the struggling economy of Thiaroye-sur-Mer.
On a Wednesday morning in January, a few women set up a small table in front of the training center to sell fish, juice and breakfast items to the arriving students and the fishermen and women when they return from the sea, one of many such micro-businesses she has encouraged.
That morning, Ms. Diouf didn’t have much time for pleasantries or small talk. Hastily grabbing a plate from the women, she rushed into the training center, which stands across the bay from the island of Gorée, a point of departure for millions of Africans after they were sold into slavery.
Inside, the walls of Ms. Diouf’s office are decorated with photos of her in a pirogue and wearing an orange life jacket. She was scheduled to meet that day with a Fishing Ministry representative to complete the paperwork for a donation of equipment to improve sanitary measures in fish processing.
She then changed into her work clothes, went back outside to collect fish that had been cooking on the grill and set about preparing a meal for journalists at a local television station.