Meeting the Fire King of Senegal


Erik Heinrich enjoys a rare royal audience

On meeting the King of Oussouye the first thing that struck me was his royal bearing and calm demeanor. He wore a red robe and red velvet hat that gave him the air of a wizard with magical powers. He carried a wand, known as a balaie, as if to emphasise the point. I half expected thunderbolts to fly from the tip.

The King of Oussouye is the legally recognised ruler of about 100,000 Jola subjects in Senegal’s southern region of Casamance. He frequently receives diplomats and other dignitaries who come to pay their respects in the sacred wood where he resides with his three wives and 15 children. Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi once invited the King to Tripoli for an official visit, but he declined.

I asked the King why his royal attire was entirely scarlet. “It is the colour of fire,” he solemnly explained through my interpreter Salif Badiane, anthropologist and founder of Dakar-based Africa Connection Tours. By this he meant that he is symbolically surrounded by a circle of fire, like the Hindu god Shiva, or the burning Sacred Heart of Christ.

He is, in short, the Fire King of Senegal, a French-speaking country of 15 million people located in West Africa.

The mystical lore surrounding the King of Oussouye helps him command respect among his people. His balaie, a royal baton resembling a whisk, has the power to stop feuds between villages faster than any gun or machete.

He may be all powerful in his kingdom, but the King of Oussouye also has many responsibilities, and is required to observe strict rules of conduct, which appear to have made him a little weary.

For example he wears no shoes. Not because he can’t afford them, but because their soles are considered unclean. He wears thick woollen socks instead.

He never enters a church or mosque. This would conflict with his ancient Jola religion, which reveres a supernatural world of animist spirits and magical rites.

“The Jola believe God is present in all aspects of nature, from water and trees to earth and wind,” explained Monsieur Badiane, who has studied Jola cosmology. “The King of Oussouye is an intermediary who interprets signs in nature as messages of divine origin to his people.”

Like the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece, who predicted the fate of Oedipus, the Fire King of Senegal can see into the future.

I came prepared for our audience with a small bag of kola nuts, a caffeinated fruit used to flavour beverages (and the origin of the term cola used by Coke and Pepsi). In West Africa, however, the primary role of kola nuts is ceremonial. They are served at weddings or as offerings when communicating with the shadow world.

“I am the third person in my family to be King of Oussouye,” his majesty informed me, sitting on a wooden stool. I sat opposite on a log covered with blue plastic.

He was chosen to succeed the previous king by a clutch of Jola elders who read tea leaves and consulted divinities in 2000, when he was aged 49. At the time the man who would be king was a private citizen named Sibulumbai Diedhiou, a mechanic and night watchman living in Dakar, the capital with a population of 1 million.

A word of caution: never enter the king’s compound without being invited. An overly curious Italian journalist once broke this sacred rule after his audience. This created a huge commotion that required payment of cash money, goats and palm wine to appease wood spirits who had been slighted.

Dakar-based Africa Connection Tours offers group and customised itineraries specialising in the country’s rich cultural and tribal heritage. Senegal is a safe and politically stable country popular in particular with French and Spanish tourists. /