Spirits of the waters

Weather ReportsWeatherWestern AfricaMeteorological DisastersFishingTropical WeatherAtlantic Ocean

The images on the computer screen contract and expand like throbbing, monstrous blobs in a sci-fi flick. Mamina Kawara studies the monitor. What he sees on the screen he has viewed thousands of times before.

Still, the meteorologist is mesmerized. He can't put into words the respect he has for the display of power that he is witnessing.

At the Dakar airport weather station, Kawara is studying satellite pictures of thunderstorms sweeping across southern Senegal. From early June to October, these vicious weather systems gather steam and rumble across Africa for some 2,000 miles. Then they lash Senegal with a mighty slap before marching out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Once offshore, Kawara knows the storms will first turn southward. Then the warm Atlantic takes over, nourishing their strength and priming them for a long journey.

Winds in the upper atmosphere push the storms onto a northern track just east of the Cape Verde Islands. Most will eventually lose steam and tucker out. But a few will become giants that take aim at the Caribbean and the Americas, including South Florida.

Andrew. Mitch. Georges. Marilyn. They flickered to life before the eyes of Kawara and his African colleagues. As Kawara again scans the screen, he frets:

Will this storm grow into another like them?

THE DESOLATE SCRUB LAND of the Sahel stretches for more than 2,500 miles, from eastern Africa to the Atlantic.

There, for nearly 500 miles, the ocean laps at Senegal. The vistas, for the most part, are not idyllic. Most of the beaches are worn and littered with trash and natural refuse from the sea -- gills, shells, fish heads, seaweed. Peasants use the shoreline as a latrine. Thieves ply the beaches looking for tourists to rob.

At first glance, it's hard to believe that this bleak coast is the source of life for more than 50,000 Senegalese, who troll the waters for seafood.

Fish -- more than 60 varieties -- are plucked from the water by fishermen in long, leaky, colorful wooden boats called pirogues.

The fishing industry is indirectly responsible for the welfare of at least 2 million Senegalese -- more than a quarter of the country's population -- who live off the sea by catching fish, selling them or turning parts of them into souvenirs such as necklaces and ornaments. A mind-boggling 265,000 tons of fish are caught each year in the Atlantic off Senegal -- enough to fill a good-sized American arena.

Every afternoon, seven days a week, in crude seaports up and down the coast, thousands of poor people wade into the ocean to haul fish in plastic and straw buckets from the arriving boats.

Slip-sliding in the water and on docks slimy from fish oils, they scurry from the boats to the ice trucks, which deliver the seafood to cities and outlying regions. . For their toil, they earn less than a buck per bucket, a small wage that at least keeps families afloat.

But the sea that so graciously gives also takes away.

Every summer the waters here claim the lives of fishermen. There's hardly a village that doesn't have a horror story of an accident caused by hard rains and wicked winds. Along the Senegalese coast, the sea is a way of life, and death.

The Senegalese regard the sea as a god, one to be worshiped, pacified and respected. In order to have abundant life, many Senegalese believe that some people must be sacrificed to the sea. They know that when the sea calls, no one can stand in the way of its demands.

They also feel a sad connection with South Florida. They know that the great Atlantic stretches away from them for thousands of miles, and that what happens on one side of the ocean has a lot to do with what happens on the other.

They also know that when the angry summer seas are done whipping them, the next target is the Caribbean and the United States. They know that their storms grow even meaner as they skip west across the ocean.

The Senegalese fishermen feel bad when they hear on the radio about the carnage and death caused by hurricanes in the western Atlantic. They know the pain of a storm's fury.

Sitting on a bench in a fishing depot in Joal, about 60 miles south of Dakar, Senegal's coastal capital, Abdoulaye Ndoye shudders when he thinks of how the sea almost consumed him two summers ago.

Ndoye, 58, has been fishing the Atlantic for more than half a century. His father before him was a fisherman. So are his sons. Like most seafarers here, Ndoye has never checked a weather report before leaving shore in the morning. He sees no sense in that. If you don't fish, he says, you don't make a living. It's that simple. You don't even think about staying home unless the rain and wind are right on top of you.

Besides, every fisherman knows that the best catches are made in the wake of a storm, after the sea has roiled its occupants to the surface.

As he looks at his elderly fishing buddies, Ndoye says he thinks of the friends who went to sea and never returned. At least a dozen of them, he guesses.

No, his friends say, there have been many more casualties than that. There's a family down the street which alone lost four men in two tragedies at sea, one fisherman says.

Ndoye looks into his hands, callused from years of hauling nets. He remembers the summer day the sea almost did not let him free.

It was toward dusk. Black clouds appeared out of nowhere. They seemed to swallow his boat, the Khady Diene, named for his wife. In the tossing and turning of the waves, Khady Diene gave way and flipped.

Ndoye and his two sons, both in their early 20s, were swept into the ocean. Rain pelted their heads as they treaded water. Ndoye figured they were all dead men.

But the boat didn't sink. It bobbed in the water upside down, and its lines floated to the surface. Ndoye tied one son to the bow and the other to the stern. He then found a hold for himself and prayed -- prayed for help that he knew would not come.

He knew this for two reasons. First, most Senegalese fishing boats are not equipped with radios, so Ndoye had no way to send a Mayday. Second, the government has a small Coast Guard fleet -- so strained it does not routinely respond to distress signals from fishermen at sea.

By the middle of the night, though, the storm had passed and the seas calmed. Ndoye thought about his family and God, he says, and he tried not to panic.

At dawn a passing fishing boat finally rescued Ndoye and his sons. They had survived 12 hours in the water. He left the boat -- worth about $3,000 with a motor -- behind as a present to the sea for letting him go free. Ndoye returned home only to set off the next day in another fishing boat. He never thought about not going back.

``We fish and leave what happens to God,'' he says.

Today, Ndoye owns two boats that are captained by his sons. He spends his days waiting for them to return with the catch. It's not that he is afraid of the ocean, he says, but at 58 he's not as nimble as he used to be.

Late one afternoon, Ndoye wades into the lime-green ocean as a chaotic scene unfolds. .

Dozens of red, white and blue boats race toward shore. Hundreds of men and women with buckets on their heads walk into the ocean to meet them. They're followed by splashing horses pulling carts.

Ndoye waves to his sons from shore and smiles as they dump off the day's catch to the couriers. The translucent sea can be so generous, he says, as he surveys the mounds of fresh seafood piling up. It can be so calm and so kind.

Why then does it turn so cruel?

AT THE WEATHER STATION in the airport in Dakar, meteorologist Mamina Kawara says no one can accurately figure out the whims of the tropics. For even the most advanced scientists, he says, hurricane forecasting is a crapshoot.

There are too many variables: conditions in the upper atmosphere; wind speeds; fluctuating ocean temperatures; the amount of salt in the sea; the intensity of the sun; and a host of other influences.

Scientists are pretty sure about this: More rain over West Africa increases the likelihood that hurricanes will form in the Atlantic. Why? Scientists can only speculate. Maybe it is sheer numbers: more thunderstorms mean more opportunities for nature to create havoc. Or maybe more rain in the Sahel is an indicator of the changing global weather conditions that breed more hurricanes.

In a typical summer, Kawara monitors more than 60 thunderstorms as they push across West Africa toward the ocean. Most pass over southern Senegal, where the political situation on the ground is dicey these days. The region is often peppered by gunfire and mortar rounds fired by insurgents determined to break away from the Senegalese government.

Kawara, however, concentrates on the weather disturbances.

He can't tell which of these storms will eventually bloom into tropical depressions. Nor can he tell which one will ride the Atlantic weather conveyor belt and grow big enough to become a hurricane when its winds reach 75 miles per hour.

Sometimes the most modest West African storm surprises the forecasters. Take Andrew. It formed in the ocean off Senegal from four small thunderstorms. It was hardly noticed until it ripened in the Atlantic, grew into a monster and slammed into south Miami-Dade County in August 1992.

Kawara watched Mitch develop off Africa last September. He saw no clues that it would later stall over Central America for 10 days, dumping enough rain to trigger floods and mudslides and killing more than 10,000 people.

Kawara wishes he could say that the greatest minds on earth were working on a vaccine for hurricanes. It pains him to see TV pictures of the destruction wrought by hurricanes.

But what can anyone do to stop them, he asks?

FOR ANSWERS, FISHERMEN in Senegal point to the wise men of the seas -- the revered mystics who commune with the waters and their spirits.

To them, the sea is a fickle lover who must be soothed and praised. South Floridians who fear the hurricanes can learn a lot from these men, the mystics' followers say, about how to tame nature's fury.

To find one of the oldest mediators of the sea, you cross a creaking wooden bridge for a quarter mile onto the island of Fadiout, where the streets, made of oyster and clam shells, crunch beneath your feet. Off a narrow alley in a dark mud hut sits Augustin Mbarka Ndiaye.

Ndiaye, 90, is probably the most senior of the local high priests of mysticism who have inherited a talent for negotiating with the seas. For most of this century, he has performed a variety of ceremonies to calm the waters.

Religion in Senegal is a seemingly contradictory hybrid of faith in God and a dependence on the occult. It usually doesn't matter if you are Muslim -- as most Senegalese are -- or Christian. When it comes to the rituals of the spirit world, few people want to risk being left out.

Ndiaye, frail and speaking softly, leans on his wooden cane and peers out the door of his mud-brick house. He's not interested in talking today.

Only after much discussion through an interpreter does Ndiaye agree, reluctantly, to share some secrets of how to concoct a balm for the seas.

``The first thing you need is tradition," he says. ``If you have tradition you can do it.''

"Do you have tradition?" he asks.

Every spring, he explains, before the storm season, the elders of the village buy him several bottles of red wine. Any vintage will do because the sea apparently does not have a sophisticated nose.

He is particular about the origin of the wine, however, choosing French bottles because Senegal is a former French colony. Any other bottle -- from Italy or California, for example -- would upset the ancestor spirits.

Ndiaye instructs the men to combine millet, cow milk, water and the wine until it forms a paste. Then, with a dozen elderly men in tow, he leads a procession of dugout canoes to a few nearby deserted islands, where he sprinkles the concoction on the rocks.

In the process, Ndiaye summons up what he calls ``the invisible spirits of the sea.'' He begs for mercy and for a calm storm season. Then he waits a few weeks to see if the sea is satisfied. If it is still riled up, he says, the islanders move into phase two.

``We all get together and throw pieces of money at the sea,'' one of Ndiaye's neighbors says. ``And we bang on tom-toms to get its attention. Then everything is O.K.''

Do the beneficial effects of the rituals extend thousands of miles to South Florida?

``I can't guarantee that,'' says George Senghor, 74, one of Ndiaye's aides. ``The ocean is capricious. It can be angry there and happy here."

Senghor offers his telephone number and urges South Floridians to call anytime a hurricane threatens. He promises to ask Ndiaye to pray and perform a ceremony of appeasement.

There is one more man to consult, the mystics say. He lives to the north, toward Dakar, but he's been away for days healing the sick. It would be worth waiting, though, for him to return. Can he help?

THE WAY YOU CAN tell that Dauda Seck is returning home is by the entourage that proceeds him.

Three women carrying suitcases on their heads are a sign that the Muslim ``fetish priest" is arriving in the seaside town of Bargny, where he has lived all of his life.

Weak and walking slowly, the 75-year-old Seck needs to rest for a few minutes.

``Making the sick well takes a lot out of him,'' his son, Lamine Seck, explains.

For decades, the elder Seck has performed one of Senegal's most cherished rituals to placate the sea. He leads hundreds of fishermen every spring in a shoreline commune that begins by slicing the neck of a cow and letting the blood flow where the sea ends and the beach begins.

The sacrifice continues by cutting limbs off six more cows, tossing them into a sack and taking it a few miles out into the Atlantic. The sack is dumped into the water as Seck speaks in a language he swears the sea can understand.

``I can't go into mystical details,'' the elder Seck says. ``It would jeopardize them. But the sea is very happy.''

The fishermen are happy, too. After the ceremony, the mystics distribute the leftover cow parts to the worshiping throng. It's the most beef they see all year.

South Floridians need to learn from this, Seck says, so they can get in sync with the sea. To cope with hurricanes, we first must understand the whims of the waters, the spirits that rule them and the subservience that all humans should have to the sea.

``The fault is not actually yours,'' he says, referring to the causes of hurricanes. ``Each sea has ruling spirits. Every time they are angry, you must know how to appease them. This is essential.''

Seck is perplexed that South Floridians have not yet hired him and flown him to the United States so he can perform his magic.

In the meantime, he has graciously included mention of his brothers across the Atlantic in his ceremonies in recent years. He asks the waters to take pity on them because they don't know any better.

``Talk to the seas,'' he urges. ``It works.''

Can it be that easy?

THE STORM THAT Mamina Kawara has tracked for days eventually evaporates at sea, as most African storms do. But there are more in the pipeline, a never-ending stream that won't subside until at least October.

In South Florida, news from "the tropics" punctuates the TV weather report each night -- with satellite images of storms rolling off the African coast. Since Hurricane Andrew, tracking developments in the eastern Atlantic has become a ritual here.

For now, and probably for years to come, there is little anyone can do except watch and worry. A visit to the land where hurricanes are born adds to their mystery but yields no means for stopping them.

Maybe someday scientists will develop ways to follow hurricanes from their birth in sub-Saharan Africa to their dying days in the Americas. Maybe they will develop models to predict which tiny thundercloud in Africa will burgeon into a hurricane out in the Atlantic. Maybe they will even hire African mystics and post them at the National Hurricane Center in Coral Gables for good luck.

For the time being, though, forecasting is an art of hunches and educated guesses. Weather always changes, it's always elusive. It's beholden to no one -- not to sophisticated scientists, or oceanside condo dwellers, or African mystics making sacrifices to an angry sea.

E. A. Torriero is the Sun-Sentinel's foreign correspondent. Mike Stocker is a staff photographer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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