Traveling to Senegal in search of a president, a poet, and a patrimony.
The only thing I can make out are the vague shapes of baobabs lining the highway as my eyes try to adjust to the early morning darkness. I take deep breaths of fresh, humid air as we drive through the pothole-littered country roads towards Fadial, a small coastal village 60 miles south of Senegal’s capital city, Dakar. It’s also a stone’s throw away from the birth town of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president after the country declared independence in 1960.
As well as a politician, Senghor was a poet and cultural theorist, and is often referred to as one of the most important African intellectuals of the 20th century. He founded the négritude movement, which was a celebration of African culture and character. To commemorate 14 years since Senghor’s death, the village of Fadial is organizing a three-day festival to celebrate his life. One of the speakers at the festival is my dad, who is nervously going over his speech as we drive. “We’ll make it there on time and you’ll be fine,” I say, trying to reassure him. He shoots an anxious smile my way.
My father is Senghor’s biggest fan: he has dedicated roughly twenty years to translating Senghor’s poems from French to Serer, their shared native language. Until recently, Serer was a purely oral language without an official written counterpoint. In 1978, Senghor established a committee that would decide on the official spelling of Serer using Latin script. My father—a manager at the Senegalese electoral commission by day, poet and writer by night—is determined to see Senghor’s work written in Serer. His latest book is a Serer translation of the three major collections of Senghor’s poems, and he’s putting finishing touches on a four-volume essay series analyzing and explaining Senghor’s work in detail. He has also written three other volumes in French on the former president, which have not yet been published.
I think my father’s fascination with Senghor comes from the fact that their lives unfolded along parallel lines, albeit 50 years apart. Like Senghor, my father had moved away to Kaolack—about 40 miles from his small village—to study, and later moved to Europe. They both loved literature and became poets. In the late 1970s, my father—who had published his own collection of poems—started translating Senghor’s poems, and managed to arrange a meeting with the president to check his translations and get his feedback.
“Being the president, he was obviously very busy, and our meeting was allocated a 15-minute time slot, but we ended up talking for nearly an hour,” my dad says with a chuckle. Senghor was very pleased with my father’s work; they would meet another handful of times and maintained correspondence with each other until Senghor’s death in 2001. One of his letters to my father concluded: “Rest assured that my Sererness has never left me, and be certain of my loyalty to my roots.”
At Fadial, the festival is already in full swing: it seems that everyone from the nearest villages and towns is congregated at the main square. A fence made of dried corn stalks marks the borders of the village, and a huge baobab tree, tall and majestic, stands in the middle of the town square. A rogue goat makes a dash inside a house, momentarily vacant as its human inhabitants are at the festival, trying to hide from the blistering heat of the midday sun inside the cool, cement room. A band is performing traditional Serer songs, with the haunting voice of the singer recounting stories of medieval Serer kings. Small dust clouds scatter everywhere as young girls perform a dance for the audience, stomping their bare feet on the red earth rhythmically to the beat of tam-tam drums.
My father gives his speech entirely in Serer. This is the first time he has ever spoken to a large crowd and presented his work in public and he seems visibly relieved after the speech is finished, his final words swallowed by the crowd’s roaring applause. Later, I ask him how he feels the audience received him and his work. “The response from people has been astonishing,” he tells me. “A woman told me that she had never cried reading Senghor’s poems when she read them in French, but that she had cried all night having read them in Serer. Senghor wrote the poems in French, but he used Serer sayings and symbols. The imagery and symbolism is so much stronger in Serer than it ever could be in French.”
I know the difficulty of the task my dad has undertaken; the journey he has chosen sometimes feels like an uphill battle. Official figures put Senegalese adult literacy rates somewhere near 50 percent, and although Serer is the third most spoken language in Senegal (roughly 15 percent of the population speak it), younger generations use it less and less as parents favour the dominant Wolof. At times, it seems that my dad is fighting a losing battle: as in the rest of the world, book sales are down, and he is trying to sell a language that no one has ever even read. “As long as schools are teaching predominantly in French and English, no real progress can be made in terms of local languages,” he says wearily.
This state of affairs can be at least partly traced back to Senghor. The former president has often been criticized for maintaining close ties with France, and for using French as opposed to local languages. Despite gaining independence in 1960, the official language remained French, France fixed the value of Senegalese currency, and Senghor ruled the country with French political advisors. “But, at the time, what else could he do? If Senghor carried on using the French language, it was not to be French,” my dad says, annoyed. “You cannot separate Senhor’s poems from his politics. He was full of contradictions. He was able to navigate between two different worlds. Senghor was willing to overlook certain aspects of history, no matter how recent, to shape a better future for Senegal,” he says.
Perhaps strangely, my father has spoken very little to me about his deep interest and connection with Senghor and his poems: he let my siblings and I decide how much (or how little) we wanted to connect with our roots. None of us speaks Serer fluently, and listening to my dad speak on the importance of knowing your own history, I can’t help but wonder if he finds it a little embarrassing that his children are only able to follow the most basic conversations and greetings in his language. He is telling other parents how important it is to teach local languages to their children, yet he never pushed us to learn Serer.
When I ask him about why he didn’t insist on us learning the language, he laughs. He felt Serer wouldn’t benefit our education in Europe, and that language shouldn’t be forced upon anyone; the willingness to learn needs to come from within. Although I haven’t told him, I feel rather inadequate about my inability to speak my ancestors’ language, and I’m desperately trying to redeem myself by teaching myself Serer in the hopes that one day I, too, might feel such a strong connection to Senghor’s poems. Perhaps he was right not to push us; I doubt I would be so motivated had I not become interested in the language on my own.
My dad started translating poems in order to help students better connect with the work and with Senghor; many were unfamiliar with the president’s work. He believes that as long as students are educated primarily in French and English, their connection to Serer will remain distant; however, he still hopes that people will realize the importance of understanding their own language and that it will awaken a sense of cultural pride and identity. He believes that, rather than isolating Serer speakers, it will allow them to fit more comfortably into a cosmopolitan society. “One of Senghor’s visions was cultural métissage: the cultural mixing of society,” my father says. “He would advise his compatriots to ‘assimilate in order to not be assimilated.’ I, like Senghor, believe that the amalgamation of cultures, beliefs and races cannot happen unless people first have a thorough understanding of their roots and history.” As someone who has grown up navigating two cultures, I understand what he means. Although I’m very proud of my heritage, I’m still searching for a true identity—if such a thing even exists—and a feeling of belonging.
After the festival, my father and I head to Joal-Fadiouth, Senghor’s birth village, which sits at the end of the Petite Côte of Senegal. The village is split in two: Joal lies on the mainland, while Fadiouth, linked by a bridge, is located on an island of clam shells. We sit down in a restaurant, admiring the stunningly beautiful scenery populated by mangroves, baobabs, and acacias. My dad gets into a conversation with our Serer waiter and gives her his book. The next day we bump into her again and she grabs my dad by the arm. “I stayed up all night reading your book,” she tells him. “I just couldn’t put it down.”
Cover image: The village of Joal-Fadiouth. Photo by: Christian Costeaux