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On-Site with NEH: A Dakar Journal

By Thomas M. Adams | HUMANITIES, March/April 2000 | Volume 21, Number 2

After preparatory study at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, twenty-five U.S. high school teachers of French embarked for Dakar, Senegal, last July. They were part of an NEH-supported institute on "La Francophonie: A Study of the Literature and Cultural Geography of French-Speaking West Africa," led by Chris Drake of Old Dominion University and Irène d'Almeida of the University of Arizona. NEH staffer Thomas M. Adams caught up with the group four days later. This article is adapted from his journal.

SUNDAY, July 18:

Chris Drake's Senegalese assistant, Fallou Guèye (a graduate student in literature at CUNY), met me at the airport and I checked into my room about 6 a.m. (there had been flight and baggage delays) for an hour of sleep before rising to join the group for breakfast and a day's outing.

Drake's itinerary says: "Field trip to the Benedictine monastery at Keur Moussa, where the music of the 10 a.m. Mass combines African instruments and Gregorian chants."

One of the monks played the fourteen-string cora and another played the drums; the incense combined with jet lag had a perilously destabilizing effect. Breakfast, the bus ride, and lunch provided excellent opportunities to get acquainted with members of the group. The afternoon at the beach was their first reprieve from an intensive series of activities introducing them to Dakar, the University, and the baobab trees of Senegal. They were full of first impressions and had already made connections between what they had read and what they saw. Seeing a play Friday evening at the West African Research Center about beggars at a stoplight, Feu Rouge, connected with their impressions of poverty and begging. They had found Senegalese cuisine tasty (although some had encountered digestive problems in spite of taking the precautions prescribed). The restaurant location was ideal for an unstructured Sunday afternoon. Some were catching up on their reading of Mariama Ba's Un chant ecarlate in chairs overlooking the sea. Fallou and I took turns recovering from our hours at the airport in a very comfortable hammock; some took advantage of merchant stands at the entrance. I joined the swimmers for a while, mindful of a fairly strong undertow, and walked along the beach with Chris Drake to inspect fishing boats drawn up beneath bluffs furrowed with steep paths lined with refuse leading up to a small village of cinderblock huts. The boats were brightly painted and, like the overloaded jitney buses that plied the streets of Dakar, inscribed prominently with names and good-luck phrases such as "Hom delila" (Allah be praised).

Supper was at the same restaurant. I joined a different group, equally congenial. I got a good night's sleep before the Monday breakfast call, probably starting on the bus back from the restaurant.


According to plan, the group went to the bank on the main square so all could do whatever money changing they had to do. In and out of the bus, we were besieged by merchants of all ages ready to offer a good price on textiles, woodcarvings, jewelry, and by a beggar walking on all fours at the entrance to the bank.

To get some idea of the conditions of the poorer quarters on the north edge of the city, the group visited the district library at Thiaroye sur Mer, where one of the student assistants from WARC (the West African Research Center) joined with fellow volunteers in explaining how a lending library and various cultural activities were maintained on a shoestring. The American teachers asked questions about schooling and reading.

The bus continued north and east along a badly pitted road to the Lac Rose, a salt lake not far from the sea, which turns pink under certain conditions. We watched as workers brought salt up from the bottom in baskets, dumped it into flat bottom boats, and transferred it to large piles on the shore. The group went on to the University Cheikh Anta Diop for a lecture on the human geography of Dakar and its region by Professor Latsoukabe Mbow. Mbow sketched the growth of Dakar from a small fishing village to a colonial capital in the nineteenth century and the establishment of port and commercial facilities especially at the instigation of Faidherbe, the French colonial governor. The explosion of population in Dakar is mostly a late twentieth-century phenomenon, with intense crowding in substandard housing in the northeastern quarters of the city. Mbow went on to develop the contrast of urban and rural conditions (over two-thirds of Senegal's population is crowded in and around Dakar) and discussed plans to improve agricultural productivity through irrigation from the River Senegal near the border with Mauritania.

After a break, the group went to dinner at WARC, where a most succulent fish was served (thioff is the local name, I think). A Senegalese poet, Fatou Ndiaye Sow, accompanied by her young son, read from her poems and signed her books, completely charming the entire audience. I bought the small collection of poems, Fleurs du Sahel, (the Sahel is the area of transition between desert and savannah).


Drake's schedule: "8:30-10:30 Lecture and discussion with Bassirou Dieng, author of L'Épopée de Kajoor, on the oral tradition, oral literature, and griots. An extension of Dr. d'Almeida's lecture on the oral tradition. Reading assignment: L'Épopée de Kajoor."

Dieng's French rendition of this epic was the basis for a discussion of West African oral traditions. Dieng made the point that the rivalry among the various ethnic groups in Senegal remains peaceable as each group has a sense of its leadership role in some phase of a common tradition. In the eighth century the Soninke launched an epic tradition, in the twelfth century the Mandinka brought it to a new form in the Sundiata, in the fourteenth century the Wolof took the lead, and in the sixteenth the Peul. He spoke of key mythic figures in a shared West African canon--Pemba representing power, Faro who journeys downstream to meet Pemba and establish justice (the Wolof version of the Bambara myth shifts the scene from the River Niger to the River Senegal), and Muso Koroni, the knowledgeable one who provides the model for les grandes amoureuses senegalaises. Dieng told us that tales provide a "horizontal" view of the fundamental values as expressed in ordinary life--and a vehicle for articulating a critique of those values and their limitations--while oral poetry traditionally expresses the values of an inner life. It made me curious as never before to read either Sundiata or the L'Épopée de Kajoor (maybe even both!).

On schedule at 10:30 to catch the 11 a.m. ferry per Drake's itinerary: "Visit to l'Ile de Gorée, including the restored eighteenth-century slave house, colonial-style houses, the Castel, the Musée Maritime, the Musée des Femmes, and the Historical Museum. L'Ile de Gorée is the first French comptoir (trading base) of West Africa dating back to 1677, where not only goods were sold but also Africans. It is therefore of central significance to the literary themes of oppression and exploitation of the black African by the French colonizer. René; Maran in Batouala (a Prix Goncourt winner in 1921), as well as other Francophone writers, refer to it directly or indirectly in their works."

We were adopted by a most beguiling tour guide, who gave us a running commentary on what we were seeing outside the museums, showing us Mariama Ba's school and the oldest church. We also ventured into the market, beckoned by merchants who latched on to us and practically pulled us into their stalls. The island is steeped in history and has been beautifully preserved. None can see the slave house, the slave quarters, and the "door of no return" without a sense of now distant horror.


The morning was a double-feature in the hotel conference room: Professor Alioune Tine discussed the career and works of Ousmane Sembene, and Penda Mbow talked about the Senegalese woman, Ndiaye Modi, who cracked the male-dominated Islamic hierarchy to become a prophetess.

I was impressed by the group's discussion of Tine's lecture, which provided a good starting summary, linking Sembene's works with French literary tradition (including Zola and Malraux), with history (decolonization and after), and the problem of language and audience (Sembene thought Senghor too French). Questions from the group closed in on several key issues with help from Irène on the question of the role of women and from Fallou on the question of cultural politics, language, and the broad problems of audience and dissemination. The solid preparation by the group came through in detailed questions about Sembene's reasons for refusing to show his film, Le Mandat, on the government's terms (was it the substance or the language?).

The discussion of the representations of African speech in Sembene's novels was quite fascinating, comparable to questions of representing African-American dialect in American literature, but differing in the question of whether to intermix phrases in Wolof, producing a partially bilingual text (the French edition of Xala provides translations of Wolof and Koranic phrases). Sembene also turned to film in order to communicate more directly with Senegalese audiences in Wolof, the most commonly spoken of six indigenous languages. The discussion of Mbow's lecture on the Islamic prophetess was equally lively. There were questions about Islam and the role of women, and about the structure and influence of the Islamic brotherhoods that play a strong role in Senegalese life. I should mention by the way that the role of Islam was a topic that arose repeatedly throughout the week, often provoked by some observation, for example, the colorful dress and open visage of Senegalese women, unlike that of Islamic women in traditional Middle Eastern societies--or the poet's evocation Monday evening of a mother's regrets on her son's leaving to serve at a mosque as a marabout's beggar apprentice or talibé.

Wednesday afternoon was to have included a visit to a village, but the teachers who were to have been hosts to the group were swamped with a rescheduled deadline for handling a set of examinations. We took the opportunity to go on a book-buying expedition to a local publishing house and the largest bookstore in Dakar. From there most of the group went to a government-sponsored market where the products were top of the line and the competition for business ferocious. We escaped from there and walked to the seaside fishmarket just in time to watch the crowd welcome the boats to shore and see the women sort the catch.


The morning lecture and discussion by the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop was for me the high point intellectually of the entire week. I was prepared to have much of the session go over my head, as I had not read his prize-winning novel, Le Temps de Tamango. However, he gave such a fascinating account of it that I have put it on my "must-read" list, along with a note to look for the appearance of the novel he has just started working on based on the Rwanda tragedies. His earlier book is built on the theme of a Prosper Merimée story about an African prince who in a drunken moment sold his beloved into slavery, failed in an attempt to deliver her but succeeded in leading a slave uprising on the ship--only to drift helplessly aboard a ship none of the Africans knew how to sail. The novel is situated in a deliberately vague future utopia in an independent African state interspersed with scenes from the struggle for independence from colonial rule. Diop described his own acculturation in French, and his relationships with successive generations of authors of various political persuasions. He also spoke of the relationship between journalism and fiction, having just given up active journalism to concentrate on his new novel, inspired by a recent gathering of writers invited to visit Rwanda and reflect on what had occurred there.

The afternoon was equally stimulating but in a quite different way. The group paid a visit to an independent high school for a meeting with teachers of French, gathering on an open veranda of a stucco building with cashew trees out in front. The group sat on straight wooden chairs while four men held forth, rather stiffly at first, on the mission of their school, on the nature of the program they taught, on their recent revision of the program of study in French to include more African authors and a greater variety of genres, and on the evolving attitudes of their students toward study of the French language. Their one female colleague had sat separately, occasioning a question from one of our group and a humorous assertion of difference (of all sorts) on her part--she was a Christian from the Peul-speaking region of Casamance in the southern part of Senegal.

The teachers from the States found that their counterparts articulated challenges surprisingly similar to their own, particularly a declining motivation to learn French. Speaking "good" French is often looked down on by one's peers, but it remains an important tool for success in business or government in Senegal. Of course, English is growing in popularity by leaps and bounds; Italian as well as Spanish has its special appeal for those interested in connections with Europe. Boubacar Boris Diop had spoken of his own affinity with Latin American writers, evoking an Atlantic perspective--apparently Italy has provided business opportunities for Senegalese, some of whom have been surprised to learn that not all Europeans speak French!

When members of our group were asked how curriculum and standards are set in the United States, they spoke about various state requirements, but I was surprised that no one described the national foreign language standards that the national organizations have expended so much effort upon.

The exchange broke up into conversation in smaller groups, with discussion among our group as to how they might assemble a gift of some useful teaching materials. The conversations continued over dinner that evening at a restaurant featuring cuisine of the Ivory Coast. I sat next to a professor of literature from the university who told me of his study of initiation rites and of his own experience of initiation carried out in the urban setting of Dakar. He is anxious to study in the U.S.


Friday morning the group departed for a weekend field trip to Thiès (site of Ousmane Sembene's novel, Les petits bouts de bois de Dieu (God's little bits of wood), St. Louis (the old colonial capital) and Touba (sacred city of the Mouride Islamic brotherhood). During the day, I paid a visit to the West African Research Center, which provides facilities and assistance to American researchers and study groups. I took a taxi to the airport just before midnight to be early in line for my 4 a.m. scheduled departure on Saturday.


Several participants commented to me how valuable it was to have two West Africans with the group, Irène as the senior literature scholar, and Fallou as a junior scholar and "cultural informant," as well as Oumar Ngongo, assistant director of WARC, and his graduate student, who not only coordinated logistics, but gave commentary en route on bus.

The participants took their reading assignments seriously and were well prepared to engage in discussion with the authors and scholars whom they met. Chris's insistent evocation of the geographical perspective created a robust interdisciplinary framework for all kinds of discussions. What combination of conditions produces the unique characteristics of a place? What is the relation between physical geography and human geography and how does that interaction shape culture? Irène contributed her scholarly interest in the role of women and women writers and in the development of theater in West Africa. Fallou brought political issues into focus and challenged speakers in a forthright manner that the American participants might have been reluctant to do. All valued their casual conversations with the Senegalese; some even picked up some vocabulary in Wolof as well as practicing their French. Most spoke of readings and topics they were interested in pursuing; one participant has set up a website to serve as a sounding board.

In our talks while I was there and in the evaluations afterward, participants spoke of what they called a "transforming" experience. In many cases, they applied for the institute because they felt they lacked sufficient grounding for teaching about francophone Africa. What they found both confirmed their hunches and astounded them with unsuspected impressions and insights.