Monday, April 4, 2011

Senegalese Independence Day

Senegal is a young country, just a babe  in the world of political freedom.  Like a newborn giraffe that is still just learning to walk on its long and gangling legs, it often stumbles in its attempts be a leader of democracy, yet it is still considered one of the most stable governments in West Africa.  Fifty-one years ago today, Senegal was granted independence from France,a nation that had colonized it since the mid-17th century.  Before that, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English had their hands in the mix.  The entire continent, in fact, spent centuries under the rule of foreign lands, and it was not until the independence movement in the 1950s and 60s that most of these African nations were freed to govern themselves.  Senegal and The French Sudan were granted independence simultaneously on April 4th, 1960, and were named the Federation of Mali.  Just four months later, however, the two prior colonies decided to form independent nations and on August 19th, the Federation was dissolved and Senegal became its own country.  Léopold Sédar Senghor, a well-known and respected intellectual and poet, was elected the first president of independent Senegal.  Since then, a constitution has been written, and amended several times, and there have been two other elected presidents, Abdou Diouf, and Abdoulaye Wade, the latter who is still serving today.   


Senegal has become a respected leader in African unity and development and a promoter of African arts.  It is seen throughout the world as a peaceful country and all of its elections thus far have been uncontested.  That is not to say that there is not political strife here, because surely there is.  Since the early-1980s, there has been an independence movement in the Cassamance (the southwestern region of the country), which has escalated in violence in recent years.  The Peace Corps does not allow us to visit or travel through this area and deaths brought about by rebel forces are often reported on the evening news.  The areas to the north and east have recently been affected by Al-Qaeda activities in the bordering countries of Mauritania and Mali, and our Peace Corps volunteers have just been moved from locations closest to these borders.  Next year’s presidential elections are predicted to bring some upheaval, as President Wade has lost favor in recent years.  Two weekends ago, there were nation-wide protests on the anniversary of his initial election and on the eve of these events several people were arrested for allegedly attempting a coup d’etat.  People blame him for electricity and flooding problems that stymie the country and many contest the constitutional validity of him running for a third term.  Taking all of this into account, Senegal is still a functioning democracy and conflicts are few are and far between.

So, how does a country that’s been independent for just over a half a century, celebrate its “anniversaire?”  Well, first of all they close school for two weeks, which means that some people take this opportunity to travel to visit family and friends.  My host-Dad, Ibou, has a friend visiting this weekend from Dakar.   Apparently, Moustafa left Diourbel 25 years ago and has never been back to visit, much to the dismay of Ibou, who visits him often in Dakar.  He tells me its the heat that has kept him away for so long.  The thing that finally lured him here was not the Diourbel Independence Day Parade, however, but instead the external hard-drive worth of old music files that my father left Ibou when he was here last month.  Ibou and Moustafa have been holed up in his living quarters for the past three days listening to Jazz and Big Band music, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, burning discs for Moustafa to take back to Dakar.  When I joined them for dinner last night, I discovered that they’d only made it through the D’s (the music is filed alphabetically), so I suspect, Moustafa might be making a music pilgrimage to Diourbel again soon.

There is definitely a feeling of patriotism and excitement in the air today.  The mosques are blaring more frequent announcements, my neighbor made Yassa (a yummy onion sauce dish) for lunch instead of our usual Thieboudienne, people are gathered around their TVs to watch a big wrestling match, and because my neighborhood looks for any excuse to drum and chant all night, there’s been a lot of that.  My 12-year old friend Adji came over yesterday to give me a copy of a poem by David Diop (Senegalese poet, 1927 – 1960) that she’d copied out longhand and decorated with doodles for me.  It's called Afrique, Mon Afrique.  Here it is, translated for you:

Africa my Africa
Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs
Africa of whom my grandmother sings
On the banks of the distant river
I have never known you
But your blood flows in my veins
Your beautiful black blood that irrigates the fields
The blood of your sweat
The sweat of your work
The work of your slavery
Africa, tell me Africa
Is this your back that is unbent
This back that never breaks under the weight of humiliation
This back trembling with red scars
And saying no to the whip under the midday sun
But a grave voice answers me
Impetuous child that tree, young and strong
That tree over there
Splendidly alone amidst white and faded flowers
That is your Africa springing up anew
Springing up patiently, obstinately
Whose fruit bit by bit acquires
The bitter taste of liberty.

Adji also told me that there would be a parade today, so this morning I asked Ibou about it and he said it was just about to start down by the post office.  I grabbed my bag and headed out the door, asking if he and his friend would like to join me.  He smiled and said smugly, “Parades are for young people, we prefer the Jazz.”  I had to smile.  I made it downtown just as things were getting started.  Thousands of people were lining the street and a grandstand had been erected for the occasion.  Color guards and drill teams from the Gendarmerie, the National Police, and the Senegalese Army were lined up in formation, and when the parade began, they marched down the street just out of sight.  Then, to my surprise, they turned around and came back again, and then, because something had to fill the half hour time slot devoted to the parade, they about-faced and did it one more time.  So, that’s one way to fill out a parade when you only have a few entrants--Batesville Day Parade organizers, take note!!  While I was taking pictures, the chief of police, who is also a neighbor of mine, spotted me in the crowd and escorted me to a VIP seat.  I guess there are some advantages to being the only Toubab in the crowd.  Aside from the uniformed troops and a small  military marching band, the only other entrant in the parade was group of decorated old veterans wearing military medals on their boubous—no floats, not high school marching , no little kids dressed up in costumes. There were no balloons, no vendors selling flags and pinwheels, and aside from one woman who’d made sugar bread especially for the occasion, no street vendors selling food.  But a parade is a parade and even without all of the consumer hoo-ha I was glad to share this patriotic moment with my fellow host-countrymen and women.

A crowd gathers in front of the post office

The Grandstand

Military marching band

The National Police

The Gendarmerie
Special VIP seating
Boys trying to see above the crowd
A mighty fine formation

I’ll end this journal entry with another poem, this one written by Senegal’s first president Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906 – 2001) about a tragic event that took place in another country (our beloved country) on this same historic day, just 8 years after Senegal gained its independence.  Apparently, he, too, was a fan of “the Jazz”

Elegy for Martin Luther King (IV of V) (for jazz orchestra)
It was the fourth of April, nineteen hundred and sixty-eight,
A spring evening in a grey neighborhood, a district smelling
Of garbage mud where children played in the streets in
And spring blossomed in the dark courtyards where blue
Streams played, a song of nightingales in the ghetto night of
Martin Luther King chose them, the motel, the district,
The garbage and the street sweepers, with the eyes of his heart
     in those
Spring days, those days of passion wherever the mud of flesh
Would have been glorified in the light of Christ.
It was the evening when light is clearest and air sweetest,
Dusk at the heart's hour, and its flowering of secrets
Mouth to mouth, of organ and of hymns and incense.
On the balcony now haloed in crimson where the air
Is more limpid, Martin Luther stands speaking pastor to
"My Brother, do not forget to praise Christ in his
And let his name be praised!"
And now opposite him, in a house of prostitution,
And perdition, yes, in the Lorraine Motel - Ah, Lorraine, ah
Joan, the white and blue woman, let our mouths purify you
Like rising incense!--In that evil house of tomcats and
A man stands up, a Remington rifle in his hands.
James Earl Ray sees the Reverend Martin Luther King,
Through his telescopic sight, sees the death of Christ: "My
Do not forget to magnify Christ in his resurrection this
Sent by Judas, he watches him, for we have made the poor
     into wolves
Of the poor. He looks through his telescopic sight, sees only
     the tender
Neck so black and beautiful. He hates that golden voice
The angels' flutes, the voice of bronze trombone that
     thunders on terrible
Sodom and on Adama. Martin looks ahead at the house in
     front, he sees
The skyscrapers of light and glass, He sees curly, blond heads, dark,
Kinky heads full of dreams like mysterious orchids, and the
     blue lips
And the roses sing in a chorus like a harmonious organ.
The white man looks hard and precise as steel. James Earl
And hits the mark, shoots Martin, who withers like a
     fragrant flower
And falls. "My brother, praise His Name clearly, may our
Exult in the Resurrection!"


  1. nice entry. thanks for the post. Charles Johnson, RPCV, Senegal 1968-1969.

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