Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Léopold Sédar Senghor, founding father, poet

Léopold Sédar Senghor, first president of independent Senegal, is also the country's most famous and respected poet. In the statue to the left, which is in Senghor's childhood home in Joal, Senghor is standing on an antique tome. Our guide emphasized that the statue was lifesize, and that Senghor was very short.

The poet-statesman is a less rare figure than one might think. The Athenian Solon was a poet, as was Queen Elizabeth I, and Radovan Karadzic. The latter example should make one wary of attributing any particular virtue to the fact that a politician writes poetry.

Senghor is a complex figure, a genuine intellectual hero and statesman, but also an actual politician, with all that that entails. Many Senegalese regard him ambivalently - they had to live with him, with policies that worked and policies that failed. Senghor himself was ambivalent about Senegal. He had a French education, a French wife, and preferred Normandy to any place on earth, an opinion that I regard as entirely justified.

Most tourists, interested in neither poetry nor politics, visit Joal in order to cross the footbridge to Fadiout, a fishing town of 8,000 people built on an island of shells. The cemetery, on an adjacent island, is one of the strangest, most beautiful places I have ever seen. Surrounded by the sea, on the edge of a mangrove swamp, buried in shells. Click to enlarge - you'll get the idea.

One of the shell mound graves. The region south of Dakar is now primarily Christian, the fruits of Portuguese missionary work dating back to the 16th century. The Fadiout cemetery also has a Muslim section. The residents of the region take great pride in their religious comity. So several people told us, and why not believe them?

Another reason for tourists to visit Joal, less intellectual or artistic, but nonetheless worthwhile:

A Senghor poem, from the 1961 Nocturnes, tr. John Reed and Clive Wake:

I have spun a song soft as a murmur of doves at noon
To the shrill notes of my four-stringed khalam.
I have woven you a song and you did not hear me.
I have offered you wild flowers with scents as strange as a sorcerer's eyes
I have offered you my wild flowers. Will you let them wither,
Finding distraction in the mayflies dancing?


  1. I'd love to use some of the cemetery photos for ecology class when I discuss formation of soil.

  2. The parts of Senegal I visited were all based on layers of shells, with occasional outcroppings of volcanic rock. Goethe argued that a visitor to a new place should study its geology before anything else.

    I'll send you these photos and others, I think not as compressed as here.

  3. The French attitude towards their colonial dependencies was interesting. They refused to allow them to open universities, reasoning that all the brightest students (and therefore future movers and shakers) would be drawn to study in France, and would return to their home countries imbued with French cultural values. But instead what happened was that people such as Senghor or Aimé Césaire of Martinique all found common ground as outsiders, founded the Négritude literary movement, and returned to use their French education against the French, either by demanding independence, or in Césaire's extremely subtle judo move, demanding full integration with France

  4. The Négritude movement is definitely a Topic For Future Research. Thanks for the comments - they fit right in with what a couple of people in Senegal told us.