Dakar’s African Renaissance

A Kenyan scientist wonders how Senegalese found ways to blend African spirituality with Islam.

Image Credit: Jonathan E. Shaw via Flickr.

I have wanted to come to Dakar since I was a young man growing up in western Kenya reading Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry.

My mother, a schoolteacher, made me read Senghor’s poetry aloud before asking me to explain what Senghor was thinking when he wrote his poetry. In my late teenage years, I read Mariama Ba’s “So Long A Letter,” one of the most acclaimed literary books out of Senegal. The powerful images from the book forcefully introduced the world to the life of women in Senegal and the intersection of African traditional culture and Islam. In 2002, as I was becoming a man, at Kenyatta University, my mother and I watched Senegal beat its former colonizer, France, in the World Cup, though it looked more like a contest between Africans in the diaspora against Africans at home; most of the French players are of African descent. My mother was jumping all over the seats with joy. Senegal would later be eliminated in quarter finals.

Dakar airport is like those in any other developing country, with its remnants of colonial structures. The city is beautiful in a way. In an honest sort of way, in a “I am going to charm you and not rob you” kind of way. Nairobi is different. Kampala also. Detroit too. Those places twist people’s arms for the smallest of gifts.

Standing atop the 160 steps of Dakar’s African Renaissance monument, installed by former President Abdoulaye Wade, reminds me of the Gaza strip. Rows of short, square brown unpainted houses. No shine in them, just brown, the color of concrete and sand with the beautiful Atlantic as a backdrop. The people in them and their taxis on the streets are colorful. Like little butterflies on a brown background. Restaurants like the one where I am seated waiting for fresh fish, have been made very popular by Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” on CNN. My waiter is wearing Kanye West’s shoe line. The Yeezys. I cannot afford these shoes. The prices of the limited edition are steep in the United States. How can he? In a country that is over 90% Muslim and elected a Christian president, I guess possibilities abound.

Senegal has been a diplomatic and cultural bridge between the Islamic and black African worlds. Some devout non-hijab wearing Muslim women are still be bound by religion. Iif indeed there is equality, why is the woman in the African Renaissance Monument behind the man? Why is she not by his side as a strong family forging forward together? Why is the African woman always left behind yet she carries the burden of the entire family in most instances. In this era, one could argue that the monument is not adequately feminist. But then again there is a child pointing to a new dawn. Tomorrow, I need to find out if the child is indeed pointing to a dawn of a new era or to France as some people say.

Senegal maintains closer economic, political, and cultural ties to France than probably any other former French colony in Africa. West Africa also seems to be led by many children. Cunning African children of the French. Black-skinned Frenchman. Identity crises start at the highest levels of the government.

I want to ask my taxi driver questions but I only go as far as mentioning my hotel. I do not speak French. He only speaks Wolof and a little bit of French. The Sufism practiced here is tempered with the many years of exchange between Islamic and African traditional cultures.  It is quite different from the one portrayed as violent and perverse in western media.

As Ba, my taxi driver says: “In Senegal, you are free. You wear what you want. Eat what you want. Do what you want.”

Dakar is safe. I have been told this before. I am walking from Just4U, one of the local dancing spots. Tonight is hip-hop night and a band is made up of youth from Chiekh Anta Diop University. They are belting rap songs in a seamless mix of French and Wolof. The crowd is enjoying every bit of it. I decide to walk to my hotel. A man of my age with a long cylindrical loaf of bread joins me. We exchange pleasantries and I am pleasantly surprised that he speaks a bit of English. My excitement quickly turns to frustration because of our inability to understand each other and communicate freely as Africans. It is disturbing that the only pathway for Africans to understand each other within Africa is to master the language of former colonialists. Is there hope in the unifying power of language; the way Swahili operates in East Africa? Tanzania seems to be doing fine after replacing English with Swahili as the main language of instruction in schools.

I am lucky my new friend Mohammed understands some English. His brother works in Dubai as a waiter and has a Kenyan girlfriend. We are immediately connected.  Mohammed says, “I walk you like this, me is gud polis.” We smile in the night breeze of the Atlantic. He nudges me on the side, lifts his shirt and shows me a pistol. He realizes my concern and quickly moves to assure me saying, “Here, polis no shoot people.” I am rather disturbed that I am very relaxed in the presence of a stranger with a gun. Normally I am suspicious of cops. In my home country Kenya, years of corruption have blurred the line between a common thief and a police officer. An armed police officer as well as an armed robber have robbed me in Kenya. In the United States where I work, the history of police killings of black people has made me very paranoid of the police. I have learned instinctively to change lanes in traffic whenever there is a police car behind me.

Mohammed pulls out his phone and shows me photos where he is in official paramilitary uniform.  I am thinking, how did I come to trust these people so easily? Then it hits me. It is something in the people of Senegal that is so endearing. You can feel it when you arrive at the Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport. It is their good nature. Dignified men and women come out in groups to work out at the gyms set up by the government right on the sandy shores of the Atlantic. People are obsessed with physical fitness and spirituality.

I later visit  Goree Island aboard a ferry named “Beer.” It coincides with visits by various school- going teenagers. At the slave house, one of the main attractions at the Island, our guide, Abdou says, “Twenty-five million slaves were sold through this Island.  Six million died.” He points at me saying, “Strong men like him, would fetch a lot of money. Thin men, would be fed blood beans to fatten up like cattle to fetch more money.” This is a lot to take in. “And young girls, like this one,” Abdou points out at one of the school girls, “fetched a lot of money because they were virgins. Older women were cheaper.” The schoolchildren are giggling. They are eager to get into the tiny cells that held trouble-making slaves.

When we finally step out of the slave house, we find Amina and a cohort of women waiting for us to go buy their merchandise. Amina’s child has traditional African beads straddling her waist. Amina says that the beads keeps evil spirits away. I tell her I was raised Christian and that my parents would always fight my grandmother when she tried putting similar beads on my nephew’s waist. I am wondering how these people have found a way to blend African spirituality with Islam.

Amina says, “African God, no fight with Islam.”

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